Sermon notes 05-03-20    The Voice of the Shepherd     Pastor David King

[Psalm 23:1] The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.

         [2] He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters.

         [3] He restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness

for his name’s sake.

         [4] 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.

         [5] You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;

                  you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.

         [6] Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,

                  and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD forever. (ESV)

 [John 10:1-10] “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who does not enter the sheepfold by the door but climbs in by another way, that man is a thief and a robber. [2] But he who enters by the door is the shepherd of the sheep. [3] To him the gatekeeper opens. The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. [4] When he has brought out all his own, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice. [5] A stranger they will not follow, but they will flee from him, for they do not know the voice of strangers.” [6] This figure of speech Jesus used with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.

         [7] So Jesus again said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep. [8] All who came before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them. [9] I am the door. If anyone enters by me, he will be saved and will go in and out and find pasture. [10] The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly. (ESV)

You may have noticed that both of our Scripture passages this week have in common that they speak about shepherds.  We read responsively the 23rd Psalm, where the psalm writer describes his relationship with the Lord as being like the relationship between a sheep and a shepherd.  Then Jim read for us from John chapter 10, where the Lord Jesus speaks about the shepherd of the sheep.  These two passages are just a small representation of the many references to shepherds in the Bible.  In fact, the word “shepherd” appears in the Bible at least 61 times.

Some of the most familiar and well-loved passages of Scripture contain references to shepherds and sheep.  But did you ever wonder why the Bible contains so many references to sheep and shepherds?  Well, part of the answer lies in the reality that being a shepherd was one of the most common and familiar forms of livelihood in biblical times.

We read early in the book of Genesis, chapter 4 to be exact, that the very first shepherd was Abel, who we know also became the first victim of murder, at the hand of his brother Cain.  Many other well-known biblical characters were shepherds as well.  Abraham was a shepherd; Moses was a shepherd.  And shepherds are found not only in the Old Testament.  We know that shepherds were the first people besides Mary and Joseph to see the newborn Christ child.

The best-known shepherd in the Bible was King David, who was also the author of most of the psalms, including the 23rd Psalm.  It should come as no surprise that Moses, who is credited with writing the first five books of the Bible, and David, who is credited with writing most of the psalms, would each include in their writings references to the vocation with which they were most familiar, that of being a shepherd.  Other writers of Scripture, if not shepherds themselves, were at least very aware of the importance of shepherds and sheep in the nomadic and agricultural life of the Hebrews and other peoples in biblical times.  So we can rightly say that a major reason shepherds are so prevalent in the Scriptures is because shepherding was a very familiar reality for the people who lived in biblical times.

But there is another reason why Scripture refers to shepherds so many times.  Shepherds are of course responsible for taking care of sheep, and sheep are mentioned in the Bible even more often than shepherds, more than 500 times, more than any other animal.  But many of those references in the Bible are not referring to the ovine category of mammal that we commonly call sheep.  Sheep are used throughout the Bible to refer symbolically to God’s people.  That is because God’s people, and this means us, my friends, tend to act very much like sheep.

Isaiah 53:6 makes the observation, “We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way.”  1 Peter 2:25 says, “You were straying like sheep.”  In Mark 6:34 we read that Jesus, upon seeing a great crowd “had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd.”

The Scriptures repeatedly make the observation that we humans often act like sheep: primarily in our utter helplessness … and in our fearfulness … and in our tendency to stray.  Being much like sheep, we humans are all in need of a shepherd, so it is natural that the Bible and much of Christian art throughout the history of the Church is full of images of a shepherd and sheep.

Which brings us back to the 23rd Psalm, one of the most familiar passages in all of Scripture.  Many of us were taught to memorize it as children.  I still remember learning it from the King James Version when I was in 3rd grade Sunday School class at Eastview Methodist Church in Columbus, Ohio.  I have never forgotten it.  Many years later I taught it to my own children.  Many of you have also memorized the King James Version of the 23rd Psalm, which is certainly one of the most recited passages, if not the most recited passage in the Bible.  We hear it recited very often at funerals (“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death.”)  Yet Psalm 23 is more importantly a psalm about living.  It describes the daily activities of life, such as eating, drinking, resting and seeking security, from a God-centered perspective.  When we read Ps. 23 alongside John 10, it helps us understand that our Lord is the Good Shepherd whose purpose is not just to give us strength when we face death and escort us into heaven, but to give us abundant life, here and now.

Jesus uses some terminology in John’s Gospel that might need some explanation, since the vast majority of us are not sheep farmers and we might have difficulty picturing what Jesus is describing.  First Jesus mentions a sheepfold.  A sheepfold was commonly a courtyard near or beside a house and bordered by a stone wall, in which one or several families kept their sheep.

In the towns and villages, sheepfolds were the places where all the village flocks were sheltered when they returned from grazing in the countryside.  During the warm seasons of the year, the sheep may have been gathered together on a hillside sheepfold out in the country.

Sometimes sheepfolds had a door which would be guarded by a gatekeeper hired to stand watch, or sometimes the shepherd would be the one to guard the door, even lying across the doorway or the opening so that no sheep could get in or out except over his body.  That is what Jesus is describing when he says, “I am the door of the sheep.”

Something else we may not realize about sheep is how responsive they are to the voice of the shepherd.  Sheep are in many ways like dogs in responding to their master’s voice.  Of course, some dogs are better than others at doing that.  My dog is kind of hit and miss when it comes to responding to my voice.

In his commentary on the Gospel of John, William Barclay describes the interaction of a shepherd and his sheep in this way: “The shepherd calls sharply from time to time, to remind the sheep of his presence.  They know his voice, and follow on; but, if a stranger calls, they stop short, lift up their heads in alarm, and if it is repeated, they turn and flee, because they know not the voice of a stranger.”[1] This is what Jesus is describing when he says the sheep hear his voice.

But we know that Jesus is not talking about four-legged, woolly animals; he is talking about us.  We might not like to think of ourselves as sheep, but Jesus is describing how it is intended to be for those who follow him.  He is the shepherd of the sheep; we are the sheep who respond to his voice.  Sheep respond to the voice of the shepherd because they have learned to trust the shepherd.  They know that if they follow the shepherd, the shepherd will provide security and rest and lead them to good pastures and fresh water.

So what about us?  If we are the sheep and Jesus is the shepherd, what should our response be to his voice?   Two things. First, our response should be simply to trust.  Trust that Jesus Christ is the shepherd who came not just to give us access to eternal life in heaven, but to give us abundant life here and now.

Jesus wants to guide us, in this life, to green pastures and still waters and overflowing cups and security even in the presence of our enemies.  He wants to give us abundant life.  But we can’t obtain abundant life unless we submit to his rod and his staff; in other words the second part of our response is to obey him.

Obedience is not a word that we tend to think of in a positive way.  We think of obedience as restrictive and limiting and confining.  Before some of us became Christians, we may have thought that to follow Jesus would deprive us of freedom and sentence us to a boring, miserable existence and keep us from living joyfully.  But many (like me) found that misery came rather from trying to live life apart from Jesus.  When we finally decided to follow Jesus we discovered new life, an abundant, rich, full, joyful life overflowing with meaningful activities and fulfilling relationships under God’s blessing.  In fact, sisters and brothers, it is only with Christ as our Shepherd that life is really worth living and we begin to live in the real sense of the word.

It is in trusting and obeying that we receive abundant life.  Psalm 23 talks about being comforted by the rod and staff.  We might think of the rod and the staff as the guidance of Scripture and of the Holy Spirit.  Jesus tells us we are to obey his commandments; we are to follow where he leads, so that we take the right paths, paths that lead to abundant life.  The Lord is our shepherd who gives us what we need for abundant life, causes us to rest and be restored, leads us in the right way of living, protects us from evil, and never stops pursuing us with goodness and kindness.

I want to be clear that I am not saying, nor does the Bible say, that if we trust and obey, only good things will happen to us.  We will all have times of darkness in our lives, we will have our times, maybe even like the present time, of walking in the valley of the shadow of death.  There will be enemies present in our lives, there will always be evil in the world until Jesus comes again.

But the Psalm tells us we need not fear evil, because God is with us to guide us and to comfort us even in our darkest valleys.

The last and maybe the most important point I want to make is that Jesus is the Shepherd who became the sheep, or more specifically, became the lamb.  John the Baptist said of him, Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.  The Shepherd of the sheep became the sacrificial lamb.  Jesus is the Shepherd who gave his life for the sheep.  Jesus came to offer his life as a sacrifice for our sins.  He came to give us abundant life … and eternal life.

Friends, with our Good Shepherd leading the way, we can live in safety and security, here and now, even when we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, knowing that he will provide us with everything we need in this life.  And when this life is over, the same Good Shepherd is the door to our heavenly home in the presence of the Father in heaven, where we will live forevermore.

Thanks be to God for sending his Son to be our Shepherd and Savior and Lord.  Amen.

As our response please join us as we sing together, Savior, Like a Shepherd Lead us.



[1] William Barclay, The Gospel of John, Volume 2, (Westminster Press, 1975).  p. 57.