Tuesday, February 04, 2014

The Good Shepherd (John 10:11-21)


Phillip Keller grew up around shepherds in East Africa and later became a shepherd himself. More importantly he was a Christian. Later in life, Keller was able to reflect on life-lessons he learned as a shepherd and how those things helped him understand many truths in the Bible. He is perhaps most well known for two books: A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23, and A Shepherd Looks at the Good Shepherd and His Sheep. In the latter, Keller writes,

Reflecting back over my own years as a sheepman I recall clearly those happy, contented times when I literally reveled in the well-being of my sheep. Visitors would often remark how contented and flourishing my flock appeared. But only I knew how much work, effort, tireless attention, and never-ending diligence had been expended on my part for this to be possible. My sheep had literally been the recipients of my life. It had been shared with them abundantly and unstintingly. Nothing was ever held back. All that I possessed was in truth poured out unremittingly in order that together we should prosper. The strength of my young body, the keen enthusiasm of my spirit, the energy of my mind, the alertness of my emotions, the thrust and drive of my disposition were all directed to the well-being of my flock. [1]

Keller had learned from experience that being a good shepherd required nothing less than the investment of one’s whole life. The Lord Jesus also knows this. In our text today, He speaks of Himself as “the Good Shepherd.” Surely, among shepherds, there are good ones and bad ones. But Jesus speaks of Himself here as unique among them all. He is the Good Shepherd. Where others are “good,” He is more excellent still. He is alone in His class as the ultimate Shepherd. Jesus used the Greek word kalos. It can mean, of course, good as opposed to “bad,” but it means far more than this. It carries the sense of being excellent, noble, praise-worthy, and beautiful. When He says that He is the Good Shepherd, Jesus intends to say that there is really no other like Him. He is the most excellent, the most noble, the most praise-worthy of them all. There is a beauty on display in His care for His sheep that can be seen nowhere else but in Him.

There is a singular characteristic of Jesus that marks Him out as the superlative shepherd. Five times in these verses He speaks of His laying down of His own life for the sheep. It is this which distinguishes Him from all other shepherds. Other shepherds who are good at their job invest their whole lives in the sheep, but the Lord Jesus goes above and beyond them all. He gives up His life entirely for the benefit of the sheep. He speaks in the present tense, not the future tense. At that very moment, He was laying down His life for them. His entire earthly life was a sacrifice for His sheep. As one New Testament scholar writes, “The incarnation in its entirety was an act of unbelievable condescension. The eternal Son laid down His life by becoming a man and living among us.”[2] The infinite and eternal Son of God laid down His life in coming to us as a man in the person of Jesus Christ. He laid down His life all day, every day, over the course of three years of public ministry, pouring Himself out for the benefit of others. But then of course, yes, there came that fateful day in which He laid down His life ultimately and supremely for His sheep on Calvary’s cross.

Often we are tempted to view the cross of Jesus Christ as a great tragedy. It can appear to us as an accident of divine and human history, as if God lost track of what was going on, things got out of hand, and the Son of God ended up dead because of the evil hatred of mankind. That would be a mistake to view it that way. Jesus did not view His own cross that way, and neither must we. Jesus tells us how we should view the cross here in verses 17-18. He said that the entire episode flows out of the love of the Father. “For this reason the Father loves Me, because I lay down My life so that I may take it again.” He did not earn the Father’s love by doing this. He is eternally the supreme object of the Father’s love. But it was a demonstration of the Father’s love for Him and His love for the Father that He gave Himself up so freely in life and in death. The Father loves Him because He is unconditionally committed to whatsoever the Father wills for Him.

He also tells us that the entire episode of the cross was within His own sovereign control. We think that Pilate, or Herod Antipas, or Judas Iscariot, or mobs of people crying “Crucify,” or Roman soldiers, took Jesus’ life away from Him. He says here in verse 17, “No one has taken it away from Me, but I lay it down on My own initiative.” He was the one who was in control of His circumstances leading up to and including His death on the cross. He said, “I have authority to lay it down.” No one else has the authority to lay down his own life. You don’t decide when you breathe your final breath. Jesus did. He had authority over His own life and death. But He also says that He has the authority to take up His own life again. In fact, He says that He lays it down “so that” He may take it again. He chose to die, and He did it in order that He might rise again.

Jesus laid down His life and He took it up again in glorious resurrection. But why would He do such a thing? He did it because He is the Good Shepherd, and the Good Shepherd lays down His life for the sheep. Notice, He does it for the sheep. It is on their behalf, for their benefit. Jesus laid down His life to save us. How does His death save us? It is because He dies for our sins to reconcile us to God. The prophet Isaiah put it this way: “He was pierced through for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; The chastening for our well-being fell upon Him, and by His scourging we are healed. All of us like sheep have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; But the Lord has caused the iniquity of us all to fall on Him” (Isa 53:5-6). In Romans 5, Paul said it this way, “For while we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will hardly die for a righteous man; though perhaps for the good man someone would dare even to die. But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom 5:6-8). He laid down His life for the sheep, and that is why He is the Good Shepherd.

Now, we have seen why He is called “the Good Shepherd.” It is because He laid down His life for the sheep, to rescue the sheep, that the sheep might be freed of their sins and be washed clean and reconciled to God through Him. But the great mystery of the ages is why would Jesus do this for the likes of us? Well, I suppose it will take eternity to fully untangle that mystery, but here in this passage, Jesus tells us three reasons why the Good Shepherd lays down His life for the sheep.

I. The Good Shepherd lays down His life because of His intimate love for the sheep (vv12-13)

In the ancient Near-East, if you saw a man with a flock of sheep, he might be one of two kinds of men. Some of those out among the sheep were proper shepherds, men who owned the sheep, loved the sheep, and cared for the sheep. They belonged to him. Before David became King of Israel, he was a shepherd, and he was an example of just such a shepherd. He cared for the flock of his father Jesse as if they were his own. He spoke of some of his exploits as a shepherd as he sought to persuade Saul to allow him to go out and fight Goliath. He said, “Your servant was tending his father’s sheep. When a lion or a bear came and took a lamb from the flock, I went out after him and attacked him, and rescued it from his mouth; and when he rose up against me, I seized him by his beard and struck him and killed him. Your servant has killed both the lion and the bear” (1 Sam 17:34-36). David was willing to risk his life to protect the sheep because he loved them and cared for them. Not all those who tended sheep were like this though. Some were mere hirelings. For them, watching the sheep was just a job. As long as things were easy, and the money was good, they would show up every day and work their shift. When quitting time came, they went home for the night and never gave a passing thought to those sheep. They were not in it for the sake of the sheep, but for themselves. So, when tending the flock put them at risk, say, when a wolf came to attack the flock, the hireling would turn tail and run to spare his own skin. A hireling can always find another job. A shepherd only has one flock, and he devotes himself at all times to the well-being of the flock.

Jesus said that He was the Good Shepherd; He was not like the hired hand. He said that the hired hand was “not concerned about the sheep.” Jesus was teaching something to the people about their own religious leaders. These guys, the Pharisees and Sadducees, the chief priests and the elders, styled themselves as spiritual shepherds of the people. But Jesus was trying to point out to them that they were nothing more than hired hands. They were just collecting a paycheck. They didn’t care about the sheep – the people of Israel. If they were in danger, you couldn’t count on these people to protect them. In fact, they were in danger! A wolf was devouring them! That wolf was sin. But the religious leaders were not helping the people find the love and forgiveness of God. They were capitalizing off of the guilt and fear of the people, bringing in a lot of money for themselves and their corrupt system by breaking the backs of the poor.

Jesus said that He was different than those hired hands of that religious system. He wasn’t a hireling, He was a shepherd. He was the Good Shepherd. They were not concerned about the sheep; He loved the sheep intimately. He loved the sheep even when they were the most unlovely. He loved the sheep even when they did not want to be loved by Him. He loved the sheep even when the sheep hated Him. They led Him to a cross, and in intimate love for the sheep, He laid down His life upon it to rescue them from the devouring wolf of sin. He said it Himself in John 15:13, “Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends.” But His love was even greater than this; He laid down His life for His enemies. Even while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. That’s how much He loves you. The wolf that seeks to devour us is sin, and Jesus did not run away when we were in its grasp. He destroyed the wolf of sin for us by His death and resurrection. Jesus is the Good Shepherd because, in intimate love, He laid down His life for you.

II. The Good Shepherd lays down His life because of His infinite knowledge of the sheep (vv14-15)

In our day of social media, we are prone to measure someone’s success, importance, influence by how many Facebook friends or Twitter followers that they have. There is even an online gauge called “Klout” that gives you a score of how influential you are and allows you to compare yourself to others. So, maybe you have a couple hundred or a couple of thousand Facebook friends, a big following on Twitter, and a high Klout score. How many of those people do you “know”? You might say, “Oh, I know them all!” Really? Pick one at random and tell me, what color are their eyes? What are they most afraid of in life? Who do they turn to when everything in their life gets shaken? What is their greatest need for prayer right now? Do we know that? Do we really know all those people at all? No, we do not, and neither do they know us. That’s disappointing, isn’t it? There is something within us that longs to know others and to be known by them. But here on this earth, here and now, the number of people we really know will be a very small number. For many of us, it will be zero. To know someone in the way we genuinely desire would be to know them infinitely – inside and out. But people don’t let others know them that well. We are always concerned about some aspect or area of our lives that, if known by someone else, would change the way they feel about us. We are guarded. We don’t let people know us that well; and they don’t let us know them that well either.

Well, this will either come as a great comfort to you, or else it will be a great terror to you, and most likely it will be a little bit of both: there is One who knows you infinitely. He knows you inside and out. He knows every thought you ever thought; every word you ever spoke; every deed you ever did or didn’t do, and the reason you did or didn’t do it. He knows your hopes, your fears, your joys and your hurts. There is absolutely nothing about you that He does not know. Jesus said, “I am the Good Shepherd, and I know my own.” He even says that His knowledge of us is as complete and perfect as the knowledge that God the Father has of God the Son, and vice-versa. Now, if that terrifies you, you need to be reminded of the first truth we spoke of here: “He loves you intimately.” That’s where the comfort is found. He knows us more infinitely than any other; and He loves us more intimately than any other. Let me put it another way: He knows everything there is to be known about you, but He loves you anyway. So much so, that He lays down His life for you and wants to be your Good Shepherd. That is something that is not true of any other person in the universe. Only Jesus.

He lays down His life for you precisely because He knows you and because He loves you. Because He knows you infinitely, He knows that your greatest need is for a Savior to rescue from your sins. Because He loves you intimately, He was willing to be that Savior for you, knowing that it would cost Him death. And because He was willing to do that for you, He offers you this gift in return. He says that not only does He know His sheep, but they know Him. Because of what Jesus has done for us in laying down His life on the cross, we can truly know Him, and in Him and through Him we know God. He is the complete revelation of God, and it is only as we come to know Him that we can rightly understand all that God has revealed of Himself in Scripture and in nature. This is the great miracle of mercy and redemption. We, who were once cut off from the knowledge of God, groping about in darkness, blind in our sin, are invited through the blood of the cross to know God in Christ. We can truly know the one who knows us infinitely. As we continue to grow in our relationship with Him through His Word, we grow in our knowledge of Him, as Peter writes in 2 Peter 3:18 – “Grow in grace and in knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” We grow in that knowledge more and more until the day when we see Him face to face. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 13, “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then I will know fully just as I also have been fully known” (1 Cor 13:12). You desire more deeply than anything else to know and to be known. In Jesus, and in Him alone, is that desire ultimately satisfied.

Jesus is the Good Shepherd who lays down His life for the sheep. He did it for you, because of His intimate love for you and His intimate knowledge of you. And then finally, notice …

III. The Good Shepherd lays down His life because of His ultimate purpose for the sheep (v16)

One of the mistakes we often make when we read the Bible is thinking that in the Old Testament, God only cared about Jews, and in the New Testament He changed His affection to Gentiles. That is simply not true. God’s plan for humanity from eternity past was for there to be one body of passionate worshipers from every tribe and nation of earth. Israel was God’s chosen nation, but they were chosen for a purpose: to be a light shining for God before the Gentiles. They were to be His missionary people in the world. And in the Old Testament, we find many Gentiles coming to know and worship God. But over time, Israel began to be so inwardly focused that they ceased being that shining light of the nations. They began to despise the Gentiles. They came to believe that God was only concerned for them. But God did not give up on them. Even in the New Testament, we do not see God exclusively dealing with Gentiles. The first followers of Jesus were all Jews. In fact, it created quite an uproar in the church when Gentiles began to follow Christ (see Acts 10 & 15). And throughout the book of Acts, we see the missionary strategy of going to the Jews first, and then to the Gentiles. God was always a missionary God, calling out a missionary people to gather for Himself from the four corners of the earth a multilingual, multiethnic throng of passionate worshipers. It is His ultimate purpose that all nations would know Him and glorify His name.

Jesus says here that He is the Good Shepherd who lays down His life for the sheep, and in so doing, He is accomplishing that ultimate purpose of the Father. He did not come to save Israel alone. In the capital city of Israel, not far from the Temple, the centerpoint of Jewish religion, surrounded by Jewish leaders, Jesus makes a scandalously bold statement. He says, “I have other sheep, which are not of this fold.” He has sheep who are not of the fold of Israel. He has Roman sheep, Greek sheep, Indian sheep, European sheep, African sheep, American sheep, and Asian sheep. And He does not leave those sheep stranded out there groping their way in their own best efforts to find God. No, He said, “I must bring them also.” It is a divine imperative. His work is not finished until He brings them in. And He brings them in by way of Himself. They hear His voice calling out to them. He calls out to them as the Gospel goes forth into all the world, and they come to Him and are saved. He must bring them in, and He will bring them in. This is our great encouragement in missions and evangelism. “I must bring them also.” That means He will do it. We go and tell. He calls and draws and saves. It is His ultimate purpose for His sheep.

He does not gather the nations to Himself and leave them separated from one another. His ultimate purpose is that they all will become one flock with one shepherd. He is that shepherd. The Church of Jesus Christ is that flock. He must bring them in, and He will. This is His ultimate purpose for His sheep – from every tribe and nation, that there might be one flock and one shepherd. We are seeing it happen. Look around you. See people here in this very room who look different than you, whose heart language is different from your own. We have been brought together as one flock with one shepherd. But look elsewhere also. Look around the world. God’s truth is marching on. New people groups are engaged with the gospel, and His praise is being sounded perhaps this very hour in a language that has never uttered His name before! When missionary researcher Patrick Johnstone was asked in 1979 about the most difficult places in the world to reach with the Gospel, he identified Mongolia and Albania. Today, there are more than 40,000 disciples of Jesus in Mongolia, and there is a vibrant, growing indigenous church in Albania. In 1980, there were 70,000 missionaries serving around the world, mostly from the United States and Western Europe. Today, there are a quarter-million missionaries serving around the world from 200 different countries, including South Korea, Brazil, India, Philippines, China, and Nigeria. Some of us remember a time when the top missionary-sending countries were among the top missionary-receiving countries. When we look at the number of missionaries sent per million church members, the leading countries are Palestine, Ireland, Malta, Samoa, and South Korea. And the country that received the most missionaries in 2010? It was the United States of America.[3] Jesus is doing it. He is bringing in His sheep from other folds and forming for Himself one flock with one shepherd.

But He is not finished yet. The end is more clearly in sight than it has ever been. And God is raising up a generation of young Christians who want nothing more than for their lives to be invested in this ultimate purpose of God. This summer, a handful of these young people you see in our church every Sunday will go to places like West Africa, South Africa, East Asia, South Asia, to be the voice of Christ calling out to those sheep in other folds. Through them, He will bring them in. He must! In Luke 24:47, Jesus said that repentance for forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in His name to all the nations. It is happening. And it will be completed. John gives us a glimpse of heaven in the book of Revelation, and he says that will be those from every tribe and nation there – one flock engaged in the eternal business of worshiping Him alone who is worthy – the Good Shepherd who laid down His life for the sheep. Forever our song shall be, “Worthy are You … for You were slain, and purchased for God with Your blood men from every tribe and tongue and people and nation” (Rev 5:9). It will happen. Jesus has promised it. He must bring them. They will hear. They will come. They will be one flock gathered together by the Good Shepherd Jesus.

He has intimate love for you. He has infinite knowledge of you. He has an ultimate purpose for you. That purpose is that you would know Him even as He knows you, that you would rest in His love for you, and that the ultimate purpose of your life will be the same as His own. We are a missionary people because our God is a missionary God, and our Savior is a missionary Savior. Do you know Him? Do you know His love? Are you living out His ultimate purpose? He laid down His life for you to be your Good Shepherd. Hear Him calling out to you, bringing you into His flock, along with others from every nation of the earth, and sending you out for Him in this ultimate purpose. Is there another Shepherd so good, so worthy, so beautiful? There is not. Only Jesus. If He is not your shepherd, He can be today. If He is, walk with Him as He brings His ultimate purpose to pass in the world.

[1] Phillip Keller, A Shepherd Looks at the Good Shepherd and His Sheep (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1978), 108-9.
[2] Robert H. Mounce, “John,” (The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Rev. Ed., Vol. 10; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007), 502-503.
[3] These statistics were reported by John Piper in “God is Finishing His Mission Now,” online at http://www.desiringgod.org/blog/posts/god-is-finishing-his-mission-now. Accessed January 30, 2014. 

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