This week in the study of the Passion Predictions in the Gospel of John, we are looking at John 10:17-18 where Jesus says “For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life, that I may take it again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again; this charge I have received from my Father.” This statement is the conclusion to Jesus’ Good Shepherd discourse found in John 10:1-18.
The study this week depends upon our understanding of the life of a shepherd and the analogy of the leader of God’s people as a shepherd. The specific Scriptural background to Jesus’ statement is found in the prophets’ condemnation of the shepherds (i.e. leaders) of Judea and God’s promise that God and his coming Messiah will be the true shepherds. Before reading John 10:1-18, please read Ezekiel 34:1-31 and Jeremiah 23:1-4.
THE LIFE OF A SHEPHERD:
Think about the life of a Judean shepherd. For the most part, Judean terrain is rough and rocky. The sheep were prone to wander off in search of something to eat. Without walls or fences, these wandering sheep had to be constantly watched. They could get lost or fall into a crag. This area was also shared by lions, bears, and other predators, some being of the human sort. Being a shepherd means a life of constant vigilance of looking after those that cannot look after themselves.
SHEPHERD vs. PREDATOR:
One of the shepherd’s greatest duties is to fight off the predators that come for the sheep. David’s speech to Saul immediately prior to his fight with Goliath best describes the duty of a shepherd to prevent his sheep from becoming prey:
“But David said to Saul, ‘Your servant used to keep sheep for his father; and when there came a lion, or a bear, and took a lamb from the flock, I went after him and smote him and delivered it out of his mouth; and if he arose against me, I caught him by his beard, and smote him and killed him. Your servant has killed both lions and bears; and this uncircumcised Philistine shall be like one of them, seeing he has defied the armies of the living God.’” 1 Sam. 17:34-35.
According to David, the shepherd does not always kill the predator from a distance. Rather, the shepherd goes into the very teeth of the predator to rescue the sheep. David speaks of taking the lion by his mane and killing him face-to-face. Think of that imagery.
THE PROPHETS’ VISION:
Both Ezekiel and Jerimiah were prophets in Jerusalem when the city was sacked by the Babylonians and both were carried into exile. These prophets saw the fall of Jerusalem as God’s judgment on Judea’s leader’s abandonment of the Lord. Through these men, God pronounces judgment against the shepherds of Israel – i.e. its priests, prophets, and kings – for misleading the people. God promises that God and his Messiah will now become Judah’s shepherd and the intermediaries are no longer needed.
JESUS AS THE GOOD SHEPHERD:
Jesus as the good shepherd begins in John 9. There Jesus heals a man who had been born blind. (This is where the disciples asked “who sinned, this man or his parents?”) The man appears before the Pharisees who begin to question him about his former condition and his healing. Over the Pharisees’ objections, the man confesses that Jesus is from God, maybe a prophet. As a result of the man confessing Jesus as being from God, the Pharisees drove him out. Soon thereafter, the man and Jesus have a conversation and some of the Pharisees are nearby.
Jesus then speaks of himself as the Good Shepherd. Jesus is drawing a direct parallel between the present Pharisees and other Jewish religious leaders and those condemned by Ezekiel and Jeremiah. By stating that he is the good shepherd, Jesus is stating that the present religious leaders are the false shepherds who as condemned by God and who mislead their people.
Jesus is also stating that he is the Messiah. He is God’s servant David that Ezekiel speaks of (Ezek. 34:23-24). Jesus is the replacement of the current religious leadership. It is not surprising, therefore, that in verses immediately following the good shepherd discourse, some Jews seek to stone Jesus for blasphemy. John 10:31-33
THE PASSION PREDICTION:
The key difference between Jesus’ Good Shepherd discourse and the words of the prophets and other places (such as Psalm 23) where God or his Messiah are spoken of as the shepherd of God’s people, is that Jesus speaks of the shepherd laying down his life for his sheep. The image we get from these other readings is a nice bucolic scene of Jesus in a white robe lovingly carrying a wayward lamb on his shoulders. That is not the image that Jesus gives us here.
Rather, Jesus gives us an image closer to the image of which David speaks to Saul. The shepherd is a warrior who does battle with the predator. Peter tells us our “adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking some one to devour.” 1 Peter 5:8. Jesus is speaking about grabbing the devil by the mane and fighting him face-to-face. This is the job of the Shepherd, not a hireling.
Within this discourse, Jesus describes for us how he will smite and overcome the devil and rescue his sheep from the jaws of death. He wins the battle not with staff and stones as does David but by obediently laying down his life and taking it up again. The Cross is not a place of defeat or condemnation, but the very place where Jesus fights and the sign of the Father’s love. Jesus is telling his disciples, and us, not to fear or lament his death because it simply the means by which the predator is to be caught, and struck, and killed.
Like sheep they are appointed for Sheol;
Death shall be their shepherd;
straight to the grave they descend,
and their form shall waste away;
Sheol shall be their home.
But God will ransom my soul from the power of Sheol,
for he will receive me.