“…who His own self bear our sins in His own body on the tree,
that we, being dead to sins, should live unto righteousness,
by whose stripes ye were healed.” — I Peter 2:24
In this portion of the Epistle Lesson for “Good Shepherd Sunday,” Misericordias Domini, the second Sunday after Easter, the Apostle Peter points out the fact that, because Christ became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross (Philippians 2:8), lovingly and selflessly sacrificing Himself for our sins on the tree, laying down His very life in suffering and death to save us, He wants us, His redeemed sheep (I Peter 2:25), to heed His voice and to imitate lovingly and obediently the example He has set for us. Let us therefore consider also the verses of context before our title-text, as we examine our lives of righteousness as one of the blessed results of Christ’s passive obedience.
As the Apostle begins this loving exhortation, he first of all shows the motivation which impels the Savior’s sheep to follow in the footsteps of “the Shepherd and Bishop of [their] souls” (v. 25). We read in verse 21: “For even hereunto were ye called, because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that ye should follow His steps.” We are not to follow Jesus’ example out of compulsion, merely out of duty, or because of the threat of punishment; but the Apostle points instead to Jesus’ suffering in our place. Thankfully the holy Lenten season is not so far behind us already that we have perhaps forgotten or lost sight of the sacrifice He made for us in His bitter passion and death upon the cross! In His passive obedience (Philippians 2:8), our Savior permitted Himself to be mocked, spitefully entreated, spitted on, scourged, and slain on the tree of the cross (Luke 18:32-33). Moreover, according to Isaiah’s prophecy of His vicarious atonement (chapter 53),He permitted Himself to suffer all that woe in our place, as our Substitute. For it is His sacrifice of love, His love for us, that “constraineth us,” that forces us, to live as Christians, bringing forth the fruits of true and saving faith in our lives. “We love Him,” the Apostle John tells us, “because He first loved us” (I John 4:19). “Christ also suffered for us,” Peter reminds us, “…His own self bear[ing] our sins in His own body on the tree,” so that we should now “follow His steps, …liv[ing] unto righteousness.”
This is “the will of God, even [our] sanctification” (I Thessalonians 4:3), the renewing of our lives unto which we were “called” as Christians (v. 21), that we no longer “continue in sin” (Romans 6:1) but walk “as becometh saints” (Ephesians 5:3), following Jesus’ steps because He suffered for us. Being now “dead to sins” as the result of our Savior’s passive obedience, our title-text tells us, the will to avoid sin after the example of Jesus is worked in us by God Himself, the Bible reminds us, not by our own meritorious good intentions; for even St. Paul had to confess that, of himself, he could do “no good thing.” To the contrary, he writes to the Philippians, “it is God which worketh in you, both to will and to do of His good pleasure” (2:13).
Jesus’ example was, of course, perfect in every way; but, because of our flesh, even we Christians cannot follow it without stumbling often and falling flat on our spiritual faces. That is why our Good Shepherd is always standing by to pick us up, to forgive us time and time again, to restore our soul and to comfort us with His rod and staff (Psalm 23). But that is no reason to take His watchful eye for granted and to wander aimlessly about with careless abandon like sheep without a shepherd (cf. I Peter 2:25); for Jesus says: “My sheep hear My voice, …and they follow Me” (John 10:27).
But now, what “example” did our Good Shepherd leave us “in His steps,” in His passive obedience, to help us avoid and conquer our sins? “He did no sin,” writes the Apostle, “neither was guile [that is, deceit and treachery] found in His mouth. When He was reviled, [He] reviled not again; when He suffered, He threatened not.” Now, as the redeemed children of God by virtue of Christ’s passive obedience, and having been converted to faith in His merits and renewed by His Holy Spirit to “live unto righteousness,” we Christians, according to the New Man, truly want to be “dead to sins,” to avoid sins like a contagious plague, to steer clear of such abominations before God as deceit and treachery, sins of both the heart and the lip. And we are to follow the example of our Savior, particularly in His great passion, that we do not “revile” or mock those who mock us because of our faith, and that we do not “threaten” those who cause us to suffer for Jesus’ sake. For a vengeful spirit, a desire to “get even” with those who harm us —such a heart and spirit is not keeping its eye on the footsteps of the Good Shepherd and following them. Instead, such a heart insists on going its own way, “astray,” as we read in verse 25, following the vengeful impulses of the flesh!
Our Good Shepherd has “called” us (v. 21), that we, “being dead to sins, should…follow His steps,” crucifying the Old Adam in us by daily contrition and repentance, drowning him, yea, slaying him with all sins and evil lusts, as we confess with Luther in our Small Catechism (4th Chief Part). That is what is meant by being “dead to sins;” and that is what we have to be IF we are to follow in the steps of our Good Shepherd. May He enable every one of us, by His neverfailing mercy (Psalm 118:1) and the always-abundant sufficiency and strength of His precious grace (II Corinthians 12:9), so to “mortify,” to kill, our fleshly inclinations to sin (Romans 8:13), so that we are truly “dead to sins” as we look to Jesus as our perfect example, yea, “the Author and Finisher of our faith” (Hebrews 12:2), “by whose stripes [we] were healed!”
But we also see in the “steps” of our Good Shepherd —not what we should not do, but what we should be busy doing as His dear sheep. For our title-text shows us that our own goal, as we follow His example, is “that we…should live unto righteousness” —that we should be alive, living and active, always doing those things that are well-pleasing in His sight. St. Paul writes to the Corinthians: “He died for all, that they which live should not henceforth live unto themselves, but unto Him which died for them and rose again” (II Corinthians 5:15).
Let us briefly consider, first of all, the example of our Savior Himself in His passive obedience: During His great passion, which is summarized in the words of our title-text and its context, Jesus “committed Himself to Him that judgeth righteously” (v. 23). He did not seek vengeance against His enemies; He did not strike them all dead with but a word of His mouth, as well He could have; but He “committed Himself” to His heavenly Father’s keeping, saying, “Father, into Thy hands I commend My spirit” (Luke 23:46). For He knew that it was His Father’s will (and, of course, also His own will from eternity) to accomplish the reconciliation of the world unto Himself by the death of His Son (Romans 5:10). And thereby, God would “judge righteously,” imputing Christ’s righteousness to sinful men, so that they could stand righteous in His holy sight. By faith in His vicarious atonement, we have as our very own the remission of our sins which He paid for with His holy precious blood (passive obedience) and the righteousness He earned for every soul of man (active obedience; Romans 5:19b). —On the other hand, those who reject His righteousness, who would rather stand before God in their own righteousness of the Law, they, according to God “that judgeth righteously,” will have to bear the just punishment for their iniquities! For they prefer the justice of the Law to the mercy and grace of the Gospel (cf. Galatians 5:4)!
Now how should this example of our Good Shepherd affect us as we “follow His steps”? We too must commit ourselves “to Him that judgeth righteously” in two ways: First, by clinging in faith to Jesus, our Savior, that we may be accounted worthy to stand in the judgment of God (Luke 21:36), dressed not in our own sin-stained filthy-rags-righteousness (Isaiah 64:6), but in the blood and righteousness of Jesus, in “the garments of salvation” (Isaiah 61:10). For then, committing ourselves to our just and holy God, who punished Jesus for our offenses that we might go free, we have by faith the sure and certain hope of everlasting life in Him who “bare our sins in His own body on the tree, that we…should live unto righteousness,” healed by His stripes (Cf. also Isaiah 53:5).
And then secondly, as a fruit or result of that childlike faith in our Good Shepherd and His saving blood, we will cheerfully commit ourselves “to Him that judgeth righteously” also regarding any harm or persecution or tribulation that may come upon us for Jesus’ sake, so that, instead of reviling, threatening, murmuring and complaining about our lot as Christians, we can patiently endure chastenings, as God deals with us as with “sons” (Hebrews 12:7) — His adopted sons and daughters by faith in Jesus (Galatians 3:26) — and regard all such things as what they truly are: The sure testimony of God’s love to us, His children. “For whom the Lord loveth, He chasteneth,” the Bible tells us, “and scourgeth every son whom He receiveth. …Wherefore lift up the hands which hang down and the feeble knees, and make straight paths for your feet,” saith the Lord, “lest that which is lame be turned out of the way; but let it rather be healed” (Hebrews 12:6, 12-13). And how are we “healed,” both from the ravages and punishment of sin and from the grievous chastisements we bear as God’s children? “By [His] stripes ye were healed,” writes the Apostle Peter in our title-text, so that now we can, by His grace, follow in the footsteps of our Good Shepherd, making straight paths for our feet in the wilderness of this world, lifting our drooping hands and picking up our weak knees, to walk ever better in the paths of righteousness for His precious Name’s sake, “alive unto righteousness.” “For [we] were as sheep going astray, but are now returned to the Shepherd and Bishop of [our] souls.” Thus we can pray with all boldness and confidence:
Jesus, Lead Thou on
till our rest is won;
and, altho’ the way be cheerless,
we will follow, calm and fearless.
Guide us by Thy hand
to our fatherland.
Jesus, lead Thou on
till our rest is won;
faithful Shepherd, still direct us,
still support, control, protect us,
till we safely stand
in our fatherland.
(TLH 410, 1 & 4, adapted)
— D. T. M.