A True Shepherd at Last

Easter 4B

John 10: 11 18

Introduction

Of all the images of God presented in the Scriptures, that of "the Good Shepherd" seems to have been the most enduring. The Old Testament writers go to great lengths to show that it is one of God's own favourite titles.

In the lectionary for this week, the Gospel passage is coupled with Ezekiel's prophesy of the true Shepherd. This was very well known by Jesus' listeners. When he gave his discourse about the Good Shepherd he drew, without any doubt, on this extremely beautiful test. We suggest you read that now.

Ezekiel 34: 11 16 They Shall Have A True Shepherd

This is what the Lord God says: I mean to go looking for this flock of mine, search it out for myself. As a shepherd, when he finds his flock scattered all about him, goes looking for his sheep, so will I go looking for these sheep of mine, rescue them from all the nooks into which they have strayed when the dark mist fell upon them. Rescued from every kingdom, recovered from every land, I will bring them back to their own country; they shall have pasture on the hill-sides of Israel, by its watercourses, in the resting-places of their home. Yes, I will lead them out into fair pastures, the high mountains of Israel, with soft grass for them to rest on, rich feed for them to graze. Food and rest, says the Lord God, both these I will give to my flock. The lost sheep I will find, the strayed sheep I will bring home again; bind up the broken limb, nourish the wasted frame, keep the well-fed and the sturdy free from harm; they shall have a true Shepherd at last.

(Knox translation)

Jesus was making a very definite claim: "I am the true shepherd" the Prophet Ezekeil was describing. When he had finished, half of his listeners, so it seems, looked at each other and declared, "He's stark raving mad!". Let's unpack a little of the wealth of meaning it holds for us.

The True Shepherd

In modern times we have a fairly down to earth and far less romantic image in our minds of what a shepherd is and does. Christian art however, has tended to idealise the role and nature of a good shepherd. The image became indelibly stamped in the minds of Jesus' followers during the first 300 years of indescribable persecution. As one great scholar recorded:

"It was sculptured on the walls of sepulchres and catacombs, it was painted in upper chambers and in oratories, it was traced upon their sacred books, it was graven on the vessels of the altar." Why?

Jesus often emphasised that he was sent to enable people to enjoy fullness of LIFE. He claimed he carried out his mission in obedience to his Father. He concentrated his efforts not according to what people deserved, but according to their needs. The more hopeless they were, the more concern he showed. So he did this not because of people's merits but because of the mercy of God. The infant Church saw these qualities reflected most in the image of the True Shepherd.

In our short passage, Jesus presents his credentials as he lays claim to this sublime title. First, "I lay down my life for my sheep, and I take it up again, in obedience to my Father". Secondly, "I know my sheep, and they know me just as the Father and I know each other." But having said that he is quick to add, "There are other sheep beyond this flock and I must go out to them and lead them home. This I yearn to do."

Some Notes On The Text

Verse 11

"I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.

Jesus, in the earlier part of chapter 10, has been talking about shepherds and sheepfolds. Now he becomes even more specific in what he says, as his listeners are very familiar with the Biblical imagery he is using. "I am the good shepherd", he says, and he goes on to outline the duties of a good shepherd rather than his rights. He himself is the model shepherd, concerned more with the needs of his sheep, than his own.

  • It is not surprising Jesus takes up the title of Shepherd. The Son of David, the King who had been a shepherd, was born in Bethlehem, the city of David, in a cave sheepfold, and the news of his birth was first manifested to shepherds.
  • Shepherds, in contrast to the educated authorities, are poor, ignorant, uncouth and of insignificant value, by material standards.
  • When he refers to himself as "good" shepherd, this is equivalent to calling himself the "true" or perfect shepherd. (It corresponds to the idea of the "true" light in John 1: 9). He is tapping into a long line of unfolding Biblical revelation. In Genesis 49: 24, the Lord God is the true shepherd of Israel who leads Joseph like a flock (Psalm 80: 2).
  • Jesus adds a new dimension to the meaning of the true, or good shepherd, and gives the first essential characteristic: willingness to lay down his life for his sheep. Hebrew shepherds frequently risked their lives for their sheep. Jesus not only risked his life, he laid it down. There is a strong emphasis on the value of the individual sheep to him; quite unrelated to the commercial value, (if we keep to the image).

Verse 12

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.

In the rest of this section of his teaching, Jesus distinguishes himself from those who may appear to be shepherds but who in fact are not "true" shepherds. So, what is the difference between the "hired hand" and himself? Ownership! Jesus on several occasions talked of his disciples as those who had been given to him by his Father. He is talking about a special relationship at a very special level and he would never, ever, ever, abandon his flock. Why? The answer comes at the end of verse 13.

Verse 13

The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep.

Jesus is devoted to his flock in a loving, affectionate, personal relationship. The hired hand however, "cares nothing" for the sheep. This not only explains why he can abandon the sheep, but also emphasises the point of difference between him and the ideal shepherd.

Verse 14

"I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me

Again Jesus repeats the key concept: "I am the good shepherd". He now expands his second claim. He is the true shepherd because he knows his sheep and is known by them. This mutual knowledge gives rise to mutual confidence and willing obedience.

To "know" in the Hebrew, Biblical meaning of the word has several aspects:

  • it refers of the knowledge taken in
  • it means complete and absolute understanding on God's part
  • it signifies relationship between, or some connection
  • it expresses value and importance of what is known
  • it suggests approval.

Jesus implies, "I know my sheep — I know their hearts, wishes, purposes, circumstances, and I approve of them".

Verse 15

just as the Father knows me and I know the Father and I lay down my life for the sheep.

In the same breath, Jesus explains a great treasure of his teaching. The knowledge of sheep and shepherd is an extension of the mutual knowledge of the Father and the Son. So he communicates to his followers his knowledge of the Father. (He is talking of likeness, which is what is important, not equality).

Jesus is talking, in fact about the "fold" of the Holy Trinity — which is the fountain of all pure love and knowledge which God's creatures have for one another. Life in the Good Shepherd's flock is indeed God's way of including us in the mutual love of the Holy Trinity. That is why Jesus quickly adds, "and I lay down my Life for the sheep". That is, I lay down my life for the sake of this shared existence between sheep and shepherd, Son and Father.

Verse 16

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.

But Jesus has the same affection and loving concern for sheep "that are not of this flock". They are his, just the same. When he says "I must bring them also", he conveys pressing urgency, depth of concern and equal commitment to satisfying their needs. The way to eternal life is the same for those in or beyond the flock he is talking about: All must have the opportunity to hear Jesus' voice as the voice of God and respond with faith. When Jesus says, "I must bring them also", he means impel, not compel; to lead along, to take with one, to bear with. As a shepherd, he leads and does not drive! He is with his flock at all times, and never leaves them unattended. Through the gift of the Holy Spirit this presence is maintained, but at a high cost, as he has twice reminded them.

Verse 17

The reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life only to take it up again.

Again we are brought back to the mutual love of the Father and Son: and it rests on Jesus' complete obedience, in laying down his life, taking it up again, and sharing it with his "flock" through the gift of himself in the spirit. May we also, through the Spirit of Christ, share in the fullness of life which can be ours on account of the dedication of Jesus to God's holy will.

Conclusion

Throughout the 2 millennia of the Church, Christians have always rejoiced that Jesus calls people in the first instance not to an ideology, a doctrine, nor a system of thought or even religious practice. He calls them to himself. This unique passage is about our calling to enter into the love of the Holy Trinity — model of all true communities.

That is the true fulfilment of all that God has promised his people, and as the Good Shepherd explains, he has been commanded to make sure it happens.

How does this help us to understand Christian Prayer and Meditation?

In this passage, an enormous responsibility is laid on the shoulders of the True Shepherd. There is only one word to indicate the responsibility of those in the shepherd's care. If the sheep are to belong to his flock; if they are to know the Shepherd, then they must "listen" to his voice.

In this context, it is not the sound to which they must be attuned, but rather to what he is saying!

Prayer and meditation, as taught here, is the ancient and venerable practice of listening to what God says in and through his WORD — and for us that is Jesus: Word made flesh (John 1: 14). This requires disciplined training. It takes time, energy, and talent. We may think we are not very good at it, but there is no command in all Scripture that we must succeed. We are simply called to participate in the mutual loving and knowing of the Father and the Son. This is one of the great treasures of Jesus' teaching. This is prayer supreme, and every Christian is invited to take their place in it. All may. All can if they listen. Blessed be the Holy Name of God.

Some Responses To Jesus' Claim

"The truth has said of himself, "I am the good shepherd."

All love, care, providence, devotion, watchfulness, that is in earth or in heaven, in the ministry of men or of angels is but a reflection or participation of that which is Him. Surely but the vision of His presence in heaven can exceed the revelation of Himself. These words have taken so deep a hold of the hearts of His people, that from the beginning they passed into a common title for their exalted Head. It was the symbol under which in times of persecution, His presence was shadowed forth. It was sculptured on the walls of sepulchres and catacombs, it was painted in upper chambers and in oratories, it was traced upon their sacred books, it was graven on the vessels of the altar. The image of The Good Shepherd has expressed, as in a parable, all their deepest affections, fondest musings, most docile obedience, most devoted trust. It is a title in which all other titles meet, in the light of which they blend and lose themselves: Priest, Prophet, King, Saviour, and Guide are all summed up in this one more than royal, paternal, saving Name. It recalls in One Word all the mercies and loving kindness of God to His people of old, when the Shepherd of Israel made His own to go forth like sheep, and guided them in the wilderness like a flock." (Manning)

From "The Commentary on St. John"
By M.F Sadler (George Bell & Sons 1883

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