Let me tell you very briefly how things used to be in Palestine during Jesus' time. I believe it will help you have a better understanding of some of the things that Jesus says in our text.
At the time of Jesus, most of the shepherds had small flocks, maybe twenty or thirty in number (Leon Morris, Reflections on the Gospel of John, p. 371). So a group of shepherds often would share a sheepfold. They might even have a doorkeeper in charge of the fold. The sheepfold could be connected to the house or it could be an enclosure in the middle of an open field. In the evening, after a whole day of grazing, the sheep would be brought to the sheepfold. Different flocks, then, would spend the night together in one fold. In the morning, the shepherds would come and call out their own flocks, even by their individual names. Each sheep would hear the voice of its own shepherd and follow him.
John 10:1-30 is Jesus' self-revelation. Jesus tells his audience who he is. In our text he refers to himself as two things; he is the door to the sheepfold; he is the good shepherd. But the dominant image used in our passage is that of Christ being the good shepherd. So we will focus on Jesus Christ as the good shepherd.
Jesus distinguishes between a shepherd and a thief and a robber. The shepherd enters by the door and the doorkeeper opens the door for him. A thief, a robber, does not enter by the door; he climbs up some other way (v. 1). He does not enter by the door because he is not a legitimate shepherd. He is not allowed in because he comes only to steal and kill and destroy (v. 10). He does not care for the sheep. He only cares about his gain; his quick, easy profit, his illegal, illegitimate gain. Because what he intends to do is criminal; because if he is caught, he is subject to punishment, he does not enter through the door. He climbs up when no one is watching, like a snake, ever so secretly, silently, deliberately, murderously. He must come that way because the sheep do not know him. They do not know his voice. They will run away from him. So he must come secretly, silently to attack from behind while the sheep are unaware.
Jesus also distinguishes between a shepherd and a hireling. A hireling is not a true shepherd. A hireling is not the owner of the sheep. For a hireling, shepherding is just a job. He does it to earn his living. It is just a means for his end and nothing more. So when he beholds the wolf coming, he leaves the sheep and flees. The Mishnah ("the first part of the Talmud, containing traditional oral interpretations of scriptural ordinances [halakhot], complied by the rabbis about 200 A.D.") prescribed that one could run away from his sheep and not sin if two or more wolves came and attacked (Leon Morris, p. 379). But Jesus says that a hireling runs away as soon as he sees the wolf coming. Why? Because he cares not about the sheep. He cares not that the wolf will snatch away the sheep he's been shepherding, that they will be scattered without any protection. And we have heard much about how dumb the sheep are. The sheep lost in the wilderness without the shepherd will not know what to do and how to survive.
In telling us that he is the good shepherd, Jesus tells us what he is not. He is NOT a thief and a robber. He is NOT a hireling. HE is the good Shepherd. Notice: he does not just say that he is a shepherd. He declares that he is the good shepherd. He is not just a shepherd. He is a good shepherd. But he is more than just a good shepherd. He is the good shepherd. By calling himself a good shepherd, he is distinguishing himself not only from a thief and a robber, not only from a hireling, but also from bad shepherds. Jesus does not explicitly mention bad shepherds in our passage, but they are definitely implied when he calls himself a good shepherd. We read about the bad shepherds in Ezekiel 34. Listen to what God said to Ezekiel:
Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel. Prophesy and say to those shepherds, Thus says the Lord God, "Woe, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding themselves! Should not the shepherds feed the flock? You eat the fat and clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fat sheep without feeding the flock. Those who are sickly you have not strengthened, the diseased you have not healed, the broken you have not bound up, the scattered you have not brought back, nor have you sought for the lost; but with force and with severity you have dominated them. And they were scattered for lack of a shepherd, and they became food for every beast of the field and were scattered. My flock wandered through all the mountains and on every high hill, and my flock was scattered over all the surface of the earth; and there was no one to search or seek for them" (vv. 2-6).
There we have God's piercing indictment against the leaders of Israel, bad shepherds. They are worse than thieves and robbers, much worse than hirelings. Thieves and robbers are expected to steal, kill and destroy. There is nothing surprising about hirelings running away from the sheep at the first sign of danger. But the shepherds of Israel? They were entrusted with the task of taking care of God's flock. They were to make sure that the sheep of God's pasture lacked nothing. They were to make them lie down in green pastures. They were to guide them beside quiet waters. They were to refresh them and lead them in the paths of righteousness. With rod and staff, they were to protect and comfort the flock of God from all dangers. They were to strengthen the sickly. They were to heal the diseased and bind up the broken. They were to bring back the scattered and seek the lost.
But what did they do? Instead of feeding the flock of God, they feasted on them. Instead of taking care of them, they fleeced the sheep and clothed themselves with wool. Instead of caring for the sickly and diseased, they neglected them and ignored them.
So what should God do? God will surely judge the bad shepherds of Israel with terrifying judgments. And God himself will be the Shepherd of his flock. He will judge the bad shepherds of Israel and be the good Shepherd. So we read in Ezekiel 34:11-16,
Behold, I myself will search for my sheep and seek them out. As a shepherd cares for his herd in the day when he is among his scattered sheep, so I will care for my sheep and will deliver them from all the places to which they were scattered on a cloudy and gloomy day. And I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries and bring them to their own land; and I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the streams, and in all the inhabited places of the land. I will feed them in a good pasture, and their grazing ground will be on the mountain heights of Israel. There they will lie down in good grazing ground, and they will feed in rich pasture on the mountains of Israel. I will feed My flock and I will lead them to rest . . . . I will seek the lost, bring back the scattered, bind up the broken, and strengthen the sick . . . .
How touching and comforting are these words!
But God's promise in Ezekiel has an interesting clause added. God says in vv. 23-24, "Then I will set over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he will feed them; he will feed them himself and be their shepherd. And I, the LORD, will be their God, and my servant David will be prince among them; I, the LORD, have spoken." David, spoken of here, of course, is not the David that died, whose grave is still in Palestine. But how appropriate it is for God to call the designated shepherd David! Was David not a shepherd boy, who was called to rule over Israel as its shepherd-king?
But here in Ezekiel 34, we have God as the true Shepherd of Israel and the David-figure as the one shepherd over Israel. Then who is the shepherd of IsraelGod or David? Of course, for the Old Testament Jews, this was not a problem. They simply understood that God would be the Shepherd of Israel through his servant David. For such was the "normal" way things were done in the Old Testament. The prophets, priests and kings were God's human agents, through whom God ruled over Israel. So it would be with David, the designated shepherd of Israel.
But we know better, don't we? When Jesus says that he is the good shepherd, we know what God really meant by the promise in Ezekiel 34! God himself will be the Shepherd of his people by coming to be with them in the flesh! He will not work through a human shepherd while he himself is sitting on the heavenly throne, far away from his people! He will come into the world as the promised David and walk among his flock and personally care for them.
And this amazing, mind-boggling promise has been so wonderfully and fully realized in Jesus Christ! Jesus is the eternal Word, the divine Word, the begotten God, who became flesh and dwelt among his sheep. Jesus Christ is the divine Shepherd. Jesus is the promised David. So then, in Jesus Christ, who is the God-man, who is both perfectly God and perfectly man, God himself is the Shepherd of his flock as the David-figure. Jesus is the good shepherd, in whom both God and David are the Shepherd of God's flock.
What is more, when Jesus said that he was the good shepherd, how could we not be reminded of the most famous of the Psalms, which begins, "The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall now want"? Especially in the Gospel of John, when Jesus says, "Ego eimi," Jesus refers to his divine being. Ego eimi is translated as "I am"ego is "I" and eimi is "I am". As you can see, ego eimi is an emphatic form. In Greek, to say "I am", all you need to say is eimi. The proper way to translate ego eimi would be, "I myself am". But when Jesus says those words, it means more. Earlier in John, Jesus said to the Jews, "Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am." When he said this, the Jews tried to stone him to death? Why? For what Jesus said spoke clearly, at least to the Jewish mind, that he was God. For God called himself, "I am that I am." And Jesus presented himself as the eternal God by saying, "Before Abraham was, I am." So when Jesus says in John, "I am [something]," his divine nature is implied. And when Jesus says that he is the good Shepherd, it means more than that he is a great leader of people; it means that he is God, who came to shepherd his flock.
Let us go back to Jesus' self-designation as the GOOD Shepherd. Throughout the Scriptures, we do not find this expression "good shepherd" anywhere except here in Jesus' reference to himself. We have descriptions that show how good a shepherd is, but never is anyone called a good shepherd, not even God. We read in Isaiah 40:11, "Like a shepherd he will tend his flock, In his arm he will gather the lambs, And carry them in his bosom; He will gently lead the nursing ewes." But God is not called a good shepherd. What about Ps. 23? There we have a truly beautiful picture of God the Shepherd of David. But even there, despite all the wonderful things that God as David's Shepherd did for him, God was not called a good Shepherd. David simply says, "The Lord is my Shepherd; I shall not want." The goodness of the Lord as David's Shepherd is implied and described, but the Lord is not called a good Shepherd. God in the Old Testament was never called a "good Shepherd".
But Jesus calls himself the GOOD Shepherd. How could he be so daring?
Jesus says in v. 11, "I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep." Jesus lays down here the unique qualification to be a good shepherd: a good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. This is far beyond what is expected of a shepherd, isn't it? A shepherd is to feed the sheep on green pastures. He is to bring them to quiet waters (because the dumb sheep are scared of drinking from the running water). He is to seek out the lost sheep, bind up the broken and strengthen the sick. He must fend off wild beasts and relentless predators. He must stay with the sheep through rain and storm, heat and cold. This would require from the shepherd much time and attention, much effort and energy, even courage to brave many dangers. But laying down his life for the sheep?
This is where all the romantic notion of shepherding bursts. It may be good to talk about shepherds diligently and responsibly taking care of the sheep. But how far are they supposed to go? Shepherds understand the dangers and challenges involved in shepherding the flock. But they do not think about dying for the sheep, however responsible they are, however much they love their flock. They go out to the open field, into the wild, because they think that they will be back home at the end of the day. The ultimate question is, "Does the shepherd exist for the sheep or the sheep for the shepherd?" And the answer is obvious. No sheep is worth the life of the shepherd. Even the Mishnah allowed the shepherd to run for his life if more than one wolf attacked the flock. The romantic notion of the shepherd's care for the sheep has an obvious limit. The sheep will eventually have to be fleeced for the wool. The sheep will have to be sold or slaughtered for sacrifice or for food. For the shepherd to lay down his life for the sheep is ridiculous, utterly foolish.
But what is the core of the good news that we call the gospel? Why is the gospel newsworthy to be proclaimed throughout the world above all other news? Why is it called AMAZING grace? Isn't it precisely because the goodness of Jesus Christ is out of the ordinary in a most mind-boggling mannerso extraordinary as to be deemed foolish in the eyes of the world? So Paul said, "The word of the cross is to those who are perishing foolishness, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. . . . For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not come to know God, God was well-pleased through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe" (1 Cor. 1:18, 21). For the foolishness of God is wiser than men. The gospel is the greatest puzzle, the most baffling mystery of all. "Lo, the Good Shepherd for the sheep is offered; the slave hath sinned, and the Son hath suffered: for man's atonement, while he nothing heedeth, God intercedeth" (Johann Heermann's hymn, "Ah, Holy Jesus, How Hast Thou Offended")! It is the destiny of the sheep to be fleeced, to be slaughtered, to be sacrificed. But Jesus, the good Shepherd, took upon himself the dismal fate of the sheep. Like a lamb, he was led to slaughter. Like a sheep he was led to the shearers in silence.
But why? Here we must leave the pastoral imageries of shepherd and sheep. They have served their function in pointing out the sheer absurdity of the gospel: the Shepherd laying down his life for the sheep. But, after all, man is not a sheep. Sheep were created to be fleeced and sacrificed for man. Man was created in the image of God, to glorify him and to enjoy him forever. But sin entered into the world and man's fellowship was broken. Rather than worshipping the Creator God, man began to worship creatures. Rather than listening to the word of God, man obeyed the voice of Satan. Rather than enjoying God as his chief delight and fellowshipping with him, man formed an alliance with Satan against God and his Anointed. Thus man became a slave of Satan. He was shackled in the bondage of sin and death, guilt and condemnation. He incurred the debt of sin, which is death and eternal punishment.
And Jesus loved his people. But what did it mean for him to love the unlovable, the rebellious, the guilty and the condemned? What would it cost him to redeem them from their bondage, from their slavery; to restore their guilt-ridden souls, to bind their wounds, to raise them up from the dead? Would it be enough for him to come as a healthy doctor to heal the sick? Would it be enough for him to come as a wealthy person and simply pay the debt for his people? No, the debt of his people was so great that he would have to give all he had, even his life. His soul had to be afflicted with the agony of being abandoned by God; his body had to bear the punishment of sin, the wrath of God against his sinful people; he had to taste the bitter torments of hell upon the cross! He the good Shepherd had to lay down his life for his rebellious sheep. He the Son had to sacrifice his life for the servants. He the Judge had to bear the punishment of man, the sinner. He, who is God, had to become man and endure the worst of man's lot. Jesus is the good Shepherd for offering himself for this unthinkable sacrifice.
But there is yet another dimension to Jesus' being our good Shepherd. Some see the meaning of the word, "good", as "beautiful" or "winsome". It may be so. But the text seems to suggest a more viable interpretation of the word.
What does it mean to be a good shepherd? It doesn't just mean that the shepherd is attractive and winsome. When the word "good" is attached to a job title, it no longer means "nice" or "pleasant". A good typist is not necessarily a nice person; a person is called a good typist because she types very fast and accurately. In the same way, when we call someone a good shepherd, it means that he is good at shepherding. What does it mean to be good at shepherding? Jesus says in vv. 27-28, "My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me; and I give eternal life to them, and they shall never perish; and no one shall snatch them out of my hand." Jesus is the GOOD Shepherd because he does not lose his sheep. No one can snatch his sheep from him. He gives eternal life to his sheep and none of them will perish. Jesus is good at shepherding. He is perfect at shepherding.
This is why he laid down his life for his sheep. In order that he might not lose any of his sheep, Jesus was willing to lay down his life. He protected his sheep even at the cost of his own dear life. And he, who was willing to protect his sheep even at the expense of his life, will not allow any of his sheep to be lost. He was willing to lay down his life for his sheep because there was no other way for our sins to be paid for. If so, will he not, as the resurrected Lord of glory and power, use everything at his disposal to preserve and protect the ones he died for?
Oh, how great his love is for his sheep; for you, who have professed your faith in Jesus Christ! Jesus the good Shepherd knows his sheep. He knows you. He calls you by your name. You are not just a number to him, just one of the millions he saves. Before he formed you in the womb he knew you, and before you were born he consecrated you (Jer. 1:5). Before the mountains were born, before he gave birth to the world and to the earth; before the foundation of the world, he knew you. He knew you not with the cold, disinterested omniscience of God. He knew you as his beloved children, as his beloved bride. He has always been mindful of you. He has cared for you as the apple of his eye. He chose you from the foundation of the world. He has called you by your name. If you are here in the household of God, it is only because God has called you by name! Esther, Jane, Tim, John . . . .
You have heard his voice. Trust him. Follow him. Do not depart from him. Do not fear even if you have to walk through the valley of the shadow of death. He has overcome death itself when he rose again from the dead. He knows the way to heaven. He alone can take you to the quiet waters and green pastures of heaven. If you hear his voice and follow him, you are his sheep and his goodness and mercy will follow you all the days of your life. Yes, he came, lived, died and rose again from the dead in order that he might give you eternal life and to give it abundantly. And he cannot fail. So, stay close to him. Never go astray. Listen to his voice and follow him. Yes, read his word, meditate upon his word and let his word guide your every step. Fill your mind with his word and let it be the strength of your life. And he shall lead you to the quiet waters and green pastures of heaven.
New Life Mission Church (PCA)
La Jolla, California