Summary: What are the characteristics of a good shepherd? Jesus sets the example.
I AM the Good Shepherd
Today we will look at another one of the “I AM” statements in John’s gospel. The particular way that these two words are presented in the gospel are similar to the Greek translation of Exodus 3:14 for the name of Yahweh. We looked last week at “I AM the Door” which is closely linked to this statement that He is the Good Shepherd. Jesus spoke this parable against the Pharisees whom He called thieves and robbers who wanted to steal, injure, and kill God’s sheep.
Starting with verse 11, Jesus now identifies Himself as the Good Shepherd. We mentioned in the study on the previous passage that as Yahweh, He is the shepherd David is speaking of in the 23rd Psalm. He is the one who nourishes, waters, and protects, and provides for the eternal security of His followers. Here Jesus adds one more element. He is the One who lays down His life for the sheep. When the sheep were out in pastures too far away from the sheepcote in the village, they would be sheltered in a rock wall enclosure in which there was only one opening. The shepherd would lay across this opening. Wolves and other predators who could not climb over this rock enclosure would have to deal with the shepherd before they could attack the sheep. The shepherd would have to be incapacitated or killed for the wolves to get to the sheep. David was a good example of the protection the shepherd offered. He had to on one occasion to kill a lion with his sling, and a bear on another (1 Samuel 17:34). He was willing to put himself at risk or even die for his flock.
Jesus goes on to compare himself to a hireling. A hireling was employed to help care for someone else’s sheep. They worked for wages. Some hirelings were probably pretty good workers, but not all. When put into danger where it was either their life or the life of the sheep, he would be tempted to run away. The predators would probably let him run as the sheep in the pen were utterly helpless. More than this, they were trapped by the very walls which should have been their refuge. It would be an easy matter for them to kill and feast on the sheep. The hireling might get fired and receive a bad recommendation, but it was harder to do background checks in that day. Even with background checks, it is all too easy for a bad worker to get employment elsewhere.
Jesus shows that the sheep are His. Therefore He protects them with His life. We think of the Psalm: “We are His people, and the sheep of His pasture” (Psalm 100:3). Jesus says that He knows his sheep personally. It also says Hi sheep know him personally as well. Jesus does not just care for the flock as a whole, but also cares for each individual to the point He is willing to leave the ninety and nine to find the sheep which has strayed (Luke 15:4). He also says this reflects the personal relationship He has with the Father, and the Father with Him. Not only does Jesus care for the sheep, the Father cares for them also. He then repeats that He is going to lay His life down for the sheep. He is going to eternally protect His own by dying for them. By His death, His sheep will be eternally safe. What encouragement this offers. Twice Jesus calls Himself the Good shepherd, and twice He says that He will lay down his life for the sheep. This repeating of what Jesus says makes this all the more emphatic.
In verse 16, Jesus adds some additional information about who are His sheep. The Jews could relate to being God’s sheep pretty well. The Gentiles were not unless they came into the covenant God made with Israel. This was not easy to do, and sometimes it took several generations before Gentile descendants could come into full covenant relationship. Some like the Moabites were permanently barred. Circumcision and a commitment to obey the Law of Moses would also be required, But Jesus here makes a shocking break when He says that He has other sheep which were not of this fold. It is set up by using the strong Greek word “alla” which says they were not another flock of Jews but were totally different. These would include Samaritans, but also the Gentiles. Jesus says that He must lead them also. The “must” here is a word often used as a divine imperative. He is also their shepherd. What He has said about the Jewish sheep is equally true of the Gentile sheep. They belong to Him and have all the privileges and protection that the sheep He called out from the Jewish people. These shall be brought into the fold. So there will be one new and larger flock who will be led by Jesus, the Good shepherd. As they share a common shepherd, this becomes their unity. What matters is that the are all His people, and the sheep of His pasture and not where they originally came from.