'The good shepherd' – that’s my title this evening. Jesus says:
“I am the good shepherd.”
You can find that in John 10.11-30. I really just have one big point to make. It is that Jesus is our good shepherd, and therefore if we’re following him we can and should and do live lives of joy and celebration. That doesn’t mean life is easy. We also suffer. But the joy and celebration cannot be drowned out.
Now I want to draw out six wonderful truths about what it means to us that Jesus is the good shepherd. I’m praying we’ll see afresh that if we’re believers, trusting in and following Jesus, then we have a real experience of his presence among us and with us as our good shepherd today. Now. And every day. We share the experience of King David, which he summed up so unforgettably, of course, in these words:
The Lord is my shepherd…
Notice that little word ‘is’. King David is not saying ‘The Lord was my shepherd’ or ‘the Lord will be my shepherd’. No. He’s saying he experiences the real, living, presence of the Lord as his shepherd in his life now.
Of course the past matters. What Jesus has done for us in the past, supremely at the cross, is crucially important. We can and must look back and rejoice at all that Christ has done.
What is more, the future matters. Jesus is working his purposes out. He will one day return as judge. He will reign over the new heaven and the new earth for all eternity. We‘ll see him face to face. Jesus will be our glorious and beloved Shepherd-King for ever.
The past matters. The future matters. But I want to stress this evening that the present matters too. Jesus is our good shepherd today. Now.
The background here is that in the Bible the picture of the shepherd refers to the leaders and rulers of God’s people. Especially it refers to the King. So we’re to think of Jesus at the right hand of the Father in heaven, ruling all things. That’s what he’s doing today. Now.
But the image of the good shepherd is not of a remote ruler, out of harms way, out of direct human contact. No, the good shepherd not only rules his people, he is among his people. He doesn’t sit at home while his sheep wander, lost and endangered. He is out with them in the fields. Jesus said:
“I am with you always”.
By his Spirit, invisibly, he is here with us. Today. Now. Have I said that clearly enough? I emphasise it because we so easily lose sight of the reality of the presence of Jesus with us.
So what do we know about our good shepherd from what he says to us in this passage?
First, JESUS CARES FOR US
He looks at you sitting there this evening, and he looks at us collectively, and we matter to him. Big time. How do we know? It’s there in what Jesus says in verses 11-13:
“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.”
Good leadership is costly. Leaders need to be ready to put themselves in the way of danger – to ward off attack and draw it away from those who are vulnerable.
Inevitably wolves do attack. And the sad fact is that some leaders are like hired hands. The hired hands are in it for themselves. They won’t face up to necessary conflict for the sake of the spiritual welfare of the people for whom they are responsible. They are caring for themselves. When the wolf arrives, all of a sudden the grass looks decidedly greener several fields away - and they're off. The last thing they'll do is confront and see off the wolf. That's too costly by half. The sheep, after all, are not theirs. And they don't really care.
Jesus the good shepherd is not like that. He owns us. He cares for us. No price is too big for him to pay for our protection. He is even ready to lay down his life for the sheep. In fact he has laid down his life for us. We’ve seen it. He’s already done it. He has nothing more to prove. He cares for us.
He still allows us to go through hard times. He weaves them all into his purpose of making us more like him. My parents sent me away to boarding school when I was seven. That wasn’t easy. But I never for one moment doubted that they loved me, or that they had sent me away for my own good. I found out years later that my mother used to drive home in tears after dropping me off again for another few weeks. To this day, whenever I go and stay with them, I experience their care for me. The fact that that often involves rather good food and quite a lot of chocolate suits me well.
Day by day we experience the care of the good shepherd. That’s cause for celebration. And let’s love him back more deeply in response. Jesus cares for us.
Secondly, JESUS KNOWS US
This makes it crystal clear that the care Jesus has for us is not something impersonal and just a little remote. It is intensely personal and individual. How do we know? First of all, look at what Jesus says in verses 14-15:
“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.”
Then jump up the page and add to that what Jesus says in verse 3:
“The watchman opens the gate for him [that’s the shepherd], and the sheep listen to his voice. He calls his own sheep by name…”
That is individual knowledge. He knows your name and he uses it. Can I say at this point that I apologise if you’re one of the people whose name has escaped me on occasion. I realise that it doesn’t exactly deepen the sense of personal care and knowledge when your name gets stuck somewhere in a very congested and clogged up memory and won’t come out. If it’s any comfort, I don’t think it’ll be long before I have to focus my mind very carefully first in the morning in order to be quite sure what my own name is – never mind anyone else’s. Praise God there are no such problems with our good shepherd.
And not only does he know our names, astonishingly he compares his personal knowledge of us with his knowledge of God the Father. That is the ultimate intimacy.
That has its disconcerting aspect of course. The fact that Jesus knows me that well means that he knows all the stuff I’d rather he didn’t know as well. But that’s just another reason why it’s so mind-blowing great that he knows us and cares for us.
He knows us inside out. He knows the worst and the best. He knows every detail of our circumstances and our joys and struggles. He knows our desires and our despairing. He knows our dreams and hopes. He knows us through and through. And because he is our good shepherd that means that we are never alone.
That too is something to celebrate. And let’s be sure that we don’t treat him as a casual acquaintance from our side. Let’s do all we can to get to know him more thoroughly. Jesus knows us.
Thirdly, JESUS CALLS US
As well as knowing us inside out and caring for us with a greater love than any we have ever known, it is also clear from what Jesus says about the good shepherd that he speaks to his sheep. But note this. He doesn’t just speak words of comfort and reassurance. He does do that, but he doesn’t stop there. He calls us to follow him. Why do I say that? Take a look at the start of verse 16, where Jesus says this:
“I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. [What he means by that is that the flock he’s gathering won’t just be made up of Jews, it’ll be packed with non-Jews – that’s most of us – as well. He goes on:] They too will listen to my voice...”
It is characteristic of the shepherd’s sheep that they know him; he speaks to them, and when he does, they listen. They don’t just hear. They listen. And what’s the sign that they are listening well? They shift themselves. They don’t stay rooted to the spot chewing the grass under their noses. They move. And they move in the direction that the shepherd wants them to move. You can see the same thing where Jesus is talking about the sheep pen earlier in the chapter.
Here’s the rest of 10.3 that we looked at just now:
“[The shepherd] calls his own sheep by name, and leads them out.”
Having Jesus for our good shepherd means that we are called to change and grow and move on. And that too is something to celebrate. Staying put gets you nowhere. Being stuck in a rut is very dull. Life with the good shepherd is an adventure. Best of all, it’s an adventure with safety harness. Jesus is always there by our side as we move out of our comfort zones in response to his call.
Hearing the voice of Jesus can be for some a dramatic experience. But more often than not in my experience, and from what I hear as I listen to the stories of other people’s encounters with the good shepherd, it isn’t particularly dramatic. The voice of Jesus comes to us from the pages of Scripture and through our brothers and sisters as they speak the word of God to us. It comes quietly and insistently. And when we belong to Jesus, when we have his Spirit within us, when we are trusting him with our lives, it comes unmistakeably.
Here’s a very simple example. When you hear Jesus saying:
“I am the good shepherd”
what happens inside you? What happens to your spiritual ears? Don’t they prick up? Don’t you recognise the voice of your Lord and Saviour? Isn’t there a little leap in your spirit as you hear that beloved voice speaking directly to you? If you not yet a believer, you won’t know what I’m talking about. You might even think I’m a bit nutty. But if you’re one of Jesus’ sheep, you’ll know what I mean. Jesus speaks to us. He calls us. That’s an indescribably great privilege. That is something to celebrate. So when we hear his voice, let’s not be reluctant to listen. Let’s jump to it. Let’s obey him more completely.
Fourthly, JESUS UNITES US
We looked at the first part of verse 16. Here’s the rest of it:
They too [that is, the other sheep, the non-Jews as well as the Jews who belong to Jesus] will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd.
We live in a world awash with international conflict, inter-ethnic tensions, civil strife, family breakdown, empires clashing with empires. But one person can and does unite us across all the boundaries that otherwise divide.
I realise that our unity is imperfect. But one thing I love about belonging to this fellowship is the degree to which our life together is a living demonstration of the power of Jesus the good shepherd to gather all varieties of different sheep together into one flock.
I don’t know how many nations, continents and languages are represented here this evening. But this I know. No-one and nothing else could unite us in the way that having the same good shepherd unites us. Let’s never take that for granted but be grateful for it and celebrate it. Let’s not be mean-spirited towards one another or towards groups of sheep that are rather different to ours. Let’s love God’s people – the good shepherd’s flock – more actively than ever. Jesus unites us.
Fifthly, JESUS LEADS US
He cares for us, knows us, calls us and unites us. And it’s all for a purpose. He has work for us to do. He calls us away from where we were. And he leads us to where he wants us to go. That’s clear from this whole picture that Jesus is using of himself as the shepherd. In Bible-speak, as we’ve seen, shepherd equals ruler. Shepherd equals king, commander, leader.
Think of the shepherd-king David leading his people into battle into against their enemies. We have different enemies – not of flesh and blood but spiritual powers. There is spiritual territory to fight for with spiritual weapons of love and compassion and the word of God which is the sword of Spirit. There are lost sheep to find and rescue. Jesus is a shepherd who leads his people to victory – a victory that he secured and guaranteed through his cross and resurrection. His power is unstoppable. Take a look at verses 17-18:
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.
Even death is disarmed and powerless against the mighty power of our good shepherd. He is our ruler. He is our king. He goes ahead of us. And he leads us on. So we are to follow. If we belong to him, we will follow. Jesus makes that clear back in verses 4-5:
“When he [the good shepherd] 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 recognise a stranger’s voice.”
The good shepherd has a plan and a purpose for us. Our lives are not aimless or pointless. They have a clear direction given them by Jesus. Jesus leads us. That’s something to celebrate. So let’s not be fearful. Rather, let’s follow him more adventurously.
Finally, JESUS GIVES US LIFE TO THE FULL
This, wonderfully, is what it’s all leading towards. Jesus takes up his life again and is raised from the dead. And he shares his risen life with us. 10.10:
“The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.”
The apostle Paul says, “Rejoice always” – and no wonder when we’re on the receiving end of promises like that from the good shepherd. Celebrate. Not just this evening. Always. However hard life is, never forget to celebrate all that our good shepherd is to us. He gives us life to the full. Joy and hope are our birthright by grace. So let’s not slide into a grumbling mentality while we wait for the glory to come. Let’s praise him more fervently.
I’ve been listening to the new Coldplay live album LeftRightLeftRightLeft. That might be a surprise to some of you. Others of you won’t have a clue who Coldplay are – and that’s OK! One of the tracks is a rather moving rendition of their anthemic song Fix You. I find it moving for this reason. On it you hear tens of thousands of (no doubt) largely young people joining in with the words they know by heart. They go like this:
And the tears come streaming down your face
When you lose something you can't replace
When you love someone, but it goes to waste
Could it be worse?
Lights will guide you home
And ignite your bones
And I will try to fix you
It’s as if this great seething mass of young humanity is pouring out its yearning for someone who will put things right, who will light their way home, but they don’t really know who it could be or even where home is. It reminds of the reaction of the good shepherd to seeing the crowds massing round him. Matthew 9.36 records it:
When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.
The good shepherd is the one who lights our way home. He is the one who puts the fire of love and hope back in our hearts. And he doesn’t just try to fix us. He alone will fix our lives once and for all. He alone will fix the church. He alone will fix the world.
Jesus is our good shepherd. When we trust our lives to him, we find we have a living experience of his presence with us today. Now. He cares for us, knows us, calls us, unites us, leads us and gives us life to the full. It is good and right that we should deliberately take time to celebrate. And let’s respond to his wonderful goodness to us by loving him more deeply, getting to know him more thoroughly, obeying him more completely, loving his people more actively, following him more adventurously, and praising him more fervently.