“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” – John 10:11
(Note: This is part of a longer section that runs from John 10:1-21. It includes Jesus’ calling himself The Gate as well as the Good Shepherd. These two work together in this chapter to highlight different characteristics of our Savior Jesus. If you have time, please take a minute to read these verses.)
In the previous post, Jesus called himself the sheep-gate. The flock enters the safety of the pen and exits into the fertile grasslands only through him. In this illustration, the identity of the sheep is incredibly obvious! The sheep are those who listen to and follow the voice of the shepherd, and so in this chapter, the sheep are those who believe in the Good Shepherd.
I imagine that a number of those reading or listening own a dog or a cat or some other pet. Here in the United States we are blessed with so much food and money that it overflows to house and feed animals that give us really no practical value in return! Yet we feel connections with those animals, often stronger ones than we even feel for most other human beings. We like to think that they love us in return.
A few years ago, I owned a dog named Maddie. She was some sort of Boxer mutt—sweet and shy and a generally good animal. She was my companion during the year that I spent working at a church in Covington, Georgia, as well as my only housemate. I fed her, entertained her with stuffed animals bought at Goodwill, took her on walks and hikes, and greatly enjoyed having her around.
I was very fond of Maddie. But I would never have jumped in front of a bullet for her. I never would have sacrificed myself by diving in front of a truck to push her away before getting hit. Why?
It’s simple. Because Maddie is an animal. I may have liked having her around very much, but that didn’t change the fact that she is an animal. We don’t sacrifice our lives for them. Truth be told, I wouldn’t have even sacrificed very much money to save her if she had gotten deathly ill or needed a surgery. Bring on the hate-mail from the animal-lovers, but it’s the truth.
No sane shepherd would have ever lain down his life for his sheep. The reason for keeping sheep alive was to make money, but it’s hard to make and use money if you’re dead. Perhaps if a little coyote came around a shepherd would ward it off, but no shepherd would have stood in between a sheep and a charging, thousand-pound bear.
Why? Because sheep are animals.
Jesus draws a connection in these verses between a hired worker and the bad spiritual leaders and careless caretakers of Israel. He says, “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.”
There is much to be said about knowing how to spot the differences between good spiritual leaders and bad spiritual leaders in this section. Good spiritual leaders are those who emulate Christ and stand their ground in the face of false teachers (wolves). Bad spiritual leaders are those who water down or sacrifice the truth and have no spine to stand their ground and fend off the false teachers. But that’s all I’m going to say about that in this post.
Instead I want to focus on Jesus as the Good Shepherd. What is it that sets Jesus apart from all the rest? And how does this validate his claims as being the same I AM who revealed himself in days long past as the One True God?
First, Jesus actually cares for the sheep of Israel! Those people were like poor and helpless animals. Even worse, their spiritual leaders—the Pharisees and teachers of the law—did not lead and guide them in gentleness at all! Instead they burdened the people with the Law. They belittled those who did not keep it as well as they assumed they themselves did. Instead of the Law being used properly to point people back to the Promise of a Savior from those sins, they condemned such people with disgust. On top of it all, they added every sort of extra law and demanded that the people follow those along with the hundreds given by Moses!
When Jesus came, he unsaddled the people of that unbearable burden. He spoke words of forgiveness and of God’s love to people who hadn’t thought it possible for them anymore. He spoke of peace with God for prostitutes and heaven for those condemned to execution. He healed people of their physical sicknesses. He showed love to men and women whom nobody else wanted to love—lepers and the demon-possessed.
But Jesus calls himself the Good Shepherd not because he has a great capacity for love. He does this because he is love.
When Jesus gave up his own life on the cross, this was the greatest expression of love that he could show to his sheep. But we were not sheep who deserved it. We were sheep who deserved the opposite. We were sheep who wandered away from the shepherd. We were sheep who believed that we would find greener pastures on our own without him. We were sheep who even at times believed that the shepherd was not good, that he was holding out on us. So he lay down his life, shielding us from the wrath of the Father who punishes sin.
This is something which no other shepherd could do. Perhaps somebody who loves you might save your physical life, but only Jesus had the capacity and the love to save your soul from the eternal death we deserve.
Then we have to ask, though: what good is a dead shepherd? A shepherd who dies to rescue his sheep from one attack cannot save them from anything else!
The second way that Jesus reveals himself as the Good Shepherd is in what he says in verses 17 and 18: “The reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life—only to take it up again … I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again.”
Perhaps by now you’re starting to see a “resurrection-pattern” in this series. The reason for this is simple: all of the miraculous signs that Jesus did, and all of the words he spoke, and all of his selfless actions throughout his life that we find recorded in the Gospel books—these all were pointing ahead not only to the death of Jesus, but to the resurrection. Anybody can die. But the resurrection shows that Jesus is who he said he is!
The Good Shepherd does not stay dead! He lives again to shepherd his flock!
This has, of course, some tremendous implications for us today. First, this means that Jesus has actually beaten death! It does not need to plague us any longer, because it no longer has any real, lasting power. Jesus has broken free of death, destroyed its hold over all of humanity, and in doing so has freed us also. Second, this means that Jesus continues to guard and keep you, because you are his dear sheep. When the wolves attack, when we stumble due to our own sin or the sin of others, when we are depressed or lonely or struggling against the addictions of sin, when we are convinced that we are not loved, the Good Shepherd is there to rescue you, to pick you up, to cheer you with the gospel news, and to love you with the same love that led him to suffer and die for you.
Only God himself is capable of such incredible deeds!
Your homework is simple: in the coming week, whenever you feel yourself vulnerable to attacks—attacks of sin, of emotion, or of outside threats such as hurtful people or situations—pray to your Good Shepherd. Ask him to lead you. Ask him to keep you safe.
Know that your Good Shepherd always does in whatever way he knows is best.