The Great Shepherd of the Sheep (John 10)

One of the most memorable scenes in Palestine is the journey from Jerusalem to Jericho. This road cuts a giant gash through the Judean Wilderness. The hillsides are covered with open fields, bare, dry and parched, dotted with herds of sheep and goats, and lonely shepherds leading their flocks. As the road descends with dozens of hairpin bends from 1000 feet above sea level to nearly 1000 feet below you catch a glimpse of many Bedouin encampments just off the main road on the hill sides.

Their life style has changed little in a thousand years.  They look very poor, little different to the residents of the Palestinian refugee camps nearby, large rickety marquee tents, made of old sacks, animal skins and cardboard. so poor. Actually, many of them are very wealthy. You can tell by the size of their herds. We might think it odd measuring wealth in terms of animals. But they would probably think we are strange, measuring wealth in quantities of little pieces of coloured paper. You can’t eat bank notes… Sheep and goats provide them with nourishing drink, with food, clothing, and even friendship….

As we pick up the story in John 10, it may be that as Jesus conversed with the crowd he turned His eyes to the hillside of the Mount of Olives and saw the familiar sight of shepherds busy, as the afternoon waned to evening, leading their flocks into their sheep folds for the evening. This may have been the setting, the visual aid, Jesus used to teach another lesson about himself and his mission.

1. The Clue to the Story  
2. The Character of the Shepherd  
3. The Condition of the Sheep  

1. The Clue to the Story 

“Very truly I tell you Pharisees, anyone who does not enter the sheep pen by the gate, but climbs in by some other way, is a thief and a robber. 2The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep listen to his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice. But they will never follow a stranger; in fact, they will run away from him because they do not recognize a stranger’s voice.” Jesus used this figure of speech, but the Pharisees did not understand what he was telling them.” (John 10:1-6)

The nearest most of us come to sheep is the frozen meat counter at the supermarket so let’s begin to think about what this story would have meant to the crowd around Jesus. First a word about sheep.

The Sheep

If you are thinking of giving up commuting for the farming life, let me read you some advice from an official Australian Guide to Sheep Rearing. 

The Advantages

1. Herding Instinct. They tend to stay together.
2. Reproduction. They are quick growing and multiply easily.
3. Can be trained to obey.

The Disadvantages

1. Not adapted to heat and dryness.
2. Can’t survive without adequate food.
3. Fragile. Their rough appearance deceptive.
4. Naturally defenseless.
5. Susceptible to parasites
6. Must be watched continually.
7. Need protection at night.
8. Short sighted. They can only see 6 feet ahead.

That’s enough on sheep, now a word about shepherds.

The Shepherds 

There is very little similarity between Palestinian shepherds and their British counterparts. In Britain sheep are reared largely for their meat. In Palestine they are kept mostly for their wool. That means they tend to live a whole lot longer. It also means a personal relationship develops between shepherd and sheep.  The sheep are given names and respond to his call. If you’ve watched sheep trials you will know how difficult it can be to get sheep to go in the right direction.  That’s because British shepherds tend to drive their sheep from behind.  Its a bit like pushing a bicycle down the road backwards. Its hard to keep it in a straight line. In Palestine its a lot easier because the shepherd leads the sheep from the front.   H. V. Morton in his book “The Steps of the Master” has a moving description of the way in which the Palestinian shepherd leads his flock.

“On the hills behind Jericho no sooner had the shepherd spoken than an answering bleat shivered over the herd and one or two of the animals turned their heads in his direction. But they did not obey him. The herd gave a laughing kind of whinny. Immediately a goat with a bell round his neck stopped eating, and, leaving the herd, trotted down the hill, across the valley, and up the opposite slopes. The man accompanied by this animal walked on and disappeared round a ledge of rock. Very soon a panic spread among the herd. They forgot to eat. They looked up for their shepherd. He was not to be seen. They became conscious that the leader with the bell at his neck was no longer with them. From the distance came the strange laughing call of the shepherd, and at the sound of it the entire herd stampeded into the hollow and leapt up the hill after him.”

Is this the picture Jesus was painting? Where was he headed with this illustration?  Jesus was carefully gaining their confidence, setting up the framework within which he will later reveal fully His Deity. What does it say in verse 6?  “Jesus used this figure of speech, but the Pharisees did not understand what he was telling them.” (John 10:6)

Because they hadn’t understood what Jesus was saying, Jesus becomes direct and explicitly claims for himself the role used of God in the Hebrew scriptures. “I am the Door” “I am the Good Shepherd”, and suddenly the whole illustration makes sense with devastating clarity. 

The Clue to the Story 

2. The Character of the Shepherd  

“Therefore Jesus said again, “Very truly I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who have come before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep have not listened to them. I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. They will come in and go out, and find pasture. 10 The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.

11 “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12 The hired hand is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep. So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away. Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it. 13 The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep.

14 “I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me— 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father—and I lay down my life for the sheep. 16 I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd.” (John 10:7-16)

What kind of leader was Jesus? How would you describe his leadership style? One of the most popular books on leadership available today takes as its model a man born a little while after Jesus but also within the Roman Empire. Written by Weiss Roberts, it received these rave reviews. “A great book… the principles are timeless” Ross Perot. “A rare volume, I have read it a dozen times and every re-reading has given me more insights” Paul Zalecki – vice president General Motors. “One of the most original and inspiring books on leadership I’ve encountered”, Robert Schuller founder of the Crystal Cathedral. So what is the title? Who was the inspiration behind this new book on leadership styles. The title is “The Leadership Secrets of Attila the Hun“. 

The cover goes on to say “Its the story of how one man centuries ago shaped an aimless collection of mercenary tribal nomads into the undisputed rulers of the ancient world.” It promises to reveal all the vital management principles that lead to success for the aspiring modern business executive or corporate high flier. Now before you rush out and buy it let me give you a glimpse of the Attila the Hun leadership model. Chapter 1 deals with necessary leadership qualities like the desire to influence people and the importance of competitiveness – the essential intrinsic desire to win important contests, choose your enemies carefully, and defeat all your opponents. But its Chapter 2 that gives the key to successful leadership.  Its simply called “The Lust for Leadership -you’ve got to want to be in charge.” 

Above all other traits, one who desires to lead must possess an intrinsic desire to achieve substantial personal recognition. You must recognise and accept that your greatness will be made possible through the extremes of your personality – the very extremes that sometimes make for campfire satire and legendary stories.”

So there you have it. The way to success, power and influence. 

You must want substantial personal recognition and greatness bad enough to become known for it. There is something of that drive in all of us. It was indeed what motivated some of the disciples when they asked. “Teacher, we want you to do for us what ever we ask…. Let one of us sit on your right hand and the other on your left in your glory.”  
How does Attila the Hun rate alongside Jesus Christ in terms of leadership? There could not be a greater contrast.

Jesus said “I am the Door to the sheepfold.” “I am the Good Shepherd”.

Lets discover what Jesus meant.  First the “door”. What a strange thing to call yourself. Or was it?  Do you know what a sheep fold is? It is an enclosure open to the elements, more importantly an enclosure open to the scrutiny of the owner.  It is not covered in or roofed over like a barn or shed, it has no door either, just an opening. Its walls are open to the sun, the sky, rain and wind.   They are often made of rough stones with a layer of thorn brush along the top. They can be quite dirty, smelly places but their main purpose is to provide protection. At night, after the sheep are in, the shepherd just lays down in the doorway.  He becomes the gate. If a predator tries to enter, the shepherd would be disturbed.  There is no legitimate access to the sheepfold except through him.  So anyone who tried to climb over the wall to get in was obviously up to no good.  Jesus is saying He is the only way to be safe and secure.  Jesus is “the” Door.

Secondly Jesus calls himself the “Good Shepherd.” They are one and the same because a good shepherd proves himself by being an effective door.  Throughout the Old Testament the Lord God is described as a Shepherd, as a kind and caring Shepherd. The people therefore knew full well what Jesus was claiming when he called Himself The (definite article) Good Shepherd. Jesus draws out four aspects of the relationship between shepherd and sheep.

Four things we can observe about Jesus the shepherd from these verses.

2.1 The Shepherd Owns the Sheep  10:14

They are “My sheep”, he says.  Wild sheep do not last long. Lone sheep do not survive. Sheep need protection, they cannot fend for themselves. The Good Shepherd knows what is best. Where to lead his sheep to safe places where the grass is fresh and green, and the water is sweet and shallow. As the day wears on and the sun gets hotter, or storms brew, he leads them to shelter. He does the choosing for them, and brings them back safely to the sheep fold at night. So when my faith is tested and I’m tempted to complain, I remind myself that there are no insurmountable problems for my shepherd. He is higher than me, he can see further, he knows what is ahead.I am His, He owns me, therefore I can trust Him. The shepherd owns the sheep.

2.2 The Shepherd Knows his Sheep   10:14

“I know them.” As we have discovered, Palestinian sheep are reared primarily for their wool rather than for meat. So the shepherd gets to know his flock over many years and through several generations. Think about it, Jesus knows you. He knows you by name, personally, intimately. He knows what is best for you. So trust Him. The shepherd owns the sheep, and he knows his sheep.

2.3 The Shepherd Protects his Sheep  10:12

John 10:12 says  “the hired hand abandons the sheep.” He cares more for himself, than for the animals.  

Holman Hunt was a Christian, famous for his painting of Jesus “The Light of the World”, completed in 1854. It hangs in St Paul’s Cathedral. But two years before that he painted a less well-known work entitled “The Hireling Shepherd”, which now hangs in Manchester City Art Gallery. It’s a challenging picture for those in some kind of pastoral ministry. It shows the flock getting into trouble while the hired shepherd is enjoying a picnic with a pretty girl in his arms. Underneath the painting is a letter from Homan Hunt to the curator of the Art Gallery. Holman says he was trying to portray those who only pretended to pastor Christ’s flock. Sheep instinctively recognize the voice of their shepherd. 

They trust him and him alone. The shepherd owns the sheep, knows the sheep, protects the sheep, and if necessary, 

2.4 The Shepherd Sacrifices Himself for His Sheep  10:11

Robbery was a common occurrence, and stories of desperate fights with wild animals and even murder at the hands of thieves would have been well known. Four times Jesus repeats that the ultimate test of a good shepherd was his willingness to sacrifice himself for the sheep. The implication was obvious. Jesus would demonstrate that he was the Good Shepherd in laying down his life for the sheep.   It gives added meaning to the phrase, “over my dead body.”  So for people outside the fold Jesus is the Door. To those inside, Jesus is the Good Shepherd.  He is like a door shut, to keep out thieves and robbers, and like a door open for passage and communication.   

The Clue to the Story – Revealed; 
The Character of the Shepherd – Good.

3. The Condition of the Sheep – Secure  

In these verses we are told more about the sheep – What they do, and what they have.

3.1 What the Sheep do   

 “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me.” (John 10:27). They hear his voice, they trust his motives, they follow his lead. Sheep quickly become accustomed to their master’s voice. They know its sound and inflection. They can distinguish his voice from every other person’s. This is because over a period of time the sheep come to associate the sound of their shepherd’s voice with special benefits, the luscious grass, the clear running water, the feeling of security.  He calls to lead them to fresh pastures, or to shelter from an approaching storm.  He calls them to carefully examine them for parasites or injuries, to count them and ensure not one is lost. His call then is an expression of his loving care.  

How do we hear Jesus voice? or follow His lead?  Through the Bible, as we allow Him to speak into our experience.  Like sheep we also learn to hear Him and to follow Him through his presence in one another, and through his assistant shepherds, clergy, pastors, Home Group leaders, Sunday school teachers. In one sense we all share a responsibility in shepherding, in pastoring or caring for one another.  And if you ever feel Jesus seems far away, ask yourself whether you are listening for his voice?   Listen to His voice in the Scriptures, trust His motives and follow His lead every day. The security of the sheep, what the sheep do. 

3.2 What the Sheep have 

“I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand. 29 My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all[c];no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand. 30 I and the Father are one.” (John 10:28-30)

This is one of the greatest promises Jesus ever gave, and its as true for us as it was for them. How do we know?  Verse 16 Jesus refers to future generations and believers in other parts of the world. 

I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd.” (10:16)

Lets look at what Jesus is saying we have

We have a Secure Position

When I used to read this verse as a young Christian I had a mental picture of a little boy holding onto his Daddy’s big hand, but then I thought, OK, so Jesus has saved me, He’s got hold of me, but what if I let go of His hand?” But that’s not what Jesus is describing here.  The picture is of a shepherd holding the sheep in both arms. The sheep isn’t hanging on, it couldn’t let go if it wanted to, it doesn’t have hands.  Its simply trusting.  Sheep can do nothing about their safety. They are defenceless.  They rely totally upon the Shepherd every moment of their lives.  

Its the same with us. If you were to die tonight what would happen to you?  On what basis do you believe you would go to heaven?  Our security rests solely in the hands of Jesus.  No where else, not our church affiliation, not our good deeds, not our baptism certificate.  Nothing else and no one else can save us, but Jesus. We have a secure position. 

We have Peace of Mind  

No one can snatch us out of Jesus arms.    Jesus repeats this picture to doubly reinforce it.  We rest safe in Jesus arms.  We have a secure position, and peace of mind because,

We have Eternal Life

Jesus says “I give them”. That means eternal life isn’t a reward, its a gift.  Do you have peace of mind about your eternal destiny?

You can, because Jesus say’s it’s based on your relationship to Him, the Good Shepherd. So where are you?  Bleating around lost in the wilderness, or safe in the fold?  The only way home is through Jesus. He is the door to heaven.

A colleague tells of an after dinner prose and poetry recitation in which the guests read various pieces of literature with great erudition.  My friend chose to read Psalm 23. Afterward he apologized for his performance. “Don’t apologize” said one of his guests, “you recited the psalm as if you knew the shepherd.”

Let me ask you, do you know the shepherd?  Do you know the Good Shepherd who laid down his life for you? If you are not sure, then I invite you to read the whole of John’s gospel with three questions in mind – 

  1. Who is Jesus?
  2. Why did Jesus come?
  3. What is his claim on my life?

Let me close with a benediction from Hebrews 13 which is my prayer for you:

“Now may the God of peace, who through the blood of the eternal covenant brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great Shepherd of the sheep, equip you with everything good for doing his will, and may he work in us what is pleasing to him, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.” (Hebrews 13:20-21)