The Shepherd of Israel

The Good Shepherd Gives His Life For His Sheep

When the New Testament presents the Lord Jesus Christ as our Shepherd, it does so in a threefold manner. The writer to the Hebrews calls Christ “that great Shepherd” who is risen from the dead and works in the lives of His sheep (Heb. 13:20-21). Peter refers to Christ as the chief Shepherd who will return to reward the faithful undershepherds (pastors) who ministered to His flock during His physical absence (1 Pet. 5:4). Before there can be a risen or returning Shepherd, though, there must be a dying shepherd. So in John 10, Jesus presents Himself as the Good Shepherd who dies for the sheep.

The Lord’s message as the Good Shepherd flows out of His explanation to the Pharisees that He was the promised Shepherd of Israel (Ezek. 34). Against the background of the false leadership of the Pharisees, Jesus introduces Himself as the True Shepherd (Jn. 10:1-10). While the false shepherds destroy life, the True Shepherd gives life (v. 10). Why does He do this benevolent deed? The answer is found in the fact that the True Shepherd is also the Good Shepherd.

In verses 11 to 18 Jesus continues to speak on the theme of being the Shepherd of Israel, but now He emphasizes His character as the Good Shepherd. In the Greek New Testament there are two words that are translated in our English Bibles as good. The word “agathos” refers to intrinsic goodness – goodness on the inside. The word used in John 10 is “kalos” which means, exterior goodness – goodness visible on the outside. The thought in John 10 is that the inward goodness of Jesus is outwardly demonstrated in His relationship to His people as their Shepherd. As the Good Shepherd, Jesus does good things for His sheep. In this article, we want to note two good things that Jesus does for His sheep.

He Cares For His Sheep

The primary role of a shepherd is to care for his sheep. This involves protecting and defending them when they are attacked. A good shepherd must be willing to die for the sake of his flock. As the Good Shepherd, Jesus demonstrated His loving care for His sheep’s welfare by laying down His life for them. He said, “I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd giveth his life for the sheep” (V. 11).

Many faithful shepherds have died trying to protect their sheep from savage beasts, thieves and robbers. The death of Christ as the Good Shepherd, however, differs from that of any other shepherd. The death of a mere human shepherd never benefits the sheep he died trying to save. In fact, his death means inevitable disaster for his sheep since no one is left to protect them.  However, when Christ died, it benefited His sheep because His death was on their behalf. His death meant that they would never have to suffer spiritual and eternal death. His death meant life for His sheep.

The Jewish Prophet Isaiah predicted and explained the meaning of Christ’s death when he said, “But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement of our peace was upon him, and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way, and the LORD hath laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Isa. 53:56). His death paid the penalty for our sins. He was our substitute Sinbearer. He laid down His life so we could receive life. When we recognize the true meaning of Christ’s death and trust Him as our sin payment, we are forgiven of our sins and become the recipients of eternal life.

As the Good Shepherd, Jesus cares for His sheep’s welfare and so laid down His life for them. Only a good shepherd would do this. Not everyone engaged in shepherding is a good shepherd. Some are merely hirelings. Jesus said, “But he that is an hireling, and not the shepherd, whose own the sheep are not, seeth the wolf coming, and leaveth the sheep, and fleeth; and the wolf catcheth them, and scattereth the sheep. The hireling fleeth, because he is an hireling, and careth not for the sheep” (Jn. 10:12-13). A hireling works only for wages. He doesn’t care for the sheep; he doesn’t love them, and he isn’t concerned about their welfare. He is a hired hand – a paid employee who watches sheep for money only.

Who were the hirelings Jesus had in mind? He was describing the Pharisees. He already had called them thieves and robbers (vv. 1, 8,10), strangers (v. 5) and now He refers to them as hirelings. They cared nothing about the people, nor did they protect the children of Israel from spiritual danger. They were cold and calloused to the welfare of the Jewish people. When Jesus healed a lame man in John 5, rather than rejoice in this miracle, they responded by saying, “It is the sabbath day; it is not lawful for thee to carry thy bed” (Jn. 5:10). They had no compassion for the woman caught in the act of adultery (Jn. 8). They wanted only to use her death as a means to trap Jesus theologically. When the man born blind was healed (Jn. 9), rather than rejoice, the Pharisees tried to convince him that the healing never took place. Then they excommunicated him. A hireling doesn’t care about the sheep. He cares only about himself. Therefore, when he sees a wolf coming, he abandons the sheep to protect himself.

There are men in the ministry today who call themselves pastors (the Latin word for shepherd) but who are really hirelings. They are nothing more than professional religious laborers who are only interested in exploiting people for personal gain. Peter warned some first century pastors against using their positions as shepherds for financial profit when he wrote, “Feed the flock of God which is among you, taking the oversight of it, not by constraint but willingly; not for filthy lucre [not greedy for money] but of a ready mind” (1 Pet. 5:2). Peter called these shepherds to oversee their flocks with an eager, willing spirit and not with a motive of monetary gain. A good shepherd cares for his flock even amid problems, but a hireling deserts the sheep in their hour of need.

There was a time in my ministry as pastor of a local church that I wanted to quit and run away. While contemplating what I should do, the Lord reminded me of the truths in John 10. I had to decide whether I was a hireling working for wages or a shepherd concerned for the welfare of the sheep. I decided that I was a shepherd, and, therefore, I would not run away in the face of problems. This type of decision is not limited to pastors. If you are a believer in Christ, you have a shepherding ministry. It may be your family, a Sunday school class, a home Bible study or even a Christian friend who admires you. Whatever your situation, you have the responsibility of leading or shepherding someone else. The question is not whether you should or should not lead, but, rather, is your leadership characteristic of a shepherd or a hireling?

Hirelings have no interest in the sheep’s safety, but Jesus does. He doesn’t run from danger and leave His sheep to be snatched by the enemy. His promise to His people is, “I will never leave thee, nor forsake thee” (Heb. 13:5). The word “catcheth” (better translated “snatch”) used in verse 12 to demonstrate the action of the wolf is the same word Paul uses in 1 Thessalonians 4:17 to explain the Rapture of the Church. The term carries with it the idea of force suddenly exercised on something. While the Church will someday be caught up forcibly (or snatched up) from the earth, Jesus will never allow anyone to snatch one of His sheep out of the flock (Jn. 10:27-29). Why? Because the Good Shepherd cares for His sheep. But there is another good thing that Jesus does for His sheep.

He Communes With His Sheep

Jesus said, “I am the good shepherd, and know my sheep, and am known of mine. As the Father knoweth me, even so know I the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep” (Jn. 10:14-15). As the Good Shepherd, Jesus has an intimate relationship with His sheep. His knowledge of the sheep and their knowledge of Him is compared to Christ’s knowledge of the Father and the Father’s knowledge of Christ. This type of knowledge speaks of intimacy and communion, not superficial acquaintance. The Greek word for “know” means experiential knowledge. Often in Scripture when God is said to know someone, it means that He has a personal love relationship with that person – that person is the object of His special affection and concern. For instance, in Amos 3:2 God said to Israel, “You only have I known of all the families of the earth.” Obviously, God had knowledge about every family on the earth, but He didn’t have a personal relationship with each as He did with Israel. In the New Testament Jesus said that someday He will announce to a religious but unregenerate crowd, “I never knew you; depart from me, ye that work iniquity” (Mt. 7:23). Certainly Jesus knew these people and their evil character all too well, but He never had a personal, intimate relationship with them.

A good shepherd is familiar with his sheep. He is aware of their trials and behavior patterns. He knows each one’s idiosyncrasies and peculiarities. His understanding generates affection from the sheep. They know their shepherd’s ways and are, therefore, comfortable in his presence. They enjoy being with the only one who truly knows them.

Likewise, the Christian’s relationship with Christ is to be one of enjoyable fellowship and continued communion. The Good Shepherd knows you better than anyone else. He knows your hidden sins, failures and weaknesses. He knows things about you that no one else knows.The amazing thing is that in spite of all Christ knows about you, He still wants to commune with you. He wants you to be comfortable in His presence and to enjoy being with Him.

Have you ever met someone whom you liked immediately but wondered how long the friendship would last once he found out what you were really like? Consequently we often don’t let people know us as we really are. We wear psychological masks and put on a front because we fear that if they knew us as we really are, they would reject us. However, with Jesus we never have to fear His rejection. He knows us, loves us and wants our fellowship. He accepts us – warts and all.

Jesus has a loving relationship with all His sheep. In the context of His present message, Jesus refers strictly to Jewish sheep – those being led out of Judaism. However, this love relationship between the shepherd and the sheep isn’t confined to the sheep of Israel. In verse 16 Jesus says, “And other sheep I have, that are not of this fold; them also I must bring, and they shall hear my voice; and there shall be one fold, and one shepherd.” In other words, Jesus was foretelling a time when the Good Shepherd also would have Gentile sheep who, with the Jewish sheep, would make up the flock of God. Since the establishment of the Church on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2), the Good Shepherd has been gathering His sheep from every part of the world through the proclamation of the gospel. Jews and Gentiles alike down through the centuries have recognized Christ as the Good Shepherd who cares for them and communes with them. Have you recognized Him?

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