The Good Shepherd in Action
Drew Craig, Belfast, N. Ireland
The central chapters of John’s Gospel are interconnected and developed in a very interesting way. The central theme is the activity of the Lord Jesus Christ as the good Shepherd. This study follows His involvement in word and action as He establishes His credentials as the one sent to accomplish the Father’s will by ‘laying down His life and taking it up again’. We commence with the failure of the shepherds of Israel in chapter 9 and conclude with the astonishing episode of washing His disciples’ feet in chapter 13.
In John chapter 9, we have the story of a blind man who finds the Saviour and has his sight restored. Or, we could say that he was a lost sheep in the fold of Israel who is found by the true shepherd, 10. 1. The religious leaders of Israel did not recognize the voice of the true Shepherd. In fact, they accused Him of being false, ‘The Jews had agreed already, that if any man did confess that he was Christ, he should be put out of (excommunicated from) the synagogue’, 9. 22.
Instead of these shepherds of the nation recognizing and rejoicing in the restoration of one of their ‘sheep’s’ eyesight, they put him out of the synagogue, disgraced and disowned. These religious leaders were more concerned with their traditions and status than the word of God. They assumed that they were pleasing God, while all the time their minds were closed as to who Jesus really was. They saw their position as leaders of the Jewish flock threatened by the actions and teachings of the young rabbi from Nazareth.
But the excommunication of the newly-seeing man from the synagogue led to him being found by the good Shepherd who had just given to him, not only physical sight, but would give an even greater blessing, spiritual sight! When he met his Benefactor face to face, he obviously did not recognize Him. He had met Him, heard His command, ‘Go, wash’, but couldn’t see Him. And so he has to ask, ‘Who is he, Lord, that I might believe?’ What an unforgettable experience to hear the words, ‘Thou hast both seen him, and it is he that talketh with thee’! For the first time, he was seeing the Son of God, Messiah of Israel and Saviour of the world, face to face!
The prophecy against the shepherds of Israel detailed in Ezekiel chapter 34 is summarized in verses 4 and 5, ‘The diseased have you not strengthened, neither have ye healed that which was sick, neither have ye bound up that which was broken, neither have ye brought again that which was driven away, neither have ye sought that which was lost; but with force and with cruelty have ye ruled over them. And they were scattered because there is no shepherd’. This story is a living parable. The thieves and robbers are direct references to the false shepherds who treated this man so disgracefully. In contrast, the heart of the good Shepherd went out after this disfigured and sick sheep, giving him not only his sight but life in abundance.
As we enter John chapter 10 and listen to the familiar words, ‘Verily, verily, I say unto you’, our first question is, to whom is the Lord speaking? The final words of chapter 9 give us the answer, ‘Your sin remaineth’. So, He is continuing to address the same people, the religious hierarchy of Israel, referred to above. He accuses them of an improper entry into the fold in contrast to His own entry by the door. Therefore, this is a pivotal chapter as it introduces a dispensational change, summarized in chapter 1 verse 17, ‘The law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ’.
The ‘the door into the sheepfold’, 10. 1, is referring to the gate of a winter sheepfold. This was a communal enclosure in which a number of flocks were kept in safety during the long winter nights and were guarded by a gatekeeper, the ‘porter’. The shepherds would come for their flocks and be admitted by him. Obviously, he would open to the bona fide shepherds. The Lord was clearly signalling that He had the proper credentials to be admitted as the true Shepherd into the fold, which was Israel. The Old Testament scriptures abound in prophetic references to the coming of such a One. Details of His ancestry, through the patriarchs, kings and prophets, the place and nature of His birth are all well recorded.
We might ask, in this context, who is the porter? It seems He is referring to John the Baptist, the introducer of the Shepherd to the nation as ‘the Lamb of God’. As He emerges from the Jordan waters at His baptism, the heavens are opened, the Spirit of God descends and authenticates His divine credentials, ‘This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased’, Matt. 3. 17.
As we move to verse 7, the Shepherd refers to another sheepfold door, not guarded by a porter but by Himself. It is a reference to the summer sheepfold, a stone-built pen, the entrance to which is an opening without a door. When night comes, the shepherd counts and inspects his sheep as they pass under the rod, Ezek. 20. 37. He lights a fire and then positions himself across the opening and becomes the door of the sheep.
This Shepherd, however, lifts the natural to the supernatural and continues, ‘By me if any man enter in, he shall be saved, and shall go in and out, and find pasture‘, John 10. 9. He has come not only to bring security to the flock, but liberty. He will do it by laying down His life for the sheep. We grasp the pathos of this as He continues, ‘Therefore doth my Father love me, because I lay down my life, that I might take it again’, v. 17. This is a preordained agreement within the Godhead, planned from eternity. But not just for the salvation of Jewish sheep! The good news of eternal life would be preached to the Jew first, ‘Go not into the way of the Gentiles . . . But go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel’, Matt. 10. 5-6. However, He makes clear in this discourse, ‘Other sheep I have which are not of this (Jewish) fold; them (Gentiles) also I must bring . . . and there shall be one flock and one shepherd’, John 10. 16 NKJV. Note ‘flock’ as opposed to ‘fold’.
Here, we need to contemplate the verb ‘have’ that He uses for both sets of sheep. Twice over, in verses 3 and 4, He calls His Jewish sheep ‘his own’, saying that He knows their names, that they will hear His voice and follow Him. The verb ‘have’ indicates prior ownership, the divine plan of election. Four times over in the following prayer, in chapter 17 verses 6, 9, 11 and 24, He refers to ‘those whom thou hast given me’. It is well for us to remember that God is the first cause of our salvation and, in chapter 6 verse 44, we have this truth reinforced, ‘No man can come to me, except the Father which hath sent me draw him’.
Verse 18 is the high water mark of this discourse, ‘No man taketh my life from me, but I lay it down of myself. I have power (authority) to lay it down, and I have power (authority) to take it again. This commandment have I received from my Father’. What a statement! It is unparalleled in all time and beyond human comprehension! In speaking these words with all that they implied, the good Shepherd signalled the way by which He would fulfil His Father’s will expressed in the best known verse of scripture, John 3. 16.
The title of this study is ‘The Good Shepherd in Action’. It is not surprising, therefore, that He now illustrates that He means what He says. How best can He demonstrate it? He allows the deepest sorrow and heartbreak to enter the little home in Bethany with an illness that led to the death of his close friend Lazarus whose sisters Mary and Martha were grief stricken. ‘Lord’, they chided in succession, ‘if thou hadst been here, my brother had not died’, 11. 21, 32. The good Shepherd’s reaction is vividly described for us in verses 33-35 in three terse statements: ‘He groaned in the spirit’; ‘and was troubled’; ‘Jesus wept’. To ‘groan’ has the meaning of righteous anger even to the point of rage. Why so?
What filled the Shepherd’s gentle soul with indignation? As He stood outside that tomb, its mouth closed with a stone, He saw that the man created by God, His Father, in His image, was now a rotting corpse, as the results of sin and, because of it, death. The arch enemy, the deceiver himself, was responsible and that made the good Shepherd exceedingly angry. This resulted in His ‘being troubled’. This is the same expression used regarding the ‘troubling’ of the waters, John 5. 4-7. When a calm pool is troubled, it ripples, we might say it trembles. I have a firm conviction that as the Lord stood there He literally trembled. Was it because that knowing all that was to befall Him, the horror of Gethsemane, the cruelty of Pilate’s judgement hall, and, above it all, the purpose for which He came to defeat him who had the power of death, pay the ransom price for man’s redemption and meet the requirement of His Holy Father, that He trembled?
To be continued