In the name of the Father and of the ✠ Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Chen Zongrong is the former deputy director of the State Administration for Religious Affairs for the People’s Republic of China (Communist China). Last month that agency was absorbed into the Chinese Communist Party’s United Front Work Department, which is now responsible for government oversight of religion. Mr. Chen is still doing the same work, but now for the party instead of the government. It also means that every officially recognized church and church leader is under the direct supervision of the Chinese Communist Party. At an April 3rd news conference, Mr. Chen presented a government “white paper” on “Chinese policy regarding the practice and safeguarding of religious freedom.” (Don’t you just love that, “safeguarding of religious freedom,” coming from an atheist regime?) This paper declared: “Actively guiding religions in adapting to the socialist society means guiding religious believers to … be subordinate to and serve the overall interests of the nation and the Chinese people,” as well as “guiding religious groups to support the leadership of the Communist Party of China and the socialist system.” In delivering this paper, Mr. Chen declared, “I believe there is no religion in human society that transcends nations.” He further stated, “The Chinese Constitution clearly states that China’s religious groups and religious affairs cannot be controlled by foreign forces, and [the foreign forces] should not interfere in Chinese religious affairs in any way.”
We remember the Apostle Paul’s admonition, that believers are to submit to the governing authorities, because they have been appointed by God. But John Stonestreet of the Colson Center for Christian Worldview points out what authority is really being claimed in this case: “The Chinese government has spoken: Jesus can’t be Lord. The Communist Party is.” So, “the Communist party props itself up in the temple and proclaims itself God.”
Think about that assertion by Mr. Chen and the Chinese Constitution: “China’s religious groups [including churches] … cannot be controlled by foreign forces.” [God in heaven is as foreign a force as you can get,] Jesus is the Lord of the Church, and the Holy Spirit fills and governs the hearts and minds of believers; but, the government and the Communist Party will stop and overrule those “foreign forces.” That effort should remind us of the events Holy Saturday and Easter, when another government tried to bind the power of Jesus, overrule His authority, and stop His resurrection. At the request of Jesus’ politically powerful enemies, Pontius Pilate ordered a seal placed upon the tomb, and a guard placed at the tomb. And this wasn’t just any old seal; it was an official Roman imperial seal, impressed with the authority of the mightiest empire on earth! And the guard likely consisted of Roman soldiers, the toughest in the world! Of course, these measures stopped Jesus, and He remained dead and buried in the tomb, right? Neither will the efforts of the Chinese government or its Communist Party, or any earthly force, be able to stop Jesus from ruling and serving His church and His believers on earth, or the Holy Spirit from doing His work in and among them.
We must pray for our fellow Christian believers in China as they face this new threat, and continue to pray for believers around the world suffering for the sake of Christ and the Gospel. They are our fellow sheep in the one flock of the one Shepherd. What comfort it is for them, and for us, to hear Jesus declare, “I AM the Good Shepherd. The Good Shepherd lays down His life for the sheep. … I AM the Good Shepherd. I know My own and My own know Me … and I lay down My life for the sheep. … I lay down My life that I may take it up again. No one takes it from Me, but I lay it down of My own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again” (Jn 10:11, 14–15, 17–18). Three times Jesus calls Himself “the Good Shepherd,” and so right away our hearts and minds go to the 23rd Psalm, perhaps picturing an idyllic setting among rolling green hills and cool, flowing streams. Yet how quickly we skip right over the very first words of the Psalm, “the Lord [YHWH] (is) my Shepherd,” and Jesus’ first words here: “I AM the Good Shepherd.” The Lord, YHWH, the I AM, the God of Abraham and of Isaac and of Jacob, the God who delivers His people from bondage, who shepherds them through the wilderness of this fallen world, is our Shepherd; and Jesus rightly claims that exact same divine identity and authority. Four times Jesus, the Lord our Shepherd, declares, “I lay down My life.” Three times He declares that it is by His own will and authority that He lays down His life and takes it up again, all on behalf of us, His sheep.
This is important for us to believe, know, and confess, that no one took Jesus’ life from Him, as though He were at the mercy of fickle, sinful human beings. Throughout His Passion—His betrayal, His arrest, His trials, His beatings, His mockings, His flogging, His crucifixion, and His death—Jesus is in total control. It is He who is exercising His authority over all things, even when He breathes His last and dies. Remember His final word from the cross: “Father, into Your hands I commit My spirit” (Lk 23:46). Rather than simply the calm, quiet, idyllic life, Psalm 23 also depicts a rather trying and difficult life for a shepherd and his sheep, the struggles faced by Jesus and His people: “I walk through the valley of the shadow of death … Thy rod and Thy staff … the presence of mine enemies … Thou anointest my head with oil.” For Middle Eastern shepherds, the shadows in valleys hid many dangers, for both sheep and shepherds: wolves, lions, bears, and snakes, and human thieves. The well-trained shepherd could wield his rod and staff to defend the sheep from those dangers. The shepherd would use ointment to salve infections and other wounds on the sheep. The enemies of the Lord’s sheep, His people, are far more deadly than those predators. The devil, the world, and our own sinful flesh are always trying to lead us astray, to wander off from our Good Shepherd, so that we’re easier pickings. Jesus also warns of the dangers of the “hired hand,” the false shepherd, the false teacher. He looks like a shepherd, but is not. This is why we insist on preaching the Law, to warn against the dangers [and why we insist on sound doctrine, for there are many who claim to teach what’s in the Bible, but they do not.] When danger or difficulty arises, the false shepherd flees to save himself; but, the Good Shepherd stays and lays down His life for the sheep.
The word “good” here is not the ordinary adjective, the opposite of “bad,” but means “excellent, excelling.” For this reason the Father loves the Son, because He is the Excellent Shepherd who lays down His life willingly and authoritatively for the life of the sheep. But if the Father loves the Son, how could the Father forsake His Son on the cross, when the Son was fulfilling His and His Father’s will? The Father forsook the Son precisely because He loves the Son, for it is their mutual love of us, their fallen human creatures, that the Father willingly gave His Son and the Son willingly gave His life—and the Holy Spirit joins in this love, and willingly gives us the gifts the Son won for us in His suffering and death, which He willed to undergo by the Divine authority.
Again, it is of vital importance to remember, believe, and confess this truth, that Jesus lays down His life by His own will and by His own authority, and that He takes it up again from death by His own authority. If He did not have that authority, then how could He have authority over any other matters of life and death, of sin and grace? How could He have authority to heal, or to forgive sins? But indeed He does have authority the forgive sins and to heal, as He showed with the paralytic. If He did not have authority to forgive sins, then how could He give that authority to His apostles and to His church? But indeed He has given this authority to the Church, to bind and to loose, to forgive the sins of the penitent and to retain the sins of the impenitent. If He did not have authority over His own life and death, then how could He have authority over our life and death? If He did not have authority to take up His life again, to raise Himself from the dead, then how can He promise to raise us on the Last Day? But indeed He did raise Himself from the dead, and He shall certainly also raise us from the dead, and give eternal life to all who believe in Him. If He did not have authority over the giving of His own body into death, and over the shedding of His blood, then He could not give us His body to eat and His blood to drink. But indeed He does give us His body and blood in His Holy Supper. Indeed, in His institution of the Holy Ministry for the sake of the Gospel and the Church, Jesus declared, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Me” (Mt 28:18). Those whom He calls, gives, and sends to be His undershepherds all fall short of the Good Shepherd. Every undershepherd, even at his best, is surely a wretched sinner and a poor copy of the Good Shepherd, the Excellent Shepherd. Christ our Shepherd sets the standard and gives the meaning to all other shepherds—and thanks be to God, He also shows us the mercy, grace, and forgiveness which He sends us to proclaim!
The authority of Jesus Christ to lay down His life and to take it up again is one cloth with the rest of His authority, and it is one with the authority of God the Father, in perfect unity and harmony. He continues His authoritative work among us, His Church, through the working of the Holy Spirit, whose authority and will are one with the Father and the Son. And He, our Triune God, is ever working and willing, ruling and giving for us through His Holy Word and His other Means of Grace, as Luther reminds us:
“You have heard that after His sufferings and death Christ our Lord arose from the dead and entered upon, and was enthroned in, an immortal existence. Not that He might sit up there in heaven idly and find pleasure in Himself, but that He might take charge of the kingdom of which the prophets and all the Scriptures have so fully spoken, and might rule as a king. Therefore, we should think of Him as being present and reigning among us continually, and never think of Him as sitting up there doing nothing, but rather that He from above fills and rules all things, as Paul says to the Ephesians (4:10), and especially that He is taking care of His kingdom, which is the Christian faith, and that therefore His kingdom among us here on earth must prosper. This kingdom, as we have said, is so constituted that we all must daily increase and grow in holiness, and it is not governed by any other power save the oral proclamation of the Gospel.
“This proclamation is not of men, but Christ Himself sent it forth, and then put it into the hearts of the apostles and their successors so that they understood it, and into their mouths so that they spoke and declared it. This is His kingdom, and so does He rule that all of His power is comprehended in and connected with the Word of God. … The Word is present and is orally proclaimed to all the world, but its power is deeply hidden, so that none but they who believe realize that it is so effective and that it accomplishes such great things.”
And indeed the Word does, for it is His will and authority.
In the name of the Father and of the ✠ Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.