I Am the Good Shepherd

John 10:1-21

John 10 brings us to the most beloved of Jesus’ “I AM” statements, “I am the good shepherd.” There is a comfort and security in knowing that Jesus cares for us and provides for us and protects us like a shepherd cares for his flock.

We’re at a disadvantage though, as we read this passage, because Jesus’ listeners were tuned into some things we either don’t know or only know as second-hand information.

First, Jesus was speaking to people who were shepherds and farmers. He uses familiar language and images that they relate to. Most of us have never herded sheep or even been around them. We can’t know that sheep were both incredibly smart and incredibly dumb.

Sheep have an amazing capacity for getting themselves in trouble – thus the need for a shepherd. Cattle can roam wild and for the most part fend for themselves. Sheep will get lost and hurt and starve to death if left on their own. When Jesus talks about the shepherd leaving the ninety-nine to go find the one lost sheep, everyone knew exactly what he was talking about. A lost sheep was only a short step away from being a dead sheep. So shepherds had to be vigilant in taking care of their flocks.

But sheep also have an intuition when it comes to who they trust. When Jesus says the sheep know their master’s voice, his listeners knew the truth about that because they had seen it with their own eyes.

The second disadvantage we have is that we don’t really know the Old Testament very well. You cannot understand John 10, without also having read Ezekiel 34. I assure you that Jesus’ listeners would have immediately thought of that passage of scripture and realized that Jesus’ words about himself were also a commentary on Ezekiel 34 and an indictment of the Jewish leaders.

If we only think of John 10 as being comforting words to believers, we have missed a significant and perhaps the main message of this chapter.

So, in preparing our minds for hearing John 10, let me share the first few verses of Ezekiel 34:

The word of the LORD came to me: “Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel; prophesy and say to them: ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says: 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. So they were scattered because there was no shepherd, and when they were scattered they became food for all the wild animals. My sheep wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill. They were scattered over the whole earth, and no one searched or looked for them. Therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the LORD: As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign LORD, because my flock lacks a shepherd and so has been plundered and has become food for all the wild animals, and because my shepherds did not search for my flock but cared for themselves rather than for my flock, therefore, O shepherds, hear the word of the LORD. This is what the Sovereign LORD says: I am against the shepherds and will hold them accountable for my flock. I will remove them from tending the flock so that the shepherds can no longer feed themselves. I will rescue my flock from their mouths, and it will no longer be food for them. For this is what the Sovereign LORD says: 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. (Ezekiel 34:1-12)

It was a scathing indictment of Israel’s leaders. God had entrusted them with the care of his people and they had abused it. Instead of caring for his people, they had enriched themselves and abandoned the people. And so, God says, “I will come and take care of my people myself – I will be their shepherd and look after them.”

So, when Jesus begins to speak in John 10, Ezekiel’s words began to ring in their ears. Jesus was claiming to be the one who would fulfill God’s promise to hold Israel’s leaders accountable and shepherd his people himself. It was perhaps the single most pointed indictment of the Jewish leaders that Jesus levelled, short of his words in Matthew 23 (his seven-fold “Woe to you Pharisees, you hypocrites…”) There would be no doubt that they got the message loud and clear. And their response at the end will demonstrate that.

Let’s listen to Jesus’ words in John 10:

“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. 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. “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. “I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me—just as the Father knows me and I know the Father—and I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd. The reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life—only to take it up again. 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.” At these words the Jews were again divided. Many of them said, “He is demon-possessed and raving mad. Why listen to him?” But others said, “These are not the sayings of a man possessed by a demon. Can a demon open the eyes of the blind?” (John 10:1-21)

Throughout this passage, did you hear the terms and phrases Jesus used to describe the Jewish leaders? Thief and robber; They will never follow a stranger; hired hand; abandons the sheep and runs away; cares nothing for the sheep.

In contrast, Jesus describes himself as the good shepherd, the true shepherd, the one whose voice they will listen to, the one who gives abundant life. Jesus’ concern is only for his sheep. In fact, he willingly lays down his life for his sheep.

Jesus is the good shepherd of Psalm 23, where David writes, “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.”

In this imagery of a shepherd, David describes the loving, caring activity of one who has the needs of his flock as his highest priority. And not just the needs of the flock, but of each individual. A shepherd didn’t just look at his flock as a source of income whom he was fattening up for market, but as valuable members of his family whom he knew as well as his brothers and sisters, who had personalities and quirks, who needed his guidance and protection, who depended on him to provide good pasture and fresh water, who trusted him to guard them from the dangers that threatened them.

Not only does Jesus say “I am the good shepherd,” he then says, “I am the gate for the sheep.” At night, the shepherd would put his sheep into an enclosure to protect them. Out in the wilderness it might be a thicket of branches or brambles, close to a village it might be a stone wall. But those enclosures would have three sides that would encircle the sheep and the shepherd would then lie across the opening and serve as the gate or the fourth wall. It not only kept the sheep in, it kept the predators out. A predator like a bear or mountain lion would have to come through him to get to the sheep.

You’ll remember how David, as a young boy, told king Saul how his experience as a shepherd prepared him to fight the giant Goliath: “Your servant has been keeping his father’s sheep. When a lion or a bear came and carried off a sheep from the flock, I went after it, struck it and rescued the sheep from its mouth. When it turned on me, I seized it by its hair, struck it and killed it. Your servant has killed both the lion and the bear; this uncircumcised Philistine will be like one of them, because he has defied the armies of the living God. The LORD who delivered me from the paw of the lion and the paw of the bear will deliver me from the hand of this Philistine.” (1 Sam 17:34-37)

Jesus is our protector from the spiritual predators. Satan’s demons and tempters are kept at bay by the power of Jesus as he lays across the gates in our lives that Satan would use as footholds in our lives to destroy us.

So Jesus as our good shepherd and the gate provides for our needs, protects us from harm and guides us to good pastures and living water.

In John 10:16, Jesus makes a statement, that to the disciples must have been very cryptic, but to our ears leaps forward to Acts 10, when Peter visits a gentile named Cornelius who became the first non-Jewish convert. Jesus says, I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd.”

Ever since God spoke to Abraham, it had been his intention that his people the Jews would not be an isolated group who shunned all other people. He told Abraham, “I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” (Gen 12:1-3)

God was not and is not a provincial little God of a single nation. He is the God of the whole world, he is involved in the affairs of all the nations. His intention was to bring all people together to worship him alone. David writes in Psalm 86: Among the gods there is none like you, O Lord; no deeds can compare with yours. All the nations you have made will come and worship before you, O Lord; they will bring glory to your name. (Ps 86:8-9)

Isaiah writes: In the last days the mountain of the LORD'S temple will be established as chief among the mountains; it will be raised above the hills, and all nations will stream to it. Many peoples will come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob. He will teach us his ways, so that we may walk in his paths.” (Isaiah 2:2-3)

Jesus came to break down every barrier and unite all people in one body, one family, one flock. And so, in John 10, Jesus says “I have other sheep… they too will listen to my voice.”

Jesus still has sheep who are wandering alone and lost, who would listen to his voice if they were to hear it. We are the ones who have the ability to speak his words and give them the opportunity to come home to the good shepherd.