“I Am The Good Shepherd”
Over the last number of weeks we have been tracking the ministry of Jesus through the Gospel of John, and we have been surveying some of the ways Jesus identifies Himself to would-be followers.
Jesus has employed metaphors such as birth (3:3), water (4:10), and bread (6:35) to explain who He is, and what He has come to do. This pattern continues in chapter 10, where Jesus describes Himself as both "the door of the sheep" (10:7) and "the good shepherd" (10:14).
These would have been familiar images for those with whom Jesus was speaking. The people of Jesus’ day would have understood what was involved in herding sheep. Admittedly, we are less familiar with such an example, but we nonetheless understand that the goal of herding is to keep a group of animals together and to guide them in a particular direction.
Perhaps some of you recall the television commercial produced by a software company depicting cowboys herding ten thousand cats. Cat-owners, like myself, find the commercial highly amusing because we know how difficult it can be to persuade a single cat to go in a particular direction and we recognize, therefore, the impossibility of herding ten thousand cats.
I can think of something comparable in terms of its difficulty—guiding a large group of human beings in a particular direction. And yet, this is where Jesus is leading us with His metaphor. Just as a shepherd corrals and guides His sheep, Jesus promises to guide and protect all those who belong to Him.
As we consider these two metaphors employed by Jesus, we note that the sheep have two places of residence: the sheep pen and the pasture. In the sheep pen, the sheep are enclosed and protected from predators, and the wandering sheep are prevented from escaping. Yet, even though sheep are relatively safe in the sheep pen, my understanding is that sheep are most happy when they are eating in the open pasture.
As "the door of the sheep", Jesus claims to have some control over who comes in and who goes out. Jesus declares, "all who came before (Him) are thieves and robbers" (10:8). This is a bold declaration in that Jesus is making an exclusive claim about Himself. He is not claiming to be one of many doors, but the door into the pen. Jesus says, "I am the door; if anyone enters through Me, he shall be saved" (10:9).
Here, Jesus links His metaphor to salvation. Just as there is only one way for the sheep to enter their pen, there is only one way for you and I to be saved. We must enter through the door, and that door is Jesus Christ. And just as the sheep enter the pen to gain refuge from predators, so we enter through Christ to gain refuge from sin and evil.
Now, it is very interesting to carry this analogy through. We enter the pen through the door and are saved, but we don't remain in the pen as a kind of ‘holy huddle’. Jesus says we "shall go in and out" of the pen (10:9). Going in the pen makes sense—going in gains us refuge and protection. But why would we want to leave the pen? Jesus says that we leave to "(go) out and find pasture" (10:9). In other words, Jesus does not simply grant us salvation to keep us out of harm’s way—Jesus saves us in order to make us lie down in green pastures and to lead us beside quiet waters (Ps. 23:2).
Friends, what do you think of when you hear the promise of salvation? Some people imagine that salvation is something reserved for the future. But listen to Jesus' statement about salvation at the end of verse 10, "I came that they might have life, and might have it abundantly" (10:10).
Abundant life. Is that how you would describe Christianity to someone? Would you characterize your relationship with Jesus as the source of abundance in your life?
I fear that too many people imagine the Christian life to be a boring and rigid existence. I fear that some people imagine that life will be more fun if they are able to do as they please. That’s not what Jesus says.
Jesus promises not only new life, but also abundant life. I am thankful that there are times in my life where my experience confirms the truth of this statement. My personal experience is a bit of a pendulum swing—at first, I pursue my preferences; I wander; I set my own agenda only to find that I am less than satisfied. Less than fulfilled, I turn to Christ, bowing my heart before Him; I rededicate myself to His purposes. Inevitably, I find that when I do this I am satisfied.
Unfortunately, some people make the mistake of never entering through the door. Others make the mistake of entering through the door only to isolate themselves from the outside world. Jesus calls us to enter through Him for protection and deliverance from evil. But He also calls us to leave our pen to be fed in the pasture.
For some Christians, leaving the pen is scary. Jesus, with His next statement, intends to quell such fears. Jesus encourages the sheep to leave the security of the pen to find pasture, and then He comforts us by saying, "I am the good shepherd" and "the good shepherd lays down His life for the sheep" (10:11).
Jesus challenges us to leave, but He promises to go with us. He tells us to "find pasture", but He has every intention of leading us to that pasture. Like a shepherd that leads a flock to green pastures, Jesus is our Guide to abundant life.
How do we tap into this? What does it mean to have Jesus, "the good shepherd", accompany you in your daily life? To help me to better understand the role of Christ as my shepherd, I located a helpful resource that explained the responsibilities of a typical shepherd.
Written by a shepherd from New Zealand, this account begins by explaining how a shepherd is always well acquainted with the behaviour of his sheep. That is, the shepherd knows the tendencies of each sheep, he knows who likes to wander, he knows which ones are most concerned about eating, and he knows which ones are slow travelers.
To be a good shepherd then, one must be familiar with the sheep. Jesus says just that in verse 14: "I am the good shepherd; and I know My own, and My own know Me." It is comforting to recall that Jesus knows everything about us. He knows which of us like to wander. He knows which of us are prone to overindulge. And He knows which of us tend to fall behind the rest of the flock.
What I found particularly interesting in this account was the explanation of why the shepherd takes his time before pursuing the wandering sheep. He often lets them charge ahead up to a barren rock plateau. The shepherd allows the wandering sheep to go astray for a time because it is when the sheep are rescued from distress that they learn to more fully trust their shepherd.
Not only are sheep prone to wandering, but I also understand that sheep would much rather climb than descend—apparently this is their natural inclination. Yet, what sometimes is the case is that green pastures can only be found by descending to the bottom of a steep, rocky, path. And since sheep prefer not to descend, the shepherd labours to persuade the sheep to follow.
Could it be that, with the metaphor of sheep, Jesus is providing a fitting description of you and I?
We tire ourselves out by wandering away from Christ and by climbing for things that ultimately can't help us. And by making this comparison, Jesus means to teach us that everything we need can be ours if we only follow our Shepherd.
In the account written by the shepherd from New Zealand, there is an interesting contrast. The sheep that follow the shepherd get 3 good things: they get ample water to drink, they get abundant food to eat, and they get a quiet, safe, place to rest. The 3 good things the obedient sheep get are then contrasted with 3 things that happen to the wandering sheep. One wandering sheep is found limping along with a stick between her hooves. Another young sheep is found stuck in the thicket of a thorn bush. And yet another wandering sheep has fallen in a hole and is in great distress.
Now which sheep best describes you? Has your Christian development lagged behind because you have the figurative stick between your hooves? Have you been stalled in your faith because you went your own way and got trapped in a thorn bush? Have you mis-stepped in such a way that you can liken your situation to a sheep trapped in a hole?
Thankfully, this account ends with good news regarding the wandering sheep. The shepherd finds the limping sheep, takes her in his arms, and holding her gently, he carefully removes the stick. After searching high and low, the shepherd also finds the young sheep caught in the thorn bush, gently works him loose, and carries him over his shoulders until they reach the rest of the flock. And finally, the sheep trapped in the hole is found. The shepherd lifts the sheep out of the hole and reassures her by walking with her through the flock.
The parallel to our relationship with Christ is striking. Whenever the sheep get their own way they end up endangering themselves. Conversely, whenever the sheep follow the shepherd, they are amply fed, rested, and protected from harm.
And, in the event that harm does befall us—and we know it often does—remember the Good Shepherd. Remember that the Good Shepherd will pursue and rescue you. Remember that the Good Shepherd will hold you in His powerful arms. Remember that He will carry you on His shoulders.
There is one more thing that you should know about sheep. Sheep dislike wind blowing in their face. On the range, the sheep always turn their backs to the wind, but as they follow the shepherd they are willing to face the wind head on. Why is that? The answer is this: although it is difficult for them to face the wind, the sheep know that following the shepherd into the wind is the way home.
Friends, we may find our way difficult, but if we are following Christ, we are assured that this is the way home. And, difficult as our way may be, it is not more difficult than the path our Good Shepherd took for us. In order to unite His flock, in order to bring us home to our heavenly Father, our Shepherd died for us.
So, whose voice will you listen to? The world beckons you, with all of her temptations and responsibilities. But do you hear another voice calling? If we follow our Good Shepherd, we shall not be in want. If we follow our Good Shepherd, it is then—and only then—that the promise of Scripture applies: Goodness and mercy will follow me, all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever. Amen.