So Jesus again said to them, "Truly, truly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the door. If anyone enters by me, he will be saved and will go in and out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly. I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. He who is a hired hand and not a shepherd, who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees, and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. He flees because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep. And I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.
-- John 10:7-16
Jesus is so intent on shepherding us the way we need to be shepherded, that he is willing to put his own life on the line to protect us. He lays down his life for the sheep. That’s not just a good shepherd, that’s a great shepherd! That’s a crazy shepherd. See how he contrasts this sort of shepherding with that of a hired hand? A hired hand doesn’t really care about the sheep. He only cares about his paycheck. So when the wolf comes, the hired hand is thinking to himself, “I don’t want to get hurt,” and he bails. But the good shepherd risks his own life. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.
The connection between sacrifice and sheep is not lost on the people Jesus is talking to here. When Jesus tells sheep stories, he calls to mind not just the agrarian lifestyle of the people, where tending sheep and raising livestock would resonate, he calls to mind the centuries of sacrifices the Jewish people have conducted. A spotless lamb is required.
Jesus goes a full leap further, though. Not only does he identify himself as the Good Shepherd who sacrifices himself for the sheep, he places himself in the role of sacrificial lamb. In John 10 he may be calling himself the Good Shepherd, but nine chapters previous, John the Baptist is calling him the Lamb of God. He is both the shepherd and the sheep.
That’s how far Jesus was willing to go to save us. That’s how far he’s willing to go to identify with us. That is the inglorious scandal of the incarnation. God becoming a man is like a man becoming a sheep. Imagine, if you like, that you or I are so in love with ants, extremely desirous of a relationship with ants, incredibly eager for ants to know us, that the only way we could achieve this connection is to become an ant. The analogy breaks down, as all analogies do, but to go from the God of the Universe with all powers at your disposal to a crying, burping, pooping baby in a feeding trough in a barn . . . that’s a sacrifice on par with man becoming an ant.
That’s the kind of shepherd we have. We have a Sacrificial Shepherd.
Let us not forget, however, that this “hired hands” thing isn’t just an illustration. Jesus was referring to some of his contemporaries, to the people charged with spiritually shepherding Israel. The religious leaders, the ones in charge of watching over God’s people, had dropped the ball. They were not sacrificial shepherds; they were not good shepherds. They were self-interested, money grubbing, uncompassionate shepherds. All the way back in the Old Testament, God had already offered some harsh words for them, and at the same time, some words of hope for the sheep in their care.
During a time of national tumult and cultural crisis, God tells the prophet Ezekiel to make this announcement:
The word of the LORD came to me: "Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel; prophesy, and say to them, even to the shepherds, Thus says the Lord GOD: Ah, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fat ones, but you do not feed the sheep. The weak you have not strengthened, the sick you have not healed, the injured you have not bound up, the strayed you have not brought back, the lost you have not sought, and with force and harshness you have ruled them. So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd, and they became food for all the wild beasts. My sheep were scattered; they wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill. My sheep were scattered over all the face of the earth, with none to search or seek for them." (Ezekiel 34:1-6)
That’s the bad news. Let’s skip down to verse 11 and get the good news:
"For thus says the Lord GOD: Behold, I, I myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out. As a shepherd seeks out his flock when he is among his sheep that have been scattered, so will I seek out my sheep, and I will rescue them from all places where they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. And I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land. And I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the ravines, and in all the inhabited places of the country. I will feed them with good pasture, and on the mountain heights of Israel shall be their grazing land. There they shall lie down in good grazing land, and on rich pasture they shall feed on the mountains of Israel. I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I myself will make them lie down, declares the Lord GOD. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, and the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them in justice." (Ezekiel 34:11-16)
The “lost sheep” imagery is not original to the Gospels; as you can see here, it goes back to the Old Testament, setting the scene and the precedent for Jesus and his message. What was true in Ezekiel’s day was true in Jesus’ day. The spiritual shepherds in place (the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the scribes) had no real regard for the sheep. The Pharisees turned inward, caring more about appearing righteous, more about keeping up appearances and worrying about who God’s kingdom must exclude. The Pharisees maintained a very small sheep pen. The Sadducees were greedy. They had turned the temple system, the system by which God’s people were supposed to encounter God and get made right with God, into a profitable marketplace.
Spiritually speaking, the place was in shambles. And each successive generation of faithful Jewish believers submitting to the yoke of each successive generation of corrupt authorities was confronted with the same message: Meet the new boss, same as the old boss. Until Jesus of Nazareth. The ongoing spiritual failure of Israel’s designated shepherds culminates with God keeping the promise he made in Ezekiel 34: “I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed.”
I imagine the religious leaders of Jesus’ day got their panties in a wad over that one, because Jesus saying he was going to assume this role would be an unambiguous allusion to God’s promise to personally shepherd us.
I imagine their confusion and their confounding upon confronting in the flesh the God who, unlike them, does not shepherd the sheep by exploiting them. The Good Shepherd’s sacrifice of his life included sacrificing his rights to power and authority and freedom. Unlike the self-appointed shepherds of Israel’s culture, the self-sufficient shepherd of all creation exuded humility and exhibited servanthood. His motives were pure. Thank God we don’t have a shepherd who ignores us or despises us or manipulates us.
This embraced selflessness flows directly from his natural sinlessness. For the sacrificial shepherd to be the sacrificial lamb, sinlessness is required. And since death is required to forgive our sinfulness, our sacrificial shepherd puts his money where his mouth is and actually takes the place of the sacrifice of the spotless lamb.
Recalling the regulations for sacrificial atonement under the old covenant, Peter, writing under the new covenant, compares Christ to “a lamb without blemish or spot.” Paul proclaims that “Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed.” So while the previous hired hands shepherded us through fear and constraint, the yoke Jesus places on us is easy, his burden his light. It is for freedom that we have been set free. Paul celebrates the sacrificial shepherd becoming the sacrificial sheep to secure our liberty this way:
[F]or all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. (Romans 3:23-25)
How awesome is that? A hired hand wants to be paid to protect the sheep, but the Good Shepherd does it for free. Not only that, but when payment comes due, he pays for the protection of the sheep himself with his very blood.
This is a slightly altered excerpt from a chapter titled "Jesus the Man" in my manuscript-in-revision, The Unvarnished Jesus.