117. Compassionate custody.

[John 10]

The responsibilities of life can wear you down. That could be a reason why people become homeless. They get so overwhelmed with the basic demands of having a place to stay and food to eat, that they choose to get off the treadmill of life for a daily scavenge to take care of just one day at a time. Many charities provide for them.

Here in North America the cities are well organized and every homeless person could have a place in a shelter with food and a bed. On very cold nights, the police drive around and pick up people in the street to forcibly take them to shelters, as the risk of hypothermia is too big. If they want, they could be rehabilitated and helped back on their feet. In a few cases where bad choices got a person into drugs or debt, the authorities are eager to assist in turning a life around.

However, many are not interested in an alternative lifestyle at all. Speaking to the CEO of one of the biggest homeless care centres in our city, he said that only around 40% of the people in their care are permanently rehabilitated to pursue their life normally.

The world can be a heartless, cruel place requiring a steady income for money to pay the bills that provide services and food. Living is a constant struggle; a great effort to supply our most basic needs of food and shelter.

In John 10 Jesus steps into the precious and well-known image of a shepherd in the near Middle East. He presents Himself as the most compassionate caregiver the community at that time could imagine.

The main part of Judea was a plateau stretching from Bethel to Hebron for a distance of 55 kilometers. The ground was rough and stony, more for pastoral than agricultural application. The most familiar figure in all of the land was the shepherd. It was a hard life. He was never off duty and could never leave the flock alone. With little grazing, the sheep were bound to wander. With no protective walls they could get lost. They had to be watched constantly. On either side of the plateau, the land dipped sharply down to deserts full of wild animals and robbers. If a sheep got lost, it would loose its life.

The symbolic life of the shepherd, never resting, always ready to intervene on behalf of the sheep, was at the forefront of every mind and easily understood. They gave David the honourary title – the shepherd king.

The shepherd is a very well known picture throughout the Old Testament. (Psalms 23; 77:20; 79:13; 80:1; 95:7; 100:3; Isaiah 40:11) The leaders of the people were described as shepherds of God’s people (Jeremiah 23:1-4).

In the New Testament Jesus is the Good Shepherd (Matthew 18:12; Luke 15:4). He has pity on His people – they are as sheep without a shepherd (Matthew 9:36; Mark 6:34). His disciples are his little flock (Luke 12:32). When He, the shepherd, is taken away to be crucified, the sheep are scattered (Mark 14:27; Matthew 26:31). He is the shepherd of the souls of men (1 Peter 2:25), and the great shepherd of the sheep (Hebrews 13:20). The leaders of the church are often depicted as the shepherds of the flock. They must feed and be responsible (1 Peter 5:2-3; Acts 20:28) Jesus commands Peter to feed His sheep (John 21:15-19).

Pastor is the Latin word for shepherd (Ephesians 4:11).

The full meaning of the concept of a shepherd, should paint a picture of God’s constant vigilance and patience towards us. It reminds us of our duty towards our fellow men, especially if we pursue ministry in the church of Jesus.

The shepherd of Palestine was a simple man with simple tools. He had a bag made of animal skin in which he carried food – bread, olives and cheese. He had a sling as a weapon against wild animals. He would also shoot in front of the nose of a straying sheep as a warning to turn back. He carried a staff – a short rod of wood with nails to defend himself and his sheep against wolves and robbers. His also carried a shepherd’s crook. He could catch a sheep by the hind leg and bring it back to the flock. At the end of the day every sheep had to pass under the shepherd’s rod to be examined for injury or illness. (Ezekiel 20:37; Leviticus 27:32).

When Proverbs 13:24 talks about disciplining children, the rod that is mentioned is the shepherd’s rod of care and love. It is the constant care for a child to set the boundaries to guide them in making the right choices and knowing right from wrong. It is the rod that brings comfort in Psalm 23:4.

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; For You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.

In Palestine the shepherd walked in front of the flock. Sometimes the sheep needed to be encouraged to follow. Sheep was with the shepherd for years, kept mainly for wool and not for meat. The sheep knew the shepherd’s voice and will never answer to another.

The words in John 10:7-10 are pure gold.

It is the promise of the true Shepherd. In the villages there was a sheepfold with a strong door of which the shepherd had the key. Out in the pastures there were open folds with walls to gather the sheep at night. The shepherd himself slept in the opening and the sheep could not get out except literally over his body. The shepherd himself was the door. Through Jesus we have access to the Father (Ephesians 2:18). He is the new and living way (Hebrews 10:20). God is to be known by men through Jesus. Always remember – Jesus is God in human form.

Jesus uses a Hebrew phrase to describe safety and security – to go in and out. A true leader will lead a nation in and out (Numbers 27:17). A child of God is blessed when he goes in and out (Deuteronomy 28:6) The Psalmist says God blesses his coming in and his going out (Psalm 121:8).

Those that went before are all the false Messiahs, claiming the golden age. They fought and promised. Nothing came of it. Many of these insurrectionists thought nothing of human life and would murder and steal to reach their political goals. Jesus led them to God.

Only in God can there ever be a golden age. The golden age on earth is the invisible kingdom of love in which we live as born-again believers. Jesus brings life more abundantly. The Greek phrase means to have a superabundance of something. Only life with Jesus is really life, worth the living. The shepherd is absolutely responsible for life and death, even by rescuing parts of a dead animal from the jaws of the wild beasts to prove that the sheep died this way. (Amos 3:12; Exodus 22:13)

David had to battle the lion and the bear (1 Samuel 17:34-36). A shepherd risked his life to look after his flock. Nothing was too much. There was also the image of the unfaithful shepherd. A real shepherd was born to the task. To the false shepherd it was a job, not a calling.

Wolves were a threat to the flock. Jesus warns his disciples (Matthew 10:16). Paul warns (Acts 20:29) Zechariah (10:7-10) marks a false shepherd when he shows no desire to gather the scattered sheep.

How do the church and the modern pastor fit into this picture of the shepherd? It is a matter of working for love rather than working for reward. A good shepherd was described by two words in Greek:

  • agathos – describes the moral quality of something
  • kalos – in the goodness there is a quality of lovely.

Jesus uses kalos. The good is the fullness of God’s goodness that can be found in the character of the good shepherd; all the love, sympathy and kindness mixed in with power and miracles.

The church is open to attack from the outside as well as the inside. The church is threatened from outside by wolves of temptation and robbers of peace, joy and love and inside from false shepherds, false doctrine and false comfort. The danger from inside is worse.

When the shepherd is strong there is effective defense but when the shepherd is false the outside enemy can destroy the flock. Jesus states here the ultimate unity of the church. Unity is only possible by hearing His voice. This is the superior principle for unity guiding every individual:

And other sheep I have which are not of this fold; them also I must bring, and they will hear My voice; and there will be one flock and one shepherd. (John 10:16)

When people are privileged, they become exclusive. They want to protect their “right” to certain things, which they deem of value – lifestyle, religion or education. This was the sorry state of the church in the time of Jesus. They become gatekeepers as opposed to the true Jesus-followers who should be door-openers.

Imagine yourself in the care of the good shepherd. He will look after you. He will provide and shelter you. That is the promise.

The cross is the guarantee.

Read Psalm 121 as a prayer-statement to boost your trust-level.

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