I learned a couple of things from studying for and preaching this sermon. First, it struck me how tense the situation was that these words were spoken in. Christ is eyeball to eyeball with His enemies, surrounded by a crowd of them, in fact — and yet He does not shirk the truth or pull back from what He must say. I admire that kind of courage and want it for myself.
Second, this brief text is full of comfort. For those who are not Christ’s sheep, not of His own, they get none of its solace or encouragement. But for those who are, they know that they are safe as long as they trust the voice of their Shepherd. The simple promises in this text are easy to comprehend, but they invite you to just sit and look at them. If you want to do yourself a favor, sit down and ponder what Jesus tells you in these verses and how it applies to you in your life. You listen to the Shepherd. You know His voice. You know that you are linked to Him through bonds of faith and love, and through Him, to the Father.
Thirdly, there’s a wealth of teaching about God contained in these plain words. Just look at the way Jesus parallels the descriptions of what He does and what the Father does (which, by the way, is a very Jewish way of speaking — the Hebrews were fond of parallelism.) Or “I and the Father are one”– how do you explain that or expound it sufficiently? Admittedly we struggle to understand and appreciate it fully, but the struggle is entirely worthwhile.
Fourthly, I was struck by the absolute necessity of listening to the Good Shepherd’s voice. You can think you’re a Christian, you can tell yourself you’re a good person, but if you don’t listen to the voice of the Good Shepherd — if you don’t receive His Word and bow your heart and life before it in faith — you’re not a sheep. Period. It’s a very clear and sharp distinction, one that sometimes gets lost when we talk about other churches or denominations as getting some things right but some things wrong — “they’re Christian but they get conversion [or the Lord’s Supper or infant baptism or what have you] wrong”, that sort of thing. This sermon focuses more on the individual’s attitude of the heart toward Christ’s voice, although that does play into discussions of different churches or denominations. (I think the sermon touches on that more toward the end.) Hope you’re edified, and let me know what you think!
“Then came the Feast of Dedication at Jerusalem. It was winter, 23and Jesus was in the temple area walking in Solomon’s Colonnade. 24The Jews gathered around him, saying, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Christ, tell us plainly.”
25Jesus answered, “I did tell you, but you do not believe. The miracles I do in my Father’s name speak for me, 26but you do not believe because you are not my sheep. 27My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. 28I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand. 29My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand. 30I and the Father are one.” (John 10:22-30 niv)
How you define something is pretty important. A lot can turn on a definition. Lawyers know this, which is why a lot of court cases hinge on properly defining the thing being argued or fought over. In order for anybody to communicate about anything, we need common definitions for what we’re talking about. Otherwise how will we know what the other person means? Today we seek to define a sheep. Not a farm animal with four feet and wool – Jesus’ sheep. What makes someone a true sheep of the Good Shepherd? How do you stay in his flock? Jesus gives us some wonderful promises in our gospel for today, but they only apply to us if we’re his sheep. Let’s turn our thoughts to John chapter 10 and consider The True Definition of a Sheep.
Jesus is in the temple, walking in Solomon’s Colonnade. It’s a protected place, out of the weather. It’s winter, so he’s trying to keep warmer. He’s alone with his disciples. A crowd of the Jews see him relatively alone and see their chance. They surround him and demand to know whether or not he’s the Christ. They don’t want to know so that they believe in him. They want to get him in trouble if at all possible. Jesus is surrounded by this huge group of people who could get hostile. It’s a tense situation. They could get ugly if they don’t like his answer. Jesus calmly looks them in the eye and reminds them that he’s already told them many times. They don’t even need him to tell them. His miracles speak for themselves. Jesus’ way was always to do miracles and then to speak in such a way that his hearers couldn’t help saying, “Truly this man is the Son of God.” On top of that, Jesus points out for them why they don’t believe. They’re not his sheep. They don’t belong to him. They don’t know him.
Jesus’ definition of a sheep is still valid today. Jesus’ sheep listen to his voice. He knows them. They follow him. He gives them the eternal life that he has won in rising from the dead. We measure ourselves by this definition of a sheep. We are Jesus’ sheep when we listen to his voice. The first, most basic requirement for being Jesus’ sheep is to hear his voice. If you don’t hear his voice, you are no sheep and can be no sheep. It’s as simple as that. Note that the definition of a sheep is not in what the sheep does. Jesus doesn’t make his sheep do things in order to be in his flock. Being a sheep doesn’t consist of doing something. It’s first of all an inner disposition, a waiting on Jesus’ voice in his Word – hearing with your heart. You listen for the voice of Jesus and home in on it with everything you’ve got. You ignore every other voice and listen only to what that one voice tells you.
I’m told that sheep will run away from a stranger’s voice. A stranger can call as enticingly and pleasantly as he wants, can call the sheep all day, and the more he calls, the further away they’ll run. “Here sheep, here sheep! Nice sheep, pretty sheep” — there they go in the opposite direction. But if they hear their shepherd’s voice, it doesn’t even matter what he’s telling them. They’ll come trotting toward him and not run away. Just the sound of his voice, even apart from any words he’s saying, will bring them to him.
Lots of voices call out for our attention these days. The world has entire choruses of voices that shout in our ears all day long. Some voices clamor for us to rely on our reason. Only listen to what makes sense! Don’t believe something if you can’t understand it! Some voices goad us to think for ourselves, to be skeptical. You don’t want somebody else to order you around, do you?—meanwhile not mentioning that when you do so, you’re really following them. Some voices urge us to get and acquire and enjoy all the stuff this world has to offer. Having stuff will make you happy! More is better! Some voices clamor at us to fit into this world. Don’t be behind the times! Don’t call anything anybody else does wrong, because the only sin is to call something a sin. You don’t want to be out of touch, weird, warped, and rigid – do you? All these voices clamor in our ears. They shout at us, yelling and trying to bully us. They speak reasonably and calmly, trying to lead us astray. They whisper to us at odd moments, when our guard is down and we’re not paying attention.
Then there’s another voice – Jesus’ voice, the voice of our Good Shepherd. That’s the only voice we need to hear. We need to hear the kind, comforting, trust-inspiring voice that only he has. The voice that tells you that all is done, that no more is required before God, you have been given everything you need before his throne. The voice that tells you you are safe and sound in his almighty love and care, you are in the Father’s hand and nobody can take you away from him. The voice that reassures you that even if pain or scorn or hunger or danger comes, you will be paid back a thousand-fold what they take and that it’s always for your good. The only voice that will never lie to you or use you or ever tell you anything less than the absolute truth.
His voice is heard through Scripture. God’s Word is his voice, but it’s not only God’s Word. Jesus says, “My sheep listen to my voice” – not, “My sheep listen to my word.” The reason for this is that every false teacher on the block uses God’s Word. There hasn’t been a false teacher in the history of man who hasn’t appealed to God’s Word at one time or another, starting with Satan in the Garden of Eden. False teachers use God’s Word all the time, they just don’t use it correctly. They twist it. They use certain passages to cancel out others – something God never intended. They speak deceitfully. They give themselves away by preaching allegiance to someone or something other than Christ, whether it’s to themselves personally or to the gods of this age or manmade institutions.
Have you ever noticed how everybody tries to get you to follow them personally and to support them? The world is full of people who go around gathering supporters and disciples after themselves. Everybody wants to have a group following them. They gather followers for themselves only to exert control over others – to make themselves important. Contrast that with Christ, the Good Shepherd. Everything he tells us is for our good. It’s not about him, it’s about us. He shows us the way to life. He knows where we are weak and so he warns against things that are harmful to us. He knows just how to lead us in paths of righteousness, for his name’s sake.
We are Jesus’ sheep when we follow where he leads — when we live by his Word. When we conform our lives and our hearts to what he tells us, we are following him. To listen to his voice and trust in it means that you do what he says, even when the evidence seems to be going in the opposite direction. Being Jesus’ sheep means you are willing to shut out every other voice, filter out every other speaker, until he is all you hear and all you guide yourself by. We don’t put any trust in mere man, in any word or promise of people; we don’t even put any trust in ourselves, in our own thoughts or impressions. We let Jesus’ voice rule over and direct everything we do.
Sometimes we wonder what we should do or what course of action we should take. God’s Word doesn’t tell me which job I should take or where I should go to school. In those situations, we pray and ask for God’s guidance, and then we use our God-given reason and our Christian common sense. We make our choices based on our faith, and trust that God will bring them to the best possible outcome for us. If we are listening to his voice, we have the comfort that Jesus knows us. He knows exactly what we need. He knows where we are and what we’ll run into. He knows where we’re weak and where we’re strong. He knows how to lead us and keep us safe, to keep us in the Father’s love until we are at last with him in heaven.
That’s the true definition of a sheep – to listen and follow. We can also measure others by Jesus’ definition of a sheep. Faithfulness to the voice of Jesus and God’s Word is the key. Is someone listening to Jesus’ voice? Do they conform their life and their heart to what he says? Or do they ignore him, decide that they know better and they have things they’d rather do? Do they replace his voice with their own voice? That’s an awfully big temptation, and an awfully big sin. We need to understand that when someone points out false teachers and false teachings, maybe even names them by name, it’s not something personal. We don’t do it because we’re mean-spirited. We don’t do it because we think we’re better than they are, or because we look down on them. All are equal before God in their sin and in Jesus’ payment for sin. Being better than somebody else has nothing to do with it. We point out false teaching and false teachers so we can help them find the true voice of the true Shepherd. If they don’t listen to the voice of the Shepherd, how will they ever be part of his flock? How will they ever be called by his name if they keep shutting their ears to his Word and following false shepherds, ones that don’t love them and don’t tell them the truth? They can’t! There is no way someone can be Jesus’ sheep if they ignore or sideline his Word or hold to their own opinions over and above the teachings of Jesus. Those people cannot be in Jesus’ flock if they persist in their error and cling to it. That is the main reason to point out error – so that the person in error can realize it and escape. So they can become Jesus’ sheep by listening to his voice.
Not all the sheep in our corner of the flock are sticking close. They’re showing signs of no longer wanting to listen to Jesus. They’re starting to wander, as sheep do, and somebody has to go get them. Now as pastor I will do everything in my power to keep the flock together. But please don’t make me do it alone. You know your fellow sheep better than I do. You have a better relationship with them. If you notice that someone isn’t coming to worship and seems to be losing interest in their relationship with God, for heaven’s sake – for that person’s sake – speak to them about it. Encourage them to come back and listen to the voice of their Shepherd once again. Jesus promises us eternal life, if only we listen to and live his Word. Let’s not have anybody miss out on that. Help your fellow sheep to follow their Shepherd. “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me.” God grant that we always listen to, and follow that voice, wherever it leads. Amen.