Sermon for May 7, 2017 (fourth Sunday of Easter)
Acts 2:42-47; Psalm 23:1-6; 1 Pet. 2:19-25; John 10:1-10
THE GOOD SHEPHERD (John 10:1-10)
By Martin Manuel
On YouTube at http://youtu.be/Coq_grSFlNs
Today is the 4th Sunday of Easter, traditionally referred to as “Good Shepherd Sunday.” Its theme is Jesus the Shepherd of God’s flock and the blessings of being his sheep. Our passage today in John 10 uses the metaphors of sheep, shepherds and sheep-raising to teach us about Jesus and his relationship with his followers. Here we find Jesus’ description of the only legitimate pastoral ministry of humans—one centered on and totally immersed in him, and extended by him to his followers.
Overview of shepherding and sheep
Jesus, in line with the authors of the Hebrew Scriptures, used sheep and shepherds in his teaching to refer to the people of God and their leaders. In ancient Israel, sheep were the predominant domesticated animals and owners of flocks derived income from their meat and wool. Lambs played a major role in temple worship, though they were expensive enough that poor people generally could not afford a lamb for sacrifice.
Sheep and shepherds make enlightening metaphors because their characteristics and relationships differ from those of other domesticated animals and their owners. Goats and sheep are similar, but sheep must be attended to and cared for, while goats are independent and robust. Unattended sheep can get into all sorts of trouble, including succumbing to falls, snakebite, poisonous weeds or exposure. They are easy targets of predators, and because they are valuable, sheep-stealing was widespread.
Note to preacher: these comments about sheep do not apply to wild sheep, such as those in the Rocky Mountains. The biblical metaphors and thus what is said in this sermon about sheep pertain to domesticated sheep, which were familiar to the biblical audiences.
As we saw in the video, sheep recognize the voice of their shepherd. Not only do individual sheep respond to their distinct names, the flock responds to the distant call of the shepherd. This call can summon the whole flock from amazing distances — as far as the ear can hear. The sheep respond by running toward the shepherd, letting out loud baaahs as they come. Sheep distinguish other voices from that of their shepherd, and either do not respond, or run away. Sheep dogs can help gather flocks, but the shepherd’s call has a greater effect. The shepherd’s staff continues to be used for care, protection and management of the sheep.
Reasons for Jesus’ statements
To understand Jesus’ statements in John 10, we must look back at what preceded them. Note the closing verses of chapter 9: “Some of the Pharisees near him heard these things, and said to him…” Jesus was speaking to Pharisees, who were Jewish religious leaders with authority over the synagogues, and generally opposed to Jesus. Because a previously blind man insisted that Jesus had healed him, he had been put out of his home synagogue.
Examining John 10:1-10
Speaking to some of these Pharisees, Jesus said this:
Truly, truly, I say to you, he who does not enter the sheepfold by the door but climbs in by another way, that man is a thief and a robber. (John 10:1)
Here Jesus was challenging the legitimacy of the Jewish religious leaders and teachers. He likens them to thieves and robbers breaking into sheep enclosures to steal the sheep. Think of your neighborhood: if you noticed someone prying open your neighbor’s window to enter the house, you’d call the police—righful owners don’t enter that way.
In making this statement, perhaps Jesus was indicting that it was the Levitical priesthood that had legitimate authority in Israel, not the Pharisees or Sadducees—those who had only implied authority, sitting as they were in “Moses’ seat” (Matthew 23:1). In the earlier incident of the blind man in John 9:28-29, the Pharisees ignorantly challenged Jesus’ authority: “You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.” They thought they had a valid argument, but they were dead wrong.
But he who enters by the door is the shepherd of the sheep. (John 10:2)
Jesus alludes here to a legitimate leadership and teaching authority, fulfilling the role of shepherd. A true shepherd would have no reason to use inappropriate tactics to lead and thus care for the sheep. The Hebrew and Greek words for “shepherd” mean to feed or tend. The idea is very different than that of boss, supervisor, or owner. Jesus deliberately chose this idea to convey his relationship with his followers. Though he truly is their rightful Lord, he interacts with them in a far more gentle, sensitive, and caring way than “Lord” might connote. The term pastor is derived from the Latin word for shepherd.
To him the gatekeeper opens. The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. (John 10:3)
Large flocks of sheep kept in pens enclosed by fences or walls usually had someone assigned to watch the gate. When the shepherd approached, the gate attendant opened. Not only did he recognize the shepherd, so did the sheep, who respond to the shepherd’s voice.
When he has brought out all his own, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice. (John 10:4)
The shepherd calls and the sheep come—he leads them to the pasture by talking to them as he goes out in front. They have both his words and example to follow. Jesus was implying here that he is the recognized and thus legitimate shepherd. His followers, such as the healed blind man, understand that there is something different about him from others who lay claim to spiritual leadership. This fact is clear in John 9, where the previously-blind man said this:
Why, this is an amazing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners, but if anyone is a worshiper of God and does his will, God listens to him. Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a man born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing. (John 9:30-33)
This man could see what the Pharisees were missing. And now in chapter 10, Jesus is explaining this ability possessed by all his followers: they recognize him, he leads them, they follow. Augustine used the term “prevenient grace” (meaning “grace that goes before”) to describe the activity of God’s grace through the Holy Spirit in the life of someone before their baptism, going ahead in preparation of the mind for a life of faith. This man heard the Shepherd’s call in the voice of Jesus through this “grace that goes before.”
A stranger they will not follow, but they will flee from him, for they do not know the voice of strangers. (John 10:5)
From the time the blind man experienced God’s grace in Jesus, he was convinced to become a follower. He was not about to be swayed by the arguments of false shepherds. Whether or not we accept Augustine’s terminology, Jesus made plain the concept: as sheep know their master, his followers instinctively know the difference between imposters and their legitimate Shepherd.
This figure of speech Jesus used with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them. (John 10:6)
Jesus often used figures of speech such as metaphors. He did not intend that those who heard him should think literally that he was talking about the business of sheep raising. Humans have sheep-like characteristics, and their leaders are shepherd-like. This enlightening metaphor explained the difference between Jesus and the Jewish religious leaders of that day. We can understand it in a similar way as we distinguish between Jesus and modern religious leaders.
Truly, truly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep. (John 10:7)
In addition to his role as shepherd, Jesus also fulfilled the role of the door or gate to the sheepfold. This fact implies that others can be legitimate shepherds as long as they enter through the legitimate (and only) door. Jesus chose his apostles, training them to be the first in the line of legitimate shepherds who would serve the flock of God in, by and through their relationship with the great Shepherd of the sheep, Jesus. These “under-shepherds” would possess the same characteristic as Jesus in relationship to the sheep, who would then recognize and follow them.
All who came before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them. (John 10:8)
Remember that Jesus was talking to a group of Pharisees. In saying “before me,” Jesus is not including all the Old Testament leaders who had preceded him. More likely, he is referring to this group of his contemporaries, though, perhaps, he was referring to all who ever came without being sent by God and his word. The point is that legitimate shepherds always come through the living Word of God, Jesus Christ.
I am the door. If anyone enters by me, he will be saved and will go in and out and find pasture. (John 10:9)
Just as the only legitimate way to enter into ministry is through Jesus, the only way to salvation and everything that goes with it is in and through Jesus, who is our salvation. Not only do servant-shepherds need to enter through the door (Jesus), so do Jesus’ followers. Going in and out through him results in finding the blessings of good (life-giving) pasture. It is in this pasture that the sheep reside safely and have all they need for nourishment. In the metaphors of sheep, shepherds, and sheep-raising, pasture represents the spiritually safe feeding and resting place that Jesus’ followers have in him.
The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly. (John 10:10)
Thieves are not good people. Anyone who has had their home broken into knows this. The same is true for illegitimate shepherds. Their intent toward the sheep is anything but good. The serpent in the Garden of Eden did not have the interests of Adam and Eve at heart. He was there to take something away from them, tricking them into believing that through following his advice they would gain something they did not have.
Through this act of thievery, Satan succeeded in taking away the trustful life-giving relationship Adam and Eve had enjoyed with their Creator. The serpent got them to join his rebellion against God, and the result for humanity was death. Now comes Jesus, the Good Shepherd, to restore humanity not only to life, but to “abundant” life—a reference to eternal life, to life of the eternal kind.
It should be clear that Jesus holds the shepherds of the sheep—the leaders of ancient Israel, and now of the church—to a very high standard. Jesus would never expect his sheep to tolerate leaders who are not endorsed by him; leaders who do not lead the way Jesus leads his sheep. However, it is sometimes not clear who is and is not from Jesus. But this instruction from our Lord gives us helpful guidance. False shepherds “steal, kill and destroy” through selfish action that reflect an “I am in this for me” mentality. False shepherds are in it to enrich themselves. Jesus calls them thieves. In Matthew 7:15-20, Jesus calls them false prophets—wolves in sheep’s clothing.
Jesus, the true and great Shepherd and his faithful under-shepherds come not to take from the sheep, but to give—especially to give abundant life—life forever, life unlike anything presently known, life with our Creator in paradise, life experienced at the grand conclusion of transformation into the likeness of Jesus, perfect in character, full of love, joy, and peace, life shared in reunion with precious loved ones and friends. This is the life the true Shepherd, our Lord, is and brings.
Let’s consider a few things this text teaches us as followers of Jesus. First, not all that is religious is valid and genuine. Even in the worship of the true living God, as it was in first-century Judea, it matters that the leaders are centered in Jesus Christ and serving for the best interests of the people being served instead of themselves. Beware of religious pluralism, the idea of alternative approaches to God other than Jesus. These ideas may appeal to a person’s desire to be open to diverse opinions, but keep in mind that accepting diversity is good only as long as it is in Christ. Remember, Jesus says, “I am the door.”
So how do we discern whether something that professes to have come through Jesus is authentic? The answer is more than can be covered in this sermon, but the first principle is that it starts with Jesus and continues with those who, as he said, “enter by me.” The apostles were first to be trained and sent by Jesus, and they passed on their valid and genuine pastoral ministry through and in the church. In explaining how this applies to modern followers of Jesus, Thomas Torrance wrote this:
The Church continues to be Apostolic when, resting upon Apostolic foundation and determined by the unfolding of the Mind of Christ within the Apostolic tradition, i.e. the New Testament, it continues throughout history to conform to the Apostolic doctrine. In the most concrete sense this means a succession of obedience to the Holy Scriptures as the source and norm of the Church’s continued existence.
An apostolic church is not a group with new ideas and teachings. Its ideas and teachings stem from the apostles and have their continuance in the church’s orthodoxy through the centuries, which remains faithful to Scripture.
The second principle in identifying something that is genuine has to do with us, his followers. Jesus expects us to trust him, to respond to his words, and to follow where he leads. Our relationship with him is daily and ongoing, not just an occasional worship event. We “go in and out” through him and with him “find pasture.” We live in and with him, by the Spirit, in every aspect of life. At the same time, we studiously avoid counterfeit, substitute imposters—false spiritual leaders and religious activities that hold out promises Jesus has not made, using tactics Jesus never uses.
The third principle is that we always consider the outcome. Followers of Jesus experience his grace instead of empty and fruitless religion. The abundant life that Jesus gives, which is relevant to everyone, is experienced by his followers. It involves freedom—specifically freedom from:
- guilt because in Christ, who took on our sins, we are forgiven
- emptiness and loneliness because we are loved by the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and share that divine love with brothers and sisters of the same faith
- the destructive effects of sin because daily we are being transformed through the Holy Spirit
- religiosity because everything we have and do is in Jesus, who perfectly worships God on our behalf as our substitute, perfecting our imperfections
- fear because he gives us hope for a fabulous future, devoid of pain, sorrow, and death.
Good Shepherd Sunday is a vivid reminder to us that Jesus was, is and always will be the good Shepherd of God’s flock. He also is the door through which servant shepherds, or pastors, serve his sheep, the church. Trusting and following Jesus is the only way to a life that is joyfully full, utterly secure, and forever free. Following Jesus results in receiving from him what he refers to as “life abundant.”