(A) Introduction. (Read the reference)

Jesus teaching about the good shepherd and his sheep was prompted by the Pharisees' behaviour toward the man born blind whom Jesus healed. They, unlike Jesus, were not concerned in the least for the spiritual welfare of the man either before, or after, his miraculous cure.

I was very confused about the passage until I realised that Jesus refers in it to two very different sheepfolds. I am indebted to Prof. William Barclay for making this plain. In verses 1 to 6 Jesus is talking about the communal sheepfolds that existed in villages and towns where all the village flocks were sheltered when they returned home at night. These folds were protected by a strong door of which only the guardian of the door held the key. In verses 7 to 10 Jesus deals with the small sheepfold in the hills that shepherds used in the summer months when they did not return at night to the village. To quote William Barclay: These hillside sheepfolds were just open spaces enclosed by a wall. In them there was an opening by which the sheep came in and went out; but there was no door of any kind. What happened was that at night the shepherd himself lay down across the opening and entrance, and no sheep could get out or in except over his body. In the most literal sense the shepherd was the door; there was no access to the sheepfold except through him.

The passage tells us a lot about Jesus, the good shepherd, but it also describes some of the characteristics of his sheep. So this exposition is in two parts: The good shepherd and the sheep.

(B) The good shepherd.

There are three wonderful truths Jesus highlights in his teaching about the good shepherd:

(1) He owns his sheep.

When all the sheep of the village were gathered in the communal sheep-fold the watchman would only allow access through the door to the owners of the flocks. "The man who enters by the gate is the shepherd of his sheep. The watchman opens the gate for him .... ." vs2and3.

(a) The sheep do not own the shepherd! Christians do not own Jesus. We did not make him our spiritual leader by our own choice. He chose us to be his followers. Jesus said to his disciples: "You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit. John15v16.

We should not have a proprietorial attitude to Jesus. He does not belong to us like a new car or a new house does. James and John exhibited this way of thinking when the inhabitants of a Samaritan village did not welcome their master on his way to Jerusalem. They asked Jesus: "Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them?" Luke9v54. Their anger had an added edge because Jesus was their leader.

Although Jesus' chooses us he doesn't do so unconditionally. His choice is not arbitrary nor salvation a lottery. John's gospel could not be clearer. He chooses to give eternal life to those who believe on him. We are given the right to become children of God by receiving him.

It is important to remember that Jesus chooses those that are his. We don't choose on his behalf! Yet the strange thing is that those who make most of God's sovereign grace are among the most exclusive Christians. They will not have fellowship with those who do not share their doctrinal position. They are effectively deciding on behalf of Jesus who is a proper Christian and who isn't. The Roman Catholics are not one wit better in refusing to take communion unless a Roman Catholic priest administers it.

(b) The owner of the flock wants the best for his sheep. Jesus said: "I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. He will come in and go out, and find pasture. ..... I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full." vs9and10.

I wonder if we believe this? It is not so easy to affirm when chronically sick, intensely disappointed by lack of recognition or unable to find a wife or husband. Yet surely Jesus wants us to be virtuous, active in service and enthusiastic in worship. When do I truly live - when I spend all day slumped before the TV watching a test match or when I spend the morning writing for this web site, the afternoon visiting the elderly and the evening conducting the prayer meeting?

(c) The sheep are at risk from thieves and robbers. Jesus makes this plain: "I tell you the truth, the man who does not enter the sheep pen by the gate, but climbs in by some other way is a thief and a robber. v1. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. v10.

The aim of the thief is to rob the shepherd and to use the sheep for his own purpose. The robber has no legitimate claim to ownership. He does not have the interest of the sheep at heart. The thief wants control of the flock irrespective of the harm this does to the sheep.

The Pharisees were like this. They desired followers for their own selfish ends - personal enrichment, to exercise power and boost their egos. I am afraid that their is a touch of the Pharisee in many Christian leaders. It is possible for the pastor to see the local church as an extension of himself. If it is growing he is being successful - the credit is down to him - however often he says piously, "God is blessing us." I realise that if I was the pastor of my church instead of a rather inconsequential elder I would make more effort to get people to attend.

The real villains are those leaders who exercise heavy discipleship - the possessive, control freaks who are unwilling to share responsibility with anyone else. Such so-called shepherds preside over sickly flocks of chronically dependent sheep. In demanding unswerving obedience to themselves they rob the good shepherd of what is rightfully his.

(2) He knows his sheep.

When the eastern shepherd entered the communal sheep fold he had no trouble identifying the sheep that were his. Jesus said: "He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out." v3. Later in the passage he affirmed: I know my sheep. v14.

The eastern shepherd spent much time with his sheep and could recognise them all individually. He gave each a name - spotty, big ears, woolly face, skinny knees and so on. I daresay some names were rude but as this is a Christian exposition I will desist from further suggestions.

Jesus knows us individually - our history, strengths, weaknesses and potential. He knew Simon son of Jonas and called him the rock. I wonder what his nickname for us would be? I hope it would not be Dizzy, Daft or Dopey; Soft, Slow or Surly; Loud, Limp or Loopy!

We are not lost to view in the flock as a whole. It is surely a comfort to know that Jesus' care of the flock is influenced by the needs of individual sheep. Whenever I led a party of students on a field trip in the more mountainous parts of Britain I had to adjust my pace to the weakest members of the party. It would have been irresponsible to attempt difficult climbs with those who were not up to it.

Jesus contrasts his relationship with the sheep to that of a stranger. The stranger who attempts to take the place of the good shepherd scatters the sheep: "But they will never follow a stranger; in fact, they will run away from him because they do not recognise a stranger's voice." v5.

Wherever a church is in disarray with sheep running in all directions there are strangers in the midst. Muddle, chaos and disunity is invariably the work of false shepherds - men and women claiming to speak on behalf of the good shepherd but really speaking on behalf of themselves.

(3) He loves his sheep.

The eastern shepherd kept sheep mainly for their milk and fleeces rather than for meat. He became attached to his sheep. So the good shepherd:

(a) Protects his sheep. To illustrate this truth Jesus refers to the small, stone-walled enclosure in the hills with an open entrance. After all the sheep had entered the fold for the night the shepherd would lay across the entrance to protect the flock from thieves and predators like wolves. Jesus said: "I tell you the truth, am the gate for the sheep."

Jesus does protect us from doubt, temptation and despair. I love the story in Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress that Christian told to Hopeful about the good man Little-faith who dwelt in the town Sincere. He was waylaid in a very dark lane called Deadman's-lane by three sturdy rogues - three brothers called Faint-heart, Mistrust and Guilt. They robbed him of his purse and Guilt struck him on the head with a great club.

Hopeful asked Christian: "But did they take from him all that ever he had?"

Christian was able to reply: "No: the place where his jewels were they never ransacked; so those he kept still."

Little-faith, with those jewels intact, was able to complete his journey and come at last to the Celestial City.

(b) Defends his sheep.

Jesus leaves his follows in no doubt about the dangers posed by false shepherds. He said: "Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves."

The wolf is the age-old enemy of sheep. I saw this one April morning in North Wales. Three collie dogs, the wolf in them aroused, chased a terrified sheep. The sheep careered into a wire fence whereupon the dogs commenced a savage attack upon it. It was a fearsome sight. I wasn't a shepherd and just stood and watched aghast as wool flew in all directions. (My colleague, Mrs Mosley, wasn't a shepherd either but she strode into the melee of twisting, surging bodies and scared the dogs off. My admiration for her knew no bounds!)

Jesus said: "The hired hand is not the shepherd who owns the sheep. So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away. The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep." 12and13. The true, genuine, Christian leader does not run away when trouble comes. John Donne (1573-1631), the poet, was Dean of St Paul's Cathedral in London during three waves of the Great Plague the last of which killed 40, 000 people. John Donne did not abandon his flock as did many other clergymen. He remained to comfort his people. One of the famous lines he penned at this time was: Though so disobedient a servant as I may be afraid to die, yet to so merciful a master as thou I cannot be afraid to come.

The flock has one greater enemy than the wolf. Peter wrote: Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. 1Pet5v8. Some time ago our small and faltering fellowship was joined by a couple of mature Christians who had much to offer. We were greatly encouraged. But then it transpired that the couple did not feel able to stop to communion when our deaconess served. This was bound to make trouble. In the heat of the moment mistakes were made. You could smell big cat! The strange thing to me is that I was saved from a grave misjudgement by the mistake that someone else made. I was compelled to act in a way that resolved the matter and kept us together. The good shepherd defended us against one of Satan's vicious attacks.

(c) Sacrifices for his sheep.

Jesus said: "I lay down my life for the sheep." This is the ultimate commitment. We know that there have been men and women who have laid down their lives to rescue others - from burning buildings, from drowning and explosives.

Jesus ventured all for the lost sheep - sacrificing himself to set us free from our greatest enemies - sin, despair, death and destruction.

          None of the ransomed ever knew
          How deep were the waters crossed,
          Or how dark the night that the Lord passed through
          Ere he found the sheep that was lost.

(C) The sheep.

(1) Is our flock healthy?

There are at least three features of a healthy flock. It is:

    (a) Content. We should all be content because we have such a good shepherd. Jesus said: "I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. He will come in and go out, and find pasture." v9. Yet there are so many discontented, disgruntled and disillusioned Christians. Is there something wrong with the shepherd?

    I heard of a church recently that wanted to be encouraged! Well there is lots to encourage us in God's word. There is pasture enough for us to graze on there. Here is a sweet and succulent patch of grass to browse upon: Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade - kept in heaven for you, who through faith are shielded by God's power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time. 1Pet1v3to5. Surely we can say with David writing before the day of grace: Surely goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever. Psalm23v6

    (b) Lively. Jesus said: "I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full." v10. Why is it then that throughout Britain there are small Christian flocks that seem more dead than alive? The sheep amble along with their heads down hardly interested in anything. It reminds me of some of the classes I have taught - dreary, sluggish, unmotivated and disinterested. They sapped the vitality of the most enthusiastic teacher.

    A jaded, disenchanted and dispirited flock is hardly the fault of the good shepherd. Such a flock is an insult to Jesus whose interest in, and commitment to, his sheep could not be greater.

    (c) Confident. Jesus said of his sheep: "I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no-one can snatch them out my hand." v28.

    Christ's flock should step out in confidence. It shouldn't be timid or afraid. The good shepherd needs trusting sheep - sheep that prove his worth experimentally; sheep whose faith has been tested and found not wanting.

    Our church should be like the one in Thessalonica to whom Paul wrote: We always thank God for all of you, mentioning you in our prayers. We continually remember before our God and Father your work produced by faith, your labour prompted by love, and your endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. 1Thes1v2and3.

(2) How is our relationship with the shepherd?

    (a) Do we recognise his authority? Jesus said: "The man who enters by the gate is the shepherd of his sheep. The watchman opens the gate for him, and the sheep listen to his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out." v2and3. The sheep of many shepherds milled around together in the communal sheep fold. Gathering the sheep into their separate flocks might appear an impossible task to a Western outsider. But nothing could be simpler - the shepherd simply called his sheep by name and they came to him. Their obedience discriminated between them and the sheep of other flocks.

    The cricket club that I belong to rents its ground from a local farmer. We never undertake a development without consulting Geoff, the landowner. He has a right to say how our ground is used - it belongs to him.

    The Christian is not his own; he has been brought at a price. Paul writes to the church at Corinth: You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honour God with your body. 1Cor6v20.

    Sensible sheep listen to the good shepherd's voice and obey him. We must never forget that our obedience is what distinguishes us from the sheep belonging to the many worldly flocks.

    (b) Do we have a good rapport with him? Jesus said of the good shepherd and behaviour of his sheep: "When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice." v4. The sheep are so intimately acquainted with the shepherd that they recognise his voice. It is a voice they trust because it is associated with one who has proved his worth over many years. So the sheep happily follow their shepherd.

    In my long career as a teacher it was wonderful to have a good rapport with a class. Where mutual sympathy and respect existed between teacher and taught there was harmony, happiness and achievement.

    If our relationship with Jesus his happy and harmonious we will be in sympathy with his teaching and receptive to his guidance.

    (c) Do we keep together? Jesus promised: "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." v16.

    It is important for the sheep to be together - the old rams, middle-aged ewes and the little lambs. The lambs can learn a lot from the older sheep. When a man buys a Welsh hill farm he has to buy the flock with it. This is because the sheep learn the boundary of the farm - something vitally important in open moorland. The knowledge of the farm's boundary is passed on from the older sheep to the lambs.

    It is a sad state of affairs to see a flock without any lambs; nor is it healthy for a flock to consist of nothing but lambs. So I find it very sad when young Christians congregate together and abandon the aging fellowship in which they were brought up and became believers. Have young Christians nothing to learn from those not only mature in years but mature in the faith? We should be careful, too, not to segregate different groups within the church. I cannot see the point of separate men's and women's meetings!

    (d) Are we following close behind the shepherd? Jesus said: "My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me." v27. The eastern shepherd did not drive his sheep but led them and they followed closely behind.

    I expect the shepherd had the odd sheep that tried to run ahead. I certainly found on my numerous Geograpy field trips that there were always a few boys who aim to get well ahead of their teacher. Some were disgusted with the slow pace and wanted to show how much fitter they were than the average pupil. Others were not very happy to be associated with a school group and wanted to put as much distance between themselves and the teacher as possible.

    There are individualistic Christians who want to demonstrate their superior faith or wisdom or holiness. They run ahead of the flock and even overtake Jesus himself. Jesus, for example, teaches that the unrepentant wicked are destroyed but these superior Christians want to demonstrate their awareness of the awfulness of sin and condemn the wicked to everlasting, excruciating torments. The legalistic Pharisees had the same sort of attitude to the Sabbath. They went further than God intended by banning harmless activities like carrying a pin.

    The eastern shepherd, like the boy David, carried a sling and would hurl rocks ahead of any foolish sheep losing contact with the flock. It is as well that Jesus drops a rock in our path to bring us to heel when we are getting above ourselves and in danger of losing touch with him.

    The other way to lose contact with the shepherd is to lag behind. I expect a flock generally had a few stragglers. All a sheep had to do was linger for a few more mouthfuls of grass here and a quick nibble of a leafy bush there before it was all on its own with no shepherd in sight. Unknown to the foolish, self-indulgent sheep a mountain lion crouched behind the next boulder!

    On my field trips I had boys and girls who lagged behind. They could be distracted by many things on a walk along the beach at Walton on the Naze to view the cliffs! Little girls took off their shoes and dallied at the water's edge. Little boys searched for dead crabs or starfish with which to chase the little girls. It was a nightmare keeping my pupils all together. It necessitated frequent stops for the malingerers to catch up. Further time was lost as I divested avid collectors of items of flotsam and jetsam - a discarded flipper, sodden bikini top, deep-sea fisherman's hook and bag of seaweed.

    Christ's flock is no better! A lot of his sheep are easily distracted by worldly interests and make desperately slow progress along the narrow way that leads to life. Christians in Britain are so busy at work or play that they only meet with fellow believers for fellowship once a week.

    The best place for us to be is as near Jesus as we can get. A sheep in a perilous environment should stick close to the shepherd.

    (e) Do we appreciate the shepherd. Jesus describes himself as the good shepherd. The Greek word, kalos, translated, 'good', conveys more than our English word. William Barclay writes: Kalos adds to the idea of goodness the idea of beauty, of loveliness, of graciousness, of winsomeness. ...... The good shepherd is the shepherd whose service is a lovely and a heroic thing because it is a service, not rendered for pay, but rendered for love.

    John Donne thought he was dying of the plague. He feared death until he stopped dwelling on his tragic circumstances and looked at last to the good shepherd. As again he gloried in the loveliness of his shepherd his soul was restored. These stirring words in, 'A Hymn to God the Father', convey Donne's appreciation of Jesus:

            I have a sin of fear, that when I have spun
            My last thread, I shall perish on the shore;
            But swear by thy self that at my death thy son
            Shall shine as he shines now, and heretofor;
            And, having done that, thou hast done,
            I fear no more.

    The phrase, 'thou hast done', is a play on his own name and indicates the security John Donne had in Jesus that most gracious and winsome shepherd of the sheep.