‘I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me – just as the Father knows me and I know the Father – and I lay down my life for the sheep.” (John 10:14-15)
The verse says that Christ is the good Shepherd, and knows His sheep. It also claims that He knows the Father. But what’s the connection?
I guess it’s in the sense of reciprocal affection. Love responds in kind.
There is a reciprocal affection between the Shepherd and the sheep. There is a reciprocal affection between the Father and the Son; and the one is the parallel of the other. The affection between the Shepherd and His flock can be compared, in its intimacy, with nothing but the affection between Eternal Father and the Son. As the Father knows the Son, so does the Shepherd know the sheep: as the Son knows the Father, so do the sheep know their Shepherd.
What does it mean, in this sense, for Jesus to be our “shepherd”?
It’s perhaps a somewhat unfamiliar metaphor these days.The shepherds have long left Shepherds Bush, but go to the sheep fairs at Roscommon and each farmer will tell you the numbers and the stock value; he knows the market in which each was purchased, and the price at which it can be disposed of. There is before him so much stock convertible into so much cash.
But in ancient Palestine, there was a union of attachment and tenderness between shepherd and sheep, and there was a personal involvement in keeping the sheep safe. David in defense of his father’s flock, slew a lion and a bear: and Jacob reminds Laban how he watched Laban’s sheep “in the heat and drought…” The point is simple: You love those for whom you risk, and they love you;
And more, in the west the flock is driven, but in the east it was led. the shepherd goes before and the sheep follow him in a collaborative network of sympathy. “The shepherd knows his sheep, and is known of them.”
So the people to whom Christ said these words felt all this and more. They understood what a lonely shepherd must feel towards the helpless things which were the companions of his daily life, for whose safety he stands in jeopardy every hour, and whose value is measurable to him not by price, but by his own risk.
And thinking along these lines, we reach some notion of the love which Jesus meant to represent, that tenderness that God feels for us, even though we are infinitely lower in nature. He knows the name of each and the trials of each, and thinks for each with a separate concern.
And the shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. Nothing less will do. For He is the good shepherd. The word here is kalos whcih means good not in the sense of benevolent, but in the sense of genuine. His love is the real thing.
So Jesus distinguishes his self-identity as shepherd from thieves and hirelings (whose conern is what they can get out of the sheep). And many such nominal shepherds had the people of Israel in time gone by: hireling priest, false prophets, corrupt kings: “All that ever came before Me were thieves and robbers.” Hirelings are shepherds, of course, but not good shepherds, of the REAL kind.
Remember: they are tested by danger. “He that is a hireling, and not the good shepherd, whose own the sheep are not, sees the wolf coming, and leaves the sheep, and flees.” The cause of the sheep is not his cause.
I AM the reverse of this. I AM the REAL shepherd’s heart, because I make the cause of the sheep his cause.
Do you hear it? The cause of man was the cause of Christ! He did no hireling’s work. The only pay He got was hatred, a crown of thorns, and the cross. “He saved others, Himself He can not save.” No, of course not; he that will save others can not save Himself.
And He proves this role is His by his knowledge of the sheep; by their knowledge of him and by what he does for them : “I know My sheep-am known of mine-I lay down My life for the sheep.”
I know my sheep, as the Father knows Me. In other words, as unerringly as His Father read His heart, so unerringly did He read the heart of man and recognize His own.
How? It’s too easy –and not fully the point- to see “Because he was God.” Notice he says that the sheep know Him as truly as He the sheep. He knew men on the same principle on which we know men-the same on which we know Him. The only difference is in degree: He knows with infinitely more precision than we, but the knowledge is the same in kind.
So what does he mean? How does he know us? We truly know each other when we love… He truly knows us because his love was total.
It was said of Jesus that He knew what was in people, so he didn’t trust himself to them. “Jesus, perceiving they were going to try to make him king by force, withdrew…” He knew Nathanael; He read the heart of the rich young ruler; He figured out Zaccheus, Judas, the thief upon the cross, … He read through the Pharisees, and His whole being shuddered with the recoil of utter and irreconcilable aversion. And God has given Him authority to execute judgment, because He is the Son of Man. And the judgement comes, grimly: “I never knew you, depart from me all ye that work iniquity.”
He know us too well!
And His sheep know him, too. Like dogs standing by their master, or babies turning to their mothers voice, “Eternity is set in the heart of man” and we reach for what is good. We know what we’re doing! We have a gut instinct for God.
And He finally proved that he was the shepherd by what he did: “I lay down my life for the sheep.” A martyr? No. He died FOR the sheep. If the shepherd had not sacrificed himself, then the sheep would have been the sacrifice.
He took our place. Completely.
Picture by Andrw Garvey-Williams: “Ecce Homo” TeenStreet 2013.