John 10: The Good Shepherd

Apart from Kiwis, what are the most important animals in New Zealand?
Probably sheep.
In 1773, Captain Cook brought the first sheep here.
By 1878, there were 13 million.
In 1982, we had 70 million sheep![1]

My mother grew up on a South Island sheep farm.[2]
I’m a city boy, but last week I walked around One Tree Hill and saw some sheep.
How would you like to be one of them?
Lots of green grass to eat.
Fences so you can’t get lost.
Friendly Japanese tourists who say hello and take your photo – you might be on Facebook!
I think it would be a good life.

But what if you were a sheep in Israel?
Wide open desert with no fences.
Sheep can easily get lost, and there are high cliffs to fall off.
It’s hard to find water and grass.
Some animals can walk for hundreds of miles to find food, but sheep can’t. [3]
And there are wild animals that like lamb burger for lunch.

Would you like to be a sheep in the dry and dangerous desert?
What do sheep need to survive out there?

A shepherd.
Someone to lead them to grass and water.
To protect them from lions and wolves with his big stick.
And lead them home to the sheep fold at night.
It’s inside stone walls so sheep can sleep safely.
Sometimes the shepherd lies down across the gateway,
So wild animals can’t get in or sheep walk out.

In a way, people are like sheep and God is the shepherd.[4]
Often we are bad sheep who run away and get lost.[5]
The Bible says,

All of us, like sheep, have strayed away.
We have left God’s paths to follow our own.
Isaiah 53:6

We are scared and scattered in the desert like helpless hungry sheep.
Running around in circles, saying baaaaaaaaaaaaa…
But in the first part of the Bible, God made a beautiful promise:

I will be like a shepherd looking for his scattered flock… I will search for my lost ones who strayed away, and I will bring them safely home again. I will bandage the injured and strengthen the weak…  I will give them good pastureland.
Ezekiel 34:11-16

That’s the sort of shepherd a sheep needs.
Now let’s read what Jesus said about shepherds and sheep.[6]

1 “I tell you the truth, anyone who sneaks over the wall of a sheepfold, rather than going through the gate, must surely be a thief and a robber! 2 But the one who enters through the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. 3 The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep recognize his voice and come to him. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. 4 After he has gathered his own flock, he walks ahead of them, and they follow him because they know his voice. 5 They won’t follow a stranger; they will run from him because they don’t know his voice.”

6 Those who heard Jesus use this illustration didn’t understand what he meant, 7 so he explained it to them: “I tell you the truth, I am the gate for the sheep. 8 All who came before me were thieves and robbers. But the true sheep did not listen to them. 9 Yes, I am the gate. Those who come in through me will be saved. They will come and go freely and will find good pastures. 10 The thief’s purpose is to steal and kill and destroy. My purpose is to give them a rich and satisfying life.

11 “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd sacrifices his life for the sheep. 12 A hired hand will run when he sees a wolf coming. He will abandon the sheep because they don’t belong to him and he isn’t their shepherd. And so the wolf attacks them and scatters the flock. 13 The hired hand runs away because he’s working only for the money and doesn’t really care about the sheep.

14 “I am the good shepherd; I know my own sheep, and they know me, 15 just as my Father knows me and I know the Father. So I sacrifice my life for the sheep. 16 I have other sheep, too, that are not in this sheepfold. I must bring them also. They will listen to my voice, and there will be one flock with one shepherd.”

John 10:1-16

The Character of the Shepherd

Life is dangerous for a sheep.
There are thieves and robbers.
There are wolves that attack.[7]

There is a “hired worker”.
He is paid to look after the sheep but it’s just a job.
If it gets dangerous, he runs away.

And then there is Jesus.
The Good Shepherd, the true Shepherd, the beautiful Shepherd.

When I see a field of sheep, they all look the same to me.
At One Tree Hill, each sheep has a blue tag with a number on its ear.
I read that an average New Zealand farmer has 1400 sheep.
He needs those numbers to identify them.

The Good Shepherd does not call his sheep by number, but by name.
I can forget the name of someone I met five minutes ago.
He knows each one of the 7 billion people on this planet!

The Bible says God has counted every hair of your head (Matthew 10:30).
He’s collected every tear you ever shed (Psalm 56:8)
He knows his sheep intimately.  (Psalm 139)
He calls each one by name.[8]

Maybe, he says, my sheep Fluffy has hurt her foot, so she needs some extra care.
Young Frisky is excited, so I’ll make sure he doesn’t run away.
David is often afraid, so I’ll give him verses like this to remember:

God 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.
Isaiah 40:11

I love that verse.
The Good Shepherd carries me close to his heart.
He is so patient and gentle and kind.
But he is not soft and weak.

I’m named after King David of Israel.
When he was young, David was a shepherd.[9]

David said. “When a lion or a bear comes to steal a lamb from the flock, I go after it with a club and rescue the lamb from its mouth. If the animal turns on me, I catch it by the jaw and club it to death.”
1 Samuel 17:34-35

Wow!  That also describes the Good Shepherd.
He’s not like the hired worker who runs away when danger comes.
He is strong and brave.

The Shepherd can defeat every wolf and chase away every thief
That comes to steal and kill and destroy.
Jesus came to rescue us and give us life.  (10)

We’ve heard a lot about “life” the last months.
Jesus said,

“Whoever believes in me will not die but have eternal life” (John 3:16).

“I am the bread of life” (John 6:35)[10]

“If you follow me, you will have the light that leads to life.”  (John 8:12)

Here he says, he came to give us a rich and satisfying, a full and overflowing, an everlasting life.

Do you want this life?
What do we have to do?
It’s simple: just be a sensible sheep.
Trust the Good Shepherd.
Listen for his voice and follow where he leads.

Hearing the Shepherd’s Voice

But sometimes this is hard.
The thief doesn’t wear a T-shirt that says “Sheep Thief”.
The wolf doesn’t say, “ha ha little sheep – I’m here to eat you.”

Wolves are often dressed up like sheep.  (Matthew 7:15)[11]
A thief often pretends to be a shepherd.

Often in life there are many voices calling us.
Wherever we look, advertising is saying, “buy this, follow me, and you will have a good life.”

Hearing the Shepherd’s voice is like turning the dial on an old radio.
Trying to find a weak station that’s nearly covered by loud music or noise

So how can the sheep tell who is the stranger, the thief or wolf in disguise.
And which one is the true, Good Shepherd’s voice?

When we come to a crossroads in life,
And there are signs pointing in different directions.
How can we know which way God calls us to go?

It’s a big question, but here are some suggestions.[12]

Thieves and false shepherds often shout at us in loud voices
Jesus mostly speaks with a still small voice – he is gentle.[13]
So we need to be quiet and patient.
It takes time with the Bible, and prayer, and other sheep in his flock,
To get to know the Shepherd’s voice.

False shepherds often rush us and push us and make us feel stressed.
Like a salesman pushing his product.
I find God’s way brings a feeling of peace (14:27) and freedom (8:32, 36), and joy (15:11).[14]
There is often a sense of right timing, and a perfect fit, because he knows us perfectly.[15]
Different things in life come together like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle
and point in the same direction.

False shepherds always offer an easy option, what looks fun right now.
The Good Shepherd’s path may seem hard and rocky and steep.
It might hurt the sheep’s feet.
We might have to let go of what we want
and follow him through a desert or a dark valley.
But Jesus knows the way to water, he knows his sheep.
His way is always best for us in the end.

A thief tries to climb over the wall.
But Jesus is the gate for the sheep (7).
He is the way in to safety and out to pasture.
If a voice leads you away from Jesus (5),[16]
Don’t listen!

The wolf tries to divide and scatter the sheep.[17]
The Good Shepherd brings people together in one flock.  [18]
If you hear a voice that says you’re better than other sheep, you don’t need them.

It’s not always easy to identify the true Shepherd’s voice.
When you hear a little bit, take that step.
Obey what you already hear and you will hear more clearly.
The radio will be better tuned.
Ignore the Shepherd’s voice, and it gets harder to hear in future.[19]
Hearing and following go together.

So the Good Shepherd’s voice:

  • Is quiet and gentle – listen patiently!
  • Brings peace and freedom, with right timing.
  • May call us to a hard path, but it’s the best.
  • Always leads toward Jesus.
  • Brings people together.

Those are a few tips, but learning to hear the Shepherd’s voice, tuning into God’s station,
Will take our whole life.[20]
We are human, so at times we will follow wrong voices.
There can be seasons when God seems silent and we have to trust in the dark.

When that happens, don’t give up.
Even when I can’t hear his voice,
Jesus always hears my voice when I call out for him.
As a mother can recognise her own baby’s cry, even in a crowd.[21]

The Good Shepherd is the world expert at rescuing lost sheep.
If you stray, he will search until he finds you.
Like King David, he’ll fight off any lion or wolf.
He’ll put you on his shoulders and carry you back home (Luke 15:4-6).[22]
Jesus said:

No one can snatch my sheep away from me.
John 10: 29

If we are his sheep, we are totally safe.
He may lead us through hard times, through the desert.
Where wolves cry at night and robbers lie in wait.[23]
Nothing can snatch or steal us from our Shepherd’s strong hand (cf Romans 8:35-39)

Five times in this chapter,
Jesus talks about hearing or knowing or recognising a voice.
And five times he repeats another key phrase.
It’s the ultimate sign that identifies the Good Shepherd:

The Good Shepherd sacrifices his life for the sheep.
John 10:11

Other versions say, “He lays down his life for the sheep”.

There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.
John 15:13

The hired worker runs away when danger comes – he doesn’t care.
The Good Shepherd loves his sheep so much he’s ready to die for them.
At the first Easter, on the cross, he did.
Jesus was snatched by the thief; he was killed by the wolf.
So that we can be safe forever.[24]


We’ve learnt something about sheep today.
Most of all, we’ve learnt about the Good Shepherd.

  • He knows his sheep completely – he calls each one by name.
  • He is gentle and kind – he cares for all our needs.
  • He is strong and brave – he defeats our enemies.
  • He sacrifices his life – to give us everlasting life.

Good News BibleI grew up in a Christian home, so I learnt about the Shepherd when I was young.
Here is my first Bible: the cover shows the Good Shepherd finding a little lost sheep.

At Sunday school, I learnt the famous Psalm.

The Lord is my shepherd;
I have all that I need.
He lets me rest in green meadows;
he leads me beside peaceful streams.
He renews my strength.
He guides me along right paths,
bringing honour to his name.
Even when I walk
through the darkest valley,
I will not be afraid,
for you are close beside me.
Your rod and your staff
protect and comfort me.
Psalm 23:1-4

My teacher said we could remember the first line on our five fingers.
Sometimes when I’ve been scared, lying in bed, I’ve held my fourth finger:
“The Lord is MY Shepherd.”
He is mine and I am his;
I know him a tiny bit but he knows me totally;
So I will not be afraid.

I met the shepherd early on, and I want to follow him all my life.
There’s a man called Jacob in the Bible.
When he was old, on his bed about to die,
Jacob blessed his children, and he looked back over the years.
And he said something I hope I can say:

God has been my shepherd all my life, to this very day.
Genesis 48:15

In New Zealand, sheep live in a safe green field surrounded by fences.
There are no wild animals.
They can happily eat all day!
Would you like that?

In Israel, sheep live in the desert.
There are dangerous animals and no fences and it’s hard to find water.
So they depend on the Shepherd.

Sheep in New Zealand or in Israel: which is a better picture of the Christian life?

So how is your relationship with the Good Shepherd?

Maybe you hear his voice every day, and love to follow him.
That’s wonderful, and he wants you to know him even more

Maybe you heard his voice a long time ago and started to follow him
But you have wandered away.
You’re still sitting here in church, but you feel lost.
Can you hear his voice calling you back home?

Maybe you haven’t met the Good Shepherd yet.
But he already knows you; he knows all your needs.
He is calling you personally by name.[25]

Once you were like sheep who wandered away.
But now you have turned to your Shepherd,
the Guardian of your souls.
1 Peter 2:25

Does that verse describe you?
Do you want it to?

Today, if you hear his voice,
Do not harden your heart.
Psalm 95:7

Can you hear the Shepherd’s voice?
Is he leading you to follow him more closely?
Is he calling your name today?


Would you like to be a sheep – in New Zealand, or Israel?
Where do you look for safety and satisfaction in life?
What have we learnt about the Good Shepherd?
How can we recognise his voice?



[1] In 1858, there were 1.5 million sheep and only 115,000 people, 1.4 thousand cows.  By around 1900 wool was our biggest export – nearly half of our income from overseas.  By 1999, wool only made up 2.8% of our exports, and sheep numbers have now dropped to nearer 30 million.

[2] Maybe you’ve seen the Kiwi cartoon about a farmer and his sheepdog, Footrot Flats.

[3] The book “Why! The Shepherd” by world famous New Zealand sheep shearer and farmer Walter Godfrey Bowen has lots of interesting information about sheep. (See Bowen’s biography here and here.)

[4] “O shepherd of Israel, you who lead Joseph like a flock” (Psalm 80:1).  “We are his people, the sheep of his pasture, the flock under his care.”  (Psalm 100:3).  “God led his own people like a flock of sheep, guiding them safely through the wilderness.  He kept them safe so they were not afraid” (Psalm 78:52-53)

The king is also called a shepherd.  God condemns Israel’s bad kings: “Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture” (Jeremiah 23:1-4, 25:34-36, 50:6-7, 17, also Ezekiel 34:1-10, Zechariah 11).  Like wild animals, enemy countries attacked (Jeremiah 15:17) – without a shepherd, Israel was easy prey for any wild animal.  (Ezekiel 34:5, 1 Kings 22:17)

God promised to send another Shepherd King like David to rescue his people and bring them home (Ezekiel 34:23).  “Out of Bethlehem will come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel” (Micah 5:2).

Much earlier, Moses had asked God to “appoint a man over this community to go out and come in before them, one who will lead them out and bring them in, so the Lord’s people will not be like sheep without a shepherd”.  God answered by appointing Joshua – the same name as Jesus (Numbers 27:16-18)

The word Pastor means Shepherd.  Paul tells leaders of the church to keep watch over the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made them overseers, because false teachers will come like savage wolves (Acts 20:28-29). Peter tells elders to tend the flock of God in their care, and when the Chief Shepherd appears they will be rewarded (1 Peter 5:2-4)

[5] “When Jesus saw the crowds, he had compassion on them because they were confused and helpless like sheep without a shepherd.”  Matthew 9:36

[6] In Greek, the sheep fold and gatekeeper are the same words as the courtyard of the high priest and gatekeeper in John 18:15-16.  A thief is a “kleptos”, a kleptomaniac!  To hear is “akouo” as in acoustic.  A voice or sound or to call is “phoneo”, as in telephone, microphone, or phonograph.  And the first phonograph recording by Thomas Edison in 1877 was “Mary had a little lamb”, based on Mary Sawyer who really took her pet lamb to school in 1830.  In 1972, Paul McCartney played the song.  In thinking about hearing Jesus’ voice, I’ve also remembered the record label that shows a dog listening to a gramophone, “His Master’s Voice”.

[7] “Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, looking for someone to eat.”  (1 Peter 5:8)

[8] God said to Moses, “I know you by name” (Exodus 33:12) and the Servant says, “From within the womb he called me by name.”  (Isaiah 49:1).  God says, “Do not be afraid, for I have ransomed you.  I have called you by name me; you are mine.”  (Isaiah 43:1)

[9] “God chose his servant David, calling him from the sheep pens.  He took David from tending the ewes and lambs and make him the shepherd of Jacob’s descendants” (Psalm 78:70-72).  Moses was also a shepherd.

[10] He said that he can give living water (John 4:10).  In the next chapters, he will say, “I am the resurrection and the life.” (John 11:25) and “I am the way, and the truth and the life” (John 14:6).

[11] Bowen says farmers sometimes use a “Judas sheep” to lead other sheep up the ramp to be slaughtered in the freezing works.

[12] Some people think Christianity is about following rules: do this, don’t do that.  Like fences that keep sheep inside the field in New Zealand.  But the Christian life is more like being a sheep in Israel.  It’s not about rules and fences.  It’s about a sheep’s relationship with the Shepherd.

[13] Although God’s voice also has fearful power: it is majestic, it breaks the cedars, it shakes the desert (Psalm 29:3 ff).  It is like a loud trumpet and rushing waters (Revelation 1:10, 15)

[14] Mother Teresa said “Profound joy of the heart is like a magnet that indicates the path of life.”

[15] “My times are in your hands.”  (Psalm 31:15).  “The steps of a good man are ordered by the Lord” (Psalm 37:23).

[16] “Who is the liar?  Anyone who denies that Jesus is the Christ” (1 John 2:22)

[17] Without the Shepherd, the sheep are scattered (Zechariah 13:7, Matthew 26:31).  A proverb from Uganda says, “When death strikes the cock, it leaves the hens in confusion”.

[18] “I will gather the remnant of Israel, bring them together like sheep in a pen, like a flock in its pasture” (Micah 2:12).  “Jesus would die… for the scattered children of God, to bring them together and make them one” (John 11:51-52).

[19] As St Augustine said, “understanding is the reward of faith”, see John 7:17.

[20] “Your ears will hear a voice behind you, saying, this is the way, walk in it” (Isaiah 30:21).  When God first called Samuel by name as a boy, Samuel didn’t recognise God’s voice, but then he replied, “speak Lord, for your servant is listening” (1 Samuel 3)

[21] “I love the Lord, for he heard my voice, he heard my cry for mercy.”  (Psalm 116:1)

[22] And there is a great rejoicing in heaven!  John 10:29 says the flock is God’s gift to Jesus.

[23] In fact, Jesus said “I am sending you out as sheep among wolves” (Matthew 10:16).

[24] The Good Shepherd is also the perfect Lamb of God: “the lamb at the centre of the throne will be their shepherd” (Revelation 7:17).

[25] “The dead will hear my voice… and those who listen will live” (John 5:25, 28).  “I stand at the door and knock.  If you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in.” (Revelation 3:20)