During the season when we celebrate Christ’s incarnation, we have occasion to sing these familiar lines:
While shepherds watched their flocks by night
All seated on the ground
The angel of the Lord came down
And glory shone around
And glory shone around
These verses recount the events of Luke 2:8-14. Shepherds and sheep were part of the middle eastern culture, and an image drawn upon frequently throughout Scripture. As these shepherds saw the angel of the Lord, were they aware that the angel was bringing news of The Good Shepherd?
Following the healing of a man born blind in John 9, the story is picked up in chapter 10 with Jesus’ words:
Truly, truly, I say to you, he who does not enter the sheepfold by the door but climbs in by another way, that man is a thief and a robber. But he who enters by the door is the shepherd of the sheep. To him the gatekeeper opens. The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice. A stranger they will not follow, but they will flee from him, for they do not know the voice of strangers. This figure of speech Jesus used with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them. (10:1-6)
In this figure of speech, he contrasts the true shepherd with one who is an imposter. The true shepherd enters by the door. Sheep pens in those days were often round, stone affairs, with an opening through which the shepherd led his sheep. Unlike Western shepherds, who use dogs to drive the sheep, the middle eastern shepherd called to his sheep. They responded to his voice. The imposter could sneak in, but his voice would be unfamiliar to the sheep. The true shepherd goes before his sheep, calling them, and leading them out to pasture for feeding as well as back into the fold for safety. They will not follow the imposter, but they will follow the voice of their shepherd.
As was often the case, those listening to Jesus did not understand what he was saying. He had to explain his figure to them:
So Jesus 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 world 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. (10:7-17)
First, Jesus says he is the door of the sheep; not just the watchman watching the door, but the actual door. As the sheep had to go through the door to be fed or to be kept safe, those who come to the Father must come through Jesus Christ. There is one way into the fold of the believer, and that is through the door of Christ. There is no other option. Second, Jesus says that he is the good shepherd. What qualifies him to be called the good shepherd is that he lays down his life for the sheep. He does not merely protect them from danger by scaring away attackers or by herding them together where they can be hidden; he lays down his life for them. D.A. Carson says this:
“In no case does this suggest a death with merely exemplary significance; in each case death envisaged is on behalf of someone else. The shepherd does not die for his sheep to serve as an example, throwing himself off a cliff in a grotesque and futile display while bellowing, “See how much I love you!” No, the assumption is that the sheep are in mortal danger; that in their defense the shepherd loses his life; that by his death they are saved.”
Without Christ, we are in mortal danger; we in danger of eternal separation from God. It is only through the atonement of Christ, he the good shepherd in our place, that we can be spared from this danger; nothing else will.
The good shepherd knows his own sheep. The hired hands do not own the sheep and do not have anything invested in them. The good shepherd knows each one. The basis for this intimate relationship between sheep and Shepherd is the relationship between Jesus and His father. He says he knows his sheep and they know him “Just as the Father knows me and I know the Father” (v. 15) As his sheep, He knows us intimately, and we are able to know Him intimately through the Holy Spirit, through His Word. What a great comfort that is, to be known by someone in that way, and to be known in that way by the King of the Universe. When I feel like a square peg in a round hole (which is pretty frequent) I take comfort in knowing that He knows me, and that I will hear his voice when he speaks. But it’s more than hearing Him speak in His creation, through a beautiful sunrise or the way the light comes through the sheer curtains in my living room at dusk. It’s about knowing His Word, probing the depths of this amazing revelation He left for us.
The 23rd Psalm, of course, is on of the most loved pieces of Scripture, because it is comforting when we are going through dark waters. But to be led in the way that the Psalmist depicts there requires that we belong to the Shepherd. We cannot say we belong to Him unless we have gone through that door of Jesus Christ and placed our trust in that sacrifice he made, that he laid down his life for us. If I can’t hear His voice, it isn’t because He isn’t speaking. Perhaps it’s because I don’t belong to Him. But that’s a sad thought that no one likes to hear at Christmas time.
As we think of the babe in the stable, of that vulnerable little creature under the watch care of his tender, young mother, may we remember that the shepherds were looking for the Good Shepherd, the Shepherd of our souls, and the only one who would lay his life for us. May we always be attentive to His voice, even amidst what can become a busy, hectic season.
About the author: Kim Shay is an ordinary Christian woman born and raised in Canada; mother of three, and trainer of one Beagle. She is a book lover and usually has a few books on the go at once. What she likes to read and study most is the Word of God. Kim likes to blog about what she reads, about her faith, the perplexities of life, the weird thoughts that roll around in her brain, or her family. She loves to see what God can teach her through the very ordinary circumstances of her life. Kim blogs at The Upward Call.
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