Jesus is no hired hand. He is our good shepherd who died for us willingly, knows us intimately, and will protect us eternally.
Leaders let us down. Whether our parents or our pastors, politicians or other public figures, no leader is perfect and every leader will fail us at some point.
But there is one leader who will never fail us: Jesus Christ. When Jesus said, “I am the good shepherd,” he meant it.
The emphasis in this powerful, five-word claim is the word “good”. The Greek is actually constructed: “I am the shepherd, the good one.” Jesus is noble, wholesome, capable, worthy and kind — in contrast to shepherds who are wicked, mean, foul, unlovely, or just plain disappointing.
In the ancient Near East, a shepherd’s task wasn’t just to keep the sheep from wandering apart, but to keep them well fed and watered. The search for good pasture and water would sometimes take a shepherd far from home, where he would face inclement weather and substandard sleeping conditions. The threat of lions, bears and wolves was real, and sometimes the shepherd would have to lay his life on the line to protect his flock from predators.
He might lodge for the night in a remote fold made from fieldstones or in a natural cave. Every night, it was the shepherd’s task to count the sheep as they came in to make sure none were missing. And after a rough night’s sleep, he would do it all again the next day.
With all this as background, consider Jesus’ words in John 10:11-18 and 27-30.
I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 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. The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep.
I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me — just as the Father knows me and I know the Father — and I lay down my life for the sheep. 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. The reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life — only to take it up again. 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…
My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand. I and the Father are one.
Jesus is our good shepherd. But what are the activities of our shepherd Jesus that qualify him as good? In this passage, we see at least three. Let’s take them one at a time.
1. He Died For Us Willingly
Not all shepherds owned the sheep in their care. Some were simply hired hands. The owner of the sheep hoped and expected their hired shepherds to care for the sheep as though they were their own, but that wasn’t always the case.
Put yourself in the shepherd’s shoes. Imagine that a wolf threatened the flock, and you were simply a hired hand with no personal interest in the sheep. You could either abandon the flock at the cost of your job, or stay and defend the flock at the cost of your life. Which would you choose?
Jesus is our good shepherd. He’s not a hired hand. As Psalm 100:3 says, “He made us, and we are his. We are his people, the sheep of his pasture.” No one is paying Jesus to protect us; he has no ulterior motives. When our enemies come against us, or when principalities and powers come to steal, kill and destroy, Jesus will do everything necessary to protect his sheep.
Our shepherd offers more than just platitudes: “I’d risk my life for you”. Jesus has actually done it. He laid down his life for us. He went into combat with the wolf to spare our lives, and in doing so defeated him and rescued us.
As Hebrews 2:14 puts it, “through death he destroyed the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and delivered us”. Or Colossians 2:15: “He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them at the cross”.
Moreover, Jesus didn’t die as some helpless victim, but as a willing and powerful participant. “For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life that I may take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again.” (v17-18).
Jesus did that for us. He died for us willingly. In doing so, he mortally wounded that wolf and proved that he is trustworthy to go on defending us.
2. He Knows Us Intimately
Jesus calling us sheep isn’t exactly a complement. Sheep are defenceless, weak and timid. When sensing danger, they panic. They lack a sense of direction and they’re forever wandering off and getting lost.
Let’s be honest: that’s a fairly accurate description of us!
A sheep needs a shepherd. And if a sheep has any hope of ongoing care, they want a shepherd who knows them — who knows their unique markings, their bleat, their past injuries, their weaknesses. They want a shepherd who pays close attention to them, who will notice if they are missing at the evening count.
Jesus is such a shepherd. He knows his sheep. He knows all the things that make you unique. He knows your weaknesses and your wounds, and he notices when you’ve gone missing.
But notice this knowing isn’t a one-way street; it’s reciprocal. Jesus said, “my sheep hear my voice,” and then he added: “they know me and they follow me”.
In the ancient world, a shepherd would sometimes lead his flock into a village fold where his sheep would be mixed with others. In the morning, when they were ready to set out in search of pastures, he would call his own sheep. Being familiar with the sound of the shepherd’s voice, his sheep would follow him out of the fold, leaving the others from the village behind.
Jesus knows us. But if we are his, we also know him. There’s a familiarity about his voice. We recognise Jesus’ voice when he calls us to salvation — and as believers, we go on recognising his voice as a lifelong experience.
All through the Gospel of John, Jesus makes scandalous claims of intimacy with the Father. For example, in John 17, Jesus prayed, “Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed.”
What’s even more scandalous is this: the kind of intimacy that Jesus has enjoyed with the Father from all eternity is the kind of intimacy that he invites us into. Jesus said, “I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father”.
No, the Trinity isn’t opening up to more members. God is God and we are not. Jesus is the shepherd and we are his sheep. But he invites us into an amazing, deep, scandalous Trinitarian intimacy.
3. He Protects Us Eternally
On a seperate occasion, Jesus told the parable of the lost sheep, in which the shepherd leaves his ninety-nine sheep to go after the one that strays.
We often think of the lost sheep as someone who is newly saved. But notice that the lost sheep was originally part of the flock.
There is great comfort here for us as believers. Jesus comes looking for us — for those of us who already know him — when we wander and go astray. He calls out to us, scoops us up in his arms, and carries us back to the flock.
In verses 27-29, Jesus says: “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand.”
We are safe with the shepherd. He continually calls us back. Every time he calls us back we see further evidence that he is faithful to his promises. Jesus gives us eternal life. We will never perish. No one will snatch us out of his hand or out of the Father’s hand. We are eternally secure.
With King David, we can declare the words of Psalm 23:
The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing.
He makes me lie down in green pastures,
he leads me beside quiet waters,
he refreshes my soul.
He guides me along the right paths
for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk
through the darkest valley,
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies.
You anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
Surely your goodness and love will follow me
all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord
Jesus died for us willingly. He knows us intimately. And he will protect us eternally. Truly, there is no greater shepherd than Jesus.
Image via Unsplash.