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The Good Shepherd

John 10:1-5, 10-13

30 July 2006

Vestavia Hills Baptist Church


You can learn a lot about the city you are in by reading the want ads. If you had never been to Birmingham before and read today’s want ads you would discover that Birmingham has a large teaching hospital and medical community. You would discover that there is a healthy banking community – mortgage brokers, loan officers, accountants are needed everywhere. You would think the economy is good because of the great need of more truck drivers – goods need to be delivered everywhere. Truck driving is a very stable job. People are buying. Big ticket items are doing well. Real estate in Birmingham bucks the national trend – no slowing down here. Automobiles … must be doing okay because it seems like every dealership needs more sales personnel, no experience necessary.

I was looking the classifieds because I was trying to find how many job openings there were for shepherds, that’s right, shepherds, people who take care of sheep. Not unexpectedly, I didn’t find any want ads for shepherds. Why? Simple answer. This is not sheep country. For the most part sheep are on dinner plates or petting zoos. Probably very few of us in this room know anyone who is a shepherd or have spent much time around sheep.

So, for us, when we hear the statement Jesus made, I am the good shepherd. (John 10:11),” there is a little “disconnect” with what Jesus said. We better understand Jesus when he said, I am the bread of life, I am the light of the world, - bread and light are part of our lives. But sheep? We don’t know much about sheep and so, we have a lack of appreciation and understanding about what Jesus meant when he said, “I am the good shepherd.”


Not so for those who heard these words from Jesus’ lips. They knew about sheep. They knew about shepherds. Their cousins, uncles, fathers tended sheep. Sheep were part of everyday life, they even played a major role in their religious celebrations and worship services. Sheep were also a major part of every local economy; they were a commodity and personal wealth was sometimes measured by how many sheep you had. Sheep, not bank accounts or securities was one measure of financial success in Jesus’ day.

 So then, how do we, people who don’t know much about sheep, understand what Jesus was talking about? Answers are found in learning about shepherds and sheep.


When you read the Bible you realize it is filled with stories about shepherds and sheep. Many Bible characters owned or took care of sheep … people like Moses, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, David. Tending sheep was not just a male occupation; women also took care of sheep. Rachel, the wife of Jacob, Genesis 29 tells us, was a shepherdess.

In addition, perhaps the most loved and known section of the Bible, Psalm 23, is about sheep and shepherds. You know how it goes, “The Lord is my shepherd …”

Jesus, in his last public sermon before his death, - picks up on the biblical theme of shepherds and sheep in the passage we have read. In His sermon, Jesus makes an important distinction about the difference between good shepherds and bad shepherds, just like we make a distinction between good leaders and bad leaders, bosses, employee, representatives, teachers, coaches.


The first distinction between good and bad shepherds Jesus makes is:

1. A good shepherd cares for and protects his sheep.

In Jesus day the welfare of the sheep was in the hands of the shepherd; everything from food, to shelter, to protection. And a good shepherd took those responsibilities seriously! They were constantly attentive to the sheep and to their needs. This wasn’t easy.

Andre Dubus in an autobiographical essay entitled, “Out Like a Lamb,” found in his book Broken Vessels, (Broken Vessels Boston: David R. Godine, 1991), recounts a year that his family lived in a mansion they rented in New Hampshire at a bargain rate in return for keeping an eye on eight pedigreed sheep the owner kept for breeding.

They didn't have to feed them; all they had to do was catch them when they escaped from their pen and put them back inside.

This happened fairly often.

At first, it was an amusing diversion; then it became irritating, and worse: He writes, ‘our tackling became angry, and some of us punched the sheep in the jaw as we lay on top of them.’ The punching became habitual, part of the pursuit. One of them died; cause unknown.

One time, all the sheep got out together, and in trying to keep them away from the owner's roses, Dubus fired a load of birdshot in their direction. Nothing serious, just a bunch of BBs. Another one died.

He writes, Luckily, the year ran out before the flock

Dubus turned this experience into a meditation on the relationship of Christ to humanity; up to then, he’d always taken the pastoral parables to mean that as his sheep, ‘we were sweet and lovable .... But he writes, “after a few weeks in that New Hampshire house, I saw that Christ’s analogy meant something entirely different. We were stupid helpless brutes, and without constant watching, we would foolishly destroy ourselves'" (xiv-xv).

Philip Keller in his classic book, A Shepherd Looks at the 23rd Psalm, backs Dubas’ experience.“Left to themselves, sheep will follow the same trails until they develop a rut and then they won’t leave the rut.” Does that sound like any of us? “They will graze the same hills until they turn to waste. Sheep pollute their own ground until it is corrupt with disease and parasites. They are stubborn, but easily frightened. Even a small rabbit can stampede a herd of sheep. They require more attention than any class of livestock. They simply cannot take care of themselves. They are almost blind. They can only see about 15 yards clearly. They have little or no means of self-defense, except to run. Sheep have no homing instincts at all. A dog, cat, or bird can find its way home sometimes, but a sheep when it is lost, is lost. Until the shepherd goes to look for it, it won’t be a part of the flock.”  

So the Bible compares us to sheep! So much for our self esteem or positive self image! All we like sheep have gone astray, the prophet Isaiah wrote. How do shepherds care and protect such foolish and helpless animals?

Shepherds had a staff, a short wooden club which had a lump of wood at the end often studded with nails. It usually had a slit in the handle at the top, through which a thong passed; and by the thong the staff swung at the shepherd’s belt. His staff was the weapon with which he defended himself and his flock against prowling beasts and robbers.

They had a rod, which was like the shepherd’s crook. With it they could catch and pull back any sheep which was moving to stray away. At the end of the day, when the sheep were going into the fold, the shepherd held his rod across the entrance, quite close to the ground; and every sheep had to pass under it (Ezek 20:37; Lev 27:32); and, as each sheep passed under, the shepherd cleaned their nose and ears with a rag and examined it to see if it had received any kind of injury throughout the day.

What a picture of God’s care and protection. No wonder the Psalmist proclaimed, “The Lord is MY GOOD shepherd; I have everything I need … Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.

Jesus Christ, the Good Shepherd, cares about everyone of us and he is attentive to us, no matter who we are, no matter what we are going through; whether we have lost our spouse through death or divorce, or we are facing an uncertain future because the company is downsizing, or we have just received a bad report from the doctor; or the school counselor, or police; or struggling with what to do about a relationship or a new mom or dad and you are exhausted. Jesus Christ, the Good Shepherd knows what we are up against; he examines us and he knows what we need and will take care of us.

A second distinction between good and bad shepherds is that, if necessary …

2. A good shepherd willingly sacrifices himself for the sheep.

Being a shepherd was a dangerous job in Jesus’ day. It required courage. Sheep had natural predators like foxes and leopards and there were always rustlers ready to steal them away. Robbery was a common occurrence, and stories of desperate fights with wild animals and even murder at the hands of thieves would have been well known. Jesus said the hired hand runs away at the first sign of danger but a good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.

In fact, four times Jesus repeats that the ultimate test of a good shepherd was his willingness to sacrifice himself for the sheep. The implication was obvious. Jesus would demonstrate that he was The Good Shepherd in laying down his life for the sheep.

He took on the powers of sin and death and hell for us and he was not taken to his death kicking, screaming, trying to escape. He said in v17 No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. Jesus willingly laid it down so that sin and death and hell would be defeated and that we might have, as He said in v10 – the fullness of life.

So a good shepherd cares, protects, pursues, and gives his life for the sheep. But what about the sheep? What do sheep need to do? What should our response be to Jesus, the Good Shepherd?


1: Sheep listen for the shepherd’s voice.

Sheep in Jesus day were kept not for food but for their wool. As a result sheep and shepherd could stay together for years. Shepherds were known to have names for their sheep – they knew their sheep and the sheep knew them - they developed a bond.

And because of their poor eyesight, sheep respond more to sound than to sight; to what they hear than what they see. In Jesus’ day most villages had communal sheep pens that housed the animals at night. Each morning shepherds would have to identify and move out his own herd from the mass of animals gathered together. How did they do this? They would call out their sheep and only their sheep would respond! As Jesus said in vv3,5,the sheep listen to his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out … they will never follow a stranger; in fact, they will run away from him because they do not recognize a stranger's voice.”

The intimate relationship between a good shepherd and his sheep makes this a simple task according to Jesus’ illustration.

I have a confession, as dumb as sheep are – they are smarter than me. Listening is hard work. It’s especially hard for preachers or teachers or politicians. I remember taking a week long seminar to learn how to listen. We met with other pastors and business leaders from 8-6 PM for six straight days. It was exhausting.

Listening requires at the very least – good ears. Rice Cooker

Listening also requires a genuine relationship. Today, we would much rather hear 10 points to listening to your spouse, 7 steps of communicating with your children, 21 laws of business communication. And all of those techniques can be helpful. I’m not downgrading them. But with all the steps, points, laws, principles that we have access to – we are not better listeners. Are we?

But as Christ-followers we must learn to discern the voice of Jesus among all the other competing voices at the sheep pen who want our attention, time, energy.

Recognizing the voice of Jesus is more a matter of faith & character than it is of intellectual ability. It is of the heart, not just the head. It is Relationship NOT Technique.

Parents know voice of their children. Children know the voice of their parents.

For instance, when we read Scripture, we read not just for content but for relationship. We read & study spiritually—not just for knowledge—must read willingly, submissively.


To hear the voice of Jesus we must be willing not just to read but to be read, not just to master but to be mastered by words. To hear the voice of Jesus we must open our hearts to that voice. And sometimes in the middle of the reading we must be willing to put down the book and just listen. Henri Nouwen


RELATIONSHIP! Yes, sometimes we may find it hard to hear God’s voice – we all go through those times of silence. But for those who have a real relationship even in the silent times God speaks. That’s another message.

We listen and then

2. Sheep follow where the shepherd leads.

Jesus said the shepherd goes on ahead of the sheep, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice.

Listen & Follow … Trust & Obey for there’s no other way to be happy in Jesus but Listen and follow.

Sounds simple. But you already know that life isn’t simple. Relationships aren’t simple because they have all been tainted by sin.

But, what about the rebellious sheep? The one who doesn’t follow the shepherd … The one who is always getting into trouble.

What does the shepherd do about that sheep? Like Dubus … tackle and punch or shoot BB’s at them …

The shepherd does something that sounds awful, but amazingly is really a loving thing to do. He breaks their leg so they cannot walk . . . then, he carries the sheep on his shoulders until the leg heals and it can walk again. During recuperation the shepherd and sheep form a deep bond and the sheep learns to trust the shepherd and follow.

Isn’t that true of us as well? While I rejoice in successes in life it is most often through pain I learn how wonderful Jesus Christ, my shepherd, is. Even David, from the OT passage read earlier, the great OT shepherd, had his leg broken because of his sin. Earlier the choir sung his cry of repentance to God, “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love, according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions. Wash away my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin … create in me a pure heart of God and renew a steadfast spirit in me.” The Good Shepherd forgave and carried David on His shoulder restoring to him “the joy of salvation.”

I imagine many of us have broken leg stories. I know I do. But I also know what it is like to have the Good Shepherd carry me on His shoulders. God is faithful.  



Is Jesus Christ your shepherd? Are you one of his sheep? Are you listening to his voice? Are you following where he wants to lead you? Maybe your leg is broken right now. It is painful. Trust Him to carry you.

We are going to sing a great hymn:

Savior, like a shepherd lead us, much we need Thy tender care;

In Thy pleasant pastures feed us, for our use Thy folds prepare.

We are Thine, Thou dost befriend us, be the guardian of our way;

Keep Thy flock, from sin defend us, seek us when we go astray.

Blessed Jesus, blessed Jesus! Hear, O hear us when we pray.


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