One Sunday, the young pastor decided to use the 23rd Psalm for his children’s sermon. He began to tell the children about sheep—that they aren’t smart and need lots of guidance and that a shepherd’s job is to stay close to the sheep, protect them from wild animals and keep them from wandering away.
He pointed to the little children in the room and said they were the sheep and needed lots of guidance. Then the pastor put his hands out to the side, palms up in a dramatic gesture, and with raised eyebrows said to the children, “If you are the sheep, then who is the shepherd?” He was pretty obviously indicating himself.
A few seconds of silence followed, then one little boy said, “Jesus is the shepherd.”
The young pastor, obviously caught by surprise, said to the boy, “Well, then, who am I?”
The boy thought for a moment and then said with a shrug, “I guess you must be a sheep dog.”[i]
In John 10:1-21, Jesus calls Himself the Good Shepherd, and He does it in the presence of a bunch of sheep dogs. Religious leaders have just spent the previous chapter proving that they are really blind guides who are leading the people out of a desire for their own personal gain. They are “hired hands,” compared to Jesus, who is the true Shepherd of the Sheep. Hired hands run at the threat of danger because they are out for their own self-interests, but Jesus says that the Good Shepherd is different. Jesus says that the Good Shepherd guides the sheep in truth. In verses 2-4, 14, Jesus says:
But the one who enters through the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep recognize his voice and come to him. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. After he has gathered his own flock, he walks ahead of them, and they follow him because they know his voice. They won’t follow a stranger; they will run from him because they don’t know his voice… I am the good shepherd; I know my own sheep, and they know me,15 just as my Father knows me and I know the Father.[ii]
The young pastor in the above story is wrong—God doesn’t call people “sheep” because they are dumb. But Jesus knows that every one of us needs guidance, and it’s easy to follow the wrong shepherds who give the wrong advice. Today, we’re apt to follow self-help gurus, political leaders, favorite authors, news commentators, or best buddies. In addition, there are a myriad of religious and spiritual voices on TV, the internet, and in pulpits, telling you what you should believe. But Jesus is the Good Shepherd. And He says His sheep know His voice.
In Palestine today, it is still possible to witness a scene that Jesus almost certainly saw two thousand years ago, that of Bedouin shepherds bringing their flocks home from the various pastures they have grazed during the day. Often those flocks will end up at the same watering hole around dusk, so that they get all mixed up together—eight or nine small flocks turning into a convention of thirsty sheep. Their shepherds do not worry about the mix-up, however. When it is time to go home, each one issues his or her own distinctive call—a special trill or whistle, or a particular tune on a particular reed pipe, and that shepherd's sheep withdraw from the crowd to follow their shepherd home. They know whom they belong to; they know their shepherd's voice, and it is the only one they will follow.[iii]
There are so many voices in the world today, but Jesus’ voice is distinct. It usually goes counter to either the ways of the world or the ways of “powers that be.” Instead of telling you how you can get ahead, succeed, and be the best and always win, the Shepherd tells you how you can be like Him, and become a sacrifice. Yes, God calls us “sheep” because we need guidance. But Jesus also calls us this because Christians are to lay our lives down to serve others. In verse 11, Jesus models this: “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd sacrifices his life for the sheep.” In verse fifteen, He says, “I sacrifice my life for the sheep.” He also says, “I sacrifice my life so I may take it back again. No one can take my life from me. I sacrifice it voluntarily. For I have the authority to lay it down when I want to and also to take it up again. For this is what my Father has commanded (vv. 17-18).” Jesus gave Himself so we could have eternal life—but now He calls sheep to become shepherds like Him, to put others first, to serve them, and to love them. Just as sheep are sacrificial animals, He calls us to lay down our lives as a living sacrifice.
In these verses, Jesus calls Himself the Good Shepherd, but He also calls Himself something else:
I tell you the truth, I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me were thieves and robbers. But the true sheep did not listen to them. Yes, I am the gate. Those who come in through me will be saved. They will come and go freely and will find good pastures. The thief’s purpose is to steal and kill and destroy. My purpose is to give them a rich and satisfying life (vv. 7-10).
When I first read this, I couldn’t understand how Jesus could be such a poor public speaker, employing a mixed metaphor the way He does! First, He says He is the Shepherd who goes through the gate. Then He says He is the gate itself. The writer in me got frustrated, wanting to say, “Which is it, Jesus? You can’t be both!” But yes, He can. This isn’t a mixed metaphor after all. Jesus is both the Shepherd who goes through the gate, and the gate itself. He is the Shepherd who seeks the lost sheep even when we don’t deserve to be found. He gives up His life for the sheep, exemplifying and offering grace. Salvation comes from the Shepherd’s grace. We receive the Shepherd by opening the gate to our hearts and letting Him in. We can only do this through faith. And yet even the faith that we have to receive His grace, comes to us as a gift from God. It is not our own faith, otherwise we could brag that we got saved because we were so faithful. That faith is a gift from God as well. Ephesians 2:8 says, “God saved you by his grace when you believed. And you can't take credit for this; it is a gift from God.” Other translations say, “By grace, through faith.” So, Jesus is the Shepherd who gives grace, and Jesus is the gate of faith by which we receive that gift. In other words, Jesus is all we need. I pray that today the Shepherd would feed you on the delicacies of His salvation, and that you’ll open wide to receive all that He has to offer.
[ii] All scripture quotations taken from the NLT.
[iii] Barbara Brown Taylor in The Preaching Life (Cowley, 1993), p. 147; submitted by Kevin Miller, Wheaton, Illinois. http://www.preachingtoday.com/illustrations/2013/june/5061713.html. May 11, 2017.