Jesus Sees You: The ‘Good’ In Jesus, the Good Shepherd
In John 9 Jesus heals a blind man. A moment that, at first, doesn’t seem to naturally connect to a parable about livestock and one of the richest, most compelling pictures of Jesus’ love for us—but it does.
The Pharisees find out about this healing and, as you might expect, don’t like it one bit. The man who Jesus heals—who literally “sees” Jesus—is contrasted with the Pharisees who Jesus paints as “blind guides”, who even though they come to Jesus cannot “see” him, cannot understand him, and in their willful blindness, mislead God’s people. It’s a literal “blind leading the blind” situation.
So in John 10: 1-6, Jesus responds by talking about sheep.
Imagine a sheep pen, Jesus says, A sheep pen, which at that time would have been a walled enclosure, guarded by a gate and a familiar shepherd, under whose guidance and protective watch the sheep pass freely in and out of the pasture.
But threats to the sheep exist on both sides. There are thieves and robbers lying all around. (v. 1 and 10) As one commentator notes, there are two kinds of dangers here. Thieves break in; robbers lie in wait along paths and trails. In this vignette, the hazards of daily sheep and shepherd life are all around, inside and outside.
Then in verses 8-20, Jesus ends by telling the Pharisees, “This story isn’t just any old example or illustration. I am that shepherd. I am that gate. And if you’re really going to see me like that blind man I just healed, you need to know that.”
The Good Shepherd
The most famous verse in this passage is, of course, John 10:11: Jesus’ declaration that “I am the good shepherd.” Not just a regular, average, run-of-the-mill shepherd, either. But rather, “the good shepherd.”
What’s good about Jesus, the good shepherd? Lots of things, of course. But in this passage? It’s because he sees, knows, loves his sheep personally.
Personally. In every shape and contour and texture of your you-ness. That’s you, to Jesus: a glorious unique creation worth knowing in every possible way, all the way up and down and in.
In verse 4 Jesus says that “…the sheep listen to [the shepherd’s] voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. … he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow because they know his voice.”
This is what’s happening earlier in the Gospels when Jesus recruits his first disciples. He calls them by name… Simon Peter, come and see. Andrew, Nathanael, Philip, all the rest—come and see, come and see, come and see. It’s an early picture of Jesus’ personal care and attention. Even before this moment with the Pharisees in John 10, the shepherd’s voice had already begun calling his sheep.
That’s part of Jesus’ goodness—even before we knew him, he knew us. And in knowing us, he knew us not as abstract little sheep dots in some great big sheep blob, but as personally-known, greatly-valued sheep in his beloved flock.
Thieves and Robbers
To the thieves and robbers, by contrast, the sheep aren’t beloved creatures—they’re impersonal, anonymous, basically currency, and therein lies the danger. The thief and robber feel great freedom to steal and kill and destroy precisely because the sheep mean nothing to them. They don’t know them—their personalities, quirks, tendencies, eccentricities—and don’t love them. And because of that, they feel great freedom to do everything they want with them, regardless of whether it’s what the sheep want or what might be best for them.
‘Thieves and robbers’ is the basic dynamic of the world. It was true then and it’s true now. In most contexts we move around in, we’re anything but personally-known, personally cared for. We’re anything but called to by a loving voice. We’re just small-talk and chit-chat to be endured, one car among many in the traffic jam after work, just a face in the campus crowd, a grade going up and down in a gradebook.
One woolly dot in the sheepy blobs of life.
But to Jesus the shepherd, we have names. We are personally known, in all our shape and contour and texture, glorious unique creations worth knowing in every possible way. And when he calls to us, he calls with a voice whose clearest frequencies are friendship and intimacy, and whose resonance is so full of goodness that when we hear it, we want to follow. By contrast, when we hear the voices of those who are strangers to the ways of Jesus, made gritty and hoarse with calculating, impersonal extraction, we sense, deep down, the wrong-ness of those voices.
To Be Known
The good shepherd knows us. He also loves us.
Five times in this passage, Jesus talks about laying down his life. The hired hand, like the thief and the robber, has no stake in the survival of the flock. He cares nothing for the sheep. He’s just a temp in the field, supervising the sheep blob to ensure that none of the sheep resources are lost. He doesn’t know them or want to; he cares exactly as much as he’s paid to care and not a penny more, and not for any longer than the contract says.
Each night before clocking out, the hired hand tallies the sheep up as numbers and checks a box on his clipboard, which he hangs on a hook in the shed for the guy on the next shift. He doesn’t say goodnight to them by name as he scratches them tenderly behind the ear. Of course, when a wolf attacks, he’ll run away. The sheep are just numbers, they’re not even his. Why risk dying? Who cares?
The answer is: Jesus, the good shepherd, cares. Jesus, the good shepherd, will risk dying. For you, for us. To him we’re not just numbers on a clipboard. He knows us, and knows us with love.
Five times, Jesus tells the Pharisees, that’s the difference between a shepherd like me and shepherds like you. For these people, for these sheep that I know by heart and call by name, I’ll lay down my life.
Psalm 131 invites us out of life as a tug-of-war with God into one where his desires, wants, longings for us (and the world) are not competing against ours but are grander, better, simply more. There is indeed a desire asymmetry between us and God, but not like we think — we can’t out-want God.