I happen to live in a part of the world where there are a lot of sheep — and at this time of the year, lambs. There are plenty of walks in all directions and most will take you through fields under the wary gaze of the flock resident there.
This week’s story is centred on the roles of sheep belonging to the Shepherd, and the Good Shepherd who gave His life for sheep, and we set the scene with some much loved and familiar words from David’s Psalm 23. As we hear God’s voice speaking through this again, we are reminded of how prophetic this is of Jesus.
The LORD is my shepherd, I lack nothing.
He makes me lie down in green pastures, He leads me beside quiet waters, He refreshes my soul. He guides me along the right paths for His name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for You are with me; Your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.
Surely Your goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever.Psalm 23
We are carrying the thought that the Shepherd leads the flock to where there is still water and the best grass. We now hear Jesus pick up this theme.
He is speaking to a mixed crowd of people and there, as always, a number of Pharisees present, some critical but a few genuinely wanting to hear the sharp and relevant teaching from this unusually relatable rabbi.
Many Pharisees were just the opposite. Deceived into thinking that their many and complex good works gave them an entitlement — favour from God and honour from men — they saw _themselves_ as the chosen shepherds of those they saw as more ignorant than them of Scripture and of God’s ways. So it was a shock to recognise the allusion that Jesus was making with a well-known passage they had read in the scroll of the prophet Ezekiel, who had some stern words to say about harsh and arrogant shepherds of the past. Now this rural Galilean was drawing a very uncomfortable comparison, as we hear in John chapter 10:
“Very truly I tell you Pharisees, anyone who does not enter the sheep pen by the gate, but climbs in by some other way, is a thief and a robber.
“The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep listen to his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.
“When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice. But they will never follow a stranger; in fact, they will run away from him because they do not recognise a stranger’s voice.”
Jesus used this figure of speech, but the Pharisees did not understand what He was telling them.
Therefore Jesus said again, “Very truly I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who have come before Me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep have not listened to them.
“I am the gate; whoever enters through Me will be saved. They will come in and go out, and find pasture.
“The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.”John 10:1-10
As we hear Jesus speak to us through these words recorded by John, we can’t avoid comparing the Pharisees and their legalistic preoccupation with religious practice, with some facets of church life today.
How much, in any church of any denomination or stream, is the message and the culture more about ‘doing’ than of ‘being’, more about following a form rather than raising and exercising faith. I think Jesus would say, that’s the kind of religion He came to end, and not the vital relationship He wants with us.
Where does it say that? Hear it again: “The sheep listen to the shepherd’s voice… He calls His own sheep by name and leads them out. They follow Him because they know His voice.”
He continues: “Whoever enters through Me will be saved.”
It’s not about religious observance at all. It’s all about relationship with someone who calls us by name — being on team with Him!
Where churches talk about Jesus, and offer a spiritual encounter with Him, this is deeply attractive, even in a secular age. Churches that overflow with love for Jesus, soon start to overflow with people.
Next, we’re going to look in on a church like this. They are meeting in Jerusalem in the temple courts and it’s standing room only. It’s just as well they didn’t have to put out seats, because if they did, they would have to find more and more every day, because people were being added constantly.
Why? Jesus wasn’t present… or was He? We’ll hear this now in Luke’s account from Acts 2.
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles.
All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need.
Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favour of all the people.
And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.Acts 2:42-47
From Jesus’ very relational teaching about the shepherd knowing the sheep and the sheep listening for the shepherd’s voice, we now enter what sounds like a very together kind of gathering. Only ten words in, we find the word, “fellowship’. It’s a one word headline.
This is a picture of a very big group of people, the 3,000 men of the Pentecost festival crowd. That soon became 5,000 and that’s not counting the women who, unlike in the synagogues, were welcomed to play their part. Yet, they seem to know and care for each other.
What is a fellowship and why is it different from any other kind of assembly? This passage tells us that there’s a lot of sharing. And there’s another phrase that qualifies the word, koinonia or in English, fellowship. That is the description that all believers were together. We could say it’s an unnecessary word. All fellowship by definition is together, but Luke uses it for emphasis. And he tells us that they were meeting in what we would call home groups, for meals and discussion and prayer. That’s relationship!
Fellowship is not the same as people filing up to an altar rail, one by one, to ‘receive communion’, although the word ‘communion’ is derived from the same root. Whatever the name on the church noticeboard, or these days, the logo on the banner, here we are seeing something we have lost, and it’s an important something. The early church knew, and we have largely forgotten, that Jesus presences Himself wherever He finds that koinonia or fellowship of heart and mind.
That’s been something of the theme of the Scriptures and the story that they weave over the past few weeks, and it will be again at Pentecost.
We have to learn to recapture the essential simplicity of the faith, the love and the togetherness of those first believers.
They weren’t just together — they were together in Jesus. When we get back to meeting about Jesus, and around Jesus, a lot of other things will fall into place.
We read that, “The Lord added to their number daily those who are being saved.” It was revival, but like all revivals, there was also hostility. There was opposition and jealousy. If it’s the new meeting that’s the most popular draw in town, those who are not part of it can resent it and take it out on others, and bondservants and others of low status were easy targets for beating, as we now hear in Peter’s first letter:
James, who writes to believers in the church, opens his letter with the advice to count it all joy: “Dear brothers and sisters, when troubles of any kind come your way, consider it an opportunity for great rejoicing.” Does that make sense? Not on its own, but James is not talking to a Sunday morning congregation of varied and indistinct commitment. He is addressing Spirit-filled Spirit-led committed believers, who hardly needed reminding that Jesus is among them.
For it is commendable if someone bears up under the pain of unjust suffering because they are conscious of God.
But how is it to your credit if you receive a beating for doing wrong and endure it? But if you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God. To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in His steps.
“He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in His mouth.”
When they hurled their insults at Him, He did not retaliate; when He suffered, He made no threats. Instead, He entrusted Himself to Him who judges justly.
“He Himself bore our sins” in His body on the Cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; “by His wounds you have been healed.”
1 Peter 2:19-25
It’s a paradox. Christians have access to divine healing! Actually, so does everyone but Christians know how to ask for it. Yet it’s the Christians who get beaten up for their faith.
Perhaps we do. Perhaps we need reminding that the reason we meet is to be together in the fellowship of those who share the joy of Jesus being present among us.
Faith operates on the level above what we can see and work out by reasoning with our minds. Ultimately, faith is how we live lives, in the awareness of the Good Shepherd in our lives, who is not seen, but is certainly perceived.
Whether things are going well or badly, the Spirit of Jesus is the very presence of Jesus, and He is the reason and the solution. His presence is our reminder that Jesus suffered first, and suffered most, and He is our endurance, as we are trusting Him for His deliverance.
Others will see us as a regular human person with faults and failings and needs, but one who has God’s peace. Gradually they will begin to perceive the source of that peace.
As we read earlier in Psalm 23, “I will fear no evil for You are with me.” This is how we live as the precious sheep of the loving Shepherd who guides us, provides for us, protects us, teaches us, forgives — and simply loves us.
You can pray this prayer as it stands, or use it as a starting point for your own prayer:
Lord Jesus, we are so grateful that we can know the Good Shepherd in the psalm, and experience You as our gate to the Father’s abundant life and rest.
Thank You, too, for making us part of Your body here on earth where everyone belongs, is valued and shares both the joys and tensions of life as those empowered by Your Spirit.
Thank You, too, that we go on being saved, delivered and healed by the wounds inflicted on You. May we be fruitful in sharing Your presence and life with others. Amen.