I've been very fortunate and blessed to have seen many places around the globe. While touring with various artists as musical director and accompanist, concert dates have taken me to the far reaches of Australia, New Zealand, the Philippines, South Korea, Singapore, Central and South America and to many places in central Europe. It's always fun to take in some local culture when we're visiting far away destinations. One particular interest for Mel and I is to visit churches and cathedrals. We've been to Westminster Abbey in London where the great missionary, David Livingston, is entombed. (Well, all of him with the exception of his heart, which is buried in Africa, the continent where he served during his missionary tenure.) Our culture likes to use the word “awesome” with great regularity. I can honestly tell you that places like St. Stephens Cathedral in Vienna, St. Vitts Cathedral in Prague (Czech Republic), St. Paul's Cathedral in London and Cathedral of the Holy Trinity in Dublin (Ireland) are cavernous and awesome. Man's efforts to artistically create houses of worship that are spectacular in their grandeur are not just architectural achievements, but breathtaking monuments to a living God. My family and I have attended services in some of these cathedrals, and the mere spectacle of the processional, the music and the message are something to behold.
A couple of years ago I found myself in the Old Town section of Prague with its' structures that date back a thousand years or more. On the Old Town Square stands the oldest functioning clock tower in all of Europe. It has been chiming the hour since the 1200s. Across the cobblestone plaza stands a large fountain, a monument to war heros from centuries past. On one corner of the square stands a smallish cathedral that is open to the public. I wandered in to see a very large copper and Bavarian crystal chandelier suspended above the congregational seating. The walls were adorned with paintings, sculptures, plaques and messages of remembrance. I walked to the chancel area to see an enormous hand-carved wooden display that had 5 distinct platforms atop a massive marble communion table. Each platform had a white porcelain sculpture sitting on it, the two on the outside were bowls of fruit representing the fruit of the Spirit, one contained a baroque era cherub and a fourth housed some sort of urn. The highest of these platforms had a most fascinating sculpture, a lamb. A lamb that is lying down in a very restful posture. It is magnificent in its simplicity. How interesting that such a meek and mild creature is elevated to the place of honor in the absolute focal point of worship in this church.
Curious that there is so much reference in Scripture to this animal. We all recall the Old Testament ritual of the sacrificing of lambs, which was the precursor to the ultimate sacrifice of Christ on the cross. Scripture refers to Jesus as the “Lamb of God” on many occasions, the first of which is in John 1:29 where Jesus' cousin, John the Baptist, declares, “Look, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” And if we fast-forward to the book of Revelation, there are numerous references to the Lamb of God. As worshippers, one of our main declarations comes from Revelation 4:11; “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing”! (ESV).
I believe there are several prongs to the mention of sheep and lambs in Scripture. To begin, I'm convinced that at the time of the writing of scripture, the tending of sheep by shepherds was a vocation of the common man. The culture of the day took children and educated them up until age 10 after which the brighter children went forward. Another separation of the best children were then taken to further schooling at age 15, and the best of the best ultimately went on to become Pharisees, Sadducees, and held other prominent places in society. Those who did not “make the cut” found themselves learning a trade or a vocation from their fathers . . . carpentry, farming, shepherding, or perhaps commercial fishing. Many of our heros from scripture began as tenders of sheep – Abel, Moses and David are a few examples. (Interestingly in the case of David, he was the youngest of his brothers and had to be brought in from the fields to even meet Israel's judge, Samuel, once God had withdrawn his blessing from Saul, Israel's first King. Once Samuel saw David and anointed him to be king, the young David went back to the fields to tend his sheep for a significant period of time before entering the service of Saul and ultimately becoming King of Israel. 1 Samuel 16.) The inclusion of shepherds here, I believe, lays the groundwork for the commoner to be able to have an approachable relationship with Jesus, the Lamb of God. Do you think it a coincidence that shepherds were the first ones to be witnesses the birth of Christ? (Luke2).
As well, this is a fabulous precursor to Jesus referring to Himself as the Good Shepherd in John 10. In this chapter the term “good” is translated from the original language as “intrinsically good, beautiful, fair.” It describes that which is the ideal, the model that others may safely imitate. Yes, He is the Good Shepherd. Scripture tells us unequivocally that the Good Shepherd lays down his life for his sheep, and that His sheep know His voice. Let me quote one of my favorite authors, Warren Wiersbe: “Throughout the Bible God's people are compared to sheep; and the comparison is a good one. Sheep are clean animals, unlike pigs and dogs (2 Peter 2:20-22). They are defenseless and need the care of the shepherd (Psalm 23). They are, to use Wesley's phrase, 'prone to wander', and must often be searched for and brought back to the fold. Sheep are peaceful animals and useful to the shepherd. In these and other ways, they picture those who have trusted Jesus and are a part of God's flock.”
May I suggest a book that goes into fascinating detail? “A Shepherd's Guide to the 23rd Psalm” by Phillip Keller is a Christian classic written by a man who actually spent time as a modern day shepherd. There is so much to learn about the shepherd/sheep relationship. Are we “prone to wander”? Of course. Do we need a protector? Absolutely. May we today find ourselves in utter dependence on the Good Shepherd.