I am the Good Shepherd (April 22, 2018)
I am the Good Shepherd
Have you ever thought about what it takes to survive on your own, living in the streets? That question was asked to a group of middle class pastors at a recent pastors’ conference that I attended. The conference was about ministering across cultures, and that question was aimed at helping a bunch of middle class men get into the mindset of someone in another culture – someone living in poverty. The goal was not to become that culture, but to learn how to sympathize with and begin to understand someone of another culture.
“Could you survive poverty?” was the question. “Check all that apply” it said. Here’s the list: “I know which churches and parts of town have the best rummage sales.” “I know which grocery stores’ garbage bins to check for expired food.” “I know how to keep my clothes from being stolen at the laundromat.” “I know how to get someone out of jail.” “I know how to look for problems with a used car.” “I know how to live without electricity or a phone.” “I know what to do when I don’t have money to pay the bills.” There were 17 statements like this, and I think I could only check about 6 of them. Needless to say, I would be completely hopeless if left on my own. Maybe, in your own situation, even if you aren’t living in poverty, you have some big hurdles that you deal with every day as well.
Thankfully, we have Jesus as our Good Shepherd. In times of need, when you don’t have enough; in times of danger or disaster; in times of conflict and strife when you feel like you are out on your own, alone and exposed Jesus turns your focus to him, “I AM the Good Shepherd” (Jn 10:11). He actually says it twice here, at the beginning of each paragraph. And that “I am” stands out in emphasis. “I am the Good Shepherd” (Jn 10:11). You are secure in the fold of Jesus.
Jesus uses a simple illustration to bring home his point so vividly. His audience was very familiar with the work of a shepherd and the importance of that profession. I think we can still relate today – at least in knowledge, maybe not by experience. If you know anything about sheep, you know that they have a reputation for being docile, harmless, and rather stupid. In fact, during storms they have been known to pile up in the corner of their pasture, smothering one another to death. If a sheep stumbles and falls into a ditch and lands on its back, it is helpless to right itself and stand up again. Sheep have no fangs and no claws to defend themselves. The fact is, sheep are helpless without a shepherd.
And Jesus draws an important distinction to flesh out what kind of a shepherd he is. He says, “The hired hand is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep” (Jn 10:12). Hired hands in those days were simply watching over the sheep to earn a paycheck. It was simply a job for them. And you could almost hear the hired hand complaining about “the lousy hours, the poor pay, and smelly working conditions.” Since this is the case then, at the first sight of danger, “When he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away. Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it” (Jn 10:12). This illustration of the hired hands was a description of the Pharisees of Jesus day who cared only about their position and strict adherence to the law to the exclusion of the sheep they were called to serve. Think of the tragic response to Judas’ confession of betraying innocent blood. “What is that to us? That’s your responsibility” (Mt 27:4) they replied. The wolf attacked. The hired hand was no help. And the helpless sheep ran to his death.
Jesus is not the hired hand. “I am the good shepherd” (Jn 10:11) he said. “I am the shepherd that cares for his sheep. Our word “good” is quite generic and bland. Greek has a number of different words for good. The word used here is not just “good” like good cake. It’s not “good” like good work on a test. The word used for “Good Shepherd” is “excellent,” “the very best,” with respect to both his personal character and the work that he does. Jesus is the only one “good” enough to merit this high mark of praise from the Father, who demands perfection. The Father said of Jesus, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased” (Mt 17:5). And all that “goodness” of your shepherd, Jesus, is aimed at you, his sheep. When there are dangers that threaten your wellbeing, when there is conflict and strife between you and your loved ones, when your sin is exposed and you feel guilty, alone and helpless, Jesus cups your cheeks in his hands, looks you squarely in the eyes and says, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (Jn 10:11). He is the one who has plans to prosper you despite dangers that threatens. He is the one who diffuses conflict and settles tensions. He is the one who died on the cross to pay for every one of your sins so that you no longer need to feel guilty, exposed, or helpless. You are secure in the fold of Jesus.
Hasn’t he told you in the Psalm we just sang, Psalm 23, that he will care and provide for his sheep? Do you remember that he teaches you in “the Parable of the Lost Sheep” that he will search for and go after you until he finds you (Lk 15:1-7)? Do you see, through eyes of faith, your good shepherd standing between you and danger – rescuing you from the paw of the lion and the paw of the bear (1 Sm 17:34-36)? Your Good Shepherd is not like the hired hand. He is the Shepherd that cares, even making the ultimate sacrifice for you – laying down his life in your place.
Now, there is one important difference between Jesus and any other kind of shepherd. Because as you might imagine, a shepherd laying down his life for his sheep may not be such a good thing. Yes, it shows the lengths he would be willing to go to for his sheep. But a sacrifice by itself would not be enough. What good would it be for a shepherd to fight with a wolf and lose? If the shepherd is dead, the fight is lost, and the sheep are once again exposed and helpless with no one to save them. So, Jesus shows that he not only cares for the sheep above all else, but he also has the power to do something for them. He is also the shepherd that can.
This is evidenced by Jesus’ knowledge of the flock, you included. The verses just before what we read in the gospel reading shows that the sheep learn to know their master by his voice. They trust him. They follow him (Jn 10:3-5). And he knows and keeps track of every one of his sheep. He knows which ones are feeble. He knows which ones are sick. He knows which ones are about to give birth. He knows all this and much more about you, never forgetting or missing any detail of your life. The shepherd and the sheep get to know one another so well because they have been together so long and through so much! With all this in mind, drink in the deep comfort of hearing Jesus say, “I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me” (Jn 10:14). He knows that life decision you are struggling with right now. He cares about how that last conflict made you feel. He’s with you in the struggle against that sin that seems to have such a hold on you. He is the shepherd you can depend on. He wants you to know how close he is to you, how completely he is your Shepherd and Savior. And he wants you to know that he is the shepherd that can. Whatever wolves you are facing right now, Jesus can and does keep you secure in his fold.
That’s because no one takes Jesus’ life away from him. He lays it down on his own accord. He has the authority to lay it down and the authority to take it up again. What’s really enlightening as you read these words is that Jesus spoke them about 6 months before he died on the cross and rose from the grave. No one overcame him. No one defeated him, or ruled over him. He willingly gave up everything, even his life, for you. He went into death voluntarily. And unlike any other shepherd, he already knew the outcome before it happened. There was never any doubt that he would die and rise. His love and purpose never wavered. He laid down his life by his own authority. His death, was the only death that actually means anything – that actually accomplished anything. And unlike any shepherd there ever was, he took his life back up to defeat your enemy, the devil, who prowls around like a roaring lion, by his death on the cross.
How is that so? A payment needed to be made for sin. Not to the devil, but to God, so to speak. You see, for God to be a just and holy God, he cannot tolerate sin. If he did, he wouldn’t be holy, and who’s to say we would be free from any kind of sin in heaven? Sin had to be addressed, and until it was, Satan could rightly accuse us of all our wrongdoing before God – pointing out the sin that separates us from God. But your Good Shepherd laid down his life, endured that separation from God on your behalf. And since sin has been completely paid for, Satan’s accusations fall on deaf ears. Your sins have been justly paid for.
But Jesus didn’t stay dead. He rose from the dead, which in part assures us that his payment for sin was more than enough, but then also proves that death, the consequence of sin, has been defeated as well. Now when you die, it isn’t a hopeless and eternal death, but a doorway to eternal life! Your death too is swallowed up in the victory of life! Your Good Shepherd leads the way into heaven and you, trusting his voice, follow and are brought safely in. There is nothing in life, nothing even in death that can do you any kind of harm. You are secure in the fold of Jesus. He is the shepherd that cares for you like none other. And he is the shepherd that can do something about the very real dangers you face.