Text: John 10:1-21 w Ezekiel 34
John’s Gospel has famously been likened to ‘a pool in which children can paddle and elephants can swim.’ These famous words of Jesus are transparently clear and unfathomably deep.
1. What does Jesus mean when he says, ‘I am the good shepherd?’?
(a) He is a “shepherd”
A common figure in ancient Palestine. ‘His life was very hard. No flock ever grazed without a shepherd, and he was never off duty. There being little grass, the sheep were bound to wander, and since there were no protecting walls, the sheep had constantly to be watched. On either side of the narrow plateau the ground dipped sharply down to the craggy deserts and the sheep were always liable to stray away and get lost. The shepherd’s task was not only constant but dangerous, for, in addition, he had to guard the flock against wild animals, especially against wolves, and there were always thieves and robbers ready to steal the sheep…”On some high moor, across which at night the hyaenas howl, when you meet him, sleepless, far-sighted, weather-beaten, leaning on his staff, and looking out over his scattered sheep, every one of them on his heart, you understand why the shepherd of Judaea sprang to the front in his people’s history; why they gave his name to their king, and made him the symbol of providence; why Christ took him as the type of self-sacrifice.” Constant vigilance, fearless courage, patient love for his flock, were the necessary characteristics of the shepherd.’
The role of the shepherd was to lead, feed and protect. It was natural then that in the OT human rulers and spiritual leaders would often be likened to shepherds, Ex 34. And so it is with Jesus: his role is to lead, nourish, and protect his people. That’s why he calls himself “a shepherd.”
(b) He is “a good shepherd”
Not every shepherd did a good job. There were false shepherds who deserted their flocks in time of danger, and incompetent shepherds who were unable to find good pasture. The shepherds of Ez 34 are human leaders who have failed in their duty. See 34:2.
There were false shepherds in Jesus day. He was talking to some of them them. In ch. 9, we learn that Jesus had displayed the work of God by healing the man who had been born blind. Many of the Jewish leaders, however, refused to believe that Jesus came from God. Why? – because he had performed the miracle on the Sabbath. Moreover, they threw the man himself out of the synagogue. That’s how these shepherds treated their sheep. Jesus refers to them as no better than ‘thieves and robbers’.
Jesus saw himself as one who would provide wise leadership, wholesome nourishment, effective protection, in contrast to these false shepherds. That’s why he called himself ‘a good shepherd’.
(c) He is “the good shepherd”
It’s likely that when Jesus said this, the ears of his hearers would have pricked up as they realised that he was identifying himself with some particular ‘good shepherd’. Who, in Ezekiel 34, is the good shepherd? See 34:11f; 23.
It’s clear that Jesus saw himself as the fulfillment of this prophecy. That’s why he calls himself, ‘the good shepherd’.
2. What does the good shepherd do for his sheep?
(a) He lays down his life for them, v10f.
The picture is of the flock being attacked by a pack of wolves. The shepherd rushes in, but is himself killed by the wolves. What a sacrifice! But what a disaster! But, says the good shepherd, “I lay down my life – only to take it up again”, v17. No sooner has the shepherd been slain, than he rises, and utterly destroys the wolves, setting his sheep free from danger, and giving them life, v10.
This was the great purpose that Christ came. He did not come primarily to be the teacher of new doctrines, the peddlar of a new morality, or even the founder of a new religion. He came to die ‘that they may have life’.
This is not all: He came that they might have life to the full, v10. What he gives is not mere existence, but abundant life. It would have been mercy indeed for Jesus to rescue people from hell and from the devil’s clutches; but he will give them eternal joy, peace, and happiness, and all those exalted blessings which are prepared for them in the world of glory. There is much that he gives them in the here and now; more – much more – in the hereafter.
(b) He knows them, and they know him, 10:14.
“I know my sheep” – Our Lord, like a good earthly shepherd, knows every one of his people, – knows them with a special knowledge of love and approval; knows all about them, their strengths and weaknesses, their hopes and fears, their trials and temptations, and knows exactly what each one needs from day to day.
“My sheep know me” – His people know him with the experiential knowledge of faith and confidence, and can feel in him a loving trust of which an unbeliever can form no idea. They know him as their own Friend and Saviour, and rest on that knowledge.
More: the relationship between the good shepherd and his sheep is like that between God the Father and God the Son, v15. This is astounding – a profound mystery. But John’s Gospel allows us some glimpses: Jn 1:1.
The good shepherd knows his sheep, and they know him. And this relationship is like that between God the Father and God the Son. Well might Christ’s people find themselves ‘lost in wonder, love and praise’.
(c) He gathers them, v16.
Up until now, God’s dealings had been primarily with the Jewish nation. Even Jesus himself had sent his disciples out with the following instructions:-
Mt 10:6 – “Do not go among the Gentiles or enter any town of the Samaritans. Go rather to the lost sheep of Israel.” 15:24 – “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.”
But things were to change dramatically following the death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ, and the coming of the Holy Spirit with power.
Acts 1:8 “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
And the rest, as they say, is history.
But there’s more: the good shepherd has gathered many sheep. But where is the ‘one flock’ that he spoke of? Do the sheep not find themselves in separate pens, constantly bleating at those in the other pens and even at those in the same pen? But still, in the eyes of the great shepherd, his sheep are one flock, and our task is not to create a united flock (because that has already been done), but to pull down our man-made divisions, and to celebrate the fact that true Christians have far more in common with one another than any differences between them. And if these seems like an impossible task, note the certainty in our Lord’s voice: “I will…they must…there shall…”.
All this carries rich meaning for our service of Holy Communion. The Lord’s Table is a place of remembrance where we recall that the Good Shepherd laid down his life for his sheep. It’s a place of communion, where we draw near with faith to him who knows us and is known by us. It’s a place of unity, where we set aside our petty differences and rejoice in the fact that we have been gathered into one flock, under the one shepherd.
Loving shepherd of thy sheep,
Keep us now, in safety keep;
Nothing can thy power withstand,
None can pluck us from thy hand.
Loving shepherd, ever near,
Teach us now thy voice to hear;
Suffer not our steps to stray
From the strait and narrow way.
Loving shepherd, thou didst give
Thine own life that we might live,
And the hands outstretched to bless
Bear the cruel nails’ impress.
Where thou leadest we would go,
Walking in thy steps below,
Till before our Father’s throne
We shall know as we are known.