THE 2ND SUNDAY AFTER EASTER
I am the good shepherd: the good shepherd giveth his life for the sheep… I am the good shepherd; and know my sheep, and am known of mine, even as the Father knoweth me, and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep (Jn 10:14-15)
In the twenty-sixth verse of the first chapter in the book of Genesis we learn that “God made the beasts of the earth after his kind, and the cattle after their kind, and every that creepeth upon the earth after his kind: and God saw that it was good” (Gen 1:26). On the sixth day God created all kinds of animals including sheep. We know this because the man and woman brought forth two sons, “Adam knew Eve his wife; and she conceived and bare Cain, and said, I have gotten a man from the Lord. And she again bare his brother Abel. And Abel was a keeper of sheep, but Cain was a tiller of the ground” (4:1-2). To the second son of Adam was given the vocation of shepherd; called to feed, defend and protect his flock from torrential weather and fiercer creatures seeking to feed on weak and vulnerable sheep. If any strayed he would go- no matter the danger- and retrieve those who had fallen away from the herd.
We may assume that Abel was a good and dutiful shepherd who faithfully cared for the flock. For if God was pleased with Abel’s religion (his sacrificial offering) then God was most likely pleased with his vocational labor as well: for religion acceptable to God is always accompanied by an acceptable life. Scripture records that “Abel brought the firstlings of his flock and of the fat thereof. And the Lord had respect unto Abel and to his offering” (Gen 4:4). Abel brought a firstling… a young sheep, to the altar of the Lord; giving his first and finest fruits to God; an acceptable and pleasing sacrifice which—we should note— led to his death: unjustly murdered at the envious and wrathful hand of his older brother Caine. And yet, Abel—the very first shepherd— made an acceptable sacrifice unto God.
Having fled Egypt for his very life, Moses settled in the plains of Midian where he tended his father in laws sheep in the shadow of Mt. Horeb. From a flaming bush he was called to shepherd the children of God who’s cries for salvation had reached the heights of Heaven! Thus, the Lord spoke,
I have surely seen the affliction of my people which are in Egypt, and have heard their cry… for I know their sorrows… I will send thee unto Pharoah, that thou mayest bring forth my people the children of Israel out of Egypt (Ex 3:4, 10).
And, with God’s power, this Shepherd confronted Pharaoh and his pantheon of Egyptian gods. In a single night, the Lord devastated Egypt, taking every firstborn son, even the firstling of the livestock… the hand of death did not pass over the house of Pharaoh but, for every house whose doorpost was marked with the blood of a slaughtered lamb, death passed over all who dwelt within. By the blood of a lamb, the children of Israel escaped Yahweh’s vengeance. This first Passover saw the release of God’s people, freed from the tyranny of Egypt. No longer slaves, they marched out of Egypt and even plundered their former taskmasters: “And the Lord gave the people favor in the sight of the Egyptians, so that they lent unto them such things as they required. And they spoiled the Egyptians” (Ex 12:36). God chose Moses a shepherd to redeem the children of Israel from the bondage of Egypt and to lead them into a land of promise and blessing.
Samuel the priest was sent by God to anoint a new King, one who would rule faithfully unlike Saul, a king chosen by the people, who greatly disappointed the Lord. God chose a ruddy and handsome shepherd named David to rule and protect his people who was a proven defender of Israel. With a single stone he brought down Goliath, the great Philistine champion. And with one swift blow took the giants head by his own sword. Time and time again, David and his mighty men defeated the enemies of God’s people. In fact, during his reign, this Shepherd King conquered nearly all of the neighboring nations. David would prove to be a shepherd who gathered God’s people into one flock, for God used him to end a seven-year long civil war between the people of Judah and the people of Israel. In the fifth chapter of the second book of Samuel we read how,
all the tribes of Israel came to David at Hebron and said, “Behold, we are your bone and flesh. In times past, when Saul was king over us, it was you who led out and brought in Israel. And the Lord said to you, 'You shall be shepherd of my people Israel, and you shall be prince over Israel.’ ” So all the elders of Israel came to the king at Hebron, and King David made a covenant with them at Hebron before the Lord, and they anointed David king over Israel (2 Sam 5:1-3).
David, a shepherd, was chosen of God, given to unify and reconstitute the children of Israel into one new man. Sadly, after David’s death, God’s people often found the wicked crozier of unfaithful shepherds around their necks: ruled by sinful kings and neglectful priests; proving to be the very antithesis of Moses and David. And, tt was God himself who finally indicted these unworthy shepherds, promising through the prophet Ezekiel to end their wicked ways,
Woe to the shepherds of Israel who have been feeding themselves! Should not shepherds feed the flock? You have not strengthened the weak, healed the sick, bandaged the injured, brought back the strays, or sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled over them. They were scattered because they had no shepherd… over the entire face of the earth with no one looking or searching for them (Ezk 34:2-6).
But God promised through the prophet Ezekiel to send a greater Shepherd, One who in future days would feed his sheep as David had, “the Lord said: I will appoint over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he will feed them. He will feed them and be their shepherd.” To Israel was promised One like the shepherd spoken of by Amos who would rescue his sheep from the mouth of the lion, who would not surrender a single calf to God’s enemies. The Old Testament prophets and Scriptures foretold of a Shepherd who would come and offer a more perfect sacrifice than Abel’s; who would redeem God’s people from a tyranny far surpassing that of Pharaoh; A great Shepherd who would heal and unify not only the people of Israel but reconcile Jew and Gentile to one another.
If today you were to venture into one of the earliest Christian catacombs, say from the first or second century, there upon the walls or perhaps on the sarcophagus itself would most likely be found three prominent images depicting Jesus. You would find an image called the Orans, depicting a man standing with hands uplifted to heaven, which for the earliest Christians brought to mind the mysterious man standing upon the river whom Daniel the prophet recorded encountering in the tenth chapter writing, “And I heard the man clothed in linen, (writes Daniel) which was upon the waters of the river, when he held up his right hand and his left hand unto heaven, and swore by him that liveth for ever that it shall be for a time, times, and an half…” Of course, the early Christians understood this man to be a kind of pre-incarnate Christ or Theophany: Jesus is the praying man of heaven.
Next you would find images portraying Jesus as the Philosopher. Hellenized Christians (both Jewish and Pagan converts) would in light of the resurrection, understand Jesus as very wisdom itself; the full embodiment of Wisdom incarnated in the God-man himself. Jesus is the true Philosopher. Finally, you would see an image of a Shepherd carrying a sheep across his shoulders. It is the image of Jesus the Good Shepherd, for the earliest Christians knew that the miracle of Easter morning proved Jesus’ claim to be true: “I am the good Shepherd.” They saw that Moses and David— every faithful Shepherd of Israel— every prophecy… was fulfilled in Jesus Christ.
Jesus said, “I am the good Shepherd” and by these very words identifies himself as the promised Shepherd of Ezekiel chapter thirty-four, he who truly cares for, protects, and seeks out his sheep; for God himself promised to Shepherd his people,
For thus saith the Lord GOD; Behold, I, even I, will both search my sheep, and seek them out [and] bring them to their own land, and feed them upon the mountains of Israel by the rivers… I will seek that which was lost, and bring again that which was driven away, and will bind up that which was broken, and will strengthen that which was sick (Ezk 34:11).
“I am the good shepherd: the good shepherd giveth his life for the sheep.” And here our Lord identifies himself as the suffering Servant as prophesied in the fifty-third chapter of the book of the prophet Isaiah; foretelling of the Shepherd who would give his life for his straying sheep,
Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned everyone to his own way; and the LORD hath laid on him the iniquity of us all. He was oppressed, and he was afflicted… brought as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers (Isa 53:4-7).
The Good Shepherd offered himself for the salvation of his people. This is the glorious news of the Gospel! Friends, Jesus died in our place; taking upon himself the full weight and punishment for our sins; he was the willing substitute, the scapegoat upon which the sins of the whole world were placed. Therefore St. Peter rejoices in writing, “Jesus… suffered for us… who his own self bare our sins in his own body on the tree, that we, being dead to sins, should live unto righteousness: by whose stripes we were healed.” The wholly innocent Shepherd of Israel endured for us every kind of suffering. He acted on behalf of and for the benefit of his sheep (for you and me). According to St. Paul Jesus was the substitute who made atonement for sin,
Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us: for it is written, Cursed is every one that hangeth on a tree: That the blessing of Abraham might come on the Gentiles through Jesus Christ; that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith (Gal 3:3-5).
Perhaps the idea of substitutionary atonement (God dying for the sins of his people) challenges modern sensibilities. But exegetical attempts to explain away the idea of substitution and the Old Testament system of sacrifice closely connected with it, is an exercise in futility. As in the Old Testament, the expressions, “to carry one’s sin,” or, “to bear one’s iniquity,” are equivalent to “suffer the punishment and guilt of one’s sin,” (Lev. 20:17, 19; 24:15; Ezek. 23:35), so “to carry another’s sin,” denotes “to suffer the punishment and guilt of another,” or “to suffer vicariously,” (Lev. 3:19, 17; Numb. 14:33; Lam. 5:7; Ezek. 18:19, 20). Can this be done in any other way than by the imputation of the guilt and sin of others, as was the case in the sin and guilt-offerings? No. Therefore, the Baptist in seeing our Lord on the banks of the Jordan rightly declares, “Behold, the Lamb of God, which takes away the sins of the world.”
Like Abel before him, Jesus made an acceptable sacrifice; the perfect sacrifice of his precious body and blood, and thereby by propitiated the wrath of God, bringing peace and reconciliation. But Jesus is a far greater Shepherd than Abel, for Jesus willing gave his life, it was not taken from him. “Therefore doth my Father love me, because I lay down my life, that I might take it again. No man taketh it from me, but I lay it down of myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again. This commandment have I received of my Father” (Jn 10:17-18). Beloved, he was not a victim at the hands of murderers, but offered himself for the life of the world.
Jesus is a greater Shepherd than Moses, for the Divine Shepherd redeemed the whole world, not merely from an earthly power, but from the bondage of sin and death. For by his death the Shepherd conquered death and by his resurrection has liberated all who trust in him by faith,
Christ being raised from the dead dieth no more; death hath no more dominion over him. For in that he died, he died unto sin once: but in that he liveth, he liveth unto God. Likewise reckon ye also yourselves to be dead indeed unto sin, but alive unto God through Jesus Christ our Lord (Rom 6:8-11).
The greater Abel is also the greater Moses, the Shepherd who broke the shackles of sin leading captivity captive into the promised blessing of the Father, he that “hath made us accepted in the beloved. In whom we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of his grace” (Eph 1:6-7). Jesus as both Shepherd and Lamb has by his perfect substitutionary sacrifice redeemed the children of God. Jesus is the greater David for by his obedient death and expiation of sin, he tore down the dividing wall, not just the divisions within Israel, but that which separated Jew from Gentile, For [Jesus the greater Shepherd] is our peace, who hath made both one, and hath broken down the middle wall of partition between us… to make in himself of twain one new man, so making peace; And that he might reconcile both unto God in one body by the cross…” (Eph 2:12-16). Jesus as both Shepherd and Lamb has by his perfect substitutionary sacrifice redeemed the children of God making one new man; the people of God without separation or division.
In today’s Epistle, St. Peter says we have been brought back to the great Shepherd. "But ye are now brought back to the shepherd and bishop of your souls." Now, there are two ways one can understand what he is getting at. If we take this passage in the passive voice, then he means to say that Christ, our great Shepherd has, by his great sacrifice of love, gone after and returned us unto himself. Remember the words of our Lord,
If a man have an hundred sheep, and one of them be gone astray, doth he not leave the ninety and nine, and goeth into the mountains, and seeketh that which is gone astray? And if so be that he find it, verily I say unto you, he rejoiceth more of that sheep, than of the ninety and nine which went not astray (Mt 18:12-13).
The Good shepherd is not like the “heirling whose own sheep are not, seeth a wolf coming, and leaveth the sheep, because the heirling careth not for the sheep.” The Good Shepherd seeks, finds, and returns the stray to safety. Now, if we read being “brought back” in the middle voice, then St. Peter is rejoicing in the sheep who having heard the voice of their Shepherd turn back to (or return) to their Shepherd. Of these Jesus said,
the sheep hear his voice: and he calleth his own sheep by name, and leadeth them out. And when he putteth forth his own sheep, he goeth before them, and the sheep follow him: for they know his voice… I am the good shepherd, and know my sheep, and am known of mine (Jn 10:3-4).
Let every wayward daughter and every wayward son hear and rejoice: "the Shepherd and Bishop of your soul" is calling you unto himself: come! Let the wayward sheep who have strayed onto rocky and perilous terrain return to the safety and protection of their Shepherd. If today, you recognize the Shepherds voice, come for the salvation of your soul. He longs to lead you into greener pastures. Eat, drink, and be filled with the assurance of his great love towards you. Feast on him and be strengthened in both body and soul. For he does not bar you from His table, but rather, says, return unto me, the Shepherd and Bishop of your soul; enter and rejoice in my presence! Amen.