Realizing the presence, promise, and power of the Kingdom of God.

The Good Shepherd

Calling all smelly sheep

John 10:11-16

11 “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd gives His life for the sheep. 12 But a hireling, he who is not the shepherd, one who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees; and the wolf catches the sheep and scatters them. 13 The hireling flees because he is a hireling and does not care about the sheep. 14 I am the good shepherd; and I know My sheep, and am known by My own. 15 As the Father knows Me, even so I know the Father; and I lay down My life for the sheep. 16 And other sheep I have which are not of this fold; them also I must bring, and they will hear My voice; and there will be one flock and one shepherd.


During my junior and senior years in college, I took a part-time job to make a little extra money. Other students took jobs at the school bookstore or local shops, but I answered an ad to be a hired hand on a local farm. I soon discovered that this was a sheep farm and many unique tasks would be required of me, including shepherding a herd of over 100 sheep.  The work was such that more help was needed and soon I had recruited my girlfriend (now wife) and another friend to join me.

After class each day, the three of us would head to the farm to tend the sheep. I had grown up on a farm and even raised a few sheep as 4-H projects–but nothing prepared me for the task of watching over an entire flock. My friends and I quickly learned that the sheep required our constant attention. There was little time for conversation or idleness as we attempted to move them from one pasture to another or round them up into the barn for the night. 

The owner (an artist who had recently opened a studio in town that needed her attention) showed us how to call the sheep, how to do the procedures for feeding and moving them, and how to check for signs of predators–dogs, bobcats, and other varmints–that might be stalking the flock.

What seemed so easy for her soon proved to be frustrating for us. For one thing, the sheep would not listen to our calls or cooperate when we moved them to new fields. The flock would suddenly split into groups, each led by an “instigator” sheep that had decided on a different point of the compass to run to.

A visit from the veterinarian or wool shearers turned an afternoon with the flock into a three-ring circus of crazed sheep, bleating and darting like pinballs around the holding pen. I can tell you that when an alarmed 150-lb sheep hits you full force in an effort to escape perceived danger, it will leave a mark.  

These sheep were hardheaded, noisy, panicky…and they smelled. Needless to say, when we three farmhands returned to the college in the evening, nobody wanted to sit next to us in the dining hall.

John Chapter 11 brings us to a passage that introduces us to one of the most recognizable images of Jesus. He has healed the man born blind, and in the wake of that wondrous miracle, we find Him once again facing misunderstanding from the people around Him and growing hostility from the religious leaders.

Seeing that the man whom He has healed has been cast out of the synagogue by the Pharisees, Jesus begins to make a comparison:

11 “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd gives His life for the sheep.–John 10:11

As John pens his gospel, he recalls his brief time with the humble, itinerant rabbi who walked with him from the hills of Galilee to the dusty streets of Jerusalem–a walk that led to the cross and then the empty tomb. Those days were filled with indescribable wonder, happiness, and even fear. John remembers Jesus, the good shepherd, bringing comfort to His disciples and now he offers that same comfort to the early church.

Jesus is drawing on one of the most ancient images of the savior as given by God. Psalm 23 comes immediately to mind: The Lord is my shepherd… or its author, David–a shepherd boy who led Israel as a “man after God’s own heart.”

A shepherd is a figure that is rich in meaning throughout history, a figure at once capable and responsible–and yet peaceful and mild. One of the earliest surviving images of Jesus from the early church is a hand-painted image on the wall of the St. Callisto catacomb in Rome from the third century. It depicts Jesus as a young man, bearing a sheep across his shoulders. The figure looks at something off to His left–a threat perhaps-while the sheep gazes longingly at the face of her guardian.

This is the image that Jesus is describing to His followers. With the shameful expulsion of the formerly blind beggar, Jesus is revealing that while there may be bad shepherds who harm God’s people, there is also a good shepherd who will lead them through the dangers of this world.

God warns Israel of bad shepherds that will rise up (Zechariah 11:16), but He brings comfort to His people in the promise of One to come who will gently lead them home:

He will feed His flock like a shepherd;
He will gather the lambs with His arm,
And carry them in His bosom,
And gently lead those who are with young.–Isaiah 40:11

This is one of the most beautiful and compelling images of Jesus. As He speaks to those around Him, their minds go to these wonderful words and the familiar daily sight of shepherds leading their sheep on the rocky hills around them.

The western view of shepherding is a bit different from that of the ancient Near East. The European image is one where the shepherd often functions as a drover, pushing the flock along from the rear. Sheepdogs and border collies are often used in a canine partnership, responding to whistles and commands to keep the flock in line.

In Jesus’s day, the shepherd would have likely led the sheep from the front, rather than driving them across the landscape. Jesus, the Good Shepherd, leads His sheep. Who are His sheep? His people, of course–including you. Jesus describes these characteristics in detail, knowing that He is describing Himself and His relationship with His own:

14 I am the good shepherd; and I know My sheep, and am known by My own. 15 As the Father knows Me, even so I know the Father; and I lay down My life for the sheep.–John 10:14-15 

This teaches us several things about Jesus, the Good Shepherd:

His sheep know Him. How do sheep do this? As I learned down on the farm, sheep develop a bond with their shepherd. Sheep are prey animals and thus are attuned to threats. Someone who is clearly their keeper, their caregiver, is quickly adopted as a source of comfort and safety.

A hired hand–like I was–can bang a food bucket and whistle all day to no avail. All that a good shepherd must do is call across the field and the flock will come running. Jesus even says this in verse 3:

To him the doorkeeper opens, and the sheep hear his voice; and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.–John 10:3

Do you know Jesus, the Good Shepherd? I mean really know Him? In one way, you can know Jesus by feasting on the Word. The deep riches of the knowledge of Christ are scattered in a vast galaxy of light that is the Bible: the gospels, Paul’s letters, the Psalms, the prophets, the glory of creation–and the trumpet blasts of Revelations.

More specifically, do you know Him as your Lord and Savior? Do you walk and talk with Him–or is Jesus a distant figure? The Good Shepherd must be more than a painting on a wall–He must be connected with you in prayer, in your daily life, and in how you relate to the other sheep in the flock.  

He knows His sheep. Verse 3 reveals that a good shepherd knows the different personalities, habits, and even the health of each sheep. He knows the rebellious members of his flock–and those who need extra care. He shares their fears and their sweetest moments. My wife still smiles with joy at remembering her role in caring for a lamb abandoned by its mother–a tiny white fuzzball of cuteness in a bed of straw.

Jesus knew the differences and details of His disciples, and chose them to walk with Him in life and death. He knows you too–everything about you. Jesus, the Good Shepherd, knows your pains, feels your fears, and abides with you in your joys. He knows the conditions that trigger your addictions or habits as well as the small things that make you feel loved. Some sheep, when panicked, will run flat out until they simply die. In Jesus’s loving arms, your deadly fear has no power.

Are you a pastor or church leader? How well do you know God’s flock? Have you spent time with them to get to know what they truly face in daily life? Like a shepherd entering a clean dining hall, do you smell like the sheep fold?

He protects His sheep. Jesus says a very curious thing in verse 9:

I am the door. If anyone enters by Me, he will be saved, and will go in and out and find pasture.–John 10:9

What does Jesus mean when He says I am the door? Some translations use “gate” but they both mean the same basic thing–even the Greek here is vague. It quite literally means what it says. In the ancient Near East, sheep pens were often remote and rudely built of thorn trees or rock. Instead of an intricate or untrustworthy gate, a gap was just left in the wall.

The shepherd would actually station himself in that gap to watch the sheep, lying across it to sleep. He would use his own body to protect them from predators or from wandering off.

This reminds me of another shepherd: St Patrick. He was taken captive as a boy and forced as a slave to tend sheep for six years in the barren hills of the north of Ireland. Patrick came to know Christ and, after escaping his bondage, became a priest. He then returned to Ireland where he had shepherded sheep to shepherd a wild people into Christianity. The Irish followed Patrick in part because he lived with them and he loved them.

When helpless Christians were taken as slaves by a warlord, Patrick spoke out boldly for their release:

I am not forcing myself in where I have no right to act. I have a part with those whom God called and destined to preach the gospel, even in persecutions which are no small matter, to the very ends of the earth.  - St. Patrick, Letter to soldiers of Caroticus

Patrick knew his call was to serve Christ and to love and protect His children–even if it meant standing up to those who could kill him.

This is the image that Jesus is seeking to convey. The Good Shepherd, who will later declare that He is the Way, the Truth and the Life (John 14:6) is THE path of salvation.   He protects you with His body and blood on the cross.

Will you let Jesus lead you? There is not a fearful thing in this world that the Good Shepherd has not overcome. There is not a corner of your soul that He does not know–no part of your life and past that His blood has not covered. God reminds you in the old hymn:

Savior, like a shepherd lead us,
Much we need Thy tender care;
In Thy pleasant pastures feed us,
For our use Thy folds prepare:
Blessed Jesus, blessed Jesus,
Thou hast bought us, Thine we are;
Blessed Jesus, blessed Jesus,
Thou hast bought us, Thine we are
          - Dorothy Ann Thrupp, 1836


You need His tender care. He is leading you home to greener pastures. Listen closely for the voice of the Good Shepherd in your life.



The Monday—Friday DEEPs are written by Mike Slay and this Saturday Deep is written by Matt Richardson. To subscribe to all the DEEPs click here:

The weekly study guides, which include the Monday–Friday devotionals plus related questions for discussion or meditation, are available for download here:

Except as indicated, Scripture taken from the New King James Version. © Copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved. ESV stands for the English Standard Version. © Copyright 2001 by Crossway. Used by permission. All rights reserved. NIV stands for The Holy Bible, New International Version®. © Copyright 1973 by International Bible Society. Used by permission. All rights reserved. KJV stands for the King James Version.

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