"The Sheep Pen"
30 May 1999
Text: John 10:14-18
The church is a sheep pen. The owner, and Good Shepherd, is the Lord, even Jesus Christ. As it is written, Ezekiel 43:31: "You, my flock, the sheep of my pasture, are men, and I am your God." I, as pastor, am but an under-shepherd. The Lord Jesus, and He alone, is the Good Shepherd.
My personal experience with shepherding though limited, is probably more extensive than most. I tended sheep while working as a farmer’s helper in South Bridgton. We kept a small flock, no more than a dozen sheep. My sense was that sheep needed lots of protection and care; they were very dependent, domesticated animals. They especially needed help in the Spring when they birthed their lambs. Helping them and a cow with a breached birth supplied my earliest experience in obstetrics. They also needed clear, strong boundaries, as in well-maintained fences, because they didn’t have enough sense to stay where they belonged and were prone to panic if danger appeared. While we didn’t worry too much about wolves, or coyotes, we did worry about dogs. There were several large dogs which ranged rather freely from our neighbors property and while they hadn’t developed a taste for mutton, we knew that this was a strong possibility. My experience with sheep proved useful several years later, while hiking with my friend, John Ingles, in Wales. We were coming down from a hill when we came upon some sheep which had broken out of pasture. The fence was down. John and I herded the sheep back into their pasture and out of the road. What we didn’t know was that the farmer had been alerted to the situation. His experience with hikers was unhappy. Many of them had harassed his sheep apparently, and none of them had shown much concern, or care for them. But his anger faded into astonishment and gratitude as he watched us putting the fence back together, and saw that his sheep had been led to safety. He invited us to dinner—what a great meal that was!--and he offered me a job. It was lambing time and he had lost his helper to illness. We stayed a couple of days delivering lambs, seeing him through the peak of that season—John helped with other farm chores, as I remember it, because he didn’t care for all the blood.
Today we will begin by looking at willful misunderstanding of God. It is this rebellion that characterized the false shepherds of Jesus’ day: the scribes, Pharisees and other religious and civic leaders. We will consider Jesus’ compassionate response to the shepherdless because the lost are similar whether we consider the days of Zechariah, Jesus, or our own day. Then we will study the Good Shepherd in some detail. What we should learn is that being without a shepherd is appalling but being sheep that are enfolded is appealing. Let’s see.
Our text today, which utilizes the metaphor of a shepherd and his sheep, comes from a setting of controversy. The idea that God is the Shepherd of His flock is old—it is most familiar to us in the 23rd Psalm. However, this metaphor is also found in the prophetic literature, especially Isaiah, Ezekiel and Zechariah. This present controversy is occasioned partially by the choice of some to misunderstand. Deliberate, willful misunderstanding of God is common; it is a form of rebellion and unbelief. Therefore, what Jesus declares in John 10 is a certain, solemn and heavy saying. . . an instructive, wise and elegant parable. The controversy, in addition to willful misunderstanding, is also occasioned by a conflict as to who is the true shepherd of Israel: Is it the Pharisees? or Is it that upstart from Galilee known popularly as Jesus, the prophet and miracle worker?
The Pharisees believed that they were divinely commissioned, and authorized to look out for the best interests of the nation, and for the people. Jesus disagreed. First, He disagreed because they were failing in their commission and, secondly, He disagreed because of who He was and why He came. Being the Shepherd of Israel promised from of old, Jesus knew fully who He was. He came as Shepherd because of God’s compassion for His lost sheep! But He told this provocative parable to let them sort out for themselves whether or not they were true shepherds as they claimed, or false shepherds. Did they want the responsibilities, or just the privileges of being the leaders? Were they in it for themselves, or for the sake of others?
We are, I suppose, most familiar with Jesus’ cleansing of the temple. Jesus purified the temple which God had purposed as a house of prayer from it perversion into a marketplace, and "a den of thieves." We are not so familiar with His purification of the pastors because we haven’t looked at His confrontation with the scribes, priests and Pharisees in those terms. But He was most perturbed with the "careless" shepherds, the foolish, wicked and idle of Zechariah 11:15-17! So He presented Himself as the supreme feeder and leader, protector and healer along with exposing the bad principles and, which follows, bad practices of these worldly men. They were, as He pointed out, bound to the power structure and wealth of this world; they were hirelings. They held their position as an office, or trade to live in, or to grow rich by:
As a result, they would desert their posts in time of danger because they refused to place duty over personal safety. The sheep would have to look after themselves and as a result the sheep were caught, scattered, exploited, oppressed, persecuted, killed and, generally, made havoc of!
In Matthew 9:35-38 we read:
Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues,
preaching the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness.
When He saw the crowds, He had compassion on them, because they were harassed
and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then He said to His disciples, "The
harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Pray to the Lord of the harvest, therefore
to send out workers into His harvest."
These "sheep without a shepherd" were the common folk that Jesus met everywhere He went. They were destitute, vexed and weary; they were, as M. Henry puts it, sheep that had ‘strayed.’ They were loosed one from another. Whatever may have bonded them together, say, history, kinship, locality, family, or mutual acquaintance, had dissolved. The walls of their sheep pen had been knocked down and the opportunistic wolves, the devourers wreaked their havoc without mercy, or restraint.
In Zechariah 11.4-17, the prophet paints a gruesome picture, prophetic of the day in which Jesus would minister. "Pasture the flock marked for slaughter," the Lord declares. Now these sheep are the Lord’s flock! Why are they marked for slaughter? Because they detested God. "Their buyers slaughter them and go unpunished. Those who sell them say, ‘Praise the Lord, I am rich!’" The rulers and leaders of Israel were selling their neighbors for a price. Everything and everyone had a price and people were bought and sold in the economic dealings of that day! Everyone was expendable. Why? Because they held God in contempt. This is how sheep behave when they rebel, when they abandon the Lord’s sheep pen. This is the social condition which prevails where godlessness develops. When this attitude recurred in Jesus day, especially among the religious, social and political elite, is it any wonder that Jesus calls the rulers of His day thieves, robbers and murderers?!
Godlessness makes people treacherous and merciless and so the sheep are vexed, troubled, terrified. They have that lost "look" about them. . . like the stunned looks on the faces of scores of beautiful teenagers, boys and girls, outside Columbine High in Littleton, Colorado. Where should they look for safety? To whom could they turn? Surely you’ve seen the pictures, the eyes of the vexed and weary, the eyes of sheep without a shepherd, the eyes that should have expressed joy in learning and been bright with delight in life, now full of pain, dismay, sorrow and sudden betrayal. . . and still other eyes dull with shock and grief. How did the walls of the sheep pen come down? It is written that God will preserve His sheep with a wall of fire. (Zechariah 2.5) What has put that fire out? Who has despised the Lord and held God in contempt?
The word of the Lord continues, "I will no longer have pity on the inhabitants of the land." (v. 6) Why? Because they have rejected the Good Shepherd, even the Lord. "I will give everyone into his neighbor’s hand and into the hand of the king. And they shall strike, or oppress the land." This is the kind of internal social devastation we see all around us today. And what is the cause? The dereliction of duty by shepherds. The absence of godly leadership was real, yes, in Zechariah’s time and again in the times of Jesus and, again, in our day.
"They (the sheep) wanted help for their souls and had none at hand available that was good for anything. The scribes and the Pharisees filled them with vain notions, burdened them with the traditions of the elders, deluded them into many mistakes, while they were not instructed in their duty, nor acquainted with the extent and spiritual nature of divine law; therefore they fainted; for what spiritual health, and life, and vigor can there be in those souls, that are fed husks and ashes, instead of the bread of life? Precious souls faint when duty is to be done, temptations to be resisted, afflictions to be borne, being not nourished up on the world of truth.
When Jesus declares, "I am the Good Shepherd," (v. 14) He is making an exclusive claim and His "goodness" is heightened by the contrasting worthlessness of other shepherds. He comes "by the door," that is with all due authority. Furthermore, He "knows" the sheep and the sheep "know" Him. We are not talking about a casual level of acquaintance here. The knowledge that Jesus has of His sheep is penetrating, deep and without distortion. That the purest love is founded upon such fullness of knowledge should help us abandon the common stratagem of hiding from each other—we are not truly loved if we purchase that love through deception, or presenting ourselves as something we are not. The standard of this "knowing" is spiritual, heavenly and divine, not historical and terrestrial. Therefore, we rejoice that we were known before the foundations of the earth and that the kind of knowledge which presently is between the Father and the Son shall finally be ours both with regard to God and to each other. Jesus knows us "eternally." And one reason that He binds our wounds and encourages us is simply that we were created for an eternal relationship. We continue that work as directed in Ephesians 3 and 4 because we are His, and because we know that those who love Him are likewise His. Sheep need care; and if they receive care, they are useful to the Kingdom and they support those who serve the Kingdom with kindness, generosity and provision. We notice each other, and keep account of each other because we are members of the same flock, the same family of God.
Our Good Shepherd leads us to green pastures and still waters. He restores our souls. And those who follow Him not only feel safe and loved, they are safe and loved. That is part of what it means to "know his voice." It is to have confidence in the goodly intentions of the Good Shepherd, and of the under-shepherds who faithfully serve Him. Those who are good as new creatures in Christ exhibit the best qualities of sheep being harmless (inoffensive), meek (that is humble and quiet), patient (whether before the shearer, or butcher), useful (as in profitable, tame, tractable and teachable) and sociable (they enjoy being with each other).
The church is a spiritual sheepfold and, when the Shepherd is in His rightful place, it has little to fear from the thieves and robbers to whom it is much exposed. These crafty seducers have their "home" outside the sheepfold. They seek to debauch, deceive, persecute, destroy and devour the sheep because they at enmity with the Lord. They are the grievous wolves that Paul warned us about in Acts 20:29-30:
I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not
spare the flock. Even from among your own number men/women will arise and
distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them.
Paul was merely repeating the warning of Jesus in Matthew 7:15: "Watch our for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves." They may even accomplish works that resemble Christian ministry but cannot be as they come from the hands of "evildoers" (7:23).
While magistrates are bound to protect and advance the secular needs of the sheep, in a godly social order, ministers are to serve the spiritual needs of the flock. That is, ministers are to feed the sheep the good fodder of the Word of God faithfully presented, fully opened and applied. They are to "take oversight of the sheep" and to distinguish between good and evil with wisdom. They are to be willing to lay down their lives for the sheep in imitation of Christ’s self-sacrificial servanthood—but not as a kind of atonement for that Christ alone could and did do. Now these things are plain and obvious to those who choose to understand. The Pharisees could have understood Jesus well enough, but they choose to misunderstand. They will to misunderstand and this is in addition to whatever spiritual darkness they may have been in due to their rebellion and pride. Because they will to misunderstand, they do misunderstand and the door to the sheep pen is shut fast against them. . . only saints and servants are allowed in. In the religious conversation of going to and coming from the sheep pen, which Jesus provides, His sheep find themselves walking up and down in His Name. It is through the Good Shepherd that God comes to His church, His flock. And that same doorway is the way to heaven, to everlasting life with God. He is the door of true pastors, those who come in His Name to do His bidding.
All other "pastors" are thieves who steal His honor and His place by presumption; they assume precedence and superiority. They are an impediment to God. The Pharisees actively prevented what they could of Jesus’ influence among the people. . .forestalling Him, making rumors and accusations which would create prejudice against Him in order to keep allegiance to themselves intact. This interference is serious business because, the door of innocency being closed, the doorway of faith in Jesus is the pathway to salvation and those who make faith in Jesus difficult are purposing eternal harm!
As Lord of Creation, Jesus expects both attendance and observance from the sincerely devoted and, in return, they receive fullness of life. Life as from the dead is what Jesus came to deliver to the flock of God even as He delivered them from the consequences of sinful defiance. He offers all good things to His sheep as opposed to things causing spiritual death. . .first we are made right with God, then we are made holy like Jesus and finally we shall be made glorious with His glory all because He gave His life for us and to us!
How different things are when we are with the Good Shepherd! Regardless of our poor performance, we remain His! He knows us still with His distinguishing eye—the same eye that knows sheep from goats, and sees the wolf afar off so that He might go and meet it. Not only is He concerned for His sheep, He is concerned for communion with His sheep. And because He knows us first, we observe Him with the eye of responsive faith. That same faith helps us distinguish between Him and all pretenders, and would-be intruders. That same faith helps us see the universal scope of God’s flock—sheep from every physical, social, emotional and mental condition, every culture, race, age and gender! The Good Shepherd is determined to bring us home now, to the sheep pen of the church and later to our place in heaven. He is ever conscious of the necessity of our case and says, "I will not neglect them. . .and I will fulfill my whole commission. My sheep will come in as they hear the gospel proclaimed by my faithful witnesses. As I speak, by them, to the lost of this generation, young and old, they will turn all their eyes towards Me and their eyes shall be satisfied. There is one fold, one shepherd, one Christ and one church. One common life, one destiny and one Spirit animating each and all.
The eyes of this generation are looking for the Shepherd. Let us bind up and encourage one another. Will you ask the Lord to restore you as His little, beloved lamb? Will you labor to make this sheep pen the best sheep pen that it can be? Will you help to bring the bewildered home? When others see and hear how loved you are, you will become lovely in their sight and they will follow you home. Home to where the Master can take them in His wonderful arms and heal, soothe, groom, discipline, feed guide and protect them. And His protection, the sure knowledge that we are His forever, will make whatever life brings them less scary, less compelling, less distressing.