First Mennonite Church
February 25, 2018
Jesus Gate and Shepherd of the Fold
Text: John 10:1-21
When I was young, on our way to school my brother and I had to walk under a huge Guanacaste tree (Monkey ear tree/elephant ear tree). The diameter of the trunk of that tree was about 6-7 feet and the branches spanned to about 60 -80 feet wide. In the summertime the pods of this tree fell down and herds of the sheep came over to eat them. The smell of sheep’s urine filled the air under that tree. I believe that was why often times some mothers in my village told their young child with dirty diapers, “You smell like a dirty lamb.”
Pictures of Jesus in a white robe carrying a lamb with bleached-white fleece on his shoulders are far away from the real images of shepherds carrying lambs in their arms. Sheep are dirty animals. They lay down anywhere, even where they have relieved themselves. Therefore, besides the parasites they carry in their fleece, their over-grown fleece becomes a natural carrier of all kinds of stickers and dust. Shepherding was not only an unromantic occupation; it was a dirty job. But even so or maybe because with that realism in mind, the biblical writers and Jesus chose the metaphor of shepherd and sheep to portray the relationship between God and the children of Israel and of Jesus and his followers.
Jesus begins with the imagery of the sheepfold. The sheep are kept at night in an enclosure. In the sheepfold were sheep of more than one owner. In the morning each shepherd led his sheep out of the fold. But some who came to the fold were bandits, Jesus says. These preferred to jump over the fence than to enter through the gate. The bandits came only to steal and to kill the sheep. There were the hirelings also, Jesus says. And the hired hands were obviously not the owners of the sheep; thus, when danger arose, they fled, abandoning the sheep to their own fate. So, who were the bandits Jesus had in mind? Who are the hirelings?
In the Old Testament Israel’s rulers were called shepherds and the people of Israel was called the sheep, the flock. The shepherds were called to look after the sheep and to secure their wellbeing. But time and time again, the leaders of Israel acted more like thieves or hirelings. These rulers failed to protect the people through their unjust practices. The prophet Ezekiel has the most biting indictment against the shepherds. In Ezekiel 34 God accuses the shepherds for feeding themselves instead of providing for the sheep. What was worse, the shepherds were eating steak and crushing the bones of the sheep, instead of feeding them. When there was danger, the shepherds left the sheep to be devoured. When the sheep went astray, worshipping idols, the shepherds had no desire to bring them back to the fold. And after pronouncing judgment against the shepherds God promised to be the shepherd himself.
I believe that Jesus’ audience could not help but remember this text when Jesus spoke these words. Jesus calls himself the gate for the sheep. “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep,” Jesus says. And later he declares, “I am the Good Shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” Jesus as the gate clearly illustrates that the sheep are only safe if they enter through the gate. At the surface level of this metaphor of Jesus as the gate, we are reminded of the centrality of Jesus for our salvation. But there is something much deeper than that.
Animal husbandry originated for the purpose of animal sacrifice, not as a branch of agricultural industry. Remember Abel and the purpose of his flock in Genesis 3:3, 4. The imagery of sheep/lamb in John’s gospel appears when Jesus is introduced as the “Lamb of God who take away the sin of the world” (John 1:29, 36). And the story in the preceding chapter to our passage today (chap. 9) is that of a man healed by Jesus by the pool where “the lame, blind, and paralyzed” gathered (Jn. 5: 3). That pool was close to the “Sheep Gate” in the Temple. The Sheep Gate was the point of entrance to the Temple where the sheep were brought in for sacrifice. The shepherd would deliver his animals at the Sheep Gate during the Passover Feast. So there’s an irony here between shepherds and their sheep. The shepherds protect and feed their animals but then deliver them to be slaughtered on the sacrificial altar. Once the sheep have been brought through the gate, there is no turning back for the sheep. Death is closing in on them!
The Apostle Paul spoke of it very clearly when he wrote:
Who will separate us from the love of Christ?
Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine,
or nakedness, or peril, or sword? 36 As it is written,
“For your sake we are being killed all day long;
we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.”
37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors
through him who loved us. (Romans 8:35-37)
When Jesus claimed he was the “gate for the sheep” his audience readily understood the implication of that metaphor. The Gate of the Sheep at the temple was the point of entrance to the altar to be sacrificed. That means that once we come to Jesus, our and my destiny are sealed. We are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered for the sake of the Lord.
This should mean that if and when you are vilified for the sake and love of Christ, you should be confidently assured that you have indeed entered the Gate. Being counted as sheep to be slaughtered is the proven sign that we have entered the Gate. Anything or anyone who would like to make us believe that Christians should not suffer in this world is a bandit or a hired hand. Therefore, our having entered the Gate means entering a place of no return.
But that is not the whole story. I said there was an irony in the shepherd/sheep relationship. The shepherd protected and fed his sheep only to deliver them to be slaughtered. That is not the case with our shepherd. Jesus also said, “I am the Good Shepherd.” And for the sake of emphasis and indubitable assurance, Jesus said it twice. “I am the Good Shepherd” (v. 11, 14). Why did he call himself the good shepherd? In verse 15, Jesus says, “I lay down my life for the sheep.” Just as the regular shepherd would love and care for his sheep, Paul says our Shepherd also loves us. He asks, Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Our Shepherd loves us! Immensely! He loves us even as we are heading to the slaughter house. But unlike the regular shepherd the Good Shepherd goes ahead of us. He does not abandon us at the entrance of the gate. He leads us on that procession, knowing that he is the life and the resurrection. He gave his life for us and in so doing he showed us the way. For “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first,” Jesus said to his disciples (John 15:18). Jesus is our model. He as the shepherd does not only bring us to the gate to be slaughtered, but he walks with us when we suffer for his sake. The Psalm we read this morning says in part:
Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
I fear no evil;
for you are with me (Psalm 23:4).
Dear friends, nobody likes to suffer. Our natural inclination is to flee or to prevent suffering at all cost. Our natural inclination is to hit back, if someone hurts us. Peter, in his desire to instill the character of Jesus in his disciples wrote:
20 If you endure when you are beaten for doing wrong, what credit is that?
But if you endure when you do right and suffer for it, you have God’s approval.
21 For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps.
22 “He committed no sin,
and no deceit was found in his mouth.”
23 When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly.
And again Peter wrote:
12 Dear friends, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come on you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. 13 But rejoice inasmuch as you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed.
14 If you are insulted because of the name of Christ, you are blessed, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you. 15 If you suffer, it should not be as a murderer or thief or any other kind of criminal, or even as a meddler. 16 However, if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name. 17 For it is time for judgment to begin with God’s household; and if it begins with us, what will the outcome be for those who do not obey the gospel of God? 18 And, “If it is hard for the righteous to be saved, what will become of the ungodly and the sinner?”
19 So then, those who suffer according to God’s will should commit themselves to their faithful Creator and continue to do good. (1Peter 4:12-19)
Jesus is the Gate. We must come to him to be saved. But our coming to him as the Gate also means we begin to be accounted as sheep heading to the sacrificial altar. We no longer are our own masters. Jesus becomes Lord and Savior. Jesus is also the Good Shepherd. He not only leads us to green pastures, but he also led the way to the sacrificial altar. The Good Shepherd laid down his life for us. Therefore, you and I who have entered the Gate and have come to the Good Shepherd have our lives entrusted to him. Suffering for his name’s sake is at the center of our calling. Amen!