The Problem with Shepherds and Sheep

Sermon by Wiley Lowry on Jul 23, 2017

John 10:1-21

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If you would turn in your Bibles to John chapter 10, John 10, found on page 896 in the pew Bibles. And as you turn there, I want to begin by asking you a question. What is it that drives you? We’re going to come back to that question in just a little while, but for now, what motivates you? Why do we do the things that we do and pursue the goals that we pursue? What occupies our thoughts when we have moments when we are not distracted? It seems like a pretty basic question, doesn’t it? But I would guess that most of the time that question operates in the background of our thinking, in the background of our actions. They’re not on the surface so much. It’s a significant question though, isn’t it? We’ll come back to that question in just a little while, but let’s look at this familiar passage from the gospel of John, John chapter 10. Jesus speaks of Himself in this familiar image of a shepherd. Let’s think again tonight about this picture of the shepherd and the sheep and maybe find some surprising lessons, some lessons that should make us reconsider what it is that drives us. So let’s go to the Lord in prayer and ask His help before we read from His Word.

Our Father, we come before You. We give You thanks and come to You in the name of Jesus our good Shepherd. And we do confess that we need Your help and we need Your guidance and we desperately need to hear Your voice. So we ask that You would help us to hear Your voice tonight in the reading and preaching of Your Word and that by Your Spirit that You would lead us and direct us into truth, into wisdom, into godliness, to live lives which would praise and honor You. We pray these things in Christ’s name, amen.

Let’s read from John chapter 10, the first twenty-one verses:

“’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.

So Jesus again said to them, ‘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 listen to them. I am the door. If anyone enters by 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 came that they may have life and have it abundantly. I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. He who is a hired hand and not a shepherd, who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees, and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. He flees because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep. 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. For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life that I may take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This charge I have received from my Father.’

There was again a division among the Jews because of these words. Many of them said, ‘He has a demon, and is insane; why listen to him?’ Others said, “’These are not the words of one who is oppressed by a demon. Can a demon open the eyes of the blind?’”

The grass withers and the flowers fall but the Word of our God endures forever.

The Shepherd and the Sheep

I want to study this passage along two points tonight. The first is – rethinking the shepherd and the sheep. And then secondly – rethinking what drives us. So first, rethinking the shepherd and the sheep. The problem with shepherds and sheep is their familiarity to us. They may need a second look from us tonight. Because as we read these verses, we notice that Jesus uses several different figures of speech which incorporate this language or this picture of the shepherd and the sheep. And at first examination, it might come across to us and be somewhat perplexing because, in the first place Jesus says He is the shepherd that enters the sheepfold by the door. But then He says, “I am the door of the sheep.” And then He goes back and says, “I am the shepherd, the good shepherd.” What is Jesus doing by calling Himself the shepherd and then the door and then the shepherd?

The Shepherd is the Door

It may be something like this. I was reading an explanation from G. Campbell Morgan from one of his sermons and he tells a story in that sermon about a conversation that a friend of his had with a shepherd. And this shepherd was showing his friend where the sheep lived and where they ate and where they stayed in the night. And he showed him this structure which was four walls. It had an opening in the wall. And the shepherd says that when they are in there they are safe. And this friend of Morgan’s said, “But there’s no door.” And the shepherd said to him, “I am the door.” He says, this man was not a Christian man, he was not making a reference to Jesus’ words in the New Testament, but what he was saying was that when it was nighttime, when it became dark, that the sheep would go into the structure, he would lay down in the opening, and no sheep could get out unless it went over him and no wolf could come in unless it passed over the shepherd. You see what the shepherd is saying? He’s saying that the shepherd is the door. That may be exactly what Jesus is saying here – it’s that Jesus is the door of the sheep and He is the shepherd of the sheep. He is the door of the sheep because He is the shepherd of the sheep.

And so what Jesus is doing here in calling Himself the shepherd, He’s taking a very common feature of daily life in that time. This is something that his listeners would have been very familiar with as they hear Him talking about shepherds and sheep. And it’s a picture that had deep roots going back into God’s Word, into the Scripture. We think about some very familiar passages, don’t we? Psalm 23, “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.” What about Isaiah chapter 53? “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned, every one of us to our own way.” There’s reference here to Ezekiel chapter 34 where the Lord is rebuking the false shepherds of Israel. He’s rebuking His people, Israel, and He’s saying to them, He’s promising to them, “I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep.” And over and over again, throughout the Old Testament, as I was studying for this passage I was reading through the minor prophets at the same time. And it just struck me how much in the minor prophets in almost every one of those books there was a reference or the image of a shepherd and a sheep and the flock of God’s people. It’s a very common feature of God’s Word. And so what Jesus is doing here as He refers to Himself as the shepherd and the people as the sheep, He’s using this familiar concept to present Himself as the Messiah, as the promised Shepherd-King of God’s people.

And as He does that, He is contrasting Himself against all of those others who are false shepherds and who are counterfeit saviors. And as we read this passage, we’re familiar with this passage for one. We’re familiar with this analogy that Jesus is making even though it’s probably unlikely that any of us have ever spent time with a shepherd. We’ve probably have never really been around sheep much except for at a petting zoo. But we’ve heard enough sermons, haven’t we? We’ve studied the Bible enough that we know something; we have a general idea about what a shepherd is like and what sheep are like. In fact, if I were to ask you some of the general characteristics of sheep, what are some of the things that would come to your mind right off the bat? They’re vulnerable. They’re helpless. They’re fearful. They tend to flock together. They’re easily agitated and oftentimes they are prone to wander.

Sheep Need a Shepherd

Phillip Keller is a man who studied agriculture. He was a lay pastor and for a time he owned and cared for his own flock of sheep. And he wrote down several devotional books based on his experiences as a shepherd – A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23. In one of those books, he tells a story about one of his sheep in particular that would always be out by the fence looking, searching always for a hole, trying to get on the other side of the fence. And this one sheep would go outside and it would graze on this narrow plot of land that was, it really did not have much grass. And it was right on the cliffs overlooking the sea. It was a very dangerous place for that sheep to graze while there was plenty of grass inside the fence. The biggest problem came in that the other sheep would see that sheep wandering off and they would follow and the whole flock was in danger. The point is, sheep need a shepherd. We know that, don’t we? We know that sheep need a shepherd. And as we think about that, doesn’t it conjure up in our minds a sort of sentimental association of the shepherd and the sheep?

But you see, in Jesus' day, the job of a shepherd was not a noble or a prestigious occupation. Shepherds were lonely. They were dirty. It was exhausting work. And by the time that Jesus is making this analogy here that we read in John chapter 10, shepherds had required a very bad reputation in 1st century Palestine. They were among the lowest classes of society. They were despised and considered untrustworthy. Their testimony was not admitted in court. There was one rabbi who said, he said this, that “parents should not teach their son to be a donkey driver, a camel driver, a pot maker, a sailor, a storekeeper, or a shepherd.” This was the rabbinic remix of “Mama’s Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to be Cowboys”! Shepherds were not a prestigious or a noteworthy occupation. The reason the rabbi didn’t want the children to become shepherds was because these were the trades of robbers. They would oftentimes let their sheep graze in other people’s pastures and so they were considered to be thieves. Sometimes we think of shepherds as innocent and quaint – these figures that were living in peace and quiet pastures. That’s not at all what Jesus is up against in His day. In reality, the shepherds were lowly and unimpressive figures. That’s why it was so surprising that when Jesus was born, who were the first people that His birth was announced to? It was to shepherds. These misfits. They were overlooked. Who would believe their account of Jesus’ birth and of what the angels announced to them?

Now if we consider some of these characteristics of sheep and of shepherds which we’ve considered, there are some helpful comparisons that we can make both to ourselves and to Jesus. Because as sheep, we tend to be fearful and vulnerable. We wander and are prone to go astray. We are susceptible to various dangers – the dangers of our own poor choices and the dangers of the attacks of the enemy. And like a shepherd, Jesus humbled Himself. He became of no reputation. He was despised and He was rejected by men, and yet He is also one who is caring and compassionate towards His sheep.

The Value of Sheep

But is that all, or does this passage teach us to look at little bit closer at the shepherd and the sheep? Let’s do that. And first of all, let’s notice what this passage teaches us not about the insignificance of sheep but about the value of sheep. You see, these are not dumb and worthless animals. That's one thing – I've read some this past week about sheep, and anyone who cares about sheep, to say that a sheep is stupid, that's fighting words. That's a misconception. And this passage is not teaching us that sheep are stupid either. Sheep are extremely valuable and they're precious. The thieves and the robbers know that, don't they? Because they know there's money at stake. There are bellies to be fed and bodies to be clothed. And the wolves know that too. The wolves know that there is a meal available to them. And then, on the other hand, there's the shepherd who loves his sheep. They are valuable to him. He calls his sheep by name. He knows his own. He knows them in this close and personal attachment and the shepherd will do anything to protect and to provide for his sheep. In fact, the good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep. That's how valuable the sheep are in the eyes of the shepherd.

You see, being compared to a sheep doesn’t mean that you are inferior or that you are sheepish or that you are just a castoff and a reject. No, you are cherished, cherished by Jesus. Jesus said that He laid down His life and took it up again to establish His flock and to bring you into His love and His care. And that this charge, this charge for this work He received from His Father, this is the commitment of the Father and the Son from all eternity. The plan of the Triune God from before the foundation of the world is to save the lost sheep. That’s how valuable and beloved you are in the sight of God.

The Security of Sheep

And that leads us too to notice also, secondly, that this is not about how fragile the sheep are, but it teaches us about how secure the sheep are. Even though there is danger all around, the sheep are completely dependent upon the shepherd. But notice what we see here. It’s that the sheep know the voice of the shepherd. They do not listen to the voice of the strangers. They do not listen to the voice of thieves and robbers but they will respond to the shepherd. They will hear his voice and they will find what they need. If we were to go down later in this passage, Jesus is at the Feast of Dedication. He says these words in verses 27 and 28, “My sheep hear my voice and I know them and they follow me. I give them eternal life and they will never perish and no one will snatch them out of my hand.” His sheep come to Him and they are safe. They are secure.

I was watching a TV show, some sort of documentary, not that long ago. The most incredible thing, it was about these herdsmen who were leading their cattle to water somewhere in the desert and they would actually dig out, dig down to the water and they would stand by these holes. There were many different men around them, many different herdsmen and many different groups of cattle, and the men would dig out to the water and then they would start singing a song. It was their song; it was their song that they would sing every time. And the cattle, the livestock would come to them. Their livestock would come to that herdsman singing that song. They knew the voice of their herdsman. It was the most incredible thing.

You see, what Jesus is saying here is that His people will respond to His voice and they will never be stolen away. They will not be left behind. We will not be overlooked or snatched away. There is no such thing as an incomplete salvation. There’s one of the hymns that we sing, “A Debtor to Mercy Alone,” and there’s a line in that hymn and it’s talking about heaven. It’s talking about believers of God, God’s people in heaven. And it says that when we get to heaven that we will be “more happy but not more secure.” That means that where we are right now, we will be no more secure in the arms of the Father when we are in heaven than we are right now. That’s how secure we are in the arms of the Good Shepherd, in the care of the Good Shepherd. We may be fearful and we may be weak, but we are secure and we cannot be lost.

The Security Lies in the Authority of the Shepherd

And that security points us to the third thing that I want us to see from this passage that may be somewhat surprising. It's that this security is comforting to us because of the dignity and the authority of the shepherd. See, Jesus is not some obscure outcast. He's not some sentimental shepherd. But He is uniquely qualified and equipped to be the Shepherd-King. He says in verse 1 and 2 that "Anyone who enters the sheepfold by climbing in another way other than the door, that man is a thief and a robber. But the one who goes in through the door is the shepherd of the sheep." Well, what qualifies Jesus to be the Shepherd of the sheep. Well, He comes according to God's plan. He comes according to God's covenant promises. He comes from the line of David. He comes in complete righteousness and holiness and complete submission to the will of God. His credentials as the Good Shepherd, as the Messiah, are unmatched.

And when Jesus says here in this passage, He says, “I am the door of the sheep and I am the good shepherd,” these are two of the famous “I am” sayings in the gospel of John. And what Jesus is doing there is He is identifying Himself as the great, “I am,” the covenant name of God. If you were to go through the Scriptures and you read, anytime especially in the Old Testament and you read the name of God, the LORD, and it’s in all capital letters, that is the name that Jesus is referring to here; the name, “I AM.” It’s the name that God revealed to Moses at the burning bush – “I AM WHO I AM.” It’s Jehovah, Yahweh, the covenant LORD. Jesus is saying that He is the Shepherd from Psalm 23, “The Lord is my shepherd.” Jesus is saying that He is the almighty and the infinite, the eternal and the holy God. He most certainly is the Good Shepherd.

Another way we could translate that word “good” is that He is the “noble” Shepherd. He is the “chief” Shepherd. And even the crowds recognize something of Jesus’ uniqueness, don’t they? They say these are not the words of one who was oppressed by a demon, because can a demon open the eyes of the blind? They are referring to the chapter right before this. Jesus had healed a blind man. He gave sight to a man who had been born blind. And if you’re familiar with the gospel of John, you know that the purpose for which John records these different signs, he tells us in chapter 20, he says, “Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” This sign, this healing of the blind man is one of those things that the crowds acknowledge and it’s one of those things that points as a sign to who Jesus is, His identity as the Christ, as the Messiah. And He tells the people about the ultimate sign, which vindicates and validates His identity as the Christ in that He lays down His life and He takes it up again.

You see, the sheep have a Shepherd who is one with all authority and all dominion. He is humble, yes, but He is awesome. And He is worthy of all devotion and all praise. He is the one and only Shepherd of God’s flock. This passage calls us to a decision. And that’s what’s going on here in this conflict, this struggle between the Pharisees and the crowds around Him. Will they recognize who Jesus is and will they recognize that He is the Messiah, the Savior, and come to Him and turn to Him and follow Him? That’s His identity. He is greater than anything else, than anyone else.

What Drives You?

And that leads us to the second point, and that is, to rethink what drives us. I began by asking what it is that drives you. What gets you out of the bed in the morning? What fuels your decisions and your actions and your responses to other people? You know, the answer to that question is going to vary from person to person. Some of the things that are typical may be to have life’s basic necessities – food and shelter – and to have enough of them. Others crave a sense of security and the flexibility that a large bank account or a balanced investment portfolio can provide. There was a study done not that long ago to see why people crave power. Is it more for influence or for autonomy? And the answers came back that people crave power, they desire power for autonomy, for the freedom to do what they want to do and set their own schedule, to be their own boss, and to do it when they desire to do it. Oftentimes we hear about athletes and what drives them. Many times it may be to prove other people wrong; a sort of revenge over those teams that overlooked them in the draft. We could go on and on. It could be affirmation, recognition, a sense of belonging, a sense of passion and purpose. It could be good things like caring for others, raising children. The question of motivation is a significant question and it’s probably more prominent in our thinking and in our behavior than we even realize.

I was listening to a philosopher and a writer the other day and he was talking about what he considers to be the dominant message, especially in the United States. And he says that it is that “anyone can be anything that they want to be.” Now I think we see that evident if you’ve seen any Disney movies in the last several years. Maybe you haven’t; I’ve seen a few. I can tell you that’s the message that’s coming out. Anybody can do anything and be whatever they want to be. But this man says that with that comes a mentality that those who achieve, who become what they want to be, are winners while those who do not are losers. And this produces a great sense of pressure. It creates a frenetic atmosphere in our society. The pressure to have our kids in the right activities with the right group of friends in the right grade at the best school. The pressure to eat clean foods and to keep up our health regimens so that we can meet our wellness goals. The pressure to live up to others’ expectations and to gain their approval. The pressure to be needed.

Who Leads You?

But you see, the things that drive us are unrelenting and they’re oppressive. And the choices that we make to pursue those goals oftentimes are unreliable for bringing about what we hope. And so you see, the question, “What drives you?” is the wrong question. The question should be, “Who leads you? Who do you follow? Who is your shepherd?” See, Jesus is the Good Shepherd. He knows His sheep and He cares for them. He laid down His life as a sacrifice in our place to forgive us for our sin and He goes before His flock and gives to us guidance and protection and provision and peace. And Jesus is the door of the sheep. He is the only way to good pasture. He is the only way to an abundant life and to a life of blessing. To know the heavenly Father and to enjoy relationship with Him. So the question is, “Will you follow Jesus? Will you hear His voice and let Him lead you?” Every other way will drive you to dissatisfaction and to destruction and will cause you to become hard-driving at those around you.

In fact, that may be the way to determine what it is that’s driving us is what causes us to drive others. And that can have an impact on the day to day, on a very small scale level. If it’s our comfort that drives us, we will become agitated whenever someone gets in the way of our peace and quiet. If it’s instant gratification that we desire, then anyone who forces us to wait will frustrate us. If it’s entertainment, then we cannot tolerate boredom. Whatever drives us will cause us to drive others. That’s the way it was in Jesus’ day, wasn’t it? Because the Pharisees, the Pharisees were so concerned about their structure that they had in place, their positions of prominence and prestige, that they had no concern for the people around them. They had no concern for this man who had been blind since birth and Jesus healed him. All they wanted to do was cover it up and cast him out of the synagogue. And they completely missed who Jesus is. They completely missed Jesus because of that.

I was reading from the biography of Steve Jobs the other day. And Jobs, as you know, was the CEO for many years of Apple and he’s credited with the creation and the design of the iPhone, the iPad, and other devices. His personal drive was legendary. It’s said that at one point he took a prototype of one of their devices and he wanted it smaller. And he thought it could be smaller so what he did, he went and dropped it in a fish tank. And as it went into the fish tank, air bubbles came up. And he said, “See, it has air in there. It can be made smaller.” That was his drive. He exhibited that same sort of drive to his spiritual life and he sought peace in eastern mysticism. His biographer says that he had a compulsive search for self-awareness. And yet one of his friends, one of those people closest to him, said that he became really serious and self-important and just generally unbearable. He never found that sense of calm for which he was looking.

Now that’s an extreme example, but everything that drives you will take you captive and it will demand more than you can give. But Jesus, Jesus is the Good Shepherd and He will lead you and give you infinitely more than you deserve. He will give you more than you can imagine – the love of the heavenly Father and life, abundant life. Will you follow Jesus? Following Jesus means trusting in Him and Him alone for salvation. And following Jesus means having the heart of the Shepherd for other people. Because if we are following Him as our Savior and Lord and we will listen to His Word, we will follow His example in all of our relationships, in all of the responsibilities that we have, in every circumstance in our lives, then that means that we will demonstrate a contentment, a submission to the will of the Father, that we will respond to others with patience and with humility, with love and compassion. It means that we will pursue truth and righteousness in our relationships. Are we carrying out our roles of authority – whether it’s in our families, in the church, or at work – are we carrying them out as a shepherd-leader? And are we responding to the God-ordained authorities in our lives and to the circumstances of God’s providence with faith in the Good Shepherd and in the strength of the Holy Spirit knowing that God will take care of us? The Good Shepherd will take care of us.

Oftentimes we know what God’s Word says, don’t we? And we know what Jesus would have us to do, and yet it doesn’t match our timeframe. It doesn’t seem like it will bring us the most joy. And so we go our way and oftentimes we’re unsatisfied. But you see, we are treasured by Christ. We are valuable to the Good Shepherd. We are safe in the care of the one who has all authority. He is the only way to life and to joy and we can trust that He will take care of us and we can respond to others with the heart of Christ.

The Other Sheep

And there’s one last thing that I want to notice before we leave this passage tonight. Jesus says that He has other sheep that are not of this fold and that He must bring them also. And there will be what? One flock and one shepherd. What does Jesus mean by that? What’s He talking about when He’s talking about going out and getting these other sheep that are His sheep and they belong in the flock under His shepherding hand? He’s saying that the Gentiles, the outsiders, the Gentiles belong in the flock. There are Gentiles who are His sheep too, included in His flock. And that means that there are people, as Jesus speaks these words, there are people who are from different cultures and different backgrounds and different traditions. And as we read Paul’s letters and he gives us the list of the way of the life of the Gentiles, they are people who are pagans. They are rebels and idolaters. Remember what Paul says about some of the Gentiles and what they had come from. They were sexually immoral and idolaters and thieves and drunkards. And yet what does Jesus says? That among these people He has sheep and that means that they are valuable and that they will respond to His voice and they will recognize His grace and come to Him and come under His authority and His leadership. There will be one flock and one Shepherd.

Doesn’t that give us tremendous confidence and boldness to tell others about Jesus? Because His sheep will hear His voice and they will come and there will be one flock and one Shepherd. To follow Jesus means to have the heart of a shepherd for others. And that means to have a missionary heart because Jesus is the Good Shepherd and He will care for us even as we go and share with others about Him. He will take care of us. Jesus and Jesus alone is worth following with all of our heart, with all of our soul, with all of our mind, and with all of our strength because He is the Good Shepherd. Will you follow Him?

Let’s pray.

Father, we give You thanks for sending this Good Shepherd to lead us with love and kindness and compassion, to store up for us blessings beyond anything we could imagine. We pray that you would help us to follow You and to go out from here, wherever You place us and with the people in our lives and the opportunities to share Your Word and to spread the Gospel, that we would not be so consumed by our goals that we miss the other people, but that we would see others and we would see those who need a Savior, who need a Shepherd, that we would see their value – that Christ has given His life for them – and send us and bring them in, for Your glory and for their good. And we pray all of these things in Christ’s name, amen.

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