Monday, January 13, 2014

Recognizing the Shepherd (John 10:1-6)


In Matthew 7:15, Jesus said, “Beware of the false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves.” This saying of Christ has given rise to our familiar idiom of a wolf in sheep’s clothing. In the course of each of our lives, many of us have probably been duped at some point by someone we trusted and considered harmless, only to find that they had evil intentions to do us harm in some way. The dangers of a wolf in sheep’s clothing are obvious. But there is another danger that we may often overlook, and that is the danger of a wolf in shepherd’s clothing.

Six hundred years before Christ, the famous Greek story-teller Aesop told a fable of a wolf and a shepherd. The shepherd had kept his eye on the wolf for some time, and eventually came to trust the wolf, so much so that one day he left the wolf in charge of the sheep. When the shepherd returned, he found a great many of his sheep had been killed and carried away. It seems that wolves in sheep’s clothing are dangerous enough, but a wolf in shepherd’s clothing is potentially far worse. In the passage that we are studying today, we find a True Shepherd who has come to the sheepfold to gather His sheep to Himself, and to warn of those wolves in shepherd’s clothing who seek only to selfishly devour the flock.

Of course, the True Shepherd is none other than Jesus Himself. Throughout this entire Chapter, Jesus will use the language of ancient Near-Eastern sheep-herding to describe Himself and His ministry. In so doing, He is picking up on a theme that unfolds throughout the Old Testament. Most familiar to us is the great 23rd Psalm, where David (who was a shepherd before he became king) writes, “The Lord is my Shepherd.” The theme recurs throughout the Psalms. Psalm 78:52 speaks of the Lord leading forth His own people like a flock of sheep. Psalm 95:7 says that the Lord our Maker is our God, and we are the people of His pasture and the sheep of His hand. In Isaiah 40:11, we have these beautiful words: “Like a shepherd He will tend His flock, in His arm He will gather the lambs and carry them in His bosom; He will gently lead the nursing ewes.” God’s people had learned to view the Lord God as their Shepherd, and themselves as His sheep.

But the Old Testament prophets also declared the word of the Lord concerning the wolves in shepherd’s clothing. Isaiah 56:11 decries the selfish behavior of those “shepherds who have no understanding,” who neglect the sheep in order to pursue their own unjust gain. In Jeremiah 23, the Lord pronounces a woe upon these false shepherds of God’s flock, saying, “Woe to the shepherds who are destroying and scattering the sheep of My pasture! … You have scattered My flock and driven them away, and have not attended to them.” Perhaps the most vivid and stern condemnation comes from the Lord through the mouth of the prophet Ezekiel:

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. They were scattered for lack of a shepherd, and they became food for every beast of the field and were scattered. 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. Ezek 34:2-6 (NASB)

But the Lord says there in Ezekiel 34 that another day is coming – a day in which He will bring judgment on those wicked shepherds and He Himself will become the True Shepherd of His flock. He says, “I will feed My flock, and I will lead them to rest. … I will seek the lost, bring back the scattered, bind up the broken and strengthen the sick” (34:15-16a) The Lord says that He Himself will do this. But then He turns right around a few verses later, He says something entirely different. He says, “I will set over them one shepherd, My servant David, and 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.” Is this a contradiction? Is the Lord going to be the Shepherd, or is David going to be the shepherd? Well, it is actually no contradiction at all. Since David had long been dead, everyone would readily recognize that it was not the literal David who would be the shepherd, but one like David – even, one from David’s offspring. And after centuries of longing for this promise to be fulfilled He came. The Lord Jesus came into the world, a son of David’s lineage, and God Himself in human flesh. In Christ, and in Christ alone, David and the Lord Himself becomes the true Shepherd of the flock of God. It is Jesus, of whom Paul says that He is God’s Son, who was born of a descendant of David according to the flesh, who was declared the Son of God with power, … Jesus Christ our Lord (Rom 1:3-4).

The point of this story, call it a parable if you will, is that Jesus is the True Shepherd of God’s flock, who has come to rescue the flock from the hands of the thieves and robbers – those wolves in shepherd’s clothing – who have sought their own gain at the expense of the people of God. It is obvious that in this context, those false shepherds are the religious leaders of Israel: the Pharisees, the scribes, the Sadducees and the Chief Priests and elders of the nation. You may recall that in the previous chapter, Jesus had opened the eyes of a man who had been born blind. And when this man began to give to Jesus the glory that He was due for the miracle He had done, the religious leaders did not rejoice with him but expelled him from the synagogue and threatened to do the same to his entire family. In Mark 12:38-40, Jesus condemned and warned against those religious leaders of Israel who “like to walk around in long robes, and like respectful greetings in the market places, and chief seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets, who devour widow’s houses, and for appearance’s sake offer long prayers.” It was these who, for their own selfish gain, had turned the Temple of God into a den of robbers (Matt 21:13; Mk 11:17; Lk 19:46).

Long had the flock of God languished under these wolves in shepherd’s clothing. They were like robbers and thieves who had entered the sheepfold by scaling the walls like a ravenous wolf. But now the True Shepherd had come, and He would call out His own sheep to come after Him and follow Him. That True Shepherd is the Lord Jesus Himself, and here He indicates that there are certain unique characteristics that mark the True Shepherd which make Him recognizable to His sheep.

I. We know the True Shepherd by His Word

When Donia and I first met and were getting to know each other, I used to call her on the phone to talk pretty often. The thing was, she and her sister sounded just alike on the phone. At the sound of “Hello” on the other end, I would launch into conversation, only to have Nicole say, “Hang on, I think you want to talk to Donia.” But the more I got to know Donia, the more I began to recognize the subtle differences between her voice and that of her sister. It is important that we know the voice that is speaking into our lives, and Jesus says here that His voice and His words are recognizable to His own sheep.

Notice the emphasis on the word of the Shepherd throughout this passage. In verse 3, “the sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name.” In verse 4, “they know his voice.” In verse 5, “they do not know the voice of strangers.” There is a distinction in the voice of the Shepherd that the sheep recognize. Historians of the ancient Near-East tell us that in a sheepfold like this, the flocks of several families would be kept together and guarded by a doorkeeper who was employed by the families collectively. When each shepherd would come to the fold, he would use a unique call that his sheep, and his sheep alone would recognize, and they would come to him and follow him. That gives us a great image of how the sheep of God’s flock respond to the voice of the True Shepherd, the Lord Jesus, when He speaks.

Notice that they hear His voice (v3). Have you ever noticed how uncomfortable the sound of silence can make people? To combat this, many people fill their lives with noise. Even if it is not intentional or conscious, our ears are constantly filled with various sounds. As I was preparing this message, there was the sound of music playing in my office, the sound of phones ringing, the sound of voices in the office, the sound of keys being pecked on my keyboard along with the various blips and bleeps of the computer, the noise of traffic and sirens on High Point Road, and seemingly a thousand other things. That is the way most of us live. It is like we are drowning in a sea of incessant noise. And amid all of this noise there are many voices seeking to speak into our lives. Each one beckons us to hear them and obey them. But even in the midst of this great cacophony, those who belong to the Shepherd have the ability to hear His voice as distinct from all others. That can only come as we devote time to the discipline of listening carefully to His word. As we spend time immersing ourselves in God’s Word, we begin to notice the sound of His voice, the tenor and dialect by which He speaks, and the vocabulary He uses. When other voices call us to follow them into some pursuit, we are able to recognize whether or not there is a Galilean accent in those words. We can say no to certain things because we know with certainty that our Shepherd would never call to us with those words. We can distinguish between sounds that deserve our attention because they resonate with the words of Christ, and those that can be ignored because they are not in harmony with His words. His sheep hear, above all the noise and distinct from all the other voices, the voice of the True Shepherd.

And then notice that He calls His own sheep by name (v4). He knows us more intimately than any other being, and the really astounding thing about that is that He loves us anyway --  more deeply than any other being. So tenderly does He call to us, that He does not treat us like a faceless mass of humanity, but lovingly and compassionately He calls us as individuals. He call us by name. He has known us from eternity past. We speak of a time when a person “meets Jesus,” but that is only half true. Each of us must come to a point when we meet Him for the first time, but we are meeting someone who knew us completely before we drew our first breath. Some of you may have not yet met Him, but even here and now it seems to you as if He is calling out to you, by name even! That is how it was for me. After spending my life running as fast and hard as I could away from Him, I reached this point where it seemed as if Jesus was calling out to me by name, calling me to come to Him and believe and follow Him. He knows you, and yet He loves you anyway. Imagine it. He calls to you by name because He wants you to know Him and to live in His love. He invites us into a personal relationship, where you become part of His family. More tenderly than a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord God embraces you and becomes the ultimate and perfect Father who knows your name. When He speaks to you in His word, He speaks to you personally.

And then notice the effect of His words: He calls out to His sheep, and His sheep follow Him because they know His voice. When He speaks, things happen. Think of how the world was created – it was by the Word of God. Things that did not exist came into existence because of the power of His word. Atoms and molecules arrange themselves in response to the speaking of His word. Do you think that His word cannot have the same kind of effect on you? There is power in His word to move us to obedient action. It begins when He begins to call us to Himself out of unbelief. The theologians refer to it as an “effectual call.” Jesus said in John 6:37, “All that the Father gives Me will come to Me.” What first caused you to believe upon Christ? Was it your superior intellect or your perfect reasoning? No, it was the power of His gracious call. Can it be resisted? Perhaps for a short time, but not forever. If He is calling, you will come. And the same remains true after you come to Him. You continue following Him by faith because He will not let you live in disobedience if you are of His fold. You might resist for a season, but He will bring you to obedience if you belong to Him. He will give you a hunger for His word, and moreover a glad desire to obey it. Why? Because His sheep follow Him because they know His voice.

His word is always going forth. But not everyone can hear it. Even in this passage, in verse 6, there were many who did not understand what it was that He was saying. Of course they didn’t! They are not His sheep. Their lives have been spend in the fold of other shepherds – false shepherds; wolves in shepherds clothing. But if you are one of His sheep, you know it when He speaks to you. Even the very first time He calls to you, you recognize it as the sound of a voice you have longed to hear your entire life, as if your ears were formed for this very purpose – to hear those blessed words fall off His lips as He calls you to Himself by name. His words are one of the distinct characteristics that make the True Shepherd recognizable to His sheep. But it is not the only one.

II. We know the True Shepherd by His Ways

We went over to my dad’s house on Christmas day, and he met us in the driveway and escorted us around to the back door of the house, and said, “Family comes in the back door, friends come in through the side door.” I said, “Who uses the front door?” He said, “If anyone comes to the front door, we just assume they are Jehovah’s Witnesses and don’t answer it.” Maybe your house is like that – family and friends know to enter one way, strangers enter by another. That’s kind of like what Jesus is saying here.

He says, as the True Shepherd, He comes in through the door of the sheepfold. He is allowed entry into the corral because the doorkeeper knows Him. Strangers aren’t allowed in through the door. If they want in, they have to sneak in by climbing over the wall. They sneak in because they are trying to hide their evil deeds – they are coming in to steal or harm the sheep. But the doorkeeper lets the Shepherd in because he knows the Shepherd, and knows that the sheep belong to the Shepherd, and he knows that the Shepherd cares for the sheep. He doesn’t have to sneak in. He is not operating in secret. Everything Jesus said and did during His earthly life and ministry was done before the eyes of a public audience, whether the twelve disciples, the inner circle of three, or multitudes of onlookers. On the contrary, the religious leaders of Israel are often found plotting and scheming in secret to destroy Him and scatter His sheep. And the same is still true of this Shepherd. He is working in your lives in ways that are visible and evident to others. They see Him transforming you from the inside out. He calls you to publicly identify with Him as His follower through baptism, and to testify publicly for Him, and to live for Him before the eyes of a watching world. He is not a clandestine, secret agent. His followers do not scheme in dark alleys. If they have to do that, then they are not walking with Him. I once heard the word “integrity” defined as “who you are when no one is looking.” In other words, if you are a person of Christlike integrity, you live in such a way that it would not matter who sees or hears you. That is how Christ lived. His way is to enter in through the door, not to scale the wall in secret.

But then notice also His way of leading His sheep. Verse 4 says, “He goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him, because they know his voice.” Shepherds in the Western world lead their sheep from the rear, prodding them along the path, using sheepdogs in some cases to herd the sheep along to the place the shepherd wants them to go. But in the Near-East, still today as I understand it, the shepherd leads his sheep from the front. They follow him. He speaks as he walks and the sound of his voice beckons the sheep along in his footsteps. Jesus said this is the way He leads His sheep. He doesn’t lead us along paths that He Himself has not walked. He does not call us to do something that He has not experienced firsthand. Peter gives us a beautiful image of this in 1 Peter 2, when he says that Christ has left us an example to follow “in His steps” (2:21). Everything we encounter as we follow Him is something He has encountered first. Does this path pass through fields of temptation? Christ has walked through that path before us, and survived it without yielding to sin. Listen to Him calling you from the front and follow. Does it lead through an acre of suffering? Jesus has left His footprints on the trail. Hear His voice leading you on and follow. Does it lead into circumstances unknown, where uncertainty abounds? Fear not. He is already there before you. He is calling you to come on behind Him there. Does it lead even into the valley of the shadow of death? He has been there too, and has emerged on the other side. And it is because He has passed through death and into life that you can as well. He did it for you. He died the death that was meant for you because of sin. But He emerged from it victorious and alive forever more. Your sin-debt has been paid by Him, and from the other end of the valley, you can hear Him, can you not, calling you by name and saying, “Come on. Follow My footprints. Don’t wander off the path. I am here, just up ahead. Keep walking.” We know that He is the True Shepherd because He is not goading us on from the rear, sending us before Him to test the waters. He leads His sheep from the front and the echo of His word calls us on to follow after Him. That is His way of leading.

Then finally notice the perfection, or completion, of His way. In verse 4 there is a single little word there to remind us that Jesus never fails. It says, “When he puts forth all his own.” Catch that word: all. Every single one of His sheep makes it to the place where the Shepherd is leading them. He doesn’t put forth some of His own. He puts forth all of them. He said in John 6,

All that the Father gives Me will come to Me, and the one who comes to Me I will certainly not cast out. For I have come down from heaven, not to do My own will, but the will of Him who sent Me. This is the will of Him who sent Me, that of all that He has given Me I lose nothing, but raise it up on the last day. For this is the will of My Father, that everyone who beholds the Son and believes in Him will have eternal life, and I Myself will raise him up on the last day. (John 6:37-40)

Notice the absolute certainty of those words. He doesn’t wish or hope to do this. He has promised that He will do it. And He will not do it for some or for certain ones of His sheep. He will do it for all of them. If you are His sheep, He will never fail you. He will never leave you nor forsake you. He is that great shepherd who leaves the 99 sheep in safety to go out and find the one who is missing (Luke 15:4). He is the one who sends you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, but who does so promising, “Lo I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matt 10:6; 28:20). He is the one who has began a good work in you, and who will be faithful to complete it (Php 1:6). Jesus never fails! And He is the only one who never fails. Every human being you know will disappoint you at some time or another. Jesus never will. You will be let down by others innumerable times in your life, but never by Jesus. Others will fail to deliver what they have promised you, but Jesus has never made a promise that He did not keep, and He never will. What can we say? It is just His way. And His way is perfect. He never fails.

Do you recognize this True Shepherd? Do you know whose voice it is you hear above all of the noise of this world? The one who knows you so intimately that before you ever meet Him He is able to call you by name? The one whose word is so powerful that it can create in you things that do not yet exist – a faith to receive Him, a hunger to hear Him speak, a desire to obey Him with joy and serve Him with gladness? It is none other than the voice of Jesus. Do you see Him, coming in by the front door because He has nothing to hide. All that He does is done so that others can see it and recognize Him as the one doing it. Do you see Him leading you on from the front, down paths that He Himself has already trod, beckoning you to follow in His steps and stay on the path? Do you see Him fulfilling every promise that He ever made to you and never failing you, never leaving you, never forsaking you? That is Jesus. Only Jesus. He alone is the True Shepherd.

In the course of His earthly ministry, Jesus encountered multitudes of people, and the Bible says that when He saw these people, “He felt compassion for them, because they were distressed and dispirited like sheep without a shepherd” (Matt 9:36). How does Jesus see you today? Are you distressed and dispirited? Do you have a shepherd who can tend to you with love and compassion – one who knows you intimately, and loves you anyway. This Shepherd is calling you by name, and beckoning you to come into His fold.

You see them, too, do you not? Multitudes of people who wander aimlessly and perilously through this world because they do not have this Shepherd. How do you look on them? Do you look on them as Jesus did – as sheep without a shepherd? Why not go to them and tell them about your wonderful Shepherd? Tell them about the care that He gives to you, and which He can give to them as well. Invite them to come and meet this Shepherd, and assure them that He is no stranger to them. He already knows them by name, and just may be calling out to them through the Gospel-filled words you speak.

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