Acts 4:5-12 & John 10:11-18
We often think of the Jesus as the good shepherd, but most of us know so little of what a shepherd actually does. Protecting the sheep from predators was an important part of the job, to be sure. But also keeping the sheep from being stolen was crucial. The most important part of the shepherd’s job was to lead the sheep daily to fresh pastures and to potable water. In the passage from John, Jesus fulfills all these tasks, and does so as a means to differentiate himself from other religious leaders. He stands in stark contrast to those in his day [and those in our day!!!] who value themselves and their livelihoods more than those entrusted to them.
Jesus expresses ownership over and identification with the sheep when he describes himself as the shepherd and not simply the hired hand. A shepherd’s identity comes from his task in guarding and providing for the sheep. The hired man simply gains his income from herding. Simply walking away from the flock or giving it over to a mortal enemy is not an option for the shepherd (John 10:11-13). Like David before him, when predators threatened Jesus’ flock, he interposed himself between his charges and the threat. Unlike in the case of David, however, the predators Jesus faced down were sin, death and earthly powers that sought to kill steal and destroy the flock. And most importantly, Unlike David, Jesus did not expect to survive his pastoral duties. In fact, it was for this reason that God loved Jesus so much: that he laid his life down to pick it up again (John 10:17). In fact, that Jesus lay his life down and take it up again was God’s command to Jesus (v 18).
But Jesus is not just a shepherd in John 10. He is also the gate of the sheep-pen. As folks in pastoral communities know, but so many urban dwellers do not, there are usually three seasons for shepherding in most climates: the spring and summer when sheep are led by the shepherds to far pastures; the fall when sheep eat the leftover stubble in the farms closer to settled areas and provide free “fertilizer” for the planting next year (incidentally, this is one of several reasons why we think Jesus was probably born in the fall, rather than winter. The “shepherds being in the fields with their flocks” usually only occurs around September); and winter when the animals are indoors or close to home and fed with laid up food.
When the animals were in the fields in the fall, they were close to settled areas, and therefore in danger of being stolen by other humans. At night, the sheep entered into sheep-pens that had only one, often sheep-height, gate. Many shepherds would rest their flocks in the same sheep pens and then have a nightly campfire in front of the opening in the sheep-pen, using their bodies as the doors. At dawn, the shepherds would take turns calling for their sheep. Each sheep knew the voice (or whistle) of its shepherd and the tangled mass of sheep that had spent the night all mingled would separate into distinct flocks as they followed their particular shepherd.
Jesus used his close knowledge of shepherding culture to paint a picture for those listening. Like sheep, those who really know Jesus will follow his voice and shun the whistles and instructions of other shepherds to whom they do not belong (John 10:4-5). Jesus described the level of knowing-intimacy between himself and his sheep as identical to the way in which God and Jesus know each other (John 10:14-15). Jesus’ charge to his sheep is that they would know and follow them as he knows and follows his Father.
Jesus himself stands guard all through the times when our defenses are down by being the door to our sheep-pen. Anyone who approaches in a way that avoids Jesus-as-gate is automatically a thief. (John 10 :7-10). We would do well to be as clever as sheep in recognizing that anyone who avoids Jesus but wants to enter into intimacy with us is probably a threat on some level.
All the protecting in the world does nothing for the sheep, however, if the good shepherd does not show them the way to food and water. Knowing threats is one thing, providing good sustenance is entirely another. And as Jesus gave his disciples not just the bread of life and living water, but actual bread, fish and wine, so too did his disciples meet the spiritual and physical needs of each other. In Acts 4, Peter and John are called back to the same house that they visited on the night Jesus was arrested. This time, however, it was they who were to be interrogated. Peter’s daring response to at least three men who would be High Priest in their lifetimes (Acts 4:6) was that they did their miraculous “act of kindness” in the name of Jesus of Nazareth, the messiah. Peter quoted Psalm 118:22 to say that the stone the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone. All those who caught the reference would have been reminded of the proceeding verses that pronounced:
This is the gate of the LORD
Through which the righteous may enter.
I will give thanks, for you have answered me:
you have become my salvation! (Psalm 118:20-21)
Peter was not just saying that Jesus is the cornerstone – though that would have been enough – but that Jesus is the gate of the sheep-pen through which the righteous enter, and that he has become our salvation!
Jesus’ kindnesses as the great shepherd are many: he protects and saves us from our sins and the power of death. He guards us from and warns us against those in this life who seek to kill, steal and destroy. Even in addition to all that, however, his life and power in us enable us to continue his work of providing for his flock with the kindness of the good shepherd.