We are currently studying the book of Revelation in Bible class. There the apostle John shares what God revealed to him while he was in exile on the island of Patmos on account of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus.
In chapter six, John has had his first exposure to what the last days will bring. It is one of war and suffering. In particular, it is one in which the Church suffers as Christians are martyred because of faith in Jesus Christ.
Then in chapter seven, John experiences the first example of what will be a pattern in the book. Descriptions of the suffering by the Church are followed by a scene that comforts as it shows that Christ’s Church is victorious in the midst of suffering. God will preserve the fullness of his Church, and those who die share in the victory of Christ.
In chapter seven John sees a great multitude from every nation, clothed in white robes with palm branches in their hands. The heavenly elder tells John: “These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” John is told that now they are before the throne of God. He learns: “They shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore; the sun shall not strike them, nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”
These are words that we hear every time we observe All Saints’ Day. They are tremendously comforting. Because they are, and because we are so familiar with them, we often overlook the very unusual image that is presented here. The elder tells John, “For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd.” Notice here that the Lamb is serving as the shepherd. Of course, that’s not how things really work in the world. A sheep does not serve as the shepherd, a person does.
Naturally, we know who the Lamb is – it is Jesus Christ, the incarnate Son of God who died on the cross and rose from the dead. He is the One who was sacrificed to take away sins. It is his blood that has made the robes white. He has given the Christians forgiveness. As John said in the first chapter of Revelation Jesus Christ is the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of kings on earth. He loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood. That is why he can be described as both the Lamb, and the One who shepherds his people.
When the apostle John wrote his Gospel, he included words of our Lord Jesus about shepherding that are just as unusual. They are unusual and striking, yet they are understandable, because they are based on the exact same truth.
In our Gospel lesson, Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” Now here again, we have heard these words so many times that we probably don’t stop and think about how odd they really are. No shepherd in the ancient world would give his life in order to save sheep. Sheep were property – they were a commodity in which there was always some element of loss to due to disease, or wild animals. A shepherd who gave his life to save the sheep was not the good shepherd. He was the dumb shepherd. It’s an absurd statement. And yet, it is a statement that captures the blessed absurdity of the Gospel.
The part here that does make total sense is the use of sheep as a metaphor to refer to us. Isaiah wrote in chapter 53, “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned--every one--to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” This statement only made sense in Isaiah’s day, because everyone knew that sheep do go astray. They are dumb and wander off. They leave the safety of the flock watched over by the shepherd, and goes places where they then find themselves in danger.
That’s what we do. God has given us his Word that tells us his will. He has even written his law on our hearts. He has told us the ways that bring blessing and the ways that bring harm. And yet, we choose to ignore this as we go off and do our own thing. We put the things of this world first, and God second. We act in selfish ways. We act in ways that we know are wrong, and yet we choose to do them anyway. Or worse yet, we can’t seem to stop ourselves from doing the very things that we know are wrong and destructive for us.
Yet in spite of this – or actually because of this – Jesus is the good shepherd who has given his life for the sheep. He did it because, just as we learn in Revelation, Jesus the Shepherd is also the Lamb. When John the Baptist saw Jesus, he declared, “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!”
Immediately after our text, Jesus says, “For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life that I may take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This charge I have received from my Father.” The Son of God was sent by the Father into the world in the incarnation to lay down his life for us. On the evening when he was betrayed, Jesus said, “but I do as the Father has commanded me, so that the world may know that I love the Father.”
Jesus gave himself as the sacrificial Lamb who atoned for our sins. The apostle John wrote in his first letter that “the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.” By his death, Jesus has given us forgiveness. But Jesus is also the firstborn from the dead. As I noted earlier, immediately after our text the Lord says, “I lay down my life that I may take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This charge I have received from my Father.”
On the third day, Jesus rose from the dead. He defeated death. Because of this we already have eternal life with God, and Christ will also raise and transform our bodies on the Last Day so that they will never die again. As Jesus told Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die.”
It is as the crucified and risen Lord that Jesus now gives us forgiveness. He just did it at the beginning of this service when he spoke to you and said, “I forgive you all your sins.” You experienced exactly what Jesus was talking about in last week’s Gospel lesson when on the evening of Easter he appeared in the midst disciples. He breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.”
Jesus is the Good Shepherd who has laid down his life for you. The shepherd gave his life for the sheep. It’s absurd. And that’s why it is Gospel. When you weigh things in the way of the Law, it makes no sense. But the gracious love of God does not work in the way of the Law. Instead, God loved us so much that we have been drawn into the love shared by the Father and the Son. Jesus said, “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you.” And this love has prompted the ultimate sacrifice for us. Our Lord said, “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.”
We have no right to claim such a relationship. But it exists because Christ has loved us and called us through his Spirit. Jesus says in our text, “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.” Earlier in this chapter Jesus said about the shepherd, “The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice.”
Jesus has called you by name in Holy Baptism as he made you his own. Now, you continue to hear his voice through the Means of Grace. You heard his voice in absolution this morning. You hear his voice through the Scriptures and the proclamation of his Word. You hear his voice as he speaks in the consecration of the Sacrament of the Altar and gives you his true body and blood. In so doing he enables you to follow him each day.
The unthinkable happened. The shepherd gave his life for the sheep. And then he took it up again. This is how Jesus has love us. This is how Jesus has shared the Father’s love with us. Our Lord said, “By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples. As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father's commandments and abide in his love.”
Jesus has loved us. Because of this we have forgiveness, life, and resurrection. Yet it means something else has well. Christ said, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” Jesus did the unthinkable by giving his life for us the sheep, so that now we too can think and act in the same way – the Gospel way. The apostle John wrote in his first letter, “By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. But if anyone has the world's goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God's love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth.”
Jesus loved us in deed and in truth. He is the good shepherd who gave his life for the sheep – for us. He gave his life because we are sheep who wonder away in sin. But Jesus is the shepherd who is also the Lamb who gave himself as the sacrifice to win forgiveness. He laid down his life, but then on Easter he took it up again. Jesus lives! And because he does, we have eternal life now. We have received Jesus’ love, and we seek to share it with others in word and deed we as look for Jesus’ return and the resurrection of the Last Day.