The Good Shepherd Lays Down His Life

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[Jesus said]: “I am the Good Shepherd. The Good Shepherd lays down His life for the sheep” (John 10:11).
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
Let’s be honest. The idea of a shepherd laying down his life to save a sheep is ludicrous, even scandalous. No reasonable shepherd would lay down his life for his sheep. No sheep, not even a whole flock of sheep, is worth the life of one  shepherd. Even the most dedicated shepherd would not give his life up for his sheep. Oh, I’m sure he would be willing to experience discomfort for his sheep. He might spend sleepless nights keeping watch over his sheep. He might risk harm in order to keep predators away from his sheep. But he would not be willing to die for the sheep. It is generally the sheep that end up dying for the shepherd’s benefit—some to feed the shepherd and his family, others to provide the sacrifice for the sins of the shepherd and the rest of God’s people. And so, while some of Jesus’ first hearers find great comfort in His words about the Good Shepherd, many others have a problem accepting them. And Jesus isn’t surprised by this one bit.
The Holy Gospels from John 10 that are assigned to this Fourth Sunday of Easter make it Good Shepherd Sunday every year. In the course of the three years of the lectionary, we are given a complete look at this metaphor as Jesus speaks about knowing His sheep and His sheep listening to His voice.
This is all good and nice for you and me. What a comfort it is for us to have Jesus as our Good Shepherd, to be His sheep! But what about Jesus’ original audience? How did they take Jesus’ use of the shepherd metaphor to give a picture of His person and work? It was based upon something familiar to all of them, both from their awareness of what was involved in shepherding and from their familiarity with the Shepherd Psalm, Psalm 23, which we just read responsively.
To understand this passage, we must look at the immediate context. Jesus had just been confronted by the Pharisees for healing the blind man on the Sabbath.  Jesus implied they were really the blind ones. They were spiritually blind. They claimed to see, better than all others; but their eyes were blind to the truth. That’s when Jesus began His discourse on shepherds and sheep, hired hands and wolves.
Although it is likely His disciples were also present, Jesus spoke primarily to the Pharisees. And so the question becomes more personal: Would these Pharisees, the ones who claimed to know God’s Word and teach it, hear it for themselves? Would they repent and receive Jesus’ offer of forgiveness and life or would they remain in their sinful disbelief? Would they listen to the Good Shepherd’s voice?
The power of God’s Word is amazing. To repentant sinners, to those who are truly His sheep, Jesus’ message of the Good Shepherd is sweetest Gospel. It brings forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation. But that very same Word becomes accusing Law in the ears of unbelievers, those who reject Him. As St. Paul would write in 1 Corinthians 1:18: “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved, it is the power of God.”
Notice the reaction of Jesus’ opponents after He spoke these words: they were divided. Those whose hearts were hardened became still more vehement against Him. They said, “He is demon-possessed and raving mad.” But others said, “These are not the sayings of a man possessed by a demon.” Besides, they remembered Jesus’ miraculous signs: “Can a demon open the eyes of the blind?”
In calling Himself the Good Shepherd, Jesus was making a very specific claim, calling for specific acceptance or denial. His opponents recognized this. That’s why, a few verses later in John 10, they picked up stones to stone Jesus. When Jesus asked why they planned to stone Him, they replied, “for blasphemy, because you, a mere man claim to be God.” They knew exactly who Jesus was claiming to be. They just did not accept His statement to be true.
When it comes to the question, “Who is this Jesus?” there are really only three possible answers. Jesus is either a fraud, a mad-man, or the Savior of the world. He can be nothing else. Jesus lays these possibilities before His hearers in our text for today, as He speaks of hired hands, wolves, and the Good Shepherd.
In that culture, a shepherd owned the sheep. He cared for his family’s flock and was born to the task. He focused on the welfare of the sheep and was ready to face hardship and danger for their benefit because he had a vested interest. On the other hand, a hired hand would think largely of the pay he would receive for “doing the job.” He would not be ready to risk himself for the sheep that belonged to someone else. When trouble came, he would disappear.
The hired hand is like those church leaders who think more of their own well-being than of serving God’s flock. They are not true shepherds. They do not feel any personal responsibility for the sheep. When the wolves come, they show their real colors. They abandon the flock and let the wolves ravage and scatter it.
The wolf is the enemy who, if unchecked, will destroy the flock and keep it from the Good Shepherd. Every false teacher is such a wolf. Jesus warned another time: “Watch out for the false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves” (Matthew 7:15).
In contrast to the metaphors of hired hand and wolf, Jesus declares: “I AM the Good Shepherd.” This is another forceful I AM statement by which Jesus pointed to Himself as the Lord God. No wonder, the Pharisees were ready to stone Him! But Jesus didn’t merely lob this statement like a verbal hand grenade and run. He backed it up with evidence, evidence that demanded a verdict in the heart of every listener. Jesus’ Word has the power to divide and unite—to divide believers from unbelievers and to unite believers with Him and one another. Jesus had just stated as much: “For judgment I have come into the world, so that the blind will see and those who see will become blind” (John 9:39).
The first evidence of Jesus’ being the Good Shepherd is that He lays down His life for the sheep. The Greek translated as “for the sheep” means more than just dying to defend the sheep. It conveys the sense of “on behalf of” or “in the place of” the sheep. This Good Shepherd will die as a Substitute for the sheep.
In the Old Testament sacrificial system, sheep were offered daily as sacrifices for the sins of the people. During festivals and dedications hundreds and thousands of sheep, bulls, and goats might be offered up. For the burnt offering, a male lamb (or goat) without defect was slaughtered, its blood sprinkled on the altar, and the lamb consumed in the fire of the altar. Here, the Good Shepherd, the sinless Son of God, says He will lay down His life in the place of His sheep.
But it is important to remember that Jesus did not just give up His physical life, Jesus also gave up His soul into death, as a ransom, as the one complete sacrifice for the guilt of all sinners who have earned eternal damnation. As our Substitute, the once-for-all sacrifice that atones for the world’s sin, Jesus’ body and soul experienced God’s fiery wrath, so that we would not have to.
This would be done voluntarily. All the bulls and goats and sheep of the Old Testament had no say. And though Jesus, like a lamb who is led to slaughter would not open His mouth, He would not do so under compulsion. He would do so willingly. “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. This charge I received from My Father.”
          No one could possibly take Jesus’ life from Him against His will. Right before healing the blind man, Jesus’ enemies had tried to take His life by stoning Him, but Jesus slipped away from them. They would pick up stones again in the passage right after this, but Jesus would escape their grasp. Later in John’s Gospel the men who came to arrest Jesus, drew back and fell to the ground at Jesus’ word, “I am He.” There was no mistaking who was really in charge of the situation.
When Pilate threatened Jesus with his authority to crucify Him, Jesus replied, “You would have no power over Me if it were not given to you from above” (John 19:11). Jesus had the power to call the whole thing off any time He chose. That’s why He told Peter in Gethsemane, “Put your sword back into its place… Do you think that I cannot appeal to My Father, and He will at once send Me more than twelve legions of angels? But how then should the Scriptures be fulfilled, that it must be so?” (Matthew 26:52-54). Jesus’ death was no accident, nor was it just another human tragedy. It was the purposeful act of Jesus’ will.
The second evidence of Jesus’ identity as the Good Shepherd is tied to the first. As He moves toward His sacrificial death, Jesus makes it clear that He is not a tragic victim of death. Rather, He is the confident master of death and will become the victor over it. Jesus said: “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. This charge I have received from My Father” (John 10:17-18).
Much is made today about who killed Jesus: who was to blame? We know who the human agents were, but that’s mostly beside the point. No one could have killed Him against His will. “No one,” Jesus stressed, took His life from Him. His was a true self-sacrifice out His boundless love. He had the authority and the power and the directive from His heavenly Father to give the sacrifice and show the proof. He was determined to die and rise again, to fulfill all Scripture.
When asked to tell you how they know that the Christian faith is true, many will say you feel it in your heart. Others will point to dramatic changes in their life. In fact, there are some who say, “Just give it a try. If it works for you, then you will know that the Gospel is true.” But all of these approaches are subjective. They point you to something in yourself. True saving faith is objective. It comes from outside of you. It is rooted in the objective truth of God’s unchanging Word.
How do you know that the Christian faith is true? Consider the evidence. Consider the eyewitness testimony, including Peter’s confession in Acts 4. “Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead… This Jesus is the stone that was rejected by you, the builders, which has become the cornerstone” (v.1-11).  Is Jesus’ Word true? Did Jesus do what He said He was going to do? Was He a fraud, a mad-man or the Savior of the world?
Jesus is the Savior! Jesus is the Good Shepherd! And we know this because He laid down His life for His sheep, only to take it up again, just like He said He would. Would a fraud lay down his life? No! At the first sign of trouble he’d hightail it out of there like the hired hand in Jesus’ parable. Would a mad-man lay down His life? Perhaps. Demons are very destructive. They could most certainly fool a man into taking or giving up His life. But they would not be able to raise him from the dead. Jesus’ death and resurrection is proof that He is who He said He is—He is the Good Shepherd, our Lord and Savior, who lays down His life on behalf of His sheep to take it up again.  
Jesus’ words in our text are an urgent invitation to all who hear or read them. They were originally addressed to the Pharisees. Most of them were stubbornly opposed to Jesus. Many wanted to kill Him. But some were on the brink of faith. Jesus invites and urges all of them to accept Him. “I love you so much that I will die for you. I will prove My words by taking up My life again, by rising from the dead. I AM the Good Shepherd and the Savior that you need!”
He also directs these words to you and me. To sheep surrounded by wolves on every side He cries out, “Remember who your Shepherd is. Remember that I laid down My life for you. Remember that I took it up again on the third day. I am a shepherd whom you can love and trust. I am your Good Shepherd.”
Before we close today, I want to remind you who that Good Shepherd is. Here, in this church, we have a beautiful stained glass window portraying Jesus as the Good Shepherd, gently holding one of His lambs in His arms. This is a fine representation of our Good Shepherd as portrayed in Psalm 23. The one who comforts His sheep, guards and protects them, and provides all that we need for this life and the next. And all of this is most certainly true. Our loving Lord does all of these things each day out of His goodness and mercy.
But any good shepherd would care for his sheep. Only one would die for them! The Good Shepherd lays down His life for the sheep and takes it up again. The love of the Good Shepherd is more accurately represented with a crucifix—Christ’s bloody corpse hanging on a cross as our Substitute. Or the statue that we have on the altar: the resurrected Lord, holding out His nail-scarred hands, declaring to us His peace and forgiveness. For it is in His death and resurrection that Jesus ultimately proves who He is.
To each of us He calls out today: “I AM the Good Shepherd. Listen to My voice so that you may know Me as I know you. Come faithfully to the Divine Service to hear My words of Law and Gospel. Come and be refreshed in the still waters of your Baptism. Come regularly to the Table I have prepared for you in the presence of your enemies—sin, death, and the devil. Follow Me as I lead you fearlessly through the valley of the shadow of death. Come to eat and drink from cups that overflows with goodness and mercy. Receive My very body and blood, which I have laid down for you for the forgiveness of your sins. I have taken it up again that you may have abundant life, eternal life, resurrected life.
“Come and hear this Good News that makes you My sheep and keeps you in My flock forever: You are forgiven of all of your sins.”

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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