What makes for a good shepherd? The sheep know his voice and trust him. He keeps them together and leads them to good, green pastures. He goes looking for them when they wander away and get lost. And he protects them from predators, of both the four-legged and the two-legged varieties.
But he can’t do any of these things if he’s dead.
We’ve seen in previous posts how Jesus’ train of thought in John 10 might have been difficult to follow. And nothing he said was more confusing, perhaps, than the idea that the only good shepherd is a dead shepherd:
I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. When the hired hand sees the wolf coming, he leaves the sheep and runs away. That’s because he isn’t the shepherd; the sheep aren’t really his. So the wolf attacks the sheep and scatters them. He’s only a hired hand and the sheep don’t matter to him.
I am the good shepherd. I know my own sheep and they know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. I give up my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that don’t belong to this sheep pen. I must lead them too. They will listen to my voice and there will be one flock, with one shepherd.
This is why the Father loves me: I give up my life so that I can take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I give it up because I want to. I have the right to give it up, and I have the right to take it up again. I received this commandment from my Father. (John 10:11-18, CEB)
Though it’s been implied since the beginning of the chapter, this is the first time Jesus actually applies the label of “shepherd” to himself. He is “the good shepherd” — not just a good shepherd, not just any good shepherd, but the Good Shepherd, capital G, capital S. And the defining quality of the Good Shepherd, mentioned three times, is that he voluntarily gives his life for the sake of the sheep. Nobody forces him to do it. Nobody can. He does it in willing obedience to a Father whom he loves.
This is in marked contrast to the false shepherds of Ezekiel 34, or the “thieves and outlaws” he mentions earlier (vss. 1, 8, 10). Here, Jesus adds the contrast to the mere hired hand, who is only guarding the sheep for the money and not about to take on a hungry wolf for minimum wage. He doesn’t care about the sheep; he only cares about himself.
As the laws and customs of the times dictated, a good shepherd would fight to protect the sheep — unless it was clear that the shepherd couldn’t win, as in one shepherd trying to fight off a pack of wolves. In that case, the owner would have to accept some losses.
But that’s the point. When the sheep are God’s, there are no acceptable losses. Even if The Shepherd must die.
In the gospels, Jesus’ ministry extends to only a small geographic region. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, most of the action happens in Galilee. In John, Jerusalem is included. But Jesus is neither the “light of Galilee,” nor the “light of Jerusalem.” He is the light of the world. His sheep include not only Jews, but Gentiles; not only the people of the so-called Bible lands, but around the globe and across the centuries.
People like you. People like me. Called to be part of one flock, with one Shepherd.
There is one gate for the sheep. There is one Good Shepherd. This Shepherd sacrifices himself so that the sheep might live.
In the long run, of course, the sheep have no use for a dead shepherd.
But a resurrected one? That’s another story.