Shepherding Like Jesus
We instinctively warm to Jesus’s words, “I am the good shepherd” (John 10:14). Jesus modeled this shepherd role in his walk with the twelve. He chose them to “be with him” (Mark 3:14, emphasis added). And for three years, they went where he went. Weddings. Fishing. Temples. Villages. Fields. Synagogues. Day in, day out. Everywhere! He touched them, taught them—and transformed them—till people could see that they had been with Jesus.
Jesus makes this same promise to us as well: “I will be with you to the end of the world” (Matt 28:20, emphasis added). Fresh from our baptismal waters, he takes us in his hands as newborn lambs. His love warms us, protects us, feeds us. He talks to us. He never misleads us or abandons us. So we trust him and follow “the sound of his voice aside from all other voices!”
The Good Shepherd
My friend Roy, on a Bible Lands tour, stood on a ridge overlooking a long narrow gorge. Below him, the gorge opened out into rolling grass-covered pasturelands. A single trail meandered down the length of the gorge floor, then branched out into dozens of trails when it reached the grasslands. Several shepherds strolled down the gorge trail, chatting with each other, followed by a long winding river of sheep. At the forks of the trail, the shepherds shook hands and separated, each shepherd taking a different fork toward his own pasture.
Then, the river of sheep streaming behind them automatically divided into smaller streams, each flock following the path of its own shepherd. But a few stray sheep fell so far behind they lost sight of their shepherds. So one by one the shepherds began calling out. One shepherd uttered a strange cry, “Ky-yia-yia,” and a few lost lambs perked up their ears and bounded straight toward that voice. When a second shepherd called with his distinctive sound, other strays hurried straight toward that shepherd. As each shepherd called, strays ran toward the unique, familiar voice of that shepherd. “In fact,” Roy marveled, “none of the strays paid attention to any voice but the voice of its own shepherd.” Likewise, Jesus says, “My sheep hear my voice” but refuse to “follow the voice of a stranger” (John 10:3). Each sheep knows its shepherd!
But each shepherd also knows his sheep! “He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out” (John 10:3-4). This is still true in our day: the best shepherds know faces and names—and personal stories—of the “sheep” in their flocks. Thus they lead by moral suasion and need not coerce their flocks. Most genuinely, Christian people will to gravitate toward a shepherd who knows their names, whose hands have touched them, and who has “led them beside quiet ponds, into lush meadows.”
How different from some who aspire to be elders today but appear to have no flocks. No one comes to them for shepherding, and troubled, timid Christians tend to avoid them.
Jesus goes on to say, “I am the gate for the sheep” (John 10:7). Would an English teacher correct Jesus for his mixed metaphors? “Come on Jesus, make up your mind. What are you, a shepherd or a gate?” No. Jesus has not mixed his metaphors. Back in New Testament times, every evening a shepherd actually did physically become the gate to the sheepfold. Even still today, temporary sheepfolds dot the pastoral landscape in Israel. Some are makeshift circles of brush, sticks, and rocks, forming circular enclosures five or six feet high. (Other enclosures are limestone caves.) Each circular enclosure has one opening, a portal into the fold. At close of day, a shepherd takes his place beside this portal, gathering his flock into the fold for the night. He inspects each sheep. Each one feels the shepherd’s hands and hears him speak its name. “Good evening, my friend Yellow-Wool (or Shiny Nose, or Crooked Foot). You’ve had a long day. Come inside and rest.” One by one until all the sheep are safe and snug inside the fold.
Then the shepherd becomes the gate. With his flock bedded down, the shepherd finally lies down, stretching his body across the portal, the opening to the fold. So the shepherd literally, physically becomes the gate, the door! His body keeps the sheep in and the wolves and robbers out. So Jesus says, “I am the gate” and “I am the good shepherd” who “lays down his life for the sheep,” (John 10:11, emphasis added).
The Chief Shepherd
The apostle Peter calls Jesus “the Chief Shepherd” (1 Pet 5:4). We must not miss Peter’s point: Jesus, the Chief Shepherd, is the template for all time. Spiritual shepherds today imitate the Chief Shepherd. Like Jesus, they attract flocks through loving service and authentic relationships. Like him, they feed and protect their flocks. They know their flocks and are known and trusted by their flocks as men and women who are committed enough to put their lives on the line—daily—for the precious people they lead. It seems unthinkable that any of today’s Christ-following shepherds would attempt to lead God’s people any other way than the Jesus way!