THE STORY — IT’S ALL ABOUT LIVING
It’s all about living...
Today we’re talking about the Good Shepherd’s sheep. And the cool thing is living like one of his sheep can be done—if like that little girl quoting Psalm 23—we are authentic, attentive, and active. So let’s dig in and try to catch what the disciples missed the first time they heard the following. John 10:1-10. “1I tell you the truth, the man who does not enter the sheep pen by the gate, but climbs in by some other way, is a thief and a robber. 2The man who enters by the gate is the shepherd of his sheep. 3The watchman opens the gate for him, and the sheep listen to his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. 4When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice. 5But they will never follow a stranger; in fact, they will run away from him because they do not recognize a stranger's voice." 6Jesus used this figure of speech, but they did not understand what he was telling them. 7Therefore Jesus said again, "I tell you the truth, I am the gate for the sheep. 8All who ever came before me were thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them. 9I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. He will come in and go out, and find pasture. 10The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.”
John 10 is the closest Jesus gets in the Gospel of John to telling a parable. There are other statements that sound like parables. Like when Jesus speaks of the wind in 3:8, the harvest in 4:35-38 or the Vine and the branches in 15. But these are really more like analogies than the stories one finds in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Which the disciples didn’t understand right away in there either. Although they should have. Because the good shepherd imagery was more familiar to them than it is to us. Because in addition to Psalm 23, there are several Old Testament parallels to the Good Shepherd and his sheep. One is in Numbers 27. As Moses neared the end of his life, he became concerned about finding a worthy successor for the leadership of Israel. Long story short: He prayed that God appoint a man to lead the children of Israel them out of the wilderness. Number 27:16-17 says it this way: “16May the LORD, the God of all mankind, appoint a man over this community 17to go out and come in before them, one who will lead them out and bring them in, so the LORD's people will not be like sheep without a shepherd.”
Interestingly, the man chosen for this Good Shepherd role was Joshua. Whose name is the Hebrew equivalent of Jesus. And this Good Shepherd role God plays in the lives of those who follow Him is a recurring theme that the prophets repeat in the story being told. Micah 2:12-13 says, “12I will bring them together like sheep in a pen, like a flock in its pasture; Their king will pass through before them, the LORD at their head.” Chapter 5:4 adds, “4He will stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the LORD. And they will live securely. 5And he will be their peace.”
In Ezekiel 34 the analogy of the Good Shepherd extends to the kings of Israel. But because they prove to be unfaithful [vss.2-6], God Himself plans to become their shepherd. Verses 11-16 contain some of the tender words describing the kind of Good Shepherd God has always been. “11For this is what the Sovereign LORD says: I myself will search for my sheep and look after them. I will rescue them from all the places where they were scattered. 13I will bring them out from the nations and gather them from the countries. 15I myself will tend my sheep and have them lie down, declares the Sovereign LORD. 16I will search for the lost and bring back the strays. I will bind up the injured and strengthen the weak.”
So you see, the Good Shepherd has been good for a very long time. This is not a new story being told in John 10. But a very old one. One that his listeners were familiar with. Even though they didn’t understand everything right away. Jesus is saying, as John 1:17 and John 8:34-35 implies, that He is the new Moses. He is leading his listeners on an Exodus out of slavery to sin and into a permanent place in the family of God by faith. Jesus is the new Joshua leading the outcast and lowly, like that blindman of chapter 9, to a place where nobody denies knowing His name. And Jesus is the new King that, as the prophecies foretold, would come from the line of David. But unlike those faithless kings, Jesus is faithful because according to John 1, He actually is God. Who came down to die. And lay down His life for His sheep. Even if they don’t know that yet.
But enough with the introduction so Jesus says in verse 1. “I tell you the truth, the man who does not enter the sheep pen by the gate, but climbs in by some other way, is a thief and a robber.” When I had read this before, I always skipped over verse one on way to verse 10 that talks about the abundant life worth living. But this time I slowed down long enough to notice the story begins with a discussion about authenticity. The story is all about living authentically. Which is point number one.
I think this is true because thieves and robbers are not authentic. Judas certainly was not. John 12:6 says he secretly stole from the disciples money bag. Barabbas certainly was not either. Luke 23:19 describes him as a robber who had been thrown into prison for an insurrection he led in the city and for murder. So while Judas’ thievery was subtle, Barabbas’ was obvious. The same word used in John 10:1 for robber is also used to describe Barabbas in John 18:40. One betrayed Jesus in darkness. The other in broad daylight. But both were highly esteemed by men. Judas for his supposed piety. And Barabbas as the popular patriot and zealot fighting Rome. But by the nature of their business, they lived double lives.
But true followers of Jesus, though they may be outcast and rejected by the world like that blind man in John 9, are authentic. And humble. Broken perhaps, but no longer blind. When pressed for how he could see, the healed blind man’s response to his learned interrogators was “Whether Jesus is a sinner or not, I don’t know. One thing I do know. I was blind but now I see!”
And this authenticity and humility about what he knew and who he was is significant because John never meant for us to separate what’s recorded in John 9 with what comes next in John 10. There is no “As he went along” in John 10:1 as there is in John 9:1. There is no “After this” or “Some time later” in John 10:1 as there is in John 7:1 and 5:1. So the stuff we’re reading about how the Good Shepherd looks at His sheep in the first 10 verses of John 10 is meant to illustrate how the once blind man now looks at his life by faith instead as a true sheep of the Good Shepherd instead of the way the Pharisees and the world look at him.
But how many times do we as Christ followers fail to make that leap of faith? Choosing instead to see ourselves the way we sometimes feel? Pretending everything is great. When in actual fact, life is a mess and everything is falling apart? We have to get real people. For more than an hour on Saturdays. If we have any hope of living abundant lives by faith. Why? Because the God we gather to worship already knows everything about us. We’re not fooling him, so why do we settle on deceiving ourselves or others? Come back May 17 when we talk about belonging and you’ll leave with some concrete options for belonging to a community instead of merely being a member of one.
But what I hear Scripture saying to us today from verse 1 is that the Good Shepherd’s true sheep live their lives authentically. They are the same person during the day and during the night. At home and on the range! They can be that way because they realize the Good Shepherd is good. And always has been. That He loves them. Even when they’re phony and broken and blind. 1 Thessalonians 5:23-24 says it this way: “The One who calls you is faithful and He will do it. God himself, the God of peace, will sanctify you through and through.” [cf. 2 Thessalonians 1:11; Philippians 1:6; 2:13] This is extremely good news allowing us to just be ourselves. Even when we’re surrounded by thieves and robbers and people pretending to be someone they’re not.
Point number one: The story is all about living authentically. And point number two: It’s all about living attentively. This next section in verses 2-8 has “attentive” written all over it. The man who enters by the gate is the shepherd of his sheep. The watchman recognizes the shepherd and opens the gate for him and when he does inside, the sheep listen to his voice. They pay attention to him. I love this next part: He calls his own sheep by name and leads them. So you’re not perfect. Join the club! So you keep falling and failing. Who doesn’t? So you’re a mess when you come to church, so am I!
But take heart, because God still knows our names and loves us both the same! Jeremiah says, “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you!” Everything we’re experiencing since then is just growing pains in a broken world. That’s all. It’s completely normal. And the Good Shepherd knows that too. That’s why verse 9 says He still leads us in and out. When we’re up down and out. That’s what God is promising to you all you empty nesters! Isn’t that good news? That God is going with your children and grandchildren to college!
But here’s the thing I’ve always missed before. The story is not primarily about our living attentively to God. It is primarily about God paying attention to us. Even when we’re not paying attention to Him. It’s about the Good Shepherd not the Good Sheep.
I realized this is true when I better understood that when the sheep were in the cave or fold, the Shepherd actually slept outside the entrance to the cave so that any robber or wild animal that wanted to steal or harm the sheep in any way had to deal with the shepherd first. The same was true of any sheep inside that wanted to wander away. So when Jesus described himself as the Good Shepherd and later as the Gate for the sheep, listeners would have recognized that these concepts were telling the same story. He was literally saying, “Over my dead body.” And as we know, it actually came to that. When Jesus died on the cross. He became willing to lay down His life for His sheep. Psalm 118:19-20 reminds us that Jesus is the Good Shepherd and the Good Gate. “19 Open for me the gates of righteousness; I will enter and give thanks to the LORD. 20This is the gate of the LORD through which the righteous may enter.”
And that righteousness can be ours by faith in Jesus. Verse 6 says, “Jesus used this figure of speech, but they did not understand what He was telling them.” Do you understand what I’m telling you? This story is all about living authentically. Point number one. Attentively. Point number two. And actively point number three. Let’s conclude with verse 10. “10The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” The version I memorized says life and life abundantly. Romans 5:17 says it this way: “17For if, by the trespass of the one man, death reigned through that one man, how much more will those who receive God's abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ.”
One more nerdy detail is significant. The passage I quoted you earlier from Ezekiel 34 was also the one often read during worship on a Sabbath after the Feast of Tabernacles but before the Feast of Dedication [called Hanukkah today]. In the Gospel of John, the Good Shepherd passage we’re reading today comes after John describes Jesus going up to Jerusalem for the Feast of Tabernacles in John 7 and 8 but before the passage describing Jesus’ visit to the Feast of Dedication in John 10. So what’s the point?
The point is John puts the passage about the Good Shepherd offering eternal life and an abundant life in his book where his listeners would have expected it to be based on their historical context. Why? Because He didn’t want them to miss verse 10!!! God wants us to understand there is life before death. We can have eternal life and the abundant life now. Even in a scary world full of thieves and robbers. How? By living an authentic, attentive, and active life focused on the Good Shepherd not the good sheep. Eternal life and heaven is not about sitting on a cloud playing a harp. Following Jesus was never supposed to be a bore. It was always meant to be exciting and significant and fulfilling. Both now and for forever.
The Good Shepherd is inviting you to have a life worth living. Full of excitement and significance and meaning. But you don’t have to risk your life to accept it because He already laid down His for yours in case you would. He died on the cross. But before He did, He formed in the womb. He knew you. By name. And He has revealed this through the story being told today. Which I believe is all about living authentically, attentively, and actively. Is that your desire? How will you respond to the Good Shepherd’s invitation?