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Click here for the reading: John 10:11-16.

Familiarity breeds contempt.  Such is the saying.  John 10:11-16 may perhaps be the most familiar passage in the Gospels.  And with good reason.  It is likely that the preacher who sets out to preach on these great words of our Lord will soon find that he has been here before, time and time again in fact.  And while this familiarity may not breed contempt in the emotional sense of resentment, familiarity can breed a sense of boredom.

Nevertheless, the preacher who endures to the end will be saved.   There is a good reason why these words of Christ are so beloved and well-known.  Jesus identifies Himself with the beloved figure of Psalm 23 and of Ezekiel 34.  He is not only the Shepherd, but the Good Shepherd.

A good question to consider is what this goodness consists of?  Pastoral scenes of shepherds peacefully leading sheep beside still waters are certainly appropriate.  Such calm images give the idea that the goodness of the shepherd is that he gives the sheep good things, which of course Christ does.  But John 10 speaks immediately of a danger and a sacrifice.  The Good Shepherd does not display his goodness primarily in peaceful times, but in the teeth of a battle.

The goodness of the shepherd comes in that he sacrifices himself, laying down his life on behalf of the sheep.  It is worth pondering here how it could be that the shepherd would save the sheep by dying?  Wouldn’t that only expose the sheep to graver danger at the onrushing wolf?  Clearly something is going on here that exceeds the image of shepherd, flock, and wolf.  The preacher who asks this question and finds its answer in the purpose of the cross will be able to identify the true nature of the wolf and of the shepherd’s protection.

A further line of inquiry as to the goodness of the Shepherd is to ask what motivates His sacrifice?  Jesus answers this question implicitly at first by contrasting himself with the hired hands.  They care nothing for the sheep.  By implication He cares everything for them.  This implication becomes explicit when He states that He “knows,” his sheep.  The knowledge spoken of here rises above mere knowledge of facts about the sheep.  It is a knowledge that unites.  The Word became flesh and dwelt among us not simply to know more about us, but to know us and that we might know Him.  Just as He knows them, so also they know Him.  The more this unity between Shepherd and sheep is explored the richer it becomes.  St. Paul’s frequent use of, “in Christ,” has its source here and in John’s frequent use of Jesus invitation to “abide in me.”  Further reflection on these phrases will give the preacher ample ammunition.

Finally, there is the eschatological promise of the final verse: one flock, one shepherd.  What is now believed will one day be seen.  What is now being undertaken, the gathering of the flock, will be brought to completion and to consummation.  This forward looking promise is especially potent for preaching on during the Easter season.  The Good Shepherd has already laid down His life for the sheep, but now that He is risen what is He at work doing?  John 10:16 gives the answer.

Click here for the reading: 1 Peter 2:21-25.

“You have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.” (1 Peter 2:25)

Like the Old Testament reading, the epistle for Misericordias is cut from the same pastoral cloth.  Like John 10, 1 Peter 2 employs the glorious substitutionary preposition, “on behalf of,” (Gk: hyper), when discussing Christ’s sufferings.  The beloved, “great exchange,” finds great expression here, with Christ “bearing our sins in His body on the tree.” (1 Peter 2:24). And while the vicarious satisfaction of Christ on behalf of sinners is clearly taught in these verses, St. Peter focuses on another dimension of that atonement.  Namely its exemplary nature.  The healing balm of the forgiveness of sins makes healthy sheep who want to leave the paths of sin and walk in righteousness.

Debates about the atonement are fraught with false dichotomies.  Do you believe either substitutionary atonement or Christus victor?  Are you a proponent of either moral exemplar or vicarious satisfaction? preacher will find in 1 Peter 2 a wonderful example in which to follow to avoid such either/ors.  The Good Shepherd is one who leads his sheep in and out (John 10:3-4).  This leading in and out St. Peter locates in the example of Christ’s sufferings. 

The Christian is called to walk in the footsteps of His Shepherd.  The account of the washing of Peter’s feet employs similar words of Christ’s loving example in John 13.  There St. Peter was graphically taught that Christ, his Lord and Teacher, had come as a servant, and that this was an expression of His love.  When the Lord told Peter that unless he were to wash his feet Peter had “no share” in Him, Peter’s objections melted away and he zealously proclaimed, “then not my feet only, but also my hands and my head!” (John 13:9)

While he did not understand what Christ was then doing, by the time of his epistle writing, the Spirit had come to teach Him all things.  The life and death of Jesus is not only a vicarious substitution, but also the model for the disciple.  While the important caveat is necessary, that Christ’s sufferings are qualitatively superior to ours – by HIS wounds you have been healed, they remain exemplary.  In fact, dying to sin and living to righteousness is described as the purpose of Christ’s suffering.  The preacher who fears falling into the ditch of moralism should take note that the other ditch, that of licentiousness (1 Peter 2:16), yawns its mouth just as wide and near to his hearers.

But Peter is not simply describing all sufferings.  “What credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure?”  And neither is he advocating suffering for its own sake.  Rather, it is the suffering that comes from doing good that we are to imitate Christ in.  Christ, most poignantly in his passion, was misunderstood, falsely accused, reviled, and finally killed.  This all despite never sinning, deceiving, reviling back, or threatening anyone.  Christians should neither expect nor pursue the praise of the world. 

Instead, we follow the example of our shepherd, “who entrusted himself to him who judges justly.” Having become our substitute, Christ now calls us to participate in His way of life, living by faith in the Father’s verdict of approval and scorning the shame of the world.  Again, here the preacher will find the note of encouragement that is so needed for the sheep who suffer like their shepherd.  The one who judges justly has vindicated the Bishop of our souls.  Will he not do the same for those who are walking in His footsteps?

Click here for the reading: Ezekiel 34:11-16.

“Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel…” (Ezekiel 34:2).

“As for you, my flock, thus says the Lord God: Behold, I judge between sheep and sheep, between rams and male goats.” (Ezekiel 34:17)

Ezekiel’s wonderful prophecy of the Lord God himself being His people’s shepherd is sandwiched between two harsh judgements.  Neither the shepherds of Israel nor the sheep escape without blame.  Neither the shepherds of Israel nor the sheep can boast of great virtue.  To the shepherds Ezekiel is sent to say: “Should not the shepherds feed the sheep?” (Ezekiel 34:2) And against the sheep he asks: “Is it not enough for you to feed on the good pasture, that you must tread down with your feet the rest of your pasture?” (Ezekiel 34:18)

It is bad enough when the people are like sheep without a shepherd.  But the situation in Ezekiel’s day was even worse.  They had shepherds who were gorging themselves on the sheep.  And the sheep themselves were living in arrogance and greed, with the strong taking advantage of the weak in every conceivable way. 

The shepherds of Israel were those in positions of authority.  Scripture speaks of the kings of Israel as shepherds.  But the term can also be used more broadly for priests and other political authorities.  And while authorities in two of the three estates are mentioned, it is proper to understand fathers and husbands too as shepherds of their own families.  What had gone wrong in Israel during Ezekiel’s time is not unique to Israel.  Authorities in society, in the church, and in families shirk responsibilities and duties all the time.  And so the sheep suffer.  Then, and now.

The history books of the Old Testament provide no shortage of examples.  Wicked kings and faithless priests appear throughout the pages of Scripture.  And the resultant damage to the flock of God’s people is amply recorded too.  Only scan the prophets and you will see that as it went among the leaders so it became among the people.  The sheep not only suffer from the neglect of the shepherds but learn to be just like them.  Like father like son. Like king like people. Like priests like congregation. 

Nevertheless, Ezekiel is not sent only to condemn the shepherds and the sheep and to warn against the abuse of authority.  He is sent with a promise from the Lord God: “I myself will be the shepherd.” (Ezekiel 34:15)  The continual and repetitive use of the personal pronoun along with its emphatic repetition, “myself,” adds exclamation points to the Lord’s promises.  The promise of being shepherd is attended with a whole constellation of functions that he will perform.  Searching for (vs. 11), seeking (vs. 11), rescuing (vs. 12), bringing them out (vs. 13), gathering and bringing them in (vs. 13), feeding (vs. 13, 14, 16), making them lie down (vs. 15), binding up the injured (16), strengthening the weak (vs. 16), and destroying the strong (vs.  16) are all mentioned.

While Ezekiel 34’s promises certainly speak of the return from exile, it is evident from our Lord’s words in John 10 that He has come to deliver the sheep not just from Babylon but from eternal enemies.  The return from exile is incomplete without the Lord’s incarnation, atonement, and resurrection.  It is in His life and voice that the pasture of the flock is truly entered into. As the preacher prepares his sermon he will find plenty of comparisons and contrasts between exile and death, return and resurrection that will serve to magnify the Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ.

Jerusalem had just fallen.  Yet the Lord commands Ezekiel to still rebuke those who had contributed to its downfall.  It was a pride which misapplied what God had actually said and turned His grace into a false security.  The people left for a time in the land said things like “Abraham was only one man, yet he got possession of the land; but we are many; the land is surely given us to possess” (Ezekiel 33:24).  But how can one be a son of Abraham and yet not do the works which he did (John 8:39)?

Among those who led Israel astray were the false shepherds, the teachers of Israel.  They had been neglecting their calling, and they were feeding themselves (Ezekiel 34:2 ff.).  It is tempting to identify this sin of the shepherds with openly false teachings, which practically repeat the ancient question of Satan, “Did God actually say” (Genesis 3:1).  But while this is certainly included, false prophets are often far more alluring because they are far more subtle.  They take what God has indeed said and misapply it.  “Hear this, you heads of the house of Jacob and rulers of the house of Israel, who detest justice and make crooked all that is straight, who build Zion with blood and Jerusalem with iniquity. Its heads give judgment for a bribe; its priests teach for a price; its prophets practice divination for money; yet they lean on the Lord and say, ‘Is not the Lord in the midst of us? No disaster shall come upon us’” (Micah 3:9-11).  “Precisely because they have misled my people, saying, ‘Peace,’ when there is no peace, and because, when the people build a wall, these prophets smear it with whitewash” (Ezekiel 13:10).  And perhaps the most to the point:  “Do not trust in these deceptive words: ‘This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord’” (Jeremiah 7:4).  The false shepherds distorted the promises and the grace of the Lord and turned them into a false security.  Surely they, the very sons of Abraham, would not be taken away from the inheritance!  (Consider also Jeremiah 5:12; 14:13-16; 23:17.)

The Lord therefore promises that He will do what the shepherds had not done.  He would seek His sheep even though the shepherds had neglected to do this.  The false shepherds had fed themselves; God would feed His people.  Everything that the shepherds did not do, described in Ezekiel 34:4, God would do, as He says in Ezekiel 34:16.  The Lord is the Good Shepherd, and this passage clearly finds parallels in other well-known and beloved places like Psalm 23 and John 10.

The Lord mentions that He will do all of these things which He promised “on a day of clouds and thick darkness” (Ezekiel 34:12).  This phrase occurs in several other passages.  In Deuteronomy 4:11, it is used to describe the glory of the Lord as it appeared on Mount Sinai.  Joel 2:2 and Zephaniah 1:15 both use the phrase to describe the Day of the Lord.  Job 38:9 does not use the phrase exactly, but uses both nouns in parallel to describe the sea.  Perhaps the most helpful, however, is Psalm 97:2, where the expression is used to directly describe the glory and majesty of the Lord.  Taken together, therefore, the phrase seems to describe the glory which the Lord shows forth when He acts just as He has said.  On the day when the Lord gathers His sheep like a shepherd, His glory will be clearly seen, because He will glorify His name (John 12:28).  The Lord makes this clearer in Ezekiel 36:22 and following, when He says that “it is not for your sake, O house of Israel, that I am about to act, but for the sake of my holy name.”

As a final note, it is worth noting that using “shepherd” to describe the teachers of Israel happens in the days of the prophets.  Scripture first uses “shepherd” to describe someone who shepherds people of King David (2 Samuel 5:2; 2 Samuel 7:7; 1 Chronicles 11:2; 17:6; Psalm 78:70-71).  To call Jesus the Good Shepherd thus seems to recall also that He is the Son of David.  Of course, the New Testament also, together with passages like Ezekiel 34, calls ministers “shepherds” (which is identical with the Latin word “pastor”) in 1 Peter 5 and in passing in Ephesians 4:11.  But to call those whom Christ has sent to speak on His behalf shepherds or pastors is always in a derivative sense, for there is only one Shepherd (John 10:16).