Need a shepherd? Look no further than Jesus!
John 10 takes us back to the days before Christ’s death and resurrection; but those days contributed to the death and resurrection of Christ. Think back to two of this year’s Lenten lessons. In John 9, Jesus heals a man born blind, which got that man excommunicated. Christ searched out that man and asked, “Do you believe in the Son of Man”? The newly-envisioned man says, “Who is he, sir? Tell me so that I may believe in him.” Jesus, “You’re looking at Him.” Faith comes from hearing the message, Paul writes, and in the case of this man we can say, “Message received.” “Lord, I believe!” He cried out, and then worshiped Jesus. That didn’t make Jesus’ enemies jump for joy.
Even less did they jump after what happened a little later, recorded in John 11. Jesus’ friend Lazarus dies after a brief illness. Jesus returns from his self-imposed exile and raises Lazarus from the dead. Again, message received. He who proclaimed Himself to be the resurrection and the life to those who believe in Him won many disciples; but He also convinced his enemies that death might just solve their Jesus-problem.
In between those miracles you find Jesus’ Good Shepherd discourse, a part of which we heard today. Speaking to those irritated by a blind man seeing again, Jesus says, “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 his sheep.”
These words parabolize a portion of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers.’”In other words, not everyone who looks like a shepherd is. To paraphrase a proverb, “If it looks like a shepherd, talks like a shepherd, and acts like a shepherd, it probably is a shepherd.” The reverse is true: if it doesn’t, it’s probably not.
Jesus says that shepherds enter by the gate. They do things the right way. In the Lutheran church we express that in different ways. Firstly, “Our churches teach that no one should publicly teach in the Church, or administer the Sacraments, without a rightly ordered call.” Secondly, “The Church is the congregation of saints in which the Gospel is purely taught and the Sacraments are rightly administered.” Shepherds come via a divine call to a congregation. And those divinely called adhere to Scripture; they follow the word of Christ: “If you hold to my teachings you are really my disciples” and, “Teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” Or, as Paul said to Timothy, “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth.” So, to paraphrase once more, “If it looks like a pastor, talks like a pastor, and acts like a pastor, then it’s probably a pastor.” True pastors of the Word enter through gates. They pass the test. They teach according to the Scriptures. They live according to the Scriptures. They shepherd according to the Scriptures: “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.”
Note what a shepherd does. He goes through the gate. He calls out to the sheep. He calls them by name. He leads them out to pastures. He goes out in front of them. This describes the ministry of the Word instituted by Christ. Pastors go in answer to a divine call. Pastors call out to a flock, using the voice that they recognize, the voice of Christ. “My sheep listen to my voice,” a voice that Jesus promises to the pastor when He says, “He who listens to you, listens to me” And he doesn’t just call out randomly. He calls his own sheep by name. He knows his sheep. He talks to his sheep. He visits his sheep. It is his job to find the sheep who have no sheep pen at all. And then he leads. He takes them into the pastures. He gives them the food: Christ in Word, Water, and Meal. He protects from wild animals and poisonous grasses. In fact, he goes out in front, so that danger finds him first. The pastor warns against false teachers, false doctrine, and sinful behavior, whether it’s within or without the flock. He who does not is no shepherd.
Note that the sheep play a role. “They know his voice.” “They will never follow a stranger…they will run away from him.” The Christian does not do nothing. You test the spirits. You need to know how to recognize the voice of the shepherd – to see that the shepherd has come in through the gate, to make sure he is rightly called, rightly teaching, and rightly living. If not, you correct, rebuke, and encourage. Perhaps say, “This is no shepherd.” If the hymns are off-key doctrinally, if the sermons don’t ring true, if the Bible classes breath a foreign spirit, if the counseling isn’t according to God’s Word, then that shepherd doesn’t speak with Christ’s voice; that’s a stranger, an enemy, a robber and thief; and the sheep never, ever follow a false shepherd. But if he is the shepherd, then you listen and follow. Paul writes, “It was [Jesus] who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.”
This testing is vital, because as Jesus says, wolves don’t look like wolves. Even the Antichrist comes disguised, as Revelation 13 says: he looks like lamb, but speaks like dragon. So you guard against the devil and his allies. You will not be fooled by pseudo-shepherds. You will not cuddle up as close to false teachers as possible instead of running away from them. You dare not, because false doctrine leads to damnation, to hell. In other words, this is important. Jesus made sure his audience understood: “Jesus said again, ‘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. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.’”
Up to now we’ve been talking about shepherds with a lower-case “s”, that is those incumbents of the office of the holy ministry here on earth. Even there I’ve spoken mostly of pastors to this point. I want to assure you that these words also apply to our Lutheran school teachers. We call them to serve in the ministry of the Word in our Lutheran elementary school. They must serve faithfully: speaking with Christ’s voice; teaching the Word of God; caring for the little sheep we’ve entrusted to them. And you must test them as much as you test your pastor.
But now, Jesus takes us back to the source of that ministry, just as Peter did today: “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed. For you were like sheep going astray, but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.” Not shepherd, lower-case, but Shepherd, uppercase – Christ, who says in just a few moments, “I am the good shepherd.” But before that He says, “I am the gate.” Jesus is the way by which the sheep come into the fold at night and go out of the fold at day. He is the way that the shepherds enter and exit. Jesus is non-negotiable. Without Jesus you can’t have shepherds, you can’t have sheep. There’s nowhere to go and no way to get there. Those who come apart from Christ rob and kill. Those who abandon what the Bible teaches and says, no matter how minor the doctrine may seem, plunder, rape, and pillage. See it in the heresies that erupt and re-erupt, the schisms and sects, the division, the discord, the bad reputations, the crimes, the fraud, the bad churchmanship. They do not care for souls.
But Christ does. So much so that He came. So much so that He serves as the door. “Whoever enters through me will be saved.” Put that into concrete language: “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, whoever does not believe will be condemned.” Because He came to give life, life to the full! More than you could ever need! Even as you walk through the valley of the shadow of death, you fear no evil, because He’s with you. His rod and staff comforts you. Where you’re going, He’s been.
And He did it first. He led. He led to the cross. He died for sins. He stood in front of the flock and took the full brunt of death, the full fury of God’s wrath. He laid down His life for the sheep. He did not kill or steal. He was killed and stolen from. And then He took up His life again. Because He is I AM. He is. He was. He ever shall be. Need a Shepherd? Look no further than Christ! Amen.