Father, Son and Holy Spirit, give us ears to hear your voice. We are not here to hear clever advice or interesting stories. We are here to hear your voice – to hear the good news of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, which calls us to die to sin and rise to life through faith in Jesus Christ. Help us this morning to hear your voice and to follow it. In Jesus’ name, Amen.
I invite you to open your Bibles with me to John, chapter 10, beginning in verse 1. John 10:1-10. John is in the New Testament – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. As always you are invite to leave your Bibles open as we read and study God’s Word together. Who is Jesus? This has been our question through the season of Lent and will continue to be our question as we approach Good Friday and Easter Sunday. We have been listening to Jesus in his own words, as he describes who he is and what he came to do. First, we heard Jesus say, “I am the bread of life.” He is both the giver of good gifts and the gift itself. He is the only one who can truly satisfy our souls. Last week, we heard him say, “I am the light of the world.” Jesus is the light by which we see everything – God, salvation, our path in this world – and Jesus is the one who opens our eyes to see the light. Today we will hear Jesus give the third of seven ‘I AM’ statements in the gospel of John. It’s John 10:1-10. Listen closely and listen well, for these are the very words of God:
“Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and he leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him, because they do not know the voice of strangers.” Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.
So again Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me were thieves and bandits, but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.”
This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
One of the most common images and analogies in scripture is sheep. The people of God are like sheep. We heard it in our call to worship from Psalm 95:6-7, ““O come, let us worship and bow down, let us kneel before the LORD, our Maker! For he is our God, and we are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand.” We heard it in our call to confession from Isaiah 53, “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have all turned to our own way, and the LORD has laid son him the iniquity of us all.” We even hear it in the famous Psalm 23, “The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters, he restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.” God often compares his people to sheep.
I think God does this again and again in scripture because it was a familiar part of the life of God’s people. From the earliest times, they were shepherds. Some would have had cattle, but – sorry, Gord – cows were expensive to buy and care for. The most common livestock were sheep and goats. Abraham was a shepherd, Isaac was a shepherd, Jacob was a shepherd. The twelve sons of Jacob tended flocks. Moses spent forty years tending sheep with his father-in-law Jethro. When Moses asked Pharaoh to let the people leave Egypt to worship, he argued with Pharaoh that they needed to bring all their flocks with them. For forty years in the desert, they tended sheep. Even after entering the land of Israel and each family getting a plot of land, many remained shepherds, including the family of Jesse with his son, David. God uses sheep imagery to describe his people because it was familiar.
But I think there is more to it than that. Not only was it familiar, it was appropriate. There is something about sheep and shepherds that is fitting of God’s relationship with his people and the relationship their leaders are to have with them. Not only is it what they knew, but God was teaching them something through it.
When Jesus seeks to describe who he is and what he came to do, it should be no surprise that he uses the language of sheep and shepherds. In fact, two of the seven ‘I AM’ statements of Jesus have to do with sheep and shepherds. They occur back to back in John 10, so we will look at the first one this morning and the second next Sunday. Some of what we will learn will overlap.
In John 10:1-10, there are two key things about sheep and shepherds that we will need to see that speak to who Jesus is. One of them is most clearly seen in verses 1-6 and the other in verses 7-10. First, sheep are led by voice.
Back in the summer of 2011, I had just finished my first year of seminary and was serving as pastoral intern at First Reformed Church in Orange City, Iowa. It was my first trip to the land of corn and soy. About nine weeks into the ten week internship, I get a phone call. It was, let’s call him, “Bob the Farmer.” Bob the Farmer says to me, “If you are not too busy this afternoon, I want you to come by my farm and I’m going to show you something.” After lunch, I drove my little blue Jetta along the dusty gravel roads to his farm. As I got out, I hear bleeting. It turns out, in addition to growing corn and soy beans, Bob was a sheep farmer. He looked me up and down. I was clearly not dressed for an afternoon on the farm, but that wasn’t going to stop Bob. He told me that most of those professors that wrote all sorts of books trying to help us understand the Bible acted like they had never actually seen a sheep, let alone tried to take care of him. He promised me he would teach me something I would never learn in my books or in the classroom.
What followed was one of the most beautiful and unique farm tours I have ever gotten. Bob wasn’t interested in showing me the machines or the barns. He wanted me to see the sheep so that I could understand God’s word better. I learned a lot that afternoon. I learned that sheep are not particularly smart. Bob remarked that God calling us sheep was true, but not particularly flattering. They are herd animals and natural followers. He told me of a time when one sheep tripped over its own feet and the whole rest of the flock spent the day jumping over the spot he had tripped because they believed there was something there they might fall over. There was nothing on the ground, but all of them jumped over the exact same spot. I also learned that sheep never know when they have had enough. They will eat and eat, not just until they are full, but until there is nothing left. If left to their own devices, they will turn grassy fields into nothing but dusty earth and then starve. It is up to the shepherd to help the sheep always have enough, but never to give them too much, because the sheep cannot handle it. Bob remarked how God has to do this with us as well. But the last thing I learned that afternoon is what we see most clearly in verse 1-6 of John 10. Sheep are led by voice.
In order to lead a flock, the shepherd walks in front of the sheep and uses his voice to guide them. In places where sheep graze a lot, the shepherd has specific calls to stop, turn right or left, or to move forward. He does this all with his voice. Over time, the sheep learn to recognize the particular voice of the shepherd, the way he calls to them, and they learn to trust him. He always leads them to pasture – to food, water, and safety. They learn to trust his voice, and then the sheep will not listen to others. Bob showed me how he gets the sheep to move with his voice, but when I tried it, they sheep completely ignored me.
Listen again to verses 1-5: “Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and he leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him, because they do not know the voice of strangers.”
Sheep follow the voice of their shepherd. They recognize his voice, learn to trust it, and will follow it completely and will not listen to other voices. This is Jesus’ model of discipleship here. Being sheep, being part of the people of God, being a disciple of Jesus, means listening to his voice and following where he leads. When Jesus calls you by name, wherever he leads you, you are to follow. Like a good shepherd, Jesus leads us by his word. Like a good shepherd, we learn to trust the voice of Jesus because he always leads us into pasture. The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters, he restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
Sheep follow the voice of the shepherds. Christians follow the voice of Jesus. In order to follow the voice of Jesus, we need to be able to recognize the voice of Jesus. We need to become so familiar with his voice, that we know it and can recognize when a voice is not the voice of Jesus.
Jesus warns us that there will be people who will try to call out to the sheep to follow them, but they are not the good shepherd. Jesus calls them strangers, thieves, and bandits. There will be false shepherds who will try to lead the sheep astray. This was not simply a problem long ago in the days of Jesus. There are true shepherds and false shepherds in the church today. There are still people who claim to speak for Jesus, who claim that if you listen to them you are listening to Jesus calls to you, but they are not. How do we know? How do we know we can trust the voice of those who claim to be teachers, who claim to be shepherds of the flock of God? While the Bible talks about this in many places with a lot more detail, Jesus gives us two simple criteria for discerning whether someone is a true shepherd or a false one. First, in their voice, do we hear the voice of the Good Shepherd, Jesus? Does their speech, does what they are teaching, match with what Jesus has said? Does what they are teaching line up what with what God has said in his Word?
Sheep hear the voice of the good shepherd, they hear it day in and day out, so when someone else comes speaking in a different voice, they do not listen. Christians gather around the spoken word of Holy Scripture every week so that we hear again and again the voice of the good shepherd, so that when he goes out and calls us by name, we will follow him. But we also gather around the Word each week so that we will know His voice and be able to distinguish it from all counterfeits and imposters. John 10 is always a challenging passage for me as a preacher, but I need to make sure that when I speak before you, when I stand here in the pulpit, you ought to be able to hear the voice of the good shepherd and not another voice. My words and my teaching should be disciplined so that it lines up completely with what God teaches in his word. Otherwise, I am nothing but a thief and a bandit. This is the first criteria for determining whether a shepherd is true or false: in their voice, do you hear the voice of the Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ? Sheep are led by voice. Christians are led by the voice of the Good Shepherd, according to the Word of God. This is one of the reasons we put so much emphasis on study and reading the Bible – we want to hear the voice of the Good Shepherd and go where he lead us and reject all other voices.
But here is the second criterion Jesus gives us, which connects verse 1-6 with verses 7-10: Does this person lead us into the sheepfold of God by the gate, Jesus Christ? Jesus began by saying, “Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep” and then when people did not understand, he went on to say, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me were thieves and bandits, but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.”
The second criterion for discerning true and false shepherds connects with the second thing we need to learn about sheep and shepherds from what Jesus is telling us: there is only one way into the sheepfold of God – by the gate, Jesus Christ.
As night approached, often shepherds would lead sheep back into an enclosed space known as a sheepfold. I have a picture here of one in Israel. The sheep would enter through this narrow gate and then, once all of them were in, the shepherd himself would often spend the night in that gap, serving as the door. Of course, the gate was also the only way for the sheep to get into the sheepfold. They had to go through the gate. Jesus says, “I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.” To enter in to find pasture – to find food, safety, rest, to be where the shepherd is – we have to go in through the gate. We have to go through Jesus to enter into life and life abundantly. False teachers, false shepherds will promise pasture, but will only steal, kill, and destroy. Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. They promise another way in, another path that will lead to the good life, another path that will lead us in the presence of the Father, another way into heaven other than Jesus. Their way leads to death. One mark of a true shepherd is that they lead people to enter the sheepfold of God through the gate of Christ. They lead their flock to enter salvation, and rest, and peace, and safety in the household of God through no other way than Jesus Christ. Only entering through the gate, through Jesus, will we have life and life abundantly.
Even after we discern between true and false shepherds, we must still be sheep. Jesus says, “I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.” If we long for pasture – for rest and provision and salvation – then we must come to Jesus.
Jesus calls himself the gate for the sheep. He is the only way into the flock of God. It is only through faith in Jesus Christ that we will come in and go out and find pasture. But Jesus is also the shepherd whose voice we must hear, whose voice we must follow. The way of discipleship is found in recognizing and following the voice of Jesus Christ. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.