But if we walk in the light, just as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ, His Son, cleanses us from all sin. 1 John 1:7

Easter 3 – 2023

John 10:11-18

Jesus said:
“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd gives His life for the sheep. 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. The hireling flees because he is a hireling and does not care about the sheep. I am the good shepherd; and I know My sheep, and am known by My own. As the Father knows Me, even so I know the Father; and I lay down My life for the sheep.”

The imagery of Jesus as a shepherd is a comforting imagery. This comfort is intensified when a comparison is made between Jesus as a shepherd, and a hireling – especially in regard to the differing reactions of each to the approach of a wolf.

The shepherd is the owner of the sheep, who loves them, and who has a stake in their survival. He is willing to take risks on their behalf, and to face danger in protecting them.

A hireling, in contrast, runs away at the first hint of danger. He has no stake in the survival of the flock. He doesn’t care.

The imagery of Jesus as a shepherd is, of course, an analogy, drawn from the earthly calling of a shepherd. Likewise, the comparison between a shepherd and a hireling is also drawn from literal earthly examples of this sort of thing. But there are limits to this analogy.

When a wolf attacks a literal flock of sheep, a literal shepherd, even if he owns and loves the sheep, will hold back in his defense of his flock. He will not fight the wolf with absolutely everything he has, all the way to the sacrificing of his own life.

To be sure, the wolf may get in a couple of scratches and bites in the struggle. A shepherd would be willing to get roughed up a little bit if need be, in fighting off a wolf. That’s where the shepherd would differ from a hireling, who would not go to battle against the wolf at all.

But even the shepherd will not let himself be killed. He will not go that far in defending his sheep. If his life is seriously threatened by the wolf, he will back off.

He will retreat when he needs to, to preserve his life. He considers his own life to be more valuable than the lives of his sheep.

Perhaps there might be an unusual shepherd somewhere who would love his sheep strongly enough to be willing to die for them, if that kind of sacrifice would in fact serve to protect and preserve them. But an earthly shepherd in his right mind would never intentionally do this, because that kind of sacrifice would not actually result in the long-term safety of the sheep.

If the shepherd was dead, the sheep would then have no one to protect them from future threats, and from new predators. Even if the attacking wolf also lost its life in such a mortal struggle with the shepherd, the sheep would be safe only from that one wolf, not from all other wolves.

And before long, other wolves would stumble across the unprotected and untended flock, and devour it. A literal shepherd knows this.

And so a literal shepherd wouldn’t fight against the wolf to the death. And he might, by necessity, allow the wolf to take and kill a weak sheep or two that would be straggling on the outskirts of the flock.

An earthly shepherd would realize that it is better to sacrifice one or two weak animals, to appease and satisfy the wolf, than to sacrifice his own life, and thereby, in effect, to sacrifice the whole flock.

The only way that a literal shepherd in this world would be willing to go all the way in his defense of his sheep, even to the point of laying down his own life, would be if he would then be able to bring himself back to life again after the battle. Only if the shepherd had such powers, would his flock be safe from future attacks.

But because this is not possible, at least not for literal shepherds in this world, it doesn’t happen. Shepherds do hold back when they fight against wolves. If they were to die trying to save all the sheep, they would end up not saving any of them.

So, pragmatically, a few are sometimes allowed to be lost, in order for most – but not all – to be saved. When a wolf attacks, especially if he is a particularly ferocious wolf, he will often be allowed to make off with one or two of the weaker sheep, on the fringe of the flock.

That’s why the text from St. John’s Gospel that we read a few moments ago does not limit itself to comforting us with the idea that Jesus is the shepherd. Instead, Jesus therein refers to himself as the good shepherd – the supremely Good Shepherd.

Unlike literal shepherds, Jesus gives his life for the sheep. He goes all the way in his defense of the flock. He protects the whole flock from the wolf: not just the smarter and stronger sheep, but all the sheep – including the weak ones, and the stragglers at the fringe.

He doesn’t sacrifice any of his beloved sheep to the wolf. Instead, he sacrifices himself, in order to save them all. And then, after making the supreme sacrifice – by which he does vanquish the foe – he takes back his life again, so that he can continue to take care of the sheep and protect them from any and all future threats.

On his cross Jesus gave his life for his sheep – for all his sheep. On the cross he fought back against the attack of Satan, the arch foe of his flock, and he defeated him.

Satan had all of us in his clutches. Wandering far from the safety of God and rebelling against the commands of God, we were easy prey for him.

By nature we were under the control of this wolfish devil. And he would have destroyed us all, if a shepherd – a good shepherd – had not positioned himself for mortal combat between us and the devil.

But that is exactly what Jesus did. In his death he destroyed the power of death. In his suffering he rescued and redeemed us.

In the shedding of his blood he defeated the devil, who held sway over us, and restored us to the sheepfold of God. And, on the third day, he rose again from the dead.

Now, as the risen and living shepherd – the good shepherd; the best possible shepherd – he faithfully tends his own and cares for them, guarding their souls by his Word and Sacraments against all spiritual predators.

But an important question remains for each of us. Am I truly a member of this flock of sheep, which Jesus so faithfully and lovingly guards?

Are you? There is a way for us to know the answer to this question – not based on wishful thinking or presumption. It is the way that Jesus himself gives us in these words:

“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.”

Jesus is here giving his disciples a glimpse of the Great Commission and its consequences. He is going to gather sheep into his one flock, not only from his own nation, but from all other nations.

Do you want to be certain that you are one of them; that Jesus is your shepherd; and that he can and will defend and protect you from all Satanic attacks?

Hear his voice! Everyone who listens in faith to the voice of the shepherd belongs to the shepherd, and knows the shepherd.

Listen to his voice when he warns you about the wolf and the wolf’s influence over you – when he sternly rebukes you for your sins and trespasses. Don’t be an impenitent, self-justifying sheep, who continually bleats out the noise of excuses and rationalizations, so that the voice of the shepherd cannot be heard.

Instead, stop the bleating. Listen to the shepherd, and repent.

And, listen to him when he lovingly calls you to himself: to the clean place of his forgiveness, and to the safe place of his protection.

Listen to him as he nurtures you with the lush pastures of his Word, and with the pure, living waters of his Spirit. Listen to him as he reclaims you, and encircles you with his sacraments, so that you can remain intimately close to him.

It may be that in the midst of the trials and confusions of this life, you sense yourself today to be distant from the good shepherd. Maybe you sense yourself to be weak, and on the fringes of his flock.

It may very well be so. We all have ups and down in our spiritual life. In one way or another each of us is weak, and on the fringe.

And sometimes we struggle very deeply. Our consciences can trouble us greatly as we reflect on the misdeeds of the past, the temptations of the present, and the uncertainties of the future.

But even if this is the case – even if you are among the spiritually weak sheep, and even if you are emotionally at the fringe of God’s flock – listen today to the voice of your shepherd! You belong to him, and he will not allow the devil to devour you.

Remember that Jesus is the good shepherd. He holds nothing back in fighting for you and for your salvation. As you hear his loving and protecting voice, the wolf will not be allowed to pluck you away.

We hear the warm admonitions of Psalm 95:

“Let us kneel before the Lord, our Maker! For he is our God, and we are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand. Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts.”

And, once again, we hear Jesus say:

“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd gives His life for the sheep. … And other sheep I have which are not of this fold; them also I must bring, and they will hear My voice.”

We close with these words from the hymnist Dorothy Thrupp:

*”Savior, like a shepherd lead us, Much we need Thy tender care;
In Thy pleasant pastures feed us, For our use Thy folds prepare.

We are Thine, do Thou befriend us, Be the guardian of our way;
Keep Thy flock, from sin defend us, Seek us when we go astray.

Thou hast promised to receive us, Poor and sinful tho’ we be;
Thou hast mercy to relieve us, Grace to cleanse, and power to free.”


* Savior, like a Shepherd lead us
Author (attr.): Dorothy A. Thrupp (1836)
Tune: BRADBURY (Bradbury)