"I am the Gate / I am the Good Shepherd"
Apr.5, 2009 Jn.10:1-18
HARASSED & HELPLESS SHEEP
Jesus had a heart for people. The world represented one vast opportunity for ministry for Him, because He had power to heal people's deepest problems. Matthew relates, "When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd." (Mt 9:36) Seeing the need, He told His disciples to pray for God to send more workers out into His harvest field.
Needs and pain abound in our society, though many are affluent enough to be able to mask the hurt behind fine appearances, or medicate it alcohol or amusement. Chuck Swindoll tells of greeting people after the service one day when a smiling young mother approached him. He writes, "As we talked, I observed that she was intelligent, well-dressed, and looked successful. Watching the well-behaved youngsters waiting patiently behind her, I assumed that she was what our society would call a 'supermom'. But when i asked id I could meet her husband, she began to weep. Tears rolled down her cheeks as she told me about her impending divorce After enduring many years of verbal abuse, she was facing a bitter custody battle with a man who had vowed to do everything he could to destroy her life and her family. She looked at me and said, 'Chuck, I don't know who I am anymore. He's been telling me that I'm worthless for so long that I believe him. And I'm terrified that I'm going to lose my children. Does God even care? Does He remember me at all?'"
Pastor Swindoll says his heart broke as he listened to the raw pain in her voice. People try desperately to cover up pain and feelings of inferiority. He adds, "Every single one of us - male or female - is drowning in an unrelenting flood of fear, self-doubt, tasks, demands, and pressures. Believe me: even those who exude an air of confidence and poise secretly struggle with feelings of anxiety and inferiority."
Jesus' shepherd heart goes out to those who are harassed and helpless. On Good Friday He took our pain and the world's sin and grief to Himself at the cross, laying down His life for the sheep. In John 10 He describes how His shepherding sacrifice opens the way for us to safety, security, and life that's truly satisfying - life in abundance.
THE GATE TO SAFETY & TRUE SATISFACTION
You don't usually see a gate standing all by itself with nothing around it. Gates are always part of a barricade or fence - a barrier that prohibits entry TO something, or limits escape FROM a walled-off area. When crowds are 'harassed and helpless', what does that barrier represent? We're fenced in or limited by our own captivity to defeat, our weakness, our fallenness, our ensnarement in sin just like our ancestors, and the guilt and shame that accumulates from a history of that ensnarement. Not to mention our fear of others stronger than us who bully or threaten to get their own way and take advantage of us.
The Biblical view is realistic in that it acknowledges the hardship of life. Paul in Romans 8(20f) refers to the creation being 'subjected to frustration', our 'bondage to decay'; we experience 'present sufferings' as the created order groans 'as in the pains of childbirth'. Spring cleaning is an attack on entropy, the never-ending accumulation of dust in corners, grime on windows, bits of branches that drop to the ground. As in the material world, so in the moral world: there is a constant tendency to sloth and gluttony, lust, taking the easy way out, coercing others to let ourselves off the hook. Except the township truck doesn't come along to take away that kind of resulting trash and fractured relationship.
Let's admit it - we are vulnerable victims to forces of evil stronger than that inner part of us that wants to do good; v1 in John 10, the thief and robber climb in by some other way over the wall; v12, the wolf attacks and ravages the flock. There are unseen principalities and powers at work here right among us that would shock us if we could truly perceive them.
Jesus says, "I am the gate;" what does the gate represent? What does going through the gate offer? V9 continues, "I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. He will come in and go out, and find pasture." Those who come in through Jesus will be saved - be rescued, experience safety, protection, not feel threatened any more. Around our barnyard when I was growing up there was a high wall of vertical boards, probably 8 feet high; inside the gate was a safe place to be, the cattle wouldn't be bothered by wolves or other predators. In Congo, walls around a compound were not only high, built with concrete blocks, but they had broken bottle glass embedded all the way along the top edge to discourage would-be thieves. Our house had welded steel 'anti-vol' (like re-bar) over the windows: they didn't always succeed in making it look decorative, but at least you felt safer inside. Protected from that which could harm you. Jesus is saying He's a gate, an entry, into such a safe place.
Skip down to vv28-29 for a further description of the safety Jesus offers: "I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father's hand." Jesus offers believers un-snatchability. Things may go wrong in this life - as we saw last week, we're assured that in this world we will have trouble; but Jesus has overcome the world, and will lead us finally to enjoy eternal fellowship with Him and the Father, through the Spirit.
The second half of V10 offers another description of what the gate represents, why we'd want to go through it. "...I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full." The Greek word for "to the full" can mean 'exceeding abundantly', 'to have a surplus', 'beyond measure'. To use a gaming metaphor - you've struck the jackpot and your hat can't hold all the coins pouring out. But we're talking LIFE here, not gambling; life for the asking. New Living Translation has, "My purpose is to give them a rich and satisfying life." That starts here and now, but better yet, continues in a glorious way with Christ beyond the grave. Because of what Jesus the pure innocent Lamb of God suffered on Good Friday at the cross, He has purchased for us full forgiveness of our transgressions, wiped away our guilt, and made us acceptable to Holy God by imputing to us His own righteousness.
Jesus is the gate. Charles Spurgeon the famous Baptist preacher once observed there were many rooms in Noah's ark but only one door. Likewise, there is only one door in the ark of our salvation - that is Christ. No other religious leader in history proposed to die for sins of others and then to rise again showing God had vindicated him. But Jesus was declared with power to be the Son of God by His resurrection from the dead (Rom 1:4).
RECOGNIZING THE SHEPHERD
This past week the leaders or 'shepherds' of the world's 20 most powerful nations met for a summit in London England. But sometimes those used to leading others won't themselves be led. Even organizing a group photo had its challenges; after the first shot, they discovered Canada's Prime Minister Steven Harper had been left out. Then when they good-naturedly gathered again to do a re-take, it was discovered Italy's leader had been missed. A BBC reporter writes, "Perhaps there are too many big political egos to be kept waiting on a set of steps while officials count and check the line-up. How do you prevent some two dozen powerful leaders, all of them used to being the ones that make the decisions and lead from the front, from wandering off in different directions?" And, "On occasion it can clearly be like herding cats." (There's a shepherding metaphor for you!)
At first it appeared success at the summit was unlikely: the US and UK were advocating more public spending, while France and Germany held the solution was tighter regulatory control. Thankfully the leaders were able to put their differences aside and reach a consensus, including a pledge of $100 billion in aid to the world's poorest countries.
When Jesus says, "I am the good shepherd," it's in contrast to two other types of figures involved with the sheep-pen: the thief and the hired hand. To appreciate more completely just how remarkable the Good Shepherd is, we can compare these 3 figures on the basis of their motive, their method, and their effect on the sheep.
First, the MOTIVE or purpose. The thief's motive is MALICIOUS; v10, "the thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy." The thief's out to get something for himself or herself, at cost to the sheep. Like the ex-husband in our opening story who'd been telling his wife she was worthless for so long she was starting to believe him; and who had vowed to do all he could to destroy her life and her family. The thief's motive is malicious.
The hired hand's motive, naturally, is MERCENARY. V13, "The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep." He's just in it for the money; he's not going to risk his neck for somebody else's dirty sheep.
On the other hand, the motive of the good shepherd is MERCY. While he owns the sheep - he owes nothing to them - v11, "the good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep." He's willing to put his life on the line to rescue the sheep from the bear or lion (like David did, 1Sam 17:34ff) or thief or wolf.
Consider the METHOD of each. The thief like the wolf ATTACKS the sheep. The hired hand ABANDONS the sheep; v12, "when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away." But the good shepherd ADVANCES: v3 he 'leads them out, v4 "when he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them..." - as is the manner of Palestinian shepherds, they go ahead of their sheep rather than driving them from the back. Thus the shepherd clears the way, faces the risks or dangers first; so Jesus went to the cross before us, and is the 'pioneer' of our salvation (Heb 2:10 NRSV). He meets the danger head-on, isn't chicken or backward about it.
On this Passion Sunday, think of the reasons Jesus had to pray for the Father to 'take this cup from Me'; why would He become 'deeply distressed and troubled' and admit to the disciples, "My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death"? (Mk 14:34,36) It wasn't just the physical pain of the flogging, the 39 lashes; the humiliation of a rigged public trial; the mockery and abuse of the soldiers, the throbbing bruises and bleeding scalp from the crown of thorns; nor was it the excruciating slow torture of death on a cross, alternating between the anxiety of suffocation (when your arms were extended) and the jolting jabs of nails in wrists and feet (when you pulled yourself up to take another breath). Bas as those were, it was the prospect of being cut off from God His Father and having all mankind's sin attributed to Him that must have bothered Jesus the most. The fellowship and delight He'd known at the Father's side from all eternity was about to be completely severed. He was about to become obnoxious, utterly objectionable and repulsive to the Holy One He loved the most. Yet, He went on ahead, leading His own.
And what is the EFFECT of each? The thief kills and destroys, the wolf attacks, resulting in INJURY. The hired hand abandons the sheep, allowing the wolf to come in and scatter the flock, resulting in ISOLATION. But the good shepherd has the effect of introducing eternal life and security (v28) PROTECTION. There is a PERSONAL RELATIONSHIP - v4, "His sheep follow him because they know his voice." 14, "I know my sheep and my sheep know me..." That's on the vertical dimension; on the horizontal, there is PROLIFERATION, the flock isn't injured or scattered but instead grows - v16 (and you should get all excited about this verse!), "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." That's us Gentiles He's talking about! By grace, simply God's sovereign choice, we non-Jews have been admitted to the 'fold' of Abraham's descendants, sons and daughters of God through faith.
Jesus is the Good Shepherd. His ego is not so big and political as to be advancing only His own agenda; He lays down His life for the sheep. His motive is mercy; His method is to advance in the lead; His effect on the flock is to make possible real protection, personal relationship, and proliferation.
WHAT'S A SHEEP TO DO?
If He's our Shepherd - what are we as sheep to do? What's our part? First, RECOGNIZE THE SHEPHERD'S VOICE. In Palestine folds or pens could be shared by several flocks; at the start of the day, each shepherd in turn would come and call his flock, and lead his own sheep out to the fields, leaving the other flocks behind waiting for their own shepherd. When your shepherd calls, you'd better 'get with the program'! But if it's a different shepherd, you stay put. V3, 'the sheep listen to his voice'; 5, 'they do not recognize a stranger's voice.' It's important it be YOUR shepherd because he 'owns the sheep' (12), He has authority and rightful power over you. He made you at your birth, He redeemed you at the cross, He regenerates you making you born-again by the gift of His Spirit. Jesus alludes to His authority in v18, "I have authority to lay [My life] down and authority to take it up again. This command I received from my Father." He has that legitimate power from God Almighty.
Many voices in our culture clamour for our attention, so they can claim our co-operation in some degree; what voices do you allow priority in your life? Do you start the day listening for your Shepherd's voice? Through your entertainment, are you unwittingly being influenced by other voices - ones that intimate it's OK to break the Ten Commandments as long as it's interesting, or an exciting plot line with special effects? Whom are you hearing?
Jesus has the pre-eminent voice, v30: "I and the Father are one" - implying equality with God, for which the Jews immediately prepared to stone Him. Does our hearing that supreme voice move us to action? 9:38, the man healed from being born blind says, "Lord, I believe," and worships Jesus - unthinkable that anyone would worship anything other than God! The Pharisees' mouths must have dropped when Jesus didn't stop his obeisance. Likewise, the Good Shepherd's voice calls forth our response.
During WWI, some Turkish soldiers tried to steal a flock of sheep from a hillside near Jerusalem. The shepherd, who had been sleeping, suddenly awakened to see his sheep being driven off on the other side of the ravine. He couldn't ope to recapture his flock by force single-handedly, but suddenly he had a thought. Standing up on his side of the ravine, he put his hands to his mouth and gave his own peculiar call, which he used each day to gather his sheep to him. The sheep heard the familiar sound. For a moment they listened and then, hearing it again, they turned and rushed down one side of the ravine and up the other toward their shepherd. It was quite impossible for the soldiers to stop the animals. The shepherd was away with them to a place of safety before the soldiers could make up their minds to pursue them - and all because his sheep knew their master's voice.
The other thing for a sheep to do, once they recognize the shepherd's voice, is to FOLLOW THE LEADER. V4, "his sheep follow him because they know his voice;" v27, "My sheep listen to My voice; I know them, and they follow Me."
A visitor saw the shepherds in Nazareth bringing their flocks to water them at the well. When the sheep had drunk their fill, the shepherds called and their sheep followed them. The visitor asked the shepherds if the sheep always followed their own shepherds when they called them. "Yes," said a shepherd, "except under one condition." "What's that?" "The sheep that do not follow the voice of the shepherd are the sick sheep. If a sheep is healthy, it will always follow the shepherd, but if there is something wrong with the sheep, it will follow anybody."
Are we healthy sheep - or sick sheep? Something's the matter if we don't follow Jesus' voice.
It's easy enough to follow when you think there's pasture ahead - but where is Jesus leading on Palm/Passion Sunday? To Calvary and the cross on Good Friday. Is that where we're 'following' to? He said in a classic verse on discipleship, Luke 9:23, "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me." What a counter-cultural call that is! Advertising entices us to be selfish, grab what we can like the 'thief' or be indifferent to other's needs like the 'hired hand'. But Jesus calls us to love sacrificially, putting others' welfare first. "My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends." (Jn 15:12) There's that good-shepherd laying-down-life quality.
Stop being difficult to get along with or cantankerous. In your relationships, are you willing to absorb the cost of forgiveness; of serving others so their genuine needs are met, even if it costs? In Ezekiel 34(20ff) the Lord warns He'll judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep, those who've been butting each other, shoving, driving weaker sheep away. Let that not be our church - our households.
PREPARED FOR ROUGH ROAD AHEAD
Jesus shepherds us because He wants us to enjoy good pasture, life 'to the full' - surpassing expectations. Yet this is the Biblical version of 'the good life', in fellowship with Him even through rough times, rather than the North American idea of 'the good life'.
Kelly Eriksen, a 59-year-old retired teacher formerly from Calgary, seemed to have everything anyone could want, on the surface. She recalls, "I had a beautiful family with my husband and 3 children; I had a huge house and a perfect career." Yet she felt unfulfilled. She says, "My lifestyle was busy, hectic, but filled with anxiety and an unsettled feeling. I had everything, but longed for peace and calm." Self-development courses, counsellors, doctors didn't help. Although she attended church regularly, it wasn't until she went to Calgary's Centre Street Church (EMC) that her inner life changed. She says, "I learned to trust in God. I became less anxious, less negative and fearful, and became more accepting. Eventually I was at peace with myself."
She volunteered with 5 others to write a discipleship manual for the church. Kelly's daughters helped with word processing and formatting the book. One daughter, Bree, age 25, asked to be discipled through the manuals and accepted Jesus into her life in 2001. A week later, she died in a tragic car accident. But Kelly continued to prepare for publication because, she says, "I realized what God had done for us. he was using the work on this manual to prepare us for Bree's death." Because of her daughter's story, many people came to know Jesus, including Bree's friends, siblings, dad, grandmother, and aunts.
Since then, Kelly has moved with her husband to Saskatoon where she continues to facilitate the manual at another church. She's led grief support groups for 8 years along with Bible studies. She lives out her belief that it's important for those who've received Christ to know that He's with them in all circumstances. She says, "I want Christians to know that the unfailing love of Jesus never ends, so great is His faithfulness and lovingkindness ever day." (Source: Living Light News)
How did Jesus put it? "Those who come in through Me will be saved. They will come and go freely and will find good pastures." Indeed! Let's pray.