“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 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. He flees because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep. 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; and I lay down my life for the sheep. And I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life that I may take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This charge I have received from my Father.” (John 10:11–18)
The image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd is an enduring one, finding its way into many stained glass windows. Christ strides out, sheep slung across his shoulders, returning the wandering beast to the safety to the fold. In rural areas such as these, where sheep dot the fields and wriggle through hedges onto the roads, it is particularly apt. Shepherds might now be seen on a quad bike, but nonetheless we can still understand the care which they give and sympathise with the long hours of lambing.
Shepherding in ancient Israel was a somewhat harder life. In a rough climate, with no hedged in fields, much of the job was leading the flock to water. Grazing areas had to be found, often requiring a long trek in the unforgiving sun. Shelter would have to be found, and injuries tended. Sheep, being essentially stupid, always needed close attention and they would grow to recognise the voice of the shepherd. Even to this day you can find mixed flocks grazing or watering in the middle east, and as the shepherd calls out and begins to walk off a number of the sheep - his sheep - will follow.
Protection was needed too, as the plains of Israel were home to predators. When the boy David wanted to confront Goliath, King Saul was not impressed with the youth. The shepherd-boy made his case:
“Your servant used to keep sheep for his father. And when there came a lion, or a bear, and took a lamb from the flock, I went after him and struck him and delivered it out of his mouth. And if he arose against me, I caught him by his beard and struck him and killed him. Your servant has struck down both lions and bears, and this uncircumcised Philistine shall be like one of them, for he has defied the armies of the living God.” And David said, “The LORD who delivered me from the paw of the lion and from the paw of the bear will deliver me from the hand of this Philistine.” (1 Samuel 17:34–37)
No wonder in Psalm 23 we read “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” It’s a comfort to know your shepherd is well armed! If the LORD is your shepherd, what have you to fear?
And now Jesus stands before the Jews and says that he is the Good Shepherd. As he continues to speak, he goes on to reveal the scope of his mission. He may be addressing Jews, and be their Messiah, but he also has other sheep from other folds. His is not a sectarian task. His sheep do not simply come from one place or one background. It was for the whole world - not one nation - that Jesus came. His voice is recognised in many languages, his sheep come from all nations. God is not limited to one people, but reigns over all.
What is more, he says, he is prepared to die for the sheep. Now, we might be impressed with the devotion which leads to such a sacrifice, but to ancient ears this would have sounded odd. After all, what use is a dead shepherd? Who will look after the flock then? Strike the shepherd, and the sheep will simply scatter so that they can be picked off one by one. Yet what Jesus has in mind is a laying down of his life, in order to take it up again. He will not stay in the valley of the shadow of death, but walk through the valley. The death is a means to an end, and not an end in itself. Since Jesus is the source of life itself, he can both lay it down and take it up at will. He has that authority. Which is astonishing. Here is the Good Shepherd indeed!
Let me finish with one further implication of all this: if Jesus is the shepherd then you are a sheep, which, frankly, is not much of a compliment. Sheep are not the brightest. They stand ready to drop dead at any moment, and for no discernible reason. They wander off, and then cannot remember where to wander back. They are reliant on the shepherd, and cannot tend for themselves. To have Jesus as your shepherd speaks of absolute reliance upon him. It means you follow where he leads, and don’t follow your own path. It means trusting in Christ for your very life and protection. It means eating and drinking from the pastures where he leads. It means following Christ, and Christ alone.
Oh sheep, as you wander Jesus seeks you out! Can you hear his voice, calling you home in accent clear and urgent? As you stray, look up and see the shepherd coming to you. Here is one who alone can safely lead you though death, and bring you to the heavenly fold. Listen to no other voices, and follow no other paths. There is but one good shepherd. And he seeks you out.