Companions of Christ and the Heavenly Calling

by T. Austin-Sparks

Chapter 11 - Companions Who Hear

Into the tenth chapter of the gospel by John, John's gospel chapter 10. We are seeing that behind everything in the gospel by John is a Jewish background and we are seeing that in this gospel there is the movement from the Jewish background to the new Israel foreground. That is, from the old dispensation of Israel, to the new dispensation of the new and heavenly Israel. In this gospel there is a movement going on; on the one side it is the closing down of the history of the old Israel and on the other side the opening up of the history of the new Israel so that there is a background and a foreground in this gospel.

Now, we are following sixteen points in that transition and tonight we come to point number 13 which means that there are not many left for us! And point number 13 is marked in chapter 10 of the gospel by John. Everybody knows what is in this chapter, it is the chapter of the good shepherd and his sheep. We're not going to read the chapter because it is so well known, the heart of the chapter is the words, "I am the good shepherd." I want to put alongside of that one or two other passages of Scripture and go back to the book of the Psalms.

Psalm 77 and verse 20: "Thou leddest thy people like a flock, by the hand of Moses and Aaron".

Chapter 78, Psalm 78 verse 52: "But he led forth his own people like sheep, and guided them in the wilderness like a flock".

Now in the book of the Acts, chapter 20, at verse 28: "Take heed unto yourselves, and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which he purchased with his own blood. I know that after my departing grievous wolves shall enter in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them".

Now over to the letter to the Hebrews, and this letter is the basis of all our meditation this week. The letter to the Hebrews chapter 13 at verse 20: "Now the God of peace, who brought again from the dead the great shepherd of the sheep with the blood of the eternal covenant, even our Lord Jesus, make you perfect in every good thing to do his will".

So here we have the flock spoken of, both in the Old Testament and the New. There does not need that there should be very much argument that the Lord looked upon Israel of old as His sheep. The books of the prophets are just full of this idea; the prophets were continually speaking about Israel as God's sheep. The nations were judged by God because of their treatment of God's sheep: they destroyed and they scattered God's sheep. With the false shepherds in Israel, God was very angry - they failed to fulfil their trust to the sheep. Well, there's a very great deal more, as we have seen in the Psalms about Israel as the Lord's sheep.

We begin our meditation on this matter by speaking about the Lord who is the owner of the sheep. That is the great point which governs this whole matter. The sheep belong to the Lord. They are the Lord's sheep, the Lord's ownership of the flock is everywhere emphasised. The sheep exist for the Shepherd, and the Shepherd exists for the sheep. The love of God for Israel as His sheep is everywhere to be noted. They were "the people of his pasture". The love of God for Israel of old is a very wonderful thing. What care He showed for the sheep in the wilderness! How, as a Shepherd, He provided pasture and water for them, even in the desert. How angry He was when anyone touched His sheep! He was very jealous about His sheep. Touch one of the Lord's sheep and you touch the Lord! The Lord claimed the ownership of His sheep, and because He owned them and they were His sheep, everything He did was on that ground.

In these days we are seeing how God, on the one side, had to forsake Israel. The God who had so loved Israel, the God who had been so jealous for Israel, the God who had done everything that He could do for Israel, had at last to hand over His sheep and break His relationship with them.

Why was that? that is not like God! It seems to be such a contradiction of God. God would never, never do that if He could possibly avoid it. He had said: "I have loved thee with an everlasting love". It was a terrible thing for God to have to forsake Israel, and He had to do that. And today Israel is in that condition - no longer God's flock, as it was in old times. Those sheep are scattered over all the earth, they are without a shepherd.

Why did that come about? Simply for this one reason: Israel's fatal sin was their repudiation of God as their one Shepherd. They turned to other gods; they made other gods their shepherds. They followed the voice of other gods, they repudiated the sole ownership of the Lord. That great chapter, Isaiah 53, shows their attitude toward the Shepherd. A word rises out of that chapter: "All we like sheep have gone astray", and that chapter shows how they treated God's provided Shepherd.

It is impressive to note that the Apostle Paul quotes this very thing in his letter to the Romans in chapter 10 and verse 16: "But they did not all hearken to the glad tidings. For Isaiah said, Lord, who hath believed our report?". They refused to believe the message of the prophets, and the message of the prophets was all about God as the Shepherd and Israel as the sheep. And the prophet says: "This is why they turned away from Jehovah... All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way". Away from the way of the Lord to their own way. And their own way was to choose other shepherds than the Lord.

It is a rather impressive thing to notice that in Psalm 95 where this matter of the sheep comes up, Psalm 95 verse 7, : "For He is our God, and we are the people of His pasture, and the sheep of His hand". Now, do you notice the verse does not finish there, the rest of the verse is this strange word: "Today, oh, that you would hear His voice! Harden not your heart". We are the... sheep of his pasture but the sheep can have very hard hearts and refuse to hear the Shepherd's voice. So to His sheep of old He said: "Oh, today, that you would not harden your heart".

Do you know friends that that very word is quoted at least three times in the letter to the Hebrews? Three times in that letter it is quoted: "Today if ye shall hear his voice, harden not your hearts" (Hebrews 3:7,8). So it was hardness of heart, that lost Israel their Shepherd - the refusal to hear His voice. Paul said in that letter to the Romans: "I would have you know, that a hardening of heart has happened to Israel", and you have only got to read this one chapter, John 10, to see the hard heart of Israel. It's a terrible thing!

Just look at this: Jesus has been speaking about Himself as the good Shepherd, who gives His life for the sheep. He has said: "I give unto my sheep eternal life; and they shall never perish" and all these wonderful things about Himself as the Shepherd and His sheep. Do you notice what happens at verse 19? "There arose a division among the Jews because of these words. And many of them (the Jews) said, He hath a devil" ... "I am the good shepherd... I give My life for the sheep... I am come that they might have life... I give unto them eternal life; and they shall never perish." All these wonderful and beautiful things and the Jews said: "He has a devil"!

Now do you understand why God had to cast them off? "We have hardened our hearts. We have turned every one to our own way. All we like sheep have gone astray. We have gone away from the Shepherd because of self-will. In other words, we have said: 'We will not that have this Man to reign over us'".

That is the Jewish background of John 10. Into that situation Jesus came as the good Shepherd. And what a situation to come into! You can feel the very atmosphere of antagonism, you can feel how they hated Him. Presently they will take counsel that they may kill Him. He was right when He called them wolves who would destroy the sheep!

Right into that atmosphere Jesus came and He said: "I am the good Shepherd, and I am going to lead My sheep out of all this. I am going to take My flock out of this setting, out of this false flock." And He leads the nucleus of His new flock and He gives unto them eternal life. He begins with a nucleus out of the old - a dividing work takes place.

I didn't read the whole of that statement just for this purpose; I wanted to keep it until now: "There arose a division among the Jews... many of them said, He has a devil, He is mad; why hear Him? Others said, These are not the sayings of one possessed with a devil. Can a devil open the eyes of the blind?"

He is evidently getting some other sheep. There are those out of the old flock who are inclined toward Him. They are the new beginning, the new Israel, and He says: "I will lead them out, right out of that whole setting". And we see that nucleus on the Day of Pentecost: beginning with twelve - and then one hundred and twenty - and then more than five hundred brethren at once - and then three thousand - and then five thousand. The new flock.

Well, here you see, Jesus is building upon the Old Testament principle. If He cannot take the Old Testament sheep, He will take up the principle of Shepherd and sheep and He will carry it over into His new Israel of this dispensation.

Well, the position is perfectly clear, isn't it? There you have it, quite plainly: one Israel is being put aside and another Israel is being put in its place. The earthly is going, the heavenly is coming in to take its place, and this heavenly Israel becomes the new flock under the new Shepherd.

Now we have to note some of the marks of these true sheep. Jesus says here "I know My sheep", and there are certain things by which He knows His own sheep. If you have any doubt as to whether you are one of the Lord's sheep, here it is, you can prove it, and the Lord knows Himself by these marks.

You know, shepherds put a mark on their own sheep. It may be a red mark, or it may be a blue mark, but on their sheep they put their own mark. And in our country it's just wonderful to see how that works. Many flocks of sheep are sent out onto the mountains and they all get mixed up, they wander far, far over the mountains. And the day comes when the shepherds want to bring in their own sheep. Well, how are they going to get their own sheep out of all this mix up? Now here is a very wonderful thing: the shepherd has a sheep dog and how it is I don't know, but those dogs know the sheep that belong to their shepherd. The sheep dog knows the sheep that belong to his master and the shepherd simply gives a word to the dogs. And off he goes over the mountains, he's picking up all the sheep that have a certain mark on it and the dog brings back just those sheep. The point is that the sheep have a mark on them and by that mark they are known. Now Jesus is saying here: "I know My sheep because there are marks on My sheep." And what are these marks?

The first one is this: "My sheep hear My voice and they know Me... My sheep hear My voice and they know Me".

You know, this is, this is an illustration of a great truth. The gospels are but the illustrations of great truths. If you go on into the rest of the New Testament you will read a great deal about spiritual intelligence, spiritual understanding, and you will read about having an ear to hear what the Spirit says. Seven times at the beginning of the Book of the Revelation you have that - "He that hath an ear to hear, let him hear what the Spirit saith". Of course, that is not our outward ear. The sheep of the Lord have an inward ear given to them, that is, a faculty of spiritual intelligence; an ability to hear what no one else can hear. It was to that that the Lord was referring - "My sheep know when I speak. They have an ear for Me. My sheep are always listening for My voice. My sheep hear My voice".

Every truly born again child of God is given a faculty of spiritual hearing. That is why, you say in the early days of your Christian life: "The Lord seems to be saying something to me. The Lord seems to be saying that I ought not to talk as I do talk, and the Lord seems to be saying to me that I ought not to dress as I have been dressing, and the Lord seems to be saying to me that I should not to go to the places which I used to go to...", and a thousand other things like that. The Lord seems to be saying something... He is speaking in the heart, and as we go on in the Christian life that becomes the governing thing in our lives. We seek to hear what the Lord has to say to us, and when we hear His voice then there arises a crisis. Are we going back to the way of the old Israel going our own way? Or are we going to hear that voice and obey?

You see that is the message of the letter to the Hebrews: "Don't go back on to that old ground! Today if ye shall hear His voice, harden not your hearts as they did." But it is a very wonderful thing to see people who are obeying His voice! It is not because other people have to tell them these things. They are a poor kind of Christian who have to be told all the time what they should do and what they should not do. The true sheep hear His voice and they follow Him. It's something that comes out of the heart - they have heard Him speak in the heart. This, of course, is the whole of that New Testament subject of spiritual understanding, and you and I, as Christians, are supposed to have that faculty of spiritual understanding.

We were speaking about Nicodemus earlier. He was a ruler of the Jews, a great man in Israel. He had a high position and a great education, and yet he hadn't the first idea of spiritual things. Jesus had to say to him: "If I had spoken to you earthly things, and you have not understood, well, what will happen if I begin to speak of heavenly things?". Nicodemus could not see beyond the natural to the spiritual. When Jesus said "You must be born again", he could not see beyond the natural, he said: "How can a man be born when he is old?". He hadn't any spiritual intelligence. He was like a little child, although a great teacher in Israel.

I have a little grand-daughter about four years of age. She went to Sunday School and when she came home from Sunday School she said to her mother: "Mother, will you get me out all my baby toys, the baby toys that we put away?' Her mother said: "Why do you want your baby toys out again?" "Oh," she said, "my teacher says I must be born again!"

Well, that's a little child, you might expect that of a little child, but here is the great big grown-up Nicodemus and he is no better than that! You might expect more of him, but you don't get it. Spiritual intelligence belongs to the born again ones, and you and I are given that gift with our birth. We have a whole new set of faculties, to hear, to see, to feel, and so on. And I repeat it is about that very thing that the New Testament speaks when it speaks of spiritual understanding. That is what Jesus meant when He said: "My sheep hear My voice and they know Me".

The next mark about these sheep is: "My sheep... follow me."

Now that is very simple in the words, but they have a very deep meaning. It means that His sheep never have to be driven, His sheep never have to be compelled to go His way. His sheep follow Him in a voluntary, and spontaneous way. The Lord never has to say (or ought never to say) to His sheep: "You must come this way." The Lord is going a certain way and His sheep see which way He is going and they follow Him.

Of course, in this part of the world, it is just the other way round where sheep are concerned. I have a son who is a farmer and he has one of these wonderful sheep dogs. And how often we have heard him give the dog a word of command and off the dog has gone. But the dog has never stood in front of the sheep and said, "Follow me"! He has gone round behind the sheep and has driven them on. He is running from side to side all the time, he is not letting one of those sheep get away; he is driving them on. And if a sheep should stop, the dog quietly creeps up and then suddenly lets his presence be known and that sheep goes on! Well, these  sheep have to be driven, but it's never like that in the East, and Jesus takes the principle of government from the East. He says: "I don't drive My sheep. I never have to get behind them and force them to go on. I never have to send a dog after them bite their heels to get them going. My sheep hear My voice and they follow Me." It's a spontaneous movement of the heart to go after the Lord.

Now let us apply the law. These are the marks of the His sheep. Are you one of His sheep? Do you really hear the Lord speaking in your heart? Do you listen for His voice? Do you seek to have your life guided by that voice of the Spirit within speaking to you through the Word of God, speaking to you through the circumstances of your life, speaking to you through your sorrows? The Lord always having something to say to us, there are very few things which happen to the Lord's sheep which do not have some meaning. It is for us to seek to know what it is the Lord is saying to us - the government of the life of the Lord's sheep is by hearing His voice. Do you know anything about that?

And what about this spontaneous response to the Lord... a heart that readily goes after the Lord? We have only to know that the Lord wants something and we respond with a hearty "Yes, Lord"?

Now I must close, time has gone extra quickly tonight somehow! What is the bond between us, His sheep, and Him, the Shepherd? It is the same bond as existed between old Israel and the Lord. This same principle is taken over, it is the principle of His ownership. That which unites us with the Lord is the realisation that we belong to Him, that He is the absolute owner of our lives. To quote another Scripture: "Ye are not your own; ye were bought with a price", and we have the mark of the Lord put upon us, which is the seal of His ownership. And Paul tells us that the seal is the Holy Spirit - "sealed with the Holy Spirit". When you look at the seal you know who the box belongs to. That says that "This is the property of a certain person". The Lord gives us His Spirit as the seal that we belong to Him.

What a sheep the apostle Paul was! He said: "Let no man trouble me (that is, trying to draw me away): for I bear branded in my body the marks of Jesus... The marks of Jesus mean that I belong to Him". He said to the centurion on the ship when he was travelling to Rome: "The angel of the Lord stood by me this night whose I am, and whom I serve". The true sheep of the Lord are never ashamed to say: "I belong to the Lord Jesus. He owns my life and everything that I have. I am completely committed to Him." That is a true sheep!

Well, these are the marks of His new Israel. And you can now understand why we have these words which have been the key to all our meditations: "Wherefore, holy brethren, companions of a heavenly calling... companions of Christ". There is a kind of companionship between this Shepherd and His sheep. They are not just animals, they are friends. There is a wonderful friendship between the Lord Jesus and His own - "Companions of a heavenly calling".

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