Over the next few weeks, we are going to be looking at four images of Jesus as they come to us from the gospel of John. Next week we will see Jesus as the vine. The following week as the friend and then, finally, on Mother’s Day we will look at Jesus as the protector. But today, we will look at the classic image of Jesus at the good shepherd that appears in John 10:11-18.
It begins right in John 10:11 (NIV) with these words: “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” Most of us take this for granted. We all know that Jesus is the Good Shepherd. It’s pretty standard Christianity. Some of the images of Jesus may be a bit more surprising but not this one.
And it would not have been a surprise to the people Jesus was speaking with either. They lived in a predominantly agrarian culture. Everyone knew what sheep were. Everyone knew what shepherds were. Most people probably knew a shepherd or two. Does anyone here actually know a shepherd? Has anyone ever even met one? Has anyone ever actually touched a sheep? That’s one of the differences between then and now. When Jesus first walked the earth, these things were common and so when Jesus says that he is the Good Shepherd, it would have made an instant connection with the people.
But what was that connection? I want to say a couple of things here. The first thing is that it would have conjured up images of the relationship between a shepherd and his sheep. Back then things were done on a much smaller scale. The shepherd knew the sheep and the sheep knew him. He could distinguish his sheep from other sheep and the sheep could distinguish him from the other shepherds. That was necessary because shepherds often grazed their flocks together in the various pasture lands. But when it was time to go their separate ways, the sheep had to know who to follow. And, for the most part, they did.
Why is that? It’s because the shepherd had a relationship with his sheep. Between them, they built an element of trust. The sheep trusted the shepherd to lead them to green pastures and beside quiet waters.
That also brings to mind something else. The twenty-third psalm. “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul.” This psalm, of course, was written by King David who was himself a shepherd.
From David, we learn something else. We learn that shepherds not only make sure that their sheep are fed and watered. We also learn that they protect the sheep. Before facing Goliath, David said this to King Saul in 1 Samuel 17:34-35 (NIV): “Your servant has been keeping his father’s sheep. When a lion or a bear came and carried off a sheep from the flock, I went after it, struck it and rescued the sheep from its mouth. When it turned on me, I seized it by its hair, struck it and killed it.” This was not uncommon. A shepherd was expected to protect and defend his sheep even if it meant putting his own life in danger. That’s what Jesus was getting at when he said that, “The good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep.”
This reminds me of an animal I once met. His name was Lewis the llama. Lewis was a llama that lived on the farm that Ruth sister Maggie and her husband Herb operate out in Sheho, Saskatchewan. You might wonder why anyone would want to keep a llama on their farm. The truth is that llamas are not exactly pleasant creatures. They’re tempermental and can be quite ornery. Their big and hard to control. And if they don’t like you or if they feel threatened, they will spit this disgusting concoction of llama snot and partially digested food at you.
But the reason why Maggie and Herb had a llama on their farm was because they also raised goats. Goats are much nicer than llamas but they are also easy prey for the coyotes that are so plentiful in the prairies. It was only after they lost a few of their young goats that Lewis arrived on the scene because his job was to protect the goats from the coyotes.
All of this became clear one night when we were out at the farm for a visit one summer. The sun had gone down so it must have been 10:30 or so and we were inside the house sitting around the kitchen table talking the night away. Suddenly, we heard the sharp bark of a coyote. Herb was on his feet in a flash and I was right behind him. He jumped into his rubber boots, grabbed his shot gun and a flashlight and bolted out the door with me following in the rear.
The goat pen was about an acre of fenced in pasture right beside the house so it took just a few seconds to get there. Herb quickly shone the flashlight around the pasture. All we saw were about a dozen coyotes jumping over the fences to escape the light. There was not a single goat to be seen. There should have been about twenty goats in the pen and there were not a single one standing. I had no idea what had happened to them.
Herb opened the gate and we went in. He went directly to the little shed that was in the middle of the pen where the goats could find some shelter for the sun or storms. When we got to the doorway of the shed, there was Lewis standing up in the doorway, pretty well filling it. We could see that he’d been in a fight. There were obvious bites on his legs and shoulders from the coyotes but he was standing tall. But where were the goats?
Herb shone the flashlight into the shed and there behind the beaten and battered Lewis were many eyes shining back at us. They were all there. In the morning, when we were able to assess things in the light of day, we realized that not one of the goats was missing. All were accounted for. Lewis had got every one of them into the shed and stood his ground against a pack of coyotes so that not one of the goats was lost or even harmed.
If you can understand that, you can understand what Jesus was talking about when he said, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” Lewis wasn’t a human shepherd but as the keeper of the flock, he was willing to lay down his life for his goats. Why is that? Interestingly enough, it is because Lewis had a relationship with his goats much like the shepherd has with his sheep.
That also, of course, conjures up images of Jesus on Good Friday as he went to the cross of Calvary for us. In that sense, he laid down his life for us his sheep. He stood in the breach and took the punishment for our sins that we should have died for our own. So we see how the image of the Good Shepherd fits Jesus so well.
THE HIRED HAND
Jesus then, to emphasize the point, does something interesting. He contrasts the shepherd with someone who is just hired to look after the sheep. In John 10:12-13 (NIV) he says: “The hired hand is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep. So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away. Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it. The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep.”
The shepherd and the hired hand respond very differently to danger. The shepherd will lay down his life for the sheep if need be while the hired hand will simply run away. That’s a huge difference. Jesus is the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep. We get that. But who is the hired hand? You know what? That’s anyone or anything you can’t count on to stand by your side when the wolf comes around the corner. Do you know who that is? Basically, when you’re honest with yourselves, it’s almost everyone. For most of us, there are very few people who will stand by our side no matter what. My hope is that families do that. Good friends should. As brothers and sisters in Christ, we should stand with each other. But you have to very careful about trusting just anyone to stand with you in the tough times because a lot of people won’t. A lot of people are like the hired hand. As long as life is sunny, they’re right there with you. But if life goes south, they go south with it.
What’s the difference? Why is the shepherd willing to put his life on the line for his sheep while the hired hand will run away at the first sign of trouble? It goes back to that relationship that we were talking about a few minutes ago. Jesus hints at that when he says that, “the man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep.” Let’s take a few minutes to unpack that to see what it says to us. The hired hand is, first of all, just an employee. He is employed to do a particular job. But what doesn’t he have? He doesn’t have ownership over the sheep and because of that he doesn’t really care for them. As Jesus says, he, “cares nothing for the sheep.” They do not belong to him and he has no long term vested interest in maintaining their welfare. At the end of the day, he simply collects his pay cheque and goes home.
But for the shepherd it’s far more than that. The shepherd legitimately cares for this sheep because he has a relationship with them. He knows them all. He wants to look after them because the better off they are, the better off he will be too. They have a symbiotic relationship which provides benefits for both of them. They are, in fact, like a family. The shepherd is like the parent and the sheep are like the children. And what parent would not give put their own life at risk if it would benefit their child? That’s the kind of relationship that exists between the sheep and the shepherd and, in fact, between God and us through Jesus Christ. Jesus cares for us so much that he willingly went to the cross to pay the price of our sins. He took our sins upon himself and died on the cross so that we could be forgiven. That is why we can see him as the Good Shepherd.
THE SHEEP KNOW THE SHEPHERD
Jesus again emphasizes this same point in John 10:14-15 (NIV): “I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me – just as the Father knows me and I know the Father – and I lay down my life for the sheep.” Again, he says that he is the Good Shepherd who will lay down his life for this sheep. And once more he also mentions the relationship that exists between the shepherd and his flock. He says, “I know my sheep and my sheep know me.”
Most of us who aren’t familiar with sheep and shepherds really don’t understand the depth of this relationship. But it is, indeed, quite deep. You will recall that a few minutes ago I was saying that shepherds often grazed their flocks together but that when the flocks were separated, all the sheep had to go with their own shepherd. Have you ever wondered how they did that?
They didn’t brand the sheep. They didn’t tie different coloured ribbons around their necks. They didn’t dye each of their sheep’s tails in order to distinguish one flock from another. One shepherd takes all the sheep with blue tails and another takes the orange takes and another still takes the pink tails. They didn’t do that.
It was way simpler than that. All each shepherd did was call his sheep. As an illustration of how that works, I want to show you the following video…
That is something everyone in Jesus’ day would have known and so it puts a very clear light on what Jesus meant when he said that I know my sheep and my sheep know me.
And then Jesus goes on to say this in John 10:16 (NIV): “I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd.” Let’s spend a few minutes unpacking that one too.
I think that Jesus’ main point is that we should not be quick to judge others. When the day comes and we are find ourselves walking the streets of gold in the kingdom of God, we might be surprised by who we might also see there. In fact, there might be people there whom you were pretty sure were going the other way. That’s why Jesus warns us against the temptation to judge others.
But there are still some groups of Christians who think that when they get to the kingdom, that they’ll be the only ones there. It reminds me of a joke the Tony Campolo told at his Sunday evening presentation in Charing Cross. You have to remember that Tony is Baptist so he told the joke from a Baptist standpoint but you could change it to fit whatever religious group you want. Anyway, it goes something like this.
Two men were talking. One was a Baptist and the other was United Church. The Baptist said to the United Church guy, “You should become a Baptist because Baptists are best.” The United Church guy says, “Why would I do that? I’m quite happy going to the United Church.”
So the Baptist asks, “So why do you go to the United Church?” And the United Church guy says, “Because my mother was United and my father was United and so they raised me to be United.”
“That’s ridiculous,” said the Baptist guy. “If your mother was an ignoramus and your father was an ignoramus, would that make you an ignoramus?”
“No,” says the United Church guy, “it would probably make me a Baptist.” My apologies to my Baptist friend who, for the most part, are quite delightful people.
But the point is made. Don’t be too quick to judge others. Jesus has more sheep pens than ours. There is only one Good Shepherd and while we may vary in the way we worship and in some of the finer points of theology, our common faith in Jesus enables all of us to hear his voice and come to him when he calls.
A VOLUNTARY SACRIFICE
Jesus ends this passage in John 10:17-18 (NIV) with these words: “The reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life—only to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again. This command I received from my Father.”
This is really quite amazing because it stresses the voluntary nature of Jesus’ sacrifice for us. He says, “No one takes [my life] from me, but I lay it down of my own accord.” Jesus went to the cross not because he was forced to but because he knew he had to do it. That’s how much he loves us.
I’m not saying that Jesus looked forward to the cross. I’m not saying that at all. In fact, on the night before he died, knowing what he was about to face the next day, he prayed these words on the Mount of Olives in Luke 22:42 (NIV): “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.” The Father did not take the cup away and just a couple of verses after praying these words, Jesus was arrested. Matthew 26:53 tells us that Jesus could have called 10,000 angels to rescue him from the cross but he refused to do that too.
Why did he do it? Because as Jesus
said, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the
sheep.” He did it because that is what the Good Shepherd does. He lays down his
life for his sheep. He did it then for the sheep who knew him and he laid it down
for you too.
PRAYERS OF THE PEOPLE
Loving God, your hand reaches out and touches us where we are most vulnerable. You know us in ways that no one else can know. There is nothing that is beyond your ability to understand or comprehend. No pleasure is too great, no tear drop too small to pass by without your notice. Come to us, again, with your Spirit. Reach into our lives and touch our hearts that we may truly know that you, and you alone, are God.
Who are we that you should care for us? What are we that you would lead us like a shepherd? We are nothing. Sometimes, we act as less than nothing. But still, you love us and embrace us like a parent love a child. You care for us like a shepherd cares for the sheep. We give you thanks and praise and honour and glory. You, O God, are an awesome God.
We thank you for the springtime. The signs are all around us. Flowers sprout their heads above the earth. Ducks and geese are in the lakes and ponds. Seasons change but thank you, O God, that you are constant in love and faithfulness.
We thank you for our governments: municipal, provincial, federal. We have been known to poke fun at politicians but which one of us would want their jobs. May we lift up our elected officials and the public service in our prayers that your will may be made known and accomplished.
We also pray for university students who are writing exams right now. Calm their spirits so that they can fill their minds with what they need to know. Also, O God, guide each and every one of them onto your path that they may find fulfillment and purpose in your way.
We continue to pray for Canadian soldiers around the world who are voluntarily putting themselves in harm’s way for the causes of freedom and peace. Thank you for their courage to put words into action and to be willing to give their lives for us. We give thanks, especially, for those who recently returned home safely from their recent tour.
Finally, we pray for the sick, at home or in hospital remembering especially Helen, Lyle, Sharon and John. May your Healing Spirit may rest upon her and all of us with power. Heal our wounds, Loving God, and empower us for our ministries in this world.
We pray all of this in Jesus’ name.