“I am the Good Shepherd” #BCCSundaySchool2019

Good_shepherd_02b_closeChrist as the Good Shepherd was one of the most common and early illustrations of the Savior in early Christian art, before the Edict of Milan in 313 AD granted religious liberty to minority groups like Christians. The image of a shepherd was a furtive, sneaky way of remembering Christ through paintings and statues without being persecuted or even executed by the Roman Empire. These images of Christ were also reminiscent of Greek depictions of Hermes Kriophoros, representing a story in which Hermes saves a city from the plague by carrying a ram on his shoulders and running around the city’s walls. In other stories of kriophoros, or “ram-bearers,” the rams are representative of sacrifice—a fitting complement to Christ’s own atoning sacrifices. Additionally, the tragic Greek hero Orpheus (who was very nearly able to resurrect his wife, Eurydice, from death, and whose own head had been able to keep singing sad, beautiful songs long after it was torn from his body) was also commonly depicted as a shepherd, playing music to birds and animals from his lyre. It’s not always easy to distinguish among these various personalities in ancient art, and it’s also possible that many pieces of art simultaneously represented a synthesis of these various stories: stories of heroism, tenderness, care, and sacrifice.

Christ is a sacrificial lamb (John 1:29), but Christ is also the Good Shepherd. In John 10, we learn that the Good Shepherd enters in the sheepfold’s door or gate, but that thieves and robbers “climb up some other way” (1–2). The sheep hear and know the Good Shepherd’s voice, and the Good Shepherd knows his sheep by name and leads them (3–4). The sheep know their Shepherd and follow him; these same sheep will not follow strangers, but will run from them instead (5). The New Oxford Annotated Edition of the Bible notes that a more fitting translation than “good” is “noble,” adding that the same word was “applied to the death of a soldier or hero when voluntarily accepted, which benefitted the city, when experienced virtuously, when the hero died unconquered, and which was awarded posthumous honors.” The Good Shepherd is heroic, noble, and virtuous.

In verse 7, Jesus complicates his parable. Not only is he the Good Shepherd, but he is also the actual “door/gate of the sheep.” If people find the Savior, what they really find is an entrance to safe pastures (9). 

Jesus emphasizes that while thieves and robbers want to plunder and murder, Jesus offers life and abundance (10). In fact, Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd: the good shepherd gives his life for the sheep” (11). He repeats and clarifies this messages in verse 15: “As the Father knows me, even so I know the Father: and I lay down my life for the sheep.” He is not like the hireling who runs when a wolf shows up. The hireling is not willing to die or face danger for sheep he doesn’t know or care about (12–13). Because Jesus knows his sheep and the sheep know him, he is willing to face the wolves in order to save the sheep he loves.

Jesus also acknowledges that he has sheep in other places, but he underscores that these sheep, too, all ultimately belong to the same fold and follow the same Good Shepherd. 

Sheep were incredibly important commodities in ancient times, and as far back as 3000 BC, Mesopotamian rulers were described as “shepherds” of the people. Likewise, Egyptian pharaohs were often depicted as carrying shepherd’s crooks, emblematic of their leadership positions over their human flocks. After Jesus referred to himself as the Good Shepherd, those followers who heard and accepted Him as their shepherd also reinterpreted older scriptures to account for this metaphor. They could turn to Psalms—“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want” (23:1); “We are his people and the sheep of his pasture” (100:3)—or Isaiah—“He shall feed his flock like a shepherd; he shall gather the lambs in his arm, and carry them in his bosom, and shall gently lead those that are with young” (40:11)—and apply these scriptures to the Christ that they saw before them. 

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William Blake’s depiction of the Good Shepherd in his poem, “The Little Black Boy” (1785)

For others, the Good Shepherd metaphor brought confusion and anger, and John writes that the people ended this conversation by throwing stones at Jesus. Jesus asks them, “I’ve shown you so many good works from my Father—for which of these works are you stoning me?” and the men replied: “Blasphemy. Because you, being a man, make yourself God” (paraphrased from John 10:32-33). Christ argues in this moment that the Good Shepherd can be recognized by His voice and His works. The miracles speak for His power, and Christ’s sheep would recognize that healing a man’s sight (John 9) and saving a woman from being stoned to death (John 8) are attributes of God’s son.

Much of Jesus’s teachings in these chapters have to do with our ability to see and hear accurately. For those who wanted to stone Jesus, their perspectives were limited or obstructed by Pharisaical laws and judgmental conclusions that blinded them from seeing Jesus as the “light of the world” (John 8:12; 9:5). Here is a list of the kind of advice Jesus gives in these chapters. Notice how he is pushing for his critics to assess their own paradigms and consider altering the lens through which they interpret and survey the world around themselves:

  • “Judge not according to the appearance, but judge righteous judgment” (John 7:24).
  • “Ye judge after the flesh; I judge no man” (John 8:15).
  • “If ye continue in my word, then are ye my disciples indeed; And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (John 8:31–32).
  • “Why do ye not understand my speech? even because ye cannot hear my word” (John 8:43).
  • “He that is of God heareth God’s words: ye therefore hear them not, because ye are not of God” (John 8:47).
  • “For judgment I am come into this world, that they which see not might see; and that they which see might be made blind. . . . If ye were blind, ye should have no sin: but now ye say, We see; therefore your sin remaineth” (John 9:39 & 41).
  • [in response to the question, “How long dost thou make us to doubt? If thou be the Christ, tell us plainly”] “I told you, and ye believed not: the works that I do in my Father’s name, they bear witness of me. But ye believe not, because ye are not of my sheep, as I said unto you. My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me” (John 10:25–27).

Discussion Questions for the Family

  1. Have you ever thought you saw or understood something/someone clearly, but then later learned that you had misunderstood something important about that person or thing?
  2. What did it take for people to believe in Jesus? In what ways did they need to suspend their judgment? What were the rules or traditions that kept some people from appreciating Jesus’s miracles?
  3. In the story where Jesus heals a man from blindness, who are the people who remain blind at the end of the story? What would have cured their “blindness”?
  4. How does it feel that Jesus knows your name? What kinds of characteristics do you think a “good” or “noble” shepherd should have?
  5. Why is it so important for us to be careful how we judge others? Why should be careful not to start throwing stones at others? What does it look like for people to “throw stones” in 2019? How can we keep from participating in modern-day versions of stone-throwing?

From the Archives

Sources Consulted

  • G. Ernest Wright. “The Good Shepherd.” The Biblical Archaeologist, vol. 2, no. 4, 1939, pp. 44-48. 
  • “Good Shepherd,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Good_Shepherd
  • The New Oxford Annotated Bible (New Revised Standard Version), Oxford UP, 2010.

Comments

  1. theauthenticchristian says:

    The Good (Noble) Shepherd is what Jesus is exactly, going by the true meaning of the term. My wish is that more and more people will recognize this fact and follow Him. None of His sheep ever gets lost.
    Thanks.

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