I Am the Good Shepherd
The British newspaper The Telegraph ran a story about a flock of over 1,300 sheep that, and I quote, “had to be rounded up by police in the Spanish city of Huesca after their shepherd fell asleep.” The article continued:
According to city authorities, the police were alerted to the presence of the extremely large flock attempting to negotiate the streets in the center of Huesca at around 4:30am on Tuesday when a local resident dialed Spain’s 112 emergency number.
The dozing shepherd was meant to be keeping the animals in check outside the environs of the city while he waited for the clock to strike 7am, when he was due to guide the sheep northwards through Huesca towards Pyrenean uplands where his flock will graze during the hot summer months.
The police eventually found the herder, who was still peacefully slumbering. Together the embarrassed shepherd and police officers were eventually able to extract the sheep from the city and return them to their pastures.[i]
Imagine you live in that village. You get up in the middle of the night to get a drink of water or go to the bathroom and look out your window and there in your yard, and the street, and your neighbors yards, is a massive flock of sheep. Like 1,300 sheep. As someone who’s raised sheep myself, I can promise you those 1,300 sheep weren’t just standing there quietly either. They were noisy, and pooping all over the place. And trampling flowerbeds. And running around. That many sheep in that small village – it was chaos. Talk about a bad shepherd. I’m sure the sheep told him about it too – they looked at him and said “Baaaaaaaad.” I know, I know. Terrible dad joke. What can I say … I’m a dad.
This summer we’re looking at the seven “I AM” statements of Jesus recorded in the Gospel of John. Today, we turn our attention to John 10 and Jesus’ statement, “I AM the Good Shepherd.” Turn with me to John 10:11-18.
“I am the good shepherd.” When we hear the word “shepherd,” we might associate it with protection and guidance and provision and care, and obviously ALL of those traits apply. When Jesus said “I am the good shepherd,” he was saying all of that, AND so much more. And when the crowd heard Jesus say “I am the good shepherd,” they heard all of that, and so much more. You see, for them, the image of the shepherd was both a religious and a national symbol, very much like a bald eagle, or an image of a Massachusetts Minuteman ready to fight the red coats, or even the stars and stripes is for us here in America today. It goes back to the first truly great king of Israel, David, the shepherd who became king, the shepherd king.
The psalms of David, and other psalms too, are filled with references to shepherds and sheep. Psalm 100:3 says “Know that the Lord, he is God! It is he who made us, and we are his; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.” Now, if we are God’s people AND the sheep of God’s pasture, what does that make God? Our shepherd, right? In the 23rd Psalm David comes right out and says it … “The LORD is my … shepherd.” The Old Testament pictures God as the shepherd of Israel, his flock.
And then in the days of the prophets, that same shepherd imagery was applied to the coming Messiah. Isaiah 40:9-11 says, “Go on up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good news; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good news; lift it up, fear not; say to the cities of Judah, “Behold your God!” Behold, the Lord God comes with might, and his arm rules for him; behold, his reward is with him, and his recompense before him. He will tend his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms; he will carry them in his bosom, and gently lead those that are with young.”
In Ezekiel 34, God through the prophet goes on a rant against the priests and kings of Israel, the so called shepherds of the people of Israel, whom he compares to bad shepherds. And then in Vv. 11-16 God says, “For thus says the Lord God: Behold, I, I myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out. As a shepherd seeks out his flock when he is among his sheep that have been scattered, so will I seek out my sheep, and I will rescue them from all places where they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. And I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land. And I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the ravines, and in all the inhabited places of the country. I will feed them with good pasture, and on the mountain heights of Israel shall be their grazing land. There they shall lie down in good grazing land, and on rich pasture they shall feed on the mountains of Israel. I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I myself will make them lie down, declares the Lord God. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, and the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them in justice.” Bad shepherds versus the one and only, THE Good Shepherd – God.
So when Jesus said, to a bunch of Jews who knew passages like these by heart because it was their hope, and who were passionate about images like God as their shepherd, when Jesus said to THIS crowd, “I AM the Good Shepherd,” what was he saying? I AM the messiah, the Son of God. Jesus INTENTIONALLY placed himself squarely in the middle of this imagery and all of the tradition and the hopes and dreams surrounding it. And what did the people hear when Jesus said “I AM the Good Shepherd”? They heard him saying that he was the messiah, the Son of God. “The Lord is my shepherd.” “He will tend his flock like a shepherd.” “As a shepherd seeks out his flock when he is among his sheep that have been scattered, so will I seek out my sheep …” Jesus said, “I AM THAT shepherd.” The GOOD shepherd.
So again, if he is my shepherd, what does that say about me? I’m a sheep. On my own, I have a nose, a bent, for trouble, and am utterly defenseless against sin and shame. I NEED a shepherd. But not just any shepherd. I need the GOOD shepherd. And what is the primary characteristic of the GOOD shepherd? Look at V. 11. “The good shepherd … lays down his life for the sheep.”
Hired shepherds won’t do that. They’re in it for the paycheck, not for the good of the sheep. They’ll do their job well enough until their own neck is at risk. Then they’re done. And this was a problem. Hired shepherds abandoning their flocks when danger presented itself. That’s why the Jewish rabbis taught that it was the responsibility of a hired shepherd to guard the flock against a wolf. A lone wolf. If that number grew to two or more wolves, the hired shepherd was off the hook and could flee if he wished. The owner of the flock couldn’t complain or punish him for abandoning his post at that point. But he had to hang in there against a single wolf.
But the good shepherd? He stays with his flock through thick and thin. Nothing can scare him away. In 1 Samuel 17, a young David, not yet king, not even old enough to join his brothers in the Israelite army that had been called up to fight against the Philistines, delivers food to his brothers in the army encampment. And while he’s making this delivery for his father, he hears the mighty Philistine champion Goliath cursing God, daring any Israelite to face him in one to one combat, winner take all. And David, upset that no Israelite warrior will take the dare, volunteers. And when King Saul questions David because of his youth, his lack of military training or experience, and his lack of size, David says this, “Your servant used to keep sheep for his father. And when there came a lion, or a bear, and took a lamb from the flock, I went after him and struck him and delivered it out of his mouth. And if he arose against me, I caught him by his beard and struck him and killed him. Your servant has struck down both lions and bears, and this uncircumcised Philistine shall be like one of them, for he has defied the armies of the living God.”
Why didn’t David, as a shepherd tending his father’s flocks, flee? Because he wasn’t a hired shepherd. They were HIS sheep. And he risked his life to protect and save them. The GOOD shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.
Jesus, as the good shepherd, laid down his life for you and for me. It wasn’t taken from him; he laid it down of his own accord. There’s something I want you to notice about Jesus and his encounters with angry religious leaders. Look back at John 8:20. This is at the end of his “I AM the light of the world” statement. “These words he spoke in the treasury, as he taught in the temple; but no one arrested him, because his hour had not yet come.” Why did no one arrest him? Because the time he had set aside, as God the Son, for that arrest had not yet come. He was arrested, and tried, and flogged, and beaten, and spit upon, and crucified, because it was HIS WILL that it be so. Even during his trial, in John 19, he said, “You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above.” He spoke these words to Pilate, the Roman governor and a very politically powerful man with the might of the Roman army at his disposal. Pilate was the most powerful man in that part of the Empire, answering only to Caesar. He sentenced Jesus to death by crucifixion. But ultimately it was Jesus, not Pilate, who sentenced himself to death, because he died willingly.
In fact, at his arrest, when one of his disciples drew a sword to protect Jesus, Jesus said, “Put your sword back into its place. For all who take the sword will perish by the sword. Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels?” Jesus, the good shepherd, the Son of God, fully God and fully human, did not lose his life. He laid it down for his sheep.
The Jews kept sheep for meat, for wool, and for milk. As meat sheep were primarily saved for religious sacrifice at feasts and festivals honoring God and seeking atonement for the people. At other times they tended to eat other kinds of meat. Sheep was meat for special ceremonies and special occasions. So under the old covenant, the sheep gave their lives for their shepherds through sacrifice at the temple. But under the new covenant, the shepherd dies for the sheep. The bad news is that like a sheep, my heart is prone to wander, and I am utterly defenseless against sin. The good news of Jesus is that I have a shepherd who gave his life willingly for me.
He is MY shepherd. So I am HIS sheep. That means I belong to him. When the sheep are in charge, trouble isn’t far away. Trouble for them, and trouble for others. Just ask the people living in Huesca over in Spain. For the sheep to be safe, the shepherd has to be in charge. Here in America we like to celebrate our freedom, and rightly so. We’re preparing to celebrate our freedom a week from now by putting explosives in the hands of dads wearing polo shirts and jean shorts who have been drinking too much for several hours. But even in America, our freedom isn’t absolute. The list of things I CANNOT do is fairly long. There are speeds I cannot drive. There are places, restricted areas, I cannot go. I can keep and carry a gun, but for the most part I cannot point it at another person, or even another person’s pet, and pull the trigger. Doing those things could land me a fine, or a prison sentence.
St. Paul tells us that as children of God, members of his flock, we are both incredibly free, and also slaves. Life is full of paradox, isn’t it? The same is true in the body of Christ. We are free from the power of sin, free from condemnation, free to accept God’s offer of forgiveness in Christ. But we are also slaves. Not in the human sense. But whenever Paul calls himself a servant of Christ or a servant of God, the word he uses is the word for slave. Now, that isn’t a defense of human slavery. That is absolutely and unequivocally an abhorrent thing, an abomination, whether it be slavery of a race of people, or sexual slavery, or any other form of slavery. But Paul uses that kind of concept to describe God’s absolute and complete possession of his people. In 1 Corinthians 6:19-20, he says “Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.”
When you buy something, you own it. I am a child of God, and I am also God’s POSSESSION. St. Peter tells us, “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.” We talk about our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, but we really only want a Savior. A Savior who deals with our sin and sets us free, and then lets us do whatever we want. But that isn’t the case. As my Lord AND my Savior, Christ both deals with my sin and also takes possession of me. I belong to him, with all of the freedoms, and rights, and privileges, AND RESPONSIBILITIES of a child of God and citizen of the Kingdom of God. He’s the boss, not me. When he asks something of me, my only answer can be yes, even if I don’t know how everything is going to work out, no matter what it costs me. I belong to my good shepherd.
The Good Shepherd lays down his life for his sheep, leads his sheep, and KNOWS his sheep. Look at Vv. 14-15. To be known by my shepherd is to be known intimately. It means he understands me deeply, understands me more deeply than I understand myself. It means I am chosen by my shepherd and loved by my shepherd. YOU are chosen by your shepherd, loved by your shepherd, and deeply understood by your shepherd.
He also says that his sheep know him. We grow in our understanding of him. We learn to read our shepherd, to understand what he is saying and what he means. We will never know our shepherd as well as he knows us. But we CAN grow in our knowledge of him. We learn to discern his voice from the thousands of other voices competing for our attention. We learn to tune into his voice, to pay attention to it. To love hearing it, because it is the voice of our shepherd, the one who provides for us, protects us, and who laid down his life, by his own choice, for us.
Now, look at V. 16. The flock we are a part of … is GROWING. Jesus was speaking to the first sheep in the flock, the Jewish people. In fact, early in his ministry, when he sent his disciples out to the towns and villages to tell everyone the good news of the Kingdom of God, he told them, “Go nowhere among the Gentiles and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” He started by seeking the lost sheep of his initial flock, the people of Israel. But here, he makes it clear that he does have sheep in other sheepfolds, non-Jewish sheepfolds, too, and he will unite them all in one flock, with himself as the shepherd. The mission of the Good Shepherd knows no boundaries. It isn’t restricted only to people who look, think, talk, and act like you. It is truly a global mission, a global flock.
Several years ago, a man named Philip Keller wrote a great book called “A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23.” In that book, he talks about his experience as a shepherd in east Africa. The land next to his was rented out to a tenant shepherd who didn’t take very good care of his sheep: his land was overgrazed, eaten down to the ground; the sheep were thin, diseased by parasites, and attacked by wild animals. Keller especially remembered how the neighbor’s sheep would line up at the fence and blankly stare in the direction of his green grass and his healthy sheep, almost as if they yearned to be delivered from their abusive shepherd. They longed to come to the other side of the fence and belong to him.
When Jesus said, “I am the good shepherd,” he was tapping into a commonly understood analogy for God’s relationship with his people. And he was also telling us what it means for our shepherd to be the GOOD shepherd. As followers of Christ, we are members of the flock of THE GOOD shepherd. The shepherd who KNOWS his sheep, LEADS his sheep, and who LAID DOWN HIS LIFE for his sheep. Let us pray.
[i] James Badcock, “Sheep run loose in Spanish town after shepherd falls asleep,” The Telegraph (6-8-16)