You Bet My Life

Text: John 10:11-18
Date: Easter IV + 5/3/09
Lutheran Church of the Incarnate Word, Rochester Hills, MI

Every year during the Easter season the Fourth Sunday after Easter is designated “Good Shepherd” Sunday on which we hear a reading from the tenth chapter of John’s Gospel where he records Jesus’ words telling of Himself and His relation to His believers using the “figure of speech” (Jn. 10:6) of a sheepfold and a shepherd, saying, “I am the good shepherd.” The Psalm for the day, every year, is the beloved Psalm 23 reminding us that the metaphor of sheep is used throughout the Bible to describe God’s people and His continual loving care for them. You may have come here today questioning God’s promised love and care for you, or at least have had some days of questioning in the past. St. John tells us that when Jesus first spoke these words nobody understood what he was saying (John 10:6). It is only in light of Easter, of the resurrection of our Lord from the dead, that we can begin to understand, believe and take comfort in these words.

“I am the good shepherd.” The thing that makes him the “good” one He says is that, “the good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep….” He repeats, “I lay down my life for the sheep….” And again in our text, He says a third time, “For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life that I may take it up again.” The main question this text raises, then, is, what good is a dead shepherd?

“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” He speaks of the “hired hand” who is not a shepherd, who does not own the sheep. He tells of the wolf coming to snatch a few sheep for dinner and scattering the rest of the flock in fear. And these words aptly describe the many times and ways the devil still to this day attacks God’s people, seeking either to steal them away or scare them away from belonging to God anymore. In another place Jesus says the wolf may even don sheep’s clothing to disguise himself. And we can think also of the Bible’s warning concerning the Antichrist who attacks not from the outside but from right within the Holy Christian Church itself. With the image of the “hired hand” He seems to warn against pastors and leaders of God’s people who are, after all, only in it for personal gain or glory and not willing to take a bold stand and to suffer for the eternal welfare of the flock and the abiding truth of God’s Word against all false teaching and other attacks. In the context of John 10 He is certainly implicating the Pharisees and teachers of the Law who are resisting and rejecting Him and His teaching all along the way.

He, on the other hand, is the “good” or we could translate even the “model” shepherd. That goodness and example for others is in the fact that he lays down his life for the sheep. Which makes us ask, again, what good to the flock is a dead shepherd? Normally, if the shepherd dies defending the flock, as soon as he is dead and out of the way it would seem that the wolf would have free course to attack the sheep with no resistance, wherever and whenever he wants. Here is where the analogy breaks down, however. For what is the real enemy of God’s people symbolized by the wolf but sin and death itself. When Jesus repeats in these words His laying down of His life for the sheep, He is pointing to how His innocent, bitter suffering and death on the cross will not only be the tragic result of His confrontation with mankind’s chief enemy, but that it will be a death powerful enough to defeat death itself and its cause, sin, on behalf of the world.

When Jesus says, “I have authority to lay down my life, and I have authority to take it up again,” we could translate these words using the word “power.” Jesus has the power to lay down His life and to take it up again. There is no shepherd that has the power to come to life again after dying for the sheep except this One, the Good Shepherd, the Son of God who came down from heaven, taking on our own flesh specifically to defeat sin and death and to bring life to the world. Before or apart from His resurrection no one could or can understand, much less believe His words, “I lay down my life for the sheep and will take it up again.” In the light of his resurrection from the dead, however, now we can understand His words and see His death as the vicarious atonement, the sufficient payment on behalf of our sins and the sin of the whole world, by which He sets us free from sin and death and opens the eternal kingdom to all believers.

That His death and resurrection is accounted for us and for everyone and anyone in the whole world who believes this, that is, trusts in His death as reconciling God to us, He shows in our text in the words, “I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father.” These are “covenant” words, the “knowing” being the transaction of God’s plan and promise of salvation and the believer’s faith in these words. As with everything else in our relationship to God, the fundamental truth is, “he who has faith in His words has what they say.” When He says, “I baptize you in the name,” faith clings to those words and makes you a child of God. When He says, “Take eat and drink, my body and blood given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins,” faith grasps those words and one receives the very body and blood of Christ and the forgiveness of sins, life and salvation. So also when death closes in as well as on the last day, when our Lord calls you from your grave by name, faith hears, the body comes alive again, and you are with the Lord forever.

Jesus is the Good Shepherd, the Savior, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. He knows His own and His own know Him and recognize His voice. Faith is the gift that makes us know and understand, believe and trust in His words. This is why we began the service today with the hymn “Jesus loves me! This I know, For the Bible tells me so” (LSB 588) and will conclude also with the trusting words of faith,

I am Jesus’ little lamb,

Ever glad at heart I am;

For my shepherd gently guides me,

Knows my need and well provides me,

Loves me ev’ry day the same,

Even calls me by my name.

…And when my short life is ended,

By His angel host attended,

He shall fold me to His breast,

There within His arms to rest. (LSB 740:1, 3)

Take comfort. Listen to the Voice of your Good Shepherd and believe His powerful word.