According to recent stats, religious affiliation is on the wane and autonomy is on the rise. Of course, these things are proportionally related, for as people increasingly adopt the dogma that above us is only sky, they begin to see themselves (either individually or collectively) as the ultimate source of authority. In such a world, there can be no ultimate standard for truth, goodness, or beauty, but only subjective preferences, which is why many have come to believe in our day that there is no such thing as objective morality, that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and that truth is relative.
Recently, I had the opportunity to visit the Saint Louis Art Museum with two of my college-aged kids, and at one point on our tour we found ourselves in the modern art section, staring at extremely large, glossy gray panels. It was at this point that I began to impersonate a pretentious art critic who was trying to explain the significance of these amazing works of art. “Because these panels are glossy and reflective,” my character suggested—complete with a pretentious English accent, mind you— “you, the viewer, can see your own reflection within the gray, and thus ‘you’ become the art!” But to our surprise, what I said in jest actually ended up being the gist of the explanation written on the wall next to these panels.
Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat provides a similar example. As the musical begins, the narrator sings:
We all dream a lot. some are lucky, some are not. But if you think it, want it, dream it, then it’s real. You are what you feel. But all that I say, can be told another way, in the story of a boy whose dreams came true. And he could be you.
You’ll notice that in this version of the Joseph story we’re not confronted at all with a historical or theological drama that points to God’s providential care and oversight of his people. Rather, it’s actually just another glossy panel for us to look through, so that we can gaze on our own reflections. At the end of the day, the story is not actually about Joseph at all, but what we can accomplish if we think it, want it, or dream it. History is always difficult to wade through, because there are so many foreign names, places, and concepts to wrestle with. But Andrew Lloyd Webber has found a way to keep us interested, since in his version of this classic tale, we are at the center. All this I think illustrates the basic outlook of our contemporary secular culture. We have become turned in on ourselves. To borrow the words of a famous political speech from a few years back, “We are the ones that we’ve been waiting for.”
Now, before we Christians start patting ourselves on the back for being on the right side of these issues, since we believe in God and submit to his lordship, we need to ask ourselves whether we too have bought into many of the beliefs and assumptions of our contemporary culture. Think about it for a moment. How different really is a typical sermon or Sunday school lesson about a character such as Joseph from what is presented in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat? In countless churches today, Christians are encouraged to treat the Bible as a reflective panel, so that they too can dream great big dreams for God, like Joseph, or even “dare to be a Daniel.”
These examples make it clear that the problem is not merely out there in our increasingly secular culture. No, the problem is also right here at home in countless secularized versions of American Christianity. This means that we need to compare these popular beliefs and ideas, regardless of the source, with the clear teachings of Scripture, in order to make sure that we do not succumb to the effects of what some refer to as a “narcissism epidemic.”
One way to defend yourself against this outbreak is to pay close attention to the words we find in Numbers 27:17. This is the scene in which Moses asks God to “appoint a man over the congregation . . . who shall lead them out and bring them in, that the congregation of the Lord may not be as sheep that have no shepherd.” This is the antidote to our collective narcissism, since narcissism itself is the ultimate expression of self-preoccupation, self-love, self-rule, and perhaps we can even say, self-worship. We are all curved in on ourselves, and frankly, we like it that way. Because of sin, “all we like sheep have gone astray; each of us has turned to his own way” (Isa. 53:6). In other words, this self-rule, this spirit of autonomy, is actually the source of our own destruction.
If you think about it, the entire Old Testament in one way or another attempts to grapple with this question of authority. In fact, the entrance of sin into the world itself was the result of man’s quest for autonomy. Rather than submit to the voice of the one who had created all things, our first parents decided to go their own way by eating the forbidden fruit, because they wanted to be gods themselves. Similarly, in the days of Moses, the people sinned against God by “demanding the food they craved” (Ps. 78:18), rather than trusting in the provision of their gracious liberator and submitting to his lordship. And in the book of Judges, we’re specifically told that since there was no king in Israel, “everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 17:6).
But in Ezekiel 34:5, we’re given a glimpse of something amazing yet to come: “Because there was no shepherd,” we’re told, the sheep “were scattered . . . and they became food for all the wild beasts.” But in verses 15–16 of this prophecy, God announces to his people,
“I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I myself will make them lie down, declares the Lord God. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, and the fat and the strong I will destroy.”
It’s fascinating to reflect on the variety of passages throughout the Gospels that allude to this prophecy from Ezekiel 34. For when Jesus eventually arrives on the scene, he claims to be this divine shepherd-king whose mission is to rescue all the sheep that have been scattered, wounded, and lost. He’s the one who leaves the ninety-nine in order to seek out and restore the one lost sheep (Matt. 18:12); he’s the good Samaritan who finds us left for dead and binds up our wounds (Luke 10:29-37); and he’s the one at the end of all history who will separate the sheep and the goats (Matt. 25:32–33).
But the most striking parallel to the words of Ezekiel’s prophecy is found in John 10, in which Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (v. 11). You see, unlike all the false shepherds throughout Israel’s long history, Jesus didn’t come to steal or to divide, but rather to give. And what is it that he gives? It is his own life that he gives for the life of the world.
Recall the words of John the Baptist when he pointed to Jesus and said, “Behold the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” This is how our great shepherd leads his sheep beside the still waters and restores us. He was led like a lamb to the slaughter (Isa. 53:7)—in our place—so that goodness and mercy might follow us all the days of our lives, and so that we might dwell in the house of the Lord forever (Ps. 23:6).
But the story doesn’t end at Golgotha. Before he ascended into heaven, this same shepherd-king announced to his disciples:
“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” (Matt. 28:18–20)
So if Jesus has all authority, then we are called not to do whatever seems right in our own eyes, but rather to submit to his authority and to become his faithful subjects. But let’s be honest with ourselves for a moment. If you are anything like me, the words submission and subjection are not always received with joy, and this is because we still like doing our own thing and going our own way. This should be seen as proof that the narcissism epidemic we witness all around us is not merely a problem out there in the secular world or over there in the evangelical subculture, but that we too are carriers of this virus.
As we reflect on the implications of Jesus’ words, it becomes clear that our Lord does not call us to make disciples of ourselves. Rather, we are called to be discipled by those who have been appointed as Christ’s under-shepherds. Though we bristle against this idea of submission, it’s actually part of God’s gracious plan, so that each of us can be guided in our faith and grow up to maturity in Christ, to the end that we would not be “tossed back and forth by every wind of doctrine” (Eph. 4:11–14).
A helpful analogy to think about is the way we typically submit to the instructions of a physician when we have a particular health concern. A doctor might give you a prescription for a medication you’ve never heard of before, and he or she might also insist that you completely avoid sugar in your diet. In some extreme cases, you might even be told to report to the hospital immediately for surgery. When it comes to all these bodily concerns, we seem to understand that submitting to the doctor’s orders is in fact a wise, good, and often necessary thing. So why should it be any different when it comes to the care of our souls?
At the end of the day, we are not sheep without a shepherd. Though we have all strayed from God like lost sheep, we have been rescued and brought safely back to our loving Father by the Good Shepherd. So what are we to do in response to this amazing news? Should we continue to go astray, each of us to his own way? No, we’re actually called to take his yoke upon us (Matt. 11:29) and to be “transformed by the renewing of [our] minds” (Rom. 12:2). We do this in part by submitting to Christ’s faithful under-shepherds (Heb. 13:17) who present to us the whole counsel of God (Acts 20:27), to the end that we may be thoroughly equipped (2 Tim. 3:17) and made to lie down in green pastures (Ps. 23:2).
Finally, we need to beware of all those in our contemporary culture—whether secular or Christian—who by smooth talk and flattery (Rom. 16:18) tell us what our itching ears long to hear (2 Tim. 4:3). At the end of the day, the Bible is not a reflective panel for us to gaze on our own reflections. This is not a story about what we can do with God’s help. Rather, it is the revelation of our true shepherd-king, Jesus Christ, who laid down his life for his sheep (John 5:39–40; 10:11). In him, our cup overflows (Ps. 23:5), so let us drink deeply from the living water that flows from his pierced side (John 4:10; 7:37; 19:34–37).
Shane Rosenthal, executive producer of White Horse Inn, is this year’s program host for the Gospel of John series.