from a sermon by Tom Prisckett on July 12, 2001
I would like to consider the Good Shepherd and the relationship between the Good Shepherd and His sheep.
In John 10:1-5, Jesus is quoted as saying, “Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that entereth not by the door into the sheepfold, but climbeth up some other way, the same is a thief and a robber. But he that entereth in by the door is the shepherd of the sheep. To him the porter openeth; and the sheep hear his voice: and he calleth his own sheep by name, and leadeth them out. And when he putteth forth his own sheep, he goeth before them, and the sheep follow him: for they know his voice. And a stranger will they not follow, but will flee from him: for they know not the voice of strangers.”
In this passage the Word of God is comparing us to sheep. There is a uniqueness about sheep that gives us some clues as to how a Christian should live.
One thing that is important in these few verses is that the sheep hear and respond to the shepherd’s voice. They know the voice of the shepherd, and they follow him. They do not follow false shepherds. That should lead us to the simple conclusion: if you will be as a sheep, follow the real Shepherd, the Good Shepherd. Pay attention to Him. Listen to His voice. Just as sheep do not follow the voice of a stranger, we do not want to follow anyone but Christ. As Christians we want to identify with the close relationship found between the sheep and their shepherd.
Continuing in John 10:9-14, Jesus says, “I am the door: by me if any man enter in, he shall be saved, and shall go in and out, and find pasture.” Jesus is the only way into the fold. People would like to say there are other routes in. If you sit down with others at the break table at work, the subject of religion may come up. Often people like to lump all faiths together and say that there are numerous ways to get in. But that is not what Jesus said. He said, “I am the door.” You are not going to come in some other way.
In this text, the author, John, mentions thieves and robbers. There are times when people make an attempt to attain something for which they have not paid. Jesus paid full price for our sins that we might be redeemed. We are thankful for that! Verse 10 says, “The thief cometh not, but for to steal, and to kill, and to destroy." Jesus says: "I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly.” The phrase “more abundantly” sounds like a very powerful life; more than someone saying to you, “Get a life!” The abundant life is a beneficial life without regret, because you are serving the God of Heaven. Truly it is a more abundant life than any other kind of existence on this earth.
The Apostle John goes on to record Jesus’ words, “I am the good shepherd: the good shepherd giveth his life for the sheep. 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 a hireling, and careth not for the sheep.” Then Jesus goes back and says: “I am the good shepherd, and know my sheep, and am known of mine.”
A hireling is a hired shepherd. He does not own the sheep. Jesus was describing a flock of real sheep, but He was trying to teach a lesson about being one of His sheep. Jesus is not a hireling; He owns us. He paid the price for you and for me that we might have real deliverance from our sins. The hireling does not have the same interests. When he is hired as a servant shepherd, he just does his job. He is concerned about his own life and safety. When the wolf comes after one of the sheep, he is probably out of there!
Remember the shepherd boy, David, who faced the lion and the bear? David had a determination to protect his sheep, even at the peril of his own life. No doubt there have been shepherds who lost their lives attempting to protect their sheep, and we like to hear success stories where they defended the sheep and won the battle. David was one of those. His devotion to his sheep is like the devotion of our Good Shepherd.
Some of you have probably read the book, “A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23” by Phillip Keller. Keller offers a lot of facts about sheep and shepherds. In one place he refers to the alp lands or the tablelands. Here in the Western United States we might call them “high plateaus,” or “mesas.” In the 23rd Psalm, verse 5, the Psalmist says, “Thou preparest a table before me.” It is the shepherd's job to prepare a table—not a table like you and I would eat at, but a plateau for his sheep. The shepherd picks out an environment where the grass is good and the sheep can be protected.
For example, one thing shepherds would do is to look for white camas flowers. If lambs eat those flowers, it paralyzes the lambs and can cause death. So the shepherd first goes into this grass land on a high plateau, and searches for anything that could harm the lambs. This is a very time-consuming task. He might even bring along part of his family to help scout out the terrain. This job had to be done meticulously, going over acres and acres of grassland to be assured that it would be safe when the sheep were brought to that tableland.
Another part of that verse in Psalm 23 references being in the presence of enemies. It says, “Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies.” The shepherd goes into those areas and looks for any sign of wolves or other threats to his flock. He has to be ready for them. He has to be prepared. Once the sheep get there, the wolves and other animals could easily see their opportunity to obtain “meals on hooves.” But it is the shepherd's job to know that they are lying in wait, and to make sure the sheep are adequately protected.
Phillip Keller brought out that it is a good idea for us to stay close to Christ. Wolves and other animals will not mess with the shepherd; they are just interested in the sheep. So sheep are the most protected when they stay close to the shepherd. It is the same with us; the closer we stay to the Shepherd, the safer we are. Come to where the Shepherd is. Move into that territory in your home. Pray that we might be alert to the Shepherd, that we might recognize the voice of the Shepherd, and that we might tune out any other strange and unusual voices—voices that we do not want to identify with, that could lead us into danger.
Speaking of voices, you may recall the incident with Balaam in the Old Testament. In Numbers 22 we read that he had direction from God that he was not to go with the princes of Moab, and God’s anger was kindled when he went anyway. As Balaam rode on his ass, on his way to Moab, his animal saw the angel of the Lord with the sword in his hand. The ass fell down underneath Balaam. Balaam proceeded to have a conversation with his ass, just as you and I would do if we were talking back and forth. I have often thought about that. That was a strange conversation! The problem was that Balaam could not hear the Voice of God, so the ass was given a voice to get his attention. I do not want to get that low, do you? I want to be able to hear the Voice of the Good Shepherd. I think all of us do.
It is wisdom to walk close to the Good Shepherd. That is where we want to be. In 2 Corinthians 12:9-10, Jesus told Paul the Apostle, “My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness.” Paul responded, “Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.” Paul had been through some situations in life that enabled him to pen something like that. He went on to say: “Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake.” This puts it in perspective. He was not saying that he was in distress for his own sake, or due to his own faults, but that he was in distresses for Christ’s sake. Then he went on, “For when I am weak, then am I strong.” You see, Paul was bringing out here that when a person is very vulnerable, there is strength. It does not mean that the sheep are strong in themselves, but that the relationship between the Good Shepherd and the sheep is strong. When we recognize how weak we are, we become aware how needful it is that we depend completely upon the Good Shepherd. We are vulnerable, but He is strong, and that makes the difference.
When sheep are left to their own devices, they will destroy pasture. It requires the maintenance manager skills of the shepherd to take them into new pastures, to pay close attention to them at all times, and to be aware of their needs. Some of the sheep will wander to areas where the grass is not so good. They may break through the fence and end up on the other side, on their own, in an unfamiliar area. As humans, sometimes we might feel squeezed into a small “pasture” with fences of rules and regulations. It may seem restrictive, but it is safe. The Good Shepherd knows what is on the other side of the fence and that it is not beneficial to us, nor for His plan for our lives. It may take us some time to figure that out, but we always do best when we obey the Shepherd.
We did not have sheep at the farm where I worked as a young fellow, but sometimes the cattle would mess up the barbed-wire fence. They would push and push on the fence. There was plenty of grass where they were, but they liked to push on the fence. The cattle would lean way over it and reach down and get the grass that was on the other side of the fence. Sheep do that too. And as human beings, we are so much like that! Give us a boundary and we push against it or reach across the edge. When we cannot go there, that is where we want to go. It is the adventuresome spirit in man that gives him the desire to reach out to take some risks that otherwise would not be taken. However we had better stay away from those risks through prayer and commitment to God. We must always be sure that God would sanction the territory that we are stepping into. We do not want to be reaching into areas out of God’s plan.
Another fact about sheep is that the only way they can lie down and be calm is if there is a good relationship with the shepherd. A good shepherd also helps the sheep get along with one another. With hundreds and hundreds of sheep there could be problems with getting along, but the presence of the good shepherd makes a difference.
We have a big advantage, do we not, over sheep? We have a brain that is much more advanced than that of sheep. We have the opportunity to have a right relationship with God. We may make mistakes for a long, long time and to go on in our sins, and then the mercy of God reaches out and says, “Now is the time,” and the Lord takes us in. It is an amazing thing. We have a great advantage.
In Psalm 23 we read of His rod and staff comforting us. The staff of a shepherd would be made out of wood and would be meticulously worked on until it pleased the shepherd. This is because he would be spending a lot of time with that staff. It had a real purpose in the management of sheep. It was also symbolic, in many ways, of the shepherd’s concern and compassion for the sheep. It was not used for hitting the sheep, but for guiding and directing them. We can picture the good shepherd using it with compassion, long-suffering, and kindness for the sheep. The staff is also symbolic of the Spirit of God, and can be summarized in one word: comfort.
We will conclude with a look at the lost sheep. In Matthew 18:11-12 Jesus says, “For the Son of man is come to save that which was lost. How think ye? if a man have an hundred sheep, and one of them be gone astray, doth he not leave the ninety and nine, and goeth into the mountains, and seeketh that which is gone astray? And if so be that he find it, verily I say unto you, he rejoiceth more of that sheep, than of the ninety and nine which went not astray. Even so it is not the will of your Father which is in heaven, that one of these little ones should perish.”
Christ had concern for the ninety-nine sheep that were safe in the fold. If we are one of those ninety-nine sheep who are safe, that is wonderful. But the interest that Jesus references here is to the one that is outside of the fold. Mathematically, in a ratio of one to ninety-nine, one is not very significant. We have the ninety-nine; shouldn’t that be good enough? No, Jesus was trying to say to us that He is interested in that one lost sheep, the one that is outside of the fold, the one who needs to be brought in. He cares about that one who has been the fence-pusher and finally managed to escape and to go into unsafe territory. As many times as He has done it before, the Good Shepherd goes after the lost sheep. That is good news, because we were all lost sheep at one time. Every one of us was lost in trespasses and sins; we were bound by the “brambles” of this world. Our eternal lives were in danger!
Many of us are familiar with the picture which shows the shepherd reaching down to the lost sheep on a steep precipice. That artist had something in mind about the Good Shepherd. The shepherd appears to be hanging on to the side of the cliff with one hand and reaching down the cliff precariously with his bare hand to reach that pathetic-looking lost sheep that is hanging on the side of the cliff. We are pretty pathetic looking when we are in our sins. There is nothing pretty about us at all, but the Shepherd reaches out to us. As incredible as we may have thought we were, we are just plain stuck in our sins until the Good Shepherd reaches down to help us.
The thought came to me that a shepherd's staff is made of wood. In the time of Christ there were a lot of trees in Israel. One of those trees may have been cut down to be made into a shepherd’s staff, while another was made into a wooden cross to execute and destroy physical life. They did that with Jesus. They put Him on a Cross, and then Jesus suffered and died to touch our lives in compassion, in care, and in love. It cost Him His life! He died that we might be set free. Are you not glad that Jesus reached down after you and me as lost sheep and brought us to Himself? Today, let us realize how vulnerable we really are and how necessary it is to depend totally upon the Good Shepherd.