The Shepherd - John 10:1-21

This is a sermon by Nathan Buttery from the evening service on 11th November 2007.

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In January 1943 a young German officer wrote the following letter home to his beloved, not knowing that she would never receive it. He was in Stalingrad, the scene of arguably the bloodiest conflict in human history. And within days the Germans would surrender and the young man’s fate would be sealed. He wrote: “We are entirely alone, without help from the outside. Hitler has left us in the lurch. If the airfield’s still in our possession, this letter may still get out…. So this is what the end looks like. Johannes and I will not surrender.... No, we shall not go into captivity. When Stalingrad has fallen, you’ll hear it and read it. And then you’ll know I shall not come back….. The Fuhrer made a firm promise to bail us out of here; they read it to us and we believed it firmly. Even now I still believe it, because I have to believe in something. If it is not true, what else could I believe in? I would no longer need spring, summer, or anything that gives me pleasure. So leave me my faith, my dear Greta; all my life, at least the last eight years of it, I believed in the Fuhrer and his word. It is terrible how they doubt here, and shameful to listen to what they say without being able to reply, because they have the facts on their side.” Well that letter never made it back to Germany. German high command intercepted the plane carrying that letter because they wanted to find out what troop morale was like. On the other side of the battle line, was a dictator of equal evil and betrayal. The Leninist program was epitomised in a sign at the main concentration camp at Solovki: “With an Iron Fist, we will lead humanity into happiness.”

            Well on a day when we pause to remember those who have given their lives in conflicts around the globe, and give thanks to God for the peace we enjoy in our generation, it’s very sobering to reflect that much war has sprung from ruthless and selfish leadership. Men who trusted their leaders and who even believed in them, like the young man in the letter, have been savagely betrayed by leaders out for their own megalomaniac causes. Followers are simply a means to an end. And sadly poor leadership is an all too common theme in life. We often see it in the workplace, we see it in the home. We even see it in the church, as Christian leaders abuse their positions of responsibility and bully or cajole or fail to keep their promises. But if truth be told, such failings are not a modern invention. They were exactly the same in Jesus’ day, 2000 years ago. And that is why the words of Jesus about the good shepherd are so wonderfully comforting and reassuring. For in this chapter we meet someone who cares very deeply for the people entrusted to him. Here is someone who will not abuse people for their own gain, someone who will provide for them, someone who knows his people intimately and profoundly. And someone who is willing to go the most extraordinary lengths to protect them and bring them out of danger. And that person of course, is the Lord Jesus Christ.

            Now John 10 is not a chapter in isolation. The conversation of chapter 9 continues into chapter 10. In fact really there should be no chapter division at all. You’ll perhaps remember that in chapter 9 Jesus healed a man born blind, and that healing created a storm of controversy. But there was more going on than a simple healing. Jesus made clear that the healing was an acted parable of what was happening in people’s hearts when they came face to face with Jesus. Those who humbly admit their spiritual blindness, who recognise their sin and who come to Jesus for healing, they will be given spiritual sight. They will be forgiven, they will see Jesus as he truly is, their Lord and God. But for those who refuse to admit their need, who think they can see when all along they are blind, then they remain in their blindness. God’s judgement remains on them. And sadly that was the position of the majority of the leadership of Israel. Opposed to Jesus and so blind.

            But there’s something else going on behind the scenes of this chapter. Because 500 years or so before Jesus’ time, God had spoken through the prophet Ezekiel about the poor leadership of Israel. And he said that instead of the rubbish leaders they were getting, he himself would lead his people. Listen to what Ezekiel writes in chapter 34: “Woe to the shepherds of Israel who only take care of themselves! Should not shepherds take care of the flock? You eat the curds, clothe yourselves with the wool and slaughter the choice animals, but you do not take care of the flock. You have not strengthened the weak or healed the sick or bound up the injured. You have not brought back the strays or searched for the lost. You have ruled them harshly and brutally.” That was what the leaders of Israel did at the time. But see what God says next: “I myself will search for my sheep and look after them. As a shepherd looks after his scattered flock when he is with them, so will I look after my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places where they were scattered on a day of clouds and darkness…. I will tend them in a good pasture…. I myself will tend my sheep and have them lie down…. I will search for the lost and bring back the strays... I will shepherd the flock with justice.” And God then said how he would do this: “I will place over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he will tend them; he will tend them and be their shepherd.” So Ezekiel was looking forward to a time when God would judge the poor leaders of Israel and place his shepherd, David, over the flock. And what do we find Jesus doing in John 10. He’s just been speaking to the leaders of Israel, the Pharisees, saying they are blind and are under God’s judgement for not recognising Jesus. And now Jesus says “I am the good shepherd”. Can you see the implication? The leaders are the false shepherds and Jesus is the true shepherd. And those who follow Jesus, like the blind man, are his sheep. It’s an extraordinary claim, because Jesus is claiming to be God’s promised shepherd, the King come to rule his people, in fact God himself. And as the first century hearers heard this ongoing debate, that is exactly what they would have heard. A claim of extraordinary magnitude, which left the nation’s leaders gasping for breath. So with that background in mind then, what kind of leader, what kind of shepherd is Jesus claiming to be? Well he gives us three challenges, as we examine his words. And if you are one of Jesus’ sheep tonight, then there is much to encourage you and to warm your heart.

1) Listen to the Shepherd who cares for you (vv 1-6)

2) Trust the Shepherd who provides for you (Vv 7-10)

3) Worship the Shepherd who dies for you (Vv 11-21)

1) Listen to the Shepherd who cares for you (vv 1-6)

So first then, listen to the shepherd who cares for you. So let’s see what Jesus says as we read from verse 1: “‘I tell you the truth, the man who does not enter the sheep pen by the gate, but climbs in by some other way, is a thief and a robber. The man who enters by the gate is the shepherd of his sheep. The watchman opens the gate for him, and the sheep listen to his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice. But they will never follow a stranger; in fact, they will run away from him because they do not recognize a stranger's voice.’ Jesus used this figure of speech, but they did not understand what he was telling them.” Now in order for us to understand properly what Jesus is saying in these verses, we need to understand a little about first century sheep farming. We tend to have very idyllic views of sheep farmers today, gently shepherding their flocks with the help of their trusty sheepdogs, and their quad bikes and later on cuddling a cute woolly lamb by a roaring fire. Well that’s a long way from the sort of picture Jesus is painting here. Shepherding was actually a very tough business. You see in Jesus’ day, shepherds would often have to contend with wild animals like lions and bears and wolves. He’d have to guard the sheep against robbers. And he would often spend the night with his sheep. Sometimes the shepherd would lie in the doorway of the pen during the night, so that the sheep could not get out and neither could predators get in without having to take on the shepherd. Other times, lots of sheep would be together in a big communal pen, probably in a village, and a guard would be paid to look after the sheep. Then in the morning the shepherd would come and call out his sheep by name. And so when the sheep heard their name and the voice of the shepherd, they would come out. That’s the picture Jesus has in mind here. And it would have been immediately understandable to the people because sheep were as common in Jesus’ day as cats and dogs are in ours. But also Jesus’ use of sheep as a picture of his people is not very flattering at all. Just observation shows how daft they are. We were up in the Moors in October and we saw plenty of illustrations of the stupidity of sheep. One time we saw an entire flock of about 100 sheep all queuing up in a very long straight line to get through a tiny gap in the wall. The stupid thing was that 20 yards down the wall was a massive gap that they could get through all at once if only they’d noticed it. Another time the leading sheep in the flock jumped over an imaginary boulder as he walked along. And as the next sheep following him got to the same spot, every one jumped over the same imaginary boulder. PhD’s have been written on the stupidity of sheep. Sheep need caring for, they need looking after. They cannot survive on their own, unlike other animals. So when God says through Isaiah that “we all like sheep have gone astray, each one has turned to his own way” then we can see how stubborn and foolish we are as human beings. We’re as daft as sheep. It’s not a flattering comparison. And it is that imagery that Jesus is using here to make his points. John says in verse 6 that he is using a figure of speech. We shouldn’t press all the points literally, but he is using picture language to make his points.

            So what exactly is he saying? Well Jesus is saying that as the shepherd he is the one who leads his people, the sheep of his flock. If you are trusting in Jesus Christ today as Lord and Saviour then you are one of his flock. And notice what Jesus does in verse 3: “The sheep listen to his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.” Jesus is the shepherd who cares for his sheep. He knows each one by name. He calls them personally. Every person in his flock, every person who is his he knows by name. He knows you intimately and deeply if you are a Christian. He knows everything there is to know about you, even more than you know about yourself. And says Jesus, verse 4: “When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice.” Shepherds in the Middle East lead their flocks from the front as opposed to the West where shepherds drive their flocks from behind. And amazingly a shepherd can stand at the pen and calls his own sheep by name, even if flocks are mixed together, and each sheep comes out. Even today that happens. Why? Because the sheep recognize the shepherd’s voice. They will only follow the shepherd they know. He leads, they follow. And spiritually speaking, that is exactly what happens too. Jesus’ sheep hear his voice and follow. They won’t listen to the voices of the others. The sheep won’t follow a stranger because they don’t recognise his voice. So as God’s people, we will only listen to the shepherd’s voice. We won’t be swayed by the voices of others. And that actually is precisely what happened in chapter 9. There the blind man heard and obeyed Jesus’ voice. But he refused to listen to the voice of the Pharisees. And they show themselves not to be of Jesus’ flock, because they do not understand his voice in verse 6. So Jesus’ words are being lived out right in front of him as people react differently to his teaching.

            Now if truth be told, there are many voices clamouring for our attention today aren’t there? Many false shepherds claiming to know what is best for us. In terms of sexual ethics we’re told that we should express ourselves sexually, because holding ourselves back, and keeping sex for within marriage is repressive and dangerous. But the good shepherd says sex is for marriage. He knows best. Whose voice will you listen to? Many false shepherds today, even religious leaders, are saying that religious compromise is the best way forward. Multi faith services, a recognition that all religions are valid and need to be upheld, the extreme danger of saying that Jesus is the only way and other ways are false. We can’t say that can we? The good shepherd says I am the gate. The only way into the pen. Whose voice will we listen to? Many voices will tell us that standing up for your faith at work or in college or in the home is a foolish thing to do. Just keep your mouth shut, keep your head down, go with the flow, don’t rock the boat. Jesus, the good shepherd says live the Christian life as light in the world. Go into all nations proclaiming me. Whose voice will you listen to? His voice is clear. As we read his word the Bible, the shepherd speaks with absolute clarity. The question is who will you listen to? The shepherd or the robbers? The good shepherd is the one who knows his sheep best and what they need. The robbers are only out to destroy and kill, even if they wear the clothes of religion. They might look like sheep, but actually they are wolves. It’s not about the way you look, it’s the voice you speak with. And a false shepherd is revealed by his voice. So who will you listen to? The false shepherds, who really couldn’t care tuppence for your welfare. Or the good shepherd who cares for you, who knows you by name, who calls you to follow him. Yes, his ways may be more costly to you, as the blind man found out. But the good shepherd knows what is best for you. So listen to the shepherd who cares for you.

2) Trust the Shepherd who provides for you (Vv 7-10)

But second we must trust the shepherd who provides for us. Let’s read from verses 7-10: “Therefore Jesus said again, "I tell you the truth, I am the gate for the sheep. All who ever came before me were thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. He will come in and go out, and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.”” So how then does Jesus provide for his sheep? Well here he claims to be the gate to the sheep pen. That is he is the only way in to the pen. Time and again in John’s gospel Jesus makes it clear that Jesus is the only way to the Father. He is the only way to God. So in that sense he provides for his sheep in that he is the access point into the pen. He alone gives us access to the Father. If you come to Jesus you will be saved. But notice what else he does in verse 9. Through Jesus we are cared for and taken to pasture. Jesus feeds his sheep, he cares for them, he provides for them. Compare Jesus to false shepherds and thieves. They just want to kill the sheep or eat them or lead them astray. Jesus wants to protect and feed his sheep. And so wonderfully in verse 10, Jesus says that he has come to give life and life to the full. That is what Jesus does for his sheep. He gives them life and life to the full. True life is found only in Jesus Christ. So we might try and find all sorts of fulfilment in our possessions, our relationships, our status, our work, our looks, our academic achievements. But nothing comes close to knowing the life that Jesus offers. And if you are yet to trust in Christ and give him your life, then please be aware that the only way you will find true life, life in all its fullness, is by coming to Jesus. For true life is knowing God. That is what we were made for. We might find enjoyment in many things, but even the best things are but fleeting experiences. True joy, true delight is found only in Jesus Christ.

            But there is something else here which those of us who would claim to be Christ’s who claim to be in his flock, need to ponder again. And that is that despite all the ups and downs of life, we have a shepherd who cares for us intimately. There is plenty in this chapter to encourage us of that fact. The fact that the shepherd knows his sheep by name. The fact that the shepherd leads his sheep to pastures and feeds them. The fact that the shepherd fights off wolves and robbers on our behalf. The fact that he guards the pen with his life. Translated into spiritual truths, all that means that Jesus knows us intimately and perfectly. He knows exactly what our fears are for this week. He knows exactly what our pain is today deep in our hearts. He knows our worries, he knows our secret sins, he knows our greatest joys. In fact, in verses 14 and 15, Jesus’ knowledge and relationship with his people is compared to that of Jesus with his Father. That’s how deep the relationship is! And if you are struggling, or fearful, or downhearted, or simply weary with what you have experienced this last week, or even this last year, then please take these truths to heart, that your shepherd really does care for you. You are known personally to the king of kings. You are deeply loved and very much treasured. And that is a truth that we his flock need to take to heart again and again. Because it is easy to believe the lie that the shepherd is out to fleece us. He doesn’t have our best interests at heart. He wants to hurt us and cause us pain. Not the good shepherd. Yes he may allow us to endure tough times, but we are never alone, even in the darkest nights of the soul. Even when those we love forsake us, even when our nearest and dearest cannot understand, the good shepherd does.

            This week I read the story of the little boy who was eagerly looking forward to the birthday party of a friend who lived only a few streets away. When the day finally arrived, a blizzard made the pavements and roads nearly impassable. The lad’s father, sensing the danger, hesitated to let his son go. The youngster reacted tearfully. “But Dad,” he pleaded, “all the other kids will be there. Their parents are letting them go.” The father thought for a moment, then replied softly, “All right, you may go.” Surprised but overjoyed, the boy bundled up and plunged into the raging storm. The driving snow made visibility almost impossible, and it took him more than half an hour to trudge the short distance to the party. He was actually beginning to wonder if this really was a good idea, and he was afraid he might get lost in the blizzard. But he made it, and as he rang the doorbell, he turned briefly to look out into the storm. His eye caught the shadow of a retreating figure. It was his father. He had followed his son’s every step to make sure he arrived safely. His son was never in any danger at all. And to a far greater degree, the good shepherd cares for us and will never forsake us or leave us. He provides for us and grants us life in all its fullness! So will you trust him? Will you trust him when the days are dark, and when the days are bright? Will you remember that he cares for you and loves you far more than you can ever imagine? Trust the shepherd who provides for you.

3) Worship the Shepherd who dies for you (Vv 11-21)

But perhaps the most remarkable way the shepherd provides for us is through his death for his sheep and that brings us to the final challenge. Worship the shepherd who dies for you. Now normally the death of the shepherd would spell disaster for the flock. If the shepherd died for some reason, then the flock was open to attack. The sheep were open to all sorts of dangers. And there would have to be a very good reason for the shepherd to lay down his life. So you would never get a shepherd who would simply die for the sheep to show his love for them. It would be daft if you had a shepherd who suddenly turned to the sheep and said: “My dear flock, I really love you. And to show my love I’m going to jump over this cliff.” It’s meaningless, and the sheep would just look quizzically at each other wondering what is going on!

            But the death of our shepherd is a death with real purpose and meaning. It’s something Jesus mentions five times in the last section. For example in verse 11: “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand is not the shepherd who owns 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.” Jesus isn’t like a hired shepherd who clears off at the first sight of trouble, like a wolf. No this shepherd cares for the sheep. He loves his sheep, and he laid down his life for us. And why did he do that? Simply to show his love? Well yes, but it was love with a purpose. He died because we were in serious danger. We were facing God’s judgement, his righteous wrath for all we have done wrong! Far more serious than a wolf or a lion. But still requiring the life of the shepherd instead of ours. He took our guilt, our shame, our judgement, because he loves us and wants us to know life and forgiveness in all its fullness. And do you notice that Jesus does it willingly in verse 18: “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.” What an amazing shepherd that should go to such incredible lengths for you and me, stupid foolish ungrateful sheep that we are. And how do you respond to such a shepherd? Surely nothing less than total worship and adoration for the one who loves and cares for us so much.

            You see there are many who would seek to claim our affection and following, many who promise so much. Many leaders who come and go. But no-one compares to the good shepherd in terms of his care and provision. No-one in terms of his love and compassion. No-one in terms of his exclusive claims to be the promised Shepherd King, the living God in the flesh. So how do you respond? Well I can think of no better response than to echo the words of the psalmist as he wrote about God as his shepherd. As we come to the NT we realise that this shepherd is Jesus himself. Is this your shepherd, the one you trust with your life, the one who is claims your love and adoration? “The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not be in want. He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters, he restores my soul. He guides me in paths of righteousness for his name's sake. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Surely goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever.”

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