Problems with Being Sheepish – John 10:1-21

I have raised a lot of animals over the years – probably the remnants of my agricultural family past. But I’ve never raised sheep.

I once knew a fellow who did, and one day when visiting him he said, “Watch this, and I’ll show you how dumb sheep are and how much they just thoughtlessly follow what they see.”  So he positioned me in a narrow opening between two pastures and gave me a stick. He said, “Hold out this stick about six inches off the ground. I’m going to get the sheep following me in a line through that passage. After the first three or four sheep go through, drop the stick.”

So, sure enough, he started running and calling, and they followed him. He jumped over the stick, as did the first three sheep. I dropped the stick, but every sheep through the end of the line jumped at that spot as if the stick was still extended – simply because the sheep in front of them had done the same thing.

Everyone knows the reputation of sheep. We see it used derisively of people who simply follow a particular charismatic political leader without much thought, and such folk are called “sheeple.”  George Orwell in his classic work Animal Farm used sheep to speak allegorically of the ignorant masses.

Characteristics of Sheep

1)       Ignorant and gullible

2)       Fearful and timid

3)       Influenced easily by their leader

4)       Stampede easily, vulnerable to mob psychology

5)       Little means of self-defense other than running away

6)       Easily killed by enemies

7)       Jealous and competitive with other sheep

8)       Need fresh water and pasture, but have a lack of discernment about both

9)       Stubborn and persistent in getting their own way

10)     Easily “cast” on their backs and unable to right themselves

11)     Creatures of habit, get into “ruts”

12)     Totally dependent on shepherd for every need

Our reading today from John 10 is among the most treasured of Scripture, and for good reason. It was even a favorite of mine as a child, and I memorized the chapter as an elementary kid in Vacation Bible School.

Obviously, Christ is the shepherd, and those who follow him are his sheep. The picture draws upon common knowledge and experiences of the people of Palestine in that time where sheep herding was abundant.

The passage is actually directed to the Pharisees in the context. Let me begin it for you today by putting it into connection with the immediately preceding verses from chapter nine (remembering again that chapter and verse divisions are not original to the writers of Scripture).

9:39 Jesus said, “For judgment I have come into this world, so that the blind will see and those who see will become blind.”

40 Some Pharisees who were with him heard him say this and asked, “What? Are we blind too?”

41 Jesus said, “If you were blind, you would not be guilty of sin; but now that you claim you can see, your guilt remains.

10:1 … “Very truly I tell you Pharisees, anyone who does not enter the sheep pen by the gate, but climbs in by some other way, is a thief and a robber. The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep.

We need to get in mind a picture of a sheep pen (provided in the online version of this devotional) which was typically a rock-walled enclosure with a single entrance. If it was covered at all, it was not by material of much substance or strength. The shepherd, after leading his sheep into the pen for the evening, would himself sleep in the doorway. Those who went over the top were thieves and robbers to quietly steal or kill the sheep and carry them away.

 The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep listen to his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice. But they will never follow a stranger; in fact, they will run away from him because they do not recognize a stranger’s voice.” Jesus used this figure of speech, but the Pharisees did not understand what he was telling them.

These pens were scattered around the countryside. Some of them were quite large and could be used by multiple shepherds and flocks. There may be three or four flocks mingled together for the evening, but then in the morning, a shepherd would call his sheep with his distinctly-known voice, and they would follow him while others would remain. There was no way the sheep would follow a voice they did not recognize.

The imagery of this is very clear to us, but the Pharisees were not able to understand it at all. Of course, we have the advantage of knowing the whole history of Christ’s work and of having the complete Scriptures … yet the point from John is that these men did not have spiritual ears to truly hear what Christ was saying.

Therefore Jesus said again, “Very truly I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who have come before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep have not listened to them. I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. They will come in and go out, and find pasture. 10 The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.

Jesus identifies himself as the gate – the one opening for the sheep (people) to have life in safety, health, and abundance. Others who have come with messianic claims or those with alleged authority over the people (the sheep) were actually thieves with self-fulfilling intentions of stealing and destroying.

11 “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12 The hired hand is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep. So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away. Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it. 13 The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep.

Jesus specifically identifies himself as the good shepherd. As in a previous discussion, there is an accent on the “I AM.”  Word order in Greek denotes emphasis… so let me give you the sentence in the way it is in the original, along with some attempts at emphases:  I AM the SHEPHERD good, the SHEPHERD good his Life lays down for the sheep.

By contrast is the hired hand – speaking of such as the Pharisees. They are willing, to an extent, to care for the flock – the nation – but they were not ultimately in it for the good of the people, but for their own benefit. Jesus, by contrast, was a shepherd willing to lay down his life for the sheep – a picture and concept we understand fully, but which the Pharisees could not grasp at all.

14 “I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me— 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father—and I lay down my life for the sheep. 16 I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd. 17 The reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life—only to take it up again. 18 No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again. This command I received from my Father.”

The relationship of Jesus to the sheep was personal. The word used of “knowing” is one that speaks beyond a casual group knowledge, depicting rather a personal relationship. The “other sheep” anticipates the Gentiles and peoples of the world who would become one new flock under Christ in the extent of the atonement.

There is a wonderful additional truth here that teaches how Jesus gives his life willingly for the sheep – for us. It was not a matter of inevitable circumstances. He was not overcome in any way and could have changed the entire scenario, as the old hymn says, “He could have called 10,000 angels to set him free, but he died alone for you and me.”

19 The Jews who heard these words were again divided. 20 Many of them said, “He is demon-possessed and raving mad. Why listen to him?”

21 But others said, “These are not the sayings of a man possessed by a demon. Can a demon open the eyes of the blind?”

What ensues is the timeless response that has been repeated over and over, millions of times, from that day until this very day – some reject and some believe.

Are you willing to be sheepish? Are you willing to confess to the characteristics above … propensities to wander and fail? Can you confess to an identification with the words of Isaiah that all we like sheep have gone astray and gone after our own ways?

It is actually good to be sheepish – when in the hands of a good, faithful, and loving shepherd!