The Life-Giving Shepherd

The Life-Giving Shepherd

Over the last number of Sunday nights we have been having a series here on why Jesus came. There are a number of ways that the answer to that question is stated in the New Testament, and one of the more direct ones is found in John’s gospel, chapter 10 and verse 10, where Jesus said, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” If you’ve been a Christian for any length of time you’re probably very familiar with that wonderful statement. Let me read it again: “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”

There’s a context for this that’s especially wonderful as we think about Christmas, and that is the context of John chapter 10, because this is our Lord’s statement in a discourse that’s known as the Good Shepherd discourse. Let me give you the full picture by reading to you John 10. You can open your Bible to John 10; we’ll read the opening eleven verses.

“‘Truly, truly, I say to you, he who does not enter by the door into the fold of the sheep, but climbs up some other way, he’s a thief and a robber. He who enters by the door is a shepherd of the sheep. To him the doorkeeper opens, and the sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he puts forth all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. A stranger they simply will not follow, but will flee from him, because they do not know the voice of strangers.’ This figure of speech Jesus spoke to them, but they did not understand what those things were which He had been saying to them.

“So Jesus said to them again, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep. All who came before Me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not hear them. I am the door; if anyone enters through Me, he will be saved, and will go in and out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I [come] that they may have life, and have it abundantly. I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd lays down His life for the sheep.’”

This is a very vivid picture that our Lord paints. He tells us in verse 6 that it’s a figure of speech. In other words, He’s giving us a physical, temporal, earthly illustration of a spiritual reality, and it features the idea of a shepherd—a shepherd who comes to take his sheep out of a fold and set them loose in the pasture. This is a picture of the work of our Lord in gathering His own elect redeemed people. It’s a profoundly rich section of theology. But let’s back up and talk about the shepherd a little bit and see if we can’t get an understanding of the context.

The picture of a shepherd obviously comes to mind when we think about Christmas because there were some shepherds in the fields, and they heard the angelic message, and they went to Bethlehem, and they were praising God and glorifying Him for what they had seen because it was consistent with the angelic message. But we don’t know anything about those shepherds. They are anonymous. They are never identified to us before or after their collective experience in Bethlehem. But there is another shepherd, the main shepherd of Christmas, that we know everything we need to know about, everything God wants us to know, and He is identified here as “the good shepherd.” And as we think about a shepherd, let’s back up a little bit and understand a few things.

First of all, shepherds were socially, economically speaking, low on the ladder. It was unskilled labor. It was dirty, because sheep are extremely dirty because of the lanolin that’s in their wool. Everything sticks to them and to all their orifices, and they have to be cleaned regularly. They are defenseless, and so they are always in danger. There are a myriad of things that could take the life of a sheep or harm a sheep. And because they do have some value, there were always sheep stealers, thieves, and robbers who wanted to steal them.

So a shepherd had a responsibility; because sheep had value, they had a responsibility that they needed to fulfill. But it was the dirty work; it was low work; it was unskilled kind of work. And yet it had high expectations, and it was dangerous work because you might have to engage a robber or a wild animal.

The life of a shepherd was very hard. There was a marginal amount of grass in the land of Israel. Sheep tend to wander. There were no protective walls, necessarily, out in the pastures where they would go. And generally speaking, there are mountains and valleys in all the parts of Israel where there’s shepherding going on, and so consequently they were in danger of falling off the edge of a cliff or a hill. There were craggy parts of a mountain where a sheep could be torn in his flesh. So it was a tough job with really a meager amount of compensation. But if you failed, it could cost you dearly if you lost a sheep. They had the responsibility to make sure the sheep were fed out in the pasture and also protected. So they were guarding and feeding the sheep—constant vigilance, fearless courage, patient love for the flock, with the necessary characteristics of a good shepherd.

We think of the lowliness of a shepherd, on the one hand; but on the other hand, God identifies Himself as a shepherd because their responsibility was so very, very important because of the value of the sheep. In the Old Testament God is often self-identified as the Shepherd of Israel, the Shepherd of Israel’s flock. Perhaps most familiar, Psalm 23:1, “The Lord is my shepherd.”

Psalm 77 says to the Lord, “You [lead] Your people like a flock.” Psalm 79, “We [are the] people, the sheep of Your pasture [who] will give thanks to You forever.” Psalm 80 begins, “Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel, You that lead Joseph like a flock”—“Joseph” meaning Israel. And then in Psalm 95:7, “He is our God, we are the people of His pasture and the sheep of His hand.”

So God demonstrates that He is a faithful shepherd and that He will do what shepherds must do: one, feed the flock; and two, protect the flock. That is laid out in Psalm 23, isn’t it? He leads them to “green pastures.” He leads them “beside still waters,” or waters that rest, because they can’t drink fast-moving water. He prepares a safe place and a meal in the midst of their enemies, and their cup of satisfaction overflows, because the Lord is their shepherd.

And God identifies Himself as the Shepherd of Israel in contrast to false shepherds. I want to show you a chapter; it’s chapter 34 of Ezekiel. And obviously Ezekiel the prophet is speaking of the judgment of God on Israel; and Israel’s judgment is a direct result of the failure of the leaders of Israel. And the leaders of Israel were also to be shepherds. They were to shepherd the people under God. They were to lead them to green pastures, still waters, feasting, cup overflowing, and protect them from enemies. But historically they had failed. The religious leaders of Israel had turned out to be false, corrupt shepherds. So Ezekiel 34 gives us the word of the Lord.

“Then the word of the Lord came to me saying”—in verse 2, then—“‘Son of man’”—that’s a title for Ezekiel the prophet—“‘prophesy against the shepherds of Israel. Prophesy and say to those shepherds, “Thus says the Lord God, ‘Woe, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding themselves! Should not the shepherds feed the flock? You eat the fat and clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fat sheep without feeding the flock. Those who are sickly you have not strengthened, the diseased you have not healed, the broken you have not bound up, the scattered you have not brought back, nor have you sought for the lost; but with force and with severity you have dominated them’”’”—total and complete failure on the part of the spiritual leaders of Israel. “‘“‘They were scattered for lack of a shepherd, and they became food for every beast of the field and were scattered’”’”—verse 6—“‘“‘My flock wandered through all the mountains and on every high hill; My flock was scattered over all the surface of the earth, and there was no one to search or seek for them.’”’

“Therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: ‘As I live,’ declares the Lord God, ‘surely My flock has become a prey, My flock has even become food for all the beasts of the field for lack of a shepherd, and My shepherds did not search for My flock, but rather the shepherds fed themselves and did not feed My flock; therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: Thus says the Lord . . . “Behold, I am against the shepherds, and I will demand My sheep from them and make them cease from feeding sheep. So the shepherds will not feed themselves anymore, but I will deliver My flock from their mouth, [and] they will not be food for them.”’”

And then verse 11, “Thus says the Lord God, ‘Behold, I Myself’”—“‘Behold, I Myself will search for My sheep and seek them out’”—very significant statement. “I Myself will search for My sheep and seek them out. As a shepherd cares for his herd in the day when he is among his scattered sheep, so I will care for My sheep and will deliver them from all the places to which they were scattered on a cloudy and gloomy day.” Verse 15, “‘I will feed My flock and I will lead them to rest,’ declares the Lord God.” Verse 16, “I will seek the lost, bring back the scattered, bind up the broken and strengthen the sick.” Down in verse 22, “I will deliver My flock, and they will no longer be a prey.” And verse 23, here’s a messianic prophecy: “I will set over them one shepherd, My servant David”—that’s a title for Messiah from the line of David—“he will feed them; he will feed them himself and be their shepherd. And I, the Lord, will be their God, and My servant David will be prince among them; I the Lord have spoken.”

Powerfully dramatic contrast between God’s desire for His flock and the failure of the leaders of Israel to obey the Divine One whose flock they were. God will step in, He says; this is a prophecy: “I Myself will take care of My sheep, and to do that I will send one shepherd, one shepherd.” That is a messianic prophecy, and you are in John 10 right there, in the text of the New Testament which describes the fulfillment of that prophecy.

As we read in those opening ten verses, it is our Lord Jesus who says, “I am the good shepherd.” And this is something He repeated in His ministry. In Matthew 18 He said He is the shepherd who risks His life to seek and save the straying sheep. In Matthew 9 He said His pity is upon the people because they were sheep without a shepherd. His disciples, in Luke chapter 12, He called a “little flock.” He, the shepherd, will be smitten, according to Mark 14, and the sheep will be scattered. First Peter 2:25 identifies Jesus as the Shepherd of the souls of men. Hebrews 13:20, He’s “the great Shepherd.”

So we have to look at our Lord. He’s the shepherd at Bethlehem that’s most important, and He was the fulfillment of God’s prophecy; and He came, and of course all the false shepherds of Israel hated Him, despised Him, rejected Him. But then they weren’t the true shepherds; they were the thieves and the robbers—Pharisees, the Sadducees, the scribes—pseudo teachers, false shepherds. But Jesus is the true Shepherd, the Good Shepherd, who classifies those leaders as thieves and robbers.

All false teachers fall into that category, all of them. And they have something in mind; it’s in verse 10: “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy.” False teachers are deadly, dangerous, and damning, and we have that throughout human history, even up to today—false teachers, emissaries of Satan doing their hellish work of counterfeit religion.

But here we find the good shepherd. And Peter adds that those who serve the good shepherd are under-shepherds. This is the shepherd that I want you to see. This is the shepherd who came to give life and give it abundantly. So let’s look at this text. We’ll just look at the opening few verses under the title “The Shepherd,” “The Shepherd.”

Look at verse 1: “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who does not enter by the door into the fold of the sheep, but climbs up some other way, he is a thief and a robber.” So we start with the fact that Jesus is identifying false shepherds, and this is coming off chapter 9. In chapter 9 Jesus had healed a man born blind, and the religious leaders of Israel hated Jesus for doing it; they could think of every reason why He was to be rejected and scorned. And if you read chapter 9 you find they went through all kinds of machinations to deny an obvious miracle because they couldn’t recognize the Messiah, because they didn’t know God, because they did not understand Him or His word.

So they stand in the background in chapter 9, and they are described in verse 1 as those who illegitimately tried to enter into the fold but are really thieves and robbers. They came for the people of Israel. They offered themselves as the ones who would lead them to God, the ones who would lead them to green pastures and still waters and overflowing cups and a feast in the midst of their enemies.

Now with that in mind I want you to see kind of a shepherd perspective on a typical village in Israel. And this is some new information; that’s why verse 1, “Truly, truly,” and down in verse 7, “Truly, truly.” This is solemn, this is serious, and this is new.

Here’s what you need to know by way of background. Within a village there would be people who had sheep. They would have a few sheep, they would know their sheep, and outside the village there would be built a corral, or a sheepfold, as it’s called. And the sheep from the village would stay there late at night until the morning, and then their shepherds would come and call out their own sheep and separate their own sheep and lead them out to the pasture for the day. When night came they would gather their sheep, and they would bring them back into the fold, and as they came into the fold, each shepherd would take his staff and put it over the entrance and check the wounds or the condition of every single of his own sheep. And that is what Ezekiel is referring to when he says God is going to make Israel “pass under the rod.” This is part of the responsibility of a shepherd: to know his sheep and stop every one, check them, make sure they were fine—they weren’t wounded or in any difficulty—lift the rod, let them into the fold. They were carefully examined. He knew his sheep. He spent all day with them every day. And someday, Ezekiel says, in the future, Israel will pass under God’s rod as well, and those that are His will enter that eternal fold. Salvation will come to Israel.

So once the shepherds had brought their sheep back into the fold, they had a doorkeeper—some texts say a porter, but it’s a doorkeeper. A wall was surrounding the fold, and there was a man who would be the doorkeeper to make sure the sheep were protected. In the morning the different shepherds would come back from their homes; they had gone home to be with their families and sleep. They would come back, and they would be welcomed by the doorkeeper, who knew them. They would go in, and they would get their sheep. They had a legitimate right to that. And that’s the picture here. The difference between thief and robber: “Thief” has the idea of stealing; “robber” has the idea of slaughter. It’s a more dramatic word.

So there were always false teachers hovering around the people of Israel to lead them astray and lead them to destruction and death. But a true shepherd has now appeared. So let’s look at the spiritual significance of this.

What is the sheepfold? Well, let’s back up and say, “Who are the sheep?” The sheep belong to the Great Shepherd. That’s the first thing that you have to understand: The sheep belong to the Good Shepherd. How do we know that? Verse 3, “To him the doorkeeper opens, and the sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.” He is, as verse 2 says, the shepherd of the sheep. He knows them; they know him.

So in the story, in the illustration, the “figure of speech,” as it’s called in verse 6, we are being told essentially that the sheep are the elect. They are the elect, and their shepherd has come for them.

What is the sheepfold? Well, it’s not the church; it’s not heaven. It is Israel. It is Israel. The Messiah has come; the Savior has come for the sheep that belong to Him. And He knows who they are, and He knows them “by name,” verse 3, and “they know His voice,” verse 4. He puts forth all His own; He drives them out of the fold, out of the fold of Judaism. He is gathering His elect out of apostate Judaism; and once they are outside, He goes ahead of them. You could say salvation is when He drives them out. But once they’re out and once He begins to lead them—this is wonderful—they follow Him. Verse 4, “The sheep follow him because they know his voice.” This is telling us that the Messiah came to gather the elect from Israel, to drive them out of apostate Judaism, to lead them forth. And they know His voice, He knows their name, and they follow Him. Verse 5 adds, “A stranger they simply will not follow.” The elect don’t follow false teachers.

You say, “Is it only Israel?” No. Go down to verse 16. Well actually, verse 15. He says, “I know the Father”; “the Father knows Me.” And then He adds in verse 16, “I have other sheep, which are not of this fold”—not of Israel; “I must bring them also.” Well what is that referring to? Well there’s one other fold from which the Lord draws His elect, and that’s Gentiles—Jew and Gentile.

So the Lord goes to the Gentile fold, and He does the same thing: He calls them and, “They . . . hear My voice; and they will become one flock with one shepherd,” Jew and Gentile in Christ. So that’s the picture of the shepherd coming for His own elect sheep.

If you look to verse 27 for a moment: “My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me; and I give eternal life to them, and they will never perish; and no one will snatch them out of My hand. My Father, who has given them to Me, is greater than all; and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand. I and the Father are one.” He knows His sheep.

Messiah came to call His sheep. And when He calls His sheep, they know His voice; they have been awakened by the work of the Holy Spirit in regeneration, and they follow Him. And they will not follow another. And He gives them eternal life, and they will never, ever perish, “And no one [can] snatch them out of My hand,” no one—“because My Father and I hold them, and no one is greater than My Father and I.”

There’s more. In verse 7, Jesus says, “Truly, truly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep.” What does this mean? Well as He leads them out He becomes the door to the green pastures, still waters, a feast, the overflowing cup. He is the rightful One and the only one who can give us access to the Father’s kingdom. He has the authority. He is the chosen One. He conformed to every messianic promise. He is the rightful Shepherd who leads the elect of Israel and the elect among the Gentiles out of the fold into God’s green pastures. So He is both a shepherd and a door because He is the doorway to life and blessing, eternal life. You could say He leads them out of Judaism and paganism to become one flock; and that’s where you see the church.

Who are the thieves and robbers? The Jewish leaders, the scribes, Pharisees—hypocrites who, in Matthew 23, our Lord said makes nothing but double sons of hell.

So what we have here is an incredible picture of the salvation of the elect and the sanctification of the elect. He drives them out of Judaism, out of paganism, into the green pastures of God. He is the shepherd who leads them; He is the door who gives them access to all the blessings of the kingdom, all spiritual blessings in the heavenlies in Christ Jesus.

Verse 3 says the doorkeeper opens when He shows. The doorkeeper recognizes when the rightful shepherd comes. Some people think the doorkeeper is the Holy Spirit; other people think the doorkeeper might well be the apostles. I don’t think we can identify that. It’s just that when the true Messiah shows up to call His people, there will be recognition that He has that right.

False teachers don’t; they’re thieves and robbers who destroy, kill, steal. But the doorkeeper recognizes the true Shepherd, and the true Shepherd recognizes His sheep. This is so amazing to think about.

If you look down in verse 14, “I am the good shepherd, I know My own and My own know Me.” Just a massively significant statement, “I know My own.” OK, we get that; He’s omniscient. But “My own know Me” is also true. He knows us because He chose us. He knows our names because He wrote them in the Lamb’s book of life before the foundation of the world. But we also know Him, and we follow Him, and we will not follow a stranger; we will not. We will follow only Him. I love how that’s expressed at the end of verse 5: “They do not know the voice of strangers.”

How marvelous is it to understand salvation this way: Jesus came to call His sheep. And that’s what He did. And they hear His voice in any generation, and they follow Him. He goes ahead of them, they go behind Him, and they will never ever cease following Him.

So this is the salvation that our blessed Lord came to provide: a salvation for His own people, a salvation for His elect. So personal, so intimate, so defined, so exclusive, that He actually came for specific sheep whose name He has known from eternity past; and He’s still doing it, and He’s still gathering them out of the fold in which they are held captive. He knows His sheep, and they know Him.

This is the gift of salvation in its most magnificent fullness. Chosen before the foundation of the world, predestined, names written in the Lamb’s book of life. We arrive in the world, and we are in a fold—a Gentile fold, a Jewish fold, whatever it may be—only until the Good Shepherd shows up, identifies us, speaks to us; and we hear His voice, and we understand His name. He knows us, we know Him, and we follow.

And then to affirm the reality of this, you come to verse 6: “This figure of speech”—this illustration that Jesus was giving—“this figure of speech Jesus spoke to them”—the Jewish leaders—“but they did not understand what those things were which He had been saying to them.” Of course, because they were not His sheep. They didn’t know Him. They didn’t listen to Him. They didn’t hear Him. They resisted Him. They rejected Him.

Back in John chapter 8 our Lord said, “Because I speak the truth, you do not hear Me,” and He said that to the same Jewish leaders. “Because I speak the truth, you do not [hear] Me.” Verse 43 of John 8, “You cannot hear My word [because] you’re of your father the devil.” Verse 45, “Because I speak the truth, you do not believe Me.” Then verse 47, “He who is of God hears the words of God . . . you don’t hear them, because you’re not of God.”

Salvation comes to those who belong to God, whose names are known by the Redeemer, whose name are written in the Lamb’s book of life. And when He calls, they are empowered by the Holy Spirit to hear, to recognize Him, to know Him as He knows them, to hear His voice, and to follow; and at that point He becomes the door to the Father’s kingdom.

And this is all so fresh. That’s why in verse 7, “Truly, truly, I say to you, I not only led you out, I became the door to lead you in.” The Shepherd is the door. Why? Because He is the access to the Father. Paul said through Him we have access to the Father and all that the Father possesses.

This time we are seeing the blessings of salvation. We are saved because He leads us out; we are blessed because He leads us in. And He who does this is no way to be compared with the false teachers, verse 8: “All who came before Me”—all those who pretended to be messianic figures, saviors, all of them—“are thieves and robbers, but the sheep didn’t hear them.” So powerful a statement.

Non-sheep don’t hear the Shepherd’s voice. But for those who do, verse 9 says, “[You enter] through Me”—that’s why He’s the door. You enter into the Father’s “pasture”—and this is salvation. He says it finally: “He will be saved, and will go in and out and find [spiritual] pasture.” He can roam anywhere and everywhere in complete security and complete safety because the Good Shepherd cares for us.

Sums it up in verse 10: “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy”—all false religion; “I came that they”—that is, “the sheep that belong to Me whose names I know”—“may have life, and have it abundantly.” It’s only one way to define life: abundant life, OK. It’s contrasted to death. The thieves come to kill, steal, and destroy. That’s where false religion takes people.

Christ comes to give us life, and to give it abundantly. What do you mean by that? All spiritual blessings in the heavenlies in Christ. It means life, spiritual life—which is eternal life—strength, growth, peace, joy, wisdom, knowledge, endurance, all that God has in His green pastures and still waters. That’s why Christ came. First Corinthians 1:30 says, “Christ . . . became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification, and redemption”—everything.

And you might at this point say, “Well, how can He give us such a deliverance?” And the answer He gives, Himself, in the words of verse 11; here’s the key to everything: “I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd lays down His life for the sheep.”

He purchased us, right? Five times in the few verses following He says, “I lay My life down”—five times, “I lay it down, I lay it down, I lay it down, I lay it down, I lay it down.” That was the only way that He could satisfy divine justice—He humbled Himself.

Shepherds were a humble lot. None was ever this humble. He who is rich became poor, that we through His poverty might be made rich. It’s all possible because He laid His life down. He died in our place. He died as a sacrifice for our sin.

What amazing Shepherd, right, all the way from choosing us in eternity past to securing us to eternity future: predestination, calling, salvation, sanctification, and final glory. No false teacher ever offered that, ever. He died for the love of His sheep, whose sheep we are. Let’s bow in prayer.

It’s such a precious day, Lord, when we can be together and be reminded of the reason our Lord came into the world; such a precious day to contemplate these things, to sing about them, to come before You in collective prayer, to fellowship with the saints, and to examine our own hearts. Somebody might be wondering, “How do I know if my name is written in the book? How do I know if He knows me? How do I know if He died for me? How do I know if He’s calling me?” And the answer is simple: You heard, you believed, and you followed.

And I pray, Lord, for those who may be here today who have heard Your call. Lord, may they awaken to life. May Your Spirit quicken them. May they hear the voice that they’ve never heard before calling them to the green pastures and the still waters, the overflowing cup of the eternal kingdom that You possess.

We have no words to express our gratitude. What could we say, Lord? Tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of songs have been written to try to express the words of worship and gratitude. And yet with all of it, we still haven’t begun to give You praise enough for saving us when we were Your enemies, for loving us eternally, for leading us out and leading us in, for being our Good Shepherd and the door to eternal blessing. May this be a day in which we offer our thanks and our praise in a myriad of ways to such a worthy Savior. I pray in His name. Amen.

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