Jesus - The Good Shepherd
Fr. Thomas Hopko · August 13, 2009
Jesus is the "Great Shepherd of the Sheep" (Hebrews 13:20) but at the same time the "Lamb that was slain" (Revelation 5:12). Fr. Tom Hopko explores these passages and more on this episode.
When we were talking about Jesus as the King and reflecting on kingship and the king in the Holy Scripture, we said that there’s a sense in which the King is synonymous with the Son of God; the King is synonymous with the Lord—Adonai, Kyrios—the King is synonymous with Christos, the Anointed One, the Son of David. But what we want to see today is that there’s a very particular synonymity. Synonymous with basileos, or king, is the Biblical term “shepherd”: poimen, o poimen, the shepherd. That in the Bible, the kings of Israel are called often the shepherds of Israel. Or they’re called shepherd-kings, that they govern the flock of God.
The same way that God alone is the king, according to Scripture, God alone is the Shepherd. That you have in the Psalter, for example, Psalm 80: “Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel, thou who leadest Joseph like a flock. Thou [who] art enthroned upon the Cherubim, shine forth. Stir up thy might and come to save us.”
So you have all these images there: shepherd, king enthroned, come and save, savior. So you have that imagery used. For example, in Psalm 79, it says, “Then we, thy people, the flock of thy pasture, will give thanks to thee forever, from generation to generation.” So the people identify themselves as the flock of God, and that God is the one who shepherds them. Perhaps the most well-known line in the Scripture about the shepherd is the Psalm 23: “The Lord is my shepherd.”
Now, here again, as we mentioned with the term “king,” very often it’s in verb form, not noun form. We mentioned when we were speaking about the king that sometimes it’s translated as “The Lord is king,” whereas in the original language, it doesn’t say, “The Lord is king,” but rather it says, “The Lord reigns; the Lord governs; the Lord rules,” and then it’s translated: “The Lord is king.”
The same thing is true in Psalm 23, certainly in Greek. It doesn’t say, “The Lord is my shepherd.” It says, “The Lord shepherds.” The Lord does the act of shepherding. “Therefore, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for his own name’s sake.” So that the Lord is shepherding. The Lord is doing the activity of shepherding.
Here you have exactly the same thing with “shepherd” as you had with “king.” God is the king, but then there are human beings who are appointed to be kings, and they’re supposed to reign and rule according to God who is the king. And very often, in fact, most often in the Scripture, they don’t do this. They sin. They do not bring the kingship and the lordship of God to the people. They are wicked kings.
The same thing is true about the shepherds. As a matter of fact, as we just said, when the Scriptures, the Old Testament particularly, speaks about the shepherds, they’re speaking about the kings. It’s the kings who are supposed to be shepherding the flock, but they do not shepherd the flock. They, in fact, are evil to the flock. They misuse the flock. They abuse the flock. They don’t care for the flock. They abandon the flock. They betray the flock. They are just false shepherds, just like they are false kings.
So you have, in the Scripture, [these] woes against these shepherds of Israel who destroy and scatter the sheep. [Probably] the most violent examples that you find in the Old Testament prophets are found in Jeremiah and Ezekiel. For example, Jeremiah 23:
“Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture,” says the Lord. “Therefore, thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, “concerning the shepherds who care for my people. You have scattered my flock, have driven them away. You have not attended to them. Behold, I will attend to you for your evil-doing, says the Lord. And I will gather the remnant of my flock out of the countries where I have driven them. I will bring them back to their fold, and they shall be fruitful and multiply. And I will set shepherds over them who will care for them, and they shall fear no more, nor be dismayed, neither shall any be missing, says the Lord.”
And, of course, that particular verse continues now to use the imagery of king.
“Behold the days are coming,” says the Lord, “when I will raise up for David a righteous branch, and he shall [reign] as king and deal wisely.”
So you have this “woe against the shepherds” who are just not doing their job. Just like the priests, just like the prophets. We saw already, speaking about the prophets and the priests that they were just betraying God. The kings are betraying God most of the time and so also are the shepherds.
In Ezekiel, you have exactly the same thing. You have the word of [the] Lord coming to Ezekiel and instructing Ezekiel to inveigh against the shepherds, the shepherd-kings. Let’s just listen to what the Lord says to Ezekiel (Ezekiel 34).
The word of the Lord came to me: Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel. Prophesy and say to them, even to the shepherds: Thus says the Lord God, Ho, shepherds of Israel, who have been feeding yourselves. Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings, but you do not feed the sheep. The weak you have not strengthened, the sick you have not healed, the crippled you have not bound up, the strayed you have not brought back, the lost you have not sought, and with force and harshness you have ruled them.
So they were scattered because there was no shepherd, and they became food for all the wild beasts. My sheep were scattered. They wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill. My sheep were scattered over all the face of the earth with none to search or seek for them. Therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord.
As I live, says the Lord God, because my sheep have become a prey and my sheep have become food for all the wild beasts, since there was no shepherd, and because my shepherds have not searched for my sheep but the shepherds have fed themselves and have not fed my sheep, therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord.
Thus says the Lord God: Behold, I am against the shepherds and I will require my sheep at their hand and put a stop to their feeding the sheep. No longer shall the shepherds feed themselves. I will rescue my sheep from their mouths that they may not be food for them.
And now listen to this: God is going to say that he not only is against the shepherds, but that he himself is going to rescue the sheep from the shepherds. He’s going to care for the sheep against the shepherds. This is what it says in Ezekiel:
For thus says the Lord God: Behold I (I myself, the Lord God, Adonai Eloheinu, the Lord God, the Kyrios, the Lord himself), I myself, will search for my sheep. And I will seek them out as a shepherd seeks out his flock when some of his sheep have been scattered abroad. So I will seek out my sheep and I will rescue them from all places where they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries. I will bring them into their own land. I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the fountains and in all the inhabited places of the country.
I will feed them with good pasture, and upon the mountain heights of Israel shall be there pasture. There they shall lie down in good grazing land, and on fat pasture they shall feed on the mountains of Israel. I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord God. I will seek the lost, I will bring back the strayed, I will bind up the crippled, and I will strengthen the weak. And the fat and the strong I will watch over. I will feed them in justice.
As for you, my flock, thus says the Lord God: Behold, I judge between sheep and sheep, rams and he-goats. Is it not enough for you to feed on the good pasture, that you must tread down with your feet the rest of your pasture, and drink of clear water, that you must foul the rest of your feet? And must my sheep eat what you have trodden with your feet, and drink what you have fouled with your feet? Therefore, thus says the Lord God to them: Behold, I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep, because you push with your side and shoulder and thrust out at all the weak with your horns until you have scattered them abroad. I will save my flock. They shall no longer be a prey, and I will judge between sheep and sheep, and I will set over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them. He shall feed them and be their shepherd, and I, the Lord, will be their God, and my shepherd David will be prince among them. I, the Lord, have spoken.
And then that particular chapter ends with these words:
And they shall know that I, the Lord their God, am with them, and that they, the house of Israel, are my people, says the Lord God. And you are my sheep, the sheep of my pasture, and I am your God, says the Lord God.
Now, Christians believe that all this is fulfilled in Jesus. In the Gospel of St. John, it says it explicitly. We should remember one more thing before we take a look at St. John’s Gospel on this point, and that is that the term “shepherd,” which is synonymous with “king,” can also be translated into English as “pastor.” It’s the very same word: “o poimen” translated “shepherd,” or “Ego eimi o poimen o kalos—I am the good shepherd” which we will have in John could just as easily be translated “I am the good pastor.” And that is why the presbyters in the Church, what we call, generally speaking today, the priests, the bishops and the priests, are called “pastors”: pastors of the flock, pastors of the sheep. Let’s remember that “shepherd” and “pastor” are exactly the same word. They’re not two different words. They’re exactly the same word.
What we want to do now is to go, line by line, through the tenth chapter of the Gospel according to St. John. Hopefully, this is familiar to all the listeners of Ancient Faith Radio, but it’s important, when we’re thinking about the Shepherd, and reflecting on the image of shepherd as the synonym of the King, [to remember David’s] being the shepherd-king. It’s not for nothing that David was a shepherd-boy. That’s part of the symbolism of the Bible, that he was taken from feeding the flock of sheep and then was placed over [the people], taking care of God’s flock, who were the people of Judah.
Then, of course, you have in the Bible, whatever the actual history was, it’s certainly the actual teaching that you have Israel and Judah as one people, and the city of Jerusalem as the center. So David, who comes from Ephratha, from Bethlehem—and by the way, when we spoke about David and the kingship, we neglected to mention that you have the prophecy of Micah: “And you, Bethlehem, smallest of the people, in the land of Ephratha, from you shall come the hegoumenos—the igumen, the leader, the governor—of my people Israel.” It’s Micah, very important, quoted in Matthew’s Gospel.
But it’s not for nothing that David is the shepherd-boy and then becomes the shepherd of all of God’s people. He comes from Bethlehem and then he builds the city of David which is Jerusalem, the city of peace. Then Jerusalem becomes this great symbolical place for the Christian faith. Then, of course, the claim is that Jesus brings us to the New Jerusalem, the heavenly Jerusalem, not a Jerusalem on the map. So the real king is the [one of the] kingdom of God, who enters and [is] enthroned in the heavens and not on some throne in an earthly city, on the planet earth, some geographical location. That is just basic to Christianity.
Let’s take a really close look at the teaching in St. John’s Gospel about Jesus as the Shepherd. The tenth chapter of St. John’s Gospel begins with these words:
Truly, truly, I say to you: He who does not enter the sheepfold by the door, but climbs in by another way, that man is a thief and a robber. But he who enters by the door is the shepherd of the sheep.
Now, let’s just remember again that that particular expression—“Truly, truly, I say to you,” or in King James, “Verily, verily, I say to you,” or in Greek and other languages like Slavonic, “Amen, amen, I say to you”—that’s a peculiarity of the teaching of Jesus in the New Testament. He says “Amen” first. He says it twice, to emphasize that this is not negotiable, and he’s not interested in your “Amen.” He doesn’t care whether you say “Amen” to what he’s saying. In other words, whether you agree or don’t agree is beside the point. I’m saying to you: “Amen, amen, I say to you”—”Amin, amin, lego ymin.” That’s it. That’s a categorical statement.
So you have a categorical statement here. “Amen, amen—truly, truly—I say to you.” But he begins by the imagery of the door, and claims that the shepherd of the sheep enters by the door. And then, to him the gatekeeper opens, the one who guards the door opens to the shepherd, to let the shepherd in, because the gatekeeper opens, to him the gatekeeper opens. And then the sheep hear his voice. And he calls his own sheep by name and he leads them out.
So the claim is this: You have this gate, the door. The door is the door of the pen where the sheep are kept. Then Jesus says thieves and robbers jump over the fence or climb around it or dig under it or whatever. They don’t enter by the door. Only the shepherd enters by the door. And the gatekeeper opens to the shepherd. “Then when the shepherd comes,” it says, “the sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and he leads them out.” Then it says, “And when he has brought out all of his own, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice.”
So what we want to remark about here is very simple. There’s this incredible, intimate relationship between the shepherd and his sheep. The shepherd knows the sheep, and the sheep know the shepherd. The sheep know the shepherd’s voice, and they follow him. And they won’t follow the voice of a stranger. They won’t follow the voice of somebody they don’t know. The sheep have to know the voice, and they know that voice, and [they] follow [him].
Then it says, “The shepherd knows the sheep by name. The sheep [hear] his voice. He calls his own sheep by name, and he leads them out.” Now this knowing by name is very important, because in the Bible, the name of a reality is what it is, and everything has its name. When you know the name of something, you know its reality. When you know the name of something, you have a kind of a control over it.
That is why, in the Scripture, when Moses asks God his name, God won’t tell him! You know: “You’re not going to have control over me! I am who I am. I will cause to be what I will cause to be. My name is Yahweh”—this famous word, the [Tetragrammaton]. In other words, God is the Name above every name. Then God makes the Name above every name to be Jesus. Jesus of Nazareth, the Savior, the Christ, the King, the Shepherd. This Jesus gets the Name above every name and that’s the Name, and there is no other Name according to Scripture. But naming here is very important. That’s why we say in the Lord’s Prayer: “Hallowed be thy name,” because the name signifies the very reality of the thing.
When you know something’s name, like Adam had to name the animals, it means you know it, you really know it. You know it personally. And the name is very important. That’s why the Ten Commandments even [say]: “You shall not take the name of the Lord, your God, in vain.” The Lord’s Prayer says, “Sanctified be your name.” You do not take the Name lightly, in vain. You don’t defile the Name. You don’t blaspheme the Name. You are kept in the Name. You pray in the Name. The Name is very important here, very, very important.
When he says that he knows the sheep by name, it means he knows who they are. He knows what they are. He knows each one, very important, in his uniqueness. In his or her uniqueness. There is a uniqueness to each reality. No two lambs are the same. No two sheep are the same. It looks like a whole flock, and it is a flock, but it’s a flock of individual sheep, each with its own name.
Most likely, the sheep of a flock were not named. They weren’t given names. Only pets were given names, especially if you’re going to slaughter the sheep and eat them, and the sheep are going to give their [lives] for you so you could live, you didn’t name them. But this is not what that means. Knowing by name means he really knows them. They know his voice, and he knows their name.
Then you have another imagery being used here, another image being used here, which is very, very important. It says, “He brought out all of his own.” They are his. They belong to him. So if there’s a pastor, a shepherd, and there are sheep, the sheep belong to the shepherd. They’re his sheep. We’ll see later how Jesus will speak about hirelings who run away because they don’t own the sheep.
One of the things here, very important for Christians, for sure, is that if Jesus Christ is our pastor, if he is our shepherd, then we belong to him. We’re his. He owns us. We do not belong to [ourselves]. There are modern atheistic books now, like Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, and they make a lot of fun out of the fact, they ridicule the fact, they say, “What kind of a religion is it, Christianity, where the people are called ‘flock,’ where they’re called ‘sheep,’ where they just sort of follow another?” They consider that demeaning, degrading, but we don’t.
We think that’s a very apt imagery, that we would identify [ourselves] as sheep, because it means we have a Shepherd. It means we are not our own ruler. We are not our own king. We are subjects. Yes, it’s true. We are. If we’re creatures, we have a Creator. If we’re creatures, we have [a Lord]. We’re subjects. We are servants. And we identify [ourselves] that way, and we’re proud of it, so to speak. We boast of it. We’re not ashamed of it. We’re not ashamed to be called servants. We’re not ashamed to be called slaves. We’re not ashamed to be called subjects. We’re not ashamed to be called sheep. We’re not ashamed to be called a flock, or [lambs]. In fact, what we’re saying is that we belong to another. We belong to God. We belong to a Lord.
Then, of course, the most amazing thing, as we’ll see very soon, even on these radio meditations, we will see that the Shepherd himself becomes a Lamb. And then the Book of Revelation will say the Shepherd becomes the Lamb and then the Lamb becomes the Shepherd and that the Shepherd himself, not only takes upon himself the flock and goes searching for them, but he dies for them. We’ll see that right now, just in a second. We’re not there yet.
But what we want to see now is that, yes, we’re ready to say, “We have a Shepherd whose voice we know. And we have a Shepherd who knows our names.” Putting it personally: I have a Shepherd who knows my name. He knows Tom Hopko. He knows me. He knows you. He knows you by name. He knows me by name. We’re all members of his flock, but he doesn’t just lump us all together. He knows each one of us, and we, each one of us, have to know him. We have to know his voice. We have to hear his voice.
Jesus will even say in St. John’s Gospel that the reason why some people do not recognize who Jesus is, do not recognize his voice, is because they don’t belong to him. They’re not his own. They belong to the devil. They belong to themselves. They are themselves their own rulers. So if we’re not ready to have God as our Lord and Ruler and our Shepherd, we’ll never know his voice. We won’t follow him. We’ll just reject him. We’ll ridicule him. We’ll make fun of him. We’ll crucify him by our behavior.
Jesus says the reason why you don’t know me, he even says to the people, [is] because you’re not of God. If you’re of God and you recognize yourself as a creature and a child of God, you do know who I am, and you’d hear my voice and you’d obey me, and you’d find obedience to me the most marvelous thing, and you’d be the happiest person on earth, to be a lamb, a sheep, that is part of my flock. Then, of course, if you are a sheep, together with me, then you’ve got to be with me as the Lamb of God. We’ll get to that, too, but not right now.
Here it says: “They know his voice.” And it says, “A stranger they will not follow, but they will flee from him, for they do not know the voice of strangers.” This figure or this image Jesus used with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them. So this is a parable. It’s the parable of the shepherd, the sheep, the sheepfold, the door, all this is parabolic imagery, and those who are not of God do not understand it. Those who are of God, and want to be of God, and say, “Choose me, Lord. Be with me, Lord. Let me be yours,” they understand immediately what he’s talking about.
There’s another point here that has to be made. Notice that in this tenth chapter of St. John’s Gospel—and I would suggest: get your Bible out and read it carefully. Read it slowly. Think about it. You know, a whole world will open before you—but one of the points that we’ve got to comment on now is this, another of the points: and that is that it says that the sheep follow the shepherd. They know his voice and they follow him.
That’s a very peculiar thing, and it’s worth a comment, because the claim here is that where Jesus was speaking, you might say the Middle East or Judah, Israel, Palestine, whatever, the claim is that the shepherd has such an intimate relationship with his flock and they know his voice that they follow after him. They willfully, voluntarily follow after him. They are not constrained or compelled to follow after him. That’s very important because it means if we are indeed going to identify ourselves as sheep with Jesus as our shepherd, then we must follow him voluntarily. We hear his voice and follow voluntarily. Only the stubborn sheep, or the bad sheep, run away. Then, of course, the claim [is], as we’ll see in a second, that the shepherd goes after them. He goes after even the one that goes astray. He lifts him up, puts him on his shoulders, brings him back. But the obedient sheep voluntarily follow. They do not follow out of constraint. They follow freely.
Someone once said, I heard this once in a talk, how a person was making this point, and they said, “If you go to the Middle East, very often you’ll see a shepherd sitting on an animal, a donkey, and the shepherd will be riding, and he’ll have his little bell, and he’ll have his voice, and the sheep, docilely, will be following, obediently and orderly after the shepherd. So then the speaker was making the point: You see, the shepherd may have a crook, a staff, where he can pull back one of the sheep who’s straying, but he doesn’t beat the sheep. He doesn’t use that staff to hurt them. He uses it to protect them, and to protect them even against wolves and so on, as we’ll see in a second, where the imagery continues. But there is no compulsion. There’s no beating. He doesn’t push them into the pen. They follow him freely.
Well, when this man who’s giving this talk was making this point, a person in the audience raised a hand and said, “Hey, wait a minute! I was once in that part of the world and I saw a man forcing, compelling the sheep, the flock, into the pen, pushing them in, beating them in, whacking them across the rear end, making them to go in. What you’re saying isn’t true!”
And then the speaker said, “Wait a minute. What you saw wasn’t a shepherd. It was the butcher.” I’ll never forget that. The butcher beats the sheep into the pen and then butchers them. The shepherd doesn’t butcher them. He doesn’t beat them. He calls them by name, and they follow him freely. They follow him voluntarily. They are happy to be members of his flock and to follow him.
The people didn’t understand all of this, so it says, when we get down to John 10:7, “Jesus again said to them, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you.’ ” Again you have this expression: “Amen, amen.” Not negotiable. I’m telling you this. And then he doesn’t say, “I am the good shepherd.” He’s going to say that in a minute. He doesn’t say it yet. What he says now is this: “I am the door of the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not heed them.” And remember, in the Old Covenant, how these shepherds were bad. They were thieves. They were robbers. They were not taking care of the flock, so they sheep didn’t follow them. They didn’t want them.
Very often the poor sheep are the victims of the shepherds, and the shepherds act like thieves and robbers. That’s true until this day. In the New Testament Scriptures it’s going to say that you have to become shepherds of the flock like Jesus is, not by domineering, not by beating, not by compelling, not by gimmicking, not by tricking, not by abusing and misusing, not by exercising violence or force. It’s got to be done freely, voluntarily. It’s got to be done lov-ing-ly. It’s got to be done gently. This is the teaching about how shepherds are to behave. Thieves and robbers don’t behave that way. Even hirelings, Jesus is going to say, those who are just hired, they’re not really owning the flock: they don’t behave that way.
Jesus says here, “I am the door of the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not heed them.” Then he says, “Ego eimi e thyra ton provaton—I am the door of the sheep.” And this is one of the “I am” statements of Jesus: “I am the door.” I am the door. I am the gate. And then he continues: “If anyone enters by me, he will be saved and will go in and out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and to kill and to destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.”
So Jesus says, “I am the door.” And he says, “Thieves come to steal, kill, and destroy, but I come that you may have life, and have life in abundance, abundant life.” And, by the way, in the Orthodox Church, this is what’s read on the festivals of the great pastors of the Church, the Church Fathers, the great bishops: St. Nicholas, St. Gregory, St. John Chrysostom, St. Basil. This is what we read in church about them. They are not thieves. They are not robbers. They are shepherds, and they don’t come to steal and kill and destroy. They come that we may have life, and have it abundantly.
But then St. John’s Gospel continues. Jesus not only says, “I am the door of the sheepfold. I am the door of the sheep,” he says, “I am (also “I am”) the good shepherd.” You see? “Ego eimi o poimen o kalos—I am the good pastor. I am the good shepherd.” And we all know that. I mean, if anybody knows anything about Christianity, they have images of Jesus as a shepherd. They see him with sheep around him. They see him with a sheep on his shoulders. That’s a very common image. Let’s hope that we never lose that image.
Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd.” Then he continues: “The good shepherd…” You see, the poimen o kalos—and “kalos” is a wonderful word. It means “beautiful, good.” Beautifully good, not simply morally or ethically good. It’s not agathos like a good thing. It’s kalos. It’s a wonderful word. It means “beautifully good”—“I am the good, beautifully good, shepherd.” Then it says the poimen kalos, the good shepherd, lays down his life for the sheep.
There you’ve got it. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. He’s ready to die for the sheep. We already thought about that when we spoke about the king. If you’re the king, you’ve got to die for your subjects. If you’re the shepherd, you’ve got to die for your flock. And Jesus does. In fact, as the bridegroom, you’ve got to die for the bride. You’ve got to be ready to die for your wife. All the images for Jesus are [of] the one who’s ready to die, who’s ready to die, who comes in order to die. The bridegroom comes in order to die for his bride. The good shepherd comes in order to die for his sheep. The king comes in order to die for his subjects. This is the Gospel. This is the New Testament teaching.
So he says the good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. He comes to give himself for them, and that’s just such a magnificent image. The good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep. Then Jesus continues: “He who is a hireling, and not a shepherd”—someone that they just hire—“whose own the sheep are not”—in other words, he doesn’t own them; they’re not his—“when that hireling sees the wolf coming”—he leaves the sheep and he runs away!—“he leaves the sheep and he flees, and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. He flees because he is a hireling, and he cares nothing for the sheep.”
So it shows that in the Old Covenant, these kings and these shepherds, they cared nothing for the sheep. They were not real shepherds. They were not real kings. And, sad to say, that’s also accusation made against the pastors of churches today. St. John Chrysostom, for example, who laid down his life for his sheep and was exiled—all the great bishops of the Church laid down their lives for their sheep; sometimes they were even literally martyred for the sake of their sheep—but St. John Chrysostom, he says, “What kind of pastors do we have, who are not only thieves and robbers and lechers and God-knows-what, betraying their sheep day and night, but they sell the sheep. They abuse the sheep. They flee from the sheep. They don’t protect the sheep. They care nothing for the sheep, because they’re not real shepherds.
So anyone who’s a pastor of a church—if any pastor’s listening, ask yourself the question: “Am I real shepherd? Am I real pastor? Am I ready to lay down my life for my sheep? Am I real igumenos, abbot, the governor? That’s the expression used in Micah. Am I ready as an abbot to lay down my life?” Like a father. “Abbot” means “father, abba.” Are we ready to die for our children, for our sons? If we’re not ready to die for our kids, for our children, we’re not [real parents]. We’re not a real father. So: Are we a real pastor? Are we a real shepherd?
Jesus says, “The person who is not a real shepherd, when he sees danger, when he sees a wolf, he just runs away. He protects himself. He flees, because he is a hireling and cares nothing for the sheep.” But then it continues: a second time, exactly the same expression. “Ego eimi o poimen o kalos—I am the good Shepherd.” Twice he says it. He says it in the eleventh verse; he says it in the fourteenth verse: “I am the good Shepherd.” The good Shepherd: again, you have the definite article. It’s not simply “I am a good shepherd,” “I am the good Shepherd.” Just like Jesus is not a king; he is the King. He is not a son of God; he is the Son of God. He is not a teacher; he is the Teacher. He is not a prophet; he’s the Prophet. He’s not a high priest, or priest; he is the Priest, and here he is the good Shepherd: “o poimen o kalos”: definite articles.
He says again: “I am the good Shepherd. I know my own and my own know me.” There you have it again: intimate relation. He knows the sheep; the sheep know him. And that’s how it has to be. By the way, for pastors, we’ve got to know our parishioners. We’ve got to know the members of our church. We have to know who’s in our flock. We have to know them by name. We should be able to name everyone. It says, by the way, in the life of St. Polycarp of Smyrna—one of the first Christian bishop-martyrs, very early, probably a direct disciple of St. John the Theologian, in Smyrna, Asia Minor—it says when St. Polycarp of Smyrna was going to be put to death for being a Christian and a Christian bishop, a Christian pastor, he asked for one last wish, and they granted it to him. His last wish was that he could pray for his flock. Then it says that he went and prayed for every one of the members of his church by name. He named each one of them. He knew their names.
We have to know people’s names. Even when we pray in the Orthodox Church, for the people departed, we don’t just say, “All the departed, have mercy on them, O God.” We say their names: “John, John, Anna, Mary, George, Mike, Demetrios, Paphnutios,” whatever their names are. We say their names. It’s a sign of respect. It’s a sign of intimacy. It’s a sign of love, to know the name.
So he says, “I know mine, and my own know me. As the Father knows me, and I know the Father.” So he claims that the same way he knows God, the Father, so he knows each one of his sheep, each member of his flock, by name. That’s mind-blowing. That’s totally amazing! Think about it, just think about it. Jesus says, “As I know my Father, God, and my Father, God, knows me, so I know each one of my sheep, and each one of my sheep knows me.” That’s just amazing.
Then he says, “And”—and here we go again—”I lay down my life for the sheep.” I give my life for the sheep. Then comes another, very important sentence: “And I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will heed my voice so there shall be one flock and one shepherd.” One flock, one shepherd. The usual interpretation of that is the Gentiles, not just the people of Judah and Israel, but all the people of the earth, everyone who knows God’s voice and wants to belong to God will belong to Jesus, and Jesus will save them. And he gives his life for them.
He said, “I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will heed my voice, so there shall be one flock and one shepherd.” When the Apostle Paul was defending that the Gospel was for all the nations, he quoted Hosea and other prophets, Jeremiah, by saying, “I will be found by those who did not seek me. I will be saved by those who did not look for me.” And, of course, the main teaching of Christianity is that Jesus is the Shepherd of every human being, not just of Judah or Jews, but of Gentiles, of everyone who lived, whoever they are. He is, at least in principle… Well, to put it another way: he is as far as he is concerned, the Shepherd of everybody. The question remains whether we want to be members of his flock, or whether we’re going to make fun of the imagery of being the sheep in the flock of Christ.
Then he continues: “So there shall be one flock and one shepherd. For this reason, the Father loves me, because I lay down my life that I may take it [up] again.” He says the reason that God his Father loves him is because he’s willing to lay down his life for the sheep. But then he makes a very important theological point, very important. He said, “That I may take it up again.”
And then he continues: “No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. This charge I have received from my Father.” Isn’t that amazing? Because what Jesus is saying is, “I’m laying down my life voluntarily. Nobody is forcing me to do this.” And he says, “You even know what? I could raise myself up again if I want to, too. I have power to lay down my life. I have power to take it up. For example, in the Gospels where the people chiding Jesus at the Cross, those men say to him, “Does not this man have the ... who opened the eyes of the blind, can he not come down from the Cross?” Of course he can!
Even in the Garden of Gethsemane in the synoptic Gospels, when the people come to arrest Jesus in the garden, and it’s in St. John as well. He says, “Listen, I could call legions of the angels and wipe you all out if I want to. Put that sword back. I am voluntarily laying down my life for my sheep so that my sheep, voluntarily and not by constraint and not by compulsion, but out of sheer love, will love me in return. I will show my love for them by dying for them, and they will show their love for me by voluntarily and freely loving me.”
And Jesus said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” In other words, “You will obey me, because that will be the act of love. Because I am the Shepherd; you’re the sheep. I’m the King; you’re the subjects. I’m the Bridegroom; you’re the bride.” We can go through all of this: “I am the Vine; you’re the branch.” We’ll talk about all of this as we continue. But he says, “No one takes my life from me. I lay down my life of my own accord. I have power to lay it down. I have power to take it up again. This charge, this command I have received from my Father,” that this is what he has come to do as the good Shepherd, to lay down his life for the sheep.
And then it says, as we continue reading in this chapter, that there was a great division among the Jews because of these words. Many of them said, “This man has a demon.” He’s crazy. He’s mad. He’s insane. Why listen to him? Others said, “These are not the sayings of one who has a demon. Can a demon open the eyes of the blind?”
Then, further on, it says, “There was the feast of the dedication at Jerusalem.” It was winter. Jesus was walking in the Temple, in the Portico of Solomon. So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Christ, tell us plainly.”
Jesus answered them, “I told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name, they bear witness to me, but you do not believe because you do not belong to my sheep.” There you have it. He says, “If you really were of my sheep, you would believe me; you would see this. How can you say that I’m a demon? How can you say that I’m crazy? You say it because you don’t care about me. That’s the whole point. If you did, you would know.” He said, “The works bear witness to me, but you do not believe because you do not belong to my sheep.”
And then the imagery of the sheep continues again. He takes it up again, and this is what he says: “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them and they follow me.” That’s how it all began.
My sheep hear my voice, and I know them and they follow me. And I give them everlasting life, eternal life. And they shall never perish, and no one shall snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all. No one is able to snatch them out of my Father’s hand. I and the Father are one.
So he says that he and God are one, and no one will ever be able to snatch his sheep from his hand. Also, in speaking about the imagery of the shepherd, we know that Jesus also says in the Gospel that the good shepherd goes after the sheep that are straying, and that the angels in heaven rejoice more over one who is lost and brought back—that image is used many times in the Gospel: “Like a woman who loses a coin and rejoices [when it is found].” She has other coins, but she rejoices over the one [which] is found.
So he says the good shepherd goes after the sheep who is lost. He finds them. He puts them on his shoulders. He brings them back to the flock, and then they rejoice greatly that the lamb who was straying is brought back. So this is what we read in the Holy Scripture.
We just want to point out that after the four Gospels, the imagery of the shepherd and the sheep remains. The letter to the Hebrews, for example, in the very end, the very last chapter of the letter to the Hebrews, this is what we find written:
Now may the God of peace, who brought again from the dead, our Lord Jesus Christ
And then he’s called:
the great Shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant, equip you with everything good, that you may do his will, working in you that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen.
So here, the letter to the Hebrews calls Jesus the “great Shepherd of the sheep.” It’s “o poimen o megas”: not only “the good Shepherd,” but “the great Shepherd, the chief Shepherd.” And then even the expressions “chief Shepherd” is used: the archepoimen, the chief Shepherd of ton provaton, of the sheep. You have that expression also being used: the chief Shepherd.
You find it in the letters attributed to St. Peter. For example, in the [first] letter of Peter in the very last verses of the second chapter, you have this said about Jesus. I’ll read a lot of it. I’ll read up high so you can get the whole picture. It says:
For this you have been called because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example that you should follow his steps. He committed no sin; no guile was found on his lips. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return. When he suffered, he did not threaten, but he trusted to him who judges justly. (That’s God the Father.) He himself bore his sins in his body on the Tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed.
That’s a quote of Isaiah. Then it says:
For you were straying like sheep, but you have now returned to the Shepherd (pastor, poimen) and guardian (it says in the RSV; in Greek it says episcopos, bishop) of your souls.
So Jesus is called here the pastor and the bishop. If we translated it ourselves, we might want to even translate it that way: “You now return to the pastor and the bishop of your lives, of your souls.”
Now in that same first letter of Peter, in the fifth chapter you find this expression. The author is writing to the presbyters, the elders, and that presbyteroi, that’s the term we use for our priests in the Orthodox Church. We have episcopoi, bishops; presbyteroi, presbyters, we call them “priests” in English; and diakonoi, the deacons, both men and women deacons. So here you have presbyteroi:
I exhort the elders among you as a fellow presbyter and a witness martys, of the sufferings of Christ as well as a partaker in the glory that is to be revealed.
Then this is what Peter says: “Tend the flock of God.” It’s God’s flock; it’s not yours. “Tend the flock of God that is in your charge.” In other words, that you have to take care of, that’s under your authority. It’s God’s flock, but it’s in your charge. And earlier, when it says that he’s not only the pastor but he’s the episcopos, we should remember that “episcopos” was the name of a chief slave in a household. An episcopos was the one who governed all the master’s goods and the master’s people and the master’s property, the master’s possessions, but he wasn’t the master himself. He was in charge, but he was in charge of that which belonged to another.
So here it says, “Tend the flock of God”—it’s God’s flock—“that is in your charge.” Now here you have also this same teaching: “Not by constraint, but willingly.” In other words, no compulsion, no beating, no manipulation, no threatening, nothing harmful. “Not by constraint, but willingly” or “voluntarily.” Then it says: “Not for shameful gain, but eagerly. Not as domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock.” So the presbyter, as pastor, is to be an example to the flock. And then it says, “And when the chief Shepherd”—in Greek it’s archepoimen, the chief Shepherd; the same way that Jesus is called “archeiereus,” high Priest, well now it’s “archepoimen,” high Shepherd, high Pastor—so “When the high Pastor (or the chief Pastor) is manifested, you will attain an unfading crown of glory.” Then it even says, it continues:
Likewise, you that are younger should be subject to the presbyters. Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for God opposes the proud, gives grace to the humble. Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God, that in due time he may exalt you.
But here we’ve got it. The earthly pastors in the Church, the presbyters, the bishops, the episcopoi and presbyteroi, are to tend the flock of God in their charge—but it’s God’s flock, not theirs—not by constraint, but willingly. Not for shameful gain, but eagerly. Not as domineering over those in their charge, but by being examples to the flock. And when the chief Shepherd, the archepoimen, is manifested, the high Shepherd, the high Pastor, they, these shepherds, will obtain the unfading crown of glory. So this is what the teaching is.
There’s one more verse that we really have to recall when we think about these things, and it’s found in the Apocalypse. In the Apocalypse as we’re going to see very soon, in our next meditation, probably, Jesus is not only called “the good Shepherd,” he’s called “the Lamb.” He’s called “the Lamb of God who is slain,” “the Lamb of God who is killed.” So he’s not only the Shepherd, but he’s the Lamb. And we’ll see that in the Book of Revelation—and I will bring before your attention every single verse in the Book of Revelation where Jesus is called the Arnion, the Lamb of God.
But there’s one line that we must think about just now, just mention at least right now. And that’s in the seventh chapter of the Book of Revelation, where it says that the Lamb of God is on the throne, together “with him who sits upon the throne,” which is God. So there is the throne of God and the throne of the Lamb, and they are on the same throne. And then it says that all the people were singing out to him who sits upon the throne and to the Lamb. They were clothed in white robes. They had palm branches in their hands.
They were crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation”—or “Victory” or “Conquering”: “Soteria” which in Hebrew means also “conquering” or “triumph” or “victory, salvation”—“belongs to our God who sits upon the throne and to the Lamb, and blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power to our God and to him who sits upon the throne, the Lamb.” Then it says these people who came, who have these white garments, their garments are white because they were washed in the Blood of the Lamb. And then it says—this is the verse we’re searching for now:
For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their Poimen (their Shepherd), and he will guide them to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.
So it’s amazing that in the book of Revelation it says, “The Lamb will be their Shepherd.” The Arnion will be their Poimen. It’s beautiful, isn’t it? That the great Shepherd of the sheep, the chief Shepherd, the good Shepherd, becomes the Lamb, and the Lamb in the midst of the throne with God will be their Shepherd. So the Lamb becomes our Shepherd, and our Shepherd becomes the Lamb of God.
And so we will, at another time, meditate on Jesus, not simply as the good Shepherd, but as the Lamb of God, the Sheep who takes away the sins of the world. But for today, what we must always remember is that the Lord Jesus Christ, the King, the Anointed One, is also the Shepherd, the great Shepherd, the chief Shepherd, the good Shepherd, and that he gives his life for the sheep. He knows the sheep; the sheep know him. They follow him voluntarily. He loves them. He knows their names. He does not flee when evil comes. He protects them. He dies for them, and he gives his life for them. Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God, the Lord, the Christ, the King, the Teacher, the Prophet, the High Priest, is also the Good Shepherd.