A bit of anxiety is a good thing. If you are applying for a job, sitting for an exam, or giving a speech, anxiety is good. But constant anxiety is just awful.
Part of the reason many of us are anxious is that we spend too much time being stimulated by computer screens, and too little time in prayer meditating on God and his word. And when anxiety rises within us, we don’t go straight to prayer.
Picture me and Grant Borg both awake at four in the morning. Grant chooses to wake up at 4am to pray, and God wakes me up at 4am hoping that my anxiety will turn into prayer. The scripture is clear: “Do not be anxious about anything but in everything by prayer and petition with thanksgiving make your request known to God” (Phil 4:6).
So the opposite of being anxious is not overeating, binging on Netflix, working harder, or watching porn, but the opposite of being anxious is prayer to God, for he is our Father who cares for us. He is the king of kings who rules over everything. He is the good shepherd who knows us by name. And if he is the good shepherd, then we are his sheep. We are dumb sheep, easily distracted, needing to be fed and protected. As one person observed, sheep are the great argument against evolution, followed closely by the chicken. They are examples of the survival of the stupid. And I am a stupid sheep when my anxiety does not take me to prayer.
To understand this passage, we need to know the difference between a shepherd and a sheep dog. I might be the son of a goat herder from Malta, but when I think of sheep, I think about a four thousand acre property in outback Australia with the owner on a 250 Honda bike, with two or three sheep dogs in tow, and who rouses on the sheep from behind. He probably can’t tell one sheep from the other. And as they load thousands of them into ships bound for the middle east, if a few sheep die along the way, it is sad but that’s life. But in the middle east in the first century, each household would have ten sheep in their family pens. The shepherd knew his sheep by name. He fed them. He protected them. He was their everything. That is why David said in Psalm 23:1, “The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing”, or Isaiah 40:11 says, “He tends his flock like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those that have young”. He is strong enough to protect, tender enough to care, and reliable enough to be trusted.
But then in John chapter 10, Jesus takes the title of ‘shepherd’ to himself. Twice he says, “I am the good shepherd” (vv. 11, 14). The title for God and his Messiah in the Old Testament—the shepherd of Israel—is now the title for Jesus. Jesus is making himself equal to God. That is why they wanted to kill him in John 10:33: “We are not stoning you for any good work,” they replied, “but for blasphemy, because you, a mere man, claim to be God.” (NIV) Jesus is the ‘God-like’ good shepherd.
Jesus sets himself against the counterfeits of his time. The good shepherd distinguishes himself from thieves and hired hands (vv. 1, 8). There are thieves and robbers who jump the wall into the pen to steal and kill the sheep. Jesus comes in the right way through the gate, and his miracles prove that he comes in the right way. He just made a man born blind see (John 9).
The thief doesn’t come to do good. In one week, my brother-in-law in Blaxland was broken into three times. Thieves don’t come to drop off your laptop: they comes to take it. They do not come to give you a hug but to do harm, John 10:10: “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full’ (NIV). I think Jesus has the Pharisees and Jewish priests in mind. They destroy the souls of God’s people, and nothing has changed.
If you saw the show, “Christians like us” on SBS, you heard the story of a man whose Anglo-Catholic priest raped him again and again for years, and then he raped his younger brother. When he finally told his mother, she went to the bishop who did nothing, and when the mum died, guess who the bishop has to do the funeral? The bishop who holds the shepherd’s staff had the abusive priest, who raped the mother’s two sons, take the funeral. That priest was supposed to be shepherd and a pastor, but instead he came to destroy the body and soul of that poor man. Evil, Evil, Evil.
The good shepherd is also contrasted with the hired hands. These hired workers were paid to mind the sheep, John 10:12-13: “The hired hand is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep. So, when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away. Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it. The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep.”
They were guns for hire. The wolf attacks and the flock scatters. The hired man runs away because the bottom line is that he just doesn’t care for the sheep. Dying for the sheep was not in the job description. It was an income, not a calling. He does it for the pay, not because of his passion. There is no commitment to the people of God. Given a choice between saving themselves or saving the sheep, the hired hand will always put themselves first.
There is a painting, “The Hireling Shepherd” by William Holman Hunt. In it, you can see a sheep in the background. There is one of the flock in danger, and this hired man is more interested in chatting up some maiden. He just doesn’t care. Jesus is picking up the theme of faithless leaders in the Old Testament. God had entrusted his leaders with the task of shepherding God’s people. He gave them prophets, priests, and kings, but they just didn’t care, Ezekiel 34:2, 4: “Woe to you shepherds of Israel who only take care of yourselves! Should not shepherds take care of the flock? You have not strengthened the weak or healed the sick or bound up the injured. You have not brought back the strays or searched for the lost. You have ruled them harshly and brutally.”
One example of this are the preachers who offer instant healing if only you believe hard enough. Their teaching leaves thousands of sick people crushed with false guilt. When I was a social work student trainee, my supervisor was counseling a couple whose 19 year old son had died. They were in grief. Their pastor told this couple in his church that their Christian son was in hell. Why? Because if he didn’t have enough faith to be healed, then he didn’t have enough faith to be saved. That false shepherd had brutalized the broken-hearted. Jesus says of himself, “I am nothing like that. I am the good shepherd”, John 10:10b: “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full” (NIV). Jesus is the good shepherd, who has come to do you good. He has not come to rip you off. He wants the best for you.
Here are some truths about the good shepherd that make me want to pray to him.
The good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep, John 10:11. He is not just, “Talk, talk talk.” He goes all the way to death. In the face of sin, death, and Satan, he will give up his life. My first mentor John Chapman used to tell the story how, when he was a Sunday School teacher, the leaders took the kids to ride on paddle boats in the Royal National Park at Audley. One boy fell into the water. The other Sunday school teacher immediately dived into the water and put him back on the boat. What the others didn’t notice in their concern for the boy was that the teacher slipped back into water and drowned. He couldn’t swim, but that didn’t stop him. He gave up his life for this child, just like his good shepherd gave up his life for him. “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”
The good shepherd does more than die for his sheep. Isaiah 53:6 tells us, “We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way; and the Lord has laid on him [the good shepherd] the iniquity of us all.” Jesus doesn’t just die for us: he goes to hell in our place, where the sins of the sheep would be paid for by the good shepherd. Jesus makes the point that he is not paid to do it, he is not made to do it, he is not trapped by his father plan: “I lay my life down and I will take it up again.” He is the good shepherd. He really wants to give his life for you. He really wants you to have life to the full. That is why its so sad when people walk away from Jesus and not to him. Martin Luther said, “Why is it that when I walk into the garden, all the birds fly away from me as though I mean them harm.” Jesus says, “I have come that you may have life and have it to the full.” That is why you can trust him. But you might be thinking, “I trust Jesus, Ray, it’s that I don`t trust myself. I’m so easily led. How can I be sure.” Listen to what Jesus says: “The sheep know the shepherd’s voice”, John 10:4: “When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice.”
The sheep know the voice of the Jesus. Some of you are hearing his voice for the first time. What I am saying is resonating with you. You know it has the ring of truth. Everyone hears the words of Jesus, but only his sheep know the voice of Jesus. They will not go to another. My son James and I have similar voices. When I was carrying his son Thomas, I was speaking near his ear. Thomas would stop and turn his head and just look at me, confused, as if thinking, “You almost sound like my dad, but I know you are not my dad.” My sheep hear my voice. They will not go to another. We know him and he knows us.
The shepherd knows his sheep, John 10:3, “He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.” Of course Jesus knows every person by name, but this is saying that Jesus is in a personal relationship with each of his sheep. You matter to him. You are not lost in the crowd, you are not a mere statistic. Each one of you is precious. That is why Jesus says, “I will leave the ninety-nine sheep for the one who is lost, because the one always matters.” Do you ever feel that if you died tomorrow, not many would care? God knows you personally by name. It is tragic when we let anything else define us: the size of our incomes, how many trophies are in our cabinets, how expensive are our cars, how many letters come after our names, or how many times we are up the front. My goodness, your name is written down in the lamb’s books of life. Each of your tears is gathered in a bottle. Galatians 4:9 says, “But now that you know God, or rather are known by God.” When Jesus looked from the cross, he does not look upon a sea of nameless faces in a lost humanity, but he sees a photo album with a photo of each of us. Sandy and I have been scanning 38 years of photos: so many special people, so many precious memories, each one known to us by name. I can’t tell you how many good tears I’ve cried last week. Not only does he know us but we truly know him. It’s not a one-sided relationship. You haven’t imagined in it. You are in a real relationship with Jesus. Your relationship with Jesus bears the likeness of the Father’s relationship with the Son, John 10:14-15: “I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father—and I lay down my life for the sheep.”
Your relationship with Jesus is so profound that it is described in parallel with the relationship between Father and Son. Wow! Knowing means following. Robert Murray McCheyne says that there are three marks of the Christian sheep. The first is the ear mark, “My sheep hear my voice”. The second is the face mark, “My sheep know me”. And the third is the hoof mark, “My sheep follow me”. Not all who hear the words of Jesus hear the voice of Jesus, as John 10:26 says, “You do not believe because you are not my sheep.” Jesus is not saying that they are my sheep because they believe me. Rather, they believe me because they are my sheep.
The sheep were the ones given by the Father to the Son before time. And all who come to the Son will never be cast out. You are going nowhere. The shepherd protects the sheep, John 10:27-28: “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand.”
There are lot of things to worry about. Relationships can end, loved ones can die, your boss may sack you. But what can’t happen is this: being snatched out of Jesus’ hand. “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I shall not fear.” It is not so much that I am holding onto him—rather, he is holding onto me. I have finally come to realize that my anxiety is a gift from God, given to turn me to the good shepherd, and I must not delay. Don’t ignore your feelings. They will only go the gym and start pumping weights on you. First, be still enough to track down the trigger for why you are anxious. Name who it is. Name the feelings. Then speak it out to Jesus the good shepherd. You know him and he knows you. Let him minister to you. Remember that he knows you by name. He is thinking about you all the time. He has come that you may have life to the full. He has laid down his life for you. and no one can snatch you from his hand. So don’t delay. The moment you feel the worry, name it and pray it out loud to our good shepherd.