The Good Shepherd
Series: The Gospel of John
We’re all influenced by someone; none of us are as independent as we’d like to think. But Jesus is the best possible person to follow, because He is the good shepherd.
As the influence of social media has grown, a new class of individuals known as “influencers” has emerged. Yohance mentioned them a few weeks ago when he preached, and one definition I found defines influencers as those who “have the power to affect the purchasing decisions of others because of their authority, knowledge, position, or relationship with their audience.” Of course, many of us who use social media probably wouldn’t label ourselves “followers” of these influencers, even though we may “follow” them on Twitter, Instagram, or TikTok. Most people today still like to think of themselves as free, independent thinkers. And yet, no one can deny that influencers exist. The fact is, we are social animals: We are inevitably influenced by others. The best way to be free, then, is not to kid yourself into thinking that you’ll be influenced by no one and will always just decide what is best for yourself. The best way is to follow the influencers who will lead you into abundant life. In this passage, Jesus describes Himself as an influencer, though He uses an older term for that: A shepherd. The shepherd’s relation to their sheep was one of obvious authority: The shepherd leads the sheep. And it’s this element of Christianity that many resist: They say they want to be free to live how they want to live, to not have to follow someone else. But we’re all influenced by someone. In this passage, Jesus depicts that by leaving no free agents: Either you follow the robbers, the thieves, the hired hand, or the shepherd, but we all follow someone or someone(s). And man, my hope and prayer for you this morning is that you’ll see that Jesus is the best possible person to follow, because Jesus is the Good Shepherd. He knows His sheep, He leads His sheep, He provides for His sheep, and he dies for His sheep.
He knows His sheep
Jesus tells us in verse 11 that He is the good shepherd. In verses 1-5, we get our first description of this good shepherd, and there we learn in verse 3 that His sheep hear His voice, and He calls His own sheep by name. In other words, within this fold, there are sheep that are His own, and He knows them by name. The fold is Israel, but as later scripture puts it, not all Israel is Israel. Much of Israel rejected Jesus, but there are those within it who the Father has given to Jesus, who He calls out by name. Jesus is not an insecure teenage boy who flirts with every girl in sight and then just waits nervously to see if anyone responds. He knows who are His, and he goes and gets them. When he healed the man born blind in the passage just before this one, he didn’t set up a healing stand and say, “Anyone blind? Come and get healed today.” He saw the man, that individual man born blind, and healed him. In a couple weeks we’re going to look at the story of Lazarus, a dead man, who Jesus rose from the dead. You know how he did it? He looked at Lazarus’ dead body in the tomb and said, “Lazarus, come out.” He called him out by name. There are also examples of general calls coming from Jesus in the Gospel of John: “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink.” Even in this passage, verse 9: “If anyone enters by me, he will be saved and will go in and out and find pasture.” In theology we call this the general call or the external call: It’s the call to faith that goes out to all any time the gospel is proclaimed: whoever believes will be saved. So whoever you are, whatever your name, believe, and you will be saved. But there is also what we call in theology a particular call, an internal call, or an effectual call, which produces the response of faith in those who hear the general call. It’s that call whereby the sheep hear the voice of their shepherd, and so necessarily and willingly follow Him.
It doesn’t work exactly the same way now as when Jesus was on earth, because no preacher knows who are Jesus’ sheep and who are not; Jesus knew that. So Jesus could go specifically to the man born blind and specifically to Lazarus and say his name. No preacher today can call anyone by name. What Jesus has commissioned preachers to do is publish the general call, and then He, working internally by His Spirit in the hearts of His sheep, calls them to Himself one by one, so that they freely believe the general call, being made willing by His grace. Do you see what that means if you are a Christian today? It means before you knew Jesus, He knew you. He knew your flaws, He knew your worst sins, He knew the things you’re afraid to let anyone else know, AND He loved you. Before you believed, you were already His. Before you loved Him, He loved you, and so came from heaven and sought you. Believing that Jesus is loving in some general sense is of very limited comfort. But knowing that Jesus loves you will change your life. So Paul says in Galatians 2:20 – “I have been crucified with Christ, and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me.” Each one of Jesus’ sheep can say the same. That’s a good shepherd. The Good Shepherd knows His sheep by name, individually and intimately. And He leads His sheep.
He leads his sheep
So once He calls His own sheep by name, verse 3 tells us He leads them out. So once Jesus calls you by name, you don’t belong to your native fold any longer. In the passage before this one, it’s not as though the man born blind stopped being Jewish, but he was cast out from his community. There is a new flock forming around Jesus, made up of those who have heard His voice and followed Him. This community comes to be known as the church, which later in scripture is referred to as a flock, and its leaders are called shepherds. This explains why very early on the Christian community became a distinct community from the Jewish community, though the first Christians were all Jewish and worshiped Jesus as the Jewish Messiah. Jesus had led them out and formed a new flock that was separate from the fold into which they were born. That flock is now visible in particular churches, so that the ordinary expectation of those who come to faith in Jesus, who hear the shepherd’s voice and follow Him, is that they will join one of those particular churches.
How can you recognize whether a gathering is truly a flock of Jesus, a true church? Listen for the voice of Jesus. Do you hear the word of Christ being proclaimed in that gathering? That’s an essential mark of a true church of Jesus Christ. The pharisees had been officially installed in their office and could likely have even traced their succession back to Aaron and the Levites, the first priests, but in this passage, Jesus calls them thieves and robbers. He says the true sheep won’t listen to them; they listen to the voice of Jesus as he leads them, and so Christians should only join a church where they hear the voice of Jesus in the preaching of his word. I’m not talking about something terribly mysterious either; I’m talking about when you come to the gathering of the church, is it the word of Christ they’re proclaiming, or something else? We have the added blessing today of having a printed Bible by which to check it, as the Bereans did in the book of Acts even with the preaching of the apostle Paul, examining the scriptures to see if the things he was saying were true. But there is something perhaps even more intuitive here that Jesus describes. Those who have truly been called by Jesus will tend to be able to recognize when what they’re hearing is inconsistent with the gospel by which they were saved or not. They may not be able to explain why it is, but something in them will say, “That’s not right” when they hear falsehood and something in them will say, “yes,” when they hear the word of Christ being faithfully administered. Even when it’s a hard word, they know it’s true, and that their shepherd is good. So, they follow Him as He leads.
At this point the text doesn’t tell us where He’s leading them. Later in John we’ll see the destination to which Jesus is leading us is our heavenly home, where we will see His glory forever. But in the meantime, the way Jesus has chosen to lead us is not by giving us all the details. Instead, He simply says, “Follow me,” and the way He leads us is through His voice. So verse 4 says once He brings them out, He goes before them, and the sheep follow Him, for they know his voice. And again, the church is the place where Jesus has designed for this to happen. It is the flock over which Jesus has appointed shepherds, from which we get the word pastors, and who are also called elders, who lead the church by speaking to it the word of Christ. That’s why Scripture tells us that elders must be “able to teach,” and why they are to devote themselves to the “ministry of the word” and prayer.
So are you willing to be led by Jesus? Will you follow Him? There is part of us that resists this. We may want a shepherd who cares for us, and Jesus certainly is that, but a shepherd who leads us means He may not always lead us in the way we want him to. In fact, it necessarily means that: That’s the idea of leadership and following: If you’re following someone, you don’t just go where you want to go; you go where they lead you. Even the way the word shepherd is used today tends to drop out this element of its meaning. When many Christians talk about shepherding, they’re really just thinking of care-type ministry. But shepherding in the Bible is leadership. That’s what shepherds do: They lead the sheep. Shepherding necessarily includes authority, or it’s not shepherding. It’s why of all the “one another” commands in Scripture, Christians are never commanded to “shepherd” one another. That would be like saying, “Lead one another.” You can’t do it. Someone has to lead, another has to follow, or there is no leader. Jesus is a shepherd with authority who leads, and that’s a good thing, because He is a good shepherd. If you claim to follow Him but it turns out your sense of what He wants you to do is always the same as what you want to do, you probably aren’t following Him. If you claim to follow Him but you won’t join one of his flocks and follow the preaching of His word through the shepherds He’s put in place to lead those churches, you probably aren’t following Him.
Sometimes that’s because we wish Jesus said less than He did, so we could be “free” to do what we want. On the other hand, sometimes we resist following Jesus because we wish He said more than He did. We wish He’d tell us where to live, who to marry, what job to take, where to send our kids to school, and give us certainty on every doctrine and decision we make. But that’s not how He’s chosen to lead us. He’s not left us in the dark, but neither is He a domineering leader. A leader who says nothing to us, who simply leaves us to figure out life for ourselves, is not a leader who loves us. So He gives us His Word written down in Scripture, a Word of infinite depth, He’s given us His Spirit to illuminate it, and He’s given us under-shepherds to teach it. But He’s also not domineering: A leader who places heavy burdens on us, who scrutinizes our every movement, before whom we must always be analyzing ourselves, lest we slip up one bit, is not a leader who loves us either. So He doesn’t unnecessarily multiply His words to us. The Bible is thick, but it does have a beginning and an end, and He’s not still adding new demands to it. Jesus’ yoke is easy, His burden is light; His commandments are not burdensome. Will you follow Him in the way He’s chosen to lead? That’s the only way to follow him. If He’s good, you can, and we’ll see that He is a good shepherd especially in these last 2 points. Next, He provides for His sheep.
He provides for His sheep
In verses 7-10, Jesus picks up the door image from verses 1-5 and says, “I am the door.” So he is both the good shepherd and the door. What’s it mean that He’s the door? In verse 9 He says it means if anyone enters by him, he will be saved and will go in and out and find pasture. The destination to which he’s leading us is our heavenly home; now he’s saying he is the door into that heavenly home. Elsewhere in John he calls this the “kingdom of God.” He’s the only door into it. So if anyone enters by him, he will be saved. Then He says in verse 10 that the thief comes to steal, kill, and destroy, but he came that the sheep may have life, and have it abundantly. There are those who claim a position of power for themselves to benefit themselves. Jesus is not that kind of shepherd. He’s the good shepherd, who came that those who He leads might have life, and have it abundantly.
The picture here is of well-fed sheep. They want for nothing. The shepherd doesn’t only keep them alive; He provides for them so that they are healthy, so that the life they enjoy is abundant life. That’s the life Jesus came to give every one of His sheep. On the one hand, this means eternal life, life that never ends. Their final home is their heavenly home. Abundant life speaks to the quantity of life, but it also speaks to the quality of life. Again, it’s not just a shepherd who keeps His sheep alive until they reach their destination. It’s a shepherd who feeds them in abundance. What do you imagine this abundant life would look like? If we were to take a poll of our community, we can imagine the answers: deep relationships, peace in our homes, peace in our city, passive income streams, low stress, decadent meals, freedom to travel, a bigger house, obedient and successful kids, a secure and fulfilling job. Is that the kind of abundant life Jesus came to give? If so, then we’d have to say He’s failing miserably to deliver. It’s rare that anyone experiences that kind of life on earth, let alone those who follow Jesus.
But that’s not the kind of abundant life Jesus came to give us. In fact, Jesus tells us repeatedly that in the world we should expect tribulation, not ease and prosperity. The man born blind received his sight, but then he was ostracized from his community. Jesus said foxes have holes and birds have nests, but he had nowhere to lay his head. The definition of abundant life I’ve just been talking about is a definition created by us who are in darkness. It’s worldly in the truest sense of the word: Its end is this world. But what if you were made for something more than this world? What if the food that would truly fill you can’t be bought or grown in this world? Have you ever considered that the reason you aren’t more satisfied is because you’re chasing the wrong things? Our world history should teach us this; the fact is in a worldly sense, we have far more abundant lives than any past generation, and in Philadelphia today, we have more a more abundant life than most people in the world. Even poverty in Philadelphia, while tragic, is worldly abundant compared to poverty throughout much of the world and history. Yet we still don’t have abundant life.
So what is this abundant life Jesus is describing? Remember earlier in John when Jesus said this? “My food is to do the will of Him who sent me” (John 4:34). Jesus was rejected by many, had nowhere to lay his head, and in the end was rejected even by his closest friends. Yet you know what gave him joy? Doing the will of the one sent him. He was made for God, nothing less, and because he lived for God, his life was abundant. That’s the life he offers us. He is the way to God, the one for whom we were made, and when we are restored to that life, here’s the fruit it brings according to Scripture: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Gal 5:22-23). That’s a picture of abundant life. And that’s an abundant life Jesus can give you whether in poverty or wealth, whether in danger or in safety, whether loved and accepted by others or cast out. He provides what you need to live the life He’s assigned you, and He will provide everything you need to reach your heavenly home. Maybe you feel you’re lacking those fruits of an abundant life, even as a Christian; welcome to the club. But the solution is not to look elsewhere. The solution is to declutter your heart of all the things you love besides Jesus, and dive deeper into Him. As you do, He will provide abundant life. And the reason He can give abundant life to us is because He first laid down His life for us.
He dies for His sheep
In verse 11 we encounter Jesus’ statement that “I am the good shepherd.” We’ve been seeing how with these “I am” statements, Jesus is claiming to be one in being with God the Father, and here we see it again. Throughout the scriptures, God is the ultimate shepherd of the sheep. So Psalm 23 famously begins, “The LORD is my shepherd.” Here Jesus is saying, “I am that shepherd.” But then he describes what that good shepherd does for his sheep in verse 11: He lays down his life for the sheep. Here he adds another image as well of the hired hand: A hired hand may not seek to steal, kill, and destroy the sheep, but he’s serving the sheep ultimately for his own benefit. So when a threat comes, he’ll save his own skin rather than risk it for the sake of the sheep. I once heard a leader talking about creating ownership in your organization, and the example he used was of a time he went to a Subway and the store was closing in 5 minutes. He walked up to the door and someone was locking the door and said, “Sorry; we’re closed.” He said, “I thought you were still open for another 5 minutes.” The employee said, “Sorry; we’re closed.” He asked, “Are you the owner?” The employee replied, “no,” thus proving his point. The owner wants the business to succeed; the employee is just there to collect a paycheck. So here, the hired hand cares nothing for the sheep, whereas the shepherd, the owner of the sheep, the good shepherd, loves the sheep, and loves the sheep so much that he will die for the sheep.
Jesus wants to lead us to our heavenly home so that we might see His glory forever. But He notices a threat on the way: Sin. Isaiah 53:6 puts it this way: “All we like sheep have gone astray.” The just punishment for sin is death away from the favorable presence of God. So if sin and death have the final word, we won’t have abundant life. The only way for our good shepherd to provide us with abundant life is first to lay down His life for us. So Isaiah 53:6 continues: “All we like sheep have gone astray, but the LORD has laid on Him the iniquity of us all.” So Jesus says twice in this passage that He lays down His life for the sheep. On the cross the Lord lays on Him the sins of the sheep, and He dies the death they deserve. Only He doesn’t stay dead. In fact, He says in verse 17 that the reason He lays down His life is in order to take it up again, in order to rise from the dead, ascend into heaven, and prepare a place for us there. As our leader, He goes before us, first into death, and then into heaven, that we might follow Him from death into heaven.
Jesus did not die as a mere victim. In a sense of course we can say He was a victim of injustice, but He was in control the whole time. The pharisees to whom Jesus was speaking wanted to kill him, but he makes clear to them: You aren’t taking my life from me. I’m willingly laying it down. He’s doing it because that’s the charge He received from His Father, and His Father loves Him because He obeys that charge. Do you see the love of God for His sheep? We see it in the charge the Father gave the Son, to lay down His life for the sheep. We see it in the Son Himself, who willingly laid down His life for the sheep, though none took it from Him. Jesus didn’t owe us His death. We sinned against Him; all justice required was a punishment for sin. God would have been totally just to pour out that punishment on us. But instead, out of sheer love for His sheep, God poured it out on our Good Shepherd, who willingly took it upon Himself when He laid down His life for us.
Contrast him again with abusive leaders: They use their power to take from you. The thief comes to steal, kill, and destroy. Human history is littered with such leaders, and so many of us are hesitant to trust any leader. But here is a good shepherd who has already proven that he’s not out to steal from you, kill you, and destroy you. If he wanted to do that, he had a just way of killing you in judgment on your sins. But instead, he laid down his life for you. You don’t have to wait and wonder whether this leader is ultimately going to use you for his own selfish gain or not. He already sacrificed all his selfish gain for your good. How can we then refuse to trust Him? How can we refuse to follow Him? Some will; not all are sheep. The man born blind believed, while the pharisees cast him out. Next week we’ll see Jesus saying, “you do not believe because you are not among my sheep” (v. 26). But His sheep will hear His voice and follow Him.
And He has other sheep who are not of this fold, He says in verse 16. There are sheep scattered among the nations, who the Father gave to Jesus before the foundation of the world. In Revelation 5 we read that by His blood, Jesus ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation (Rev 5:9). That means there are sheep for whom Jesus died from every tribe and language and people and nation, even from the enemy nations of Israel, his native fold. There were many of the fold of Israel who were not Jesus’ sheep. These are not of the fold of Israel, but they are Jesus’ sheep. So He continues in verse 16: I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. Does Jesus sound at all unsure there to you about whether those sheep will be saved? Of course not. He says, I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. He laid down His life for them; will He then fail to bring them? As the rapper Shai Linne puts it, “Is there gonna be one drop of the Savior’s blood in vain? Nah, perish the thought. The Lamb will receive the reward for His suffering.”
And the result of that will be, verse 16, “There will be one flock, one shepherd.” That’s where the whole story is heading. Jesus came so that there would no longer be some sheep among the Jews, and the rest scattered throughout the nations and divided from one another. He came to gather all those sheep that the Father gave to Him from all the nations of the earth under one shepherd. And each local church is now designed by Him as a visible foretaste of that day when all His sheep will be gathered as one flock under Him as their shepherd. The church is not meant to be the place where you go to feel culturally affirmed. The church is the community to which you belong to feel some of what heaven will be like, where you will be one with people from every culture. Don’t let your cultural preferences, or a blindness to just how many cultural preferences you have, stop you from being one with other sheep who originate from different folds. And don’t let Satan divide what Jesus has united. Bear with one another’s weaknesses, forgive one another’s sins; strive to maintain the unity Jesus has purchased for us. And don’t stop with one another. There are still other sheep of other folds for whom Jesus died, and He intends to use churches like ours and people from them to bring them in. In a worldly sense, it is a crazy thought to me that God could use people like me to go to people in other parts of the world who have never heard of Jesus and bring them in to His flock. Does that sound crazy to you? Why? Jesus says He has sheep in every tribe, tongue, and nation, for whom He died, who He must bring, and who will come. Let’s send, support, pray, and let’s go to these peoples, trusting that the sheep among them will hear their shepherd’s voice. Jesus is the leader who can truly unite the nations.
We all inevitably follow someone. But only Jesus is the Good Shepherd who knows His sheep intimately and calls them out by name, who leads His sheep by His Word, Spirit, and under-shepherds to their heavenly home, who provides for His sheep the abundant life they truly need, and who proves His love for His sheep by laying His life down for them, and taking it up again, that they might enjoy that same abundant life He now enjoys with Him forever. Follow Him.