SESSION SIXTEEN: THE SHEPHERD AND HIS FLOCK (JOHN 10)
INTRO: As a child, what was your favorite pet? How did this pet respond when it heard your voice?
- What do the sheep, shepherd, the sheep pen and stranger represent?
- How do the sheep respond to the shepherd? How does this relate to the Pharisees' difficulty in understanding Jesus?
- Who were the "other sheep" he must bring also? What characterizes this flock?
- What final claim does Jesus make (vv.17-18)? Why do his listeners respond as they do?
- What was the turning point for you in terms of hearing "God's voice" and responding?
- How do you discern his voice from all the voices that vie for your attention?
- How does it make you feel to think of God caring for you as the Good Shepherd?
TAKEAWAY: What is your greatest takeaway from this story? What specific life changes do you need to make? How will you hold yourself accountable?
COMMENTARY: THE SHEPHERD AND HIS FLOCK (JOHN 10:1-21)
In our previous session we dealt with a story about a man born blind who was healed by Jesus. This section is a continuation of that moment. The setting is still Jerusalem. Jesus is battling religious leaders once again. A common theme in John’s gospel.
The Pharisees are upset. They view Jesus as a rebel, zealot and trouble-maker. They tried to trap him with a woman caught in adultery. They tried to argue with him in front of the people. They investigated and interrogated, and looked for a way to eliminate him.
And now we come to John 10. Jesus initiates a teaching moment using a metaphor the first century person understood: shepherds and sheep. Let's unpack the metaphor and its meaning, beginning in vv. 1-6.
“Very truly I tell you Pharisees, anyone who does not enter the sheep pen by the gate, but climbs in by some other way, is a thief and a robber. The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep listen to his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice. But they will never follow a stranger; in fact, they will run away from him because they do not recognize a stranger’s voice.” Jesus used this figure of speech, but the Pharisees did not understand what he was telling them.
THE SHEPHERD’S CALLING!
Perhaps the greatest and most loved metaphor to describe the nature and work of Jesus was as a shepherd...a Good Shepherd. In many ways it is a fitting metaphor for the nature of God throughout all of Scripture.
The heart of Judea was its pastoral environment, better suited for flocks and herds than fruits and vegetables. Goats and sheep were the most affordable and common of beasts. It was the fast food “happy meal” of Israel, both in milk and meat.
Shepherds were the blue-collar backbone of Israel. They were stinky, unclean, foul-mouthed, poorly educated and uncouth. They were similar to our cowboys, line cooks, truck drivers and prison guards. Most shepherds were good-natured with a level of trust, but not all were. The work of shepherding was also done by gangsters, bandits, misfits and other outcasts.
No young boy aspired to be a shepherd. Nobody dreamed of becoming a shepherd. Unless you were born into a shepherding family, it was a work to be avoided. It’s why the story of David is so impressive. It's about a shepherd boy who became king. Or the story of Moses. In his case, a murderer outcast in Midian who leads three million Jews out of Egyptian bondage. Or now Jesus, who was visited by shepherds at his birth and now claimed to be a “good Shepherd.” This assertion no doubt created a laugh or smirk. Would the coming Messiah even consider lowering himself to the level of a shepherd? That's hard to believe.
The Messiah comes as a shepherd. That’s like our next president rising from the ranks of a delivery driver for Pizza Hut. It’s not only impossible, but inconceivable. But here we are. Jesus lowering his Divine kingly status to the true dirt and dregs of the earth. It’s a metaphor the high-ranking, educated, rich and powerful Pharisees couldn’t even comprehend.
The Greek word for “good” is interesting. In fact there are two different Greek words for “good.” The first is agathos simply describes the moral quality of something. That house has good bones means it has a good structural integrity. But that’s not the word used here. Rather it’s the word kalos, which means within the goodness there is a quality that makes it attractive and lovely. When a person leaves a glowing review and says it’s a “good” buy or person or opportunity, its not speaking to moral integrity as much as value. Jesus is the GOOD shepherd. He’s lovely and attractive. He’s preferred and appreciated. He’s worthy and pursued.
THE SHEPHERD’S LIFE
The life of a shepherd wasn’t easy either.
He was always on the clock and ever vigilant...and courageous. Because there’s little grass, sheep were prone to wander and since there were no fences, a shepherd was always on guard. Sheep are a stupid beast, driven mostly by their appetites, and constantly getting lost. Consequently, shepherding was stressful, tedious, physically demanding, and dangerous work. Shepherds had to protect the flock from predators, particularly wolves and thieves.
It’s why the Old Testament often painted God through the metaphor of a shepherd. His people as a bunch of dumb sheep bent on losing their way. The best day was a quiet one, in a pasture with plenty of grass, water and shade. Maybe that’s what David was thinking as he penned the 23rd Psalm: “The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing. He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters, he refreshes my soul.” Maybe that’s why Isaiah prophesied the Messiah will “tend his flock like a shepherd: gathering the lambs in his arms and carrying them close to his heart; gently leading those that have young (Isa 40:11).”
In the New Testament, Jesus is the shepherd willing to risk his life to save a single sheep (Luke 15:4) or compassionately look upon people like a “sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9:36) or his disciples as his flock (Luke 12:32). The Hebrew writer concludes that Jesus is not just a “good” shepherd but the “great shepherd” (Heb 13:20). When Peter is recommissioned after his denial of Jesus, he is moved from being a “fisher of men” to “feeding lambs,” from an evangelist to a pastoral leader.
Similarly, the spiritual leaders of the early church were described as “shepherds.” It is the duty of those who oversee or pastor (the Latin word for “shepherd”) the congregation to be able to feed the flock spiritually, to accept the work of shepherding willingly and to not use power as the motive nor the love of money as the reason for leading a church. Shepherds set the example (I Peter 5:2-3).
According to Jewish lore, there’s a reason God chose Moses to lead Israel out of bondage. It happened when Moses was feeding his father-in-law’s sheep in the wilderness and a young kid ran away. Moses followed the lamb into a ravine where the young sheep had found a water well. Moses hugged the lamb and said, “I did not know that you ran away because you were thirsty, now you must be weary.” He lifted the kid around his neck and carried it back to the flock. That’s when, again according to Jewish legend, that God said: “Because you have shown pity in leading back one of a flock belonging to a man, you shall lead my flock Israel.”
THE SHEPHERD’S TOOLS
A Palestinian shepherd had few tools and little luggage. He carried a small shoulder bag made from animal skin to hold his food of bread, dried fruit, olives and cheese.
A shepherd carried a sling and was very skilled at using it. They could hit a single strand of hair. A sling was light artillery, unlike a sword or spear. It could be rapidly reloaded. And allowed the user to move and shift position. It’s an often-overlooked part of the David and Goliath story. Goliath was expecting a spear and got a rock. He expected a man and got a boy. He expected a stable opponent and got shifting, circling enemy. The biblical shepherds did not have sheep dogs to help herd the sheep. Consequently, shepherds slung stones in front of the sheep’s nose to move them back.
A shepherd had a staff or a short wooden club that was studded on the end with thorns and nails. It hung from his belt and was for personal and up-close defense against beast and thief.
He also had a rod that was between 6 to 10 feet long. Some rods had a crook on the end to hook the head of a wayward sheep. But mostly it was used to guide sheep. A single shepherd could handle about a dozen sheep. The bigger the flock the more shepherds were employed. Among the shepherds was a chief shepherd who walked in front of the sheep. The rest of the shepherds, using their rods as walking fences, would guide the sheep to the pasture for the daylight hours. The rods were rarely used to beat the sheep, but rather to give them security. It’s why David wrote how God’s “rod and the staff comfort” him (Psalm 23:4).
In the evening, the rod was used as a gate into the cave or enclosed area. The chief shepherd would lead each sheep to pass under the rod while he physically inspected them for new injuries. Ezekiel uses this image when he indicted faithless Israel: “I will take note of you as you pass under my rod, and I will bring you into the bond of the covenant (Eze 20:37).”
In John 10:7-10 we read: Therefore Jesus said again, “Very truly I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who have come before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep have not listened to them. I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved.[a] They will come in and go out, and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.”
The fact the Jews, particularly the religious elite Pharisees, were clueless about Jesus’ claim that he was the Good Shepherd speaks volumes to their rightful relationship with God. They had reduced religion to a list of do’s and don’ts. They had captured God and put Him a box called a temple. Now when the True Son of God stood in their midst and spoke Truth, they don’t get it.
The Pharisees felt they were Israel’s religious gate keepers, but Jesus called them out and said that HE is not just the gatekeeper but also the GATE.
In ancient Palestine, there were two kinds of sheep pens. There were communal folds inside the walls of every village and town for shepherds to shelter their sheep. These folds were secured by a strong door and a guardian with a key. This was how the Pharisees viewed their religious role in Israel. They were guardians for God’s sheep and only they held the keys for righteous living.
But every shepherd also knew there was another type of fold. This one was outside the city and in the hills. During the warm season, shepherds kept the flocks outside all night long. At night they’d lead their sheep into a natural cave or secure space carved into the hillside. Then the shepherd would literally sleep at the mouth of the cave or lie down in the doorway to the secure space. Nothing could come in or out without going across his body.
This is what Jesus is thinking when he says “I am the gate” or the “the door.” Through him, and only through him, do we have access to life eternal. Paul wrote the Ephesians that only “through Jesus” do “we have access to the Father (Eph 2:18).” The Hebrew writer penned that Jesus is the “new and living way (Heb 10:20).” Jesus himself claimed later in John to be THE WAY, the Truth and the Life (John 14:6) where “no one comes to the Father except through him.” To gain access, we have to walk over Jesus' BODY.
THE SHEPHERD’S RELATIONSHIP
With exception to the Bethlehem lambs, specially bred for slaughter in the temple, most sheep, including household beasts, were bred for their wool to use in clothing. Consequently, sheep often were named by their shepherds. It might be “Old Brown Ear” or “Black Leg.” Once a flock of sheep were familiar with their master’s voice, they could be led rather easily, with the shepherd walking in front. It was the shepherd’s job to scout the path and remove obstacles.
The biblical shepherds, like all middle eastern shepherds, had a special dialect and call for their sheep. It was a call that only their sheep responded to. Some would sing. Some would use a strange language. Some would chant. Ultimately, the sheep would know their shepherd’s voice so perfectly that they refused to answer or follow anyone with a different voice. In fact, a stranger’s voice would likely send the flock scurrying back to the shepherd. An 18th century traveler told a story about how Palestinian sheep could be made to dance, quick or slow, to the peculiar whistle or a tune on the flute of their own shepherd.
It’s a beautiful metaphor for the Christian life. In a culture filled with distraction, noise and threats, the ability to hear the peculiar tune of the Holy Spirit speaking into your life is essential. It’s not something that comes quickly or easily either. For the mature Christian it requires a disciplined life of solitude and silence, of study in God’s Word and prayer. It’s one thing to follow Jesus but another to hear his Voice and know it’s not the devil whispering in your ear.
THE SHEPHERD’S NEMESIS!
Throughout the Old and New Testament, the writers contrast “good shepherds” with “false or bad shepherds.” Jeremiah angrily penned: “Woe to the shepherds who are destroying and scattering the sheep of my pasture!” declares the Lord. Therefore this is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says to the shepherds who tend my people: “Because you have scattered my flock and driven them away and have not bestowed care on them, I will bestow punishment on you for the evil you have done,” declares the Lord (Jer 23:1-2). In Ezekiel 34 is an indictment against the “shepherds of Israel” who sought their own good and pursued their own profit rather than the good of flock.
The most immediate application of this idea regards those we call “elders” or “overseers” or “pastors” in our churches. Ezekiel’s words still ring true 2500 years later. Many of a church’s dysfunctions are rooted to poor spiritual leadership. Such individuals operate from a point of personal power (what I want) rather than for the good of the people (and what God wants).
This was a problem in the New Testament church, particularly as congregations sprouted with a few fervent people desperately needing spiritual guidance. It’s why Paul and other apostles appointed people for these positions. They were not voted on by the people. They weren’t even proposed by the people. An elder or overseer or “shepherd” (pastor) had to meet some basic criteria to lead a church:
Paul outlines these qualifications in 1 Timothy. He writes: Here is a trustworthy saying: Whoever aspires to be an overseer desires a noble task. Now the overseer is to be above reproach, faithful to his wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not given to drunkenness, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own family well and see that his children obey him, and he must do so in a manner worthy of full respect. (If anyone does not know how to manage his own family, how can he take care of God’s church?) He must not be a recent convert, or he may become conceited and all under the same judgment as the devil. He must also have a good reputation with outsiders, so that he will not fall into disgrace and into the devil’s trap.
In a few words, an overseer needed to be mature...spiritually, emotionally, mentally and physically. It should be noted that in ancient biblical culture that no one was given the title of “overseer” or “elder” until they were 50 years old. It was a designation awarded only by age maturity. By then a person had an established business, raised a family, enjoyed a long experience and understanding about life, God and culture. His age meant he had a reputation that people would either approve or disapprove. It’s safe to say his doctrine had also gelled.
The problem is our modern culture doesn’t celebrate and honor age, except to get people out of the way through retirement. America, at least since 1945, has become a youth culture. We celebrate and honor youthfulness. Consequently, we have been prone to select leaders that younger people will follow, appreciate and approve. Again, there’s nothing wrong with that idea, nor with necessarily selecting someone younger than 50 to lead a congregation (as long as he meets the biblical qualifications). However, this youthful emphasis is a notable cultural difference that’s relative recent in history.
Personally, I have known some excellent younger men who were far more mature—spiritually and biblically—than the older men in a congregation. Many of these men were college—even Bible college—educated, running successful businesses or farms, and lifelong Christians. I suspect Paul would agree that spiritual and biblical maturity, with time served as a Christian, could count more than the physical age of the man. Nevertheless, even a mature young believer doesn't have the experience (and wisdom) of a mature old believer. Time counts. And the biblical use of "elder" has to account for something.
Biblically, the role of overseer or elder is limited to men. In fact, all references to overseer, elder, pastor or shepherd in the New Testament carries a masculine ending. This is a male role. The Greek is clear. Some argue the biblical authors were anti-woman, but a clear study of the New Testament suggests otherwise. Women were prominent in the early church, and they served with distinction, most notably Priscilla and Phoebe. With that said, the New Testament writers could easily have included feminine endings—as they do for the office of “deacon” or minister. But they don’t. For whatever reason, which has been debated heavily in recent decades, God desired males to lead a church spiritually. It doesn’t mean a woman cannot have leadership over a ministry herself or serve in other roles to inspire, teach and lead. It’s just means that being an elder or spiritual overseer of a church is not one of them. I know that might not sit well with some of the women, but this is not my command nor, personally, my preference. I’m simply reporting. The Scriptures, particularly the Greek, is very clear on this one.
One final thought about false teachers.
It's interesting, in John 10:8 we learn that those who came before Jesus were thieves and robbers. Now Jesus wasn’t speaking to the prophets but rather the continual line of false messiahs who pilfered and pickpocketed in the name of Judaism. The irony is that since the time of Jesus these bandits who steal salvation remain a serious problem. It’s why we need mature elders to pastor the flock, as too many younger men—spiritually, emotionally, mentally—can become enraptured by stuff that doesn’t matter, doctrines that divide, or false teachings that lead to Hell. It’s why we need younger men to hold older men accountable from pharisaical behaviors, as its easy in our older age to become trapped by our traditions, caught in our preferences and hypocritical in our lifestyles.
As a shepherd, Jesus knew there would be wolves among the flock. Let’s pick up his thoughts in John 10:11-13: “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand is not the shepherd and does not own 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.
He knew there could be hired hands who look like shepherds but weren’t. He knew how some leaders might become arrogant or apathetic, power-hungry or off mission. Jesus knew that herding sheep was harder than a bunch of cats at times. He also knew the price of shepherding might get you in trouble, open to criticism, persecuted and even crucified. It’s why we need to pray for our spiritual leaders and help them. We need to forgive the mistakes that don’t matter, correct the ones that do and, in all things, love on those set apart to lead us.
The difference between hired hand wannabe leaders and true pastoral shepherds is CALLING. I always ask an elder, particularly one on the verge of resignation, wounded by the battles, depressed by the work and upset by the challenges of leading a church...I ask him one simple question: Are you CALLED to this work? Because if you’re truly called then running isn’t possible, quitting will solve nothing and wallowing in your misery is counter-productive. A called elder will grow thick skin, a firm grasp, a tender heart and a deep resolve against the wolves, thieves and other predators who seek to destroy a local congregation.
It’s why Paul wrote to Timothy: The elders who direct the affairs of the church well are worthy of double honor, especially those whose work is preaching and teaching. For Scripture says, “Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain,” and “The worker deserves his wages.” Do not entertain an accusation against an elder unless it is brought by two or three witnesses. But those elders who are sinning you are to reprove before everyone, so that the others may take warning. I charge you, in the sight of God and Christ Jesus and the elect angels, to keep these instructions without partiality, and to do nothing out of favoritism. Do not be hasty in the laying on of hands (in who you ordain as an elder), and do not share in the sins of others. Keep yourself pure. (1 Timothy 5:17-22)
That’s great advice for an eldership and the congregation they serve.
In conclusion, let’s finish reading Jesus’ words in John 10:
“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. 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. The reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life—only to take it up again. 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.”
This is the gospel or “good news” in five short verses.
These words tell us how Jesus saw his whole life as an act of obedience to God. The Father had given him a task to do and was willing to carry it out, even to the point of death.
Jesus always saw the Cross and the glory together. He never doubted that he must die; and equally he never doubted that he would rise again. It’s true. You can’t keep a GOD man down.
During the first World War there’s a story of a young French soldier who was seriously wounded. His arm was so badly smashed that the only option was amputation. The young man was incredibly handsome, wonderfully built and perfect in every way but that smashed arm. The surgeon was deeply grieved that he had to amputate the arm, but was left with no choice. So he waited beside the bed of the young soldier, waiting for him to recover conscious from the surgery. When the soldier’s eyes finally opened, the surgeon said: “I am sorry to tell you that you have lost your arm, soldier.” “Sir,” replied the young man, “I did not lose it...I gave it...for France.”
I wonder how many of us could claim a similar attitude when circumstances amputate our lives. That’s how our Good Shepherd helps us to be good sheep. That is, people who are attractive, lovely, desired and valuable.
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Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.