And He Shall Stand and Shepherd His Flock in the Strength of the Lord

It is interesting that some of our most cherished Christmas carols are not actually Christmas carols, which is to say that some of these great hymns that we associate with Christmas actually were written for the church to sing all the year round. And I don’t know if you are like me, but I long for the season when we sing these hymn—Joy to the World, the Lord has Come. That’s a hymn that is written about the Lord’s coming yet, but the grand truths also are equally and equally joyously declared about the Lord’s coming in Bethlehem. We sing these songs because they give us such a sense of the truth that we are hurling at the world, and we are reaffirming in our own hearts. At Christmas, it makes Christmas and December graduation something rather special. Our spring graduation is so large that it takes place out on the lawn, and it’s glorious to see all those graduates arrayed there in the sun on what we hope every year will be a beautiful spring day.

But there’s something very, very historic about being in this room, which since 1949 has been where these commencement ceremonies have been held. And so going back for so long, knowing what has taken place in this room, I ask you to contemplate with me not only the dozens, not only the hundreds, but the many thousands of ministers who have gone out into the world from this room. This is a service of worship.

You recognize it also as a commencement ceremony, we are here because this is an academic event as well. We are here because these graduates are about to be handed a diploma and their degrees are about to be conferred and declared. There is going to be a formality to this as is right and fitting because the serious work of academic study is rooted in that formality. It is rooted in that understanding of something almost miraculous that takes place when there is a teacher and students in a classroom. And when there is that, that excitement that almost takes the form of electricity when learning happens, when ideas knowledges, truths are awakened once known, they are not unknown.

The task of this seminary is to prepare first and foremost those who will be the preachers and teachers of God’s Word. To know God’s Word more fully, to be able to understand it even in the original Greek and Hebrew languages, more than anything else, to cherish the Word of God, the inherent infallible, verbally inspired Word of God in such a way that they will go into the pulpits and that they will preach the whole council of God with eagerness and with joy, but also with skill and with knowledge.

Missionaries are here this day being sent out into the nations and ministers and servant leaders into so many different areas of ministry. And all of this is great joy and sprinkled amongst those who are graduates. And by the time we come to the conferring of doctoral degrees today, in the midst of this formality and in the context of worship, we are celebrating teachers who are commissioned now to be teachers. This takes us to a succession of faithful teaching. It doesn’t start here. It didn’t even start just in 1859 with the establishment of this institution. As I said in the beginning, it takes us back to the teaching that we find honored within both the old and New Testaments. Israel has as one of its first commands to teach its children and the church of the Lord Jesus Christ is commissioned with commandments imperatives about preaching the word in season and outer season. The preaching of the Word and the taking of the gospel are the two things we know we must do if we are to be obedient to Christ. These graduates are determined to be obedient to Christ.

This service is filled with joy, not just because there’s academic accomplishment here, but because there is commitment conviction. There is faithfulness here. There’s promise here. We are here because of the incarnation of the Lord Jesus Christ. This December graduation coincides with the church’s great celebration of what is our constant and eternal message of God in Christ. As John declares in John 14, the 14th verse of the very first chapter, “And the Word became flesh and dwelled among us. We beheld his glory, glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.” “The Word became flesh.” That’s not poetry, that’s not sentiment. The Word became flesh, and thus we are saved. The Word became flesh, and Thus we have eternal life. The Word became flesh, and thus we are here, because the Word became flesh was the Word who was crucified for our sins and the son who was raised for our justification.

The promise of ministers for Christ’s church is what gives us so much joy. And we anticipate those who will receive these graduates in our imagination. We see congregations, we see churches, we see existing churches where these preachers will go out, they will welcome pastors. But in our imagination we also see churches that are not yet to be planted and established by these graduates. We see the mission fields of the world, and we see those who are hungering and thirsting for the gospel, sometimes not knowing for which they are hungering and thirsting for whom they are hungering and thirsting. So we praise God. We stand in wonder of what God has done, and even more so what God will do. This is a moment of great satisfaction for these students and you may have caught onto that already. This is the end of something even as though we fully understand it’s the beginning of something.

This is also a very important moment for those who have been their teachers. One of my greatest joys is to work as a colleague with the most outstanding theological, most outstanding seminary faculty on planet earth. Seated behind me here in the loft, you will see these faculty members who have poured their lives into these graduates. Every single one of us is just one mortal link in a long chain that anchors the church of the Lord Jesus Christ to the Word of God and to the faith once for all delivered to the saints. So you’ll understand this is a pretty happy moment.

I want to turn to the Word of God, and in particular, I want to turn to the prophet Micah, the first five verses of Micah chapter five. Through the prophet, the Lord speaks.

Now must your troops, oh daughter of troops siege is laid against us with a rod. They strike the judge of Israel on the cheek. But you, Bethlehem who are too little to be among the clans of Judah from you shall come forth for me. One who is to be ruler in Israel who’s coming forth is from old, from ancient days. Therefore, he shall give them up until the time when she who is in labor has given birth. Then the rest of his brother shall return to the people of Israel and he shall stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the Lord. In the majesty of the name of the Lord is God and they shall dwell secure. For now, he shall be great to the ends of the earth and he shall be their peace.

The context is the humiliation of Jerusalem. The context is the persecution and alienation of God’s people. The context is their hunger for one who would come and rescue them from this humiliation and would restore Israel to its glory and restore Jerusalem as its capital.

And in this passage, the Lord speaks through the prophet Micah to say, oh, rescue is coming. Rescue is coming, but that rescue will not arise in Jerusalem. That rescue is going to arise in Bethlehem, little Bethlehem, not where you would expect rescue to arise. But then again, the reason we know Bethlehem is because Bethlehem is the city of David. And because even as Samuel was sent to anoint Israel’s king to rescue Israel from Saul, the king to the brothers came to Jesse’s house, and Samuel was told that there is yet one more brother and that brother is in the field with the sheep we know of as King David. That’s we know Bethlehem is the city of David. And here the prophet Micah used by God becomes the vehicle for telling the children of God that rescue is going to come, but it is not going to come except as rescue came before. And yet this is not merely rescue as was represented in King David. We know this is king Jesus.

In this passage from the prophet Micah, something is said about this king, this ruler who is going to arise and who will come from Bethlehem. In verse four we read, “And he shall stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the Lord. In the majesty of the name of the Lord is God and they shall dwell secure. For now, he shall be great to the ends of the earth and he shall be their peace.” Now I think we can imagine the words of consolation and promise that came from Micah as the Lord spoke through him to the children of Israel. I think we can understand the great hope that a rescue was coming and we can sympathize with their plight. They are told to look to Bethlehem to the city of David, and it was to David that God has spoken and said, “Your throne shall be established forever.” And that couldn’t just mean David, for David died like every man dies. This is a messianic prophecy. This is a messianic promise. There will be one who will reign on David’s throne forever.

What I want us to see is that this king is to be a shepherd king. I want you to think about how all this comes together at Christmas, this shepherd king. Again, you look at the passage, we are told that his shepherd role will be demonstrated in the fact that he shall stand. That’s so important—he shall stand. In other words, this is the ruler. He has been raised up and as he stands, he will shepherd his flock in the strength of the Lord. Now what about his rule? We are told that he has to be a ruler in Israel whose origin is from old, from ancient days. So in other words, this is not just the reestablishment in a human sense of the dynasty of David. This ruler will come, as the King James says, from days of old, the ancient of days. And this all makes sense to us as in the year 2021, 2000 years after the birth of the Lord Jesus Christ in Bethlehem. This all makes sense to us as we can connect and understand and see fulfillment. Israel must have received these words with such promise.

And yet the promise here is not merely for rescue from the humiliation of Jerusalem. We know it is rescued from our sin even as Israel was rescued out of captivity to Pharaoh and Egypt by God’s outstretched arm in his mighty hand. So also we are rescued by Jesus from captivity to sin. The exodus of sinful humanity from sin is of an order infinitely greater than the rescue of Israel from captivity to Pharaoh. Likewise, the king who is coming, who will be born in Bethlehem, who comes from ancient days, this king who will shepherd his flock in the strength of the Lord will shepherd forever. And what about peace? And he shall be their peace.

Do you recognize that from the language of the New Testament? He is our peace, and that means that he accomplished in himself, in his shed blood, in his own body, in his substitutionary atonement, the peace we could never achieve. A peace we could not achieve individually he achieved for all who are his own, a peace that we could never achieve even temporarily he achieves eternally and such a promise here.

But again the shepherd, this is a shepherd king who will feed his flock in the strength of the Lord. So what are we seeing today? What is happening in this room today? What is the course and cause of our celebration? It is because right now we are seeing minister shepherds sent out into the world.

It’s very interesting when Samuel went to the house of Jesse, the Bethlehemite and sought to find which of his sons should be anointed King of Israel. The son was the youngest then missing. What was he doing? He’s taking care of the sheep. Oh, here’s the thing. When David became king, was he no longer a shepherd? Not hardly. Israel was to have a shepherd king, a king who would shepherd his flock. And then we fast forward, we come to the New Testament in the promise of Christ and there we are reminded that Christ himself is none other than the good shepherd is found. In John 10 verse 11, he is the king shepherd. He shepherds his flock. He loses not one of his sheep. He lovingly shepherds his people, the flock of God. We use that reference, we name churches as is even in this community, ‘Little Flock.’ And that doesn’t mean just a little flock of sinners. It means a little flock of Christ’s sheep saved by grace. Jesus is our shepherd king.

But then we ask, who knew that first it was shepherds there outside of Bethlehem who first heard the news of who this Christ was the baby in Bethlehem? And we recall exactly how Luke tells us:

And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them and the glory of the Lord shown round them and they were filled with fear. And the angel said to them, fear not free. Behold, I bring you great news, good news of great joy that will be for all the people for unto you is born this day in the city of David, the shepherd king, a savior who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you that you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel, a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, glory to God in the highest and on earth peace among these with whom he is pleased. When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherd said to one another, let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us. And they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph and the baby lying in a manger. And when they saw it, they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child. And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart. And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had seen and heard as it had been told them.

So these first witnesses to the identity of the baby born in Bethlehem were already shepherds. And what were they doing? Shepherding. And to them was given the truth unto you is born this day in the city of David a savior who is Christ the Lord? And then what did they do? They went to see this thing of which they had been told but don’t miss it. They not only went to see, they went to say what the angels had told them.

So these are speaking, preaching shepherds, and those who are being sent out today are preaching, teaching shepherds, preaching the gospel of the good shepherd, the eternal shepherd king. We come to this time of the year. We know these scriptures so well.

By the way, for years at Southern Seminary we had a professor of elocution. And I mean this is going back to the middle of the 20th century. This is to the period he began teaching here long before World War II and continued on. He was still alive when I was a student. I think he was about 145 or something. But Professor Johnson was his name, and he was a professor of elocution. It was necessary because there were students who just needed how to elocute. He was once asked what he did. He said he spent most of his time trying to keep Mary and Joseph out of the manger, out of the careless reading of Luke 2 that would say that the shepherds came and found Mary, and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger. Just Jesus and the manger, get the clauses straight. But as familiar as these passages are to us, there are moments like this when we are gathered together in a December season and as the church is celebrating Advent and Christmas is coming before us, we all of a sudden recognize that’s about this.

What we’re doing now is all about the same. This would mean just something merely academic if these were mere graduates to be sent out into some professional role, and we’d have something formal and ceremonial about it, but we wouldn’t have a worship service, and we wouldn’t have this joy because what we are witnessing is the commissioning of shepherds and a great joy of a succession of those who have taught and fed the flock of God following. In the example of the ruler who is here promised by Micah, he will stand and feed his flock in the strength of the Lord. Now that’s Christ’s Messianic rule. He is the ruler who was promised. It is he who was born in Bethlehem, but he has commissioned his own ministers such that those ministers are commanded to shepherd the flock of God. And so following in the example of Christ, our commission to these graduates is to stand and feed the flock in the strength of the Lord. The prophet Micah brings us a message of encouragement. The prophet Micah brings us a commission for ministry. The prophet Micah brings us this word of great, great joy. Let’s pray.

Our Father, every single one of us in this room who’s a believer in the Lord Jesus Christ knows what it means. That Jesus our savior is our Good Shepherd. Father, everyone in this room who has come to faith in the Lord Jesus Christ has heard that saving gospel from someone, every single one of us has been fed of your word by your shepherds. Father, we pray that what we are celebrating here this day and what we are observing with our eyes, what we feel so joyously in our hearts, is a promise that you are making to your church. That through the sovereignty of the Lord Jesus Christ and through the earthen vessels that he commissions for the preaching of the Word, the flock will be fed in the strength of the Lord. Father, that gives us such cause for rejoicing. It makes us want to pray, it makes us want to sing. Father, in everything we do in the course of this service, may we be reminded of what a great infinite gift you have given us in Jesus Christ, our shepherd king. And may we rejoice in these shepherds to the glory of the good shepherd in whose name we pray. Amen.