Earlier this summer I was a Scripture reader in a cousin’s wedding. It was the first time in some time that I had a role in a wedding other than that of presiding pastor. In the back, prior to the service, one of the pastors (there were three — the bride had several clergy in the family) referred to his wife as his “first wife.” I’ve heard the joke before. But somehow it struck me that the mentality behind the humor—that he’s considering his current wife his first (which assumes that at some point he’ll get around to moving on to a second wife and someday perhaps a third) is not one that a person can hold in their mind while standing at the altar, offering vows to another.
We’re hoping for more. Something inside us desires unconditional and unlimited love. And one thing we discover in life is that we do not find the unconditional, unlimited love we are searching for. On top of this, we also find that we fail to perfectly offer the unconditional and unlimited love that we desire to receive. We encounter this reality in our relationship with our parents at some point, with friends, with mentors, with social circles… The list could go on.
And yet, we feel like an unconditional, unlimited love is “out there” somewhere. It continues to be our standard.
Now, entering John 10:11-18 with this in mind, let’s look at five characters in Jesus’ teaching here and their relationship to what we should know about what it means to experience Jesus as “The Good Shepherd.”
First, the thief. He is trying to gain access to the sheep by illegitimate means — by sneaking in some other way than the gate. And his job description is pretty simply stated in verse 10: “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy.” So, he engages the sheep, but only in order to live off of them.
Second, the stranger. The stranger, mentioned in vs 5, is not necessarily adversarial toward the sheep. The stranger’s distinguishing feature is that he is unknown to the sheep. He has no credibility. He does not seem to have poor intent, but he has no relational foundation from which to call the sheep.
Third, the hired hand. Like the thief, but unlike the stranger, the hired hand engages the sheep and even has some measure of responsibility for them. But his sense of obligation has limits. When danger threatens, he disappears.
Fourth, the Good Shepherd. The Good Shepherd is loving, caring, and self-giving. He knows the sheep and cares for them deeply and strongly. And the sheep know him too. They recognize him and can pick out his voice.
So what character remains to be fifth? I suggest it is the sheep themselves. And since the sheep represent us, they’re an important character to note. They are passive in Jesus’ teaching. Interestingly, their relationship is the one in focus for each of the other characters in the passage: thief, stranger, hired hand, shepherd. All of these characters respond differently to the sheep, but it is the same sheep all along.
So what explains the difference in how the sheep are treated?
It seems to be none other than the personal character of the various persons. The thief is devious, the stranger is indifferent, the hired hand is self-interested. The Good Shepherd is self-sacrificially loving. He seems to love not because these are such lovable sheep but rather because love is who he is. Are they excellent sheep? Are they terrible sheep? Jesus offers no commentary to this effect because it is irrelevant. They are just sheep. No characteristics to recommend them for the best shepherd available. No, they are just ordinary sheep, nothing special in and of themselves that the Good Shepherd would care for them so much.
We are the sheep; Jesus is the Good Shepherd. Does he love us because we are special, wonderful, exceptional, A-plus, first-team, first-chair, rising star, super-qualified sheep? Far be it from me to contradict your mother (or mine) and say you’re not special, but our qualities or lack of them has absolutely no bearing on the love of the Good Shepherd toward us. Are we excellent sheep? Are we terrible sheep? It is irrelevant — the Good Shepherd loves and cares for us regardless.
C.S. Lewis sums it up well: “God loves us not because we’re lovable, but because he is love.” Why not trust a Good Shepherd like that?