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Shepherds and their flock (Jn 10:1-11, 1 Pet 5:1-11)

The Good Shepherd…who is God with us!

Our Gospel reading this morning is no doubt familiar to many of us. But we shouldn’t let its familiarity shield us from the shocking claim at its heart. Because by calling himself the Good Shepherd (as Jesus did), he was making a claim to be God. Old Testament passages like Psalm 23 and Ezekiel 34 are clear that the role of the Good Shepherd is a part that only the Lord can play. Only he is fit to be the supreme ruler of humanity.

So by saying what he said, Jesus was well aware of its significance. To stand up and say “I am the Good Shepherd”  was either a bold claim to divinity – or a shocking case of blasphemy. Jesus was either an imposter – or Immanuel – God with us.

The Good Shepherd…who came to seek and save the lost!

Confronted by this claim, we need to wrestle with a trilemma that C.S. Lewis first coined – was Jesus “mad, bad, or God”? We each need to decide whether we’re going to accept Christ’s claim to be our shepherd – or reject him as wrong. Will we walk his way, or turn our backs on him instead? In other words, we each need to decide on our response to Jesus’ words in verses 2 and 3 today: “The 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.” Christ calls us to trust and follow him. The Good Shepherd entered our world to gather a flock to himself. 

Did you notice one remarkable detail in verse 3?  Jesus says he calls each of his sheep “by name”. In this country we have a new king, a king who pledged at his coronation to serve our nation for the rest of his life. But it is ridiculous to suppose that he will ever know us all by name. Its absurd to think that Charles can ever possibly know all his subjects personally! But King Jesus does. He knows our name, our character, our faults and our failures. Yet still he calls us to follow him. Will we come?

And Jesus didn’t just come to seek his sheep – he came to save them too. Because Christ says he’s the shepherd who will “lay down his life for his sheep”. With these words Jesus was looking ahead to his death on a cross. A death that would be voluntary, vicarious, and victorious:

Voluntary because Christ chose to lay down his life. His crucifixion was the hour for which he had come, not a tragic conclusion to his ministry. The Good Shepherd willingly surrendered his life – it was not snatched from him.

• Jesus’ death was also vicarious, because he died “for” his sheep – he suffered as their substitute. When the Good Shepherd laid down his life he took our sins on his shoulders and bore God’s just judgement in our place.

• And thirdly, Christ’s death was victorious because he didn’t stay dead! After our sin had been paid for, the Good Shepherd gloriously rose from the grave!

The Gate…that leads to life!

So Jesus is the Good Shepherd who successfully sought and saved his sheep. And because he knew what he would achieve, Jesus mixes his metaphors and in verse 9 calls himself “the Gate” that leads to life. Listen to again what he says: “I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. They will come in and go out, and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.”

If you were a first century sheep, you would have loved your gate. You would have looked lovingly at the gate to your sheep pen. If you were inside the pen, you would see the gate as the route out into pasture – as the way to lush grass and fresh water. If you wanted to frolic in the fields, going through the gate was the way to get there. But after a day out in the open, the gate would attract your attention again. As dusk fell, the temperature dropped and predators came out for the night, and you would look forward to going back through that gate to your pen. Back into a place of warmth and safety. A place of protection. You see, for a first century sheep, the gate to their pen was the way to pasture and protection. Depending on the direction they were facing, it was the way to fresh food or the way to safety. Two things that gladden the heart of any sheep! 

I mention this piece of sheep psychology, because it helps us understand what Jesus meant when he called himself the ‘gate’ for his sheep. Because if we answer Christ’s call and come to him, he can give us both protection and pasture. Protection from God’s judgement and good pasture for eternity. We need to be clear in our mind that only Jesus offers us those things. We need to go through the gate that leads to everlasting life.

Lessons for Christ’s flock…

Before I finish, I want to draw three key applications from our passage today. Three lessons for sheep in the Good Shepherd’s flock.

Firstly, we need to listen to his voice. In verse 4 this morning Jesus says: the sheep follow the Good Shepherd, “because they know his voice. But they will never follow a stranger; in fact, they will run away from him because they do not recognise a stranger’s voice.” The Good Shepherd doesn’t use a crook or a sheep dog to guide us – he speaks to us. And the way we hear Jesus’ words to us today is through the Bible. If we want to come to Christ and grow as his disciples we need to take time to read, and apply what he says to us in Scripture. If you don’t do so already, get hold of a good translation of the Bible and read it regularly. And if you struggle reading Scripture on your own, do please join one of our house groups to digest God’s word with others.

And that leads me to our second lesson from John 10 today – as Christians we need each other. Our Good Shepherd knows us individually, but he doesn’t expect us to live our lives on our own. He calls us into his flock, his Church. To change the metaphor for a moment, Christianity is a team sport. So don’t skip church on Sundays, or see Christian fellowship as an optional extra. If we’re Christians we’re part of one flock, a flock that has been sought and saved by our shared Good Shepherd.

Thirdly and finally, we need to submit to the under-shepherds that the Good Shepherd has put over us. That’s the point made in 1 Peter chapter 5 this morning. Let me read the first five verses again: “To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder and a witness of Christ’s sufferings who also will share in the glory to be revealed: 2Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not pursuing dishonest gain, but eager to serve; 3not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock. 4And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away. 5In the same way, you who are younger, submit yourselves to your elders.”

Those of us in church leadership are accountable to Christ for how we shepherd his flock. Its a responsibility we should take very seriously – an enormously precious duty that has been entrusted to us. Peter says Church leadership should not be used for selfish ends, as a way to boost our ego or feather our nest. Rather, it is a role we are to undertake in all humility, an act of service we are to complete willingly, for the sake of Christ’s flock. 

So do submit to all in authority over Christ’s church – our bishops, our clergy and our licensed lay ministers – but please also pray for us as well! Ours is not always an easy task, and we certainly need Christ’s help if we are to be faithful and fruitful in his service. This side of glory, we leaders really do need the guidance of the Good Shepherd if we’re to lead his flock to safe pasture.