A month or two ago the Lord gave me the desire to read and re-read Jn. 10:1-21 in my private prayers. I am so glad I did because of the fresh insights for my own spirituality and of the Church at large.
The result is that I hope to blog a trilogy on this subject, because there is just so much richness and wisdom for our times in this passage.
FIRST (perhaps rather obviously) we are impressed by the KEY-FIGURE, ‘THE BEAUTIFUL (GOOD, EXCELLENT) CHIEF SHEPHERD.’
Jesus says in v. 11ff, ‘I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep… v. 14-15, ‘I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and they know me – just as the Father knows me and I know the Father – and I lay down my life for the sheep.’
The first time I shared something of this theme in Jn. 10 was in the fellowship of a group of believers in the southern Free State (cf. previous blog, ‘A Baptism of Love’), a wild game and sheep farming area. It came to me in that setting that ‘the Father is the sheep farmer and his Son Jesus the chief shepherd of his flock.’ Because most of us as urbanites have lost touch with the pastoral sheep farming world, we need to re-visit this metaphor with the help of the original sheep farmers and those today, a privilege which was mine in the Free State visit. (I guess my Scottish, Australian and New Zealand readers will be able to identify here)
SECONDLY, as we look at the setting of Jn. 10, we are confronted with the contrasting picture of FALSE SHEPHERDS AND FLOCKS.
- Jesus speaks with the backdrop of the many false shepherds of Israel, kings and leaders, priests and prophets, who had failed to a greater or lesser extent in taking care of his flock. In that Free State gathering someone read out that deep-cutting passage in Ezek. 34 where the Sovereign LORD bewails the devastation of his flock by the so-called ‘shepherds’ of Israel (young Ezekiel was a prophet-priest, serving during Israel’s Babylonian exile, approx. 597ff BC): v. 2ff, ‘Woe to the shepherds of Israel who only take care of themselves! … You have not strengthened the weak or healed the sick or bound up the injured (contrast Lk. 4:18ff) You have not brought back the strays or searched for the lost (contrast Lk. 15:1-7)… My sheep wandered all over the mountains and on every high hill (false worship places). They were scattered over the whole earth, and no-one searched or looked for them.’ The prophet indicates God’s judgement on such false shepherds and that he will rescue his flock from their mouths.
- More directly Jesus is exposing here the false shepherds of his day viz. the Pharisees (and other Second Temple Judaism groupings). At this point I wish we could read the whole of Jn. 9 where Jesus the beautiful shepherd heals a man born blind, and his counterparts, to an almost laughable extent, reveal their blindness to the real issues at hand. Instead of comforting a bruised-now-healed sheep they ‘investigate his healing’ (v. 13ff), interrogating the once-blind man and even his family. When the now frustrated healed man says (v. 27) ‘I have told you already and you did not listen. Why do you want to hear it again. Do you want to become his disciples, too??’ Challenged, the Pharisees hurled insults at him and, here is the dead give-away (v. 28), they proclaim ‘You are this fellow’s disciple! We are disciples of Moses!’ Jesus now clearly indicates (v. 35-41) that because they were still mere disciples of the Law they had succumbed to serious self-righteousness and were now spiritually blind to the grace of God in the Messiah. Quite literally the blind were trying to lead the blind!
- A little point about ‘the sheep pen’ (10:1): in ancient times the pen apparently occupied the courtyard in front of the shepherd’s house (W. Temple). The gatekeeper, if he was not the shepherd himself, would open the gate for the owner because he was intimately familiar with his person and voice (cf. contrast the ‘stranger’s’ person and voice in v. 1, 5. It’s all about the shepherd’s person and voice, as we shall see!)
- During a boring aerobics class one steamy night the revelation came to me, where there is no shepherd (i.e. a true shepherd, and the chief shepherd Jesus), there is also no flock (i.e. a true flock, wherein the Father knows his sheep and they know him).
The implications for today’s ‘Church’ and her ‘shepherds’ are huge. [maybe I should point out that this passage is not only for shepherds (who are sheep also) but for sheep who may as yet not see themselves as ‘shepherds’: curiously, God distinguishes between mature sheep and stupid sheep! (Ezek. 34:20ff)] [cf. ‘the priesthood of all believers’].
- In Jn. 10 the shepherd is also the gate (10:1ff). Some have suggested that, way back, the shepherd would guard against strangers by sleeping in the gateway. More importantly, as William Temple points out, all true ministry must take place through the appointed ‘door’ or gate, viz the Lord Jesus! He is the chief shepherd and the only gate. Applying this to our time, so many ‘shepherds’ today simply do not operate through the gate alone: some depend on their own wisdom and natural charisma. Some have become addicted to the love of power and influence. Others are more more concerned about their own fame and reputation rather than Christ’s. Yet others promote ‘a biblical (often O.T.) lifestyle’ at the expense of Jesus himself. Even our sound theology and doctrine, as important as these are, are not the gate: Jesus alone is ‘the way and the truth and the life. No-one comes to the Father except through me’ (Jn.14:6). See what I mean by false shepherds and false flocks??
- Let’s be brave and name some (‘behold the tortoise, he only makes progress when he sticks his neck out!’): one thinks of the Roman Catholic Church system (of course God has his true sheep everywhere). Consider the hypocrisy of many Protestants and Evangelicals who do not, in practice, take seriously the ‘functional headship of Jesus’ (F. Viola) and ‘the priesthood of all believers’ [I was a ‘pastor’/’senior pastor’ for many years in my denomination until I absconded nine years ago, I think I understand the system from within and without]. One thinks of so many mega-churches driven (literally) by self-promoting guru’s and narcissists and materialists [here in Africa they unashamedly peddle ‘holy water’ to boost their coffers at the expense of the naive and the poor]. One thinks of those who add to the Good News and to Jesus’ person, it’s Jesus ‘plus’ good works or denominationalism or mystical experiences or ‘our Hebrew roots’ [while I know some Hebrew and appreciate my Jewish roots, some groups have become totally legalistic and sectarian in their pursuit of such roots, although they would of course deny it. As one brother at the Free State gathering pointed out, they are sewing up the temple curtain again. The fact is that in terms of Jn. 9 they are spiritually blind and cannot see their own deception]. And so we could continue… I am desperately keen to speak in love here, but not at the expense of truth.
NEXT TIME we shall put the focus where it belongs, i.e. on ‘THE BEAUTIFUL SHEPHERD,’ on his person and ministry and the implications for HIS flock…