Elections and the resulting political discourse remind us how much most people long for a leader who will bring us justice and peace, protection and prosperity. However, on every occasion our aspirations are dashed as leaders reveal their flaws and failures and self-interest. No one proves to be the ideal leader.
Let me suggest the one exception: Jesus who said, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10:11).
Many today view shepherds through rose-tinted lenses, imagining them with their faithful dogs, caring for their sheep on grassy hillsides. The reality is that the shepherds of ancient Israel lived dangerous lives. And because sheep were the equivalent of money in the bank today, shepherds had to contend, not only with marauding animals, but also with thieves and armed robbers.
Every village had their ‘banks’ – sheepfolds – with their door and security guard. In John 10 Jesus twins the images of Door (or Gate) and Good Shepherd when he says: ‘…He who enters by the door is the shepherd of the sheep. To him the gatekeeper opens. The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out (John 10:2-3). And in verse 7 he says, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep’, and in verse 10, ‘I am the good shepherd’.
Shepherds. Though poor and often treated as outcasts, shepherds played an important part in the life of Israel. Israel’s kings were described as shepherds. King David, the greatest of the Old Testament kings had been brought from shepherding sheep to shepherd God’s people Israel. But it was not only the kings who were called shepherds, but also the religious leaders. In Ezekiel 34 we read that when they abused their position and failed their spiritual duty, God declared that he himself would shepherd his people. Ezekiel 34:1-31 echoes Psalm 23 as it speaks of God himself as the shepherd of his people.
A millennium after David, Jesus says that he is the door and the good shepherd. As the good shepherd he brings together shepherd as a metaphor for the Messiah and the theme of death. False messiahs took the lives of men and women. The true Messiah gives life to men and women. And the life he gives, is life to the full (10:10). But it comes only at the cost of his own life ‘…Just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep’, Jesus says (10:15).
We begin to see what Jesus means when he says he is the good shepherd. He is not a do-gooder, for they tend to be more interested in themselves and what others think of them. Jesus is good in the very best sense of the word. He is genuinely concerned about the interests of others and, no matter the cost to himself, he is committed to provide life in all its fullness for his people.
Furthermore, eternal life in biblical terms is not an existence that goes on and on. Rather it is the expansion and intensification of the very best experiences we enjoy in life now. Jesus is not interested in the quantity of life but in the quality.
An underlying theme we often miss in John chapter 10 is the distinction that Jesus makes concerning his goal and his method compared with those who went before him – and would come after him. Jesus was not a political Messiah.
In John 10:8 Jesus says: ‘All who came before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the door. If anyone enters by me, they will be saved and will go in and out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly’.
The thieves and robbers were the false-messiahs, the political activists of Jesus’ day. In their endeavors to free Israel from Roman rule, they used violence in various forms. But Jesus charts a very different path in the cause of true life and real freedom. As the door, he is the only one who has the right to open the gate of heaven and have the title Messiah. As the good shepherd he has given his life to open the way to the freedom and joy of God’s long-promised kingdom.
When we consider Jesus’ words here, we discern their application for our 21st century world. The only real hope of freedom and life the progressive materialist has to offer is some kind of embodiment of Karl Marx’s classless society. According to Marx people could only find real happiness if they freed themselves from the imperialism of economic oppression and exploitation. Only then would the former hostilities between races and nations be resolved and humanity be able to develop its full potential.
‘Don’t be misled,’ Jesus is saying. ‘These people have come to steal – they have no respect for personal property or enterprise. They have come to kill – they don’t value human life.’
Think of the millions who died under the 20th century revolutionary movements – led by Lenin and Stalin, Hitler and Mao, Pol Pot and Idi Amin. And for what? No perfect peaceful and just society has emerged.
‘I am the door; I am the good shepherd’, Jesus says. Only those who turn to him will find true life and liberty. They alone find true deliverance – they are saved. They alone find true fulfillment – they find satisfying pasture. If we want to find true freedom, deep satisfaction and real life, we need to turn to Jesus Christ – who carried, not a gun, but a cross.