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Words that lead

Words that lead

Words that lead

 This entry is part 11 of 12 in the series His own did not receive Him

It is said that we live in the “information age” – one characterised by an ever-increasing bombardment with data. We are apparently exposed to the equivalent of 174 newspapers of data per day – a 200-fold increase in my lifetime, and on a trajectory with no suggestion of slowing down. And, of course, this data doesn’t come from a single, painfully-prolific voice, but from a range of sources. A few years ago, we each spouted an average of 16,000 words per day1. Whose voice are we going to listen to?

How do you solve a problem like … blind leaders?

At the end of chapter 9 of John’s account, we had a clear verdict rendered on the contemporaries of Jesus. The leaders of Israel, as they rejected Jesus, were not simply ignorant: they were blind. Their example was not one to follow – and consequently, their voices were not worth listening to.

But John’s account of the episode hasn’t finished. We’re still watching the scene unfold as we enter chapter 102. And even while the Jewish leaders presumably remain in earshot, Jesus allows us to step back and evaluate the competing voices available to us.

A mixed metaphor with a single message

Using the kind of pastoral metaphor that would have been especially pertinent to his audience, Jesus encouraged His listeners to look out onto the hillside and consider the way different individuals engage with the sheep pen. Some climb over the wall (v1), others vainly call for the sheep to follow them (v5); the shepherd passes through the door and calls each sheep by name (v3). They know his voice, and they follow him out (v4). The shepherd makes himself clear.

The metaphor takes a brief detour in vv7-9, as Jesus shows that He is not just the one to follow, but the way to the pasture. It’s a baffling idea that will get picked up later in John’s account. But the point is still the same: when given a choice, Jesus is the one to choose. The point is immortalised in those most famous of sayings:

I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. He who is a hired hand and not a shepherd, who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees, and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. He flees because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep. (vv11-15)

Extreme shepherding

It’s at this point that we start to realise the metaphor has stretched to surprising extremes. The alternative shepherds are negligent and incompetent – liked hired hands, fleeing when the going gets tough. But worse, they ‘steal and kill and destroy’ (v10). Yet the good shepherd is not simply proficient and compassionate: He lays down his life for the sheep (v11, v15).

It’s the kind of extreme shepherding that would be rather fruitless in normal life. The income derived from shepherding is no use to the person who cannot spend it. Besides which, to die would leave the sheep exposed. Every sympathy we have for the shepherd in the metaphor is now eclipsed by the startling reaches of his care.

Yet such sacrifice is the cost of this determined offer: “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly” (v10).

Follow the leader

We reached the end of chapter 9 with a concern – that God’s people, the nation of Israel, appeared to be abandoned. The purpose of the preceding 5 chapters appeared to be affirmation that Jesus really is God, in spite of the unbelief of those who should have followed Him. God’s people didn’t believe in Him – but, as it turned out, they weren’t God’s people after all.

The question was then posed: What ever has happened to God’s people? Has He anyone left?

Into that context, Jesus assumes the role of the good shepherd, who ‘calls his sheep by name and leads them out’ (v3). There are many sheep knocking around, and many who have chosen to follow the blind leaders instead of this Extreme Shepherd. But that doesn’t mean that Jesus is left with none. The extraordinary compassion of this life-giving shepherd cannot go unnoticed. His voice will be recognised.

And so the point is made absolutely explicit: it’s not about belonging to the nation state of Israel. Being Jewish doesn’t save you – that much is clear from chapters 5-9! Rather, it’s about whether or not you follow the leader – whether or not you listen to His voice.

And I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. (v16)

Jesus is the extreme shepherd – the Good Shepherd – who lays down His life for His sheep. And as He speaks, His true people – whoever they may be, whichever nation they come from – will follow the sound of His voice.

Whose voice will you listen to?

Perhaps you’re reading this as someone who hasn’t decided which of the many competing voices to listen to. There are, after all, many different leaders competing for our attention. There are so many who proclaim their message, offering hope, salvation – “life in all its fullness”. Who will you listen to?

Jesus’ claim is that every other offer comes from a “thief and a robber” (v1) – promising salvation, but only offering “to steal and kill and destroy” (v10). And before we write off His claim as outrageously arrogant, He demonstrates the difference at the cost of His life. As He told us multiple times in this chapter, He – the good shepherd – lays down his life for the sheep. Keep reading to see that happen, in history.

Or perhaps you are someone reading this who is already a Christian. You want to listen to the voice of Jesus, but you’re not sure where to find it. Well, in spite of lots of confusion about this in the world today, Jesus tells us later in John’s account that His words are found in the words of the Bible 3. The reason so many Christians make such a thing about the Bible is not because they’re obsessed with books (though that may also be true!) but because the Bible is the way that Jesus has chosen to continue speaking to us today. And so, obviously, Jesus intends for us to respond to this chapter with an appetite for reading the Bible!

But perhaps you’ve heard this chapter before, you know the application already. Jesus speaks to us today in the words of the Bible, and so the application must be to listen to Him there. But even if that’s a practice we’re in the habit of pursuing, let me share a couple of questions that challenge me:

  • Am I really choosing to listen to the voice of Jesus? With a plethora of competing voices, which one am I most interested to hear? Sure, I may spend a bit of time reading the Bible, but when stepping out into the world, which voice am I looking for? When browsing the internet, which link do I click on? Do I choose the familiar words of Jesus – the blog article that tells me something I’ve heard before from the Bible? Or 25 inane quotes from Buzzfeed? Will I peruse my Facebook newsfeed for amusement and the pursuit of human wisdom? Or have I a hunger for the voice that offers life, and life in abundance?4
  • And am I really listening to that voice? We are exposed to 174 newspapers of data per day, but most of it passes us by. We have become a community of consumers, trained to breeze through without paying much attention. I find myself reading the first lines of paragraphs in order to get to their end swiftly. I follow the news in headlines, spurning the ‘in depth analysis’ for the sake of a broader sweep. Have I adopted the same attitude to the voice of Jesus? As I listen to His words in the Bible, am I skipping through with the same inattention as I offer to Twitter? Or have I the attitude of one who hears the voice of my Leader, and longs to experience the life He offers?


More on John’s gospel will be published each Wednesday evening, with a bonus blog article thrown in on most weeks at some point before the next Wednesday. Feel free to share posts using the buttons below, and you can subscribe to the blog by using the sign-up form on the right.


Show 4 footnotes

  1. See M.R. Mehl et al. (2007) “Are Women Really More Talkative Than Men?” Science. 317 (5834)
  2. See, for example, the way the discussion of the miracle is still continuing in v21
  3. We’re going to see that clearly when we reach John 14:25-26 and 16:12-15
  4. That isn’t a plug for this blog, but a simple challenge – to me as much as to anyone else. I was surprised to see that the most popular articles on this blog are not those which discuss Jesus’ words in the Bible, but which have talked about my daily reading habits, or the part of John’s gospel that I don’t think belongs there. And yet, even as I express that surprise, I consider my own browsing habits and realise that I adopt a similar approach to the internet.
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