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1[Jesus said:] “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. 2But he who enters by the door is the shepherd of the sheep. 3To him the gatekeeper opens. The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. 4When he has brought out all his own, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice. 5A stranger they will not follow, but they will flee from him, for they do not know the voice of strangers.” 6This figure of speech Jesus used with them, but they did not understand what He was saying to them.
7So Jesus again said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, I am the Door of the sheep. 8All who came before Me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them. 9I am the Door. If anyone enters by Me, he will be saved and will go in and out and find pasture. 10The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.” (John 10:1-10).
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
I suppose, you could make the case that in a perfect world, there would be no need for shepherds. The sheep could just blissfully roam the gentle hills eating luscious grass and drinking from cool, clear spring-fed streams. But in our world, there are many dangers to sheep. Predators like coyotes and wolves. Parasites like lung worms, wire worms, liver flukes, coccidia, lice, ticks, and mites. Diseases like listeriosis, brucellosis, leptospirosis, tetanus, foot and mouth disease, rabies, ringworm, pregnancy toxemia, enterotoxemia, and bloat.
And sheep don’t exactly help themselves. Ewes don’t always claim their lambs. Lambs don’t always figure out how to suckle. Sheep get lost and in trouble easily. They’re not the smartest creatures in the animal kingdom. You’ll never hear someone say, “as clever as a sheep.” For that matter, you’re not going to hear, “as fierce as a ewe” or “as mighty as a lamb,” either. Sheep don’t generally strike fear in the hearts of their enemies. They have few defenses against predators. They’re not built for speed or endurance. Their teeth are made for munching grass, not tearing flesh. Their soft skins are covered with wool not with scales, armor, shell, or thick hide. No, it’s not easy being a sheep; it’s a dangerous world.
A shepherd’s life can be extremely hard. The shepherds have said it a thousand times. It’s the last thing a man should devote his life to. You spend the whole summer wandering about in the suffocating heat of the sun, climbing like goats along the rock walls that burn when anyone touches them, and sleeping like dogs between the stones as hyenas laugh their wicked laugh or the coyotes call to one another in the moonlit night. You never let go of your sling and club, and always look with suspicion at anything that lives or moves around you. There’s always reason to be concerned as an animal disappears behind a stone wall in any of the winding ravines. And then the long winter nights, freezing in the cold and waiting hour after hour for the first bleak streak of dawn to peak through the hills. No, it’s not easy being a shepherd; it’s a dangerous world.[i]
In a place and time where everyone has at least a rudimentary understanding of sheep and shepherds, Jesus tells a parable, actually a couple of extended metaphors, to explain His work of salvation using the figure of the care and nurture of these wooly ovine creatures.
Jesus refers to a sheepfold, to one of the Middle Eastern pens for holding sheep, usually overnight. This is a yard with a high stone wall to keep out wild animals as well as other intruders. There is a gate or door that is guarded by a watchman. Obviously, anyone who tries to enter the sheepfold in any other way than the door is up to no good. He is not really a shepherd, but either a thief whose intention is to steal quietly, or a robber, who will not hesitate to use violence to accomplish his purposes.
A true shepherd needs no such schemes. He comes to the gate of the pen openly, and the guard will open the door for him, because he knows the shepherd and his intentions. And when the heavy gate is unbarred, the shepherd needs only call to the sheep and they’ll respond at once. He has names for each one of the sheep entrusted to him, and they can distinguish his call from the others. If there are several flocks in the corral overnight, the sheep will only respond to the voice of their own shepherd. And when all the sheep that belong to his own flock have come out of the sheepfold, they will follow the voice of the shepherd as he leads the way. But the sheep fear and flee from a stranger, since his voice is not known to them. They have not learned to trust him as they do their own shepherd.
As Jesus speaks, we might expect His audience to understand at least some of His figurative language. But the Pharisees, who had just boasted, “We see,” fail to completely comprehend, because they’ve already rejected Jesus. The presentation is clear enough, but it takes the eyes of faith to see the inner reality of its meaning and to make the proper application.
The sheepfold is the Church of God of all times. The sheep are the members of the kingdom of God, the believers of the Old and New Testaments that put their trust in the promise of the Messiah. But the men who were to be their shepherds, their leaders, have from olden times been divided into two classes. There are some to come to the door openly, that have the call and duty to take care of the souls entrusted to them, and that carry out their difficult calling with all faithfulness. They are undershepherds of the great Shepherd, Jesus Christ, and it is His voice that calls through them. The sheep thus hear the voice of the true pastors (the word “pastor” having come from the Latin for “shepherd”), and this they recognize and know perfectly, this they heed gladly. And if they are truly His sheep, they will pay no attention to those who try to imitate the voice of the true Shepherd but will fear and flee from them.
In the sheepfold of His Church, Jesus is the Door. Only through Him and His work of salvation, shall any man have access to the sheep. Only through Him can the sheep find access to the fold. Only by faith in Christ is admittance to the fold gained. All real pastors will preach only of this one Door, of this one Way to heaven—through faith in Jesus and the redemption through His blood.[ii]
There were those among the Jewish religious leaders at that time, and had been even before this, who had assumed for themselves the function of bringing people into communion with God and into heaven in a different manner, unlike the prophets of old that had always pointed forward to Jesus only. But all those that claimed to be what Christ is in truth, that promised to give to men the certainty of salvation through the keeping of their traditions and works righteousness were thieves and robbers. They came without Christ’s authority.
Fortunately, the real sheep, the true people of God among the children of Israel, had given no heed to their words. For Christ is the Door; through Him if a person enters, and through no one else, he will be rendered safe. The only way of salvation leads through Christ. He Himself is that Way, and everyone that knows Jesus as such may enter into the fold of the Church and go out on the pasture of the Gospel, and always have fullness and plenty, the mercy and goodness of the Lord.
Note how when Jesus reveals Himself as the Shepherd, He opens the eyes of His disciples to see how dangerous their world truly is, how much they need a Shepherd. He calls attention to the false shepherds and the hired hands, to the thieves and the robbers, not to mention the wolves which surround them. It is during danger that Jesus chooses to reveal Himself as our Shepherd, the One who came that we, “may have life and have it abundantly” (John 10:10).
Into a dangerous world, where strangers climb into sheepfolds and hired hands run away, the true Shepherd comes. And the beauty of His coming is that the Shepherd calls to His sheep and He knows them by name. Even when we do not know a thing about shepherds, Jesus still calls to us in a voice we recognize. He gathers us together and leads us in His way. The one thing that saves us is not what we know about shepherds but that our Shepherd knows us. “He calls His own sheep by name and leads them out” (John 10:3).
For Jesus, this world of thieves and false shepherds was not imaginary. It was real. He was betrayed by a thief, crucified under the rule of false shepherds, and buried in a tomb. But He rose from the dead to assure us that he is the Door, and the true Shepherd who leads us to everlasting life.
Right now, we are, perhaps, more aware than ever that we do not know what lies in store for us. Two months ago, no one would have imagined our life would be the way it is now. We prayerfully deliberate and carefully navigate how to move forward. But we have one thing which will never change. We have a shepherd who knows us by name and who promises to speak to us in all of life’s situations.
Jesus knows the agony of suffering. He endured the loneliness of death. So, He knows how to speak to those who are suffering. He walked the twisted, confusing roads and lived through the choices that confound. So, He knows how to lead those who have lost their way. He is present today. He enters this strange landscape with a familiar voice, with promises that endure. He will not leave you alone. He comes to you, calls you, and leads you in His way.
What matter today is not how much you know about shepherds and sheep. What matters is how there is a shepherd who knows you: Jesus. He has something for you. He speaks to you… now! In the Word that is read, the hymns that are sung, and the sermon that is preached and pondered, the Lord your Shepherd speaks. Even when we are not able to gather together in person, He is assuring you that God has a will and a way in this world. And it is a good and gracious will and way for all the people of His pasture and the sheep of His hand. It is the way of Christ, God’s love and righteousness for you.
Though you may feel you are far away from the world of the shepherd, there is no place in this world where the Shepherd is not close to you. He is close enough that He can speak, and you can hear Him.[iii]
Dearly beloved in the Lord, fellow sheep: Jesus leads you by His voice. He first taught you to recognize His voice at your baptism. Through the Word and blessed Sacrament of the Altar, He continues to teach you and lead you through this sinful and dangerous world with His voice. But you must learn to distinguish His voice—the word of Holy Scripture—from the cacophony of loud and alluring voices of our day. We live in a dangerous world, and the greatest dangers are not those that could happen to us in this life, but those that have eternal consequences.
Jesus, the Good Shepherd, leads you, His sheep, through this dangerous world. His voice calls you to repentance, to the anointing of your head with the oil of Holy Baptism, to feed on the lush pastures of His Word and at the table of His life-giving body and blood spread before you even while Satan, sin, and death surround you. Notice in Psalm 23 that all the important actions happen by the Shepherd’s work, not yours. He makes, He leads, He restores, He leads.
But watch out for there are plenty of wolves and thieves who would teach you that Holy Baptism is your work, instead of God’s—something you do to show yourself to be a sheep rather than the mark the Good Shepherd puts on you to make you His own. As if a sheep could mark itself! There are those who want to teach you the Lord’s Supper is not the table of the Good Shepherd’s body and blood, but a symbolic supper by which we think fondly on what Jesus did for us. As if a sheep could feed itself! There are those who would turn you inward to your believing, to your piety, to your feelings, to your works, to yourself, and away from Jesus and His blood-bought gifts. As if a sheep could shepherd itself! There are those who tell you that they can give you success, popularity, wealth, and health if you just do this or that. As if a sheep can turn himself into a sleek and successful sheep!
“Flee from them and do not follow them,” Christ says. As Martin Luther wrote, “If you wish, therefore, to be richly supplied in both body and soul, then above all give careful attention to the voice of this Shepherd, listen to His words, let Him feed, direct, lead, protect, and comfort you. That is: hold fast to His Word, hear and learn it gladly, for then you will be well supplied in both body and soul.”[iv]
And your Good Shepherd will never abandon you. He will lead you through this dangerous world and into eternal life, abundant life, in His loving care.
David, who faced death many times, calls us to pray: “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” (Psalm 23:4).
As He is with you in life, Jesus is with you in death. He went through it first for you to open the way to life. Jesus is with you in mourning. He wept at Lazarus’ tomb. Jesus is your Good Shepherd who comforts you. He sends goodness and mercy to joyfully nip at your heels. He leads you right into His house today and will keep you who follow Him in His house forever.
Sheep that are separated from the flock are easy pickings for the poachers. Christians don’t go it alone. Experience teaches that people without a congregation tend to believe in a little bit of everything, and so in truth wind up believing in nothing at all. Sheep who don’t learn the voice of their Shepherd will soon follow any voice. Outside the church it’s dangerous; it’s cold and deadly—there’s no forgiveness, no life there. But in the Lord’s flock, the Lord restores the joy of salvation to your soul, the Lord brings you back rejoicing, the Lord binds up your wounds, the Lord guides you in His righteous way, the Lord is with you and comforts you even under the dark shadows of death.[v]
We may not know what the future holds, but we do know what is in store for us for eternity. We have one thing which will never change. We have a Shepherd who knows us by name and who promises to speak to us in all of life’s situations. Jesus leads you through this dangerous world, to everlasting life. For His sake, you are forgiven for all of your sins. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
[i] Giertz, Bo (2017) With My Own Eyes (translated by Bror Erickson). P. 15-16. Irvine: New Reformation Publications.
[ii] Kretzmann, Paul E. (1921) Popular Commentary of the Bible: New Testament, Volume I, p. 466. Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House.
[iii] Smitt, David (2020) https://www.1517.org/articles/gospel-john-101-10-easter-4-series-a.
[iv] Luther, M. (1999). Luther’s works, vol. 12: Selected Psalms I. (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald, & H. T. Lehmann, Eds.) (Vol. 12, p. 157). Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House.