Dear Friends in Christ,
You’ve heard it said that a picture is worth a thousand words. But the term Shepherd when used to describe Jesus might be the word that is worth a thousand pictures.
I would bet that if you grew up in a Christian home or going to Sunday school some of those pictures immediately come to mind. Maybe it’s a picture of Jesus in the middle of a flock, or Jesus gently cradling a lamb in his arms, or Jesus caring for an obviously hurt sheep by carrying it fireman-style draped over His shoulders. If not, I’d invite you to take a stroll down the hallways of our school. You’ll find a number of them there.
Supporting those pictures are scores of Bible passages and hymns. Psalm 23, arguably the best known chapter of the Bible – and all literature, for that matter – begins with the words, “The Lord is my shepherd.” And one of the hymns Christian children grow up with (and our first hymn) opens with the beloved proclamation: “I am Jesus’ little lamb.”
Our text for this morning is from that chapter of the Bible, John 10, where Jesus uses this well-known and comforting description for himself. So for the next several minutes let’s spend a thousand words or so reflecting on this endearing picture:
Jesus Christ, Our Good Shepherd
The imagery of Christ as the Good Shepherd and we as sheep is not just endearing; it’s also accurate. It becomes even more accurate the more we understand the nature and qualities of sheep…
For example, sheep are not smart. In fact, of all the domesticated animals, they’re probably at the bottom of the natural intelligence scale. I can speak with some authority because of real-life conversations I’ve had with sheep farmers. I recall asking one of them if sheep were really as stupid as people say they are; his answer was an unqualified yes. He went on to tell me how sheep have a forward gear, but no reverse, and that if they get stuck in a hole in the fence they’ll just stay there until someone bales them out.
I was also told they don’t know boundaries very well. They’ll wander and go astray and easily get lost. They have a tendency to leave the rest of the flock and freelance on their own – an especially dangerous habit given the fact they have no natural defense mechanisms, making them easy prey for predators.
So here’s what we know about sheep. They’re not particularly smart, they don’t use good judgement, and they are relatively defenseless. If they are going to survive and prosper, they need help, because they aren’t going to do it on their own. That’s why they need a shepherd.
It’s not hard to transfer this imagery onto mankind, is it? And the Bible often does. In talking about the utter sense of hopelessness and lack of direction seen in a crowd of people, the Gospels record Jesus had compassion on them because “they were like sheep without a shepherd.” In the book of Isaiah (53), the prophet says “we all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way…” And Peter echoes that exact same sentiment of us being wayward, wandering sheep in the first of his letters.
Consequently, if we are going to be safe and secure, now and eternally; if we are going to be spared from the predators of sin, death and the devil, we need help. We need a shepherd. Thanks be to God, we have one – Jesus Christ is our Good Shepherd.
Listen now to the way in which Jesus describes the relationship between the Good Shepherd and his sheep: “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand.” Here Jesus tells us a number of things about his sheep.
The first is that his sheep “listen to His voice.” Most of us here today are “city folks,” but those who have spent any time on a farm know there is a bond between a farmer and his flock or herd. Animals learn to know and trust the voice of their Master. Why? Because instinctively they associate that voice with provision and protection and care.
So it is with us. We trust the voice of our Good Shepherd because it is laden with promises for our provision, protection and care. He has never broken those promises. Even in our darkest moments, he has never left us or forsaken us. That’s why we, his sheep, turn to God’s Word for direction and comfort and gratefully “listen to his voice.”
Because, you see, it was that same voice that cried out from Calvary’s cross “It is finished” and then grew silent in death as the Good Shepherd voluntarily, sacrificially, and as our substitute laid down His life for sinful sheep who loved to wander.
It is the same voice that told the fearful flock on Easter evening that he did indeed rise from the dead and that peace – emotional and spiritual and eternal – was now theirs, and that “because I live, you also will live.” It is the voice of the Good Shepherd who tells us that he is with us always, even to the end of the age. And every promise is backed up with nail holes and an empty grave.
The second statement Jesus makes is that he knows his sheep. Returning to the illustration, a good shepherd will be completely familiar with his flock. If one of his sheep is hurting or sick or scared or acting out of character, the shepherd knows and intervenes. The word “know” in the original Greek signifies an intimate knowledge, as opposed to some sort of detached head knowledge.
So, as members of Jesus flock, we have the blessed assurance that Christ knows us inside and out. We’ve all heard someone say of a spouse or a good friend that such a person “knows me better than I know myself.” That’s an exaggeration to point out the closeness of the relationship. But with Christ, it’s no exaggeration. Jesus, our Good Shepherd knows us, loves us, and cares for us intimately.
The third description Jesus gives of His sheep is that “they follow him.” Why do sheep follow the shepherd? Again (please forgive if we’re humanizing sheep too much), it’s a matter of trust. A shepherd in Jesus’ day at times would lead his flock to different places in search of pasture. He may have to lead them through rough and rocky terrain, but they follow. Because their good shepherd has led them safely before and will do so again.
Again, so it is with Christ and us through this pilgrimage on earth we call life. Have there been and will there be some rough terrain and rocky places in our lives? Unless our lives are radically different than every other human being around us, the answer is: yes. Setbacks and pain and hardship to either a greater or a lesser degree are things we can expect. They are things God tells us will happen.
So how do we deal with these difficult times in life? We remember that our Good Shepherd is in the lead. And that the rough terrain he may choose to lead us through is not because of forgetfulness or anger or neglect; it’s simply a part of preparing us to enjoy all the more the green pastures of eternity that lie beyond them.
And that is the promise Jesus ends this section with. He says that we, his sheep, “will never perish.” He’s talking eternal life. And then He follows with these words of assurance: “No one can snatch them (His sheep) out of my hand.” In other words, no one – most notably Satan – has the power to remove us from Christ’s protective hand. Only by rejecting the Shepherd’s leadership can a sheep go astray. From all spiritual harm we are safe in the arms of Jesus.
Then, if further assurance is needed, Jesus goes on to say: “My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand. I and the Father are one.” Jesus states his oneness with God the Father, making this one of those passages that clearly teaches the doctrine that God is triune. In the context, perhaps the greater lesson is that God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit all combine to preserve us in our saving faith. And if God is for us, asks the Apostle Paul, who can be against us?
What have we learned thus far? We have been assured we have a Good Shepherd who is worthy of our trust and whose Word is worth listening to… a Good Shepherd who knows us, loves us and cares for us intimately… a Good Shepherd whom we can gladly follow throughout the ins and outs of daily live because he has our best in mind… a Good Shepherd who promises to protect us and preserve us and give us eternal life in heaven.
The result is a comfort and peace which belongs alone to those who can joyfully claim to be “Jesus little lambs.”
I believe this is a message that we especially need to hear this week given the event that happened in Boston. Senseless, tragic, wicked acts seem to be piling up and happening with more frequency. We’ll never become immune to them but in a sense we’re getting used to them. With each one we wonder just what can possibly happen next.
I recall some years ago doing some reading in a particular Christian author who had published a number of books. One of his repeated themes is that often people – including Christians – find themselves living in a “house of fear.” Some of those fears are relatively insignificant, but nonetheless personally bothersome: Fear of what people think of us. Fear of making a wrong decision. Fear of being forgotten or overlooked.
Others can essentially paralyze us and take very joy out of life: Fear of the future. Fear of impending tragedy. Fear of being harmed. Fear that what is yet to come may be worse than already is…
The message of our text is that we don’t have to live in a house of fear; that despite what our eyes see and our ears hear, regardless of the headlines and the ramifications we may feel they have for us as individuals and a nation… there is someone minding the store. Jesus the Good Shepherd continues to be in the lead. And we are his beloved, provided for, and protected people. We are the sheep of his pasture.
Such knowledge gives us renewed confidence and strength for the journey. We don’t’ have to be afraid. As the hymnist put it: “Have no fear, little flock.” Why? Because he is risen. The Good Shepherd is risen indeed. Alleluia. Amen.