John 10:11-18 – “Good” Shepherd?

The Good Shepherd by He Qi

“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep. So, when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away. Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it. The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep.

 “I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me— just as the Father knows me and I know the Father—and I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd. 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. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again. This command I received from my Father.” (NIV)

Sheep and Shepherds

Many people in today’s contemporary times are completely unfamiliar with sheep and shepherds. So, when it comes to picturing Jesus as the good shepherd, idyllic scenes might come to mind, full of green meadows and pastoral landscapes in which there is perfect peace and rest.

Having been raised in rural Midwest America, I can confidently say there is little romanticism to the life of shepherds and sheep. Sheep eat a lot. They’ll eat just about anything that’s growing out of the ground. Think about how you would feel if you ate copious amounts of plants. Yep. Lots of gas, trips to the bathroom, and stink.

That’s how it is with sheep. They continually poop and the smell is downright awful. A lot of a shepherd’s daily work is helping sheep deal with all the gas inside them. Sheep are easily prone to bloating from excess gas. This isn’t just an uncomfortable situation for a sheep; it’s an emergency life-and-death scenario. The shepherd must continually be vigilant to the sheep and take care of such circumstances immediately and carefully.

Taking care of sheep is dangerous, difficult, and tedious work. Historically, shepherds were rough characters, constantly on the move to find good pastures for the flock’s voracious appetite. They had to deal with both animal and human predators looking for an easy meal. Being mostly outdoors, even at night, led to their reputation as drinkers – keeping up a consistent nip of spirits to keep warm. And, of course, they smelled bad.

So, when Jesus described himself as the “good shepherd,” this was anything but a pleasing picture for people in the ancient world. The closest equivalents to our modern day might be for Jesus to say, “I am the good migrant worker,” or the “good carny” (carnival employee).

Identifying with the Lowly

Anyone or any profession in which we might deem a person in that line of work as of dubious character – that is how a shepherd and their work were viewed by ancient people. It is the lowly of society who get down and dirty. Because of their work, they get a suspicious and contemptuous reputation. Remarkably, Jesus unabashedly aligned himself with such people.

And yet, it is the discounted profession and the counted out in which we must pay attention because God is probably at work in their midst. The despised Samaritan gained the label of “good” by Jesus for giving himself fully to save a stranger. Jesus puts the same adjective in front of shepherd. Whereas no one in polite society would use “good” for shepherd, Jesus labels himself as the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep.

Jesus, this incredible figure who puts good and shepherd together also goes out of his way to bring other sheep into his fold. Since Christ identifies himself as a stinky lowly shepherd, he has no problem connecting with everyone. After all, when one is already low, there is no looking down on another.

People everywhere, no matter their station in life, can hear the voice of Jesus speaking to them when they, too, are low enough to be able to listen.

The Sacrificial Lamb

Jesus, the Good Shepherd, is also the sacrificial lamb. In laying down his life he takes it up again (John 10:17). And when we participate in that dying and rising, when we eat the bread and drink the cup of salvation, we know he abides in us (1 John 3:24). Remaining in Christ with our good shepherd means, we, too, lay down our lives:

This is how we have discovered love’s reality: Jesus sacrificed his life for us. Because of this great love, we should be willing to lay down our lives for one another… Beloved children, our love can’t be an abstract theory we only talk about, but a way of life demonstrated through our loving deeds. (1 John 3:16, 18, TPT)

Community is messy. People are stinky. Stepping into another’s life is rarely picturesque or idyllic. Yet, it is the same time elegant and aromatic. For we discover that our old ideas of beauty are obsolete. We gain a new spiritual sense which is redolent with the fragrance of Christ.

O God, Shepherd of all your people, deliver us from all troubles, worries and cares that assail us so that we may always do what is pleasing in your sight, and remain safe in the care of our Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Micah 5:1-5a – The Shepherd Leader

Coptic Church icon of Jesus the Good Shepherd

Jerusalem, enemy troops
    have surrounded you;
they have struck Israel’s ruler
    in the face with a stick.

Bethlehem Ephrath,
you are one of the smallest towns
    in the nation of Judah.
But the Lord will choose
one of your people
    to rule the nation—
someone whose family
    goes back to ancient times.
The Lord will abandon Israel
    only until this ruler is born,
and the rest of his family
    returns to Israel.
Like a shepherd
    taking care of his sheep,
this ruler will lead
    and care for his people
by the power and glorious name
    of the Lord his God.
His people will live securely,
and the whole earth will know
    his true greatness,
because he will bring peace. (CEV)

In Micah’s day there was no peace on earth, goodwill to all. In the eighth century B.C.E. the powerful Assyrian Empire came and conquered the northern kingdom of Israel, deporting many of the people and re-populating the cities with their own.

The Assyrian takeover of Israel not only left the northern kingdom in shambles but had a large impact on the southern kingdom of Judah.  All of Judah and Jerusalem were in extreme duress.  Even though Judah had not been conquered and was intact, they were still forced to pay tribute to the Assyrians to keep them at bay. 

The problem became even more exacerbated because the leadership of Judah sought to maintain their power and lifestyle.  The leaders neither looked to God for help nor looked out for the interests of the people.  Instead, they expected the already burdened poor to shoulder the burden of the tribute to the Assyrians.

What is more, thousands of refugees from Israel flooded into Judah and Jerusalem.  So, the already scant resources in Judah were pushed to the brink. Those in authority, the ones with resources who could make something of a difference, ended up taking advantage of the situation by buying fields and land at a fraction of its worth.  In some cases, they leveraged their power by simply pushing people of their land and taking it over. It was anything but a time of security, peace, and actions of goodwill.

Into this terrible situation of hardship and survival, Micah prophesied judgment upon the leaders who were oppressing the poor and displaced.  Micah’s message of hope was that a new kind of leader will come from humble origins, just like the common oppressed people of Judah.  The refugees, the displaced farmers, and the poor will have a champion.  He will feed and shepherd them, leading them to green pastures.  This leader will serve the people instead of the people serving the leader.

Christians see Jesus in Micah’s prophecy. Just as the ancient Jews needed hope and the promise of a different ruler, so today we, too, need hope and the anticipation of the leader who will come again using his power for security, peace, and goodwill.

Christ’s authority is different than earthly politicians and officials.  Israel and Judah had been so filled with bad kings and self-serving leadership over the centuries that Christ’s disciples could barely conceive of a different kind of rule. So, Jesus called his disciples together and said:

“You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them.  Not so with you.  Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all.  For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:42-43, NIV).

The people of Micah’s day needed to see beyond their terrible circumstances to hope of better days with food, peace, and protection.  We, too, feel insecure and anxious. We want leaders to be wise and just toward the vulnerable, the poor, and the displaced.  But while we look to our politicians and election cycles for our hope, the prophet Micah is jumping up and down, pointing us to a different leader – a shepherd leader.

Micah said the shepherd leader will come from Bethlehem.  When Micah proclaimed this, King David, the original shepherd king, had been dead for nearly three-hundred years. The people immediately made the connection between the coming leader and David.  There would be restoration and renewal!  A benevolent kingly reign is coming! 

Ethiopian Orthodox Church depiction of Jesus the Bread of Life

“Bethlehem” is two Hebrew words put together: beth (“house”) and lechem (“bread”) thus being “House of Bread.” God was communicating that the coming shepherd leader would provide abundant food and care for them. God wanted, and still wants, a society that does not feed on itself, but is a house of bread for others. Jesus is the Bread of Life. Christ feeds us so that we will become a people who offer bread to others – both physical and spiritual bread.

Jesus is the bread for all the hungers we have in this life. We hunger for security in our world; satisfaction in our daily work; loved ones to be healthy and happy. In short, we hunger for peace. Our spiritual stomachs growl with hunger for spiritual food.  Many are spiritually starving because they are searching for peace and goodwill in places without food.

Satisfaction, contentment, and peace have come from the most unlikely places of Bethlehem and Nazareth. Can anything good come from villages in Judea that do not even show up on most maps of the ancient world?  Peace, hope, and goodwill can and do come from the least expected places and people. 

Christ was not born in the halls of power. Yet, through him there is peace, in the complete sense of the word. Jesus is the One who brings a full-orbed wholeness and wellness to life, no matter the situations around us. Jesus is our peace:

Like a shepherd, God will tend the flock; he will gather lambs in his arms and lift them onto his lap. He will gently guide the nursing ewes. (Isaiah 40:11, CEB)

“Yes, I will feed my flock, and I will lead them to a place of rest. I will search for the lost sheep. I will bring back the sheep that were scattered and put bandages on the sheep that were hurt. I will make the weak sheep strong, but I will destroy the fat and powerful shepherds. I will feed them the punishment they deserve.” (Ezekiel 34:15-16, ERV)

 “I am the Good Shepherd. I know my own sheep and my own sheep know me. In the same way, the Father knows me, and I know the Father. I put the sheep before myself, sacrificing myself if necessary. You need to know that I have other sheep in addition to those in this pen. I need to gather and bring them, too. They’ll also recognize my voice. Then it will be one flock, one Shepherd.” (John 10:14-16, MSG)

“I am the bread of life. He who comes to Me shall never hunger.” (John 6:35, NKJV)

When Jesus originally said those words, it was scandalous, unheard of rhetoric. So, Jesus, the stinker he could be, pressed it even more:

“I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, yet they died. But here is the bread that comes down from heaven, which anyone may eat and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world… Very truly I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man… you have no life in you. (John 6:48-51, 53, NIV)

We are to ingest Jesus – to be filled with him. We need Jesus because he is our house of bread, our peace, our shepherd, and our king. Believing in him is to give our lives to him. The greatest Christmas gift we can give this season is the gift of our lives to Jesus Christ, the promised Messiah.

Lord Jesus, I have strayed far from your flock and taken matters into my own hands. I have chosen to feed in pastures that will never take care of my real hunger.  I need Your forgiveness. I believe You died on the cross for all the things I have done and left undone.  You rose from the grave to give me life. So, I want to stop going my own way and start going yours. Amen.