My children visited Chester Zoo this week, as one of their half-term treats. They love seeing the different enclosures and discussing their favourite animal - the rhino won! But if you had the choice, what animal would you most like to be? Which creature’s character traits do you most identify with?
- Perhaps you see yourself as a bit of an owl – perhaps you’d like to be thought of as someone who is wise and thoughtful. As a bit of an intellectual perhaps?
- Or maybe you’d prefer to be viewed as something of a cuddly Koala – as someone warm, friendly and fun to be around.
- I know many men would like to be thought of as a lion, a tiger or even a bear. As someone who is brave, powerful and strong.
- Or perhaps you see yourself as an eagle – as a free spirit who soars through life – someone self-reliant, confident and capable.
Whichever of those animals most appeal to you, there are some we almost certainly wouldn’t want to be associated with. For example, I wouldn’t take it kindly if someone called me a fox, a snake, a dinosaur or a pig!
In today’s reading from John’s Gospel, we human beings are compared to sheep. That’s not as bad as being called a pig perhaps, but its not entirely complementary either, is it? After all, sheep are not known for being the most intelligent or capable of creatures, are they? They are also pretty defenceless, and if left on their own can quickly get themselves into trouble. A sheep would not be my preferred self-description! And yet the whole Bible consistently compares human beings to sheep. In Psalm 100, for example, it says “Know that the Lord is God, it is he who made us, and we are his; we are his people, the sheep of his pasture.” Sadly, Isaiah chapter 53 also tells that “we all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way”.
The point being made is that human beings can’t live well without help. Like sheep, we all need someone to guide us. Like sheep, we all need someone to rescue us from the trouble we’re in. In other words, the Bible is clear that we humans desperately need the God who made us, who knows us, and who loves us. We can’t live well without him. So just as often as the Bible calls us sheep, it calls God our rightful ‘Shepherd’. It describes the Lord as the leader we all need.
Thankfully, like any good shepherd, God promised in the Old Testament that one day he would “search for the lost and bring back the strays.” Through the mouths of prophets, God repeatedly promised that one day he would personally come to seek and save his wayward flock. A promise that was fulfilled on the day that Jesus stood up and said: “I am the Good Shepherd”.
But before we look more closely at that famous phrase, let me pray: Lord Jesus, the good shepherd. Help us to hear your voice this morning, and apply your truth to our hearts. In your name we pray. Amen.
- The Good Shepherd…who came to seek and save the lost
I think it’s fair to say that Gidea Park is not known as an agricultural area. I haven’t yet seen a flock of sheep wandering down Main Road, Raphael’s Park isn’t cultivated for crops, and I assume that none of us here owns a tractor. And although it is true that we do have a ‘Harvester’ 100 yards from here – it’s got more to do with eating food than growing it!
Despite our lack of agricultural experience, however, we should still be able to understand what Jesus has to say about himself in our passage this morning. Firstly, we should be in no doubt that by calling himself the Good Shepherd, Jesus was making a claim to be God. As we saw just now, the Old Testament teaches us that the good shepherd is a role that only God can fill. Just like the amazing miracles we’ve read in John over recent weeks - like turning water into wine and giving sight to the blind – Jesus’ claim to be the Good Shepherd is another sign that should point us to his true identity. Jesus was no mere religious mystic, moral teacher or political revolutionary, but God on earth, the Word made flesh, the eternal Son of the Father.
But what has this Good Shepherd got to do with us? Well look with me at the Lord 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 people to trust and follow him. God’s Son entered into our world to draw people to himself.
Did you notice one remarkable detail in verse 3? Jesus says he calls his sheep “by name”. He makes a similar claim in verse 14: “I know my sheep” he says, “just as my Father knows me”. In other words, Jesus is claiming to know us all personally – an extraordinary claim for any leader to make. In this country we are blessed with a good and faithful queen, a queen who has served our nation tirelessly for over 60 years. But it is ridiculous to suppose that she knows us all by name. Its absurd to think that she knows all her 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.
Verse 16 provides further reassurance that Jesus is calling us whatever our background, whatever our walk of life. Because he says “I have other sheep that are not of this sheepfold. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd.” When Christ first spoke those words he was speaking to Jewish people in Jerusalem. But he wanted to make it clear that his invitation went beyond the borders of Israel. Jesus was – and is - calling people from every nation to follow him, us Gentiles as well as Jews.
I hope I don’t need to tell you that Jesus invitation has been accepted by millions of people around the world. Over the past two thousand years the Gospel message has gone to the ends of the earth, and people have responded positively in every nation it has reached. For instance, China was in the news last week, with the state visit of its President to the UK. But did you know that the Christian Church has grown massively in China over recent years? Millions have come to Christ there. China now has one of the fastest growing churches in the world, despite every attempt by the communist authorities to constrain and control it. Seventy million Chinese are now Christians, that more than the entire population of the UK. All over the world - from Chelmsford diocese to China - people are hearing the call of Christ and choosing to follow him.
But Jesus didn’t just come to call his sheep. He came to rescue them too. As we read in verse 11 today, Jesus is the Good Shepherd who “lays down his life for his sheep”. And in verse 17 he says: “The reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life – only to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord.” With these words Jesus was predicting his crucifixion. He was telling his hearers that he was heading for death on a cross. A death that would be voluntary, vicarious, and victorious:
- Jesus death was voluntary because he chose to lay down his life. Christ’s death on the cross was the hour for which he had come, not a tragic end. He willingly surrendered his life - it was not snatched from him. Despite all appearances, on Good Friday Jesus the Good Shepherd was in control of the situation, not Pontius Pilate or the Jewish leadership. Everything went according to God’s salvation plan.
- Jesus’ death was vicarious, meanwhile, because he died “for” his sheep. The Good Shepherd suffered as their substitute. When he died he took his people’s sins on his shoulders and bore God’s just judgement in their place.
- And thirdly, Jesus death was victorious because he rose again! Just as he promised, on the first Easter day Jesus took up his life again after laying it down. After sin was paid for and death was defeated, the Good Shepherd gloriously returned to life!
- 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 also describes himself in verse 9 today as “the Gate” that leads to life. Listen to 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:
- The protection Jesus offers us is protection from God’s judgement. If we have faith in him, then we receive all the benefits that result from his death and resurrection. We are protected from God’s rightful anger at sin, and become full members of his family forever.
- The pasture Jesus offers, meanwhile, is a life with meaning, purpose, hope and joy. If we follow the Good Shepherd, we can experience life to the full, life as our Maker meant it to be lived. A life in which we know who we are, in which we know we are loved, in which we know where we are going.
Last week I drove to and from Helen’s family in Chester, a total distance of 500 miles, a journey that takes at least four hours each way. To survive that journey (especially with two young children in the back!) I relied on guidance from my SatNav, frequent visits to a service station to refuel both the car and the kids, plus the security of knowing my RAC membership was up to date! On our journey through life, Jesus is our SatNav, Service Station and RAC membership all rolled into one. He gives us the guidance, strength and security we all desperately need.
We need to be clear in our mind that only Jesus can offer us those things. He is the gate, not a gate. Only he can offer us pasture and protection. Only he can offer us salvation from sin and everlasting life. No other religion or philosophy can compete. Its quite fashionable nowadays to say that all religions are really the same, isn’t it? To say that they are all equal, that all routes lead to God in the end. But Jesus disagrees. He says: “I am the way, the truth and the life, no one comes to the Father except through me”. Only through faith in him can we share in the benefits of his death and resurrection. Followers of other faiths may be sincere and well-intentioned, but that doesn’t mean they are on the path that leads to life. Christians should be just as keen to tell our Muslim or Hindu friends about Jesus, as we are to tell those we know who are atheists or agnostics.
The faith we follow is a choice with great consequences. Its not a trivial matter, like a choice between meals on a menu or clothes in a wardrobe. It’s a choice that concerns our eternal destiny. We need to go through the only gate that leads to everlasting life.
- Final lessons for the flock!
Before I finish this morning, I want to draw two quick applications from our passage today. Two final lessons for members of 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 stick or a sheep dog to guide us - he uses his voice. And the way we hear Jesus’s voice today is through the Bible. As we read the Gospels we hear his words. If we want to come to Christ and then grow as his disciples we need to take time to read, and apply what he says to us in Scripture. If you don’t own one already, do get hold of a clear modern translation of the Bible and read it regularly. Through it, Christ will teach us, lead us and change us. And if you struggle reading the Bible on your own, please do borrow some Bible study guides from our library, our join a house group to hear God’s word together.
And that leads me to our last and final lesson from John 10 today - we Christians 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. We need to encourage each other in our faith, and we need to work together to tell Gidea Park about Jesus – about the gate who leads to everlasting life. So please don’t skip church on Sundays, or see Christian fellowship as an optional extra. If we are Christians here this morning, we are part of one flock, a flock that has been sought and saved by our great Good Shepherd.