The Shepherd’s Heart

Read: John 10:11-15

I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. He who is a hireling and not a shepherd, whose own the sheep are not, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees; and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. He flees because he is a hireling and cares nothing for the sheep. I am the good shepherd; I know my own and my own know me, as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep. (John 10:11-15 RSV)

In these last few days, I’ve listened to a great deal of family pain, especially from young adults who never felt loved by their parents. One young woman, child of an unexpected honeymoon pregnancy, believes that her mother hated her from the time of her birth. Another was told from earliest memory, “You were a mistake. You were never meant to happen.” A third is expecting her second child but is troubled by fears of tragedy. Her father has told her repeatedly that she is a wicked person, deserving God’s judgment.

Maybe you have feelings akin to some of those today. You’ve felt rejection at home perhaps. You’re not sure you were ever really cared about by members of your family. You’re afraid that if there is a God somewhere, He’s probably looking down on you with a frowning face. How you wish you could be sure that you’re loved!

My message today is for each of you, but especially for people like that, whose pain I’m especially feeling right now. Do you know what I’d like to do, what I long to do? I want to convince you and everyone listening to my voice that you and you and you are greatly loved. I know it’s a divine miracle when that happens. I know that the Holy Spirit has to pour out in someone’s heart the assurance of God’s love. But I also know that God uses the gospel message to bring that about. The gospel is the good news of God’s “shepherd heart,” and that’s what I want to talk about today.

How Shepherds Care

What do I mean by “a shepherd’s heart”? Many of us today may have very little contact with sheep and shepherds. In the ancient near east, the land of the Bible, shepherding was a common occupation. Shepherds there in ancient times and even to this day have a special kind of relationship with their sheep. There might be several flocks belonging to others in the same sheepfold but when the shepherd called, his sheep recognized his voice, responded and followed him. To other voices, even attempting to mimic the shepherd, the sheep paid no attention. The shepherd would commonly lead his sheep to pasture, spend the day with them there, sometimes the night also. He defended them from robbers and wild beasts. He kept the restless animals from trespassing on farm land. He searched eagerly for sheep that had strayed and brought them back. He cared with tenderness for the young and the weak in the flock. To some sheep he gave a special name to which they answered and then received little expressions of kindness. Where shepherds have that kind of heart, the bond between them and the sheep is a beautiful thing.

Maybe that’s why that bond is celebrated in the best-known and most-loved of all the psalms, Psalm 23. Many of you may know it by heart. Say it along with me, right where you are. “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still water. He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.”

That psalm expresses the conviction that God is to us like a kindly, caring shepherd is toward his sheep. It springs from that serene confidence in the Lord and has quickened the same in many other people.

One of those was my Uncle Victor. When he was hospitalized at the age of 99, I spent a good deal of time at his bedside. Uncle Vic had trouble with the matter of assurance in the Christian faith. He wasn’t always completely confident about God’s attitude toward him, whether or not he would be finally accepted. One day I read this psalm in his presence, and said, “Did you notice, Uncle Vic, how the psalmist said, `Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.’?” I continued, “He had the confidence that he would always be in the house of the Lord, and this, you know, Uncle Vic, is the Word of the Lord. What do you think about that?” He thought a minute and said with a twinkle in his eye, “Well, that is a very favorable statement!” And, indeed, it is! I hope you find it so. I hope you can say it for yourself.

Jesus The Good Shepherd

Today I want to share with you something else Jesus said about being a shepherd. Listen. I’m reading from the Gospel according to John, chapter 10, verse 11: “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. He who is a hireling and not a shepherd, whose own the sheep are not, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees; and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. He flees because he is a hireling and cares nothing for the sheep. I am the good shepherd; I know my own and my own know me, as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep.”

Now think of what a remarkable claim it was for Jesus to say, “I am the good shepherd.” He was speaking, remember, to people well acquainted with the 23rd Psalm. They knew that it sang of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the almighty Creator, the holy Lord, the God of covenant. He, the Most High, was the true Shepherd of His people. And now Jesus says, “I am that One.” It was as though He had said, “The eternal God, who has always been the Shepherd of His people, has come among you in a human life. And I, speaking to you, am He.” He is the Good Shepherd. He is the Shepherd of Israel who leads His people like a flock.

In this passage, Jesus opens up for us what it means to have a shepherd’s heart. The true shepherd is contrasted with pretenders who are only thieves and robbers, who come among the flock to steal, kill and destroy. They have no heart for the sheep but only for themselves. They seize, they exploit, manipulate, harm. But the Good Shepherd wants the best for his sheep. “I came,” Jesus says, “that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10). He came that people could enter into the true life for which they were made and taste it to the full. The shepherd with a heart wants the best for his flock.

To have a shepherd’s heart means also to know your sheep and be known by them. The shepherd lives in close proximity to the flock under his charge. They become accustomed to the sound of his voice. They follow him gladly and he cares for them with individualizing attention.

Can you believe, friends, that God feels that way toward you, that He wants the best for your life, wants to give you abundant life, cherishes you as a unique person? Wouldn’t it be great to believe that? Think of how it would make you feel about yourself, how it would free you to live with confidence and joy.

A good shepherd, the one with “heart,” is contrasted also with the hireling. For the hireling, looking after the sheep is just a job, something he’s paid to do. There’s no personal interest in, no attachment to, the sheep. The hireling is just putting in time, working for a wage. His service may be adequate until trouble comes. But if caring for the sheep is going to involve personal cost to the hireling or certain danger, he’ll look out for himself first. Jesus says that the hireling “sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees, and the wolf snatches them and scatters them.” This hireling, in other words, provides no protection for the sheep. He doesn’t really care what happens to them. He simply wants to get himself out of harm’s way. He doesn’t know what it means to have a shepherd’s heart. You see, he’s not a shepherd.

Love’s Final Proof

Now Jesus says something about the Good Shepherd that even goes beyond Psalm 23. It’s more than leading the sheep to green pastures and besides still waters, more even than walking with them through the valley of the shadow. The Good Shepherd, says Jesus, gives His life for the sheep. The Lord says that twice. This defines for Him what the Good Shepherd is like, how much He cares for His sheep.

It’s evident that He’s not so much talking about shepherds and sheep as about God and people like us. His theme is not about the amazing solicitude of a sheepherder, but the compassion of a redeeming God. Even the best of shepherds in Palestine don’t characteristically die for their sheep; the Good Shepherd does. The death of a Palestinian shepherd would mean disaster for his sheep, leaving them abandoned and vulnerable; the death of the Good Shepherd means for His sheep, His people, life abundant and eternal.

Did you know that the rulers in Israel were often called shepherds? They were to protect and care for God’s flock, the people committed to their care. But they often failed to do so. Listen to this indictment of the shepherds, the rulers, in Ezekiel 34, “Thus says the Lord God, `Ho, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. The weak you have not strengthened, the sick you have not healed, the crippled you have not bound up, the strayed you have not brought back, the lost you have not sought, and with force and harshness you have ruled them. So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd; and they became food for all the wild beasts” (Ezek. 34:2-5). That’s the Lord’s complaint.

In anguish and disappointment, God says He’s not going to let this situation go on any longer. “Thus says the Lord God, `Behold, I, I myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out” (v. 11). Did you hear that? God will come seeking the lost ones and bringing them back into the fold. And, in the fullness of the times, He does come in the person of Jesus, the Galilean who is the God-man. In Him God’s shepherd heart is revealed. He loves His sheep so much that He endures for them shame and spitting, the whip, the crown of thorns. He risks death. No, He goes through it for their sakes. He lays down His life on their behalf, willingly, to rescue them from danger and death. Then He rises to reign, to be the shepherd of His people forever.

Do you believe what you’re hearing today, that God is a shepherd who meets all the deepest needs of the people in His flock, that Jesus is that divine shepherd come to earth and that He reveals the heart of God by willingly offering up His life for us? If you can believe this, if you can receive this gospel, if you can entrust yourself to Jesus, the Good Shepherd, you’ll never need to be in doubt again about God’s attitude toward you. You won’t be plucking daisy petals in painful indecision: “He loves me, he loves me not.” You’ll know, in the depths of your soul, that He does. The apostle Paul says it with beauty and power in Romans 5:5-8. “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us. While we were yet helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Why, one will hardly die for a righteous man—though perhaps for a good man one will dare even to die. But God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us.”

When we were wandering, lost sheep, Christ died for us. When we were without strength and could not save ourselves, Christ died for us. As we believe this gospel of the good shepherd giving His life for the sheep, the Holy Spirit will enter into our hearts and fill them with the assurance that we are wonderfully loved by God. The image is one of someone entering a closed room and breaking open a container of rare perfume, so that the fragrance fills every cubic millimeter of air in that room. The aroma is inescapable, all-pervasive. May God help you so to trust in Jesus Christ that you may know through all your days that you are God’s well-loved child.

About the Author

Dr. William C. Brownson was the President Emeritus of Words of Hope. Dr. Brownson served Reformed churches in Lodi, New Jersey, and Chicago, Illinois. In 1964 he was appointed Professor of Preaching at Western Theological Seminary, a position he occupied for ten years before serving at Words of Hope. In addition to a widespread speaking ministry in churches, on university campuses and at conferences, Dr. Brownson wrote extensively for the Church Herald, other Christian periodicals, and authored many books. Dr. Brownson died April 1, 2022.

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