"Beautiful Shepherd" Sermon on John 10:11-18 by Pastor Joe - April 25, 2021
Before the parable we just read, Jesus had committed a remarkable crime — he had healed a man on the Sabbath. This man had been born blind. This man had gone his whole life without seeing. So Jesus spit on the ground, made mud from the dirt, put it on the man’s eyes, and told him to go wash it off. After which the man saw for the first time. The Pharisees turned this into an opportunity to attack Jesus — after all, he committed the crime of healing on the Sabbath. It’s not worth spending too much time on their callousness — from our perspective it seems to be the epitome of hardheartedness. Their attack just shows how threatened the Pharisees were by Jesus, how anxious Jesus made them, and how they were grasping at anything to discredit Jesus. It is to these Pharisees that Jesus says, “I am the beautiful shepherd.” (Good shepherd is a valid translation, but so is beautiful shepherd — its just that the name “good shepherd” has gotten faded and dusty with age). In calling Himself the Beautiful Shepherd, Jesus is drawing from a long Biblical tradition where the sheep are God’s people, Israel. The shepherds take different forms — Moses and Aaron were said to shepherd God’s people. King David was said to be a shepherd of God’s people. The prophets would often rebuke the leaders of Israel for their failing in shepherding God’s people. God himself was often portrayed as a shepherd caring tenderly for his flock. Ezekiel 34 draws on nearly all of these themes — and was a passage that Jesus likely had in mind when He described Himself as the Beautiful Shepherd. God commands Ezekiel to prophesy against the leaders of the people, the current shepherds of the people. God says: “Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fat ones, but you do not feed the sheep. You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them.” In our passage, when Jesus talks about thieves and bandits trying to steal the sheep, or the cowardly hands running away at the first sign of danger — Jesus is picking up on this theme in Ezekiel 34 — and is saying to those Pharisees, “This is who you are. You are just like your ancestral shepherds, you who have thrown this healed man out of the synagogue.” Jesus is laying down a strong rebuke for the Pharisees.
But Jesus is not only giving a rebuke — He is holding Himself in stark contrast to those miserable bandits, thieves and cowards. He is the Beautiful Shepherd. Again, Jesus is drawing from Ezekiel 34, where God responds to those wolf-like shepherds in two ways. God says He Himself will shepherd the people, but God also says that a future king, one in the line of David, will shepherd the people. Reading the chapter, you’re left with the question, “Well, who is it? Who will be the shepherd? Is it God or the Messiah?” Jesus resolves that tension quite nicely.
That part where Jesus talks about coming to the defence of the flock reads very kingly — perhaps very much like the king people were expecting — a king who would come to the defence of the people and defeat the wolves that were oppressing them. Remember, just before he defeated Goliath, David said to Saul, “Your servant used to keep sheep for his father; and whenever a lion or a bear came, and took a lamb from the flock, I went after it and struck it down, rescuing the lamb from its mouth; and if it turned against me, I would catch it by the jaw, strike it down, and kill it. Your servant has killed both lions and bears; and this uncircumcised Philistine, Goliath, shall be like one of them, since he has defied the armies of the living God.” Here too, Jesus describes himself as the Beautiful Shepherd who comes to the defence of the flock — this certainly would have tickled the ears of the Pharisees. Maybe King Jesus is saying that He will finally come against those wolfish Romans who keep oppressing the people of God. But according to Jesus, it’s not the Romans who are the wolves — but the Pharisees themselves. Furthermore, the way that Jesus says that He will come to the aid of the sheep is even more strange: Jesus says He will lay down His life for the sheep. We’ve heard this so much that we no longer hear it as strange. But it just doesn’t make sense. The people listening to Jesus thought He was crazy.
Why on earth would a shepherd do such a thing? First, if the shepherd lays down His life for the flock, that would be a disaster for the sheep — utter disaster! It would be open season for the wolves. If the shepherd hands his life over for the flock, they no longer have a shepherd to protect them. They would be in trouble. Yet the shepherd laying down his life makes even less sense for the shepherd. I understand why the shepherd might risk his life fighting off a wolf, bear or lion — the shepherd’s livelihood is bound up with the flock. If a lion destroys the flock, the shepherd’s livelihood is in trouble. The shepherd attacks the lion so he can continue to provide for his family, so that he himself can have something to live on. But for the shepherd to lay down his life for the sheep seems totally backwards. Doesn’t the flock exists for the livelihood of the shepherd? Imagine a shepherd actually dying for her flock of sheep — it would be the most absurd thing you’ve ever heard. Jesus is not just talking about dying in the line of duty, as in a shepherd tragically being killed while defending the flock against a lion. Jesus is talking about intentionally laying down his life — he says, “I lay down my life of my own accord.” That’s just not what shepherds are supposed to do! Any school of animal husbandry would tell you the same. “Today class, I want you to take in this lesson. Do not sacrifice your life for the sake of the sheep.” We are talking about the intentional laying down of life. Imagine this bizarre situation. A crazed madman is holding a flock of sheep ransom. He’s demanding one million dollars, or “the flock of sheep gets it.” The police are involved. Reporters are there. Everyone is wondering what to do. After all, this particular flock isn’t worth one million dollars, but no one wants to see this flock of sheep “get it”. All of a sudden, the sheep farmer takes up the megaphone in one hand, and raises his other hand in surrender. Walking towards the man holding the sheep ransom, he says, “Don’t do it. Take me instead. Let the sheep go.” Everyone looking on is thinking — what on earth is he doing? “The sheep aren’t worth it!” they shout. “The sheep aren’t worth it!” Even the sheep are looking at the farmer like he’s gone crazy.
This illustration is not overstating things. Remember how in Ezekiel, it wasn’t clear whether the shepherd was God or the coming Davidic King. Well, in our passage in John, Jesus is not only identifying himself as the Shepherd King, He’s identifying himself as one with God. Look at the intimacy He has with the Father — He talks about the sheep knowing the shepherd as “the Father knows me and I know my Father.” Fifteen verses later Jesus says, “I and the Father are One.” That God would die for us is as absurd as a shepherd dying for his sheep. The angels must have looked on utterly "bumfuzzled" as the Son of God took on human flesh so that He might die for the sins of humans. It’s as strange as a shepherd dying for her flock of sheep — it’s even stranger. We are far more similar to sheep than God is to us. Well, that was true until God did the unthinkable — He took on our flesh.
Or, to use the imagery of this parable — the shepherd became a sheep. The Beautiful Shepherd not only lays down his life for the sheep — the Beautiful Shepherd becomes a sheep. Listen to Isaiah 53 which describes the suffering servant, which we now know was describing Jesus: “But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our sins; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have all turned to our own way, and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all. He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth.” The shepherd became a sheep so that we might be healed. Remember when John looked at the throne in Revelation 5? He saw a lamb, standing as though it had been slaughtered. In John’s Gospel, Jesus is the Passover lamb — whose blood causes God’s wrath to pass over the sins of the people.
It must have been quite sobering to be the people of Israel, known as God’s sheep, and every Passover you slaughter a sheep whose blood was needed to cover the sins of the people. As they watched the sacrifice of the lamb, it must have been sobering for the people of Israel to watch, perhaps they became uncomfortable that God also called them His sheep — recognizing the lamb was standing in their place. Perhaps they wondered if the lamb would be enough. Perhaps one day they would get to the point when their sins were too great to be covered by the blood of the lamb.
And so the shepherd becomes a sheep. As Isaiah says, “He was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our sins; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed.” The shepherd became a lamb. I do not understand why a shepherd would ever become a sheep and die for his flock. This goes even further than what Paul says in Romans 5:7, “Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” Jesus goes beyond this — Imagine Romans 5 to say, “Very rarely will anyone die for some sheep.” No one would ever do this, no one would ever die for a lesser being — yet that’s what we were to God and that’s what God did for us. The Son became one of us — the shepherd became a sheep, and laid down His life willingly.
Why would God die for us? This is a mystery as profound as a shepherd dying for a sheep. In 1 Corinthians Paul uses the word — foolish. In a crucified Messiah, God’s foolishness is revealed. Yet God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom. God, in His foolish wisdom, became one of us! He became the sacrificial lamb — the lamb who died for the life of the world.
What is further staggering is how important this sacrifice was to God the Father. Jesus says that He is fulfilling the Father’s command in dying for us — again, this begs the question of ‘why?’ Why should God love us so much that He would send His one and only, beloved Son to die for us sheep? It makes no sense. Jesus says that “the reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life for the flock.” The reason that the Father loves Jesus? How is it that we, as sheep, should have so much value in the Father eyes that His love for His Son is impacted by the Son’s willingness to sacrifice Himself for us sheep? Do you get how strange this is? How is it that our Father loves us so much that He would send His one and only beloved Son to become a sheep and die on our behalf. I don’t get it.
Jesus does not merely give into what he sees as a bizarre and foolish request by the Father. There is no sense of Jesus saying, “You want me to become a sheep and die for that filthy flock?” “No,” Jesus says, “No one takes my life 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.” Jesus lays down His life for us freely, willingly, lovingly. He was not coerced. Jesus became one of us out of a pure, simple, beautiful act of love. That is why Jesus is the beautiful shepherd.
“I know my sheep and my sheep know me — just as the Father knows me and I know the Father — I lay down my life for the sheep.” He lays down His life out of love so that we might know Him as He knows the father. For this reason He sacrifices Himself. So that we may know Him just as Jesus knows the Father. For some strange reason our relationship with Him is that important, the Beautiful Shepherd desires us that much. The Beautiful Shepherd loves us that much. Enough to become one of us sheep, to die for us — so that we might live in Him.
When you really look at the incarnation, and the death of Jesus, none of it makes a lot of sense. No sense at all. I can’t understand why God, being who God is, and we being who we are, why He would become one of us and die for us. Yet He did. The only response I have is to sit in this truth, be bewildered by it, and receive His love as a strange and wonderful gift. Who knew the love of God could be so foolish?
At his last supper, the Lord Jesus took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way, he took the cup after supper and said, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this in remembrance of me. For whenever we eat this bread and drink this cup, we proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.”
Congregation of Jesus Christ, the Lord has prepared his table for all who love him and trust in him alone for their salvation. All who are truly sorry for their sins, who sincerely believe in the Lord Jesus as their Saviour, and who desire to live in obedience to him as Lord are now invited to come with gladness to the table of the Lord.
We give thanks to God the Father that our Saviour, Jesus Christ, before he suffered, gave us this memorial of his sacrifice, until he comes again.
The gifts of God for the people of God. THANKS BE TO GOD.