The great Shepherd
‘May the God of peace, who through the blood of the eternal covenant brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus Christ, that great Shepherd of the sheep, equip you with everything good for doing his will, and may he work in us what is pleasing to him, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen’ (Hebrews 13:20-21).
Imagine two people at the motorway services. ‘Shall we drive on or go back home?’ they ask each other. The weather is appalling: there is heavy rain, making visibility difficult. To reach their destination, they must drive on. However, would it be easier to go home? Like these travellers, the Hebrews were asking, ‘Shall we continue our journey to heaven or shall we go back home to Judaism?’ What had prompted this question? A storm of persecution from families and friends. Doubts and fears made visibility difficult; they had taken their eyes off Christ and the wonderful destination of heaven.
They were wavering. How would you pray for them? Hebrews 13:20-21 is the prayer of a mature Christian for wavering believers. The writer commends them to the tender care of the great Shepherd. It is appropriate that he calls him ‘the great Shepherd’ in a letter that majors on the superiority of Christ. If we prayed this prayer for one another, perhaps fewer Christians would waver.
The God of peace
Verse 20 focuses on what God has done for us in Christ. He brought him back from the dead – evidence that he has accepted Christ’s atoning sacrifice for us and that we are therefore justified (Romans 4:25).
Verse 21 is about what God is doing in us – he ‘equips’ us for holy living and useful service. We might say that verse 20 is about salvation (how we became Christians) and verse 21 about sanctification (how we ought to live as Christians).
The writer addresses his prayer to ‘the God of peace’ because these Hebrews were like sailors in a hurricane. The storms of temptations and trials howled around them, but God is able to give perfect peace to those who trust him. He gives tranquillity in the tempest (Isaiah 26:3; Philippians 4:6-9).
Furthermore, this title of God reminds us that by nature we are enemies of God – but that Christ, ‘the Prince of Peace’, reconciles us to God (Psalm 51:5; Romans 5:10; 8:7-8; Colossians 1:21-22).
The Shepherd’s death
The writer highlights the Shepherd’s death in the words ‘through the blood of the eternal covenant’ (v.20). ‘Blood’ indicates a life violently taken by wicked men – a painful death. Every muscle of his body screamed with pain as he hung for hours on the cross.
The word ‘blood’ also speaks of propitiation. In the Old Testament, the priest killed animals to appease God’s wrath. Sin deserves death – either of the sinner or a substitute. Christ, the Lamb of God, died once-for-all in the place of the sheep. He bore their sin and took the wrath of God upon himself. The Shepherd became the Lamb led to the slaughter (Isaiah 53:7).
Moreover, the Shepherd’s death was particular – he did not die for all mankind but only for his sheep. This doctrine known as ‘particular redemption’ is wrapped up in the word ‘covenant’.
To quote the Puritan pastor John Owen, ‘He is the only Shepherd; and he is the Shepherd only of his sheep. He did not lay down his life for the whole of mankind, but for the flock given and committed to him by his father’.
The ‘eternal covenant’ means that before time began, God the Father gave the sheep to his Son, who undertook to visit earth and die for them. It also indicates that the Son will receive each one of his sheep when they return to him in repentance and faith. He pledges to bring each one to heaven – none of the sheep will lose their way on the path to everlasting life.
If Christ died for every-one, there are some in hell for whom he died. Has Christ died for some in vain? No; Jesus clearly taught the doctrines of election and particular redemption in the gospel of John (6:37-40; 10:11; 27-30; 17:6, 9, 20-21, 24).
The Shepherd’s resurrection
Verse 20 reads: ‘The God of peace … brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus’. God raised Christ from the grave and welcomed him back into heaven to show his satisfaction with the atoning work of his Son on the cross. We may therefore go boldly to ‘the God of peace’ and ask pardon for our sins. God will not turn away any penitent sinner who approaches him through Christ.
Besides this, the sheep know that one day God will raise us from our graves and give us new bodies – or change us instantly if we are alive at Christ’s return. The power that raised Jesus from the dead also works in us (Hebrews 4:14-16; 1 Corinthians 15:51-57; Ephesians 1:18-21; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18).
The work of God
What of the second part of this benediction in verse 21? The word ‘equip’ translates the Greek word, katartidzo – which can mean variously ‘to set a broken bone’, ‘to mend a broken net’, or ‘to equip an army for battle’. To pray that God will equip Christians is to pray for strength, for usefulness, and for courage in spiritual warfare.
By tracing this word katartidzo in the New Testament, we can discover the tools God employs to equip his people to become mature and useful Christians. He uses:
• the Word of God (2 Timothy 3:16-17).
• prayer (1 Thessalonians 3:10 – translated as ‘supply’).
• spiritual leaders (Ephesians 4:11-12 – translated as ‘prepare’).
• fellow-believers (Galatians 6:1 – translated as ‘restore’).
• suffering (1 Peter 5:10 – translated as ‘restore’. Compare Hebrews 12:4-13).
The will of God
Phil Arthur explains the results of this equipping: ‘They were not merely to do the will of God in a partial and limited way, but to bring the whole of their lives into conformity with it’. It is as we do God’s will that our lives please him.
The writer highlights God’s sovereign work and our human activity. God works in us; we do his will. As Paul declares, ‘It is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose’ (Philippians 2:13).
What is God’s will? It is that we should do ‘everything good’ – not to become Christians but because we are Christians. As fruit shows that a tree is alive, so good works prove that believers have spiritual life.
Believers often have difficulty in discerning God’s will when facing major decisions. Here is a ‘bite size’ piece of advice: ‘The will of God can never lead you where the grace of God cannot keep you’.
Before entering into some activity, ask yourself, ‘Can I pray about this? What if Christ should return and find me doing this?’ Before entering into some friendship, especially one that could lead to marriage, ask: ‘Can we pray and read God’s Word together?’ We should always desire to do ‘what is pleasing to him’.
The worship of God
This benediction ends: ‘through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen’. We worship God ‘through Jesus Christ’, the great Shepherd who died for us. His blood paves the path to God; it gives us confidence to approach God’s throne (Hebrews 10:19-20).
Commentators debate whether the writer to the Hebrews is here ascribing glory to God or to Christ. Surely, we should give glory to both because both are God. John Owen rightly says, ‘All grace is from God and through Christ, and so this ascription of glory may be taken as jointly to the Father and to the Son’.
Is worship for Sundays only – something we only do in a religious building? No! Living our lives for God, wherever we are, is a ‘spiritual act of worship’ (Romans 12:1). Writing to the Corinthians, Paul says, ‘whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God’ (1 Corinthians 10:31).
Make this benediction in Hebrews 13 your prayer for the believers in your church!
Stan K. Evers