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Jesus, the shepherd King, wouldn't fit on Downton Abbey
The Gospel of John is all about who Jesus is declaring that he is. Theologians have notes this and seen that Jesus does a several things in the Gospel to reveal who he is. The first ones are the seven signs. They are actions (typically miracles) that show who Jesus is the world around him. They literally and figuratively reveal to the world who he is. By John 10, six of the seven have been revealed, the sixth one happening in John 9 is when Jesus heals a man of blindness. As Jesus reveals himself more and more, the signs become more intense. He literally heals a blind man, as he is unblinding the whole world regarding his identity.
The seven “I Am” statements work in a similar way to the signs. This time he is declaring through he is through his word. See them as his vision statement (who He is) and his mission statement (what He does).
In Chapter 10, he’s calling himself the Great Shepherd. To his audience, the Shepherd is a clear image of a King. In the Bible the picture of a shepherd is frequently used to describe a king. That’s hard for us to get now because so many of our leaders are removed from us and not relatable. It reminds me of Downton Abbey a bit; leaders of an estate who barely know their servants. A villager remarked in a recent episode that I just viewed that it was a great honor to finally meet the Countess of Grantham, Lady Mary in the same show was interrupted by a servant and simple didn’t recall her name. That disparity of not just power, but relationships, makes the idea of a shepherd King, who knows and cares for his sheep is novel. In fact, much of the class warfare, and power struggles that exist in the contemporary political environment might be nonexistent if we related more intimately.
The image of shepherd might have come from the shepherd-boy David, the king after God’s own heart. Before we delve into John 10, let’s learn a little bit about leadership and humility from David.
In this passage, David, the king of Israel, has just committed adultery and murder. You might have heard this story before, but basically, David, who was the quite successful and charismatic leader of Israel, laid eyes on evening on Bathsheba, whose husband Uriah was at war, slept with her and she got pregnant. His solution to dealing with this circumstance was to send him to the front line of the battle ‘where the fighting is fiercest’ and he died.
Here, you are seeing Nathan doing his duty as a shepherd to guide his brother. Nathan sets up a story to convict David of his wrongdoing. How dare he shepherd so poorly and so selfishly? When our shepherds are killers, when they are power hungry, when they are narcissistic, the sheep are led astray, they are killed, ruined.
That rage and anger of course flows through our blood. Not only did David kill Uriah, his solution to Nathan’s conundrum is death again. In fact, as a leader, he would’ve killed someone who did the same thing. You might be getting the theme here, but if you read the Psalms (Psalm 37 comes to mind), you’ll note David’s painful torment, lament, and mourning process over his sins. David doesn’t make the way easy for him because of his own posture.
So much of what we do as leaders is dependent on our own posture. David’s kills to solve his problems, and Jesus does quite the opposite.
Anyone can show up and pretend to be a leader, but Jesus leads in a unique way. Check it out in John 10.
Most leaders promise dominance and triumph. Many promise to make their corporation or their country the greatest. Success, celebrity, wealth, prosperity is often what our leaders (who don’t know us) promise us. Meanwhile, they’ll cut and run and leave the sheep behind most of the time. The wars they get us into, the unemployment that’s necessary for the company, the sacrifices that their sheep have to make that they won’t feel or experience is just enough for us to think that Jesus might do the same.
The point of the Gospel of John is that the Word of God became flesh. The incarnation of Jesus is proof that Jesus isn’t just a liberator freeing us from all of the trouble that we’re in, but he’s a relator—he knows the struggle and he’s triumphed through it. He’s the Shepherd who made himself a sheep to relate to the sheep. He’s not an aristocrat passing out gratuities to those who need it; he is the outcast. He relates to our struggle and we can relate to him too.
Jesus says that he’s the Good Shepherd (another way to put it is “Beautiful” Shepherd) and his main reason for declaring that? “I know my sheep and my sheep know me.” In fact, he says he’s modeling the behavior the Father taught Him!
So find yourself in the image that Jesus is laying out here.
Find yourself as the Shepherd (laying down your life). Jesus is saying he’ll lay down his life for his sheep. He’s doing something that is so not politically advisable.
The sacrifices that it takes to follow Jesus can be quite radical. They aren’t really normal or what we’re expected. Instead of being marginalized by a shepherd, our Shepherd marginalizes himself. We might need to do the same. And the beauty of it is in his authority and the authority he gives us.
We are free to do whatever we wish, but our choice is the humble one like Jesus’. Feel the power of the Cross when Jesus says no one takes it from me. We give it away. We lay down our life only to take it up again! Jesus gives that power today.
Lead with sacrifice and humility like Jesus, and expect that of your other leaders too.
Find yourself as the sheep (hearing his voice and following him). Jesus says that his sheep know his voice. That’s exactly how it works in the Middle East too, the sheep get used to the shepherd’s voice and follow Him.
We need to grow accustomed to the voice of Jesus. It’s not so easy to do this. We have a lot of various voices influencing us. It’s hard to tell which way is up or down. Discern His voice using the Bible, using the Holy Spirit, using the community, and the creation around you.
Listening to His voice protects us, when we are following Him, no wolf will come and kill us. Jesus has demonstrated his power over death and watches over us and guides us. That doesn’t mean that nothing bad will ever happen to us or that we don’t even be disappointed with God, but it does promise us a greater life that’s coming as well as the ability to be a part of bringing the Kingdom of God here today.
Finally, do your part. N.T. Wright tells us we are the under-shepherds of Jesus. There’s a specific portion of the text that refers to us.
Jesus says he has sheep that aren’t in this pen. He’s referring to people that aren’t Jewish. Jesus is a starting a revolution that doesn’t end in Israel. Everyone’s going to hear his message and the movement is going to spread across borders, cultures, languages, and generations.
We are living proof of this movement. Most of us are those other sheep. Those Gentiles. Jesus says that there shall be only one flock led by one shepherd.
What Jesus is saying here is that the message of Christianity, of his death and resurrection is translatable across eras and countries. All of the cultural attachments we place on Christianity today, Jesus is trying to undo.
The only way to spread help people become Christians without it being imperial is to adapt our faith to varying culture. Paul spends much of his ministry discerning how to do this and it’s now our job to carry the torch. We are next generation of shepherds. We know Jesus and we’re helping Him become flesh again to people.
John clearly lays out that Jesus is who He says he is. He’s the true Messiah coming to change the whole world. We are part of that project. We can lay down our lives for it, we can listen to his voice, and we can reach the other sheep who belong in his pen.