By Sally Lombardo
“Jesus answered them, ‘I told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name bear witness about me, but you do not believe because you are not among my sheep. My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand. I and the Father are one.’” (John 10:25–30)
In most of John 10, Jesus talks about sheep. He talks about the gatekeeper who opens the gate, the shepherd who calls his sheep, the shepherd who guards the sheep, and finally, the Son who gives the sheep eternal life. In verses 25–30, Jesus explains, “my sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me” (10:28). Why all this talk about sheep? Why did Jesus continually use sheep as an illustration?
Sheep were a mainstay of the economy during Jesus’s earthly life. Shepherds roamed everywhere, and sheep were grown for wool, meat, and milk. But Jesus was not a shepherd, so why did he constantly resort to these animals for his parables and teaching? This question has perplexed me. Some preaching has said that sheep are dumb and need to be led everywhere or they will do dumb things, but I do not believe this is why. Some people say that sheep illustrate our dependency, but I don’t think this captures the full imagery.
There are a few other ways to describe sheep in the way that Jesus referred to them. First, sheep are gentle creatures who are not aggressive or predatory. Second, sheep are also vulnerable. Their relationship to the shepherd is one of vulnerability and trust. They are also authentic. When they are “cast down”—something that happens when a sheep rolls over on its back and cannot get upright again—they cry and bleat. When they are lost from the flock, they hide. Sheep are fundamental examples of fearful responses to the human condition.
Jesus taught parables about sheep to help us see our sheepishness—our lack of courage, power, and strength. And when he sent out his disciples to preach and teach the Gospel, Jesus reminded them that they were sheep. “Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves” (Matthew 10:16). He reminded them that they are defenseless in their own strength—but protected by the authority and power of Christ.
Is there a way you can approach your Christian life with more vulnerability and authenticity? When you are cast down in life, due to relationships, rejection, or bad self-talk, where do you look first to be made right again? Think about the sheep and all Jesus promised us. He is the gatekeeper, the gate, and the guardian. He is the Good Shepherd who provides life. Sheep recognized their need for protection; maybe we can, too.
Reflection: When were you lost from the Shepherd? This week, tell someone the story about how the Shepherd saved you and brought you home. We would love to hear your thoughts in the comments.
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