English service on September 19, 2021
Messenger: Pastor Jim Allison
“I AM the Good Shepherd”
Greetings again to one and all, those of us here in person and those joining online. Last English worship Sunday at Open Door we received the word from Jesus, passed to us through His disciple, John, “I am the gate.” Today’s message comes directly after that in John 10—“I am the good shepherd.”
Well, is He a gate or a shepherd? If we don’t understand clearly what Jesus is saying, it may sound like He is confused or changing His mind or something good speakers are never supposed to do—mixing metaphors. For example, in English you might hear someone talk about how a certain thing is not all that difficult. “It’s not rocket science, you know.” Or with the same nuance, a person will say, “It’s not brain surgery, you know.” OK, but if you mix those two into “It’s not rocket surgery, you know,” the message becomes strange and hard to understand, doesn’t it. Is Jesus doing something like that in calling Himself the gate, then the shepherd?
No, not really. We learned last time that at the gate to a standard community sheep pen in Jesus’ time, there would be a gatekeeper, a kind of shepherd to watch over the sheep while the other shepherds were resting or whatever. Sometimes that person would actually stay in the opening to the pen to block someone bad from entering or allow the right people in. That person was both a gate and a shepherd at the same time. So the two images are not basically different. But they aren’t exactly the same, either, so today let’s take a closer look at what Jesus wants us to understand when He tells us that He is “the good shepherd” (v. 11).
One reason we do this is that, as Sasaki-san mentioned last week, there are times in the life of our community of faith that we need to shepherd each other. God is the shepherd of us all, but sometimes we need a person in our church to lead and protect us, and other times the Lord puts us in a position of responsibility to lead and protect others. There is also the particular situation that churches are in when they
need to call a pastor as leader. In Open Door’s case, of course no one knows the future, but if things continued for the next eight years as they are now, our church would have two robust 70-plus-year-old pastors (senior and associate). Sometime after we reach that point—or possibly before it—this group will need to seek and call the next pastor or pastors to lead the group. What kind of standards should a Christian church use to make such a decision? Looking at Christ’s teachings on the good shepherd can show us a lot about what solid Christian leadership looks like. So let’s go into today’s passage once again with these goals in mind.
Jesus is still in Jerusalem at the Feast of Booths. He has been talking to the man whose eyes He healed, who was then kicked out of the synagogue by the religious leaders. Christ has found him and given Him words of encouragement and salvation. But there are Pharisees who hear Him talking with the man, and they question Jesus. All His words in John 10 up to the point of today’s reading are ones He has spoken apparently somewhere on the street in Jerusalem. They are directed especially to those religious leaders, though also the man who can now see, as well as others, including all of us who can receive the word of God through the Bible today.
Our Lord tells us three main things about a good shepherd in this story.
1. The Shepherd loves the sheep. And the kind of love the God of the Bible teaches is far more than just a strong feeling or great idea of love. Even more, it is an action. And Jesus has just demonstrated what a good shepherd is like through the way He has helped the man in John 9 find sight for his eyes and salvation for his soul. So I want to look at that story a bit more carefully as we note what a good shepherd is like. Jesus does not just give a grand announcement of truth to the world and then go back home to hang out with his disciples or something. He focuses very carefully on the care of one particular person, who can’t see when he enters the story (John 9:1). In that way, Christ is like a typical good shepherd in His culture. There someone in charge of the sheep will count them regularly—one by one—for example when they leave the pen in the morning and come back in at night. The shepherd will stand, for instance at the gate, holding the shepherd’s rod out in front of him or her. When the shepherd lifts it, the sheep will walk by and be counted. Then the shepherd will lower the rod before the next sheep is allowed in. That is called making them go “under the rod.” (Leviticus 27:32, for example uses this phrase.)
So a good shepherd gives individual attention to the sheep. One part of that is knowing the sheep and being known by them. In 10:3, Jesus has told us that the shepherd “calls his own sheep by name.” That is part of what He means in 10:14, “I know my sheep, and my sheep know me.” Later in 10:27 Jesus says, “My sheep listen to my voice. I know them, and they follow me.” Some of you may remember the old RCA advertisement of dog who recognizes “His Master’s Voice.” Sheep are like that. There’s a lot they can’t do, like running fast or biting with big, sharp teeth to protect themselves. But there’s one thing they’re really good at, and it has helped them survive and thrive for thousands of years. They recognize the shepherd’s distinctive sound and follow it.
Jesus seems to be saying that the man He’s healed in John 9 is the same. He is a new follower of Christ, and there’s a lot he doesn’t understand. But when the religious leaders try to get him to reject Jesus and follow their teaching, he resists. He knows that’s not right, and he stays with that belief, even though it gets him in big trouble. He’s like a sheep that just won’t follow a false shepherd. Remember, the first time he meets Jesus (9:1-7), he can’t see Him. After he gets kicked out of the synagogue, Christ finds him. Up to this point he still has never seen Jesus, but he has heard His voice. He doesn’t quite realize who it is at first. Yet when he hears Jesus’ voice telling him He’s the Son of Man, the man knows it’s the Lord. The voice of the Shepherd has led him to the right choice about whom he should follow in faith.
A good shepherd makes a point of going to a newborn sheep and speaking to it, spending some time with it, letting it get to know him or her. That is so that as the sheep grows up, it will recognize the shepherd’s voice, be familiar with its caregiver, learn to live out of that relationship with the shepherd. This is an example of how the good shepherd loves the sheep by sharing their lives and so earning their trust.
Also, a good shepherd protects the sheep. He or she defends them from attackers, violent weather, and other dangers. In the Old Testament, David is a shepherd. When he is ready to fight the giant Goliath in I Samuel 17:40, it says that he reaches into “the pocket of his shepherd's bag” and takes out the “five smooth stones” he has prepared. With them and his sling, he kills the giant and saves his people from becoming slaves. He is able to do this because he is in the habit of doing similar things to take care of the sheep that his father has put in his care as a shepherd. (We’ll think more about David in a few minutes.) In John 9, Jesus protects the man born blind first from the prejudice of people (including his own disciples) who think his handicap is punishment from God (9:1-3). Then he defends the man (vv. 35-38) when he has been kicked out of the synagogue for following Jesus.
Further, a good shepherd provides for the sheep. He or she supplies them with food, water, shade—whatever they need. In the case of the blind man, Jesus helps him gain a faith and the knowledge that he is accepted and valued (9:35-38). These are essentials for living in health and peace—even more vital than the physical sight he also receives from Jesus (9:6-7).
Next, a good shepherd leads the sheep. It is common in the West for shepherds to drive their sheep, using sheepdogs and so on. But Eastern shepherds (Jesus in the Bible is from an Asian culture) lead the sheep, who willingly follow after they know who their shepherd is. Isaiah 40:11 says, “He gently leads those that have little ones.” And when His sheep aren’t strong enough to follow His leading, “He gathers the lambs in his arms. He carries them close to his heart.” Jesus leads the blind man by putting mud on his eyes and sending him to wash in the Pool of Siloam (9:6-7).
And a good shepherd heals the wounded or sick sheep. They may need medicine, bandages, extra rest, or something else. The shepherd will find the particular needs an individual sheep has and do what is necessary to meet them. In the case of the man in John 9, his eyes are what needs healing. So that is what Christ gives his attention (9:6-7). As the man follows Jesus’ leading, he is healed. The man’s side of this healing process is not all passive. By following as he is led, faith in Christ becomes real to him. God knows the parts of your life that need healing now, whether it be your body, spirit, relationships, or whatever it is. He also knows the needs of the people around you and those whom He wants to use you to help heal. You can place them in His hands and trust Him to heal them all in His time.
Finally, a good shepherd saves the sheep—at great cost if necessary. Seeking, finding, and saving lost or trapped sheep may be part of this. To be able to do these things, the shepherd has to spend a great amount of time watching for enemies trying to attack the sheep. A good guardian of the sheep has to endure quite a lot. It’s dirty, hot, cold, hard work. And any shepherd knows how a sheep pen smells! But it’s worth it for the shepherd who really cares for the sheep. In John 9:35 Jesus actively seeks out the man who has been kicked out of the synagogue and begins the conversation with him that soon leads to the man’s salvation. He confesses, “Lord, I believe” and enters a life connected by faith with Christ (v. 38).
This is how Jesus, the good shepherd, loves us, His sheep. So if you want to know what a bad shepherd is like, you can say it is a person who doesn’t do these things because he or she does not have care for the sheep as a motivation. If it weren’t for the money to be earned in that job, this person might not even be there. You can read Ezekiel 34:1-10 and Zechariah 11:15-17a later to see more about the bad kind of shepherd that God says He will punish and replace. In being the good shepherd to the man in John 9, Jesus has shown how He is the fulfillment of the promise that God makes in Ezekiel 34:15-17.
“I myself will take care of my sheep. I will let them lie down in safety,” announces the LORD and King. “I will search for the lost. I will bring back those that have wandered away. I will bandage the ones that are hurt. I will make the weak ones stronger. But I will destroy those that are fat and strong. I will take good care of my sheep. I will treat them fairly.”
How is that kind of love possible? Jesus explains a key fact about it. In verses 14-15 he describes the relationship of personal, intimate knowledge between shepherd and sheep but then links it closely with the same type of relationship that He has with God, His Father. The relationship with God is behind everything good that happens between Jesus and those under His care. As His sheep, that’s why we are so blessed. When we are in the position of being shepherds to others, we need to always remember that our relationship with God is behind every good thing that we are able to do. Protecting and feeding and growing that relationship with God is vital above all else.
So the good shepherd loves the sheep. That’s not a new concept to you, I don’t think. But it really helps to hear it again and keep hearing it, doesn’t it. I felt that recently when I developed a lump on my right arm and went to the doctor to have it checked. The staff cut out the growth and sent it away for testing. I knew there was a chance it was cancerous. I looked online at a Mayo Clinic Web site with various health information. I checked about the kind of growth the doctor had told me it might be. It said,
Anyone can develop actinic keratoses. But you're at increased risk if you:
Have red or blond hair and blue or light-colored eyes [I do.]
Have a history of a lot of sun exposure or sunburn [I do.]
Tend to freckle or burn when exposed to sunlight [I do.]
Are older than 40 [I am.]
Those were the first four items on the list. So I was a little nervous when I went back in a couple of weeks to get the results. I was sitting in the waiting room and heard my name called. When I stood up, I remember thinking that what I learn now could change my life a lot or a little or none at all. But “The Lord is my shepherd” (Psalm 23:1) kept coming to my mind. I think God was just giving me those words because that’s what I needed right then. It really helped to keep them in my mind. The Lord is my shepherd. He takes care of me. As it turned out, the lump was cancerous, but it was already removed. It’s very unlikely for there to be a continuing problem because of that one, so I’m grateful. But with the skin type I have, I need to be careful in the future to locate any others quickly and get the treatment necessary.
2. The Shepherd gives His life for the sheep. Being a good shepherd means many things, but Jesus focuses specifically on one of them here, so we want to do the same. In verse 11 and throughout this passage, Jesus focuses on the shepherd’s willingness to die for the sheep. Why does Christ drill down on this particular point? In part it is because the people He is speaking to (the Pharisees) and other religious leaders are looking for a way to kill Him. In vv. 30-31 of this same chapter, when Jesus says, “I and the Father are one,” He almost gets killed right then and there. “Again the Jews picked up stones to kill him,” we read. This is not the first time His life has been at risk from His nation’s religious leaders, and they eventually will get Him killed by the Roman government.
Also, being a shepherd in Bible times had always been dangerous work that might cost the shepherd his or her life. The sheep’s owner entrusted the sheep’s life to him or her, so if these animals were killed, the owner wanted evidence to show that the shepherd wasn’t failing to do the job (giving sheep to a friend, enjoying a nice Genghis Khan dinner, or whatever). “I’m sorry” wasn’t good enough. An ear that didn’t get eaten by the attacking wild animal or something like that was more likely to convince the owner that the shepherd did the best he or she could to protect the sheep. So we read things in the Bible like Amos 3:12. “The LORD says, ‘Suppose a shepherd saves only two leg bones from a lion's mouth. Or he might save only a piece of an ear. That is how the Israelites will be saved.’” When David is talking to King Saul about going to fight the giant Goliath, he gives as a qualification for the task the fact that he has worked as a shepherd. He says (I Samuel 17:34-35):
I've been taking care of my father's sheep. Sometimes a lion or a bear would come and carry off a sheep from the flock. Then I would go after it and hit it. I would save the sheep it was carrying in its mouth. If it turned around to attack me, I would grab hold of its hair. I would strike it down and kill it.
(Reading that, as a father who has raised teenagers, I wonder if David’s dad, Jesse, knew his son had been doing that. I can imagine a conversation later on between father and son with Jesse saying, “David! When I sent you out there and told you to be sure and take good care of the sheep, I didn’t mean you had to get into hand-to-hand combat with lions and bears! You could have got yourself killed! What were you thinking!?” But that’s apparently what David, the good shepherd, did.)
And, again, at a community sheep pen the gatekeeper often literally was the gate. In addition, when taking sheep far from town, where they would need to stay overnight rather than going back to the community pen, shepherds would make the best pen they could to protect the sheep. But it often would not be as well-built as the one in town. It might be just stones stacked up and brush piled up to fill in the gaps, for example. It might have no solid door made of wood, with a latch. Rather, as in the picture we’ve been using, the shepherd himself or herself would stay in the opening to make sure no one came in to hurt the sheep. At night when sleeping time came, in particular, the shepherd would literally “lay down his life” (v. 15) and sleep. But it was always with the awareness that it might be necessary at any time to get up and fight to protect the sheep. You may have heard someone who was very strongly opposed to something happening say, “Over my dead body!” In other words, I’ll fight to the death to stop that if I have to!” That was the attitude that a good shepherd in Jesus’ time took.
It’s also worth noting that word translated “give” (as in “give my life”), which Jesus uses. For example in v. 18, He says, “No one takes it from me. I give it up myself. I have the authority to give it up. And I have the authority to take it back again.” In some English translations it’s “lay down my life.” This verb is in a form (Greek’s present tense) that shows continuing action. He isn’t pointing only to His once-and-for-all act of dying on the cross, though that is a key focus. Jesus’ whole life was a continual laying down of what He had, but with the reality in view that He would take it up again. Death would lead to something even better than this life: resurrection into unending life. That is the great prize He won in the resurrection and the great hope in which He calls us to live. That is there for us when we have to face death, too, and always. Thank you, God, for that amazing gift.
3. The Shepherd loves the sheep. The Shepherd gives His life for the sheep. Finally (and briefly), the Shepherd unites the sheep. Jesus tells us, “I have other sheep that do not belong to this sheep pen. I must bring them in too. They also will listen to my voice. Then there will be one flock and one shepherd.” As I noted last month, Jesus seems to be talking about non-Jewish people (Gentiles), who have not yet had a chance to hear the good news of salvation in Christ. In a world suffering greatly from the divisions we have made between each other, our Lord says He wants us to be one. He wants people from outside Christianity to come in and become part of His flock. Inside the Christian community, too, His vision for us is not a Baptist flock, Presbyterian flock, independent flock, and so on. He wants us together in Him.
In John 9, we have just seen how religious leaders can use their authority in ways that cut people out of the community of faith, exclude them, and do great damage to them, even when they are honestly seeking God and His salvation. In being just the opposite of that kind of shepherd, Jesus has demonstrated in John 9 how God is keeping the promise that He made so long ago in Ezekiel 34:23-34.
I will place one shepherd over them. He will belong to the family line of my servant David. He will take good care of them. He will look after them. He will be their shepherd. I am the Lord. I will be their God. And my servant from David's line will be prince among them. I have spoken. I am the Lord.
Praise God for keeping His promise in sending His Son Jesus as the Good Shepherd. God’s will for His church is unity that goes beyond our diversity. It is now possible for us to live in the reality of that connected life—even with people very different from us—when we are all under the care of Christ, our Good Shepherd. Amen. Let’s pray.
Protecting, providing, directing, loving God, we know that sheep trust and follow a good shepherd. So we pray with the psalm writer (Psalm 28:9), “Save your people. Bless those who belong to you. Be (our) shepherd. Take care of (us) forever.” This is our prayer. In Jesus’ name, amen.
Fritz, J. (2018, July 28). Jesus Is the Good Shepherd. Illuminate Community. Retrieved September 18, 2021 from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jux_ eykdVrQ
MacArthur, J. (2014, August 22). I Am the Good Shepherd. Retrieved September 18, 2021 from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iI35XKalK28&t=10s
Mayo Clinic. (2021, January 13). Actinic keratosis. Retrieved September 12, 2021 from https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/actinic-keratosis/ symptoms-causes/syc-20354969
Myers, J. (n.d.). Who Are the Sheep Not of This Sheepfold? Illustration. Retrieved August 9, 2021 from https://redeeminggod.com/sheep-not-of-this-sheepfold/