Death, Life and the Good Shepherd

“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want”. One of the most enduring images of our Lord’s work is that of a shepherd. A shepherd who provides for his flock. A shepherd who leads and cares and feeds his sheep in the good pastures. In John’s gospel we hear our Lord make a crucial distinction about what it means to be your shepherd, how His shepherding is different from all others. He says, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10:11). There are others, there are hired hands that act and move like a shepherd, but their real nature is shown when the wolves show up. In the presence of the great enemy of the flock the hired hand runs away leaving the sheep to be snatched up and scattered across the land. But your Good Shepherd, He will give His life to protect the sheep. He stands between them and the wolves and gives His flesh and blood so they might live.

Life for the sheep rests in the death of the shepherd. You may be wondering, “What will happen to the sheep once the shepherd has been killed to protect them.” Well, that is just it, your Shepherd, your Good Shepherd not only lays down His life, but He takes it up again. It is here in the taking up of His life that the authority and assurance of His shepherding comes into focus. He did not just shepherd once upon a time. No, He continues to shepherd His flock even now. In fact, He continues to gather more and more sheep into His fold. He says He is bringing together all those who listen to His voice, so there will be one flock, one shepherd. He continues to give His life for them. He does not run, He does not allow His flock to be snatched away and scattered, He lays down His life and takes it up again. He dies and rises and secures life, real life, eternal life for His sheep.

Of course, the need for a Good Shepherd speaks to the reality of the wolves. If there was no threat, no enemy lurking and seeking to devour the flock, it would not matter if our shepherd were good or not. A hired hand would do just fine. But the wolves are real. There are forces at work that would love nothing more than for the flock to be scattered, to run aimlessly across the land and be plucked off one by one. Elsewhere John speaks pointedly that the flock of the Good Shepherd is in this world but not of the world. He says, “If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you” (John 15:19). To heed the voice of the Good Shepherd is to find yourself out of favor with the world in which you live. You become homeless, displaced, and disjointed from the common flow of things and become a target for the wolves who rise in opposition to your Lord.

I am not sure if I have told you the story before of the time I really struggled with the whole idea of becoming a pastor and came quite close to perusing a different vocation. It happened at the worst possible time. I was only about a month away from graduating the seminary when I made a horrible mistake. I read the church father John Chrysostom. He was regarded as one of the greatest preachers of the faith and I was eager to learn as much as I could. I read a few of his more famous sermons and then decided to read his treatise titled, “On the Priesthood.” That book shook me to my core. It was not an encouraging note about the vocation I was perusing. Rather, it was a treatise about the horrors and difficulty and responsibility of the task. At the heart of it he spoke of the relentless attacking wolves who never rest, never sleep, never give up their assault on the flock. Chrysostom saw himself disqualified to fend off the wolves. I began to wonder if my whole pursuit had been foolish. Who was I to even attempt to protect a flock of our Lord’s sheep?

But as it turns out, God provided me the strength and fortitude to press on. Since becoming a pastor, all those years ago, I can attest to the reality of the wolves. The wolves could be false teachers who bend and twist the truth, comingling falsehood with faithful instruction and bringing doubt and confusion to the flock. Those perhaps are the easiest ones to dispatch, for you can almost keep them at bay by simply gathering the flock together. If we unite to one another the false shepherds have their voices stifled. But there are far bigger problems. There are the wolves which sweep through the culture. They are part of the ethos of our age. They attack at all sides, all the time, without pause. They shape our world view and focus us inward toward our own desires and passions as the only measure of what is true. Then there are the wolves that lurk within the hearts of the sheep themselves. They work there as a cancer consuming them from the inside. These are the wolves that sabotage your faith, eating away at the confidence you have in the Word of God. They cause you to doubt His promises and to live as if He had not called you by name, had not fed you with His gifts, had not forgiven you your sins.

What do you do about such wolves? How do you protect the sheep from wolves that lurk within them? How do you stop a constant attack that will never let up until the final hour is struck? Well, the only way we can continue, the only way there is any hope at all is to cling to our Good Shepherd. Hope is found in the One who can and will go from depths of the grave and hell to the right hand of the Father and the promise of eternal life. Strength is not found in our effort or passion or desire but in the voice of the Good Shepherd who takes up His life to put an end to the wolves’ terror.

What I have learned as a pastor is that having a Good Shepherd changes everything. Saint Paul says, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:3-4). Your Good Shepherd lays down His life and takes it up again. But He also carries you with Him into His death and life. It is as if before the wolves could destroy and tear at the sheep our Lord does a sort of preemptive slaughter. He binds you into His death. You die with Him. The wolf that bites and claws at you cannot threaten you with real death for you have already died in Christ. It cannot promise you life and hope if you bend to its desires for it is already yours in your Good Shepherd.

To have such a Good Shepherd is to enter the fray against the wolves of our age with the confidence that victory is already secure. The end of the story is already known. There is life and salvation and hope and forgiveness in your Lord. We need not fear the wolves, but instead we face them with the confidence of the Good Shepherd Himself. Death has given way to life. Salvation is yours. Let us stand firm with the rest of the flock. We are one flock, one Shepherd, “…one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.”

We do not follow some hired hand. We do not follow one who will abandon us when the attack is real and fraught with danger. No, you follow a Good Shepherd, … The Good Shepherd. He is the one who has given us life through His death and victory through His life.