The Good Shepherd

The Good Shepherd

As we turn to this morning’s passage, I’d like to say a few words about its setting: In chapter 9 of John, Jesus healed a man who was born blind, much to the chagrin of some Pharisees, religious leaders at the time who were characterized by a strict observance of the law of Moses. This man had been reduced to the life of a beggar because of his blindness. Jesus’ disciples had even asked whether his blindness was due to him or his parents’ sinning and Jesus gave the remarkable answer that this blindness was for the glory of God—and he went on to heal the man. When he did so, the Pharisees questioned the man—then his parents—then the man again, demanding to know who had healed him and how. The formerly blind man, in utter frustration, ends up asking the Pharisees whether they want to become Jesus’ disciples, at which point they claim to follow Moses and throw the man out of the synagogue—the Jewish house of worship. Jesus later comes upon the man and he ends up adding spiritual sight to his physical sight as the man acknowledges Jesus as his Lord and Savior and worships him. Approvingly Jesus states “For judgment I have come into this world, so that the blind will see and those who see will become blind” (39). When questioned by the Pharisees who were listening whether they, too, are blind, Jesus replies “If you were blind, you would not be guilty of sin; but now that you claim you can see, your guilt remains” (41).

So as we begin chapter 10 in the Gospel of John, part of what is happening is that Jesus’ authority is being questioned by some of the religious leaders of the day. And the chapter opens with his addressing and giving them a lesson about, of all things, shepherds and sheep. Isn’t this an odd way to address people who are questioning your authority??? What in the world do shepherd and sheep have to do with power and authority???

Well, Jesus’ first point right at the start of the chapter is (v. 1): The shepherd enters the pen of the sheep by means of the gate. Any one who enters in by any other way is a thief and robber. The sheep will only listen to the voice of the shepherd and will follow him but flee from a stranger. In effect these strangers are nothing more than thieves and robbers.

So what might Jesus be getting at? In what way is someone who hops the sheeps’s fence to get into their pen a thief and a robber? Well, I wondered the same thing so I looked up the definition of “thief” and “robber.” Do you know what the difference is? I do. Well, now that I’ve looked them up I do! They’re not merely synonyms. A thief is someone who steals another’s property by stealth, without using force or violence. A robber, on the other hand, is someone who takes another person’s property unlawfully by force or threat of force. And we’re told that the Pharisees don’t get it—they didn’t understand what Jesus was telling them. And I confess that I don’t fully blame them. Again, What does Jesus’ authority have to do with shepherds and sheep, after all? And why bring thieves and robbers into the picture? Well, hold that thought!

Jesus moves on to his second point (in v. 7): He is the gate of the sheep and all who came before him—false prophets and teachers, including the Pharisees in his audience—are thieves and robbers. And again he states that the sheep—the true followers of God and Christ—haven’t listened to them. Jesus is the gate, the means of salvation, and he will provide a pasture—green grass, food—for his sheep. In contrast the thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. But Jesus comes to provide life and not only life but full life. With these words Jesus is beginning to connect the dots between false religious authority and true authority. False religious authority is harmful to us—it kills and destroys us; true religious authority takes care of us. It not only provides us with life, but it provides us with life to the full.

Jesus continues to build on this with his third point (v. 11): Jesus is the Good Shepherd—and he lays down his life for his sheep. Does it strike you as a little odd that Jesus would refer to himself as the Good Shepherd???? Why “good”? Aren’t all shepherds, these caretakers of innocent sheep, good? Now as I imagine is true for many of you, I not only have never been to Israel but I’ve also never witnessed a shepherd shepherding sheep firsthand. However, I have a friend who has. He is an archaeologist who regularly conducts digs in Israel and has also witnessed the behavior of shepherds with their sheep. One day he and I were talking about shepherds and I, being a naïve animal lover, was speaking in a sentimental manner about shepherds and their universal love for their sheep and how wonderful it was that Jesus refers to himself as our shepherd. My friend looked at me with a mischievous smile and asked if I had ever seen a shepherd tending sheep. “Well, no” I admitted. I hadn’t. He then went on to disabuse me of all of my high notions of the “shepherd–sheep” relationship. He told me that shepherds can be mean. Uncooperative sheep can drive a shepherd to yell at them—and kick them—and spit on them—and beat them with his staff—and throw stones at them. “Oh dear,” I thought. “Then how are we to understand Jesus, our Savior and Lord, as shepherd????”

Well, Jesus helps us out here. He describes himself not only as a shepherd, but as a good shepherd in verse 11. He then goes on to define this. A good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep. Unlike the hired hand who doesn’t actually own the sheep and, consequently, abandons them when faced with danger—a wolf attacking and scattering the flock, for instance—Jesus, the good shepherd knows his sheep—and they know him. The hired hand is in it for the money; Jesus is in it for the love of his sheep.

What is more, Jesus goes on to make the astonishing claim that the connection between him and his sheep is as strong as the connection between him and his heavenly Father. Think about this. Scripture tells us that Jesus and his Father are one. This is so much the case that later in Chapter 14 of John, he tells Philip that if he has seen him—Jesus—he has seen the Father. And in John 10 he is telling us not only that he and the Father are one, but also that he is one with his sheep. Jesus lays down his life for the sheep. Isn’t this marvelous? If we know Jesus, he loves us so much that we are actually one with him.

Do you remember the account of Paul’s conversion in Acts 9? The risen Jesus Christ appears to Paul—Saul at the time—who had been persecuting Christians and he doesn’t say: “Saul, why are you persecuting my followers?” No, what he says is “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” If we know Jesus Christ then how people treat us is a reflection of how they treat him. This is how strongly he identifies with his followers. He had said the very same thing before his resurrection from the dead, as he taught his disciples that whenever they clothed the naked, or visited the sick, or those in prison, they were clothing him—and visiting him.

He then goes on to say that there are other sheep that aren’t of this pasture that he must also bring in. What is he talking about here? Who are these other sheep that must be brought in? Now in our age of tolerance that wants to argue that all paths lead to God; that it doesn’t matter whether you believe in Jesus or Allah or have no belief in God or gods, some have suggested that in these words of Jesus—that there are “other sheep that are not of this sheep pen”—we have support for religious universalism, the notion that any understanding of God we have will be acceptable before him. Yet as we’ve been considering this morning, the thrust of this passage is just the opposite since it keeps re-stating the fact that Jesus is the gate and any who attempt to enter his fold by any other means are, ultimately, thieves and robbers. So if the “other sheep” statement isn’t one of confirming whatever belief one has, then who are these sheep that are not yet of his pasture?

We need to remember that Jesus was a Jewish religious leader, a teacher and interpreter of the Scriptures which, at the time, would have been comprised of only the Old Testament, the Hebrew Bible. At this point in his life Jesus has come first to the Jewish believers of his day in fulfillment of all of the Old Testament prophecies about the coming of Messiah which he was. But ultimately he has come not only to save them but also to save the other sheep—the Gentiles or non-Jewish people—who, at the time when Jesus is being challenged as a leader of Jewish believers, were not yet part of his fold. These are the “other sheep” to which he is referring.

Jesus goes on to state that at the end of the day, there will be one shepherd—Jesus Christ—and one flock, comprised of Jews and Gentiles. And what will unite them isn’t that they believe in whatever God they choose, but that they believe in him, the one true Shepherd. And for these Jesus will lay down—and take back. This is what his heavenly Father loves, authorizes, and even commands him. Yet because he and the Father are one, Jesus can also say that no one takes his life from him but he does it of his own accord, of his own will for he and his heavenly Father, along with the Holy Spirit who is to come, are in complete agreement for God is One.

At this point, the Jews who have been listening become divided, some claiming that Jesus must be mad or possessed by a demon; but others point to his healing the man who was blind from birth, mentioned in the previous chapter, and observe—rightly—that a demon would never do such a thing.

Well next we find Jesus at the Feast of Dedication—or Hanukkah—and the Jewish leaders flat out ask Jesus if he is the Messiah. Jesus’ reply is—basically—that this is what he has been telling them but they simply haven’t believed him because they are not his sheep. Jesus’ deeds—done in the Father’s name—support his words. But, unlike his sheep who do believe him and his deeds, these leaders do not believe him because they are not his sheep. Jesus’ sheep listen to him because they know his voice and he knows them and they follow him. And here’s the wonder: to his sheep Jesus gives eternal life which means that they will never perish. No one will snatch them from his hand. What is more, this is all in agreement with his heavenly Father, who is greater than all and has given him his sheep so that no one can snatch these sheep from the Father’s hand either. And, in case they missed it, he reiterates the fact that he and the Father are one.

It is at this point that Jesus’ opponents again pick up stones to stone him and he challenges them by asking why they do so since he has shown them many good works from the Father. Their reply? He’s being stoned not for the works but for his words—because he, a mere man, is claiming to be God. When I read the “again” in verse 31, I did a search for when the previous time they picked up stones to stone him was and I found it in Chapter 8:58 of John when Jesus states “before Abraham was born, I am!” And this statement similarly is followed by At this, they picked up stones to stone him.”

So why the stones? What has Jesus said that makes him worthy of death by stoning? What these two instances have in common is that Jesus, by his words, is equating himself with God. Believing Jews would have lived by the shema, a statement of faith found in Deuteronomy 6:4: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One.”

I’m always amazed when people suggest that Jesus never claimed he was God. That wasn’t how Jewish believers in his day heard him. Here we have two instances that to them clearly are statements of blasphemy—of equating himself with God. By stating that he and the Father are one and that he existed before Abraham, Jesus deserved to be stoned because such declarations, in their eyes, constituted a challenge to the oneness of God.

Make no mistake: Jesus knew exactly what he was doing. He knew that stating that he and the Father are one was paramount, as the Jewish believers rightly understood, to claiming to be God. What is more, even in identifying himself as the Good Shepherd he was doing the very same thing. He knew the Hebrew Bible and he was counting on their knowledge of passages such as Ezekiel 34:1–6 which similarly indicted false teachers in Ezekiel’s time. Listen to the similarities between what Jesus has just taught and what Ezekiel said about 600 years before him:

1The word of the Lord came to me: “Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel; prophesy and say to them: ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: Woe to you shepherds of Israel who only take care of yourselves! Should not shepherds take care of the flock? You eat the curds, clothe yourselves with the wool and slaughter the choice animals, but you do not take care of the flock. You have not strengthened the weak or healed the sick or bound up the injured. You have not brought back the strays or searched for the lost. You have ruled them harshly and brutally. So they were scattered because there was no shepherd, and when they were scattered they became food for all the wild animals. My sheep wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill. They were scattered over the whole earth, and no one searched or looked for them.

Do you think the similarities between John 10 and Ezekiel 34 are a coincidence? In Ezekiel we have a clear statement of religious leaders in his day abandoning their responsibility to care for God’s people—rather than strengthen the weak or heal the sick or bound up the injured, they, too, ruled these sheep harshly and brutally. The leaders in Jesus’ days are doing just the same. Ezekiel tells us his words are from the LORD, from God. And so, too are Jesus’ words but in his case, he is not God’s prophet speaking to the religious leaders, but God himself, the Good Shepherd of his sheep. Positively, Jesus’ use of the Good Shepherd image also ties him to Psalm 23:1–3: “1The Lord [God] is my shepherd, I lack nothing. 2He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters, 3he refreshes my soul. He guides me along the right paths for his name’s sake.” Again, do you think these similarities are a coincidence? I don’t.

I began this morning by asking: What does Jesus’ authority have to do with shepherds and sheep? And why bring thieves and robbers into the picture? And I think now we have an answer. Jesus, who understood and interpreted Scripture better than anyone, has identified himself with the Lord—with God who made us; with God who desires to save us; with God who—because he has made us, owns us and takes care of us and desires us to be with him for all eternity. The thieves and robbers are those who seek to lead those whom God has made in his image astray. They are false leaders. They don’t have our best interests at heart. They will steal from us. Take advantage of us. They will try to convince us by stealth, as thieves do, that God—that Jesus—does not have our best interests at heart or that Jesus isn’t the only way to the heavenly Father. And, if that doesn’t work, they will try and lead us away from God—from Jesus—by force, as robbers do.

One of the prayer requests placed in the friendship pad last week was that we pray for Christians in El Salvador who are being violently persecuted for their faith. I think that this is a modern-day example of sheep whom robbers are seeking to steal away from Christ by force. And we should pray for Christ’s church around the world.

Our passage this morning reminds us that because we are all made in God’s image, we all, ultimately, belong to him. We should listen for Christ’s voice and follow him because he cares for us. He has laid down his life for us. He seeks to give us eternal life. He does not want for any of us to perish. And, if we belong to him, he promises us that no one, not even those who seek to convince us that other ways of believing are better for us, as thieves do; nor those who may even persecute and harm us, as robbers do—no one, for all eternity, will be able to snatch us from his or our heavenly Father’s hand.

But if we are believers this passage also reminds us not just of the first half of the law and the prophets—to love the Lord our God with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength—but also of the second half—to love our neighbor as ourselves. Believers are called to be like Christ. If Jesus identifies with us when we are persecuted or hurt, he also identifies with others who belong to him when they are persecuted or hurt. So we are to take care of one another and in doing so we can rest assured that we are taking care of him.

         How many times have we heard people say that the reason they have turned away from or rejected Christianity is because of the bad behavior of Christians? This morning’s passage challenges us to be people who care for those who have less than we—who care for those who are unable to care for themselves—those who are sick—those who are needy. In doing so we will be living life to the full and pointing others to the one who provides us with eternal life.

We have a choice—and really it seems like a no-brainer. Would we rather follow and be like those thieves and robbers who take advantage of others and do things for our benefit and their harm, or would we rather follow Christ? Jesus is a good Shepherd. He isn’t a mean shepherd; he isn’t an impatient shepherd; he isn’t a shepherd who doesn’t understand us. He is a compassionate shepherd. He is a shepherd who desires to feed us. He is a shepherd who desires to take care of us. He is a shepherd who desires to protect us from thieves who would steal from us by stealth and robbers who would harm us with their violent actions. But Jesus will never leave us or forsake us because he is good and has laid down his life for us.

And just as he is God and therefore eternal and one with our kind Father in heaven, he desires to be one with us and give us eternal life and when he does, no one, but no one can ever take his away from his eternal. In Romans 8:35 Paul asks this very question: “35Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?” And he answers his own question by stating that he is sure that “38neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

So if you are here this morning and you know Christ, be of good cheer. We can be confident that we are loved with an eternal love from our eternal Good Shepherd who will never let us go. If you are suffering or struggling or depressed, and wondering where this eternal love is and questioning whether this eternal love really exists, please let us know of your need. Let us, as Christ’s flock, figure out together how we might be able to help you in your need. Though believers, we are not spared the temporal effects of the Fall—we do still suffer and hurt—but we can know that these hurts will one day be healed in eternity and even now we can do our best to help each other out.

If you don’t know Christ, then I would encourage you to consider Jesus, this Good Shepherd, who seeks other sheep that are not yet his and who desires to give you the eternal love he shares with his Father in heaven; who desires that you become part of this one flock whose oneness is marked not by age or gender or marital status or wealth or power or race or any of the ways this world chooses friends, but by belonging to the Good Shepherd who has laid down his life for his sheep. I or one of the deacons or those who are available to pray after the service at the front of the sanctuary would be delighted to talk and pray with you.

Dear brothers and sisters, let us turn now to the Good Shepherd of our souls, Jesus Christ, in prayer. Please pray with me.

Laura Miguelez Quay

Leave a Reply