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April 22, 2012

This text from John 10 on Jesus as the good Shepherd is a challenge to understand for at least two reasons.  First, it’s written as Jesus gave it--almost entirely as a figure of speech—Jesus is not speaking plainly here.  He clearly doesn’t want to be understood in a literal sense as if he were a literal hinged “door.”   A second reason this is a challenging text is because beginning in verse seven, after he has given the figure of speech picturing himself as Shepherd and his people as sheep, he restates it after it was clear his audience—Jews and Pharisees didn’t understand it.  Verse six says, “6 This figure of speech Jesus used with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.”  But his restatement of it has some significant differences when compared to the way he said it the first time. In verse one he enters by the door.  In his restatement in verse nine, he IS the door.  In verse four, he describes the intimacy of this sheep/shepherd relationship by saying that his sheep “know his voice.”  In the restatement in verse 14 he says, “my own know me, “just as the Father knows me and I know the Father.”  In verse one, the enemy of the sheep are “thieves and robbers.”  In verse 13, he calls them “hired hands.”  In each case, the restatement is more than just a restatement—Jesus is expanding—giving more, and sometimes different details than in his first statement probably for the sake of added clarity.

Though there are difficulties in understanding this text, it’s not at all difficult to understand why this Good Shepherd text is an appropriate one for the ordination of a pastor.  The very word translated “pastor” is from the Greek word meaning “shepherd.”  In Act 20:28 when Paul is addressing the elders of the Ephesian church in Miletus, He says,28 Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood. 29 I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; 30 and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them.”  Even though he doesn’t refer to these elders as “pastors,” the task he charges them with—to “pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock,” is clearly that of shepherding.  Peter says to pastors in First Peter 5:2, “2 shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly;

When Jesus reinstates Peter to the 12, he says to him in John 21:15,feed my lambs” and in verse 16, “tend my sheep” and in verse 18, “feed my sheep.  Jesus very much sees himself as the Shepherd—Hebrews 13:20 calls him “the Great Shepherd.”  But he also charges his apostles to do the work of shepherding and finally he calls those who are to oversee his local churches “pastors” or “shepherds.”  How does that help us appropriately apply this text to pastors in this context?  When Jesus speaks of himself as Shepherd here, it’s clear that he is uniquely THE Shepherd who owns the sheep and who purchased them with his blood.  We don’t own the sheep, Jesus does—we are given temporary charge of HIS flock and he expects us to shepherd them as he does.  According to Hebrews 13:17, one day we shepherds will have to give an accounting for how we have kept his flock.  And just in case we need reminding, he loves his flock that we shepherd so much that he laid his life down for them.  I want all of us pastors in this room to feel the weight of that, not to overwhelm you, but because the pastorate can so easily become all about the here-and-now the tasks of leading a church.  The pastorate is a sacred calling from God to tend his blood-bought flock for which we will one day stand before him.  Tragically, it can gradually morph into becoming little more than--a way to serve the church—use our gifts—find personal fulfillment—lead a missional church and many other things—none of which are unimportant, but all of which are peripheral.  We must never forget the main thing is to shepherd Jesus’ sheep—the ones he bought with his blood and for whom we will be called to give an accounting. 

Let that sink in for just a moment.  Think about what it will be like for you to present to the Great Shepherd the sheep--HIS sheep that you have tended for him.  Will they be well fed?  Will they be scarred by wolves because of your neglect or maybe even through your own harsh shepherding?  Think about that moment when you stand before the Great Shepherd and you will answer for how you fed his flock and how you nurtured and led his flock--how you dealt with the wolves when they sought to divide the flock and pick off the weak ones--how you disciplined his flock when they were in need of that.  The only people who know what you are feeling right now are other pastors.  No sane man would presume to do this unless the Great Shepherd had not called him and equipped him.  But the sheep need faithful shepherds who will point them to the Chief Shepherd... In Matthew 9:36, Jesus says that sheep without a shepherd are “harassed and helpless”—sitting ducks—or in this case “sitting sheep”-- just waiting to be eaten by wolves after they have first been mauled by them.  The sheep need shepherds who will, however imperfectly, show them what the Shepherd of our souls is like—expressing HIS love for them, teaching HIS truth to them, issuing HIS warnings from HIS Word and admonishing them and rebuking them with HIS heart of compassion.  Christ is our example and First Peter three tells pastors that they should not be “domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock Christ is our example so when we come to a text like John 10 where Jesus describes in some detail what he does to shepherd his flock, this should command a pastor’s full attention.  In this text, I want us to look at three ways in which Jesus shepherds his flock and therefore, how we as his under-shepherds should tend his flock.  Church, I trust this will also benefit you as you hear what you are to expect from your pastors.

The first way in which we are to follow Jesus’ example as the good Shepherd is to: know the sheep intimately.  A little bit of information about sheep management is necessary to more fully understand the depth of Christ’s intimacy with his sheep.  In the Middle East, groups of shepherds would often use the same fence or pen to protect their flocks and so the different flocks would completely intermingle with one another.  The sheep weren’t branded like cattle with each animal bearing an identifying mark of ownership. When one of the shepherds wanted to separate his sheep from the others, he would stand outside the pen and call his own out from the midst of the others.  There are many ways to call sheep.  Each shepherd has a different sound—not only in the quality and pitch of his voice, but also in the unique intonations of his call.  If you go to “You Tube,” you can hear different ways actual shepherds call their sheep.  When a particular sheep hears the unique voice and call of his shepherd, he will separate himself from the other sheep and follow HIS shepherd.  This is what Jesus is talking about when he says in verse four when he says of himself, “When he [the shepherd] has brought out his own, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice.” 

The shepherd and the sheep are very familiar with one another, but even that is NOT the level of intimacy Jesus says he has with HIS sheep and which is our example to follow.  Verse three says, “The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.”  The picture is of a shepherd who is not grunting, whistling or clicking his tongue in a sheep call, but on one who calls his own sheep by their names—“Come out Benjamin and Nathaniel and Ananias and Bartholomew and….”  Later, in verse 14 he is even more graphic in describing the intimacy with which he knows his sheep.14 I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father;”  Now, we cannot have that kind of intimacy with the flock and the main point is not that a pastor of a large church needs to spend his Sunday afternoons going through the directory learning names.  Because the nature of shepherding and eldership in the New Testament is that it is a plurality of elders or shepherds, one implication for churches of all sizes is--there should be enough under-shepherds to know all the sheep with a significant level of intimacy.  Jesus can know an infinite number of sheep very intimately, but we need several shepherds in a church this size.  One reason why we are functioning with a plural eldership with ordained vocational and non-vocational elders is because people need this kind of intimate relationship with an under-shepherd—far more than the average church can provide today.  A handshake at the back door of the church after the worship service is not shepherding like Jesus.  The picture here is personal relationships that are marked by intimacy—the kind of intimacy so that—you will want Pastor so and so to help you in the midst of your crisis because he knows you well and you have experienced his love—you trust him.

Knowing someone “by name” does not convey only intimacy however.  God says to Moses in Exodus 33:17, “17 And the LORD said to Moses, “This very thing that you have spoken I will do, for you have found favor in my sight, and I know you by name. Knowing someone by name here connotes not familiarity, but favor.  God knew Israel by name—because as a nation they were his favored, chosen people.  But here in a special way, God knows Moses by name.  Again, this is not about his literal name.  Jesus is also saying that he knows his sheep by name because they have favor with him.  Because all believers are united with Christ, because we are justified with the favor with God that Jesus has, those in Christ DO indeed have favor with Jesus.  Pastors are forbidden to practice favoritism, but we are to relate to the people we shepherd with favor in the sense that we treasure them—as part of Christ’s body, they are dear to Christ and therefore should be dear to us.  When they leave the flock for whatever reason, we are grieved.  The first way Jesus exemplifies for us the way to shepherd the flock is to know the sheep intimately.

A second way we are to follow Jesus’ shepherding example is to: Protect the sheep by continually pointing them to Christ and the gospel.  In my office, I have three prints of vivid paintings—all of which feature Ancient Near Eastern shepherds performing tasks a shepherd would perform.  In one of them, the shepherd is standing in front of his sizable flock—large tree branch in hand—violently swinging it at the three wolves standing in front of him.  He has a fearless scowl on his face as risks his life for the flock.  Most of us think of something like that when we hear the word “protect” in the context of shepherding.  Shepherds protect the flock by driving off any false teachers or other enemies of Christ that threaten the flock they have been given to shepherd.  That’s certainly part of it and that’s one reason why all our elders must be ordained.  We want them to be Biblically informed enough to both spot false teaching as well as rebuff it.  However, in this text, Jesus gives us another way to protect the flock that, though not as dramatic as battling false teachers, it’s just as important in protecting the flock of Christ.  We see this in verse seven where Jesus says, “7 So Jesus again said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep. 8 All who came before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them.  I am the door.  If anyone enters by me, he will be saved and will go in and out and find pasture.”   It’s clear that Jesus is just expanding on what he has said in verse two—“he who does not enter the sheepfold by the door, but climbs in another way, that man is a thief and a robber.”  We know the two are connected because in verse seven John says, “So Jesus again said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to hour, I am the door…”  In Jesus’ mind these two are closely connected.  In the first instance Jesus is saying that those people who mean no harm to the sheep will enter into the flock by him,--that is—with his blessing and permission. 

Remember the context—Jesus is speaking primarily to Pharisees-- those that want to influence the flock, but try to do so by side-stepping Jesus.  These he calls “thieves and robbers” because they only want to use the sheep for their selfish purposes and have no interest in taking care of them.  Jesus is seen as the Protector of the flock—keeping the thieves and robbers out—that’s why they have to try to get into the sheep pen another way.  In verse seven Jesus says, “Truly, truly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep.”   Here, Jesus is the door or gate who keeps out those who seek to harm the sheep, as well as letting them go out to find pasture.  The door in both instances is an instrument of protection.  So Christ says that HE is the agent of protection, but at the same time we know that under-shepherds are charged with actively protecting the flock.  How do those two fit together?  Perhaps several ways, but surely one implication is that the under-shepherd protects the flock by continually directing the sheep and their enemies to Jesus.  The main manner in which the sheep are protected is the door, Jesus.  That means that teaching and preaching by pointing the sheep to Jesus and the gospel will not only ward off the enemies, it will also protect the flock in other ways.

The enemies Jesus has in mind are the Pharisees who bound up people with burdens as they put people under the Law.  Most false teaching ultimately puts people under the Law.  There may be other errors involved, but only the unadulterated gospel presents a way of salvation that offers God’s rescue of humanity instead of humanity’s quest to be good enough for God.  Here are three ways we can make certain that our ministry is Christ-centered, cross-centered and gospel centered.  That is—that the door, Jesus is the main focus of our sheep management.  First, (as we say quite often around here) teach the Bible as a book about Jesus.  The Bible is not a handbook on sanctification—it’s about Jesus as our sanctification.  It’s not a book on how to live wisely—it’s about Jesus who is our wisdom. It’s not a book about how to be righteous; it’s a book about Jesus who is our righteousness.  The creation account points to Jesus as the new creation. God’s covenant with Abraham points to the New Covenant in Christ’s blood.  The exodus points to Jesus redeeming God’s people from spiritual bondage as their Passover Lamb.  The tabernacle and temple—as expressions of God’s dwelling with his people, point to Jesus as the One who tabernacle among us, lives within us by His Spirit and as the heavenly dwelling place where we will be with God.  King David points to Jesus as the Son of David—the ultimate King of kings.  Jerusalem points to Jesus as the New Jerusalem.[1]  The Bible is not a book on how to be a better or more spiritually mature person—it’s is a book about Jesus who alone transforms people as they increasingly behold him and are brought from glory to glory.  As the Bible is taught in that Christ-centered manner and as the sheep begin to see it as such and read it through those Christ-centered lenses—they will increasingly be transformed into his likeness as they daily behold his glory in the Word of God.

Second, we must teach the sheep that the goal of their lives is not to accomplish some spiritual level of maturity, but to live a life of worship to Jesus.  Paul says we are to live as living sacrifices—a reference to a life of worship.  God wired us to be worshippers.  G.K. Chesterton said “If we do not worship God, it does not mean we will worship nothing. It means we will worship anything.”  If life in Christ is worshipping Him as your highest love, then sin must worshipping something else as our highest love which is idolatry.  The first commandment is against idolatry—“do not bow down before other gods” and Luther is right—if we violate any other commandment, we are violating that one against idolatry. Think about it--if we lie, it’s because we want to protect or boast or hide something and that is more important to us than God because we are willing to sin against him to do it.  If we steal, we are idolaters because whatever we steal we clearly value more highly than God because we were willing to sin against him to get it.  All sin is ultimately an expression of idolatry—choosing to worship something or someone rather than God and the gospel is the only way to purge the idols from our lives.  If my love for my wife becomes idolatrous, then I am trying to find my ultimate fulfillment in her, not God.  The same can be said about my car or my job or my kids.  So how does the gospel purge the idols from our lives?  It’s as we—as Thomas Chalmers says, “displace our idols with a higher affection—Jesus--that they will be defeated.”  We may be able to get rid of the idol of sex through practicing self-discipline, but we will simply substitute another idol for it because the root idol isn’t sex, it’s about what I am trying to get or achieve from sex—fulfillment or significance that is not in Christ.  We know that if I am not looking for a deeper level of worship to Christ, then I will surely look for it in something because I am a worshipper. 

As we come to increasingly internalize the wickedness of our own sin before a holy God and the infinitely gracious provision God has made for me in sending his own Son to be a substitute for me—to take my sin upon himself and pay my penalty.  To allow my sin to be imputed to him while his righteousness is imputed to me—show me someone who mostly owns that truth and is living in the gratitude and joy it brings, and I will show you someone who does not struggle with many idols because most or all his needs are met in Christ.  Christ is his status, his reputation, his significance, his beauty, his power—whatever a person might treasure—for those who have internalized the gospel—their treasure is Christ and idols do not remain long in a heart that has Jesus for its treasure. 

Perhaps the best way we can teach the flock to treasure Jesus is to model an impassioned love for Christ ourselves.   A very large part of the pastor’s job is to be an example to the flock.  That means that we must regularly be asking God to show us more clearly our sin and his hatred for it, receive his forgiveness and as those who have been forgiven much, love and treasure Jesus much.  That gospel-saturated life must be lived out before the flock so that just as Jesus sets the example for us and our ministry, our lives might serve as an example for the people to whom we minister as we increasingly treasure him above all else.

A final way in which we follow the example of Jesus is to:  love the sheep sacrificially as a good shepherd.  Nowhere in Jesus’ treatment of himself as shepherd does he explicitly state, “I love my sheep.”  He KNOWS his sheep intimately, but he never says explicitly that he loves them.  What he does say that powerfully expresses his intense, impassioned love for his flock is in verses 11 and 15.  In verse 11 he says, “11 I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. In verse 15 he says, “15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep.”  Jesus as the good Shepherd is willing to die for his sheep and indeed he did die for all those who would become sheep.  He died for his sheep.  He redeemed his sheep.  You can’t do anything beyond dying for someone.  As Lincoln said at Gettysburg, to die for someone or something is to “give your last, full measure of devotion.”  Your life is the most precious thing you have in this world and to give it up is to make the ultimate sacrifice.  Jesus states his willingness to die for his sheep twice verbatim in the span of five verses and then—to intensify its significance, he contrasts HIS sacrificial love with others who are hired hands. He says in verse 12, “12 He who is a hired hand and not a shepherd, who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees, and the wolf snatches them and scatters them.13 He flees because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep.” 

The hired hand is just that—he’s a hired stand-in.  For him, it’s about the money—he does what he does for the monetary reward.  But when the wolves come out, he flees because why would you lay your life down for a paycheck?  There is no sense in which the hired hand has concern for the sheep—“he cares nothing for the sheep.”  He is just using the sheep to get a paycheck.  Today, I know very few men who go into the pastorate expressly for the money and non-vocational pastors are CERTAINLY not in it for the money, but there are other ways we can use the flock for our own selfish enrichment.  Pastors can do what they do because they want to feel important— to feed their egos.  A pastor with an unhealthy need for control can use the flock to build his own little kingdom.  A pastor who’s a narcissist can use his flock by milking praise from them.  A pastor who is insecure can use the flock to help him fulfill his need to be needed—the flock can become a vehicle for his own messianic tendencies as he daily “saves” his church by his extreme and sacrificial devotion.  A pastor who’s concerned about making a contribution in life can use the flock as a vehicle through which he can leave a lasting legacy of his good work.  All under-shepherds need to spend regular time asking the Great Shepherd to reveal the self-serving motives we may have as we minister to his flock. 

Paul, as you join the team of under-shepherds here, know two things.  First know that we consider it a genuine privilege to serve with you and we value what God has done in your life to train and equip you and Bonnie.  Second, stay close to the Great Shepherd and learn from him what it is to be a faithful Shepherd of his flock.  May God give all the pastors here the grace to do that and may God give the flock here to pray for and follow their undershepherds.

[1] Christ-Centered Biblical Theology, Goldsworthy, 2012, p. 27.


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