Summary: Jesus' sheep know their Shepherd's voice, and they are safe.
WHEN I WAS A KID, I loved to go to my grandmother’s house. One of the things I remember about that house was a picture on the wall over the bed where I slept. It was a picture of Jesus. There’s a good chance you’ve seen it, or one like it. It shows the full stature of our Lord. He is walking toward you, the viewer. In one of his hands he is holding a shepherd’s crook, and in the other he is holding a lamb. He is carrying the lamb. And when you look at what is depicted in that picture, you somehow know that the lamb is you. He is carrying you. The painting, no doubt, was designed to portray Jesus as – well, as what he calls himself in our text for today. It shows him to be the Good Shepherd.
Now, the truth is, as a kid, I was easily frightened by the dark. But in my grandmother’s guest room, where she had the picture of Jesus over the bed, I never got scared. I felt safe. And, of course, I was. There was no danger to me, not in my grandmother’s home. And, if there had been, no picture was going to keep me safe, not even a picture of Jesus!
But now, out there in the world – even in the full light of day – there are hazards all around. You know the Bach piece, “Sheep May Safely Graze”? I love that composition. It is one of my favorites. But there’s one mistake you and I must not make. Sheep may safely graze, but it’s not because there is no danger. Danger is all around. And, what is worse, there are agents of that danger, sinister agents who do not have the welfare of the sheep at heart.
In John, chapter 10, Jesus calls them by name. In verse 1, there is the “thief and [the] bandit.” He is the one “who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way.” In verse 5, there is the “stranger.” The stranger calls to the sheep, but Jesus says, “They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.” In verse 10, Jesus calls our attention to “the thief” yet again and exposes his aims. “The thief,” he says, “comes only to steal and kill and destroy.”
Then there is the “hired hand.” We find him in verse 12. He is the one, ostensibly, who has been charged with protecting the sheep. He is commissioned to feed them and care for them and keep them safe from harm. But when he “sees the wolf coming,” he “leaves the sheep and runs away – and the wolf snatches them and scatters them.”
When our Lord first began His ministry, we are told that “he saw the crowds,” and “he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matt. 9:36). I can think of nothing more vulnerable to the hazards of life than a lamb alone in the field with thieves and bandits all about, and strangers – not to mention wolf-like predators – and no shepherd in sight.
But God is not going to let His sheep go without a shepherd. In fact, He says in Ezekiel 34, “I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord GOD. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak…” (vv. 15f.). John, chapter 10, is the fulfillment of that promise. Here we find Jesus, who in the face of threats in every direction – there are thieves and bandits and strangers and wolves, and they are lurking everywhere – but, unlike the hired hand, Jesus does not run away. He lays down His life for His sheep.
He is the Good Shepherd. And that’s what the Good Shepherd does. He lays down His life for the sheep. He tells us this plainly. But here’s what puzzles me. The people he is talking to don’t understand it. In verse 6, we read, “Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying.” And then again in verse 19, John tells us that they “were divided because of [His] words. Many of them were saying, ‘He is…out of His mind. Why listen to Him?’”
And, without knowing it, they identified the key issue in this chapter of John’s Gospel. Why listen to Him indeed! How can He say, “I am the gate,” and mean it? How can He say, “Whoever enters by me will be saved,” and keep a straight face? He must be “out of His mind!” So, why listen to Him at all? His claims for Himself – are they not grandiose and extreme, especially in our day and time? Who believes anymore that He is who He says He is?