This Sunday our Easter joy continues. Jesus has “abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel” (2 Tim. 1:10). The reading fits well with this resurrection theme, because Jesus reveals to us the nature of His life and His relation to death. Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down His life for the sheep.” The good shepherd lays down His life for the sheep. This is not quite the same thing as saying that Jesus died for us, though certainly we can speak that way, as Paul does in Romans 5, “while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8). But when Jesus says that He lays down His life for the sheep, He’s saying more than that. Jesus explains a few verses after today’s reading: “I lay down My life that I may take it again. No one takes it from Me, but I lay it down of Myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again. This command I have received from My Father” (Jn. 10:17-18). This gives a new understanding to the words in Matthew 27 when Jesus dies and it says, “He yielded up His spirit” (Mt. 27:50). He yielded it up. Jesus didn’t die because of trauma or blood loss or lack of oxygen or anything else that was inflicted on Him. Jesus died because He chose to. “The Shepherd for us sheep was slain, / And yet His life did His remain. / He laid it down; He willed it. / For none to Him could life deny; / He chose to die: / Pursuing Death, He killed it.”
Death did not claim Jesus. And because Jesus has not only laid down His life for us but given His life to us and made us participants in it, death has no claim on us either. Jesus says later in John 10, “My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me. And I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; neither shall anyone snatch them out of My hand” (Jn. 10:27-28). The moment of our earthly death is not a triumph of death, but a triumph of life, a triumph of Christ. In that moment He exercises the same gracious and loving will by which He willingly laid down His own life. Far from death snatching us out of His hand, through earthly death Christ draws us closer to Himself, ushers us into eternal life, and grants our body peacefully to await an assured resurrection, for if He took up His life again, He will raise us up as well. And thus we can say confidently with the psalmist, “My times are in Your hand” (Ps. 31:15).
This is the first lesson that Jesus wants to teach us today, so that we understand His own death and resurrection rightly and so that we have confidence in Him when we face our own death, which has now become nothing other than the putting off of a lesser life in favor of a greater life. But Jesus has more for us today. He uses shepherd and sheep language to teach us something very important about how we participate in His life. He is the good shepherd who lays down His life for the sheep. And we are His sheep. Without a shepherd, sheep scatter and wander and get lost. They find their way into danger without realizing it, but cannot find their own way back to safety. They are defenseless without a shepherd and easy prey for wild beasts. We need to be led. We need to be protected. We need a shepherd, and we are dependent on him. Therefore, it is of the utmost importance that we are shepherded well. Our life depends on it.
So how do we remain with the good shepherd? We remain with the good shepherd by listening to His voice, as Jesus says, “the sheep follow him, for they know his voice” (Jn. 10:4). The good shepherd shepherds His sheep by speaking. His words are life. But there are others who speak who can be the death of the sheep, namely, the hireling and the wolf. Jesus said, “He who is a hired hand and not a shepherd, who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees, and the wolf snatches them and scatters them.”
Let’s look at the hireling and the wolf in turn. The hireling teaches some of the truth, the parts that he finds convenient. He teaches the Law, or at least some of it, but omits or perverts especially the Gospel of Christ. The scribes and Pharisees were like this. Concerning their doctrine, they taught the Law, but rejected Christ. They burdened consciences, but did not relieve them. Concerning their life, they were not willing to suffer or go out of their way for those under their care. Because they read the Scriptures and taught some things rightly, Jesus said of them, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. Therefore whatever they tell you to observe, that observe and do, but do not do according to their works; for they say, and do not do. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger” (Mt. 23:2-4). You could listen to the teaching of the scribes and Pharisees and learn something about the Law of God. But you could not hear the Gospel by listening to them, nor could you have a good example of a godly life by looking at them, nor receive pastoral care from them.
There are plenty of pastors today who are like the scribes and Pharisees. They shy away from teaching the full counsel of God or do not exercise spiritual care over the flock entrusted to them or do not live according to the Word of God. Instead they teach the parts of God’s Word that won’t get them into trouble, that won’t be controversial, that won’t rub people the wrong way, that won’t sound exclusive. Or even if their doctrine is sound, some pastors are not willing to suffer with and for their people, but act like the pastoral office exists for their personal comfort and satisfaction. The Lord faulted such men at the time of Israel’s exile: “Thus says the Lord GOD to the shepherds: ‘Woe to the shepherds of Israel who feed themselves! Should not the shepherds feed the flocks? You eat the fat and clothe yourselves with the wool; you slaughter the fatlings, but you do not feed the flock’” (Eze. 34:2-3).
We are sheep, and sheep will have a shepherd. Take care by whom you are led. Never listen to a hireling who perverts the Word of Jesus, who uses the Office of the Holy Ministry to serve his own belly, who does not shepherd the church of God. To listen to such faithless pastors will scatter the flock and leave them in the power of the beasts.
And then there’s the wolf. The wolf doesn’t teach anything sound, but only snatches and scatters and kills. The wolf is the devil, first and foremost, and secondarily all who ignore or pervert the Word of God to such extent that there’s no benefit at all to listening to such pastors, but only death. Such are the Jews and the Muslims and even churches that claim to be Christian but have courted the world’s favor: they have set aside Christ in favor of the current popular agendas and have become mouthpieces of Satan. If you shouldn’t listen to a hireling, then certainly don’t listen to a wolf.
The comments Jesus makes about the hireling and the wolf emphasize the importance of knowing His Word. It is only by knowing His Word that we can follow His voice and stay with Him, safe and secure from the faithless hireling and the deadly wolf. Yes, if you would share in the life of Christ, then heed what He says, learn His words, pay close attention in church, read your Bible. Tune your ears to the voice of your good shepherd and forsake all others, as Jesus says of His sheep: “They will by no means follow a stranger, but will flee from him, for they do not know the voice of strangers” (Jn. 10:5).
Now there can be multiple hirelings and multiple wolves, but Jesus emphatically states that for His flock there is “one shepherd,” and that is Himself. This isn’t to say that you don’t need a pastor, nor is it to say that every human pastor is a bad pastor. Rather, by saying that His flock only has one Shepherd, Jesus emphasizes that wherever His Word is rightly and fully taught by a pastor whom He has sent, He Himself is doing the shepherding, as He says elsewhere of His faithful apostles, “He who hears you hears Me” (Lk. 10:16). And again, “Most assuredly, I say to you, he who receives whomever I send receives Me; and he who receives Me receives Him who sent Me” (Jn. 13:20).
I give thanks to God that sound teaching prevails among us, both at Mount Hope and at Trinity, and not only prevails among us, but is the only teaching to be found among us. This might sound a like a presumptuous claim. Who are we to claim that we have something perfectly right? Are we not sinners? Certainly we are sinners, and so in matters that are ours, such as our works, we do not claim perfection. Pastor Preus and Pastor Olson and I confess with everyone that we are poor, miserable sinners. But in matters that are God’s, in matters of His Word and His doctrine, we can claim perfection, because God’s Word is perfect and it is His, not ours. Indeed, Jesus even teaches us in today’s reading that we, His sheep, can know Him fully and perfectly when He says, “I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father.” My own know Me just as I know the Father. Jesus doesn’t know His Father partially or imperfectly, but wholly. And He says we, His sheep, know Him in that same way: wholly, entirely, perfectly.
What else on earth can we point to and say, “This is perfect”? The carpenter might know in his mind what he’s trying to make, but when he makes it, is it ever perfect? Or does he not rather have to learn that close enough is the best he can do? When planning a wedding, can the bridegroom and bride ever expect that all will be perfect according to their plans? Or must they not rather resign themselves to the fact that several things will go wrong, and base the success of the day simply on being married at the end of it? We as Christians know the perfect Law of God, yet when we try to exercise that Law and translate it from tablets of stone to the work of our hands, we find ourselves lamenting with the Apostle, “What I am doing I do not understand. For what I will to do, that I do not practice; but what I hate, that I do” (Rom. 7:15). Yet when it comes to the Word of God, the teaching of our Lord, the divine doctrine, we can say, “This is perfect.” We can know Jesus, for He has made Himself known. We can speak of Christ perfectly according to His own Word, because He Himself has spoken perfectly. This is cause for great rejoicing, that Jesus has said, “My own know Me just as I know the Father.”
And there’s just as much joy in Jesus’ other expression, “I know My own...just as the Father knows Me.” Now certainly Jesus knows all men, in the sense of perceiving all things about them. But the Father’s knowledge of His Son goes beyond mere observation of reality. The Father knows His Son with an eternal, unchanging love. The Father does not know His Son from afar, but is intimately and lovingly involved with His life. Indeed, according to the mystery of the Trinity, the Father and the Son are one, as Jesus says, “I and the Father are one” (Jn. 10:30). As the Father is one with His Son and knows Him in perfect love, so Jesus has made Himself one with you and knows you with perfect love. We witnessed such union this morning as Jesus baptized little Abigail, and after knitting her together in her mother’s womb, knitted her to Himself in the waters of Baptism. Now she is known by Jesus. He has said, “I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are Mine” (Is. 43:1).
And Jesus knows all His Christians that way. I have redeemed you, He says. I made Myself one with you, joining you in the flesh that I might join you to God. I have called you by name, by My name, by the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. And thus you are Mine, and I know you in perfect, eternal, unchanging love. Just as the Father knows Me, so I know you, and we are one.
This is our comfort through all of life. At the one end of earthly life, Abigail might not even know her own name. But she knows Jesus, perhaps not with mental comprehension, but by faith through His perfect Word. And, even greater, Jesus knows her. At the other end of earthly life, the Christian on her deathbed may have lost knowledge of all other things: her name, her relations, even the very room she’s in. But she is one of Jesus’ sheep, and Jesus says she still knows something: she knows Him, and even greater, He knows her. And in the very midst of life, when we must sing, “Who knows when death may overtake me?” because we don’t even know ourselves and our own lives as we would like, our comfort is that we know Jesus and Jesus knows us, and no one will snatch us out of His hand.
“Where can I go from Your Spirit? Or where can I flee from Your presence? If I ascend into heaven, You are there; If I make my bed in hell, behold, You are there. If I take the wings of the morning, And dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, Even there Your hand shall lead me, And Your right hand shall hold me” (Ps. 139:7-10). “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; Thy rod and thy staff they comfort me” (Ps. 23:4). Even death has become child’s play, for Christ has risen from the dead. He has taken up His life, having laid it down once for all. We rejoice in His life and His victory over death, of which He has made us participants. We rejoice in His Word and that He Himself is our shepherd. And we rejoice that He has granted us pure knowledge of Himself and knows us perfectly in His perfect love. Alleluia! Christ is risen! Amen.