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The Good Shepherd

Max Billeter

Notes of an address on John 10 (Given at the Plumstead Conference)


John shows us four aspects of the assembly in his writings. In John's first epistle the aspect of the family of God is in view. The important thought connected with the family of God is discernment; you have to be able to discern between a child in Christ and a father in Christ.  There are things we cannot expect of a child but we may well expect them of a father.  The second aspect we find in the book of Revelation where the assembly is presented as the bride, the wife of the Lamb.  There the great thought is love.  To be a bride or a wife means to be loved and to love. The third aspect is also in Revelation, when the assembly is viewed as the city, New Jerusalem.  The great thought connected with the city is administration.  But in John 10 the assembly is presented as the flock.  It is one flock, and the great thought presented here is that there is one Shepherd.  This is what I want to speak about tonight.

The Lord Jesus as Shepherd

The fact that the Lord Jesus is the Shepherd is a great theme in the Holy Scriptures, in the Old Testament as well as the New.  If we think of what Jacob said about his twelve sons we will find that he emphasises the blessings of two of them.  Of Judah he says, 'the sceptre will not depart from Judah ... until Shiloh come, and to him will be the obedience of peoples' (Gen. 49:10). This is the Lord Jesus in His official, royal glory.  But then he draws attention to another of his sons, Joseph, and of him he says, 'from thence is the shepherd' (Gen. 49:24). If we bear in mind that Joseph is a picture of the Lord Jesus we will see the Lord Jesus as Shepherd immediately.  It is His moral glory that what characterises Him as Shepherd. 

In the Old Testament we have psalm 23, perhaps the best-known portion of the Bible, written some 3,000 years ago, and it has become a comfort for countless people. There the sheep speaks of the Lord Jesus as the Shepherd. The subject is also taken up by the prophets (for example Isaiah 40 and Jeremiah 17, and parts of Ezekiel), and the passage that I want to mention next is Zechariah 13. I have found only two occasions when someone speaks about the Lord Jesus as 'my shepherd'- David in Psalm 23, and Zechariah 13. There God speaks about Him in this way: 'Awake, O sword, against my shepherd, even against the man that is my fellow' (v.7).

The subject is also presented in the New Testament in three aspects. In Hebrews 13 God is presented as the God of peace who has brought the Lord Jesus out of death, and He is now in heaven where He is the Great Shepherd. As the Great Shepherd He has two characteristics.  The first one is presented in Hebrews where He is occupied with our weaknesses as the great High Priest. Secondly, in John's first epistle He is the Advocate, and there He is occupied with us when we have sinned. But soon the Lord Jesus will return in glory, and this is the subject of Peter's epistles. In 1 Peter 5 the Lord Jesus Christ will be made manifest as the Chief Shepherd (this means the highest one).  But tonight we will be occupied with Him as the Good Shepherd.

The First Parable of the Good Shepherd

John 10:1-6

We find here the Lord Jesus presents two pictures to us in these verses. The first is in verses 1 to 6.  There we see the Lord Jesus as He enters through the door into the fold of the sheep.  This fold is the Jewish fold, and the walls are the laws and ordinances God gave to Moses.  It is the middle wall of partition as described in Ephesians 2. These two passages (Eph. 2:11-22 and John 10:1-6) throw light on each other.  The Lord Jesus enters into this Jewish fold and He enters by the door.  This shows us that the Old Testament Scriptures were right and had their place.  But we also read, 'He came unto his own, and his own received him not' (John 1:11).  This is what the Lord Jesus experienced when He came to His beloved earthly people as a whole, but there were some individuals who received Him, and these became His own sheep.  They heard His voice.

The voice of the Good Shepherd always has a dual tone, and I would like to show these two tones in the Psalms. Firstly, in Psalm 40: 'I have published righteousness in the great congregation: behold, I have not withheld my lips, Jehovah, thou knowest' (v. 9), and secondly, in Psalm 45: 'Thou art fairer than the sons of men; grace is poured into thy lips: therefore God hath blessed thee for ever' (v. 2).  This is the dual tone of the voice of the Good Shepherd.  One tone calls on us for obedience and practical righteousness, and the second shows us His grace. When a voice comes to our ear and it speaks about obedience and righteousness all the time and never about grace, then this is not the voice of the Good Shepherd, and if there is another voice coming to our ear that only speaks to us about love, mercy and grace and never about obedience and practical righteousness then this is not the voice of the Good Shepherd either. Some years ago I listened to a brother speak, and after the meeting he asked me what I thought about his ministry. I would not have said anything if he had not asked me, but as he asked me I answered him, 'You spoke in a very solemn way, and everything you said was right, but you did not mention grace a single time'.  But perhaps the other extreme is the greater danger today; that people only speak of grace and there is no call for obedience and practical righteousness.

So these sheep have heard the voice of the Good Shepherd, and they have become His own sheep because He has called them by name.  Here we see how we become a sheep of the Good Shepherd, which is a very personal matter. We must have heard the voice of the Good Shepherd personally; parents cannot do this for their children, the husband cannot do it for his wife, everyone must do it individually. We know the wonderful passage in Isaiah 43: 'I have called thee by thy name; thou art mine' (v. 1). I hope that everyone in this room is able to say this, including the children, 'The Lord Jesus has called me by His name; I am His'.  They are happy ones who can speak like this.

What does the Shepherd now do with His sheep? He leads them out of the fold.  This is very important in the gospels, and we also find it in respect to Calvary.  I would like to point out that scripture does not say that the Lord Jesus went up to Calvary, but that He went out to Calvary. In Matthew's gospel we find that He was led there by men, but in John's gospel we see that He went out Himself bearing His cross.  He suffered without the gate, and now He leads His own out. This is the theme of Hebrews 13.  I do not want to enter into the details, but only point out that He goes before us (this is also the subject of Peter's epistles). We are told about the Lord's footsteps and that we are allowed to follow in them; this is the great privilege of the sheep of this Shepherd.  I think of my childhood.  Often there is a lot of snow in Switzerland, and when I saw the footprints of a man in the snow it always made me want to put my feet in them.  I was not very good at doing this because they were often very large footprints, and sometimes I stepped next to them, and sometimes I fell down, but nonetheless I always tried to put my feet in them.  The footsteps of the Lord Jesus are perfect, and we will have to practice walking in them throughout our lives.  But what a privilege that He went before us and that we may follow Him.

Is there a greater privilege on earth than to follow the Good Shepherd? This has two important consequences. Firstly, following Him is connected with reproach.  The Lord Jesus has told us, 'The bondman is not greater than his master.  If they have persecuted me, they will also persecute you' (John 15:20).  Whoever follows the Lord Jesus without compromise will be the subject of reproach. This is the reproach of Christ.  But there is a second aspect to it: a deep joy in the heart.  I am not speaking about theories. Everyone can experience this in practice by following the Lord Jesus.  I remember a time when I was going to school and there was a strong boy who beat me up.  He told me that the reason he did this was because I believed in the Lord Jesus.  I went home weeping, but I had a deep joy in my heart, and everyone who is the object of the reproach of Christ will experience this.  It is not just any kind of reproach; it is the reproach of Christ.  Hebrews 13:13 says, 'bearing his reproach'.  The apostles, as described in the Acts, were glad to suffer reproach for the Lord.  These are the two great consequences of following Him.  Perhaps the reason we sometimes have so little joy in our Christian lives is that we do not follow the Lord Jesus without compromise.  These sheep follow Him because they know His voice.  It is not that they do not follow a stranger because they have examined his voice for a long time and have found out that it is a bad voice.  Some think the Bible asks us to examine the teachings of the voices we hear, but this is not what the Bible says. The reason why the sheep do not follow the stranger is because they do not know his voice. It is not necessary for us to examine all the errors in Christendom.  A ship was going into harbour, and it was a very dangerous approach, because many rocks were just beneath the surface. A passenger went to the bridge and said to the captain, 'I am sure you know every rock in this part of the sea.  That is why you are able to get into the port safely.'  But the captain said, 'I do not know any of the rocks, but I do know the way where there are no rocks.  This is the course I take.' We also know the way where there are no rocks, and it is the way of following the Lord Jesus without compromise.

The Second Parable of the Good Shepherd

John 10:7-9

From verse 7 onwards we find a different picture. There the Lord Jesus shows that He Himself is the Door. It is necessary for every man to enter through that Door, and there is no salvation in anyone else. We want to state this very clearly: there is no salvation in anyone else. 'there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved' (Acts 4:12).  It is a wonderful thing to be saved. I hope that everyone here who belongs to the Lord Jesus has a heart filled with thankfulness that he or she will never perish.  How terrible it is that all those that reject salvation in the Lord Jesus will perish.  They will be far off from God in the lake of fire forever. But those who enter through this Door will experience three things.

Firstly, they will be saved. Salvation is a very comprehensive term. It includes the soul, the circumstances of life, and the day of the rapture when we will be transformed and our bodies changed.

Secondly, they will go in and out.  I know that there are brothers who see two sides in the thought of going in and out.  They think of it as the holy and the royal priesthood, but I am not sure that this is meant here. The thought of going in and out is that there is free, liberal movement in front of the Shepherd without fear.  I want to state this very precisely: it is Christian liberty. Firstly, I will tell you what Christian liberty is not.  It is not liberty to sin or to live in a worldly way. There are people today who say this because they think Christian liberty means life without restraint. But we are warned in 2 Peter 2:19 of those who promise liberty who are themselves 'slaves of corruption'.

So what is Christian liberty? It is fourfold. The first thing I want to show you is in 2 Corinthians 3:17: 'Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty.' We will behold the glory of the Lord with unveiled face. This is the first aspect of Christian liberty; to find our joy in the Lord Jesus. Sometimes I am surprised by what unbelievers are able to do. There are some very friendly people, some very helpful people, and some very patient people, and sometimes we are impressed by this, but there is something they are all unable to do: they cannot find their joy in the Lord Jesus.  This is Christian liberty.

Secondly Romans 6 speaks of sin dwelling in us, and says, 'ye were bondmen of sin.' Yes, we had to sin before our conversion, but Christian liberty means that we no longer have to sin now. The same chapter states, 'Now, having got your freedom from sin ...' (Rom. 6:17-18). We know from God's word and bitter experience that as believers we are still able to sin, but Christian liberty means we no longer have to sin. This is a great liberty.

Thirdly, we read in Romans 8:21, '... the liberty of the glory of the children of God.' We have not yet reached the glory, but we do have the liberty of the glory. I want to explain this. If you ever come to Switzerland you cannot just come and visit me because often I am not at home and sometimes I am very busy.  First of all you have to call me and ask me whether you can come. However, I have seven children, and when they come home they never have to call me first and make arrangements - they can just come.  This is the liberty of the children of God, and this is the subject of Romans 8. The liberty of the children of God is to be able to enter into the presence of the Father. The Holy Spirit testifies with our spirits that we are children of God, and we have received the spirit of sonship and so cry 'Abba, Father.' I hope that we all make diligent use of this liberty, to be able to enter into the Father's presence at any time. There we can make known all our requests. I experience this with my children. From time to time, a child comes into my office, and normally he or she wants something.  But some years ago, one of my smaller children came in and he did not have any question or request. I said to him, 'What do you want from me?' And my child said, 'I do not want anything.  I just want to be with you a little while.' This is the liberty of the children of God.  Have you experienced this; that you were on your knees before the Father and had made known all your requests, and then you just wanted to stay with Him for a little while? This is the liberty of the children of God.

The fourth passage is in 1 Peter 5, and there something is said about the elders in general. They were to 'serve willingly' (v. 2).  I want to make something very explicit here: the Lord Jesus does not force anyone to work for Him. He only has people who work willingly. Service is a matter of free will. It is the liberty of believers to serve Him. But this does not mean that they are independent. Our problem is that we think of being forced as dependent, and of being willing as independent. But if we look at the Lord Jesus we find He says in John 17, 'I have come forth from the Father' (this was His willingness), and then, 'the Father has sent me' (this is perfect dependence).  This is also true of Christian ministry; it must be done willingly and in perfect dependence.  This is the going in and coming out of the sheep in front of the Shepherd.

The third thing said in this second parable is that we find food; food for our conscience and food for our hearts.  I would like to address a word to those whom the Lord uses in the ministry of His word.  The objective of the ministry of the word is not to say lots of interesting things, but to present the Person of the Lord Jesus to the hearts and consciences of His people. This is truly food for the believer. Years ago a believer was taken to a three day conference in Zurich, and at the end of the three days he was asked, 'What is your impression?' He said, 'It was quite nice, but it was a little bit one sided.  People were talking about the Lord Jesus for three days!'  He did not realise what he was saying. Can there be higher praise for this conference than someone saying, 'They spoke about the Lord Jesus for three days'?  This is food for the soul.

The Lord Jesus Christ is the Good Shepherd

John 10:10-18

Now I would like to explain the following verses briefly. Before I do this, I remember the day of my engagement thirty years ago. I went to a jewellers with my bride, and I said to the jeweller, 'We would like to buy two wedding rings.' Firstly, the jeweller took a dark cloth and put it on the table, and then he placed the rings on the fabric so that they were so much more radiant. The jeweller worked by way of contrast. This is exactly what the Lord Jesus does here.  If we do not see this we will not understand these verses. Firstly, He places a very dark fabric down, speaking of a robber who kills and steals (v. 10), and on this dark background of hatred He shows His wonderful love which He proved by giving His life at Calvary (v. 11). This is the first great characteristic of the Good Shepherd, that He loves us with a love unto death. Then He shows us another dark background, speaking of the hireling (vv. 12-13). This is a man who shepherds the flock for money, and flees when there is danger. Do you know what this is? This is unfaithfulness. It is against this background that the Lord presents His faithfulness, a faithfulness unto death (vv. 14-15). These are the two great features of the Good Shepherd - He loves us and He stands with us faithfully.

Now we come to the important verse 16. There the Lord Jesus says, 'and other sheep I have which are not of this fold.' I am very glad about this. There are sheep here from England, Ireland, Poland, Germany, Holland, Switzerland, etc. Then He says a wonderful word, 'them also I must bring.' Now He does not lead this one flock into a new fold.  It is true that there is a wall around believers (if we think of the assembly as a city, then we read of a great and high wall, Rev. 21:12), but this wall is not there in order to keep believers together.  First of all it is there to stop evil from coming in, or, if there is evil inside, to keep it out when it is put out. But it never has the idea of keeping us together. So what keeps us together? It is the power of attraction of the Shepherd. What can keep us together if the Lord Jesus does not? It is the measure that each one of us has of attraction to Him that binds us together. I do not use His name as a form of words, but what I mean is the attraction of all the glory of His Person and His word. This leads us to verses 17 and 18. As we are attracted to the Shepherd and come nearer and nearer to Him, then we will come to understand that He is the Son of the Father, the Son of His love. Here the Lord Jesus says, 'therefore does my Father love me,' and here He presents this high truth, that He has laid down His life as man, but in Divine power; and that in Divine power as man He is raised from the dead. He had received this commandment from His Father, and He has executed it in perfection, and this is how He attracted the love of the Father: 'therefore does my Father love me'.  We are privileged to belong to the flock of the Lord Jesus. The Good Shepherd is in the centre and He is the Son of the Father.