With thanks to Dr. Luther and Pr. David Peterson for some of the thoughts contained herein.
What does our Lord mean by “Good shepherd”? And what does Scripture have to say about people as sheep? It may not be what you think. Read more after the jump.
I am the Good Shepherd. What exactly does Jesus mean, when he calls himself the Good Shepherd? We know what a shepherd does. But what makes him Good? In the dictionary,. There are 31 separate definitions of the word “good”. Which one of them applies here? Is he a good person who happens to be a shepherd? A person who is good at being a shepherd?
The word that is used there is kalos. It’s a Greek word that means good. But not just in a general sense. There is a general word that means good. Agathos. We get the name Agatha from it. It means good, as opposed to evil.
That’s not really what kalos means. It is closer to appropriate. As in, it is truly good right and salutary, that we should at all times and in all places give thanks to you. The old service still uses “It is truly meet right and salutary. It is fitting. It is proper. It is good. Jesus is the one who is fit to be the shepherd. He is suitable, appropriate, honorable. Why? For two reasons. He gives his life for the sheep. AND He knows the sheep, and is known by the sheep.
He is the one who lays down his life for the sheep. Not everyone is willing to do that. The hired man is not willing to do that. He sees the wolf coming and runs away. The shepherd is needed to protect the sheep. That is what Jesus does.
Why does scripture so often call us sheep? We often hear that it’s because sheep aren’t all that smart. But oddly enough, that is never really mentioned in scripture. ‘Sheep straying’ is mentioned. But not sheep as stupid or unable to understand. The 23 psalm even speaks of the sheep as knowing all the things that the good the shepherd does for it. The Lord is my shepherd, he makes me lie down in green pastures, leads me beside still waters, restores my soul, is with me even in the valley of the shadow of death, prepares a table before me. All of this is done for and to the sheep. The sheep – that is the psalmist – knows all of this, and is praising God for it. So why a sheep? The sheep is fairly well helpless on its own. It needs the shepherd to take care of it, just as we need God to take care of us. But there’s another thing about sheep that we see in scripture. Jesus mentions it here – they hear the voice of the shepherd, and recognize it. In a sermon, Luther says that lambs are able to pick out their mother’s bleating over the sound of the whole flock. A sheep knows the voice of the shepherd, and will only go to that one. Luther then ties this to the Christian, who listens only to the voice of Christ. Those are the qualities that the scriptures speak of – helpless, but knowing the voice of the one who takes care of it. That’s why Christians are sheep. You are helpless on your own, and can not even begin to save yourself from your own sin, your wanderings. But the voice of the shepherd calls out to you. There may be other voices out there, but the voice of the shepherd rings out. He is the one who helps you. The one who laid down his life for the sheep now calls you.
There’s another thing about the image of shepherd. It has been used since time immemorial in the church to describe the work of those who speak with the voice of the good shepherd. The word “pastor” means shepherd. Now, it’s kind of strange to hear Jesus say, “I am the good shepherd, and my sheep hear my voice” and then say, “Those whom Jesus sends, that is – those who are not Jesus – are shepherds.” But they are not the Good Shepherd. The Good shepherd alone gives his life for the sheep. He is the only one whose sacrifice earns forgiveness of sins. The deaths of the martyrs can not earn even their own forgiveness, let alone yours. They accomplish nothing, other than this – they heard and followed the voice of the shepherd.
So also with pastors – they don’t save. A faithful pastor stands in the stead and by the command of Christ to bring you the forgiveness that Jesus won for you. It’s not the pastor’s forgiveness, and it’s not the pastor’s voice. It is the forgiveness of Jesus, and the voice of Jesus. But the sheep, that is the church, can only listen to the voice of the pastor – their shepherd as long as the word he speaks is Christ’s word. That is why it is so important to pray that the Lord of the church would send faithful laborers into the harvest. That is why it is so important that the church pray for her pastors that they be found faithful.
Because there is another kind of worker in the church – not one who speaks with the voice of the shepherd, but one who merely tends the sheep until trouble comes along. Then he abandons them. Leaves them alone to fend for themselves. Even worse is the one who pretends to be a sheep while in reality he is a wolf –trying to actively destroy and devour the flock.
The Good shepherd – our Lord Jesus – is the good shepherd the fitting honorable shepherd, because he does not run away when death threatens. More than that, he gives his own life up in exchange for the life of the sheep. The sheep are safe because of him. The sheep are given life because of his death.
And that is the good news that is preached throughout the world by those whom Jesus sends. Again, the people sent are not better in any way than the sheep. They don’t save by their mighty works, whether you are talking about a saint Peter or Paul, or you are talking about a pastor today. They bring the word of Christ who saves. And that word, that voice of Christ, is the power and wisdom of God. It is salvation to those who believe. Christ has been crucified for your offenses and raised again for your justification. Your sins, which are red as scarlet, have been made white as snow by the Good Shepherd who gave his life for you.
The periscope ends actually in the middle of Jesus talking about being the good shepherd. He finishes with this:
“For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life that I may 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 I have authority to take it up again. This charge I have received from my Father.”
Think about that – it’s one thing to lay down one’s life. The myths and histories of the Greeks are full of such stories of sacrifice. Even in our history we hear stories of those who sacrificed their lives for their comrades in arms. We hear tales of parents, neighbors, brothers and sisters showing extraordinary courage, loyalty and love. Even, on occasion of someone showing that no greater love by laying down their own life for another.
But never has the one laying down their life taken it up again. Jesus does this. He not only sacrifices his life for you, he then takes his life back up again. He was crucified for our transgressions, and raised to life again by the glory of the Father.
Jesus is the good shepherd, the one who sacrifices all for the sheep. That is, he loves you and takes care of you. he gives his own life in exchange for yours, and now he lives, so that you would have not just life in this world, but eternal life with him.