Jesus promises abundant life for those who come to Him. That sounds immensely attractive, doesn’t it? But, what exactly is abundant life?
The answer to this question is often debated. I was asked this very question by Wendall Jones on the JCN program, The Platform. At the time, I answered Wendall Jones by saying, “Christ-likeness”.
I’m not sure that I like the precision of my own answer. Becoming like Christ is the outcome of abundant life. But I don’t think I should have equated the two. It would have been more accurate for me to say that the one leads to the other.
What then is abundant life?
Some take this promise to mean that if we are obedient to Christ, He will shower us with material blessings. Some equate abundant life with having an abundance of wealth, and freedom from hardship. In theological circles, we call this “The Prosperity Gospel”. The Prosperity Gospel promises health, wealth, and prosperity in this life and the next. But is that an accurate rendering of John 10, verse 10?
I think the problem of interpretation can largely be attributed to people detaching John 10:10 from the rest of the chapter. Isolate Jesus’ declaration, and here is what you have: “I have come that they may have life, and have it in abundance.”
Detached from the rest of the chapter, I can begin to see how a “prosperity gospel” might emerge. However, within the context of the rest of the chapter, abundant life looks very differently. So the context is what? The context is Jesus using the metaphor of shepherding sheep to describe His relationship with us.
Jesus explicitly says, “I am the good shepherd” (John 10:11). Abundant life must be understood in relation to the metaphor of our being sheep and Jesus being the Good Shepherd.
If this is true, where else do you think we might look, in order to better understand the meaning of abundant life? If abundant life is promised within the context of the shepherd/sheep relationship, then could it be the case that the best picture of abundant life is provided within the 23rd Psalm?
Let’s take some time to examine this familiar Psalm, and I’m confident that we will find here many of the necessary ingredients of abundant living. If you asked me to provide a general answer—if you asked me to summarize abundant life based on this Psalm, I would say this: Abundant life is the abiding contentment that comes from our relationship with the Lord.
The whole Psalm is a picture of this, but the first verse says this explicitly: “The Lord is my Shepherd; I shall not want” (23:1). In relationship to the Good Shepherd, we’re not in need. We have enough. We are satisfied. We are content.
As we read on in Psalm 23, what we find are the ingredients of this contentment and a more thorough description of an abundant life.
Looking at verse 2, the first ingredient of abundant life is to have a restful soul. “He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: He leadeth me beside the still waters, He restoreth my soul” (23:2,3).
It is my understanding that sheep do not lie down easily. Sheep tend to be too nervous and too anxious to lie down. In order for sheep to lie down they need to be free from fear, aggravation, and hunger (Boice, John, 749). This is what the Good Shepherd provides. In the company of their guardian, the sheep feel safe and at ease to lie down. The first ingredient of abundant life is to have a restful soul.
The second ingredient of abundant life is to have sufficient guidance. “He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake” (23:3). It is a well known fact that sheep like to wander. Unfortunately, sheep tend to get into trouble when they wander. They make themselves vulnerable to predators, and sometimes they unwittingly wander away from where food and water can be found. Sheep need to be led. Sheep need a shepherd who will keep them in close proximity to water, and lead them to safe grazing areas.
It’s not hard to read ourselves into the metaphor, is it? We are, as the hymn says, “prone to wander”, and when we wander, we tend to get into difficulties. Accordingly, the second ingredient of abundant life is to have sufficient guidance.
The third ingredient of abundant life (my favourite) is to have steadfast companionship. “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me” (23:4).
Abundant life does not mean an absence of trouble. Psalm 23 is filled with trouble—there is the valley of the shadow of death, and there are enemies. Life is not easy. Harm may befall us and those we love. This is the harsh reality that many of us know all too well. But the promise of Scripture is that the Good Shepherd will never, ever, ever, leave His sheep. In the midst of life’s most difficult trials, the Good Shepherd stays with His sheep—“Thy rod and Thy staff they comfort me.”
I want that for each of you. When trials come your way, I want you to know the comfort and strength that comes from having a relationship with the Good Shepherd. It is an profound experience to have God at your side amid adversity. This is the 3rd ingredient of abundant life: steadfast companionship.
The fourth ingredient of abundant life is closely related to the 3rd. The 4th ingredient is to have ample provision. The Greek word for “abundance” actually has a mathematical meaning, and generally denotes a surplus. And you might know that the English word “abundance” comes from two Latin words “ab” and “undare”, which means “to rise in waves” and “to overflow” (Boice, John, 748).
Sound familiar? “Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over” (23:5).
Here the image transitions to that of a dinner host. And what is provided by the Lord is described in terms of a 1st class host. Nothing can deter the host from providing for His guest. No event or circumstance will compel Him to reschedule. Accordingly, the table is prepared even in the presence of enemies.
The reference to oil is also noteworthy. In ancient times oil was commonly applied to one’s head/face for its soothing qualities and its capacity to make a person feel refreshed. And the cup which is offered does not come from a stingy host. This is a cup which is overflowing. So you see, the Good Shepherd accompanies His sheep in trouble, not simply as a Comforter, but as a Provider.
The Psalm pictures the Good Shepherd as giving more than bare necessity. The Good Shepherd is marked by lavish generosity. In His presence, our “cup runneth over”. Those who engage the Good Shepherd in a relationship experience ample provision.
The fifth, and final, ingredient described in Psalm 23 is the promise of a heavenly home. “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever” (23:6).
The abundant life Jesus offers affects the here and now. We can have a restful soul today. We can receive guidance from the Lord today. We can experience His steadfast companionship in life’s most challenging seasons. We can experience the generous provision of the Lord in this life.
But it is also important to bear in mind that the abundance offered by the Lord to His people is forever. Moreover, the abundance we experience in heaven will be vastly superior to the abundance we experience on earth.
I want to leave you with a description of our heavenly home from the Book of Revelation, chapter 7, verses 16 and 17. This promise applies to the sheep who answer the call of the Good Shepherd.
Never again will they hunger;
Never again will they thirst.
The sun will not beat upon them,
Nor any scorching heat.
For the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd;
He will lead them to springs of living water.
And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.
Friends, you likely realize that multiple voices are calling for you. The world beckons you, with all of her temptations and responsibilities. I want to remind you that the Good Shepherd is also calling for you…and if you follow, you will experience what can best be described as abundant life.