After his encounter with the ex-blind man, we come to a chapter-long discourse in which Jesus describes himself as the Great Shepherd and what that entails.
The motif of shepherd has a long pedigree in Scripture. A lot of the greatest heroes of the Bible started out as shepherds: Abel, Jacob, Moses, David, and others. Of course, the first people to whom God announced the birth of his Son were shepherds. But the more interesting aspect of this is that God himself repeatedly compared himself to a shepherd and his people to sheep. We'll get into this more when we examine Psalm 23 next year, so we won’t go into this too much. I'd like to remind you, however, that sheep are completely dependent on their shepherd for food, water, protection, and their health.
A little background on Middle Eastern shepherding might prove useful. Shepherds usually joined their flocks together into one pen every night. In order to protect the respective flocks, they'd hire a “watchman” who'd help guard them during the night and assist the shepherds in caring for them. There'd be only one opening in the pen, so obviously anyone climbing over the fence was a thief. Since the flocks of different shepherds were all mixed together, each shepherd stood off to the side, and the sheep were smart enough to recognize his voice and not mistake him for someone else. Shepherds didn’t drive their sheep; they walked ahead of them and led them.
Also there’s a very good chance that Jesus isn’t really switching metaphors in vs. 7 (when he calls himself the “gate”). Often a shepherd would sleep across the gap in the fence, and any predator would have to cross over him to get to the sheep. In this sense he'd be the “gate.”
When Jesus says that “all who came before [him] were thieves and robbers,” he’s referring to all the false prophets and false messiahs, of whom there were several. And we can tell easily the false from the true: God had predicted this and had given a simple safeguard. If what they were teaching wasn’t in accord with his revealed word or their predictions weren’t fulfilled completely, then they were fakes.
Finally we get to a pivotal verse in John’s Gospel, vs. 10. I love this verse, and it’s famous and beloved for a good reason. In contrast to all the thieves and bad shepherds out there, he’s here to give us life. And not just life—“life to the full” or “abundantly.” I realize that most people assume that the “thief” is Satan, but in context it fits more with the people that he inspires. Whether it’s referring to a human or spiritual force, however, doesn’t really affect the gist of the verse.
So how can we apply this passage? Well, the thing that sticks out to me most is the danger out there and how we can avoid it. Not everyone claiming to speak for God is actually sent by him. There are a lot of false teachers out there, and we have to be careful. So how do we keep safe?
By learning to distinguish our Shepherd’s voice from the fakes’. And the best way to do that is to know his word in and out. The more we do that, the harder it'll be for the Enemy to lead us astray.
But then there’s another aspect here, a beautiful one. Our Shepherd calls each of us by name. With all the millions of followers, he has a special “pet” name for each one of us. I don’t know about you, but I’m terrible with names. But our dear Savior knows each one of us as intimately, as if he had only one of us to love. That’s the type of God that we worship, the type of Savior that we have.
Lord Jesus, I trust you. It’s so hard sometimes to pick out your voice from all the noise around me. Please help me to tune my ears and my heart.
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