Great Texts of the Bible
The Good Shepherd
I am the good shepherd: the good shepherd layeth down his life for the sheep.—John 10:11.
1. The imagery of the text is an incidental claim on the part of our Lord to be the Messiah of Israel. For it was as a shepherd that Jehovah was to fulfil His promise of redemption to His people. “He shall feed his flock like a shepherd: he shall gather the lambs with his arm, and carry them in his bosom.” So wrote Isaiah, and Ezekiel after him, “Thus saith the Lord God; Behold, I, even I, will both search my sheep, and seek them out.” The Divine promise is fulfilled in Jesus who preaches Himself as the fulfiller and the fulfilment of Israel’s hope and expectation: “I am the good shepherd”; and then, going beyond all former revelation of Divine grace and love, He adds, “the good shepherd layeth down his life for the sheep.”
How quietly and unostentatiously, but at the same time with what confidence and assurance, our Lord assumes to Himself titles that were predicted of the Messiah in the Old Testament. He adopts them in the most natural manner, folds them about Him as a man would clothe himself in his own garments. There is never any excuse or apology for doing so. Everywhere our Lord takes His Messiahship for granted. He and no other is the being pointed to by the finger of prophecy, and so after His resurrection He took trouble with His disciples to show them out of those Scriptures the things concerning Himself.
2. This Messianic title of “Shepherd” is also freely accorded to Him afterwards by His followers, as, for example, by the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews, who calls Him “that great shepherd of the sheep,” and by St. Peter, who speaks of Him as “the Shepherd and Bishop of your souls,” and says to the faithful presbyters of the Church “when the chief Shepherd shall appear, ye shall receive a crown of glory that fadeth not away.” When we pass out of the region of Scripture and from the Apostolic Church the figure still haunts us. The early Christians in the days of their trial and persecution loved to depict on the walls of the catacombs Jesus as the Good Shepherd, with His sheep standing round Him, and earnestly gazing up into His face. With authority and power did our Lord arrogate to Himself the care and guidance of His Church to the end of time when He spoke these expressive words—“I am the good shepherd.”
There are two points to be considered—
I. Christ’s Claim.
II. Its Significance.
“I am the good shepherd.”
1. I am the Shepherd. We are all familiar enough with the ideas connected with shepherd-life as it is pictured amongst ourselves. The poetry of our country dwells much upon it, especially down to about the beginning of last century. It was described as the ideal of a simple natural life. It was associated with the piping times of peace. The shepherds were regarded as happy swains, living a free, healthy life in communion with nature.
But the shepherd’s life in Palestine was attended with much hardship and great danger. In a country where at any moment sheep are liable to be swept away by a mountain torrent, or carried off by hill robbers, or torn by wolves, every hour of the shepherd’s life is risk. David tells how, in defence of his father’s flock, he put his life in his hand and slew both a lion and a bear; while Jacob reminds Laban how he watched the sheep, exposed to the extreme of heat and cold. Pitiless cold at night, long hours of thirst in the day, must be endured, if the flock is to be kept in safety. So it is not difficult to imagine how a feeling of affection would spring up between the lonely Syrian shepherd and the dumb objects of his care. The sheep would follow him wherever he might lead, or call them with his voice.
And so it was the ordinary duty of every shepherd not only to gather and feed and watch the flock, but also to lead them, to know them and to run some risk for them. A great deal has been made out of these last three points in the application of the metaphor to Christ, showing how Christ is the Good Shepherd because He leads His flock, because He knows them, and because He runs some risk for them. But these are not characteristic points of the Good Shepherd as distinguished from the hireling. Even the hireling in the East led the sheep, as that was the ordinary custom, even he knew them to a certain extent, and it was a necessary part of shepherd life to run some risk for the flock.
If that had been all, Jesus might have said “I am a shepherd,” but His words are “I am the good shepherd.”
A man may be a hired priest, as Demetrius was at Ephesus—“By this craft we get our living.” Or he may be a paid demagogue, a great champion of rights, and an investigator of abuses—paid by applause; and while popularity lasts, he will be a reformer—deserting the people when danger comes. There is no vital union between the champion and the defenceless, the teacher and the taught.1 [Note: F. M. Robertson.]
2. I am the good shepherd. The shepherd’s work may be done and done well by the paid servant, it may be faithfully performed and the reward honestly earned; but our Lord’s claim to be a shepherd was something essentially different.
“I am the good shepherd.” Good, not in the sense of benevolent, but in the sense of genuine, true born, of the real kind—just as wine of nobler quality is good compared with the cheaper sort, just as a soldier is good or noble who is a soldier in heart, and not a soldier by mere profession or for pay. It is the same word as that used by St. Paul when he speaks of a good, i.e. a noble soldier of Christ. Certain peculiar qualifications made the genuine soldier, certain peculiar qualifications make the genuine or good shepherd.
What, then, is that quality which constitutes the essential characteristic of the Good Shepherd, and without which you cannot conceive the idea of one bearing a true shepherd heart and doing a true shepherd work? The Lord tells us: “The good shepherd layeth down his life for the sheep.” He seeks the slafety and well-being of the sheep; and He does so at the cost of any self-sacrifice, even of life itself.
Out on one of the great sheep-ranges of the North-West of America, a shepherd was left in a very lonely station in charge of a large flock of sheep. He lived in a little cottage which was fitted up with the necessary comforts for all seasons of the year. There was no other house anywhere near. This man, Hans Neilson, lived there with only his dog Shep for company. After he had lived out there for two years there came a dreadfully severe winter. The sheep-sheds were old, and the shelter for the sheep was poor. New sheds were to be built in the following spring. It was hard work for Hans, but he succeeded in saving all his sheep until the last and most violent blizzard of all. The wind blew and the snow fell for three days. After it was over, help was sent from headquarters to see how Hans had fared. They found his dead body near the sheep-folds, and his dog standing on guard by his master. The sheep were all alive and well, and it was quite clear to the men that Hans had been trying to place additional protection at the broken places in the old sheds when his brave battle ceased and he was overcome by the intense cold. He might have saved his life by neglecting the sheep, but he had literally given his life for his sheep.1 [Note: J. Learmount, In God’s Orchard, 221.]
3. “I am the good shepherd.” Why did Christ call Himself the Good Shepherd? Many interpret this “the” as a “the” of degree, and amplify the passage thus: “There are many good shepherds, but I am the Good Shepherd, par excellence.” But this is not the meaning of the text. Christ has showed us that the essence of good shepherding lies in this fact of laying down one’s life for the sheep. No man has any claim at all to be called a good shepherd unless he does lay down his life for the sheep. Christ is the only one to whom the epithet “Good Shepherd” in its metaphorical sense may be applied at all. The “the” is an absolute one. Christ is not to be considered as first among compeers, but as the one between whom and others there can never be any comparison at all. Our Lord not only declares that He is the reality of which the earthly shepherd is the shadow, and that He as such is the flawless, perfect One, but that He alone is the reality. “I am the Good Shepherd; in Me and in Me alone is that which men need.”
This question, “Was Christ merely a good Man and a great Teacher, or was He something more? Is He to be to us simply one of many teachers, to be discarded possibly sooner or later because, however valuable in the past, the world is destined more and more to outgrow His teaching? Is He to be merely one of many, or are His claims upon us unique, supreme, paramount?”—this is a question which I do not think you can afford to leave wholly unanswered. To this extent the question, “What think ye of Christ?” is one which you must face. To leave it on one side is virtually to negative any exceptional claim on Christ’s part.1 [Note: H. Rashdall, Doctrine and Development, 83.]
We have just lost one who was at the time of his death, with one exception, the greatest master of the English language still left among us. Some of the press notices of the late Professor Seeley show a strangely inadequate recognition, as it seems to me, of his true place both in English literature and in English religion. The advance of criticism may have somewhat diminished the value of Ecce Homo as an historical study: I do not think it has touched its usefulness as a help to practical Christianity. To many in our generation Ecce Homo has taught far more than such a book as Imitatio Christi (with all its truth and beauty) can teach to men who do not live in a medieval monastery, about the practical application of our Lord’s moral teaching to the spiritual needs and the everyday duties of modern life. To some of us it has come to seem almost like the very Gospel itself rewritten in the language of the nineteenth century. Its declared purpose is simply to constitute an historical inquiry into the ethical teaching of Jesus Christ. With Theology, strictly speaking, it does not avowedly concern itself at all. And yet the writer who summed up the essence of Christ’s teaching in the famous phrase, “the enthusiasm of humanity,” found that he could not give an historical account of what Christ taught or of the reasons of His success without recognizing in the fullest and most explicit manner the claim to a unique personal authority which is implied as much in the Sermon on the Mount as in the Johannine version of the Master’s life. A morality which is essentially bound up with a devotion to a Person is already a religion. I hardly know of any book that appeals so directly to the conscience of a man anxious, amid all difficulties intellectual and practical, to get an answer for his own soul’s sake to the old question, “What must I do to be saved?” The book is throughout intensely practical, and yet it distinctly implies a Theology, a Theology which may be all the more impressive to some minds because it is more often implied than expressed. Had its author attempted to sum up that implied Theology in a sentence, he would perhaps have expressed himself in some such words as these, which I take from a like-minded writer whose name is revered in this place [Oxford]: “For most of us,” said Arnold Toynbee, “Christ is the expression of God, i.e., the eternal fact within us and without us. In time of peril, of failing, and of falsehood, the one power that, enables us to transcend weakness is the feeling of the communion of the two eternal facts in Christ.”1 [Note: H. Rashdall, Doctrine and Development, 86.]
The Significance of Christ’s Claim
“The good shepherd layeth down his life for the sheep.”
Christ not only proclaims Himself the Good Shepherd; He expounds the significance of this great word. In His exposition, He leads us into depths of Divine wisdom which must evermore constitute the subject of profound study.
1. “The good shepherd layeth down his life for the sheep.” Christ’s love as portrayed in His death illustrates the law of Sacrifice. The goodness of Jesus Christ shines forth from Him, and in His death finds its crown and consummation. That death is not an isolated fact, for it is associated with the whole history of Christ’s redemption. The Lord, throughout His earthly ministry, set that before Him, and said of it as His baptism, “How am I straitened till it be accomplished.” Thus that death was no mere accident or afterthought. It was the necessary outcome of the life and ministry of the incarnate Son of God. Messiah had been represented as the Shepherd of Israel, but it remained for the Son of God, in His supreme revelation, to represent the Shepherd as dying for His flock. And so He says, “the good shepherd layeth down his life for the sheep.”
(1) We must observe the perfect voluntariness of His self-devotion. “No man,” He says of His sacrificed life, “taketh it from me, but I lay it down of myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again.” There was no external need for Jesus dying an early, violent death. If He had so willed it, He could have kept Himself out of the hands of the men who crucified Him. He lived a life that none other lived, and He died a death that none other died. He lived because He willed to live, and He died because He willed to die. The law of love never expressed itself so gloriously as in the death of Jesus Christ. So He taught mankind through all time that love is sacrifice, when for us men and for our salvation He made that oblation of Himself upon the Cross of Calvary, once, and once for all.
Love must be prepared for the greatest sacrifice. We may never conclude that love is unreal merely because its thoughts are large. It may have the widest schemes, and be prepared to devote the utmost pains to their accomplishment. It should give itself freely to the most romantic enterprises. The Lord would not be for all time the King of Love if He had shrunk back from the cup of suffering which, as He knew, was to be drained at the end of that progress to Jerusalem. We need “public souls”—men and women who are capable of cherishing great ideas, and who delight to spend themselves for their brethren. There is a growing demand for such in the Church and in the Empire. If, in the providence of God, the way should open for any of us to some conspicuous path of devotion, let us count it high honour, and prepare ourselves bravely for the cost it will involve, cost far greater than will appear at the outset; cost of opposition, and criticism, and misunderstanding, and disappointment; cost, it may be, of seeming failure to achieve anything, or to make any immediate impression. Love must be prepared for the greatest sacrifice. That is the first criterion and test.1 [Note: A. W. Robinson, The Voice of Joy and Health, 167.]
(2) Christ, the Good Shepherd, in pronouncing goodness to lie in self-sacrifice, is but realizing and consummating that principle which is striving to free itself from the tangled web of Nature. But have we always recognized that the heart of goodness, of natural goodness, lies in self-sacrifice? Have we been loyal to this as the verdict of Nature? Somehow, as we know, we came to believe a little time ago that whatever supernatural grace might demand, Nature laid its approval not upon self-sacrifice, but upon self-assertion. So Science had seemed to say. It had opened our eyes upon a dismal scene in which beast battled with beast, each struggling with desperate energy for its own survival. Nature appeared as a wild and blind monster, working with tooth and claw, shrieking against our moral creed. There was no goodness to be detected at work in a war where egoism alone counted. But ever since the early recognition of the law of natural selection, which Darwin emphasized as the sole determinant of evolution, Science has been limiting and qualifying the range of its activity.
To many of us it seems there is too much red in the picture which Darwin painted; and the trouble is that his picture has been reproduced by cheaper and coarser processes, until it has lost all subtlety and truth, and become a harsh and ugly print of Nature, as if it were a dismal type of vast gladiatorial show. This is not merely bad as a piece of unbalanced cosmogony; but by a vicious circle the libel projected upon Nature is brought back to justify one set out of human methods, the egoistic; and to condemn others as altruistic. But the organic process depends on much more than a squabble round a platter, or internecine struggle at the margin of subsistence; it includes all the multitudinous efforts for others, as well as for self, between the two poles of hunger and love; all endeavours that mate makes for mate, and parent for offspring, and kin for kin. Love and life are factors in progress as much as pain and death, and the premium in the struggle for existence on tooth and claw is not greater than that on the warm solicitude of the maternal heart, or on the patience of a brooding bird. So, again, we will say if we make a curve of the ascent of vertebrates, marking their position according to the degree of brain development, we find that as the curve ascends the co-ordinates of parental affection and parental love and gentle emotions are heightened. And those organisms so endowed survive, in spite of the admitted egoistic competition. And that is the proof of Nature’s censure. Earth may be strong, but it is also lovely, and the lovely and the strong exist together. And we see that, according to its own ascending mind and age, the loving become more and more strong. From the dawn of life, as Herbert Spencer said, altruism has been no less essential than egoism; self-sacrifice is as primordial as self-preservation. More and more we see that it is possible to interpret the ideals of ethical progress through love and sociality, through co-operation and sacrifice, not as mere Utopias, contradicted by natural experience, but as the highest expression of the central evolutionary process in the natural world.1 [Note: Geddes, Ideals of Science and Faith, 70.]
Learn in self-sacrifice to find thy joy,
The only bliss unmingled with alloy;
All lesser pleasures soon must pall and cloy.
Better it is to give than to receive,
All to forsake than unto aught to cleave;—
’Tis in the act of giving that we live.
All spiritual Being lives by this—
The ground and basis of the Godhood’s bliss;
Who turn therefrom the Life Eternal miss.
For though discharged in full strict duty’s round,
If in the chains of self-hood thou art bound—
Lifeless and void of worth thy works are found.
Throughout the extent of Nature’s wide domain
See this great law of sacrifice obtain,
The creature’s loss conditioning its gain.
The very elements this law obey,—
The beams that from the solar source outray,
The springing fount’s perpetual sparkling play.
All living things are constituted so,
All organisms from out earth’s womb that grow;
As is the outward, so the to-ward flow:
So that whate’er impedes or hindereth
The pores’ free play, the issue of the breath,
Is the concomitant or cause of death:
Would’st truly live?—let go!1 [Note: W. Hall, Via Cruris.]
2. “The good shepherd layeth down his life for the sheep.” Christ’s death illustrates the law of Redemption. Here is the doctrine of vicarious sacrifice: the sacrifice of one instead of another: life saved by the sacrifice of another life. Most of us know the meagre explanation of these words which satisfies some men: they say that Christ merely died as a martyr, in attestation of the truths He taught. But we must observe the strength of the expression which we cannot explain away, “I lay down my life for the sheep.” If the Shepherd had not sacrificed Himself, the sheep must have been the sacrifice.
There was something the Lord passed through, passed through once and for ever, something awful and unspeakable, in order that we might never share it. We Christians shall never die as He died. Our material bodies will wear away and cease, and they will be carried over the well-trodden way to the cemetery. Men will speak of us as having died, hut we shall never die as our Saviour died. There was something in His death which His followers will never know. “He that believeth in me shall never taste death.”
The danger which threatened us was not bodily death, for from that we are not delivered. But it was something with which the death of the body is intimately connected. Bodily death is as it were the symptom, but not the disease itself. It is that which reveals the presence of the pestilence, but is not itself the real danger. It is like the plague-spot that causes the beholder to shudder, though the spot itself is only slightly painful. Now a skilful physician does not treat symptoms, does not apply his skill to allay superficial distresses, but endeavours to remove the radical disease. If the eye becomes bloodshot he does not treat the eye, but the general system. If an eruption comes out on the skin, he does not treat the skin, but alters the condition of the blood; and it is a small matter whether the symptom goes on to its natural issue, if thereby the eradication of the disease is rather helped than hindered. So it is with death: it is not our danger; no man can suppose that the mere transference from this state to another is injurious; only, death is in our case the symptom of a deep disease, of a real, fatal ailment of soul. We know death not as a mere transference from one world to another, but as our transference from probation to judgment, which sin makes us dread; and also as a transference which in form forcibly exhibits the weakness, the imperfection, the shame of our present state. Thus death connects itself with sin, which our conscience tells us is the great root of all our present misery. It is to us the symptom of the punishment of sin, but the punishment itself is not the death of the body but of the soul; the separation of the soul from all good, from all hope,—in a word, from God. This is the real danger from which Christ delivers us. If this be removed, it is immaterial whether bodily death remain or not; or rather, bodily death is used to help out our complete deliverance, as a symptom of the disease sometimes promotes the cure. Christ has tasted death for every man, and out of each man’s cup has sucked the poison, so that now, as we in turn drink it, it is but a sleeping draught. There was a chemistry in His love and perfect obedience which drew the poison to His lips; and, absorbing into His own system all the virulence of it, by the immortal vigour of His own constitution, He overcame its effects, and rose again triumphing over its lethargic potency.1 [Note: M. Dods.]
A doctor in one of the London hospitals found a child-patient dying of diphtheria, and sucked away the suffocating film from the throat, with fatal consequences to himself. Was he justified? There are many side issues to this problem, but they do not alter the main question. To answer it we must put ourselves on the spot at the given moment, and see the two human beings face to face with the emergency; the child gasping for breath, the doctor conscious that he holds in his hands a possible means of retaining the life that has almost escaped. He uses it. Can this be called renouncement? Surely not. It is an action love-prompted, generous, beautiful. He does not act thus in order to give away his own life, but to save the child’s; not to lose, but to win something not otherwise to be won.1 [Note: M. C. Albright, The Common Heritage, 77]
The Good Shepherd
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Arnold (T. K.), Sermons, 1.
Bickersteth (C.), The Gospel of Incarnate Love, 163.
Butler (W. J.), Sermons for Working Men, 235.
De Koven (J.), Sermons, 19.
Hamilton (J.), Faith in God, 127.
Hill (J.), Waymarks, 23.
Holland (H. S.), Vital Values, 141.
Learmount (J.), In God’s Orchard, 218.
Liddon (H. P.), Easter in St. Paul’s, 312.
Maclaren (A.), Expositions: John ix.–xiv., 34.
Manning (H. E.), Sermons, iii. 1.
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Newman (J. H.), Parochial and Plain Sermons, viii. 230.
Palmer (J. R.), Burden-Bearing, 115.
Price (A. C.), Fifty Sermons, vii. 161, viii. 209.
Ritchie (A.), Sermons from St. Ignatius’ Pulpit, 173.
Ritchie (D. L.), Peace the Umpire, 20.
Robertson (F. W.), Sermons, ii. 251.
Ross (J. M. E.), The Self-Portraiture of Jesus, 110.
Russell (A.), The Light that Lighteth every Man, 115.
Spurgeon (C. H.), Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, li. (1905) No. 2919.
Wilson (S.), Lenten Shadows and Easter Lights, 144.
Christian World Pulpit, lxvii. 305 (Scott Holland); lxxix. 330 (Birch-enough).
Church of England Pulpit, xxxi. 304 (Carr); xl. 209 (Price); lv. 254 (Swithinbank); lxiii. 277 (Silvester).
Church of Ireland Gazette, May 28, 1909, p. 525 (Dean of St. Patrick’s).
Churchman’s Pulpit: Second Sunday after Easter: viii. 44 (Taylor), 46 (Jones), 49 (Manning), 52 (Newman), 55 (Gurney), 57 (Alford), 59 (Price), 61 (Meyer).
Homiletic Review, xlix. 302 (Jennings).