You may have heard that Jesus called himself the Good Shepherd — and that title fills your head with positive connotations — namely that Jesus is gentle and caring. Maybe you think of an amateurish portrait in which a docile Savior snuggles a wayward lamb. But there’s more to the title than mere sentimentality. In fact, to those who first heard Jesus declare himself the Good Shepherd, it was downright shocking. The statement scandalized the Pharisees, but it also answered the most important question one man’s heart ever asked. And it can answer the same question in our own hearts today: Can I trust the God is good?
But to understand the question — and its answer — we must first understand the setting in which Jesus uttered those famous words.
The Good Shepherd Who Heals His Sheep
The Apostle John tells us about a beggar Jesus encountered, a man who had been blind from birth. In the ancient world, not only did such a condition almost certainly mean a life sentence of poverty, but it was also a special mark of shame. At that time, people believed that being born with any serious disability or health issue was a sure sign of God’s displeasure.
So, as they came near the man, Jesus’ disciples asked, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9:2). Surely, this beggar had heard similar questions and piercing comments his whole life as he sat on the dusty streets of Jerusalem, asking strangers for their loose change. Surely, he had wondered what God’s heart was really like to allow him to be born without his eyesight.
Jesus was there to give him the answer.
The answer wasn’t what the disciples had suspected: that the man’s blindness was the result of someone’s personal sin — either his own or his parents. Instead, Jesus said the poor beggar was born blind in order to bring God glory. But that answer just begs another question: What sort of glory could blindness bring?
You probably know the rest of the story: Jesus spat on the ground to make mud. Then He rubbed that mud in the man’s eyes and told him to go wash in a nearby pool. It was an odd healing as divine healings go, but it worked. The blind man rinsed the mud off his face, opened his eyes, and for the first time, saw clearly the world around him. God’s glory, as it turns out, involves bringing restoration and doing good to people, especially those whom society considers to be of little importance. In his healing, this man received the first clue that God’s heart is indeed good.
It can be difficult to interpret life — and God’s heart — when we face suffering or hard circumstances. And we’ve all faced them — whether it’s physical disease, a divorce that split your family apart, an important relationship that died and took a piece of your heart with it, or a dream that ended far too early. Jesus understands this. In fact, it’s one of the reasons He came (see John 17:25-26). That’s why, if we want to know what God the Father is like, we need to look to Jesus Christ, the Son (John 14:9; Hebrews 1:3). As we read in the Gospels about the compassion Jesus had for the people He healed, we have a direct view into the heart of our Creator.
The Good Shepherd Who Stays with His Sheep
As I read about the man’s healing in John 9, I want that to be the happy ending to his story. It would be so simple: Man has a problem. Man meets Jesus. Jesus fixes the problem. Man is happy. But life this side of heaven is rarely that predictable.
You see, Jesus healed the blind man on the Sabbath. And the Pharisees considered healing to be work, and work, of course, was strictly forbidden on the Sabbath. So instead of thanking God for this man’s new eyesight, they investigated the incident as a way to corner Jesus.
But Jesus couldn’t be trapped, so the Pharisees took out their frustration on the man who had been healed. The beggar, who had previously never seen the features on another human face, now had a clear view of furrowed brows and angry scowls as these Pharisees, who were among the most respected men in society, expelled him from the synagogue.
This expulsion, though, was not like being asked to find another church, or even like getting kicked out of school. The local synagogue was at the center of Jewish life, so being thrown out was the same as being disowned by your community — your friends, your neighbors and even your family. Since birth, this man had been isolated because of his blindness. Now the man’s loneliness would continue because of his connection to Jesus. It still wasn’t a perfect, happy ending. There was still disappointment.
In that moment, it seemed that the old order of things — the disappointments that reorder our lives and leave us limping — would still hold sway. Not even a miracle could change that.
But that’s not all we should notice about that moment. Even as the now-healed man experienced collective rejection, Jesus was there, standing by the man’s side as he received the Pharisees’ condemnation. And fortunately for us, Jesus is still in the business of standing by His friends whenever heartaches or disappointments are being handed out.
Jesus said something to the Pharisees that, to the uninitiated, might seem a strange thing to say: “All who came before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them.… I am the good shepherd” (John 10:8,11). But the Pharisees knew exactly what Jesus was saying because He was finishing a conversation His Father had started long before.
God had previously spoken through His prophet Ezekiel, “Ah, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep?… I myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out. As a shepherd seeks out his flock when he is among his sheep that have been scattered, so will I seek out my sheep” (Ezekiel 34:2,11-12). And then God described the sort of shepherd He would be: “I will rescue them.… I will feed them with good pasture.… I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed. and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak … I will feed them with justice” (vv. 12,14,16).
In short, God himself would be the Good Shepherd He had wanted for His people all along.
These words were spoken centuries before Jesus arrived in Jerusalem, but now He was taking every syllable upon himself — yes, making the claim to be God — but going further than that. He was telling the Pharisees and the formerly blind man — and you and me — that a new day was dawning, a day in which the kingdom of heaven would come to earth, when God would care for His people directly through Jesus, the Good Shepherd, and through His Spirit, who would dwell within the hearts of His people.
The Good Shepherd Who Lays Down His Life for His Sheep
Jesus said, “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10:11). If you think about it, it’s an odd thing to say. A shepherd who lays down his life to protect his sheep from a wild animal or a thief endangers the whole flock. This sort of shepherd would be lousy because once he’s dead, the sheep are essentially goners.
But sometime later, just outside the city walls, Jesus would do just what He promised: lay down His life for His sheep. I wonder if the once-blind man, when he heard the news of Jesus’ crucifixion, fell over in despair, thinking that he, like those proverbial sheep, was now a goner, that he would be torn limb from limb by every hard moment and devastation life had yet to offer. I wonder if, once again, he questioned the heart of God.
Perhaps. But Jesus came back to give him the answer.
On Resurrection Sunday, the riddle was solved: The Good Shepherd can lay down His life for His sheep because He can take it up again (John 10:18). He does not leave the flock defenseless — not for a moment. No matter what you may be facing in life right now, God’s love is bigger than all of it because pain and death do not have the final say. As the Apostle Paul wrote, “The sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Romans 8:18).
The unending, never-disappointing love that we all long for — that we were all created for — is real. How can we know? Because Jesus says we will able to hear His voice and recognize it as His (John 10:27-28). We can move from knowing in our heads that God is good to trusting it in our hearts by experiencing that goodness for ourselves — spending time with Him, sharing every moment of life with Him and hearing what He has to say to us. That’s what sheep do; they listen to their shepherd, day in and day out.
When life’s hard moments come, we can be honest with Jesus. We can ask Him what good thing He’s working together through the pain (Romans 8:28-29). We can lean on Him to carry us when we can’t take another step. We can be reminded that, one day, every one of our tears will be wiped away, no matter how deep the pain that caused them (Revelation 21:4).
On that day, God’s love will cover over every mountain and fill every valley. No place will be left untouched by His life-giving presence. The Good Shepherd will be there to comfort His sheep. We will see the scars that mark the moment He laid down His life for us so that our suffering, our disappointments and our heartaches could be put away forever. And then, no one will think to question God’s good heart. Not ever again.
Copyright 2018 John Greco. All rights reserved.