The Good Shepherd's Voice
“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” (John 10:27-28).
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
The days between the Old and New Testaments were dark and ever-changing in the land of Judea. The Babylonians who had destroyed Jerusalem had, in turn, been conquered by the Persians; and under the Persians, the Jews had been allowed back to rebuild Jerusalem. The Persian Empire had fallen to Alexander the Great. Alexander didn’t change a whole lot around Judea, but when he died, his kingdom was divided, and the Seleucids took over the area that included Judea.
One of Seleucid kings was Antiochus IV. Taking on the name Epiphanes, “the Enlightened,” Antiochus sought to “enlighten” the Jews. He looked at their religion of one God, of keeping His commands, and of waiting for the Messiah to come and decided it was holding them back, so he made its practice punishable by death. If a believer circumcised his child or rested on the Sabbath, he was to be scourged and flayed alive until death. Antiochus destroyed the scrolls of the Law and transformed the temple into a place for pagan sacrifices and prostitutes.
In time, the family of the Maccabees rose up to challenge this blasphemy. Judas Maccabaeus led a makeshift army against the Seleucids and against all odds gradually defeated them. The temple was purified and the Lord’s altar restored in December 165 BC. The people celebrated this victory each year with the Feast of Dedication, also know, as the Feast of Lights, better known today as Hanukkah.
Having restored the freedom to worship the one true God, Judas was regarded by many as not just a hero, but perhaps even the Messiah sent by God to deliver His people. But alas, it was not so. No doubt he was a great man, but his messiahship was only temporary, as was the deliverance he brought. Eventually, he died in battle; and he did not rise again. And although he had freed Judea from the Seleucids, it was only a matter of time until the Romans took over.
As this week’s Gospel begins, it is the Feast of Dedication, and Jesus is walking in the temple courts. Jesus is well-known by now. His teaching and miracles are recounted again and again. Multitudes follow Him wherever He goes. Lots of eyes are on Him, because Judea is in need of another hero. Could Jesus be the Messiah they’ve been waiting for? He has potential—He can heal and even raise the dead. But He lacks the political zeal of a Judas Maccabaeus, and He shows no military aspirations. Is He the Messiah, or isn’t He?
So they gather around Jesus and confront Him: “How long do you keep us in suspense? If you are the Christ, tell us plainly.”
The implication is by no means that these Jews would believe if Jesus would say in so many words, “I am the Christ.” Nor is the idea they would use such a plain statement as a political charge on which to bring Jesus to trial. Still less may we assume that the Jews are seeking to ease their own consciences by casting the blame on Him for not speaking out plainly. They are long past such scruples. They mean to end it right here and now. If He says, “I am the Christ,” the stones will fly.
In order, once and for all, to settle the question Jesus points to that most convincing form of His telling, which is not merely by words but by deeds: “I told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in My Father’s name bear witness about Me.” Words alone, however valuable and necessary they may be, will not suffice. A fraudulent Christ might say, “I am the Christ.” We know that false christs did arise and so declare; but their works proved them liars. The works of Jesus substantiate every word of His concerning His people and His office as the Christ of God. Like witnesses who have seen and heard personally, these works coming from Jesus Himself speak truly of Him and His work of salvation.
Sadly, these Jews don’t really want to know the truth. They don’t want to believe. “You do not believe,” says Jesus, “because you are not part of My flock. 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 My Father’s hand. I and the Father are one.”
Those who are not among God’s chosen flock turn deaf ears and blinded eyes to Jesus. Jesus’ sheep hear His voice. When they hear God’s Word, they understand who is speaking. They want to hear more. They don’t tire of listening. They know that His Word is living and gives life. Even more, Jesus knows them and they follow Him. “To know” in the Bible doesn’t mean simply to have knowledge about something; it means to have an intimate, personal relationship. That’s how the Good Shepherd recognizes His sheep and how they recognize Him. Therefore, they follow Him no matter what may come.
And because He is the Christ, the Son of God, the relationship is eternal. Jesus gives His sheep eternal life. They will not perish forever. No one will snatch them out of His hand. The Lord gives His life so they will be able to live. He gives it freely of His own will. His death is not a tragedy, not a victory for violence and injustice. He has the strength to overpower His enemies, but He chooses to give His life for them instead.
Jesus also has the “authority to take it up again” (John 10:18). This doesn’t mean it is easy for Him to die. He bears the world’s sin and is forsaken by God. Jesus gives His life in death as a propitiation for our sins. Therefore, His life—which conquers death—can be given to us sinners also. It’s for this reason that no one can take believers out of His hand. There is no sin that hasn’t been paid for with Jesus’ perfect life, suffering, and death!
What words of comfort for us! We are secure forever with Christ Jesus. Our security is locked up with the Father in heaven. What is true of the Son also is true of the Father. Jesus’ words are clear. He is the Son of God. He is God. He is the Christ. “I and the Father are one,” He concludes. It is not enough to gather from His words only that Jesus and the Father think alike or have a harmonious relationship. Jesus is speaking of being one essence with the Father, of being God.
And that’s exactly how the Jews understand Him. Our Gospel doesn’t bring this out to clearly because it ends too soon. In the following verses, we are told, “The Jews picked up stones again to stone Him. Jesus answered them, ‘I have shown you many good works from the Father; for which of them are you going to stone Me?’ The Jews answered Him. ‘It is not for a good work that we are going to stone you, but for blasphemy, because you, being a man, make yourself God.’” (John 10:31-33, ESV).
The Messiah stands before them, but they refuse to believe in Him. The Shepherd calls them, but they don’t want to be His sheep. They don’t want to follow His voice. To them, Jesus is no good because He’s no conquering hero; He’s no Judas Maccabaeus. It’s true: He’s not. He’s far superior, as superior as God is to man. Judas fought and died, and the freedom he won was eventually lost. Jesus will suffer and die; but then He will rise again from the dead.
One of the things that we must acknowledge is that we confess a Savior who is far beyond imagination and intellect. We preach a Prince of Peace who surpasses all human understanding. We rejoice, therefore, to declare that the Son of God took on human flesh and was born of the Virgin Mary. We further declare that the holy and righteous Christ suffered and died on the cross for the sins of the world. He rose again from the dead on the third day, lives and reigns to all eternity, and He continues to minister to us with all that we need for this life and eternal life. We believe this to be true because the Lord declares it true in His Word.
But not everyone will believe. A perfect God who becomes flesh is nice in the abstract; but in this world where nothing is flawless, it sounds too perfect. A God who is holy and demands obedience is logical; but the same God offering His Son as the sacrifice for the sins of the world just does not compute. The human mind wants a god that it can grasp and fully comprehend. A God who is greater than that is too unbelievable, too unpredictable, in our rational sort of age.
Now, let’s be clear. The problem is not that Jesus is too great to be believed in, too good to be true. People often act that way, but the problem does not lie with the Lord. The problem is sin. It’s that original sin that blinds us to God’s Word. It’s that Old Adam in us that has no intention of letting us believe in a God who is greater than we can grasp or control.
We must understand this when it comes to evangelism. Our God-given part in saving the lost is not to argue with people until they accept our logic, because logic doesn’t save. It is not to bully people into believing, because grace is a gift, not something forced. It is certainly not to dumb down the Word to make Jesus more attractive. No, our God-given part and privilege in saving the lost is faithfulness—faithfully preaching the Word and abiding by it. The Word of God is the voice of the Good Shepherd; when sheep hear His voice, they follow Him.
Let’s take a moment to warn of several dangers to faithfulness. One danger is to make Jesus “accessible.” Instead of teaching Him as the virgin-born Son of God, crucified and risen, portray Him as someone to whom people can understand and relate. Teach Him as only a defender of the poor and downtrodden, and make your church all about social justice and tolerance. Preach Him as only a moral leader and make your church all about being a better person. Preach Him as only a healer, and make your church about living a healthier life. Emphasize qualities of Jesus that people can understand, even without faith; and de-emphasize those attributes of Jesus that can only be believed by faith.
Many churches have adopted this tactic, and the pews may fill for a while. But here’s the thing: I’m thankful for godly therapists and social workers and moral leaders and healers, all of whom are God’s gifts to help us with this life. However, just like Judas Maccabaeus, therapists and social workers and moral leaders and healers are limited, sinful, and eventually die. If people “believe” in Jesus only as a help for this life, they have no hope for eternal life. Woe to the one who reduces Jesus into a sensible Savior, and thus fails to preach His salvation.
Another danger to evangelism is frustration. We preach the Word, and people don’t believe. You work up the courage to witness to someone, and they reject what you have to say. There must be something wrong with you, right? Well, maybe. There’s always the possibility that some sort of weakness on our part is obscuring the message. But often when people reject the Gospel, it’s not that we’ve done something wrong; it’s that they simply refuse to believe, no matter how clearly salvation in Christ is proclaimed. This happened in our Gospel when Jesus Himself proclaimed His Word, and so we should expect no better reaction.
As Christians, we are not responsible for the results; our part in evangelism is faithfulness. We are called to faithfully preserve the Word of God in its truth and purity, and faithfully proclaim that Word to all who will hear. For it is in this Word, that Jesus calls His sheep to follow and keeps them in His flock.
We must address one more thing in this sermon, lest I prove less than faithful. The Good Shepherd’s voice is not just comfort and salvation for people out there. He is your comfort and salvation, too. It is not my intention to neglect the sheep who are in the fold in order to reach out to those who are not yet. You need to hear the Gospel, too. Gathered here as the people of God, you are in need of His grace and presence, too.
The joyful truth that God has made you His own in Christ does not mean that you do not face all sorts of trial and difficulty. You may be plagued with guilt. You may be frustrated with where your life seems headed. You may face problems on the job. You may be sick. You may be dying. And with such troubles, you don’t need a Judas Maccabaeus to set you free for only a little while. You don’t need to hear of a moral example or a counselor or a crusader for social justice. You need a Savior who actually saves for eternity.
As we have the privilege of proclaiming Jesus Christ to others, so I proclaim Him to you. Jesus is your Good Shepherd, who has laid down His life on the cross to redeem you, and who has taken up His life again for you. He has suffered the guilt of your sin, and so He declares you forgiven. He preserves you despite the plots of others and the setbacks of living in a fallen world, for He has promised faithfully to deliver you to heaven. He has borne your infirmities to the cross so that He might deliver you from illness. And where no one else can deliver you from death, He declares to you, His sheep, “I give you eternal life, and you will never perish; neither shall anyone snatch you out of My hand. You are forgiven for all of your sins.”
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.