A Dark Saying and the Shepherd’s Love

John 10, Sheep, Shepherd, Figure of speech, paroimia, sheepfold,

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“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. But he who enters by the door is the shepherd of the sheep. To him the gatekeeper opens. The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice. A stranger they will not follow, but they will flee from him, for they do not know the voice of strangers.” This figure of speech Jesus used with them, but they did not understand what He was saying to them” (John 10:1–6).

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!

In our Gospel lesson for today Jesus speaks to the Jews. He had just healed the man born blind and the Pharisees are seething at Jesus’ implication that they are spiritually blind; so blind, in fact, they are completely oblivious to their condition. Now Jesus accuses them of spiritual deafness.

Promising to speak the solemn truth, Jesus paints a word picture to drive the point home. John uses the Greek word, paroimia, for this type of saying, which is translated as “figure of speech” in the ESV, but more literally rendered “dark saying.” A concrete image is used to convey a spiritual truth, but as with parables, the meaning is not always evident to outsiders. Some will see; others will not. Some will hear; others will not. To those who reject Christ and His salvation, Jesus’ words remain a dark saying.

Jesus presents a picture of a flock of sheep which are kept in a sheepfold, an open-air pen with but one entrance. Only the shepherd has access through the gate to the sheep. Anyone finding another way in is up to no good. He is a robber and a thief. At the gate is the gatekeeper, who opens the gate for the shepherd and his sheep to come in and go out. The sheep recognize the shepherd’s voice as he calls each of them by name and leads them out. But they do not follow a stranger. They fear strangers because they do not recognize their voice.

As Jesus speaks, we might expect the Jews to understand at least some of His figurative language. The sheep are God’s chosen people. Strangers and thieves are those who would endanger and harm them. The Shepherd is Jesus, the Messiah, sent by “the Gatekeeper,” God the Father, to care for His sheep.

But the Jews don’t understand the implication of Jesus’ words. For them it is a “dark saying.” Maybe they really don’t catch on, or perhaps they refuse to follow it because they don’t believe in Jesus and aren’t ready to conclude that they themselves are among the strangers and robbers. Obviously, they don’t recognize Jesus’ voice as their Shepherd.

Seeing that they do not understand, Jesus patiently starts again with a slightly different twist and a more direct application. “Truly, truly,” He emphasizes, “I am the gate for the sheep.” Jesus is the way to reach the sheep and the way for the sheep to come for nourishment.

Many “strangers” came prior to Jesus, and many more will come after, each trying to reach His sheep. The false prophets and false christs do not come by the way of Jesus. They do not find Christ in the Scriptures and point Him out to others as the way of salvation. They are thieves and robbers who come to steal, kill, and destroy. But Jesus has come so that the sheep might have life to the full.

Jesus first addresses these words to the Pharisees, who regard themselves as spiritual leaders, shepherds of God’s people. They are serious and knowledgeable about their religion. They are deeply committed to living by God’s will—as they understand it. That’s important for us to remember. It’s rare that a false teacher, one of the thieves and robbers, sets out to lead anyone astray. Especially as they begin, they are serious about their faith and truly wish to do what is right. No one, or at least hardly anyone, intentionally decides to become a heretic. Blinded to the truth, tone deaf to the Good Shepherd’s voice, the Pharisees are simply misled by Satan, the lies of the world, or their own sinful flesh.

These men who claim to be spiritual leaders of God’s people hear from Jesus what it really means and what it takes to be such leaders. The only way to enter God’s flock, either as a shepherd or a sheep, is through the gate. And Jesus says that He is that gate. Only those who approach God and His people through Jesus will enter the safety of His flock. Others are dangerous intruders.

Jesus makes an astonishing claim: “If you want to belong to God, if you want to lead God’s people, you must do it through Me. If you do enter God’s flock through faith in Me, you will be well taken care of. I have life in its fullness for you. If you try to lead God’s people without accepting and obeying Me, you will only hurt and deprive God’s flock. And you will lose your salvation too. What will you be—a true shepherd of the sheep or a thief and a robber? What will you do? Will you be one of My sheep who hear My voice and have abundant life, or will you listen to the other voices who’ll lead you to death and destruction?”

Many in every age, including our own, present themselves as God’s representatives and spokespersons, as leaders of His people. Here Jesus gives us a reliable gauge by which to evaluate them. True shepherds lead others to God and His flock through Jesus. They know and trust in Jesus as their Savior. And they invite and encourage others to find their way to God through Him. No one who ignores or denies Jesus can be trusted or followed.

There are a lot of other voices out there in the world today. Voices dangling the prospect of greener pastures in order to lead you away from the safety of the sheep pen, the relationships established by God and before God, and even away from the Good Shepherd Himself. Voices who promise freedom, excitement, fulfillment, and happiness, but will ultimately lead to bondage, pain, and destruction.

That’s why I am so insistent that our confirmands know the answers to questions from the Catechism. I even point out a few they must know to get confirmed. It isn’t just busy work or a hoop they have to jump through to get confirmed. I want to be certain they can distinguish between the Good Shepherd’s voice and the other voices competing for their heart, mind, and soul. To not do so would be irresponsible, and it would place me in the category of thief and stranger.

The answers to these questions come right from Scripture, from the voice of the Good Shepherd. They help us distinguish His voice from all the others out there. Today, I’d like to share a few of those questions and answers with you in the hopes that you’ll help you be able to recognize the Good Shepherds voice, too.

1) “What is the source of all Christian doctrine?” (The Bible).

There are voices who say that Christian doctrine is derived merely from human opinion, there is no absolute truth, but truth is relative or determined by the situation. Even some voices within Christendom say that doctrine is determined by the Bible but subject to interpretation by human reasoning. Other voices say that doctrines can be declared by sacred tradition, the decrees of councils or popes, or resolutions at church-wide assemblies.

Following the voice of our Good Shepherd, we teach that the Bible is the sole source of all Christian doctrine. When it comes to interpretation, Scripture interprets Scripture, that is, the clearer passages of the Bible are used in their proper context to clarify and help us understand the less clear passages.

2) “What is the difference between the Law and the Gospel?” (The Law shows us our sin; the Gospel shows us our Savior.)

There is much confusion about Law and Gospel in the Church at large today. This is dangerous to the Christian faith. The proper distinction between Law and Gospel is the only means for a correct understanding of Scripture. In fact, without this knowledge Scripture is and remains a sealed book.

Some of the other voices out there misrepresent Christ as a new Moses, or Lawgiver, and turn the Gospel into a doctrine of works righteousness. Many voices fail to preach the Law in its full sternness, or the Gospel in its full sweetness, as they mingle the two together. Other voices teach that the Law is to be used as a club or a carrot-and-stick rather than as Scriptures clearly shows—as a curb, mirror, or guide. Still other voices dispense the Gospel too cheaply, by failing to preach repentance, consciously overlooking sin, or dismissing the great price Christ paid for our redemption—His holy and precious blood, His innocent suffering and death.

At first glance, Holy Scripture is apparently full of contradictions, even in teaching how we may come to God and be saved. In one place the Bible offers forgiveness to all sinners; in another place forgiveness is withheld from all sinners. In one passage a free offer of life everlasting is made to all men; in another, men are directed to do something themselves towards being saved.[i]

This mystery is solved when we reflect that there are in the Scriptures two entirely different doctrines—the Law and the Gospel. The Law shows us our sin; the Gospel shows us our Savior. The Law shows us what we must do to be saved; the Gospel shows what God has done for our salvation through His Son Jesus Christ. The Law is partly known by nature; the Gospel is unknown to natural man but must be revealed by God in His Word. The Law brings us fear; the Gospel gives us comfort. The Law condemns; the Gospel sets us free. The Law tells us what we must do, but it doesn’t help us keep its commands; whereas the Gospel demands faith and then gives us the faith it demands.

3) “Who is a worthy communicant?” (He or she that has faith in these words, “Given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.”)

In this day, many voices clamor for tolerance, few seem concerned about who is actually a worthy communicant. Some so-called Lutheran church bodies are even willing to enter into fellowship agreements with church bodies that do not teach Christ’s real presence in Holy Communion. A church body like ours that still maintains the ancient practice of closed communion is labeled as narrow-minded, too strict, and arrogant. But properly understood this teaching is seen to be the most loving and caring for individual souls.

In 1 Corinthians 11:27-29, God sets out the standards for those who propose to attend Holy Communion. Briefly, God expects that the prospective participant knows what is involved in Holy Communion according to Scripture and that he or she examine himself or herself spiritually. God takes Holy Communion and the forgiveness of sins seriously. God indicates that unless a person—church member or not, Lutheran or not—truthfully and honestly examines himself, he eats and drinks judgment upon himself. God will not tolerate anyone taking lightly or wrongly His Sacrament, even in ignorance.

When a Lutheran pastor declines to give Holy Communion to a person unknown to him, he is not acting as a judge of that person’s faith. Quite the contrary! The Lutheran pastor is deeply impressed by what Holy Communion is. It is his sincere desire that all receive it in faith and in the way that God desires.

The protecting of the unknowing person is a loving act. We do not exclude people from the sacrament, but require they first be instructed by the pastor in what this sacrament is, what God offers here, and what God expects of us, so that we can be confident they are taking it for their benefit and not to their judgment.

4) “What has the Holy Spirit done to bring you to Christ?” (He has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified, and kept me in the true faith.)

There are many voices out there telling you what you must do to be saved. Some point you to good works; do enough of them and they will outweigh your sins. Some try to turn your faith into work. They tell you that yes, Jesus died for your sins, but you first must accept Jesus Christ as your personal Savior. Many say you must belong to the right church. But those are only the voices of thieves and robbers. If you listen to them, they can steal your soul and lead you away from the flock. Don’t listen to them! God, in His grace, has given you a much better way—listen to the Good Shepherd and what He has to say in His Holy Word.

The Holy Spirit works through the means of grace to make sinners into saints. Through Holy Baptism, the Holy Spirit creates saving faith and calls us to be a child of God. As we continue studying and hearing God’s Word, the Spirit enlightens us and helps us mature in faith. Through daily repentance and remembrance of our baptism we are sanctified, being made holy. In the Lord’s Supper, we receive forgiveness, and our faith is strengthened.

Though the progress is often imperceptible, the Holy Spirit works through these means to conform us to the image of Christ and bring us to eternal life in God’s heavenly kingdom.

5) “Do you hope to be saved? Why?” (Yes, because Jesus lived a perfect life and died in my place for my sin.)

This is the most important question of all. It sums up all the other questions. There is only one way to heaven and Jesus is the gate. Whoever enters through Him will be saved. Jesus has come that we may have life and have it to the full. We are saved only by God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ who lived the perfect life that you or I could not, and who died on the cross for our sins, and who rose victoriously from the grave. We are saved by the voice of the Good Shepherd who once again assures each of us: You are forgiven of all your sin 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] Walther’s Law and Gospel, Lecture One – lutherantheology.com, https://lutherantheology.com/uploads/works/walther/LG/lecture-01.html.

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