11 [Jesus said:] “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12 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. 13 He flees because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep. 14 I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep. 16 And I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.” (ESV)
Introduction: I Don’t Want Jesus as My Shepherd!
There was a time in my childhood when I was really confused by the opening line of the 23rd Psalm: The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want. This line actually means that with the LORD being our shepherd, we lack nothing. But in my childish confusion, I thought it was saying: “The LORD is my shepherd, and I don’t want Him!”
Of course, that is how the Old Adam in us prefers to live, as sheep not wanting to follow the Shepherd to the green pastures and still waters, not wanting to be led in paths of righteousness for His name’s sake, not wanting a Shepherd period. All we like sheep have gone astray; We have turned, every one, to his own way (Isaiah 53:6).
But to us straying sheep comes Jesus, the Good Shepherd. And all He wants is you and me. We who so often have turned our backs on the Shepherd. We who have cursed His Shepherd’s staff, ignored His call, and gone our own way, wandering far from His side. We who have acted more like a wolf than a sheep, angrily tearing away at those around us. Yes, Jesus the Good Shepherd wants only us straying sheep.
Jesus, the Beautiful Shepherd
Our English word “good” does not quite catch the full meaning of the word St. John uses to describe our Shepherd Jesus. For us, “good” can sound a bit cold or hard, merely moralistic. But in calling Himself “the Good Shepherd”, Jesus is saying far more than that He is good in the sense of morality, although He truly is His Father’s faithful, obedient Son. And neither is Jesus emphasizing “good” over “bad” or “excellent” over against “inferior”, as though He were comparing Himself with other shepherds. Rather, Jesus is proclaiming Himself to be a Shepherd in a sense in which no other man could ever be a shepherd. Once, to a man concerned about doing something to inherit eternal life, Jesus affirmed that No one is good but One, that is, God (Mark 10:18). And now, He affirms that He Himself is the one Good Shepherd, absolutely in a class all by Himself, and that He is good, excellent, with a goodness, an excellence, unique and all His own, for He is the only-begotten Son of God the Father.
And there is more, for the word which our English Bibles translate as “good” can also mean “beautiful”. This does not refer to what Jesus looked like. Rather, it is about the sheer attractiveness of what Shepherd Jesus was doing for undeserving sinners. In our Lord’s own words: I am the beautiful shepherd. The beautiful shepherd lays down His life for the sheep. How strange, that Jesus would associate beauty with His death. In the words of one of our Lenten hymns: What punishment so strange is suffered yonder! The Shepherd dies for sheep that loved to wander (LSB #439.4—“O Dearest Jesus, What Law Hast Thou Broken”). But it is truly only through the beauty of His blood staining the wood of the Good Friday cross that our Saviour draws all people to Himself (see John 12:32). We cannot come to Jesus by our reason or strength, but through the Gospel the Holy Spirit draws us to the beauty of Jesus’ holy, precious blood and His innocent suffering and death.
The Good and Beautiful Shepherd Own His Sheep and They Own Him
The strange beauty of Good Friday is not a distant beauty, separated from you by time and geography. You cannot travel back to blood-drenched Golgotha. But the beauty of Jesus dying for you, in your place, does come to you now, not abstractly, but in a deep reality that will outlast this world’s joys and troubles. The beauty of the crucified Shepherd comes to you in His words: I know my own and my own know me.
Think of what that means! You get a hint when you recall the opposite: what it means to have Jesus Christ say to hypocrites on the Last Day: I never knew you (Matthew 7:23). But it is not just that Jesus knows who truly believes and who is only playing at believing. Rather, Jesus knows His sheep in the same way that His Father knows Him and He knows the Father. That is a full, complete knowing and sharing.
Jesus knows His sheep because He knows us in the stark reality of our sinfulness. He knows you inside and out. Knows you better that you could even begin to know yourself. He knows you even in the depth of your sin, because He Himself knew that depth on His cross. And He came to lay down His life for you. Not only because He knew you, but that you might come to know Him.
And my own know me. To know Jesus as the One who lays an absolute claim on your life, who says that you are His, that you belong to Him. To know Jesus as the One who not only owns you, not only knows you through and through in all your failure, your sin, your despair and struggles, but the One who loves you. The depth of His love was in the death of Your sin and mine on Him on the cross. There, in Jesus’ beautiful, bloody death, is the measure of measureless love. There we come to know Jesus for who He really is. Not just a good shepherd, but THE Good Shepherd. The One who gives His life for the sheep. I lay down my life for the sheep. All of this, of course, is His gift to you in the waters of Holy Baptism, in which you were marked with the sign of the cross, named as belonging to the Crucified Saviour forever. There, in Baptism, you come to know Jesus as your Good and Beautiful Shepherd indeed.
And there is more to our knowing of Jesus. Yes, we know Jesus as the One who lays an absolute claim on our lives, but we also know Jesus as the One who now truly belongs to us. Jesus owns us and we own Jesus. Jesus owns our lives, including our failures, sins, sorrows, and troubles, which He has borne in His body to the cross. And we, in turn, own the very life of Jesus, including His victory over the devil, His righteousness, and His indestructible life. The wonder of it all is that our knowing and being known by Jesus flows from the eternal knowing between the Father and the Son: I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father.
The Beautiful Shepherd Sent by the Father to Defeat Death
The relation between the Beautiful Shepherd and the sheep He has saved is a lovely reflection of the supreme relationship of love between the Father and the Son. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit live in an eternal communion of love. And such a communion God also desires to have with us. Remember our Lord’s words: If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him (John 14:23). Desiring such a communion of love and to make His home with sinners, God the Father sent the Son to rescue straying sheep from the grip of Death. In love, the Beautiful Shepherd laid down His life for you. He laid down His body between you and the satanic wolf, between you and the lion of hell, and gave Himself to be devoured by Death. Death did indeed lick up the blood of the slain shepherd, chewed His flesh, and gulped Him down.
But that which Death wolfed down could not be digested in the tomb of his stomach. And when Jesus who laid down His life took it back again, the tomb of Death could not contain Him. The Beautiful Shepherd vacated the stomach that had entombed Him, leaving behind Him a predator that you, O little flock, need fear no more. Shall you fear Death, with his belly burst open by the risen Christ so that now Death cannot hold you down? Shall you fear that your rebellious ways have separated you from God when He Himself has made you His own dear child in Holy Baptism and now has made His home in you? Have no fear, little flock, for He who is known by the Father knows you, calls you by name, and has made you His own. You belong to Him and He belongs to you in an everlasting communion of love.
The Beautiful Shepherd and His Beautiful Sheep—Forever!
The earth is full of the goodness and the beauty of the Lord. For by the humiliation of His Son, God raised up our fallen world. He raised you up from the pit into which you had fallen. He placed you upon His shoulders and rejoiced to carry you home. He washed you in cleansing waters, bound up that which was broken, and healed all your wounds. He prepared an altar before you and anointed your head with the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit (Isaiah 61:3). And for you, He has prepared for you His cup, His chalice which continually runs over—over your lips, over your sins, quenching your thirst while at the same time making you yearn for more.
All this He does for you. And because He is the Beautiful Shepherd, you are His beautiful sheep. Yes, the beauty of the LORD our God is upon you (see Psalm 90:17). The Beautiful Shepherd gives His life for you and makes your life His own and His life your own. He became what you are in order to make you what He is. Surely the Shepherd’s beauty and goodness and mercy shall follow you, shall precede you, shall be on your right and on your left, above you and below you, all the days of your life, and you shall dwell in the flock of the Lord forever. Amen.