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The Present Work of Christ — Part IV: The Present Work of Christ in Heaven (Part 2)

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The Great Shepherd and the Sheep

One of the important figures used to depict the relationship between Christ and His church is that of the Great Shepherd and the sheep. From the time of Abraham, Israel, as a nation, was known as a people who raised cattle and sheep and, therefore, it was a part of their culture to know the characteristics of the relationship between a shepherd and his sheep. It was a natural development that the term shepherd should be used to represent a spiritual overseer who would care for his congregation in much the same way as a shepherd would care for his sheep. There are, accordingly, frequent allusions in the Bible to a shepherd with this significance (Ps 23:1; 80:1 ; Eccl 12:11; Isa 40:11; 63:14 ; Jer 31:10; Ezek 34:23; 37:24 ; John 21:15-17; Eph 4:11; 1 Pet 5:1-4).1 Those who took places of leadership, even in nonspiritual contexts, were sometimes called shepherds (Isa 44:28; 63:11 ). Accordingly, it was a common expression that “sheep without a shepherd” represented individuals or nations who had forgotten God (Num 27:17; 1 Kings 22:17; 2 Chron 18:16; Ezek 34:5, 8; Zech 10:2; Matt 9:36; Mark 6:34). Even in modern times the term shepherd has been perpetuated in the term pastor as applied to a pastor as the shepherd of a church. The word sheep, in the sense of one who is offered as a sacrifice, is used of Christ, referred to as a lamb (Isa 53:7; John 1:29; Rev 5:6, etc).

The presentation of Christ as the shepherd is divided into three time relations: (1) Christ as the Good Shepherd giving His life for His sheep (Ps 22; John 10); (2) Christ as the Great Shepherd in His present work (Heb 13:20; (3) Christ as the Chief Shepherd who will be manifested as the King of glory caring for His own at His second coming (1 Pet 5:4).2 Of particular significance in the present discussion is the second time relationship, that of Christ as the Great Shepherd.

Christ as the Great Shepherd who seeks and find His sheep. One of the natural situations arising in the lives of shepherds in Israel was that of a shepherd seeking and finding a sheep which was lost. Christ used this concept in the parable of the lost sheep (Luke 15:3-7). In this parable is depicted the work of Christ before the cross, especially in seeking and finding the lost sheep of the house of Israel, but the presentation extends beyond this immediate context to the work of Christ which reveals the heart of God in seeking those who are lost.

In John 10:1-28, a more extended revelation of the present work of Christ as shepherd is given. In verse 11 the present work of Christ is based upon His work as the Good Shepherd who “layeth down his life for the sheep.” The work of Christ in seeking the lost, as indicated in the parable in Luke 15, is also mentioned in verse 16 : “And other sheep I have, which are not of this fold: them also I must bring, and they shall hear my voice; and they shall become one flock, one shepherd.” This verse is of great importance because it indicates that Christ’s purpose as a shepherd is not simply to win the lost of the house of Israel but also to bring others into the knowledge of Christ, namely, those who would be saved from the Gentiles. Those “not of this fold” refers to Gentile Christians. The reference to the “one flock, one shepherd” has in view the church of the present age composed of Jew and Gentile alike.3 This passage, therefore, reveals the present work of Christ in winning the lost to Himself based upon His sufficient work as the Good Shepherd in dying for the sins of the whole world. for His sheep, there is accordingly the ministry of leading the sheep in the path of the will of God. Only as sheep are willing to follow Christ will they find their complete spiritual needs supplied. It is their privilege to follow the shepherd, completely trusting Him for all the things that characterize their needs, such as food, water, shelter, and protection from their enemies. Just as natural sheep follow their shepherd, so believers in the Lord should follow Christ as the Great Shepherd and have their spiritual needs completely supplied.

One of the significant facts characterizing the relationship of sheep to a shepherd is that sheep, in spite of their insufficiency in other areas, have a capacity and a desire to follow the shepherd and know his call (John 10:3, 4, 14, 16, 27). One of the characteristics of sheep is that they know their own shepherd and hear his voice. Shepherds were accustomed to call their sheep by a peculiar guttural sound, which to human ears did not seem to be distinct in character, but sheep would readily distinguish the call of their own shepherd from that of others. In like manner, true Christians can distinguish the voice of the true shepherd from other voices and can be led if they are willing to listen. The leading of Christ is often administered by the Holy Spirit as stated in Romans 8:14, “For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God.” If sheep are identified as belonging to the shepherd by the fact that they hear the shepherd’s voice,4 So Christians can demonstrate that they belong to Christ by listening to His voice as He attempts to lead them.

Christ as the Great Shepherd who provides for His sheep. The ultimate purpose of the Great Shepherd in calling and leading His sheep is to provide for them a more abundant and satisfying life. The other ministries of the Great Shepherd are directed to this end that the sheep might have pastures which are abundant in their spiritual food and drink. Christ stated this in John 10:10: “The thief cometh not, but that he may steal, and kill, and destroy: I came that they may have life, and may have it abundantly.” Just as the Good Shepherd died that the sheep might have life, so the Great Shepherd lives that the human spirit might have life more abundantly. This is beautifully depicted in Psalm 23 where David gives his testimony of how God, as the Great Shepherd, cared for him. The green pastures and still waters are to be found by those who are near the shepherd.

In addition to providing the elements of abundant life in spiritual food and drink, the Great Shepherd, in contrast to the hireling, also protects the sheep from wolves, that is, the spiritual enemies of the sheep. In the ordinary life of a shepherd caring for his sheep, this was one of the great hazards as wolves would attack the sheep if there was the slightest carelessness on the part of the shepherd. Sheep by their nature are not able to protect themselves from wolves, and this is where the shepherd by his rod and staff came in. Likewise, in the spiritual relationship of the believer to Christ, the attacks of the evil one, whether human or demonic, require the protecting care of the Shepherd for all those who follow Him. Obviously, the place of greatest security and greatest blessing is to be near the Shepherd where the sheep can avail themselves of the still waters and green pastures which are provided for them.

Taken as a whole, the figure of the Great Shepherd in relationship to his sheep is a beautiful picture of the faithful, loving Savior and his relationship to those for whom He died. He depicts, on the one hand, the wonderful divine provision and, on the other hand, the utter need of the sheep for that which God alone can supply.

Christ as the True Vine in Relation to the Branches

In the Upper Room Discourse on the night before His crucifixion, the Lord Jesus used the figure of the vine and the branches to describe His relationship to His disciples. This revelation of the ministry of Christ to and through His disciples portrays the conditions for fruit bearing as well as the ministry of the Father, the privilege of the branches in relationship to the vine, and the danger of superficial connection. As in other figures that are used to describe spiritual truth, it is an illustration which should not be pressed beyond proper bounds.5 Seen within the limitation described in the Scriptures themselves, the figure provides another important means of revealing the relationship between Christ and His own.

Christ as the true vine. In its New Testament usage, the word for vine (Gr., ampelos) is always associated with fruit bearing (Matt 26:29; Mark 14:25; Luke 22:18; Jas 3:12). Christ is the true vine in contrast to that which would be false or not a true vine. The word for true (Gr., alethine) has the connotation of that which is ultimate, perfect, or infinite. It refers to that which not only bears the name or resemblance but corresponds in its real nature to that which it is called. Christ as the true vine is in contrast to Israel, which has proved to be a false vine which did not bear proper fruit for God (Judg 9:7-15; Ps 80:8; Isa 5:1-7; Ezek 15:2; Hos 10:1). Christ is the true vine in the same sense that He is the true life and the true bread. Those who are properly related to Christ, therefore, have a true fruitfulness and an abundant life.

The true branches. Expositors of the figure of the vine and the branches, as given in John 15, have often erred by attempting to pursue the figure beyond that of its intention. It is obvious that every figure of speech or illustration is designed to teach a particular truth, and the figure cannot in all its particulars be made to agree with its corresponding spiritual counterpart. Accordingly, those who press this figure beyond reasonable bounds end with an explanation which is contradicted by other portions of Scripture.

In any attempt at exposition of this passage, it is necessary first to state clearly the purpose of the figure. The theme of the passage is indicated in the sixfold repetition of the word fruit. The major concept, therefore, is fruitfulness, such as normally would be expected of a branch properly related to the vine. Inasmuch as fruitfulness is in view, it is, therefore, an error to attempt to make this an illustration of salvation, condemnation, or imputation, as these great doctrines are not in view. The central thought is that fruitfulness depends on the kind of branch. A fruitful branch must have a counterpart in regenerated souls who are supernaturally united to Christ and members of His true body as well as true sheep of His flock, members of the new creation, and in other ways qualified to bring forth fruit.

The major problem in exegesis of this figure is to determine the character of the unfruitful branches. The unfruitful branches, of course, do not reveal any true ministry of Christ, as they do not in any real sense partake of the ministry of the vine. They are described as being cast into a fire where they are burned. Various explanations have been advanced to account for the character of these unfruitful branches.

Some have attempted to describe the unfruitful branches as genuinely saved Christians who, because of fruitlessness, are taken from this life because they have committed the sin unto death (1 John 5:16). This point of view regards the ministry of these branches as being useless to the extent that God takes them out of this world.

A second view is advanced by A. C. Gaebelein6 who considers the fruitless branches as professing Christians joined to the professing church who outwardly appear to be in union with Christ but actually not joined to the true vine. This lack of vital connection is revealed in the fact that they are cut off and in the end reveal that they are fitted for destruction instead of fruitfulness.7

A third view, probably the least satisfactory, is that the unfruitful branches have reference to Israel and Judas in particular who are cut off to make way for fruitful believers in Christ. A parallel is cited in Romans 11:17 where the unfruitful branches are broken off the olive tree and new branches are grafted in which will bear fruit. Undoubtedly, the major problem in the exposition of this passage is the attempt to make explicit that which is only implied. The practice of pruning the vine and cutting out unfruitful branches was common in the care of natural vines. The major point is that true fruitfulness is derived from proper connection to the true vine. It apparently was not the intent of the passage to develop at length the precise relationship of the unfruitful branches. In John 15:6 the appeal is made to human customs rather than to divine activity in this regard.

The ministry of the true vine to the true branches. The main thought of the figure of the vine and the branches is to emphasize the truth that Christ is the source of life and fruitfulness for all who are related to Him. Although it is not stated in the figure, the implication is that the branches have both their existence and life because they are joined to Christ. Apart from Christ they can do nothing. Just as there was a union of life between Christ as the Head of the body, so there is union of life between the vine and branches. The branches live and are able to bear fruit because they derive nourishment from the vine.

The thought of sanctification is obviously indicated in the passage as it states that the branches are purged by a work of the Father as well as by the word of Christ (John 15:2-3). In natural life, vines are seldom fruitful unless properly pruned, and the work of God in relationship to the vine is therefore indicated. The work of Christ through His word is designed primarily to make fruitful branches bear more fruit, and it is pruning action rather than that of the cutting off of the vine. The implication is plain that fruitfulness is hindered by dead wood and that sanctification is essential to abundant spiritual life.

The main condition for fruitfulness is embodied in the words, “Abide in me” (John 15:4). Abiding in Christ describes the relationship in which a believer has the full benefit of a union with Christ. Implicit in such relationship is obedience to the Lord as stated in the command: “If ye keep my commandments, ye shall abide in my love; even as I have kept my Father’s commandments, and abide in his love” (John 15:10). The fruitful branch must not only be yielded to Christ but in complete dependence upon Him.8

Among the wonderful promises given those who are in proper relationship to Christ, which makes possible a full answer, and the limitation of the will of God as embodied in the Word of God, which teaches that prayer is always answered according to divine revelation. A believer who is abiding in Christ and praying according to the will of God can be assured that his prayers will be answered. Abiding in the love of God has the significance of being in such a relationship that God is free to manifest His love.

The passage emphasizes degrees of fruitfulness which are stated as (1) fruit, (2) more fruit, and (3) much fruit. Attending fruitfulness is the wonderful joy of serving the Lord as indicated in John 15:11, “These things have I spoken unto you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be made full.” The joy of the Christian is in sharp contrast to the pleasure of the world. True Christian joy is the by-product of fruitfulness and is wrought in the heart by the Spirit who produced His own fruit of love, joy, and peace.

It is most significant that the branches of the vine are useless for anything other than bearing fruit (Ezek 15:2-5). The character of branches of the vine makes it impossible to use them for building. They are of no use as firewood, and their beauty as branches is negligible. Only in fruitfulness can a branch related to the vine fulfill its divine purpose and function. In a similar way in Christian experience, the secret of an effective service does not lie in natural endowments or in advancement of self-interests but is rather expressed fully in permitting the life and fruitfulness of Christ to be manifested through the believer. The result of abiding in Christ as symbolized in the vine and the branches has been summarized in the triad, “fruit perpetual; joy celestial; prayer effectual.” The joy mentioned is given special character by Christ as being “my joy” (v. 11 ), that is, the joy that was in the heart of Christ in fulfilling the will of God in His life.

When understood in its proper significance, the vine and the branches teach the basic lessons of proper relationship to Christ, dependence, faith, and fruitfulness together with the wonderful spiritual by-products of joy and answered prayer which are realized by the true branches.

Christ as the Chief Cornerstone and the Stones of the Building

Frequently in Scripture a stone or rock is used to portray spiritual truths and is usually used in relationship to Christ. Christ is symbolized in the smitten rock from which flows rivers of living water (Exod 17:6; cp. 1 Cor 10:4; John 4:13, 14; 7:37-39 ). In relation to His first coming to the earth, he was a “stumbling stone” to the Jews (Rom 9:32-33; 1 Cor 1:23; 1 Pet 2:8). At His second coming, He will be the “headstone of the corner” in His relationship to Israel (Zech 4:7; cp. 1 Pet 2:7). In the present age, He is the foundation and chief cornerstone for the church (Eph 2:20; cp. 1 Pet 2:6). Christ is also the stone of destruction to unbelievers (Matt 21:44). In some contexts, the idea of a stone is used of other spiritual truths; for instance, it symbolizes the kingdom of God which is to fill the whole earth (Dan 2:35),9 and which is introduced by the reference to the “stone cut out without hands” (Dan 2:34) which depicts the second coming of Christ in judgment, much as in Matthew 21:44. From these many allusions to Christ as a stone and related revelations, it is clear that the concept of the stone has many connotations of spiritual significance.

Christ as the foundation stone. In describing the necessity of Christ as the foundation of the Christian life, the figure of a building is used in 1 Corinthians 3:11-15. There it is stated that all must be based upon the foundation which is Christ: “For other foundation can no man lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ.” This thought is used in an introductory way as the only proper preparation for the kind of life that will count for eternity. Christian life must be based upon the foundation which is supplied, namely, Christ, and only after this is appropriated can the Christian life be erected upon the foundation. The word stone does not occur in this context but the thought is similar to that of other passages such as Isaiah 28:16, where the prophecy was given: “Therefore thus saith the Lord Jehovah, Behold, I lay in Zion for a foundation a stone, a tried stone, a precious-stone of sure foundation: he that believeth shall not be in haste.” In the Isaiah passage, their concept of foundation and stone are one and the same, the terms foundation and corner indicating use, and the term stone indicating character. In the entire figure, Christ is portrayed as indispensable, with all the building depending upon Him. He is indeed the only foundation stone for Christian life and faith in time or eternity.

Christ as the cornerstone. In Ephesians 2:20, a further revelation is given describing Christ as the cornerstone: “Being built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the chief corner stone.” Here as in 1 Corinthians 3 the word stone is not in the original but is properly supplied by the translator. The thought of Christ as the foundation is repeated in this passage, but with added idea that He is also a cornerstone. Although it is not entirely clear as to the complete connotation of this expression, it may be assumed that it reveals Christ as essential to the structure of the building and to its symmetry, indicates the degree of the corner, and gives significance to the whole building. In modern times, the cornerstone is often employed to state the essential facts relating to the purpose of the building and is accordingly the most prominent and significant portion of the building. Christ as the chief cornerstone reveals the purpose of the building which is His church, and apostles and New Testament prophets form the foundation along with Christ, although Christ is the most important stone. This may be a part of the explanation of Matthew 16:18 where the symbolism of a rock is related to Peter’s testimony.

Christ as the living stone. Probably the most important passage in the New Testament on Christ as the stone is found in 1 Peter 2:4-8. Here are repeated most of the factors mentioned in earlier revelation and Isaiah 28:16 is quoted. An additional thought is provided in this passage in the concept that Christ is a living stone. When Christ was in the tomb, His body was lifeless and in this respect was similar to an inaniniate stone. In His resurrection, however, Christ became the living stone, a supernatural figure of speech embodying the natural qualities such as permanence and value of precious stones but also the supernatural in the sense that the stone is alive and has a living character.10

The living character of Christ as stone is carried over into the description of the stones of the building which represent individual Christians. Some take Ephesians 2:21 as an individual believer and others as the whole church corporately. In the Petrine passage, however, clearly the whole church is in view. The stones of the building are like Christ in the tomb, that is, dead and without life. Now in resurrection life, like Christ, they becoming living stones. They not only have the quality of life but fitted together form as a corporate group a living unit, the church, the body of Christ which is one with Christ in life and structure. The figure, therefore, implies that our relationship to Christ includes eternal life, oneness, the security of being on a sure foundation, and the privilege of being a spiritual house (1 Pet 2:5). Christ is also evidently present within the building as well as its chief cornerstone. The building has the quality of growth which continues throughout the present age, not only in the fact that additional stones are being added as the lost are won to Christ, but also that individual Christians grow in their capacity and usefulness.

As depicting the present work of Christ, the figure of Christ as the foundation and cornerstone related to the stones of the building as believers is rich with spiritual significance. It makes clear that the only important aspects of life are those that are related to Christ. Only as life is founded upon Him can a true building be erected for time and eternity.


This article was taken from the Theological Journal Library CD and posted with permission of Galaxie Software.


1 Cp. James Patch, International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia s.v., “Shepherd.”

2 Cp. L. S. Chafer, Systematic Theology, IV, 56-59.

3 F. B. Meyer comments: “These other sheep must be the Gentiles—ourselves. Though He belonged by birth to the most exclusive race that has ever existed, our Lord’s sympathies overflowed the narrow limits of national prejudice. He was the Son of Man; and in these words He not only showed that his heart was set on us, but He sketched the work which was to occupy Him through the ages” (F. B. Meyer, The Gospel of John, 158).

4 John Calvin comments on the expression, “They know his voice” (v. 4 ), “We must attend to the reason why it is said that the sheep follow; it is, because they know how to distinguish shepherds from wolves by the voice. This is the spirit of discernment, by which the elect discriminate between the truth of God and the false inventions of men” (John Calvin, Commentary on the Gospel According to John, 396-97).

5 Hugh MacMillan, for instance, in his work, The True Vine, is rich in his presentation of the spiritual truth in this figure, but falls short of a satisfactory doctrinal exposition. For a better exposition of this passage, see A. C. Gaebelein, The Gospel of John, 292-300, and William Kelly, Exposition of the Gospel of John, 303-17.

6 A. C. Gaebelein, 296-97.

7 R. H. Lightfoot states what is probably the best view: “Since true discipleship is bound to show itself in fruit-bearing (15:8 ), any unfruitful branch is removed (15:2, 6 there is perhaps an indirect reference to the defection of Judas, as being typical of all faithless discipleship), and fruitful branches are pruned, to increase their capacity to bear fruit” (R. H. Lightfoot, St. Johns Gospel, A Commentary, 282).

8 L. S. Chafer summarizes the meaning of this figure in these words, “The contribution which the figure of the Vine and its branches makes to the doctrine of the Church is particularly that, by the unbroken communion of the believer with His Lord, the enabling power of God rests upon him both for his own priceless experience of joyous fellowship and for fruitfulness by prayer and testimony unto the completion of the Body of Christ, (Systematic Theology, IV, 61).

9 Cp. H. A. Ironside, Lectures on Daniel the Prophet, 38-39.

10 William Kelly comments: “In Nature no object lies more obviously void of life than a stone. But this only makes the power of grace the more impressive. Even John the Baptist could tell the haughty Pharisees and Sadducees, who pleaded their descent from Abraham, that God was able of the stone to raise up children to Abraham” (William Kelly, First Epistle of Peter, 127).