"I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep." Jesus makes two profound claims by saying this. First, by calling himself the Shepherd, Jesus claims to be the Lord God. The prophet Ezekiel writes, "I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I myself will make them lie down, declares the Lord God." (Ezekiel 34:15) And King David declares in the beloved Psalm, "The LORD is my shepherd." (Psalm 23:1) Jesus is God, as he says in this same chapter, "I and the Father are one." (John 10:30)
Second, Jesus calls himself the good shepherd. What does it mean to be good? Does it mean that he cuddles the sheep? That he's friendly? Easy going? Live and let live type of shepherd? Jesus tells us what it means to be the good shepherd. "The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep." This is what Jesus means when he calls himself good. He forfeits his very life, dies for wandering sheep. This is madness. No shepherd would ever do this, not even, by the world's standards, a good one. But Jesus gives us his own definition of good, which is only fulfilled in him. There is only one good shepherd. He is the one, who lays down his life for his sheep. And by laying down his life, he gives to them abundant life.
Jesus makes a stark contrast between the good shepherd and a hireling. In other words, Jesus sharply distinguishes the true God and the true Gospel from all false gods and false gospels. There is only one God, the good shepherd, who lays down his life for the sheep. There is only one Gospel, the good news that Jesus Christ, your good shepherd, died for your sins and gives you abundant life through faith in him. All other gods and gospels will fail you.
"He who is a hired hand and not a shepherd, who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees, and the wolf snatches them and scatters them." Nevertheless, people continue to follow false shepherds and listen to false gospels. As St. Paul writes, "For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths." (2 Timothy 4:3-4)
These false shepherds are very attractive. They say what you want to hear. They make you feel good. They don't condemn sins, or at least not your sins. Or they give you a path to heaven that you can control by your own good works. They can change their teachings and make exceptions on a whim. They're there to please you. But when the wolf comes, they don't stick around to help. When the devil comes to drag you into the darkness of sin, they have no defense. Because they don't preach Christ and him crucified. They are incapable of rescuing from sin. When death comes to collect his due, these hired hands run away. They have nothing to offer that can save you from death. These hired hands come in the forms of philosophies and ideologies, politicians, teachers, and preachers. But they are not your good shepherd. Your good shepherd laid down his life for you and he gives you eternal life with the forgiveness of sins.
I am Jesus' little lamb,
Ever glad at heart I am;
For my Shepherd gently guides me,
Knows my needs and well provides me,
Loves me ev-'ry day the same,
Even calls me by my name.
The children sing this hymn. Is it true? Does Jesus shepherd you today? Jesus says, "I know my own and my own know me." Is this true? Does Jesus know you? Does he call you by name? Or are these just empty phrases meant to make children smile?
Do you wonder how Jesus can know you when you suffer? "How can Jesus be my shepherd when so much is going wrong in my life. How can he be near when he seems so far away? How can he know me? And how can I know Jesus as my shepherd?"
Jesus himself answers these questions. He speaks of the shepherd, "The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice. A stranger they will not follow, but they will flee from him, for they do not know the voice of a stranger." (John 10:3-5)
Jesus' sheep suffer here on earth. They get sick. Their friends forsake them. They struggle with temptation and sin. They die. Yet Jesus' sheep hear the voice of their shepherd. They hear, "The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep." And this gives them courage to face suffering in this life. "Yes, I have cancer. My loved ones have abandoned me. And I struggle with sin every day. But Jesus has shed his blood for me. He has laid down his life, so that he may lift me up to eternal life. My cancer won't last forever. No mockery or slander can take away God's love from me. My sins are washed away in Jesus' blood and will not follow me into eternal life. I suffer now, but Christ suffered for me, so I know my suffering will end."
And so the Christian can sing the children's hymn, "I Am Jesus' Little Lamb" even as he grows old, even as he faces temptation, sin, sickness, and death. Because if you have the voice of your Shepherd, then you have Jesus.
And this is very important for each of us to understand. How does Jesus shepherd you? With his word. Jesus says, "My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand." Jesus makes you lie down in green pastures, leads you beside the still waters, and restores your soul through his word. He does this through his undershepherds, who preach the word of God.
These undershepherds are charged to feed his sheep by preaching Christ, who laid down his life for the sheep. The word pastor means shepherd. A pastor is not the good shepherd. There is only one good shepherd, who laid down his life for the sheep, Jesus Christ our Lord. But Jesus' pastors are charged to give his sheep what he earned for them on the cross. St. Peter writes to pastors, "Shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock. And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory." (1 Peter 5:2-4)
The purpose of undershepherds is for the sheep to know their true shepherd. When you leave church you should feel like you know your shepherd and have heard his voice. The way you know your shepherd is by hearing the gospel, that Jesus laid down his life for you. And that by doing so he has washed away your sins and gives you eternal life. You hear your shepherds voice when you hear the Word's of Institution, which give you Christ's body to eat and to drink. You know your shepherd when you receive the fruit of his cross, given and shed for you. This is the table set before you in the midst of the sheep hating world. Here your cup runs over with Jesus' blood, which forgives your sins and gives you new life.
False teaching scatters the sheep. Jesus, your good shepherd gathers the sheep. Sheep are not supposed to live solitary lives without hearing the voice of their shepherd. You are not Jesus' little lamb, because you know that there is a shepherd or have heard his voice. Jesus' sheep listen to their Shepherd. They come when he calls. Jesus calls his sheep to come together to have fellowship with each other. And I don't mean sitting around drinking coffee and eating donuts. Jesus calls his sheep to come together to hear his word, to pray, to share in the Sacrament together, to be fed by their shepherd. (Acts 2:42; Hebrews 10:25)
Martin Luther wrote in the Smalcald Articles, one of our Lutheran Confessions, "Thank God, today, a seven-year-old child knows what the Church is, namely, the holy believers and lambs who hear the voice of their Shepherd." We confess in the creed, "I believe in one, holy, Christian, and apostolic Church." There is only one shepherd. There is only one flock. The flock gathers around the shepherd. It hears his voice. The flock may look scattered, because false teachers and preachers have caused churches of different confessions to pop up all over the world. But we walk by faith, not by sight. Jesus knows his own and his own know him. Wherever you have the voice of the shepherd and sheep gathered around that voice, you have the church. Jesus' flock is united in him.
When you were baptized, Jesus called you by name. He made you his own little lamb. And he joined you to his one flock to be fed and nurtured through the preaching of his word. Where you have Baptism, the Lord's Supper, the preaching of Christ's crucified to save sinners, and believers gathered to receive these gifts and to pray, there you have the good shepherd feeding his sheep, protecting them from wolves, and yes, giving them abundant life. Whoever gladly hears and believes Christ's word is his little lamb. And not one of Jesus' sheep will be snatched from his hand.