Listen: Chris Witts presents Morning Devotions.
Some of us talk about having an identity crisis. But unlike us, Jesus never had an identity crisis. He never had to go out in search of himself. Even at the age of 12 our Lord knew exactly why he was here. Do you remember what he said to his parents when, after a frantic search, they found him in the temple in Jerusalem teaching the priests a thing or two?
He explained himself by saying that his life purpose was—to be about his Father’s business. Throughout his life Jesus made other statements that showed he very clearly knew who he was and why he was here. Many of these statements are recorded in the Gospel of John and we refer to them as the I am sayings of Jesus. You probably know them by heart.
“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand is not the shepherd who owns the sheep. So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away. Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it. The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep.
“I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me—just as the Father knows me and I know the Father—and I lay down my life for the sheep.”
and John 10:18:
“No one takes it 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. This command I received from my Father.”
Now of all the ‘I am’ sayings, this one is the most beloved and I think it is for two basic reasons:
We are drawn to this particular ‘I am’ saying because each of us instinctively knows how desperately we need a shepherd. Deep down inside we realise that we require guidance or leadership—also known as shepherding—to make our way down the roads of life. How many times in the past week have you asked someone for their opinion on a decision that you faced—everything from what to wear or where to eat, or how to handle a homework problem, or how to handle some child-rearing or marital crisis? All people need guidance almost constantly and they seek it everywhere from horoscopes to psychics; from parents to pastors. We do all this because everyone knows deep inside that they do need guidance in life.
Why we are compared to sheep
But in the Bible we are most often compared to another animal: sheep. David the psalmist, a shepherd himself, employed this analogy repeatedly. In Psalm 100:3 he said, “we are his [God’s] people, the sheep of his pasture”. In Psalm 77:20 he wrote, “You [God] led your people like a flock”. Psalm 79:13 says, “We, Your people and sheep of Your pasture, will give You thanks forever”. And in Psalm 23, his most popular Psalm containing this comparison, David said, “The Lord is my shepherd…”
Throughout the Bible we see this same parallel drawn between man and sheep. One of my favourites is in Isaiah 40:11, where it says that God, “…tends his flock like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those that are with young.” Now, we could go on and on citing scriptures that infer that we are similar to sheep. In fact, I’ve lost count of how many times we humans are compared to sheep in the Bible and I think God inspired this comparison in his word so often because—of all the animals God created—the species that most needs guidance is sheep.
First of all, no insult intended—I mean you and I are in the same boat here—but sheep on the whole are pretty stupid and stubborn animals. Second, sheep are dirty and wayward. Real sheep aren’t like those clean, fluffy balls of cotton depicted on greeting cards. They can’t keep themselves clean, and they smell atrocious. Plus, they tend to wander off easily, perhaps because they can’t see very far—less than 15 yards. And, no matter how many times you bring wayward sheep back, they are prone to wander off again because they can’t learn from their mistakes. Third, sheep are defenceless and dependent. They don’t have much of a bite—no natural defence—plus they have no camouflage, so when they are being chased by a wolf they are out of luck—unless there happens to be a store that sells racks and racks of wool sweaters nearby. And fourth, sheep are easily frightened and confused. It doesn’t take much to scramble the simple mental yolk of a nervous sheep. They’ve even been known to plunge straight over the edge of a high precipice in a panic, one following right after another.
Now, God doesn’t compare us to sheep so often in his Word to put us down. He makes this comparison in his book so often because he wants to communicate one very important truth to us. He wants us to know that we are designed to need a Guide in life. As David wrote in the 23rd Psalm, we need Someone to lead us on paths that are right; we need a Shepherd with a ‘rod and a staff’ to protect us.
So when we read scriptures like Isaiah 53:6 where it says, “We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way”; or Matthew 9:36 where it says, “When Jesus saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd.” Texts like this should remind us that we have an inborn need for a Shepherd. Jesus is the only One who is qualified for this task.
Jesus is capable to be our Good Shepherd
Now think about it. What are the items on Jesus’ résumé that show him to be capable not only to be a Shepherd for us but the good Shepherd?
A. Well, first off, he knows us like no other guide could possibly know us! He is not some stranger, some hired hand, some substitute teacher paid to do the job. No, Jesus knows us. You know the relationship between sheep and shepherds was different in Palestine than in other parts of the world. Those shepherds knew their sheep and gave them names! And we could certainly say the same thing about Jesus. He has watched each man and woman—be born and grow up—who has existed from the foundations of the world. The cowboy drives the cattle. The shepherd leads the sheep.
Our Lord is the good Shepherd because he knows us. We can all say with David: “O Lord, You have searched me and You know me. You know when I sit and when I rise; You perceive my thoughts from afar. You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways. Before a word is on my tongue, you know it completely O Lord…for You created my inmost being. You knit me together in my mother’s womb…Your eyes saw my unformed body. All the days ordained for me were written in Your book before one of them came to be.” (Excerpts from Psalm 139)
Jesus knows everything there is to know about you and your life situation. And this is not just an intellectual awareness. This is an intimate knowledge between God in the flesh and his creation. There isn’t a single motivation, thought, act, or word, that has slipped out of your being and escaped our Lord’s undivided attention. As Hebrews 4:13 puts it, “All things are naked and open to the eyes of God”. And not only does he know us—he wants to guide us through life. Isaiah 58:11 says, “The Lord will guide you continually”. Psalm 25:12 says, “Who is the man that fears the Lord? God will teach him the way that is best”. In Psalm 32:8 God says to us, “I will instruct you and teach you in the way which you should go; I will counsel you with My eye upon you”.
B. And then, another fact on Jesus’ résumé that makes him qualified to be our Shepherd is the fact that not only does he know us—we know him. We recognise him when he speaks. And this is the way it is with sheep. They may not be too bright but they have enough gray matter up here to recognise their true Shepherd. And when he calls they will follow. In fact this is how shepherds proved ownership in Jesus’ day. They didn’t have brands or marks. Each shepherd had his own distinctive call and sheep would only respond to that call.
You see, Jesus is qualified to be our Shepherd because we know his voice and when we listen and do what he says, we join him in seeking and saving the other lost sheep of this world.
C. But there is one other quality that makes Jesus more than capable of being our Good Shepherd. And it is the fact that he laid down his life for his flock. There are many stories of shepherds in Jesus’ day dying in the process of attempting to protect their flocks from wolves or lions or thieves. And, as Jesus said in our text, a hired hand would not do this for he was only interested in his pay but a true shepherd would, for he loved his sheep. They belonged to him. A true shepherd knew and loved his sheep from birth. And that is exactly what Jesus has done. Our Creator and Redeemer laid his life down to protect us from sin and death.
In essence, the Good Shepherd, became a Lamb, that One sacrificial lamb who died for the sins of all mankind. Now up until this point sheep were sacrificed in the temple for the shepherd. But in Jesus the roles were reversed. The Shepherd sacrificed himself for his sheep. No one took his life from him. He laid it down of his own accord. He willingly died for you and me. This was his purpose in coming to earth in the first place.
Do you remember what John the Baptist said when he saw Jesus coming to be baptised in the Jordan?: “Behold, the Lamb of God, Who comes to take away the sin of the world.” (John 1:29). In the same text where the prophet Isaiah compared us to sheep who had gone astray he spoke of Jesus and said, “Surely He took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows…He was pierced for our transgressions and crushed for our iniquities…by His wounds we are healed…for He was led like a lamb to the slaughter and as a sheep before her shearers is silent, so He did not open up His mouth.”
So, this ‘I am’ saying of Jesus is beloved by so many for two reasons: we all need a Shepherd and only Jesus is qualified to meet that need. One more thought: do you remember those first five words of the Shepherd Psalm? Let’s say them together: “The Lord is my Shepherd“. Now listen as I say these words, “The Lord is my Shepherd“.
(To be continued in The Good Shepherd – Part 2)