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God’s Preserving Love
Spring Quarter: God Loves Us
Unit 2: God’s Caring, Saving, and Upholding Love
Sunday school lesson for the week of April 30, 2017
By Dr. Hal Brady
Lesson Scripture: John 10:1-15
The prevailing image of this week’s scripture lesson is of shepherds and sheep. Throughout the Old Testament, this metaphor was used to describe God’s relationship to God’s people. In this lesson, Jesus uses the same rich imagery to explain who he is and what he does.
If we grew up in the church, chances are very likely that we grew up seeing a picture of the Lord as a shepherd. It may not be the same picture, exactly. There are countless versions of it, which in itself is a testament to how precious the image is to us. But in Sunday school classrooms, church corridors, Bible stories, church parlors and elsewhere, we have seen this kind of picture portrayed. And this is so appropriate as visual images are another way of connecting us to the words we read in Scripture.
Additionally, we have also heard the same cherished image pictured in our music. In all forms of our church music, from classical sacred to contemporary praise, we sing about the Lord as a shepherd. And we are told that it’s most appropriate because before the image was ever painted by an artist it was sung by the psalmist.
Now, the Bible features a number of references to the Lord as a shepherd. However, before it was familiar to us in the 21st century, it was a familiar image for the ancient Israelites and Jews. Scholars inform us that it was from the Psalms and the Prophets especially that the Old Testament people of God were acquainted with the image of God as a shepherd for the people. Thus, Jesus was building on a well-established metaphor when he used this shepherd imagery, both here in John 10 and elsewhere (Mathew 18:12-14; Luke 15:3-7).
So while our continuing association with the shepherd-and-sheep image in Scripture is full of sweet quality, the reality is that the world was full of hazards for the sheep. Consequently, this is where Jesus begins, by citing those who would sneak into the fold or pen to steal the sheep. And though no culprits are actually named here, scholars suggest that it can probably be understood, if we look within its larger context and the immediately preceding passage of reported antagonism between the Pharisees and Jesus.
In contrast to the antagonists (thieves and bandits, strangers to the sheep, and those who don’t care, run away, and leave the sheep unattended), Jesus describes the authentic shepherd for the sheep. He does not need to sneak into the pen for he is known by both the gate-keeper and the flock. In addition, there is a gracious intimacy suggested by the shepherd knowing and calling each sheep by name.
A central element of the relationship between the sheep and the shepherd is that “they know his voice,” whereas “they do not know the voice of strangers.” Surely the voice of its shepherd is what every sheep should know. And this becomes our own burning ambition as we seek a greater intimacy with our Lord. That amid the myriad of voices calling out to us, we would increasingly know, recognize, and respond exclusively to our Shepherd’s voice.
It is generally understood that sheep pens in Jesus’ day were a configuration of high rock walls, often built alongside a building in a town or village, with only one entrance. Sheep were constantly traveling in and out of doorways. They came in through the gate for security and rest. Once inside the pen, they were free from predators or thieves. The picture here is that of a good shepherd who really cared about the flock, carefully examining each sheep as it entered through the gate.
The late scholar, William Barclay, suggests that Jesus’ identification of himself as the gate is not separate from identifying himself as the shepherd in verse 11. Describing the nature of life out in the open, Barclay writes: “What happened was that at night the shepherd himself lay down across the opening (of the pen) and no sheep could get out or in except over his body. In the most literal sense the shepherd was the door.”
Now, in verse 9, we are offered greater insight into Jesus’ role as a gate. He is the one through whom we find salvation. And he is also the one who offers security and provision. As I previously stated, going through the gate is the sheep’s security. Going out through the gate is their access to pastureland. And, whereas, the thief intends destruction and his own interest, the shepherd intends blessings and all that is in the best interest of the sheep.
Scholars remind us that prior to verse 7, Jesus makes no direct reference to himself. Thieves, shepherds, gatekeepers, and sheep are all third person. In the second half of the passage, however, Jesus speaks in the first person as gate and shepherd. And here, in this specific verse, his first person statement is especially profound for he expresses the reason why he came.
This, according to scholars, is an important theme in the Gospels. On a number of occasions, Jesus reveals a reason why he came (for example, Matthew 5:17; Mark 2:17; Luke 12:51; John 18:37). These statements are essential to our understanding of the person and work of Christ, for they reflect his own understanding of himself. And, in many cases, as in this particular instance, the reason that he came becomes personal good news for us.
In verse 11, we see a notable departure from the norm. We are accustomed to the imagery of sheep and shepherds in Scripture, and we cherish the picture and meaning of the Lord as our shepherd. But we are unaccustomed to the prospect of the shepherd’s death.
Here, the good shepherd is seen in contrast to the hired hand who runs at the first sign of trouble. The hired hand is motivated entirely by self-interest, which is the opposite of self-sacrifice. Consequently the hired hand leaves the sheep unattended, and his example helps us to see the good shepherd more clearly. Though we know who the good shepherd is in this passage, the hired hand and the wolf are not identified. However, as previously noted, the larger context points out a controversy with the religious leaders of the land. And other critiques that Jesus levels against these leaders makes them a real possibility for being either the hired hand or wolf. At any rate, they are not seen in a very good light for the people in their care.
The concluding verses of this passage (10:14-15) are extremely important. Initially, we note again the quality of intimacy in the relationship between this shepherd and his sheep. Second, as scholars attest, we discover that the intimacy between Jesus and his sheep is an extension of the intimacy between Jesus and his Father. And finally, there is the crucial statement of self-sacrifice. Jesus is not a victim in his death: it is purposeful and it is voluntary.
A Different Picture
As we are reminded, the biblical tradition of the shepherd metaphor had some standard elements. The good shepherd was a sower of provision and security for the flock. On the other hand, the inadequate shepherd was negligent or exploitive. But because the sheep were vulnerable and surrounded by a variety of hazards, the shepherd was essential to the safety and survival of the flock.
However, in Jesus’ teaching in John 10, he adds a new and different dimension to the familiar, established tradition. Jesus says that the good shepherd “lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10:11). Wow! That’s a different picture!
Now, we recognize that the sheep are in jeopardy; that’s clear enough. But nothing about those cherished passages in the Psalms and the Prophets suggested that the shepherd himself was in jeopardy. On the contrary, he is the one who is strong and in control. He is the one who is able to provide security for the sheep.
So it is not until Jesus’ teaching in John 10, that we are introduced to the thought of the shepherd being in danger. Interestingly enough, Jesus does not even honor those who run from danger (the hired hand) with the title of “shepherd.” The authentic shepherd always stays and faces the foe for the sake of his flock.
Returning for a moment to the kinds of images we probably grew up seeing in our Sunday school classrooms, there was the portrait of the shepherd in the 23rd Psalm. The shepherd there was strong, wise and peaceful. Then there were the portraits from the New Testament of the shepherd who brought home the lost lamb. There again we saw images of strength, love and success. But none of those portrayals caused us to imagine the shepherd bleeding and dying. For sure, that is a different picture.
As scholars point out, of course, that different picture is also a familiar one to us. It’s the picture from Good Friday, and it’s the picture of an arrest, trials, whips, mocking, nails, and thorns. We see this picture clearly on a hill at Calvary. It’s the picture of a cross!
In John 10, it’s all the same picture. As we are informed, this chapter is where the Good Shepherd and Good Friday come together. The shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.
A Personal Picture
We have two kinds of pictures on the walls in our homes. I have often said to my wife, “If someone visited our home and didn’t know I am a minister, it wouldn’t take them long to figure it out.” Why? Because in our den, there are multiple pictures on the walls of various churches we have served.
Repeating, we have two kinds of pictures on our walls. One kind is the art of personal taste, but that is not usually the product of personal experience.
The second kind of picture, like the picture on our den walls, reflect our personal experience. There are photographs of ourselves, our families, and our friends. They are pictures of people we know, places we’ve been, and events we’ve attended. Each picture is a memory. It comes from some moment on our own personal time line.
Now, imagine that we take all the pictures in our home, divide them into those two categories (personal taste or personal experience) and put them into two separate rooms. Once we have done that – all the pictures have been sorted and divided – someone brings into our house one final picture. It is the portrait of the Good Shepherd. In which room do we put that portrait? Where does it belong?
As scholars have pointed out, the reason that our Sunday school classroom, church hallways and parlors, biblical storybooks and curriculum and music are filled with this portrait is precisely because it is meant to be personal. After all, it’s the psalmist’s personal testimony. The writer does not simply say that the Lord is a shepherd, but rather, “The Lord is my shepherd” (Psalm 23:1). And that is also the certain tone of Jesus’ teaching in John 10 as well. “I know my own and my own know me,” Jesus says of his flock” (John 10:14).
Beloved, the picture of the Good Shepherd belongs with our own personal pictures. It’s a portrait of someone we know, and it depicts a love and care that we have experienced. Thanks be to God.