Jesus as the Good Shepherd

I spent some time reading John 10 this morning and couldn’t help falling more in love with Jesus. Does that ever happen to you when you read stories about him?

I’ve been reading The Message version of the Bible this year, which is a paraphrase translation that puts the Bible into contemporary, common language. I like the way it helps me better understand difficult passages of Scripture and the way it helps me read familiar passages of Scripture afresh.

The way Eugene Peterson translates the section of John 10 about Jesus as the Good Shepherd brought a smile to my face so many different times as I read it this morning. Want to take a journey into some of the treasured portions of it with me?

First, we get a general feel for life in a shepherd’s world with his sheep:

If a person climbs over or through the fence of a sheep pen instead of going through the gate, you know he’s up to no good — a sheep rustler! The shepherd walks right up to the gate. The gatekeeper opens the gate to him and the sheep recognize his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he gets them all out, he leads them and they follow because they are familiar with his voice. They won’t folow a stranger’s voice but will scatter because they aren’t used to the sound of it.

— John 10:1-5, The Message

First of all, I love the image that comes to mind of a flock of sheep making their way out of their sheep’s pen at the urging of their shepherd. I can picture a group of woolly sheep moving toward the gate in unison, following the sound of their shepherd’s voice, making their way out of the narrow gate in twos and threes and then, once on the other side, out in the open pasture, the whole group moving again in unison to follow the well-known and familiar voice of its shepherd. 

This group of sheep has a relationship with its shepherd. It is familiar with his voice. It turns toward him when he calls because his voice carries a known timber in their ears. 

I can feel the trust this flock of sheep has toward their shepherd. Where he calls them, they follow. Whether it’s toward the open gate to get out into the open pasture or toward himself once they’re out in the open so he can lead them to the right and secure places, they trust him implicitly and go where his voice calls them.

I also like how true and honest the actions of the shepherd are. He has nothing to hide: he walks straight up to the gate, and the gatekeeper opens it for him because he belongs there — unlike the sheep rustler who has to slink in sideways and under the gate without being seen because he doesn’t really belong there with the sheep. 

A real shepherd also knows each of his sheep by name. How amazing is that? To me, all sheep look the same. But like a parent of twins or triplets implicitly knows which of his children is which, the real shepherd also knows the uniqueness of each of his sheep and calls them each by their unique name. 

I love that.

As the passage goes on, Jesus then applies the shepherd metaphor to himself and calls himself both the Gate and the Good Shepherd. First, he describes what it’s like for him to be the Gate: 

I am the Gate. Anyone who goes through me will be cared for — will freely go in and out, and find pasture.

— John 10:9, The Message

I don’t know about you, but the idea of being assured of care is immensely comforting. Jesus promises safety and security to us. There are no qualifiers on that statement of care — we don’t get care sometimes or under specific circumstances. No, we are, pure and simple, cared for — always and without question.

Also, having Jesus as our shepherd gives us freedom. We can go in and out of the paces of our life without fear and with a measure of choice and desire all our own. We’re given room to simply be who we are and live and make choices in the course of our “sheeply” life.

I want that kind of care and inner freedom, don’t you?

Then Jesus talks about himself as the Good Shepherd. What does it mean for him to be the Good Shepherd of his sheep?

I am the Good Shepherd. The Good Shepherd puts the sheep before himself, sacrifices himself if necessary. A hired man is not a real shepherd. The sheep mean nothing to him. He sees a wolf come and runs for it, leaving the sheep to be ravaged and scattered by the wolf. He’s only in it for the money. The sheep don’t matter to him.

I am the Good Shepherd. I know my own sheep and my own sheep know me… . I put the sheep before myself, sacrificing myself if necessary.

— John 10:11-15, The Message

When Jesus offers himself to us as our leader and life shepherd, he does so in a way that puts us before himself. He puts us first.

This means he is mindful of us. He’s scanning the horizon, looking for the good pastures and grazing fields that will give us good food to eat. He’s also scanning the horizon for potential pitfalls and dangers. He’s aware of any danger nearby that could bring us harm and puts himself in that harm’s way before the harm could ever reach us.

The contrast with the hired man in this passage teaches us a lot. To the hired man, the sheep mean nothing. He’s only in it for himself and the money. The sheep don’t matter to him. You can imagine him going home at the end of the day without thinking at all about the sheep once he’s left them for the day. I would imagine the sheep under the watch of a hired hand doesn’t get the best care, either. Their wool is probably dirty and matted. They’re probably underfed and undernourished. The hired man simply doesn’t care the way the sheep’s real shepherd does.

This can only mean that to Jesus, the good and true shepherd, we mean a lot. We mean everything, in fact — so much that he would put himself in danger before he’d let harm come to us. We matter to him. 

Do you experience Jesus as your Gate and Good Shepherd in this way? Why or why not?