Ruled by the Shepherd’s Rod

I wrote this for Through the Roof ( and it is reproduced here by kind permission.

I am unashamedly a word nerd. The only subjects I was any good at when I was at school were the ones that involved the meanings of words – English language and literature and foreign languages. I am fascinated by the meanings, the spellings, the origins and derivation of words, and by the connections between words in different languages. So when I read the New Testament, I often go back to the Greek and ask the question, “What did it actually say and mean in the original?”

I was recently involved in a discussion in which someone was promoting war on the grounds that Jesus is war-like because in Revelation it says that He will rule the nations with a rod of iron. How, I asked myself, can the Prince of Peace be war-like? It makes no sense, and it also doesn’t accord with the character of Jesus as portrayed in the Gospels.

So I went back to the Greek and looked up what those passages in Revelation actually say in the original language. It was a very enlightening study.

Firstly I noted that there are three words commonly used in the New Testament to denote “rule”. One means to lord it over someone, one means to govern and one means to lead or guide. However, none of those words is used in relation to ruling the nations with a rod of iron. The word used is ποίμήν (poimen). This word actually means to pastor or shepherd, and derives from an origin that has to do with feeding cattle.

The first two references (Revelation 2.27 and 12.5) therefore actually state that He will pastor or shepherd the nations with an iron rod – a very different image from that of an iron-fisted ruler subjugating his enemies by force. The third reference (Revelation 19.15) is very interesting. It says that He will smite the nations with the sword of His mouth – a picture used elsewhere as a metaphor for the Word of God – but also that He will shepherd them with an iron rod. The image is of a shepherd who leads His flock to safety, occasionally whacking them back into line either verbally or with His rod when they stray from where they should be.

It struck me that if Jesus’ style of leadership, even in respect of those who disregard or reject His rule, is to shepherd them rather than to use violence to destroy them, how tender must His heart be towards those who love Him, and those who are vulnerable and in need of His protection.

In Isaiah 40 the prophet announces some good news, so important that he must go up to a high place and announce it. The news is that God is coming to rule with a strong hand and arm. And then in verse 11 it describes what this rule looks like: “He shall feed his flock like a shepherd: He shall gather the lambs with his arm, and carry them in his bosom, and shall gently lead those that are with young.”

What a comfort for those of us who find ourselves in need of His rule. Maybe someone reading this is experiencing hardship because of a society that discriminates against disabled people, or a welfare system that leaves their finances in chaos. Maybe someone reading it is struggling to trust God while a physical, sensory or mental condition makes life a daily struggle. I don’t know about you, but at such times I long for someone to come and bring some order into my life, some governance that can be relied on and makes sense of what I’m going through. Isaiah’s good news is that there is One whose strong arm will take the chaos of life and bring it into order.

Now think about what it means to have a God whose heart even towards His enemies is to shepherd them, and whose heart towards you is to carry you through the troubles of life, to feed you and pastor you. What a wonderful thought with which to begin a New Year. At a time when the nations rage and the peoples imagine a vain thing, when the kings and the rulers of the earth take counsel together and set themselves against God’s rule (Psalm 2. 1-2) God can laugh at them (Psalm 2. 4) because He knows that His ways are not their ways. His ways are to shepherd and guide and bring a reign of righteousness, and His ways towards us are to heal and to bind up (Psalm 147.3).

So I wish you every blessing for 2020, whatever it brings, and I pray that your experience of God’s rule in your life will be one of guiding, feeding, protecting and all the other things the Great Shepherd does to care for His sheep.

Has it come to this?

A few months ago I was really perturbed by a BBC news report on the cost of educating pupils with additional needs and disabilities.  The entire focus of the report was on the cost of the special provision these children need, and how this is a drain on the education budget.  There was no reference to the enormous disadvantages such pupils face, and how the money spent on them just goes a tiny way towards levelling the playing field and giving them similar opportunities to their peers.

There was definitely no reference to the enormous benefit, not only to the pupils themselves but to the whole country, of educating children with additional needs, helping them to fulfil their potential and become productive members of society.  Even that wouldn’t have gone far enough for my liking, but it would at least have been something.  I would have liked to see an acknowledgement that there is more to life than economic productivity, and just because someone’s contribution to the community is not a financial one, that doesn’t mean they are not contributing to making our country a better place.

And then last week an even more damaging article appeared.  It was published in The Times and circulated widely on social media.  It’s actually the first article that has ever prompted me to submit a formal complaint to IPSO, the official press regulator.  The article was subsequently edited, but in the original version, the one that went out in The Times newspaper that morning, the headline read, “£400 million schools funding diverted to special needs”.  It went on to describe how mainstream funds were being taken from “pupils” and “children” to be diverted to “special educational needs”.  The implication was obvious – children with additional needs are not proper children.

The reason for this was, apparently, because parents were chasing the “golden ticket” of an Education, Health and Care Plan which would trigger all kinds of additional help for their child, and these EHCPs were, by implication, being handed out willy-nilly to those who didn’t need them.

I remember the long, soul-destroying battles we fought to get our daughter’s most basic needs provided for on her Statement of Special Educational Needs, the intransigence of a Local Education Authority that only wanted to include what it was willing to pay for rather than what she actually needed.  Since Statements were replaced by EHCPs I have been following the struggles of a number of friends whose fight is even more fruitless than ours was.  There has been a large increase in children with additional needs being home schooled, not because their parents have made that choice, but because no suitable schooling has been provided, in many cases no schooling at all of any kind.  And this has come about because of swingeing cuts to the education budgets, which have hit SEN provision hardest.

The article also complained about this funding being extended beyond the age of 18 to cover further and higher education.  Again, the implication was that this was an undeserved bonus handed on a plate to the lucky students who could get their hands on it.  There was no explanation that it was in fact an attempt, however inadequate, to try to overcome some of the massive educational disadvantages faced by these young people.

As I read this, and noted the similarity to the earlier BBC news report, I was reminded of a book I read recently, Girl With a White Dog by Anne Booth – a novel I highly recommend, aimed at the pre-teen market.  In this story, a German Jewish holocaust survivor comes and gives a talk to school pupils about her experiences during World War 2.  The part that came to mind when I read The Times article was a section from that talk, in which she said this:

And in the schools, in Maths lessons, the lessons were quite different from the ones you have. The children were being taught to add up how much things cost….
But do you know what costs they were worried about?  So worried that nearly every day the children did sums about it?  Every day at school they were working out how much disabled people, elderly people, sick people, cost the German people to keep in hospitals and in care homes.  As if disabled people, elderly people, sick people weren’t true Germans.  And they did sums about how much people cost who didn’t work, even though they told my father, and everyone else who was a Jew, that they weren’t allowed to.”

Am I exaggerating or scaremongering when I make that connection between Nazi Germany and the kind of rhetoric we are starting to hear from reputable broadcasters and newspapers?  I think not.  It’s only a few years since George Osborne, then Chancellor of the Exchequer, gave a speech in which he made disparaging remarks about people whose curtains are still drawn when the rest of us go to work – thereby stigmatising people with conditions like ME or cancer or recurrent migraine, and people who rely on the visits of carers to get them up in the morning.

How should we, as Christians, respond to this tendency by the media and politicians to influence public opinion against disabled people, and to portray them as nothing but a drain on the public purse?  For the answer to this question, I turn again to Anne Booth’s book.  Later on, the same character says this,

So I would like to end by begging you to look out for any early signs of prejudice, any racism, any homophobia, any discrimination against people for their religion  – or lack of it, any valuing of people purely for their economic worth, any cruel jokes against the elderly or the disabled.
Stop them early, the moment they show their heads, so that those ideas do not take root and take over your country the way they rotted my beautiful Germany.  If the attitudes of Nazism hadn’t been tolerated in its early stages in the 1930s, those millions of people would never have been murdered.

And that is why I felt compelled to complain to the press regulator about that article in The Times.  When I was a teacher, teaching A level Philosophy and Ethics, I often used to show my students the film Judgement at Nuremberg.  It’s a film about the trial of Nazi war criminals after the war, and, based on the transcripts of those trials, is an accurate reflection of what took place in that courtroom.  There comes a point, near the end of the film, where one of the former Nazi judges, convicted of crimes against humanity for sentencing Jewish people and disabled people to concentration camps, says to the prosecutor, “I never knew it would come to this.  You have to believe me.”   The prosecutor replies, “It came to this the first time you sentenced to death a man you knew to be innocent.

It’s a topic close to my heart because I have 3 daughters, all young, all healthy and all with a normal life expectancy.  For one of them I am regularly asked if I want to write “Do Not Resuscitate” on her medical notes, something no one would think of suggesting for either of her sisters.  Why the difference?  Because she is a wheelchair user with learning disabilities.

So it’s no use looking at the past and saying, “It would never come to that.”  When propaganda in the media is aimed at prejudicing the public against disabled children, it has already come to that.  And as Christians we must pray, yes, but we must also raise our voices and refuse to be silenced in defence of those who need us to speak out for them.  Proverbs 31.8: “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute.”

Girl With A White Dog
by Anne Booth
Published by Catnip Publishing
ISBN 978-184647-181-0

If you want to sign a petition I started 3 years ago against inviting disabled people’s families to write Do Not Resuscitate on their medical notes, you can do so here:

Acts 5.12-16

Picture the scene: every day at the temple, in the area known as Solomon’s Portico, all the believers in Jesus held a great rendezvous. And this was no ordinary worship service of the kind normally experienced at the temple. There was a spirit of complete unity between them all, and in that atmosphere amazing miracles happened, and even became commonplace, carried out by the apostles.

But after what had recently happened, no one who wasn’t a member of the group dared to go along. That wasn’t to say people felt negative towards them – far from it. Their reputation was very high among the wider community.

Gradually huge numbers started to join them, men and women who had come to believe that Jesus is Lord, so that more and more people were added to the group. It got to the point where anyone who had a sick or disabled family member put them on a mattress and carried them out into the street, laying them down in the roadway. As Peter made his way down the street, the bright overhead sun would cast his shadow on the ground.

It wasn’t just local people from Jerusalem, but also families from the surrounding cities. They brought anyone who was ill or troubled by an unclean spirit. And here’s the thing: as Peter progressed along the road, anyone on whom his shadow fell was healed.

Acts 4.32 – 5.11

The unity between those who believed in Jesus was quite remarkable.  It encompassed and united them in both their minds and their hearts.  They stopped thinking in terms of ownership and regarded everything they possessed as belonging to all of them.  The apostles were unstoppable – they just went everywhere speaking persuasively about the resurrection of Jesus the Lord.  Just as the apostle John noted that Jesus the Lord was “full of grace and truth”, the same grace (and therefore truth) was a feature of this community.

Anyone who owned a house or a piece of land sold it, and brought the proceeds to the apostles, so it could be distributed among those who were in financial need.  One example of this was Barnabas.  His real name was Joseph, but he’d earned a nickname that meant “son of encouragement”.  He sold a piece of land that he owned, and donated all the proceeds via the apostles.

But even the most idyllic of communities will attract a few charlatans who are only in it for what they get out of it – kudos or status or whatever.  Such were Ananias and his wife Sapphira.  They sold a piece of property, kept some of the proceeds as of course they were entitled to do, but then Ananias brought some of the proceeds to the apostles, all the time pretending it was the entire sum received for the land.  But to his surprise, the Holy Spirit revealed this pretence to Peter.  Peter asked him why he hadn’t just been honest about how much he was giving.  After all, he was entitled to keep any or all of it, so why the need to lie and claim that he was giving it all?

On hearing Peter’s words, Ananias simply fell down dead.  It was a real shock to everyone present.  A while later Sapphira came in, unaware of what had happened, and expecting, I suppose, to be lauded by everyone present for such a generous donation.  Peter gave her the chance to refute her husband’s lie, but instead she just repeated it.

“Why,” asked Peter, “have you conspired to test God’s Spirit? Those who carried your husband’s corpse from here are waiting for yours.”  And she, too, immediately dropped dead on the spot.

Can you imagine the effect this had, not only on the community of believers, but everyone who heard about it?  It was a sobering experience.  No one was left in any doubt that those who lie to God and man engage in an act of self-destruction.  This gave everyone a renewed respect for God and truth and the community of believers.

Will there be disability in eternity?

Following the demise of my laptop I had to call a halt to blogging for a while, so my thoughts on the Book of Acts are currently handwritten in a notebook, and I will start to copy them up here soon on my shiny new laptop!

In the meantime, here is a post which I wrote for Through the Roof, and which is reproduced here by kind permission.

In the course of my life and work I’ve met plenty of disabled people who have had enough of limitations and pain and would give almost anything to be free of their condition. I’ve also met plenty of disabled people who tell me that even if they could be instantly cured, they wouldn’t want to because their disability is part of who they are and they’re completely at peace with that. Which just goes to show that there’s no right or wrong way to feel about being disabled.

The one thing all these people have in common is that they don’t want to be dismissed as nothing more than their disability. People don’t want to be noticed because of their white cane or their wheelchair, they want to be known and appreciated for the person they are. I remember a doctor in hospital once pointing my daughter out to some of his students and saying, “That one’s a CP.” I responded, “No she’s not, she’s a little girl who happens to have CP.”

One question I often get asked when I’m speaking at events around the country is, “Do you think disabled people will be healed in heaven?” I’ve heard other speakers – disabled people or parents of disabled people – give various replies to this. For some it’s a straightforward, “Yes, of course. There’s no disability in heaven.” Others, though, don’t see it as such a black and white matter. One person said he thought God would deal with it on a case by case basis, and another mother said that if her son with profound and multiple disabilities were healed, he would be so completely different that he would no longer be the same person. Since God created him and knows and loves him for the person he is now, the answer had to be no.

Because I get asked this so often, I’ve given it quite a bit of thought, and of course my answer, like everyone else’s, is guesswork informed by Scripture. In 1 Corinthians 15 Paul describes our bodies now and the resurrection bodies we will one day have. Our current bodies, he says, are perishable, dishonourable, weak and natural. The bodies we will have after our resurrection from the dead will be indestructible, glorious, powerful and spiritual. I suspect that a body which is all those things – indestructible, glorious, powerful and spiritual – is so far beyond the ability of our finite minds to grasp that the question of whether it is “healed” will turn out to be completely irrelevant.

Acts 4. 23-31

Trying to ban the disciples from speaking about Jesus the Messiah had to be a bit like a fly trying to ban a lion from roaring. Peter and John went back and rejoined the community of believers and of course they reported back on all the court proceedings and verdict.

No one was fazed; no one was intimidated. They just did the most natural thing, the thing they had so often seen Jesus do when he walked the roads alongside them – they brought it all to God in prayer. It’s been lost in the mists of time now who took the lead in the prayer, but they all added their voices and it went something like this:

“Lord God who rules all things, you made heaven, earth, sea and every creature that inhabits them. Through David the prophet you commented on the nations of earth, how they rage and plot, but all to no avail; how the kings and rulers of the earth line up together against you and your anointed Messiah. We saw it when Herod and Pontius Pilate teamed up with Gentiles and Jewish people to conspire against your holy servant, Jesus, whom you anointed. They thought they were acting by their own will. But in fact all they were actually doing was carrying out the plan that your power and intention and prior knowledge had already determined on. And now they’re at it again! So, Lord, take note of the warnings they’ve issued and in the face of those threats embolden us, your servants, to speak what you tell us with fearlessness and confidence. Reach out through us and do even more incredible signs and supernatural deeds through the name of your holy son and servant, Jesus.”

If the rulers and scholars who made up the court officials could have heard this prayer, they would have been astonished and probably pretty unnerved, too. No doubt they hoped that, for all their bold words in the court room, Peter and John would have found being arrested a sobering experience, and would have limped home to lick their wounds. How little they understood the Holy Spirit’s enabling power.

And as if to underline that, no sooner had the words of the disciples’ prayer died away than the entire meeting place was shaken, the power of God vibrating powerfully through it. And once again, the disciples found themselves filled and overflowing with the Holy Spirit, and they went out and started boldly announcing whatever God gave them to say.

Acts 4. 5-22

There was quite a gathering when Peter and John were brought out from the cells next morning – rulers of the people, elders, teachers of the law, and the High Priest, Ananias himself, together with the senior men from his family. Some of the faces bore scarcely-concealed glee at the prospect of shutting down this new sect once and for all. Others displayed anger at what they perceived as a threat to their authority. No doubt others felt a genuine fascination or curiosity at what had occurred.

The questioning opened with, “By what power, or in whose name did you do this?”

Peter, calm and at peace with himself in a way that can only come from knowing that the Holy Spirit is giving you the words to speak, replied, “Who would have thought that an act of kindness towards a disabled man would have been a matter for being brought before a court of law! Still, since that’s the way it is, let me make this clear to you and all my fellow Israelites, it’s by the name of Jesus the Messiah from Nazareth – the one whom you crucified but God raised from the dead – that this man stands in front of you completely healed of his disability.”

There were some indignant snorts and some uncomfortable shuffling from the assembled court. “You could say,” he continued, “that the stone you builders tossed scornfully aside as useless has become the most important cornerstone.”

Impervious to the indignation on the faces that confronted him, Peter carried on, “I’m telling you, salvation and wholeness won’t be found in anyone else. There isn’t any other name anywhere under heaven that’s been given to humanity for our salvation and wholeness except this name.”

The indignation and anger now began to give way to astonishment. These learned experts in the law recognised that they were facing ordinary unschooled peasants in Peter and John, and yet their courage was quite extraordinary. They couldn’t help but see the connection between this and the fact that they had been keeping company with Jesus. And if they’d just been confronting a new idea or philosophy, they with all their learning could have torn them to shreds. But the fact was, there was a congenitally disabled man standing in front of them completely cured and they could hardly argue with that! So they sent Peter and John out of the courtroom while they held a discussion among themselves.

“What on earth do we do about this?” they pondered. “Everyone in Jerusalem knows about it by now. These men have done an outstanding miracle, and it’s pointless to try and deny it. The most we can do is suppress it so these ideas don’t spread any further. We must ban them from speaking to anyone in this name from now on.”

So they summoned Peter and John again and delivered the verdict of the court, that they were banned from now on from doing any teaching or speaking in the name of Jesus. But, court verdict or no, Peter and John didn’t just take it lying down.  They responded, “You make up your own minds what God would really want us to do when the choice is to obey either you or Him. Because we know what we’ve seen and heard with our own eyes and ears, and we can’t help telling people about it.”

Such defiance was certainly not the response the court had expected, but nor was there a lot they could do about it. There would have been a backlash if they had punished the men for doing what everybody in the city perceived as an act of kindness. In fact, it was so indisputably a miracle, that the entire population was giving praise to God for it. After all, this man had been disabled from birth and was now over forty years old. It wasn’t as if he had just got better naturally, it had clearly been a supernatural event.