Here are blessed words. They are not new words. You find words like these often in the Bible, and even in ancient heathen books. Kings, priests, prophets, judges, are called shepherds of the people. David is called the shepherd of Israel. A prophet complains of the shepherds of Israel who feed themselves, and will not feed the flock.
But the old Hebrew prophets had a vision of a greater and better shepherd than David, or any earthly king or priest--of a heavenly and almighty shepherd. 'The Lord is my shepherd,' says one; 'therefore I shall not want.' And another says, 'He shall feed his flock like a shepherd. He shall gather his lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and shall gently lead those who are with young.'
This was blessed news; good news for all mankind, if there had been no more than this. But there is more blessed news still in the text. In the text, the Lord of whom those old prophets spoke, spoke for himself, with human voice, upon this earth of ours; and declared that all they had said was true; and that more still was true.
I am the good shepherd, he says. And then he adds, The good shepherd giveth his life for the sheep.
Oh, my friends, consider these words. Think what endless depths of wonder there are in them. Is it not wonderful enough that God should care for men; should lead them, guide them, feed them, condescend to call himself their shepherd? Wonderful, indeed; so wonderful, that the old prophets would never have found it out but by the inspiration of Almighty God. But what a wider, deeper, nobler, more wonderful blessing, and more blessed wonder, that the shepherd should give his life for the sheep;--that the master should give his life for the servant, the good for the bad, the wise one for the fools, the pure one for the foul, the loving one for the spiteful, the king for those who had rebelled against him, the Creator for his creatures. That God should give his life for man! Truly, says St. John, 'Herein is love. Not that we loved him: but that he loved us.' Herein, indeed, is love. Herein is the beauty of God, and the glory of God; that he spared nothing, shrank from nothing, that he might save man. Because the sheep were lost, the good shepherd would go forth into the rough and dark places of the earth to seek and to save that which was lost. That was enough. That was a thousand times more than we had a right to expect. Had he done only that he would have been for ever glorious, for ever adorable, for ever worthy of the praises and thanks of heaven and earth, and all that therein is. But that seemed little in the eyes of Jesus, little to the greatness of his divine love. He would understand the weakness of his sheep by being weak himself; understand the sorrows of his sheep, by sorrowing himself; understand the sins of his sheep, by bearing all their sins; the temptations of his sheep, by conquering them himself; and lastly, he would understand and conquer the death of his sheep, by dying himself. Because the sheep must die, he would die too, that in all things, and to the uttermost, he might show himself the good shepherd, who shared all sorrow, danger and misery with his sheep, as if they had been his children, bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh. In all things he would show himself the good shepherd, and no hireling, who cared for himself and his own wages. If the wolf came, he would face the wolf, and though the wolf killed him, yet would he kill the wolf, that by his death he might destroy death, and him who had the power of death, that is, the devil. He would go where the sheep went. He would enter into the sheepfold by the same gate as they did, and not climb over into the fold some other way, like a thief and a robber. He would lead them into the fold by the same gate. They had to go into God's fold through the gate of death; and therefore he would go in through it also, and die with his sheep; that he might claim the gate of death for his own, and declare that it did not belong to the devil, but to him and his heavenly Father; and then having led his sheep in through the gate of death, he would lead them out again by the gate of resurrection, that they might find pasture in the redeemed land of everlasting life, where can enter neither devil, nor wolf, nor robber, evil spirit, evil man, or evil thing. This, and more than this, he would do in the greatness of his love. He would become in all things like his sheep, that he might show himself the good shepherd. Because they died, he would die; that so, because he rose, they might rise also.
Oh, my friends, who is sufficient for these things? Not men, not saints, not angels or archangels can comprehend the love of Christ. How can they? For Christ is God, and God is love; the root and fountain of all love which is in you and me, and angels, and all created beings. And therefore his love is as much greater than ours, or than the love of angels and archangels, as the whole sun is greater than one ray of sun-light. Say rather, as much greater and more glorious as the sun is greater and more glorious than the light which sparkles in the dew-drop on the grass. The love and goodness and holiness of a saint or an angel is the light in that dew-drop, borrowed from the sun. The love of God is the sun himself, which shineth from one part of heaven to the other, and there is nothing hid from the life-giving heat and light thereof. When the dew-drop can take in the sun, then can we take in the love of God, which fills all heaven and earth.
But there is, if possible, better news still behind--'I am the good shepherd; and know my sheep, and am known of mine.'
'I know my sheep.' Surely some of the words which I have just spoken may help to explain that to you. 'I know my sheep.' Not merely, I know who are my sheep, and who are not. Of course, the Lord does that. We might have guessed that for ourselves. What comfort is there in that? No, he does not say merely, 'I know WHO my sheep are; but I know WHAT my sheep are. I know them; their inmost hearts. I know their sins and their follies: but I know, too, their longing after good. I know their temptations, their excuses, their natural weaknesses, their infirmities, which they brought into the world with them. I know their inmost hearts for good and for evil. True, I think some of them often miserable, and poor, and blind, when they fancy themselves strong, and wise, and rich in grace, and having need of nothing. But I know some of them, too, to be longing after what is good, to be hungering and thirsting after righteousness, when they can see nothing but their own sin and weakness, and are utterly ashamed and tired of themselves, and are ready to lie down in despair, and give up all struggling after God. I know their weakness--and of me it is written, 'I will carry the lambs in mine arms.' Those who are innocent and inexperienced in the ways of this world, I will see that they are not led into temptation; and I will gently lead those that are with young: those who are weary with the burden of their own thoughts, those who are yearning and labouring after some higher, better, more free, more orderly, more useful life; those who long to find out the truth, and to speak it, and give birth to the noble thoughts and the good plans which they have conceived: I have inspired their good desires, and I will bring them to good effect; I will gently lead them,' says the Lord, 'for I know them better than they know themselves.'
Yes. Christ knows us better than we know ourselves: and better, too, than we know him. Thanks be to God that it is so. Or the last words of the text would crush us into despair--'I know my sheep, and am known of mine.'
Is it so? We trust that we are Christ's sheep. We trust that he knows us: but do we know him? What answer shall we make to that question, Do you know Christ? I do not mean, Do you know ABOUT Christ? You may know ABOUT a person without knowing the person himself when you see him. I do not mean, Do you know doctrines about Christ? though that is good and necessary. Nor, Do you know what Christ has done for your soul? though that is good and necessary also. But, Do you know Christ himself? You have never seen him. True: but have you never seen any one like him--even in part? Do you know his likeness when you see it in any of your neighbours? That is a question worth thinking over. Again--Do you know what Christ is like? What his character is--what his way of dealing with your soul, and all souls, is? Are you accustomed to speak to him in your prayers as to one who can and will hear you; and do you know his voice when he speaks to you, and puts into your heart good desires, and longings after what is right and true, and fair and noble, and loving and patient, as he himself is? Do you know Christ?
Alas! my friends, what a poor answer we can make to that question? How little do we know Christ?
What would become of us, if he were like us?--If he were one who bargained with us, and said--'Unless you know me, I will not take the trouble to know you. Unless you care for me, you cannot expect me to care for you.' What would become of us, if God said, 'As you do to me, so will I do to you?'
But our only hope lies in this, that in Christ the Lord is no spirit of bargaining, no pride, no spite, no rendering evil for evil. In this is our hope; that he is the likeness of his Father's glory, and the express image of his person; perfect as his Father is perfect; that like his Father, he causeth his rain to fall on the evil and the good; and his sun to shine on the just and on the unjust; and is good to the unthankful and the evil--to you and me--and knows us, though we know him not; and cares for us, though we care not for him; and leads us his way, like a good shepherd, when we fancy in our conceit that we are going in our own way. This is our hope, that his love is greater than our stupidity; that he will not tire of us, and our fancies, and our self-will, and our laziness, in spite of all our peevish tempers, and our mean and fruitless suspicions of his goodness. No! He will not tire of us, but will seek us, and save us when we go astray. And some day, somewhere, somehow, he will open our eyes, and let us see him as he is, and thank him as he deserves. Some day, when the veil is taken off our eyes, we shall see like those disciples at Emmaus, that Jesus has been walking with us, and breaking our bread for us, and blessing us, all our lives long; and that when our hearts burned within us at noble thoughts, and stories of noble and righteous men and women, and at the hope that some day good would conquer evil, and heaven come down on earth, then--so we shall find--God had been dwelling among men all along--even Jesus, who was dead, and is alive for evermore, and has the keys of death and hell, and knows his sheep in this world, and in all worlds, past, present, and to come, and leads them, and will lead them for ever, and none can pluck them out of his hand. Amen.