The words before us are some of the most familiar in the whole Bible. This chapter of John has inspired many well-known hymns and works of art – like the one over there. For many Christians, their first impression of Jesus is as their Good Shepherd, as their parents and grandparents sing them to sleep with “I Am Jesus Little Lamb.” We know Jesus as our Good Shepherd. But here’s something you might not know: Jesus’ description of himself as the only good shepherd was born from controversy.
Jesus had given a poor back his sight. This man’s friends and neighbors were shocked and stunned by this unheard of miracle. So they brought him to the religious authorities, the Pharisees. The Pharisees conducted an investigation. When they interrogated this man and he refused to retract the truth that Jesus of Nazareth had given him his sight, the Pharisees threw him out of the synagogue; they excommunicated him. Jesus bluntly and directly called the Pharisees blind guides; robbers and thieves who were destroying God’s flock.
Why was Jesus so judgmental, so intolerant of the Pharisees? Quite simply, because they were supposed to be the spiritual leaders of God’s people; they were called to keep them safe by pointing out the dangers of sin and unbelief and feed them on fertile pastures of God’s promises. But the Pharisees had betrayed both God and his people. They had become spiritual thieves and robbers who were leading Israel away from God by adding their own ideas to God’s Word. The Pharisees taught that salvation was achieved by obeying a set of rules and regulations that they had invented above and apart from God’s Law. They were not faithful shepherds. They were leading Israel into spiritual destruction. In response to the Pharisees’ malpractice, Jesus uses the opportunity to make a bigger point: not everyone who claims to come in God’s name is a faithful shepherd of the flock.
I tell you the truth, the man who does not enter the sheep pen by the gate, but climbs in by some other way, is a thief and a robber. The man who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The watchman opens the gate for him, and the sheep listen to his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice. But they will never follow a stranger; in fact, they will run away from him because they do not recognize a stranger’s voice. Even if you’re not in the sheep business, you can understand this imagery. Every evening the shepherd would lead his flock to the sheep pen where they would be safe from wild animals and thieves throughout the night. Quite often, several shepherds would keep their flocks in a single enclosure, to reduce the number of night watchmen needed. In the morning, as each shepherd arrived, he would call to his flock and they would follow him out to be fed and watered. But the legitimate shepherds weren’t the only ones interested in the sheep. Some would sneak into the pen to steal the sheep. They were robbers and thieves. They weren’t interested in the well-being of the sheep, they sought only to take and steal what they could from the flock. That’s what the Pharisees had done to the blind man and were doing to God’s people: they were sneaking into the fold – claiming authority over God’s people – by means other than the Gospel and were robbing the sheep of their salvation.
We might think that the Pharisees are ancient history, but godless sheep stealers are still everywhere. We know the world is filled with voices preaching something very different from God’s Law and Gospel. We hear them on the radio, TV; we read their heresy in the newspaper and online; their voice comes from Washington D.C. and Hollywood, and they feed our children lies about everything from creation to sexual identity in school. As dangerous as those humanistic, immoral voices are a far greater threat comes from those who claim to speak for God and yet proclaim an anti-Christian message. Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons may come to your door carrying their Bibles and able to quote a whole slew of Bible passages for you, but if you listen closely you hear that they aren’t interested in pointing out sin and leading you to Christ for forgiveness – but that they want you to accept and believe their own message and method to get to eternal life – a message that depends on how earnest, zealous, honest and obedient you are.
But perhaps more of a danger today are the men (and sometimes women) who claim to speak in God’s name throughout America – apart from any denomination. They can be found in the big box churches you see popping up all over the place. They are often good-looking and always well-spoken, they use lots of Christian-sounding words and they draw hundreds and thousands of spectators. But when you listen carefully, you will not hear the voice of the Good Shepherd. You might hear promises of earthly wealth and peace and prosperity – but Jesus has never guaranteed those things. They tease people with the promise of a close, personal relationship with Jesus – but they deny the very means through which Jesus has promised to come to us: the Gospel in Word and Sacrament. Like flies drawn to light, people fly to their churches, attracted by their image of wealth and success – but the untold story is that they become rich by fleecing the flock. These leaders are not faithful shepherds, they are robbers and thieves. Why do so many fill pews and write checks to these frauds? Why do they follow the voice of strangers, frauds and false shepherds? The only conclusion can be that they really don’t know the voice of the Good Shepherd.
Which begs the question: do we know the voice of our Good Shepherd? Would you recognize a stranger’s voice, a false teacher? Would you know if someone, if I or any other preacher, was not leading you to Christ but stealing you away from him? You might be tired of hearing the regular encouragement to be faithful in worship and bring their children to Sunday school and attend Bible class and have family devotions at home and study the Bible on their own time. Satan makes it seem like spending time in God’s Word is some terrible burden that no one should have to bear. But just like it takes years of listening for sheep to recognize their shepherd’s voice, it takes years – a lifetime – of study for believers to learn the voice of Jesus so well that they will not be misled by the voices of the thieves and robbers; the frauds and fakes – who are out not only to steal your time and money, but the salvation of your soul.
Nothing can replace the time you personally spend with Jesus in his Word. But here are three basic things you should listen for in any sermon that claims to be Christian. First, what’s the subject matter? If the main focus is on your life or the life of the speaker, alarm bells should go off. The only proper focus for a Christian sermon is the inspired, inerrant Word of God with its central message of Christ crucified. Second, what is the problem that the shepherd is seeking to cure? Does the problem go no deeper than your health or wealth or emotions or marriage or social life or coworkers or politics? Or, is the main problem deeper than that; is the main problem in you, the sin that lives in your own heart and separates you from God. (Closely related to that, does the speaker proclaim God’s Law and threat of punishment in all its sternness, or do they modify the Law to better fit our secular, immoral culture?) Third, what’s the solution to the problem? Do you have to do something? Do you need to pray more, give more, work more, try harder or climb some ladder to get right with God? God loves you too much to leave your salvation in your hands. The real message of Christianity is that the real, deep, eternal problem is human sin – not only the sins we do but the sinfulness we were born with; the solution can only be found in the cross of Christ; and this message can only be found in the pages of Scripture. If that’s not the message you’re hearing, run. Run away and don’t look back. Run because your Good Shepherd tells you to run – that’s how he keeps you safe from robbers and thieves.
The crowd – and especially the Pharisees – didn’t understand this metaphor, so Jesus used another, even simpler picture. I tell you the truth, I am the gate for the sheep. All who ever came before me were thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. He will come in and go out, and find pasture. If you’ve ever wondered why the world hates Christians, this is why. The unbelieving world wants the freedom to create its own religion, its own god, its own morality, its own way to heaven. But Jesus says that the only way to heaven is through faith in him. Christians are called intolerant and bigoted and hateful and judgmental and, in some places, are blown up and beheaded for standing firm on this truth. But no one will go to heaven who denies Jesus as the only Savior from sin. The entire NT makes it clear that this is the central doctrine of the Bible and the linchpin of salvation. When a jailer asked Paul what he had to do to be saved, Paul answered believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved. (Acts 16:31) In his Pentecost sermon Peter proclaimed salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved. (Acts 4:12) Jesus himself said whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. (John 3:18) Can this really be true? Can we really believe that there is only one path to heaven and it passes through a Jew from Nazareth named Jesus? Are we willing to face the hostility of the world and the wrath of hell, are we willing to put our present and future, our time and talents, our very lives and our eternity in the hands of Jesus as our Good Shepherd?
The answer to that question doesn’t lie in your heart, it lies in what this shepherd has already done for you. This shepherd didn’t sit in his mansion and tell you how to earn God’s favor, he came down to this troubled planet to do the dirty, bloody work of earning God’s favor for you. This shepherd volunteered to take the blame for your lies, your hatred, your impatience and greed; your sins of thought, word and deed. This shepherd allowed himself to be betrayed, arrested, condemned, beaten and whipped for you. This shepherd took your place on a cursed cross and suffered your punishment in hell. This shepherd rose again to life for you. This shepherd offers the forgiveness of sins and eternal salvation to all people, free of charge, no strings attached. What other shepherd, leader, preacher, or teacher can say that? Jesus is the only shepherd you can trust because he’s the only way to eternal life – and the only way to a full life right now.
Jesus closes: The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full. Sheep don’t need much to keep them happy; give them some green grass, a cool stream, a safe shelter and a faithful shepherd, and they are content. For a sheep, that’s a full life. What’s your idea of a full life? Are you content with the essentials – food, water, clothing, shelter, the forgiveness of sins and the promise of eternal life? Is that enough for you? We don’t seem to be as easily pleased as sheep, do we? We want more. A better job. A bigger house. A nicer car. Better health. A more luxurious retirement. A different, more attractive spouse. More money, more influence, more, more, more. Satan tempts us to equate having a full life with having a life full of earthly things.
Here’s the truth about a full life: in his abundant grace, our Good Shepherd has given us more than just the bare essentials, but even if he didn’t, and even if he takes some of those things away from us, we would still have a full life. How? Because having a full life doesn’t depend on our level of comfort, health, wealth or any other thing that this world can offer. The full life Jesus promises you is one filled with the things of God: the promise of his abiding presence every day, peace with God through his blood, his protection from enemies both physical and spiritual, his unwavering love, his abundant mercy and forgiveness, the absolute certainty of salvation. Those are the things your shepherd died to win for you. Those things are yours whether you are rich or poor, healthy or sick. Those are things no one can steal from you. Those are the things a full, content, joyful life is made of.
Today your Good Shepherd calls to you. Listen to his voice and he will keep you safe from thieves and robbers and lead you to a life full of blessing now and forever in heaven. Amen.