In part 1 of our trilogy on the Shepherd-theme from Jn. 10, we recognised that: (a) the key-figure is the ‘Beautiful Shepherd,’ i.e. Jesus himself; (b) there have always been false shepherds and false flocks; (c) we cited some contemporary applications.
Currently the pure numbers of the N. American Church suggest that she is producing more atheists than disciples. Cf. sociologist Prof. Josh Packard’s most recent input at a Future Church conference [Packard’s book Church Refugees explains why so many serious believers are leaving the traditional Church and pursuing ‘church’ outside its structures].
Today’s focus serves as a corrective for a rather sad situation. From Jn. 10 we focus on two further key-truths (I’m being very selective, there’s just so much here) surrounding the Shepherd, who he is and what he does.
First, it is vital that we hear the Shepherd’s voice… ‘The man who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep (v. 2) … the sheep listen to his voice (v. 3) … his sheep follow him because they know his voice … they will never follow a stranger; in fact they will run away from him because they do not recognise a stranger‘s voice‘ (v. 5).
In Jesus’ day there were so many voices, leaders and groups purporting to speak on God’s behalf. Today we are literally ‘bombarded’ by voices claiming to speak in the name of the Shepherd – I hinted at some of these in part 1. The secret is getting to recognise the Chief Shepherd’s voice amid the cacophony. Years ago, during a hike in the highlands of NW Scotland, enjoying the rugged beauty of mountains and lochs, my wife and I took a moment’s break to take in the absolute silence. Not a sound anywhere. Until we heard a piercing, shrill whistle – lo and behold, in the distance we spotted the figure of a shepherd whistling for his flock. Slowly they emerged from hidden spots and began to follow the sound of his call. Likewise, knowing the Chief Shepherd’s voice comes from years of intimacy between flock and shepherd. For us, it means discerning Jesus and his voice in Scripture, God’s creation, the community of saints, etc. To recognise the voice of God takes practice and more practice: it’s not just a case of believing any old voice claiming to come from the Shepherd.
Jn. 10 reveals that the Shepherd’s voice, in accordance with his innate character, is authoritative (v. 3), intimate (v. 3, 14, 15), caring (v. 11-13, v. 17: to the extent of laying down his life for the flock – he was no hireling who ‘cared nothing for the sheep’), inclusive (v. 16) (unlike the voice of the Pharisees), even sweet. At our Free State gathering a farmer’s wife mentioned how, on hearing her voice, the little ‘hansie’ (hand-reared lamb) would come running for its regular cuddle and bottle of milk. John Newton, composer of ‘Amazing Grace,’ got it right…
How sweet the name of Jesus sounds
In a believer’s ear!
It soothes his sorrows, heals his wounds,
And drives away his fear.
It makes the wounded spirit whole,
And calms the troubled breast;
‘Tis manna to the hungry soul,
And to the weary rest!
Second, it is vital that we follow the Shepherd’s leading in all things. It is of course common knowledge that the oriental shepherd leads the flock from the front, unlike the situation in my own land and many other cultures. My paternal grandfather was a sheep farmer in the Great Karoo, and as a 5-yr-old I still remember the shepherd ‘driving’ the flock from behind with loud shouts, a sheep dog running alongside and nipping at those animals tempted to stray from the general desired direction of the shepherd.
Our Free State sheep farmer friends (cf. ‘A Baptism of Love’) reminded us that sheeps’ eyes are positioned on the side of the skull unlike ours [we ‘stadsjapies’ (city-types) can be stupid]. Thus, ideally, a shepherd would lead from the front and yet slightly to one side. Maybe this hints at the shepherd’s nearness and accessibility, giving security and direction?
The Beautiful Shepherd’s leading is firm but freeing: his sheep ‘will come in and go out, and find pasture (v. 9). False shepherds come ‘to steal, kill and destroy,’ whereas the Chief Shepherd, by laying down himself for his sheep, gifts them his own divine ‘life,’ i.e. life ‘to the full’ (v. 10). False shepherds drive their sheep, cajole, injure and even destroy them. Have you ever seen a wolf or jackal or wild dog rip at flesh? (v. 10). How many stories I have listened to in recent years of faithful followers who have been deeply scarred by their leadership or church system in one way or another. False leaders are ‘controllers,’ slowly sapping their flock’s freedom, joy and life itself. Church please note, any Christian leader who ‘controls’ and micro-manages his flock instead of serving his flock is a false shepherd! False shepherds do not understand the dynamics of Christ’s flock (v. 6) (they ‘do not understand what Jesus is telling them’), they are blind (Jn. 9:35-41), confused and even demonised (10:19-21).
To summarise, if we are going to be worthy under-shepherds of God’s flock who lead according to the example of the Beautiful Shepherd, we must be those who have first of all listened to his voice. So many claim to have ‘heard from the Lord,’ but have they truly? The prophet Isaiah wrote centuries before of an obedient servant, sent to rescue Israel from her rebellion: ‘The Sovereign LORD has given me an instructed tongue, to know the word that sustains the weary. He wakens me morning by morning, wakens my ear to listen like one being taught. The Sovereign LORD has opened my ears, and I have not been rebellious; I have not drawn back. I offered my back to those who beat me…’ (Is. 50:4-6). We humbly follow in the dust of his feet.
I shall never forget some of these truths breaking in on that small Free State group on Sunday morning of 25th October, just after 9 am. Tobie and a few brothers had been meeting earlier in fellowship. God took them to various scripture passages and eventually to Jn. 10 (which I had inadvertently been meditating on) and Acts 20, Paul’s Farewell to the Ephesian Elders. In the latter, having referred to his own shepherding example (v. 17ff), and knowing that suffering in Jerusalem awaited him, Paul in an emotionally-charged atmosphere exhorted the ‘elders’ [note, not so much people of ‘office’ but of experience and character as made plain by the Holy Spirit and sanctified common sense, rather than by some hierarchical or democratic ‘election’]: ‘Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. BE (my emphasis) shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood. I know that after I leave, savage wolves (Judaisers, etc) will come in among you and not spare the flock… be on your guard… Now I commit you to God and the word of his grace, which can build you up and give you an inheritance among all those who are sanctified’ (v. 28-32). The need of the hour? Jesus-indwelt and empowered men and women, adorned by grace, spiritual ‘fathers’ and ‘mothers’: in a Church and nation full of spiritual orphans… Selah.