Thursday, December 11, 2014

Christ, the shepherd of the world

In Revelation 12 we are presented with the image of a woman struggling to give birth, and a dragon who stands waiting to devour the child as soon as it is born. Of course the dragon does not succeed, and the child is taken up to heaven before God. It is an image of Israel bringing the messiah forth into the world, and the devil who wanted to destroy him but did not succeed.

Describing Christ, John writes: And she gave birth to a son, a male child, who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron (Rev 12.9). I want to analyze briefly two aspects of this verse, which is talking about Christ: first, Christ is to rule all the nations; and second, he is to rule with a rod of iron.

Christ is supposed to rule all the nations, all the peoples of the earth. But what is the quality of this rule of his? How does he rule them? The Greek verb used here is ποιμαίνειν, which means to shepherd. This is the verb used in the Septuagint where David writes, The LORD tends me as a shepherd (Κύριος ποιμαίνει με), and I shall want nothing (Ps 23.1/22.1 LXX).

This verb is used because rulers in general were called shepherds, ποιμένες, because they were expected to make use of their rule for the good of their subjects. Just as a shepherd takes care of the sheep and brings them to food and water, so also the rulers were expected to do good to their subjects and care for them, making use of their power for the advantage of all.

Christ, then, is supposed to shepherd all the nations. His rule is both universal and good, because he is ὁ ποιμὴν πάντων τῶν ἐθνῶν, the shepherd of all peoples. His rule is a benevolent and beneficent one, the purpose of which is to bring all the peoples to salvation and to fellowship with God, as is their true purpose.

Now what is this business about the iron rod? What could the significance of it be?

Of course, there is here an echo to Ps 2, the coronation psalm about the newly chosen king of Israel. There he is told by God, You are my Son; today I have begotten you (v. 7) and he is told that he will dash the nations with a rod of iron (v. 9). This psalm was particularly important in the minds of the first Christians for understanding Christ and his role and mission, since the words of God to the king are also announced at Christ's baptism (e.g. Mark 1.11).

Christ rules with an iron rod, then, but does he break the nations with them as the psalmist sang? The king of Israel may have broken the nations with an iron rod, but the true Christ shepherds all the peoples of the earth with an iron rod. The shepherd doesn't strike and kill his own sheep with the rod, though he does direct them; rather, the striking is done against the wolves, bears, and other animals which would harm the sheep. Christ uses his iron rod to strike the devil and his demons, the forces of evil which conspire against God and against humanity created in the image of God. Christ's purpose as ruler is to bring humanity back to God, and to destroy the devils which oppose this mission.

In this brief passage from Revelation, then, we have a wonderful image of Christ as the shepherd of humanity. The iron rod by which he rules is strong enough to destroy all the enemies of humanity and of God, and in his goodness he is capable of shepherding all peoples back to God as is God's intention. The devil, the dragon, Satan does not have power to overwhelm him or destroy him! God is destined to win this battle!