4th Sunday of Easter – The Love of the Good Shepherd

The Good Shepherd stained glass window
at St. Charles Borromeo

“My sheep hear my voice;
I know them, and they follow me.”
(John 10:27)

Fr. Smith’s Commentary on the Second Reading
Good Shepherd Sunday
Rev. 7:9, 14b–17
May 8, 2022

Last week, we read the section of the Book of Revelations in which the Lamb of God ascended to heaven and was deemed worthy to open the seven seals of the scroll. Today, we read the passage immediately before the seventh seal was opened. In the two chapters between these two events, John the Seer has shown the great power of God revealed in the resurrection of Jesus the lamb. Remember that Revelation means “unveiling”—pulling aside those things which prevent us from seeing the truth. For John the Seer, the world is revealed as it is through the Resurrection. This, however, presents a problem. If Jesus has risen triumphantly, what about those who have followed him but have been persecuted even put to death. Where was the power of God for them?

Christians expected and should still expect that our beliefs will bring distress, but God will be with us. Daniel tells us:

At that time Michael, the great prince,
the protector of your people, shall arise.
There shall be a time of anguish,
such as has never occurred
since nations first came into existence.
But at that time your people shall be delivered,
everyone who is found written in the book.

(Da 12:1–2)

As we noted last week, our response must be based on worship. Revelations assumes the priority of worship, most particularly the Eucharist. So, we begin with praise. After a vision of Christians who had accepted salvation praising God. John has a vision

…of a great multitude, which no one could count,
from every nation, race, people, and tongue.
They stood before the throne and before the Lamb,
wearing white robes and holding palm branches in their hands.

(Re 7:9)

There follows a song of praise ending with “Who are these wearing white robes, and where did they come from?” (Re 7:13).

His answer is:

“These are the ones who have survived
the time of great distress;
they have washed their robes
and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.

(Re 7:14)

The great distress is Roman persecution. Survival here is not earthly life, they may very well have perished but they have preserved their integrity and remained faithful. Last week, we saw the ascension of Jesus into heaven from the heavens viewpoint. Today we are seeing disciples who have attained eternal glory entering heaven. Please note however that John the Seer acknowledges this as only a temporary position—what we call the immediate judgement—The book of Daniel tells us that there will be the kingdom of God when the faithful will reign on earth:

The kingship and dominion
and the greatness of the kingdoms
under the whole heaven
shall be given to the people
of the holy ones of the Most High;
their kingdom shall be an everlasting kingdom,
and all dominions shall serve and obey them.”

(Da 7:27)

(Note: Revelations 5:10 ‘you have made them to be a kingdom and priests serving our God and they will reign on earth’.)

Washing robes for ritual purity is important to Daniel as well: ‘Many shall be purified, cleansed, and refined’ (Da 12:10). The mysterious comment about being made white by the blood of the lamb reflects a Jewish belief that certain sacrifices could act as a cleanser. (Lev. 8:15)

Interesting here as well is “they have washed their robes.” Salvation comes from the death and resurrection of Jesus alone, but we show that we have remained faithful and have persevered by believing in the Good News, repenting of one’s sins, and accepting Baptism. John now shows the results of this faithfulness.

The first is the ability to worship God:

For this reason they stand before God’s throne
and worship him day and night in his temple

(Re 7:15)

Worship is not something we do for God, it is something which he allows us to do to attain our full humanity. John again reminds us that this has its fullness in heaven but has its foretaste in the Eucharist.

By this worship God will shelter his people the expression means that he ‘will spread one’s tent” therefore he will dwell with them:

The one who sits on the throne will shelter them.

(Re 7:15)

Let us turn again to Ezekiel:

I will make a covenant of peace with them;
it shall be an everlasting covenant with them;
and I will bless them and multiply them
and will set my sanctuary among them forevermore.
My dwelling place shall be with them;
and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.
Then the nations shall know that
I the LORD sanctify Israel,
when my sanctuary is among them forevermore.

(Eze 37:26–28)

God’s providence is practical and the references to the pains of the pre-modern world obvious.

They will not hunger or thirst anymore,
nor will the sun or any heat strike them.

(Re 7:16)

As we see in Isaiah this would not have been unexpected:

they shall not hunger or thirst,
neither scorching wind nor sun shall strike them down,
for he who has pity on them will lead them,
and by springs of water will guide them.

(Is 49:1)

However powerful the poetry, John does not lose his way and returns to this central insight: it is the resurrected Jesus who provides the key to understanding the world.

For the Lamb who is in the center of the throne
will shepherd them and
lead them to springs of life-giving water

(Re 7:17)

We most identify the image of shepherd with the 23rd Psalm and the Good Shepherd of John’s Gospel, but it is found powerfully in Ezekiel:

I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David,
and he shall feed them:
he shall feed them and be their shepherd.
And I, the LORD, will be their God,
and my servant David shall be prince among them;
I, the LORD, have spoken.

(Eze 34:23–24)

The image of shepherd invokes great tenderness and here John uses it to express God’s desire to heal us of all wounds including the psychological and spiritual:

and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.

(Re 7:17)

Reflecting Isaiah:

Then the Lord GOD will wipe away the tears from all faces,
and the disgrace of his people
he will take away from all the earth,

(Is 25:8)

The effect of the Book of Revelations depends on its imagery. It is instructive that we read this passage on the fourth Sunday of Easter. It is often called Good Shepherd Sunday and the image is used extensively and effectively. The Gospel and Psalm show the love and vulnerability of the Good Shepherd. The Book of Revelations, which we must remember quotes extensively from the Old Testament, shows that that love was so great that the Shepherd becomes the sheep.

This love is so great that the lamb overwhelms all the other forces on, under, or over the earth. However powerful they are, and we will see some truly frightening creatures as we continue, they bow before the lamb who was raised and who alone can raise us from the dead.