I wrote this for Through the Roof (www.throughtheroof.org) 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.