As a child at the movies, I always wondered what happened after the final embrace. Where did the drifter go after he rode off into the sunset? What does the bad guy in jail do for the rest of his life? Movie endings are often so good that if we imagine the next scene, there is bound to be a letdown. Did the young couple set up a household, pay bills, send their kids to school? Did the drifter stop drifting and settle into middle class life? Would the prisoner learn to cooperate with his warden? After the buildup of the story, the increasing tension, and the height of the conflict, the end comes with no potential for anything more.
One could think it would be the same for the death, the resurrection, and the ascension of Jesus Christ. How could anything be added to that dramatic pinnacle? After a long, long wait, Jesus came to die and be raised up. “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law…” (Galatians 4:4) “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things…” (Hebrews 1:1-2) Indeed, in one critically important sense, Christ’s work is finished. He appeared “once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself, and after that comes the judgment.” (Hebrews 9:26) What comes next, except the end of the world?
It so happens that there is something that comes after the dramatic events of Holy Week. Consider the poignant moment after Jesus’s resurrection and before his ascension when he met with Peter. Peter had lost his nerve on the eve of the crucifixion and denied his master three times. From the bold defender of Jesus, who drew his sword against the assailant in the garden, he sank to the level of a spineless onlooker. In that dark moment, he remembered Jesus’s prediction that before the rooster had crowed three times, Peter would deny him. Against his brave protestations a few hours before, he did exactly that. Stung badly, now he could only weep bitterly and withdraw (Matthew 26:75).
But there is more.
In the greatest reversal of all history, Jesus rose from the dead. The defining moment in the redemption of the world had occurred. And then? Did the curtain close? No. In one way, the story is just beginning. The risen Christ began to appear to his disciples with an urgent message for them: Go into the nations and make disciples (Matthew 28:19). Through them, God would be gathering his people from every corner of the earth.
What about Peter? Suddenly, there they were, face to face (John 21:15-19). This had to be the most difficult moment in Peter’s life. If you have ever had to face an angry parent or a stern teacher after doing some misdeed, you’ll know something of his discomfort. This was the Lord himself, creator of heaven and earth, and also a friend, even a close friend. Peter had turned his back on his dear friend.
Instead of confronting Peter with a stern admonition, the Lord asked him three times, “Do you love me?” Though no doubt relieved that he was not scolded, or worse, cut off from the relationship, Peter was no doubt hurt by this interrogation. You can sense his frustration. Why did Jesus have to ask him three times, when he knew even without asking how Peter really felt? Jesus wanted to make this point, “Feed my sheep.” A task lay ahead, so urgent, so vital, that the command had to be made three times. Peter was restored, but more importantly, he had a task: to care for the flock.
A pastor of mine years ago liked to point out that being called a sheep is not exactly a compliment. Sheep are stubborn, not very clever, and prone to wander or to follow usurpers. Those sentimental stained glass images of a pale, long-haired Jesus carrying a little lamb in his arms have little to do with the hard reality: we are difficult to manage. And yet, over and again, the Lord likens himself to a shepherd, the Good Shepherd, who lays down his life for his sheep (John 10:15). And because the Lord is our shepherd, we shall not want (Psalm 23:1). But he also works through his under-shepherds.
As everyone in the ancient world would know, the welfare of the flock is in the hands of its leaders. By the time of his first letter, Peter had learned this lesson well. “So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: shepherd the flock of God that is among you…” (1 Peter 5:1-2) Christ’s delegated leaders are under-shepherds, who eagerly exercise oversight over the flock (v. 2).
Who are the sheep? Where is this flock? Peter addresses this letter to the “elect exiles of the dispersion” (1:1). No longer in one land, God’s people are scattered in the diaspora. Today they are dispersed all over the globe. Some are free, others are persecuted. Some are comfortable, others poor. Some are powerful, others weak. On balance, the ordinary outnumber the extraordinary. The apostle Paul reminds the boastful Corinthians that “not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth” (1 Corinthians 1:26). This is partly by design, so that Christians could not be accused of elitism.
The great painter Rembrandt captured this in his paintings of subjects who, like himself, were often plain, average people, the ones God loves. Art historian Robert Hughes calls Rembrandt “a singular connoisseur of ordinariness.” Whereas other artists might have depicted heavenly themes breaking in to the earthly, Rembrandt approached it the other way. “Nor did he ever treat the human form as a means of escape from the disorder and episodic ugliness of the real world. Reality was always breaking into celestial events. How many other painters of his time would have been likely to show the soles of the bare feet of an angel as it flies up and away from the family of Tobit?”
What is lacking in status is made up for in numbers. Christian believers are in every place and in every station. The Christian faith today is the most universal, and the most diverse, of all the religions. How has this come about? The ultimate, behind-the-scenes answer is the work of the Holy Spirit. Again to the Corinthians, Paul explains that while he planted and Apollos watered, “God gave the growth” (1 Corinthians. 3:6). Nevertheless, there is an indispensible role for the work of evangelists and pastors—those shepherds entrusted with the care of the flock. That is actually what the term “pastor” means.
When the Lord made his impassioned plea to Peter, perhaps no one at the time could have imagined the extent of the spread of the Christian message in the centuries to follow. The Gospel was to be proclaimed to the end of the earth (Acts 1:8; 13:47). Paul told the Colossians that the Gospel was growing and bearing fruit to the whole world (Colossians 1:6). Twenty-one centuries later, we understand that earth to be astonishingly vast, and the reach of the Gospel staggers the imagination. Without a doubt, the bulk of today’s growth is in the Global South. At the time of Christ, virtually all Christians were Southern. Gradually, the Christian faith became more Northern, so that by 1500, 92 percent of Christians were from the North (particularly Europe). That number then dropped to 83 percent by 1900. Today, more than 100 years later, over 75 percent of Christians live in the Global South. In Africa alone, the number has risen from 9.3 percent of the population in 1910 to 48.3 percent in 2010.
Such numbers do not tell the full story, by any means. Believers in the South live in many different conditions. We have visited the House Churches of China, where believers live under considerable duress. We have also been to Indonesia, where the 10 percent Christian minority in this predominantly Muslim country enjoy considerable freedom, yet they must learn to live with those with whom they differ deeply. We have been to parts of Africa where Christians are extremely poor, and yet their faith is vital. And although Christianity in Europe and North America is on the decline, even in these places we see significant signs of resurgence.
What is striking and encouraging when we see this kind of worldwide growth is the way followers of Christ are living out Kingdom principles in their citizenship and in every kind of vocation. In Africa, believers are learning how to respond to issues relating to the church and the state. In Southeast Asia, many are facing the challenge of engaging in business and industry to the glory of God. In Europe, they are wrestling with questions such as immigration policy and making principled pluralism work. Only when Jesus’s sheep are fed with a full-orbed gospel, one that goes beyond the conversion of the soul, can there truly be an advancement of the cause of the Resurrected One, after the end!
- William Edgar is Professor of Apologetics at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia.