I wonder how close you’ve ever come to a sheep? Is it only the lamb chops that you ate yesterday on Australia day? Or have you seen one in a painting or on TV? Maybe you’ve touched one at a petting zoo, or a children’s farm? What kind of picture do you have of sheep? I grew up on a small sheep farm in Queensland. If you’ve been up close and personal with sheep you’ll know their fleece isn’t ‘white as snow’, but more grey from all the dirt, burrs and ticks. They’re often messy, smelly, and not particularly smart! In today’s passage Jesus calls us sheep. It’s not quite the compliment! But it’s a good illustration, because sheep are utterly dependent on their shepherd.
Being an agricultural society, sheep and shepherds were common figures in Jesus’ day. Everyone listening would’ve been familiar with the images that Jesus describes in this chapter. What’s more they would’ve grasped the deeper significance. Moses & David shepherds. The language of sheep and shepherds runs deep in the Old Testament.
Jesus begins, not by describing the sheep or the shepherds, but by warning of another figure. It’s the thief or the bandit. They have to sneak in because the sheep, and the watchmen don’t know them. In ancient Israel, shepherds would bring their flocks into a pen at night. That way you only needed one person to guard them from predators or thieves. If you weren’t the shepherd, the gatekeeper wouldn’t let you in! So the only option you had would be to try and climb over the walls. Even if you managed to do that, I’m not sure what the plan would be next!
The contrast is with the shepherd. The gatekeeper knows him and opens the gate for him. And not just the gatekeeper, the sheep know the shepherd too! I said before sheep aren’t the smartest of animals. But they’re smart enough to know their master. Even if someone else dressed in the shepherd’s clothes, the sheep wouldn’t come. And the certainly wouldn’t come for a stranger! They only respond to the voice of the shepherd. It’s because they know the shepherd. And he knows them. In verse 3, the shepherd calls them out by name. It’s not that he stands there saying, ‘Come on Sheep,’ or ‘Here sheepy, sheepy.’ No! He knows all their names. So he calls out, ‘Here Fluffy, here Blacky, here Spotty.’ The shepherd knows each sheep individually. And he knows them intimately. So when he calls, they hear, they know and they respond. The sheep only follow their shepherd.
So this morning I want to ask you, do you know the shepherd? Have you heard him call? Have you heard Jesus speaking? This is more than just knowing our Bibles. It’s more than just knowing Sunday school stories, or being able to remember some of Jesus words. In the second half of chapter 10, the Jews, the religious leaders, come to Jesus and ask, ‘How long will you keep jerking us around? Tell us plainly are you the Messiah?’ What does Jesus say to them? He says, ‘I’ve already told you.’ They’d heard Jesus’ teaching, they’d heard him say he was the bread of life, the water of life, the light of life. They’d heard this, but they hadn’t believed. Not only had they heard Jesus words, they’d seen the signs that he’d done. If actions speak louder than words, these signs were giant shout-outs to God’s kingdom, to Jesus glory. Jesus performed these signs so that we might hear, and know, that he is in the Father and the Father is in him. That is, they’re so that we will know that Jesus is equal with the Father, that he’s united with the Father in purpose and will. The signs are so that we’ll know that Jesus is God’s Son. But if we’re to know Jesus the way the sheep know the shepherd, we’ve got to go further than this. We get an idea of the depth of the relationship we’re to have with him in verse 14; ‘I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father.’ It’s more than an intellectual knowledge, it’s a deep, intimate knowledge. It’s not just about hearing his words. It’s receiving, accepting, and obeying his word. It’s about responding to his voice. It would be no good if the sheep in the pen heard their master’s voice but then just stood there and didn’t come running!
And if we understand what he calls us to why wouldn’t we run? Why wouldn’t we flock at the sound of his voice? Why would we listen to any other, why would we follow anyone else? For as Jesus said, those who came before were thieves and bandits. They’ve got no real concern for the sheep’s well being. In a way they’re like the hired hands in verse 12. They don’t really care for the sheep. They’re more interested in their own skin, their own profit, their own wellbeing. The those who came before refers at least to the religious leaders of Jesus day. Those who we saw in chapter nine were quick to question, even quicker to condemn, the man who had been blind. But the warning and rebuke goes beyond this. It covers any, at any time, who’ve exploited God’s people. There’s a strong echo of Ezekiel 34 in this passage. God chastises those who were meant to be shepherds of his people. Those who failed to care for the flock and instead stole their wool and feasted on their flesh. God judges those who abuse their power, who take advantage of the flock, who allow them to wander from God.
Ezek. 34:1 The word of the LORD came to me: 2 Mortal, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel: prophesy, and say to them—to the shepherds: Thus says the Lord GOD: Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? 3 You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. 4 You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them.
But then in his compassion he makes a great promise. In Ezekiel 34:11 onwards, God promise that he will be our chief shepherd. He will gather his people. He will tend to our infirmities, binding up the injured and strengthening the weak. He will lead us to green pastures and provide for us.
Ezek. 34:11 For thus says the Lord GOD: I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. 12 As shepherds seek out their flocks when they are among their scattered sheep, so I will seek out my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. 13 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 watercourses, and in all the inhabited parts of the land. 14 I will feed them with good pasture, and the mountain heights of Israel shall be their pasture; there they shall lie down in good grazing land, and they shall feed on rich pasture on the mountains of Israel. 15 I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord GOD. 16 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, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice.
But then just a few verses later God says he will appoint one shepherd, David over them.
Ezek. 34:23 I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd.
And now Jesus has come. He’s a descendent of David. David’s great, great, great, grandson. But he’s also God the Son. Here is the one who is both God and Man. Here is the great shepherd. The one who’s come to shepherd God’s sheep, to care for his people. He’s come so that we may have life, and have it abundantly. He’s come so that we might have eternal life and never perish. We’ve got to be careful here. Jesus isn’t promising that we’ll have a life of abundance and excess in this world. Our lives aren’t full through an accumulation of stuff, or wealth. True life is life connected with God. It’s life in right relationship with God and with each other. It’s the richness of life in relationship with God here and now, and eternally with him in heaven.
And notice the little reminder that Jesus is the only way we can have this full, eternal life. He’s the gate, the only entrance to it. This is incomprehensible to the world around us. To be lead, to be ruled is to loose freedom. The post-modern world we live in says I should be free to choose what I want. That I can only have the good life if I’m free. But Jesus says that’s completely wrong. It is only through him that we have true freedom.
9 I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.
It’s only through Christ that we are saved. It’s only then that we have freedom to come and go, and to find pasture. He is the Way, the Truth, the Life. No one can come to the Father except through him. Jesus is the good shepherd. He’s the one who not only knows his sheep, but cares for them without measure. He’s the shepherd who provides for our deepest needs.
Did you see the surprising way he does this? In verse 11, Jesus says he is the good shepherd, the one who’s come to lay his life down for the sheep. It’s not the first qualification you’d look for in a shepherd. Maybe patience, gentleness, good understanding of animal husbandry! It’s true that shepherds in Israel needed to face down predators like lions and bears. But the aim was to fight them off, not for the shepherd to actually lay their life down. In fact if they did it would be a disaster for the sheep. There’d be no more shepherd to look after them! But Jesus says that he lays his life down for the sheep, that this is the only way the sheep can be brought into the fold. And notice how we’re brought into one fold, there’s only one flock. This is a great thing I think we’re doing here at St. Thomas’. Demonstrating to the world the way in which God unites us, and unifies us in Christ. As the good shepherd, Christ lays his life down for us. Christ died, and rose again to unite us with God and with each other. He does this out of his love and obedience to the Father, and out of his love for us. And having done that he secures our future too. Having laid his life down to save us, he’s not about to let us go easily. As Paul puts it in Romans:
38 For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Nothing is able to snatch us from Christ’s hand. Jesus says we are greater than all else, and he’s not about to let us go. And neither is the Father.
28 I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. 29 What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand.
How great it is then to be a sheep of this shepherd! To be known, and to know him, intimately. To have him provide for us. To have him protect us. To have him secure our future. To know that he holds us firm in his hand, and that nothing can separate us from him. How great it is to affirm with the Psalmist:
1The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want.
2He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters;
3he restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake.