|The Names of Jesus #6
"I Am the Good Shepherd"
April 19, 1998 / John 10:1-18
A.S. Reitz told of visiting in the home of a friend and seeing a strange biblical motto framed on the wall. The surprising words were these: "The Lamb Is My Shepherd." What a foolish confusion of biblical metaphors and texts, he thought to himself. A lamb cannot also be a shepherd!
He moved closer and cleaned his smudged bifocals. Sure enough, the quotation was the familiar "The Lord is my Shepherd" from Psalm 23. He smiled at his initial misreading. But it set his mind to turning over the two metaphors his mistaken reading had mixed. Soon he began to see a fresh insight, though, as he remembered that the New Testament presents Jesus as both the Good Shepherd and the Lamb of God.
"The glorious Gospel has just been held up before me in a new light," Reitz told his friend. "I am reminded that the apostle John on Patmos saw a vision which assured him that the resurrected Lamb who shares the throne with God the Father shall guide his people even when they get to heaven. Yes, my friend, I’m glad my glasses were dirty. Misreading that motto has given me a rich blessing, for it could have truthfully read ‘The Lamb is my Shepherd.’ "
The words of the Apocalypse are emphatic on this point: "For the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd; he will lead them to springs of living water. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes" (Rev. 7:17). In the previous two sermons in this series on "The Names of Jesus," we explored the dual role of Jesus as the Lamb of God — both in his sacrificial role and as the triumphal lamb. In this one, we will look at his work as our Good Shepherd.
He Satisfies Every Need
The Parable of Shepherd and His Flock is based on the normal daily routine of an eastern shepherd, a routine which we westerners can picture correctly only with the greatest of difficulty. Shepherding in that culture — either in antiquity or today — has no similarity to our methods of ranching huge herds of animals. A given shepherd would have a few animals he owned and tended. Not uncommonly, he would move about in company with other shepherds like himself and bed down for the night with some of them for his own security and that of his little flock.
The nightly sheepfold was built either in a yard adjacent to a house and used the house itself as one of its walls or erected in the open country as a low circular enclosure. On one side of the pen would be an opening about six feet wide — the only place one could enter without climbing over its low wall.
That six-foot wide gate was one of the most interesting features of the structure. The mental picture of a swinging door or rope gate hung from one side of the opening to its opposite is entirely western. Such a device would have been unknown by and useless to the shepherds of Jesus’ time and place. The Palestinian shepherd provided no "gate" to his sheepfold beyond his own body.
As the night came on, the shepherd would stand just inside the opening of the fold and call his sheep. As they came through the opening one by one, he would stop calling only when the last animal was safe inside the shelter. Then, with his shepherd’s crooked staff and a rod (i.e., club) beside him, he would lie down in the doorway and sleep with his own body across the opening. The gate to the sheepfold was therefore no ordinary device of wood, iron, or rope. It was a living person. For one of the sheep to wander away or for an intruder to harm one of them, he would first have to pass over the body of the light-sleeping, solicitous shepherd.
What a beautiful description of Christ’s role as our Redeemer. In his very person, Jesus is our means into the salvation of the kingdom of heaven. "I tell you the truth," he said, "I am the gate for the sheep. . . . I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. He will come in and go out and find pasture" (John 10:7,9).
The role Jesus pictures for himself in this parable invites us to see him as both the Savior and Protector of his people. He saves all who will enter the kingdom of God by his person and work at the cross and then proceeds to keep them safe by putting them under his attentive care. John Chrysostom’s comment on this in the earliest centuries of the Christian era can hardly be improved: "When he brings us to the Father he calls himself a Door, when he takes care of us, a Shepherd."1
The use of this dual imagery impresses us with the truth that Jesus satisfies every need of those who believe in him. What is necessary for us to be saved? Jesus. What is necessary for us to stay saved? Jesus. To whom, then, do we give all our praise and adoration? We sing "Hosanna" to Jesus and give him all the glory!
Any thief or robber attempting to get into God’s sheepfold by some other means is up to no good. A thief, after all, is only interested in stealing, killing, and destroying (John 10:10a); he plans to butcher the sheep. The Good Shepherd, on the other hand, leads gently by going on ahead and calling us to safe and nurturing place; he intends only good for those who follow him (John 10:10b).
Following the Good Shepherd
Those of us who know Jesus’ voice take delight in following him for the simple reason that we trust his leadership. We know his intentions. Therefore his voice has an appeal that none other offers. Going back to verse 5, recall that Jesus said: "But they will never follow a stranger; in fact, they will run away from him because they do not recognize a stranger’s voice."
Christ’s sheep know him and love the sound of his voice. That is why the Word of God is precious to them. That is why his words have such authority in our lives. That is why obedience is anything but burdensome to those who know Jesus in truth, for he would never call one of his sheep to a place that was not best for them.
And just as a shepherd knows and names his sheep, we are assured in Holy Scripture that the Good Shepherd knows each of us by name. "The Lord knows those who are his" (2 Tim. 2:19).
I heard of a mother who was being asked by a census taker how many children she had. "Well," she began, "there’s Harry and John and Martha and . . ." "Never mind giving me their names," the man interrupted. "Just give me the number." An indignant woman stood her ground and said, "They haven’t got numbers; my children have all got names!" That’s the nature of our relationship with the Lord Jesus.
The very hairs of your head are numbered (Matt. 30:10)! The Lord Jesus knows you in terms of your peculiarities and special needs. He knows what you need in your spiritual diet. He knows how far you can walk without being exhausted. He knows how much heart you can bear. And he knows that you like the sweet grass of his loving nurture and the refreshing water of his Holy Spirit! Why wouldn’t you follow such a Good Shepherd!
It would be practically impossible for anyone who knows the Bible to read Jesus’ words about his name-title "Good Shepherd" and not think of the Shepherd Psalm. Perhaps a brief look at it is the best possible way for us to close this study of John 10.2 While the Parable of the Shepherd and His Flock looks outward from Jesus to his flock, Psalm 23 calls each believer to reflect on the personal significance of being one of the sheep in that blessed sheepfold.
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 (Psa. 23:1-6).
The incredibly personal nature of this psalm invites us to understand the love of God as it seeks out and blesses individuals. It is neither Israel nor the church that God shepherds; he loves and saves men and women as persons of value in his eyes. The God who knows our names is known to each of us as "my shepherd." So the writer makes the bold claim to God’s interest and love without even mentioning the other sheep of the flock. This is not to be interpreted as selfishness. It is simple awareness of how intensely personal the love of God is for his covenant people.
In meeting all the needs of his sheep — green pastures, quiet waters, guidance along the path — God has acted "for his name’s sake." This is not to say that he acts for the sake of some advantage to himself. To the contrary, it means that he does all these things out of loyalty to his nature and promises. The Good Shepherd will always guide his sheep "in the paths of righteousness."
Indeed, even when I walk through the darkest valley (alternative translation, verse 4), whether that be death or some other somber place, I have nothing to fear and I will not fear, because my Shepherd is with me, protecting me with His club and guiding me with His staff (verse 4). My security lies not, then, in my environment — whether green pastures and still waters or the darkest valley — but in my Shepherd. In His presence there is neither want (verse 1) nor fear (verse 4).3
Then, when all the experiences of life are finished, what awaits? The sheep in Christ’s sheepfold will be escorted into the Father’s own house to participate in the great banquet of eternal reward. The journey will be complete. The Good Shepherd will have kept his promise of security for those under his care.
Seven-year-old Bobby was facing surgery for the first time in his young life and was scared. His parents called the minister of their church to visit him, and he came directly. After his brief visit, Bobby appeared to be completely free of his initial terror. The boy’s physician took particular note of what had happened and later asked the preacher what he had said to calm the child’s fears.
"I first told him that Jesus would take care of him," said the minister, "and then asked him if he remembered Psalm 23. When I began quoting it and he replied that he knew those verses, I asked him to count off its key words on the fingers of his left hand. Beginning with the thumb and moving to his pinky, I told him to let each finger stand for a word in its turn, ‘The - Lord - is - my - shepherd.’"
"So that explains it!" said the doctor. "I wondered why he kept holding the final two fingers of his left hand. He held them tightly all the way to the operating room and right up to the time he went under the anesthesia. He was clinging to ‘my shepherd.’ "
May all of us do the same in every circumstance of this rocky, winding, treacherous path called life. When we are safely at the banquet table in our Father’s house, each of us can thank him for being "my shepherd."
1 Cited by Hoskyns and quoted in George R. Beasley-Murray, John (Waco, TX: Word Books, 1987), p. 169.
2 Lloyd J. Ogilvie, The Communicator’s Commentary: Acts (Waco, TX: Word Books, 1983), p. 92.
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