[Jesus said:] “I am the good shepherd. I know my own and My own know Me, just as the Father knows Me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep. And I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to My voice. So, there will be one flock, one shepherd” (John 10:14-16).
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
The image of Jesus as a shepherd captures the imagination of us Christians like no other. Even city-dwellers who have never met a living, breathing shepherd (much less a sheep) find themselves drawn to it. We hang pictures of Jesus with sheep in our Sunday School classrooms. We sing, “The King of love, my shepherd is,” and “I am Jesus’ little lamb,” with childlike faith. We memorize Psalm 23 and expect it to be read at our funeral. And every year, during the season of Easter, we spend an entire Sunday focusing on the idea that Jesus is the Good Shepherd.
Such familiarity brings with it some challenges to you, as a hearer, and to me as the preacher. You’ve heard many Good Shepherd sermons. Your conception of Jesus likely has been shaped by a mixture of Bible verses, hymns stanzas, and Sunday School coloring pages that form a general shepherd-ish conception of our Savior. That’s not a bad thing, but it does make it easy to miss some more specific aspects and details of the text. Context is important for this. In this case, context would include the original audience of Jesus’ words.
In the chapter preceding our text for today, Jesus was not talking to faithful Christians on their death beds or little ones gathered for a children’s message. He was rebuking a group of Pharisees. They were offended that Jesus had healed a man on the Sabbath. Rather than rejoicing with the man born blind, they were harassing him (and his family) for their association with Jesus.
In His response to their criticism, Jesus made use of an occupation which would have been familiar to the people of that day—that of a shepherd. He compared the lowly, though honorable, vocation of shepherd to the dishonest actions and selfish motives of the thief. The shepherd enters the sheepfold by the door, calls his own sheep by name and leads them out to pasture. He cares for his sheep and protects them. The thief is up to no good. He climbs in some other way. He comes only to steal and kill and destroy.
In our text for today, Jesus contrasted the work of a good shepherd with a hired hand. The difference between the two has to do with commitment. A hired hand is just that—someone who is paid to care for someone else’s sheep. His connection to the sheep is transactional. He is committed to the sheep only as far as he is committed to himself. When danger arises and the wolf comes, the hired hand tends to his own safety and flees. His lack of commitment makes him incapable of providing real protection and care.
The hired hand is like those church leaders who think more of their own well-being than of serving God’s flock. They are not true shepherds. They do not feel any personal responsibility for the sheep. They do the job to make a living. When wolves come, they show their real colors. They abandon the flock and let the wolves ravage and scatter it.
Contrast this with a good shepherd. A good shepherd cares for the sheep because the sheep are his own (John 10:12, 14). They belong to him and he loves them, not for his own sake, but for theirs. He will not abandon them when the wolf comes. He will protect and defend them. With him, the sheep are secure.
Twice, Jesus says, “I Am the Good Shepherd.” Jesus is the Good Shepherd who knows His sheep. Jesus is the Good Shepherd who lays down His life for the sheep. Jesus did not risk His life for the sheep merely to set a noble example. He gave His life as an atoning sacrifice for them.
This is a great reversal: Instead of some of the flock serving as a blood-sacrifice for the shepherd, the Good Shepherd makes Himself the blood-sacrifice for His sheep. And whereas all other blood-sacrifices yield their lives in sacrificial death never to regain them, this Good Shepherd lays down His life… and then takes His life back again. What is more, all other blood-sacrifices die without any say of their own, this Good Shepherd of His own volition dies for the sheep. Jesus went to the cross voluntarily. And finally: no other blood-sacrifice by its death brings forth and bestows life upon others, but this is precisely what the blood-sacrifice of the Good Shepherd does.
Here Jesus prophesies, for only in the light of His actual death and resurrection can these realities be understood. None of Jesus’ immediate hearers understood the full import of His words at the time. He spoke for the future, just as He did in so many other instances. After a brief space of six months, it will become plain to His disciples when they recall His words after His resurrection that this had all been foretold and foreordained.
As His resurrection demonstrated, Jesus has the power to lay down His life and the power to take it up again. He is not only capable, but He is also committed. Out of love and concern for His sheep, He willingly gave Himself to the wolf to protect them. His obedience to the Father and His love for His sheep moved Him to lay down His life. You, who are baptized into Christ and united to Him through faith, are among His sheep. You have been included in His fold. As such, you enjoy the protection and security of a shepherd who is both committed to your safety and fully capable of delivering on His commitment.
But Jesus is not committed to you and me only. In verse 16, Jesus tells the Pharisees He has other sheep that are not part of this fold. As the Good Shepherd, Jesus gave up His life to secure that bond and to keep His sheep safe. He died for all the world, and His sheep all over the world receive the benefit. Many thought the Messiah would come only for the Jews, but Jesus corrected that perception. “I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to My voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.”
Jesus was talking about the Gentiles, of course. They were also chosen by God from eternity. Jesus’ mission was to bring them too, along with the Jewish believers, into His flock. This He did and continues to do by the power of His Gospel in the Word and Sacraments. His sheep everywhere hear His voice, His Word, and become one flock under one Shepherd.
All racial, national, social, educational, and other differences are abolished. All believers in Christ who have ever been are “one flock” under “one shepherd.” Not in the sense of one outward, visible organization but in the far deeper and truer sense of one communion of saints, all being brothers by faith under one Master, one spiritual body, the Una Sancta. This is the essential unity of the Church.
The one flock is the holy Christian Church, the sum total of all believers, which is an article of faith now, but which we will see in all its unity when it enters heaven with the Good Shepherd. For now, it is invisible to us, because true faith lies in the hearts of people. All who have faith, all who are justified and pardoned, are in this unity; all others are outside of it.
With patient and loving care, Christ looks upon each sheep of His flock. Such care above all else is demonstrated in that He laid down His life for us and took it up again three days later. Since He was willing to die for us upon the cross and lives today, surely, He daily cares and tends to our needs as our shepherd to guide us into life everlasting.
But Jesus’ mission to all nations is not yet complete. There are still more sheep to gather. He “must bring them also,” (verse 16) into His one flock. They will listen to His voice, He assures, but first they must hear it.
This is why Jesus sent His disciples after the resurrection. That is why Jesus sends you today. Jesus invites and equips you to participate in His loving commitment. The Good Shepherd continues to gather other sheep in, and He does it through the selfless serving and gracious speaking of His people.
We are not committed to this naturally, however. In our sin, we are more like the hired hands who care most of all for ourselves. This is why you need to hear God’s promises as well as His commands. You need to hear God’s forgiveness for your selfishness, to be assured of God’s grace and mercy, and to be restored, not only to be hired hands, but to be sons and daughters.
God’s Word encourages and equips and sends you to speak with the voice of your Good Shepherd to others. There are people in your life who will probably never step foot in a church, and, therefore, they will probably never hear the voice of a pastor. Such people are searching (without success) for one who is both capable of and committed to protecting you and making you secure.
With patient and loving care, Christ looks upon each sheep of His flock. Such care above all else is demonstrated in that He laid down His life for us and took it up again three days later. Since He was willing to die for us upon the cross and lives today, surely, He daily cares and tends to our needs as our shepherd in order to guide us into life everlasting.
Jesus is your Good Shepherd, too. He has laid down His life for you and He has taken it back up for you. Through His Church, He continues gathering you into His fold and many others into His fold.
Go in the peace of the Lord and serve your neighbor with joy. You are forgiven for all 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.