One of the lead parts in the Christmas story was given to the Shepherds who watched their flocks outside of Bethlehem. To most of us this means very little. We know nothing about sheep and many of us have never met someone who raised sheep. However, to the bystander in Biblical days hearing the story of shepherds at the birth of the Messiah would have been quite startling. Shepherds were generally seen as social outcasts. They related better to sheep than to people.”
This is not to say that Shepherds were bad people. Most Shepherds were devoted to their sheep. The Bible is filled with Shepherds. Abel was a Shepherd as was Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and even, for a time, Moses. Frequently throughout the Bible God’s people were referred to as Sheep and God is called the Shepherd of those sheep. An interesting sidelight: the early Latin translation of the Hebrew term for Shepherd was the word, “pastor”. Eventually this Latin word became the title given to those who led a congregation of people.
In Mark 10:18 Jesus told the rich man, “No one is good – except God alone.” So, by calling Himself the GOOD Shepherd Jesus identified Himself with God as the ultimate Shepherd over the people.
OUR NEED FOR A SHEPHERD
When God calls us sheep it is a very apropos analogy.
First, Sheep are absolutely helpless. Most animals have some kind of effective means of defense: sharp teeth, claws, speed, or an ability to blend in with the environment. A sheep doesn’t have any of those things. A sheep is so helpless that if it gets rolled over on its back many times it can’t get back up on its feet and can actually die. A sheep needs a Shepherd to give it protection.
The Shepherd would carry a rod (or a club) which he used to fight off predators. He also carried a staff that had a hook on the end so he could rescue the sheep when the fell in a hole or became entangled with the brush. The Shepherd checked the fields where the sheep grazed and would look for holes in the ground that might indicate the presence of a viper. If he found such a hole he would pour a thick oil over the hole which would make it too slick for the snake to exit the hole and attack the sheep. He anointed the heads of the sheep because the smell of the oil warded off flies and gnats. The sheep depended on the Shepherd.
Like Sheep, we are absolutely helpless. We are addicted to sin and can do nothing to make ourselves right with God. If left to ourselves, we would die eternally. We need the Good Shepherd to bring us back to God. He must work on our behalf.
Second, Sheep lack a sense of direction. Sheep can wander off and get lost very easily. Someone said that you could walk your sheep from the front yard to the back yard and they would not be able to find their way back to the front yard! It is an apt analogy to humankind. We too tend to wander and then we wake up one day and don’t know where we are or how we got to this place in life. We must rely on the guidance of the Shepherd found in the Word of God or we will end up wandering aimlessly.
Third, Sheep are easily frightened. Any sound can startle a sheep. The Shepherd speaks to the sheep in calm words and sings songs in the night. We too can easily become unsettled by the events and circumstances of life. It is easy to feel overwhelmed. The Good Shepherd gives us perspective and reassures us by His words and promises.
Fourth, Sheep are known for their “flock mentality”. They want to hang with other sheep and they become agitated when they become separated from the rest of the flock. If one of the sheep wanders off, it is likely that others will follow. . . even to their own destruction. The story is told of 400 sheep who died in eastern Turkey in 2006. One of the Sheep tried to cross a 50 foot deep ravine and the rest of the flock followed him to their death.
How like human nature. Advertisers have learned the value of “product placement”. Companies pay to have their products used in movies and television shows. These companies have learned that if a certain hero in a movie or the lead character in their favorite program is shown driving a certain car, using a certain brand computer, playing a particular video game system, or drinking a certain beverage, the people watching will be more likely to buy that product. People are a lot like sheep. The way to combat this gullibility is to focus on the Shepherd and not the other sheep.
JESUS THE GOOD SHEPHERD
Jesus calls himself the Good Shepherd. He is the one we, as the sheep, desperately need. He tells us why,
He Knows the Sheep (3, 14-15)
Most Shepherds did not raise their sheep to slaughter them. They raised them for the wool. Consequently they developed relationships with the sheep much like we might develop a relationship with our family pet. The Shepherd knew his sheep and the sheep knew the Shepherd. Often several flocks would be kept together in one sheepfold. In the morning the Shepherd would simply call out to his sheep and the sheep would recognize the voice and come to him. The Shepherd had a relationship with the Sheep.
He knows our Names. One of my favorite introductions of a fellow Pastor (when I want to give them a hard time) is this one: “This is the man of whom Billy Graham once said, “Who?”” Let’s face it, if someone doesn’t know your name (we’ll make an exception for old age), you aren’t that important to them. Think about how you feel when you do business with a certain supplier for years, or serve an organization or even are an active part of a church and the leaders don’t know your name. You feel devalued. You feel like people don’t really care that you are involved. If they did, they would learn your name. On the other hand, when such people call you by name you feel valued and significant; you know that the person is able to distinguish you from the rest of the crowd.
The Good Shepherd knows your name! He knows who you are and He loves you. You are important to Him as an individual.
He knows our Nature. The Great Shepherd not only knows your name, He also knows your nature and personality. He knows your temperament, your moods, your weaknesses, and your passions. He knows your victories and your disappointments and how they have impacted you. Few (if any) people in our lives really understand us completely. In truth, we don’t even understand ourselves a good portion of the time. The Good Shepherd knows you. He understands you better than you understand yourself.
Phillip Keller, once a shepherd himself, relates that the strange thing about sheep is that because of their very makeup, it is almost impossible for them to be made to lie down unless four requirements are met. First, due to their timidity, they must be free from all fear. Next, because of their sociability, they must be free from friction with others of their kind. Third, they must be free from flies or parasites if they are to relax. Lastly, they will not lie down unless free from hunger. It is only the shepherd who can provide release from all these anxieties. As our Good Shepherd, the Lord meets all these needs for us, so that we can “lie down in green pastures,” with our souls restored by his care.
Our Lord knows us. He knows our quirks, our points of weakness, and our vulnerabilities. He also knows our gifts and our talents. He knows when we need encouragement and when we need discipline. He knows how to give strength when we are exhausted, how to help us recover after great loss, and how to give us peace when we are going through a storm. He can calm the churning stomach, soothe the anxious mind and give direction to those who are confused. The Good Shepherd can help us find rest.
He is faithful to lead the way v. 4
In verse 4 Jesus said, “When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice.” The Shepherd leads, the sheep follow. The reason the sheep follow is because they have learned to trust the Shepherd.
We are familiar with David’s words in Psalm 23
he leads me beside quiet waters, he restores my soul. He guides me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. (Psalm 23:2-4)
David was writing from the perspective of one of God’s sheep. No matter where the road went, he had learned to trust the Shepherd. No matter how dark the road became, David entrusted Himself to the Great Shepherd of the Sheep. David trusted that the Lord had a reason for everything that was happening in his life. Oh, that might trust the Lord in the same way.
He lays down his life v. 14
The point that Jesus really wanted to drive home (he mentioned it four times) is that the Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. Jesus drew a contrast between himself and a man hired to watch the sheep. Jesus pointed out that the Shepherd is dedicated to the sheep, the hireling is just doing a job. When danger comes a Shepherd will protect the sheep (perhaps even to his own destruction), when the hireling sees trouble he concludes that he does not get “paid enough” to do battle with wild animals. He takes off.
Jesus seemed to be saying that the religious leaders of the day were like the hired man. They were primarily concerned about themselves. Jesus cared for the sheep. He put Himself between us and the wrath of God. He gave His life as a payment for sin.
Sin is a capital offense that carries a mandatory death penalty. Jesus, as the Good Shepherd, took our place and gave his life to satisfy the demands of justice. Because He is the Son of God, His life has infinite worth and His payment can be applied to all who put their trust in Him. No earthly shepherd can do that.
Jesus mentions something else no other shepherd can do. Jesus would lay down his life and then take it up again (v. 17). If a shepherd gave his life, the sheep would then be without a shepherd. Jesus gave His life and then returned from the dead to shepherd His people. He is the unique and Good Shepherd.
He Reaches Out to Others (v. 16)
Jesus said, “I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd.” The Mormon Church, I believe, has misunderstood this verse. They quoted it on their television commercials as validating the teachings of the Book of Mormon. Jesus was talking to the Jews and was surely referring to the fact that the gospel would also be extended to the Gentiles. Jesus is Shepherd of all who trust Him: Jew or Greek, young or old, male or female, rich or poor, famous or infamous.
It is important to note that we will all become one in Christ only when we realize that we have but one Shepherd, and that Shepherd has but one flock. We may gather in different “pens” (or churches), but we are part of the same flock. Christians are not competitors with each other! We belong to the same Lord and Savior.
Let me draw a few conclusions. First, , we are reminded that Christmas is about much more than the birth of a baby. What makes Jesus significant is not the details of His birth but the nature and character of who He is. What makes this day special is that it points back not only to the manger, but also to the cross and the empty tomb.
Look a littler further in the text. In verse 30, Jesus said, “I and the Father are One.” Jesus claimed not to be like God, He claimed to BE God. The Jews understood exactly what He was saying. We are told that they picked up stones to kill Him for blasphemy. Christmas is about God coming into the world as a human being for the purpose of rescuing His sheep. Thus this is the most significant event of all of history. So, when you share the Christmas story with your family and friends don’t stop at recounting just the details of His birth, go on and tell them why the story is eternally important.
Second, we are reminded that: all of us like sheep have gone astray (Isa. 53:6). We don’t like to hear about our weakness. However, until we face this truth, we cannot receive the help we need. A person who has a deadly disease can deny the reality of their situation and tell themselves that they are fine; but that doesn’t make it true. As long as they are in denial they will not and cannot be helped. Likewise, we must face the reality of our lives. We are sheep in need of a Shepherd. We are helpless to save ourselves and so we need a Savior.
So here’s the question: Are you ready to face the reality of your rebellion and turn to the One who alone can rescue you? Are you willing to put your life in His hands and trust what He has done on your behalf? Are you willing to stop relying on people, stuff, and your own ability and begin trusting the Good Shepherd: Jesus? If you have never done so, make that commitment to Jesus today. Make this the best Christmas ever. Make this the time that you can point to for the rest of your life and say: this day was the day when I put my confidence in Christ. This is the day when the Good Shepherd came and rescued me.
Finally, allow Jesus’ words to challenge you to a fuller and deeper commitment. In verse 4 Jesus said,
his sheep follow him because they know his voice. 5 But they will never follow a stranger; in fact, they will run away from him because they do not recognize a stranger’s voice.”
In verse 14, Jesus said, “I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me.”
In verse 27, we read, “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me.”
Jesus tells us that His sheep have learned to recognize His voice so they can follow Him fully. How do we learn to recognize His voice? First, we become a part of His family by trusting Christ for salvation. After we have done that we must become students of the Bible, which is His Word to us. We need to get acquainted with Him by talking to Him in prayer. So, I encourage you to set time every day to get acquainted with the Good Shepherd so that you can learn to recognize His voice.
Second, we learn to trust Him by doing what He instructs us to do. This learned obedience begins with little things. As we learn to trust Him in the simple things, we will find it easier to trust Him in the big things. So here are some places to start,
- The Bible tells us not to “forsake the gathering together”. So make corporate worship a priority in your calendar…start learning to trust Him by putting Him first for this short time once a week.
- Dare to extend forgiveness to someone who hurt you. He tells us that those who have been forgiven much will forgive others. Extend to someone else the mercy that you yourself have received. Let the hurt go and see if you don’t find yourself set free as well.
- Keep your promise even though it would be easy to make excuses. Dare to let your “yes” be “yes”.
- Honor God with your finances. In Malachi God says, “Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. Test me in this,” says the Lord Almighty, “and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that you will not have room enough for it.” (Malachi 3:10). Test God this next year. Give Him 10% and see if God is faithful in providing for your needs.
- When anxiety begins to build in your life, ask yourself this simple question: “Do I trust Him or don’t I?” and then dare to rest in Him.
If we will do these things we will learn what the sheep learned: our Shepherd is trustworthy. We can trust Him with our lives. He loves us. He knows us. And He will lead us faithfully, even through the dark and scary “valley of the shadow of death”.
So as you see various manger scenes displayed this Christmas. Take a good hard look at the Shepherds. Remember that they aren’t simply extras in this great story . . . they are also a picture of the kind of love the baby Jesus has for you and for me.