The Great Shepherd of the Sheep

Series: Better: A Study of the Christian Life in Hebrews

Sermon by J. Ligon Duncan on Dec 8, 2013

Hebrews 13:20-25

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If you have your Bibles, I’d invite you to turn with me to Hebrews chapter 13.  We’re going to be looking at the final verses of the book together as we come to the end of our exposition.  Over and over again in our study of this book we have said that it is emphasized that Jesus is better - Jesus is better than Moses, better than the high priests, better than the Old Testament sacrifices.  Jesus is better.  And this final section of the book has been very much about the living of the Christian life and this passage is today that we are going to be studying on that same topic.  There are two parts to the passage.  If you’ll take a look at the passage in front of you you’ll notice in verses 20 and 21 a benediction.  And that benediction asks you to believe something.  It asks you to believe something about what God is doing in your life in order for you to live the life that He has called you to live.  In fact in that passage the author if Hebrews is going to ask you to believe and understand seven things which undergird your ability to live the Christian life.  We’ll contemplate on that some today.  

The second part of the passage you’ll see in verses 22 to 25 and they’re just words of greeting.  But greeting words at the end of Bible books are never throw-away words.  Every word of Scripture is given by inspiration and every word is profitable.  And there is much profit in these final words of greeting.  I’ll only be able to concentrate on one particular line of truth from that particular passage and you’ll see it in verse 22 where you are asked to bear something.  So if I were going to give an outline of the sermon and the passage today it would be in two parts - Believe, verses 21 and 21, and Bear, verse 22 especially out of verses 22 to 25.  So before we read God’s Word let’s ask for His help and blessing in prayer.

Heavenly Father, because this is Your Word we pause now to ask Your help in our understanding Your Word.  Open our eyes by the work of Your Holy Spirit to understand wonderful things from Your Word.  By that same Spirit, apply that truth to our hearts in very specific ways.  Help us.  Make our own hears be hearing ears and our hearts be listening hearts to learn what You have to say to us, O God.  We ask this in Jesus’ name, amen.

This is the Word of God.  Hear it beginning in Hebrews 13 verse 20:

“Now may the God of peace who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant, equip you with everything good that you may do his will, working in us that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever.  Amen.

I appeal to you, brothers, hear with my word of exhortation, for I have written to you briefly.  You should know that our brother Timothy has been released, with whom I shall see you if he comes soon.  Greet all your leaders and al the saints.  Those who come from Italy send you greetings.  Grace be with all of you.”

Amen, and thus ends this reading of God’s holy, inspired, and inerrant Word.  May He write its eternal truth upon all our hearts.

Equipped to do His Will

This passage, and especially the benediction, is designed to teach us that God has not left us to live the Christian life on our own.  Jesus didn’t save you from your sins and then say to you, “Okay, you’re on your own.  Go do the best you can.  Go live the Christian life.”  God saved you and equipped you and that is good news.  The “very simply” part of the benediction in verses 20 and 21 is that first phrase in verse 21 - “May God equip you with everything good that you may do his will.”  Everything else is built around that phrase.  The main blessing which the author of Hebrews is pronouncing on this original congregation and pronouncing on you is that God will equip you with everything that you need in order to live the life that He has called you to live.  In other words, the point is, God graciously equips His people to do His will.  That means that if you are a believer in the Lord Jesus Christ, God supplies you with the resources that you need in order to do what He calls you to do.  That is an incredibly important and incredibly encouraging thing.  One of my favorite prayers from Augustine’s Confessions is his prayer when he says to God, “Command what You will and give what You command.”  Augustine is saying, “Lord, You can tell me to do anything that You want to tell me to do as long as You’ll help me do it.  Please don’t command me to do something and then withhold from me what I need in order to do what You’ve commanded because I’ve got a fickle heart, Lord.  I want to do it my way.  I don’t want to do it Your way sometimes.  So when You command me to do something, give me the ability to do what You command by the grace work of Your Holy Spirit in my heart and life.”

And that is exactly what is entailed in the blessing that is being pronounced on you by the author of Hebrews under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.  He’s saying, “God has not called you to do what He wants you to do in the Christian life in your own strength.  He has equipped you to do what He’s called you to do.  He has equipped you to live the life that He’s called you to live.”  And that is incredibly encouraging.  And I want you to see the foundation of that here.  Now I said that there were seven things in this passage.  You’ll see four of them in verse 20; you’ll see three of them in verse 21.  Let’s walk through the basis, the foundation, the build up to that phrase in verse 21.  And you will notice four “P”s here.  Behind our living of the Christian life is the peace of God, the power of God, the providence of God, and the propitiation provided by God.  Let’s look at each of those in this passage.

I. The Peace of God

First of all the author of Hebrews says, “Now may the God of peace.”  Now Paul likes to speak about the God of peace. And this is another reason why I think that the author of Hebrews had to be in his missionary circle because though his literary style is different from Paul’s his theology is a carbon copy.  And over and over, even in the passage that we’re going to study today, you’re going to see ideas that you have met over and over as you have read the apostle Paul’s letters stated in a slightly different but very similar way right here in this passage.  And here’s one of them.  Paul likes to speak about the God of peace.  But I don’t want you to miss a blessing here.  It’s surprising that we can call God the God of peace.  The Old Testament tells us that God is the Lord of hosts and the God of armies.  Aren’t you glad that He hasn’t marched out into the fields of battle against us, because if He did, we would lose?  And we deserve to have Him march out in the fields of battle against us. You remember what we’ve quoted several times in the last few weeks from Romans 5?  That we were sinners and we were enemies against God.  We deserve to have our sins judged; we were at enmity with God.  But at the right time, in God’s love, He sent His Son, Jesus Christ to die for us, for the ungodly, sinners, His enemies, so that we were no longer under His just wrath and we were no longer at enmity with Him but brought into His friendship and fellowship.  In other words, Paul is saying in Romans 5 and the author of Hebrews is saying in Hebrews 13:20 that the Lord of hosts, the God of armies has become for us in Jesus Christ the God of peace.  That is very good news and it is the foundation of our living of the Christian life.

This is so important for you to get.  We do not do what we do in the Christian life in order to get God to be at peace with us.  We do not live the way that we live in the Christian life in order to get God to be at peace with us. We do and we live the way that we are called to do and live because God is at peace with us already in Jesus Christ.  And so many Christians struggle with getting this.  Many people are propelled to the mission field trying to get God to be at peace with them and they don’t realize that there’s already good news.  That if they’re trusting in the Lord Jesus Christ as He is offered in the Gospel, God is already at peace with them and that is the foundation of our living the Christian life.

II. The Power of God

Second - “May the God of peace who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus.”  This speaks of the power of the resurrection.  The author of Hebrews reminds you in this benediction that it is the power of the resurrection of Jesus Christ which is at work in you in order that you can live the Christian life.  By the resurrection of Jesus Christ, God equips us to live as He wants us to live.  And again, this is a very Pauline idea.  I can show it to you in multiple passages in Paul but let me just show you one.  Turn with me to Romans chapter 8 verse 11.  In that passage, the apostle Paul tells us this.  “If the spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, He who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies, through His Spirit who dwells in you.”  He’s talking about the power of God, the power that raised Jesus from the dead, being at work in you to give you new life.  And that is exactly the thought that the author of Hebrews is drawing to our attention here today - “who brought us again from the dead through our Lord Jesus, so that we might do His will.”  

Do you know how many times the resurrection is mentioned in the book of Hebrews explicitly?  One.  Right here.  He’s waited all the way until the end of the epistle, he’s saved it up like a preacher holding back his best bit for his final point, and he’s pointed to the resurrection and he’s said, “Dear fellow Christian, the power of the resurrection of Jesus is at work in you by the pleasure of God the Father and by the application of the Holy Spirit so that you can live the Christian life.  That’s how you’re equipped for every good work!”

III. The Providence of God

Third, notice what else he says.  “He brought up again from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great” - and what are you waiting for?  Well based on what we’ve been doing in Hebrews so far, you’re waiting - “the great High Priest.”  How often has that been emphasized in this letter so far?  But that’s not what he says.  “The great shepherd of the sheep.”  That thought is so important because it emphasizes Jesus’ providence over His Church.  He is the Good Shepherd.  That’s what He told His disciples in John 10.  “I am the Good Shepherd.”  And of course He was pointing back to Psalm 23 and God’s shepherding providence over His people.  You’re never in the valley of the shadow of death without your God being there with you.  And the author of Hebrews is reminding us that your great Shepherd, by virtue of the resurrection, is alive, ever lives to intercede for you, and is watching over you all the time.  Yes, He gives to His people under-shepherds, but it is not because He’s not actively involved in the providence and watch-care of His church, they are simply the means by which He exercises His oversight and care for us.  He’s pointing to the providence of Jesus over His people.  He doesn’t call you to live the Christian life on your own.  What does Jesus say to His disciples?  “I will never leave you or forsake you.  Lo, I am with you always,” He says in the Great Commission.  He is with His people as the great Shepherd of the sheep watching over us as we live the Christian life.  The God of peace grants us the peace of God for the living of the Christian life.  God, who by His power raised Jesus from the dead is working by that same power in us to live the Christian life.  Jesus the great Shepherd of the sheep is still, in His providence, looking over His Church and watching out for us.

IV. The Propitiation provided by God

And propitiation is mentioned.  Look at the final sentence there in verse 20 - “by the blood of the eternal covenant.”  You remember how Hebrews has been contrasting the Old Testament sacrifices with the sacrifice of Jesus Christ?  The blood of bulls and goats cannot forgive sin but the blood of Jesus Christ has forgiven sin.  Let me tell you something absolutely glorious.  After you have been in heaven for a billion years, a trillion years, you will not be more forgiven than you are today if you’re trusting in Jesus Christ because His blood has availed for the pardon of your sin.  It is eternal.  Your sins have been forever separated from you as far as the east is from the west.  You need to know that for living the Christian life because in the Christian life you’re constantly battling against sin and it discourages you.  And you need to remember that by the blood of the eternal covenant, propitiation has been offered for your sin and you are pardoned!  Peace, power, providence, and propitiation so that you can live the Christian life.

V.  Everything Good: God’s good work in you makes your good work possible

And then he goes on to tell you three more things.  Look at verse 21.  All of these things are so that you will be equipped “with everything good so that you may do His will, working in us that which is pleasing in His sight.”  Notice what the author of Hebrews is saying.  He is saying that God is at work with you, in you, to make your work possible.  God’s good work in you makes your good work possible.  And this again is something that Paul says all the time. You remember in Ephesians 2:8-10 where Paul says you’re not saved by good works.  You’re saved “by grace through faith, and that a gift of God, not by works lest anyone should boast.  But you are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works.”  So Paul tells you in Ephesians 2:8-10 that you were not saved by good works; you were saved to good works.  The basis of your acceptance with God is not your good works; the goal of God’s salvation work in you is your good works.  God intends to save you and make you fruitful and both of those things are good news and both of them are the work of God for and in you.  

Now the apostle Paul explains how God does this in Philippians chapter 2.  Would you turn with me to Philippians chapter 2 verse 13?  In Philippians chapter 2 verse 13 the apostle Paul says this - “For it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure.”  Now that is almost exactly what the author of Hebrews is saying in Hebrews 13:21 in slightly different language.  Listen.  “May God equip you with every good thing that you may do His will, working in us that which is pleasing in His sight.”  Now listen to Philippians 2:13 again.  “For God who works in you both to will and to work for His good pleasure.”  Somebody’s been listening to somebody else’s sermons!  Somebody might even call him up and ask him if he’s plagiarized the apostle Paul on that one!  But it’s the same point.  Here’s the good news - God does not save you and then say, “Now you’re on your own.  Go get sanctified.”  He is at work in you to accomplish His purposes and His will. That is incredibly good news - that God is more committed by my sanctification than I am.  When I stop working on my sanctification He doesn’t and when I do work on my sanctification it’s because He already is.  God is at work in me for His good pleasure.  God’s good work in you makes your good work possible.

VI. Everything good: Through Jesus Christ

Second - “through Jesus Christ.”  Look at verse 21 - “working in us that which is pleasing in His sight, through Jesus Christ.”  Everything, everything in our sanctification is dependent on our union with Jesus Christ because our sanctification is done through Jesus Christ.  Jesus not only saves us, our union with Him is what sanctifies us.  In Hebrews 10:7 the author of Hebrews quotes the passage that Jesus quoted when He was preaching in His home synagogue in Nazareth.  Do you remember when Jesus said, “Behold, I have come to do Thy will?”  It was one of the great themes of Jesus’ life - that He saw His life - His life motto was, “It is My meat to do the will of Him who sent Me.”  Jesus loved to do His Father’s will.  “I love to do My Father’s will.  It’s like a feast.  It’s like meat that has been set before Me.  It’s like a seven-course dinner to be able to do God’s will.  I love to do My Father’s will.”  And Jesus doesn’t just say to us, “See, that’s what I did.  I did My Father’s will, now you do what I did.”  He doesn’t just give you an example and an exhortation; by His Spirit He unites you to Him so that you are enabled to do what He did and that is, to do His Father’s will and to love doing His Father’s will.  That’s done “through Jesus Christ.”

VII. Everything Good: for His glory

And it’s done for His glory - “to whom be glory forever and ever.”  So working in us that which is pleasing in His sight, God is at work for our sanctification.  Second, it’s done through union with Christ, “through Jesus Christ.”  And it’s done for Jesus’ glory - “to whom be glory forever and ever.”  In other words, as God works in us so that we live the life that He calls us to live, He gets all the praise and the glory.  We don’t get the credit because He’s the One at work in us.  Another one of my favorite prayers of Augustine is this one.  It also comes from the Confessions where he says to the Lord, “Lord, everything good in me is due to you.  The rest is my fault.”  What a great motto for understanding what this passage is saying.  Whenever we see progress anywhere in the Christian life it’s due to God’s work in us.  We don’t get to say that we’re the ones that produce our holiness.  God is at work in us to help us live the life that we are called to live.  

Seven Things that undergird our ability to live the Christian Life

And the neat thing is, though we are all different in this room and we have different callings in this room, the author of Hebrews is saying these seven things are true of all of us, no matter what we’re called to do in this life.  We may be called to work with integrity in our vocation when our partners and our bosses are trying to make us work without integrity and it may cost us to work with integrity.  And if that’s what you’re called to, these seven things are the things that undergird your ability to work with integrity in your vocation.  We may be called to bear up in a hard relational situation in our life, in our marriage, in our family - or not.  We may have a very relatively happy life in marriage and family.  But no matter which one you are, these seven things undergird your ability to do what God has called you to do.  We may be called to willingly and joyfully obey in an area of besetting, habitual sin.  These seven things undergird our ability to fight against that sin.  And that is so important because you may have just, for the nineteen-thousandth time, failed again in that area that you hated and have been fighting against.  You may feel like God is not at work in you and you may need to go back and believe again something that you have forgotten - that He is at work in you.  Or, you may be called to have an impact on your neighborhood, your community, your culture, or to bear fruit in someone’s life.  Whatever you are called to do in the Christian life, and it may be very, very different for each one of us here today, these seven things undergird our ability to live the Christian life.

VIII. Bear: Preaching of the Word of God for the good of your souls

Now one last thing. Look with me at verse 22.  You’re called to believe that the Lord will equip you and understand how in this passage, but you’re also called to bear something.  Remember I said the outline was - believe and bear?  Well what do you have to bear?  Look at what he says.  “I appeal to you brothers, bear with my word of exhortation, for I have written to you briefly.” Now I love that sentence.  Philip Edgcumbe Hughes, the great commentator on the book of Hebrews, says that “the book of Hebrews reads like a sermon written like a letter to friends.”  Isn’t that a beautiful description?  “It reads like a sermon that sounds like a letter to friends.”  And if you read this out loud as it was meant to be, it would take you just less than an hour to read this letter, this sermon, out loud.  And that’s what the author of Hebrews intended to happen.  He intended to send it to this church and then their pastor would stand up and read the letter out loud to the congregation.  So here they’ve been listening for almost an hour.  Some of the things he has said have been challenging.  Some of the things that he has said to them have been convicting. Some of the things that he has said to them have been frightening.  Some of the things that he has said to them have been baffling.  Some of the things that he has said to them have been stupefying, glorious.  And here at the end he says, “Bear with this brief letter.”  They’ve been read to now for an hour, all these things.  “Bear with this that has been written to you briefly.”

What do I want to get from that?  He says, “Bear with my word to you, though it may be painful, though it may challenge you, though you may have to dig to understand all that I am saying to you, bear with this letter.”  He’s asking them to listen faithfully to the Word of God, to bury their noses in the truth of God’s Word, to listen attentively with their ears to the word of God as it is proclaimed to them because it is worth bearing.  What do we learn from that?  Here’s my exhortation to you.  You have borne with my preaching for seventeen years.  Bear with the preaching of your next pastor the same way.  At First Presbyterian Church you have had a unique blessing.  For 177 years, you have always had a pastor who wanted your noses buried in the Word of God on Sunday morning and Sunday evening as he was preaching the Word because he wasn’t preaching himself and he wasn’t preaching his own ideas, he was preaching the Word of God.  And your next pastor will be the same way.  I know that because I know your pulpit committee and I know your Session and they will want a pastor who wants your noses buried in the Word of God, hanging on every syllable of God’s Word as the Word of God is preached from this pulpit on Sunday morning and Sunday evening.  Bear with that preaching because that preaching is for your souls and it’s for the living of the Christian life.

If I could add another “p,” it would be this - peace, power, providence, propitiation, preaching - because this preaching is so that you know how to live the Christian life.  This congregation needs to bear with this letter read to them because it’s so that they can live the Christian life.  These are the words of life and they teach us the way of life and as we bear with them and as we bear with the faithful minister who brings that word to us, we are prepared to live the Christian life no matter what you’re called to do.  Oh, dear friends of First Presbyterian Church, believe that God is at work to equip you with every good things to do His will and bear with the preaching that He gives you in His love that is designed to help equip you with every good thing to do His will.  

Let’s pray.

Heavenly Father, thank You for Your Word.  Bless it to our hearts.  We ask it in Jesus’ name, amen.

Now would you take your hymnals in hand and turn to number 387 and we’re going to sing this benediction together.

Receive now God’s blessing.  Now may the God of peace who brought up again from the dead that great shepherd of the sheep, even our Lord Jesus Christ, by the blood of the eternal covenant, equip you with everything good to do His will, working in you that which is well-pleasing in His sight, through Jesus Christ to whom be the glory forever and ever.  Amen.

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