By William S. Plumer, 1867
"Come, let us shout joyfully to the Lord, shout
CHRIST THE GOOD SHEPHERD
"I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep." John 10:11
"I am the good shepherd. I know My own sheep, and they know Me." John 10:14
With the exception of the Egyptians, Gen. 46:34, the ancients appear to have held in high esteem the occupation of shepherd. Much of the romance and poetry of antiquity related to pastoral life. It was therefore very natural for the sacred writers by a shepherd and his flock to represent the relations between rulers and their subjects, between ministers and their people, and between God and his church. There is peculiar propriety in thus setting forth the character and offices of the Savior and the relations subsisting between him and believers. Quite a number of inspired writers employ such language. With his own blessed lips our Lord said, "I am the Good Shepherd." We may here consider:
I. The QUALITIES of a good shepherd, as they are found in Christ.
One of these is, devotedness to his office. He who would well fulfill the place of shepherd, must not be idle. He holds no position that requires little or no work and that provides an income. He must be very attentive. He has a great work on hand. This is the case when the shepherd has but a small flock, and they of little value. It is much more true when he has the care of souls. It is above all true of the Savior of men. Who ever served God or his generation like the Redeemer? Even when on earth, he was often wearied and hungry and thirsty, yet nothing could divert him from the great business he had undertaken. In every age he has fully performed the engagement to each believer, "I will never leave you nor forsake you." At home and abroad, in sickness and health, in the height of prosperity and in the perfection of trouble does he attend his "little flock." He is not merely a Savior afar off, but also a Savior at hand—a very present Help in time of trouble.
Another quality of a good shepherd is, love for his office. If his heart should be set more intently on something else, he cannot possibly succeed. If he prefers some other calling above that in which he is engaged, disaster must come on the flock. It is delightful to be able to assert, on the authority of single promises and of the tenor of Scripture, that no object in creation lies nearer the heart of the good Shepherd than the care and salvation of his flock. This was so in the countless ages of a past eternity, as himself declares: "Then I was by him as one brought up with him: and I was daily his delight, rejoicing always before him; rejoicing in the habitable part of his earth; and my delights were with the sons of men." Proverbs 8:30, 31. When he was here, "having loved his own, . . . he loved them unto the end." Never did he neglect one of his flock. Never did he slight his appropriate work. As one whom his mother comforts, so does he comfort his saints. To Zion he says: "Behold, I have engraved you upon the palms of my hands; your walls are continually before me." Isaiah 49:16.
Another important quality of a good shepherd is, watchfulness: "Your shepherds slumber, O king of Assyria"—Nahum 3:18—was among the saddest signs of Nineveh's ruin. To the church God says: "He who keeps you will not slumber. Behold, he who keeps Israel shall neither slumber nor sleep." Psalm 121:3, 4.
"Those wakeful eyes,
"The eyes of the Lord run to and fro throughout the whole earth, to show himself strong in the behalf of those whose heart is perfect toward him." 2 Chron. 16:9. It is a great mercy that God's people are so seldom allowed to fall under the temptation to believe that their way is hidden from the Lord, and their judgment passed over from their God. But even when Satan does gain a temporary advantage, in such a case they know that it is not for the lack of loving care and tender watchfulness in their God and Savior.
Another desirable quality in the shepherd is wisdom. Woe to the flock whose guide has only "the instruments of a foolish shepherd." Zech. 11:15. When the shepherd takes the whip rather than the crook, the scourge rather than the staff of Israel, when he would only drive, and not at all allure—it is sad indeed for the flock. Alas for the "shepherd that cannot understand." Isaiah 56:11. But the good Shepherd employs no unwise instruments or measures. He knows what is best. He sees the end from the beginning. He understands all our case. He charges his angels with folly. He takes the wise in their own craftiness. No plot is so deep, and no machination so cunning, that he cannot at once, and with infinite ease, pour confusion upon their authors.
Another necessary quality in a shepherd is strength. Without it the sheep are defenseless. With it they are safe. In Amos 3:12, we read of the shepherd taking out of the mouth of the lion the two legs of one of his sheep. With supernatural strength God endowed David, when he was but a shepherd's boy, that he might deliver his flock from a lion and a bear. It may be in special reference to the power of Christ that he is called "that great Shepherd of the sheep." Heb. 13:20. He is also styled "the chief Shepherd." 1 Pet. 5:4. In strength, as in all other good qualities, he excels all shepherds: "God has spoken once: twice have I heard this, that power belongs unto God." In Scripture our Shepherd is called "the mighty God." Isaiah 9:6. He claims for himself the solemn title, "The Almighty," Rev. 1:8 and one Almighty is more than all mighties. Indeed, our Shepherd "appeared unto Abraham, unto Isaac, and unto Jacob, by the name of God Almighty." Exod. 6:3.
It is a matter of no small weight that a shepherd be no intruder, but be rightfully in his office. This is the case with our Shepherd. Before he gave the commission under which the gospel is now preached, he assured his church, saying, "All authority is given unto me in heaven and in earth." Matt. 28:18. Indeed, early in his ministry he said to his disciples: "All things are delivered unto me by my Father." Matt. 11:27. Even long before his advent, prophecy declared that there should be "given him dominion, and glory, and a kingdom, that all people, nations, and languages should serve him." Dan. 7:14.
No quality of a shepherd is of higher value than love to the sheep. This shows itself in gentleness, in constant care, in readiness to encounter danger for their defense. O how wondrously loving is our Shepherd. He is so gentle. He neither strives, nor cries, nor lifts up, nor causes his voice to be heard in the streets. When reviled, he reviled not again; when he suffered, he threatened not. How different was he from the shepherds of the flock of slaughter. They pitied not the distresses of those for whom they were bound to care. It was love; O, it was compassion like a God, which caused the good Shepherd to lay down his life for the sheep.
Some of the Roman emperors claimed to be shepherds to their people. Trajan was such a one. He sent his own raiment to bind up the wounds of his soldiers and for that kindness many loved him. But Jesus, the good Shepherd, had his flesh torn, and his blood shed, and his heart melted like wax—that he might heal our wounds. He has the only sovereign balm. This pity of Jesus shows itself in his readiness to receive and tenderly treat the weakest and most sickly of his flock. Continually does he fulfill the prophetic promise, "He shall feed his flock like a shepherd: he shall gather the lambs with his arm, and carry them in his bosom, and shall gently lead those that are with young." Isaiah 40:11. One of the last charges of the chief Shepherd to Peter, and through him to all ministers, was, "Feed my lambs, feed my sheep, feed my sheep." Jesus never forgot the lambs. Jesus never forgot one of his sheep.
When a bird, frightened by a hawk, flew into the bosom of a man, though he was a heathen he said, "I will not betray you to your enemy, seeing you come to me for sanctuary." So in time of danger the good Shepherd loves to have his affrighted sheep come close to him and abide with him. In a sense, all times are times of danger; so we cannot cleave too closely to the Redeemer. This ardent love to the flock secures fidelity, as our Lord has said: "I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. A hired hand will run when he sees a wolf coming. He will leave the sheep because they aren't his and he isn't their shepherd. And so the wolf attacks them and scatters the flock. The hired hand runs away because he is merely hired and has no real concern for the sheep." John 10:11-13. But Jesus saw the wolf coming, and stood his ground, and laid down his life for his sheep, and saved them.
II. Let us consider the OFFICES which the good Shepherd actually performs for his people.It would do no good to a flock to have a shepherd ever so well qualified, if he exercised not himself in their behalf. Our Shepherd unceasingly seeks and promotes our good.
It is required of a shepherd that he know his flock. The words of Jesus, so full of comfort, are, "I am the good shepherd; I know my own sheep, and they know me." John 10:14. And in verse 3 he says, "He calls his own sheep by name."
Sometimes in Scripture the word know has the same sense as foreknow. In this sense Jesus knew his people. "Whom he did foreknow he also did predestinate." Romans 8:29. He saw Nathanael under the fig-tree, and Zaccheus in the sycamore-tree. He knew all about them. Sometimes the word know is equivalent to distinguish. In this sense, also, Christ knows his people: "The Lord knows those who are his," that is, he distinguishes the sheep from the goats. Sometimes to know denotes familiarity. So our Lord Jesus says: "I will come unto you;" "I will make my abode with you;" "Lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world." Sometimes to know denotes recognition as of friends. So Jesus says, "Henceforth I call you not servants; for the servant knows not what his Lord does: but I have called you friends; for all things that I have heard of my Father, I have made known unto you. You have not chosen me, but I have chosen you." John 15:15, 16. Besides, he himself has taught us how a good shepherd will seek a lost sheep, and rejoice over it when he has found it. Thus he illustrates the emotions awakened in heaven over a lost sinner recovered from the snare of the wicked one. And he explicitly tells us that he came to seek and to save that which was lost, and to do it by dying. Indeed, "All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned everyone to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all." Isaiah 53:6. With what joy each believer sings,
"Jesus sought me when a stranger,
By Ezekiel, 34:6, God complains, "My sheep wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill. They were scattered over the whole earth, and no one searched or looked for them." He then adds, verses 12-14, "As a shepherd looks after his scattered flock when he is with them, so will I look after my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places where they were scattered on a day of clouds and darkness. I will bring them out from the nations and gather them from the countries, and I will bring them into their own land. I will pasture them on the mountains of Israel, in the ravines and in all the settlements in the land. I will tend them in a good pasture, and the mountain heights of Israel will be their grazing land. There they will lie down in good grazing land, and there they will feed in a rich pasture on the mountains of Israel." Ezekiel 34:12-14. This, blessed be his name, is just what the Lord is doing. He is seeking and finding the lost sheep, and bringing them into his fold, and blessing them, by the thousand and the ten thousand, with his own presence and infinite mercy.
Not only does a good shepherd once gather his sheep into his fold, but when they wander he brings them back: "He restores my soul," says David, Psalm 23:3. This is according to the whole tenor of Scripture. Compare Psalm 89:30-33. When Peter strayed, Jesus sought him. When Ephraim wandered, God said, "Is Ephraim a dear son?"
It was one branch of a shepherd's work to go before his flock, and thus be their leader. So the good shepherd "leads them out, and when he puts forth his own sheep, he goes before them." John 10:3, 4. In like manner the psalmist cries: "Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel, you who lead Joseph like a flock." Psalm 80:1. The shepherd went before the flock to keep the sheep from going into barren or dangerous places, to guide them into green pastures and to cooling fountains, and at evening to bring them safely to their fold. O how gently the good Shepherd leads his flock! How abundantly he supplies all their needs. The science of mathematics affords no stronger reasoning than this: "The Lord is my Shepherd; I shall not lack." It was an solemn charge that God brought against some of old: "Woe be to the shepherds of Israel that do feed themselves! Should not the shepherds feed the flocks?" Ezek. 34:2. Surely the good shepherd will not do thus. He provides food for the body. Not a sparrow is forgotten before God. Are you not of more value than many sparrows, O you of little faith! Your bread and your water is sure. When the last handful of meal was preparing, then was the prophet sent to supply the widow with plenty. Jesus also provides for the sustenance of our souls: "My grace is sufficient for you." There is his blessed word. There are his precious ordinances. He has made provision that by his Spirit all the appointed means shall be efficacious. In short, God denies a Christian nothing—but only to give him something better.
Jesus also keeps and defends his flock. If now and then wild beasts prowl about the fold and alarm the sheep, this makes them gather the more closely around their glorious Leader. Or if, in the way of persecution, Apollyon shall let loose his dogs upon the flock of Christ to worry them, it shall only make them the more willing to remain in the fold. God controls all that seek to do his people harm. "Hear the word of the Lord, O you nations, . . . He who scattered Israel will gather him, and keep him, as a shepherd does his flock." Jer. 31:10. The Master said, "Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves." Matt. 10:16. Yet he adds, "Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid." John 14:27. If their enemies are mighty, he is almighty; if they are cunning, he knows all things; if they muster many, he marshals all the host of heaven, and devils are subject unto him. When Christ's sheep hear his voice and know it, it is to them most cheering. For the "words of the wise," which "are as goads, and as nails fastened by the masters of assemblies," are "given from one Shepherd." Ecc. 12:11. The true flock of Christ has a remarkable discernment, which makes it very difficult to lead them astray. "A stranger will they not follow." Jesus accustoms them to his voice. Its gentle tones and winning sweetness, bind them close to the Redeemer. He is all in all to them.
III. Let us observe the effect of the good Shepherd's care over his flock.They know his voice and they follow him. His word is living and powerful in their hearts. His example they love to imitate. Was he benevolent? So are they. Did he go about doing good? So do they. Was he meek and lowly? They are not proud and revengeful. Their great hope and aim are that they may be like him, and see him as he is. 1 John 3:2. They will be satisfied when they awake with his likeness. They learn to flee to him in times of danger. His name is a strong tower; the righteous run into it and are safe. Like the conies, God's people are a feeble folk, and like the conies, their defense is in the rock. On their Shepherd they depend for everything. In him they have strong confidence, yes, great boldness in the Lord. Yet they are far removed from self-confidence. They plead no merits of their own, but plead their title to membership in his flock. Hear them of old: "We your people and sheep of your pasture." Psalm 79:13. "Oh come, let us worship and bow down: let us kneel before the Lord our maker. For he is our God; and we are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand." Psalm 95:6, 7. Other places show how these timid ones come with boldness even to the throne of grace.
IV. But what are the MARKS which Christ puts on his sheep?These are much hidden from the eye of unregenerate men. Even the chief Shepherd was not known by the wise and prudent of his day; much less do such men see the image of God on the hearts of his people. Like their Master, they are often esteemed impostors, babblers, blasphemers, madmen, possessed of devils. But still they have their marks.
1. A sheep is gentle and quiet.It is not for war. A meek and quiet spirit is in the sight of God of great price. The difference between a saint and a sinner is the difference between a sheep and a goat, sometimes between a sheep and a wolf. "A sheep before her shearers is silent," though losing her fleece. God's people have a law whose spirit they love: "So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you."
2. A sheep is free from deceitfulness.A fox is cunning and sly; but sheep have no craft. They are artless. Of each of Christ's flock it may be said with more or less exactness, "Behold an Israelite indeed, in whom is no deceit."
3. Sheep are compliant and not stubborn.From their nature they are governable. God loves the obedient, not the complaining; the submissive, not the murmuring.
4. A sheep is of a cleanly nature.Its habits are quite different from those of the swine. We expect to see the sow in the mire—it loves to be there. But if the sheep is there, it is not willingly. God's people are holy. If they were as holy as they desire, they never would sin any more.
1. All accounts of the Shepherd's life show us that there is much fellowship between him and his flock; and that as he loves them, so they love him. This holds in a spiritual sense. Here is a delightful theme. Christ manifests himself to his people as he does not to the world. Many a time does he come unto them, and show them his covenant. Nor are these manifestations of his grace and glory lost upon them. Their souls learn to follow close after him. They count all things but less for the excellency of his knowledge. Consequently, the more fellowship between Christ and his people, the better do they love him.
2. Let us never forget that there is but one Shepherd and but one fold. How careful then ought we to be not to disown any whom Christ has received. It is better, through honest mistake, to receive him whom Christ rejects, than through uncharitableness to reject him whom Christ has received. How many wicked partition walls are set up in the fold of Christ! "Is Christ divided?" It is at our peril if we wound where Christ would heal.
3. Dear Christian brethren! sheep of Christ's pasture! often seek the guidance of your Leader. Go in quest of the green pastures and the still waters. Cry mightily to God. Ask him to lead you in paths of righteousness for his name's sake. Never lose sight of the Redeemer. Constantly petition him as did the spouse of old: "Tell me, O you whom my soul loves, where you feed, where you make your flock to rest at noon: for why should I be as one who turns aside by the flocks of your companions?" Cant. 1:7.
How sweet and solemn is the place, with Christ within the doors. It was communion with the Redeemer before his incarnation that made Jacob exclaim at Bethel, "This is none other but the house of God and the gate of heaven."
Blessed Jesus! What delicious fare. How sweet your entertainments are! All must come humbly to the mercy-seat. Set your needs before the Lord as the widow set her empty vessels before the prophet, and he will supply them all; yes, there shall not be room enough to contain the blessing. A dear young Christian mother expiring three thousand miles from the Cape of Good Hope, in the interior of Africa, sent to her mother and sister in the capital of Virginia this message: "I never have regretted coming to this land of darkness. Heaven is as near to Africa as to Richmond." She then kissed her babe and bade farewell to earth. So do his rod and his staff comfort those who walk through the valley of the shadow of death.
4. Here the sheep and the goats often mingle together; but it shall not be so always. The chief Shepherd will appear by-and-by, "and before him shall be gathered all nations: and he shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divides his sheep from the goats; and he shall set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left." Matt. 25:32, 33. Solemn indeed will be that day. Final and fearful will be its separations. Nothing but that which infinite purity and omniscient rectitude shall approve, will stand the test of the last day. I ask not, Are you a rare Christian, but are you a real child of God? You may not be a splendid worshiper—but are you sound at heart? What think you of Christ? Is he all your desire and all your salvation? Do you mark his footsteps? Do you exhibit his temper? Do you love his cause? Do you die unto the world? Are you alive unto God? Be honest with yourself; the day that is coming will strip off every disguise.
"When you, my righteous Judge, shall come,