Edited by Rev. John Adams, B.D.

Belief and Life

Studies in the Thought of the Fourth Gospel

By W. B. Selbie, MA., D.D.

Chapter 3


(John x. 11)

It has often been pointed out that in this tenth chapter of the Gospel there are three distinct parables in which Jesus represents Himself as having the same relation to men that a shepherd has to his sheep. Originally, no doubt, each of these parables was spoken separately, and could easily be distinguished from the others. In the narrative before us, however, they have been combined under one heading, and give the general substance of the teaching of Jesus as to His shepherding of men. It is quite easy, however, to divide the discourse into its various parts, and to distinguish the sequence of thought in the whole. In order to interpret the parable we have to try and picture to ourselves the familiar everyday life of an Eastern shepherd.

The first scene is laid in the early morning, when the shepherd comes to lead his flock out of the enclosure in which they have been folded for the night to the broad pasture-lands. It was the practice for many different flocks, belonging to various owners, to be gathered into one fold with one porter at the door. Each flock knew its own shepherd, and was accustomed to answer his voice. When he called, the porter opened the door. Thus the true shepherd could be distinguished from those who were thieves.

The second scene is laid at midday. Here Jesus represents Himself as the door of the sheep. He was thinking of the smaller folds set in the midst of pasture-lands, with wide swinging doors, through which sheep might pass as they liked, to find rest and shelter in the midday heat. So Christ is to His own an open door to rest and security. In Him they find their peace, and through Him they pass out into wide fields of thought and service.

With, the third scene the evening shadows are falling, and the shepherd begins to lead his flock to the night-fold. The way is long and often dangerous; hungry wolves lie in wait and spring out on the flock unawares. The mere hireling flees, but the good shepherd stands his ground, casts himself between his flock and their fierce assailants, and gives his life for his sheep.

The picture thus sketched is a beautiful one, true to life in the smallest details, and must have appealed irresistibly to the imaginations of those for whom it was first. drawn. But it was more than a mere fancy picture of possible circumstances. For the evangelist it was a real revelation of Jesus Himself, a very definite unveiling of His heart and mind to men. Men have accepted it as it was offered, and found in it a gracious and satisfying expression of the Divine love and care. And it may help us a little better to grasp the actual bearing of the revelation if we realise the conditions under which it was made known. There is no definite break between these ninth and tenth chapters. Jesus is represented as having still in mind the blind beggar whose eyes He had opened, and who had been turned out of the synagogue because he believed on Him. To the poor man this action on the part of the authorities would seem the culminating misfortune of his life, worse even than his previous blindness. The act of excommunication would not be suffered to remain a dead-letter. The man was cut off from the commonwealth of Israel, from the help of those to whom he had looked as spiritual guides, and from any further chance of a hopeful and godly life. And it was the action of these false shepherds, the Pharisees, which led Jesus to declare Himself as the good shepherd — the door, the life, the saviour of the sheep. They were but hirelings, and exploited the flock in their own interests; He lives for the sheep, devotes Himself to their welfare, gives Himself for them. It is thus a fresh aspect of the relation between Christ and humanity which is opened up to us under this figure of the good shepherd. In this Gospel He has already been revealed as the life, the food, the drink, the light of the world. We have now to see how He becomes the guide, protector, and deliverer of men.

1. Human Need.

In speaking of Himself as the good shepherd, Jesus implies a need on the part of men. Without, Him they are as sheep without a shepherd, forlorn, helpless, wandering, an easy prey to enemies. But this is an assumption which men generally regard as requiring proof. They admit the beauty and helpfulness of Christ’s declaration, but they fail to apply it to themselves. It is curious how, even in the history of Christendom, art and poetry and rhetoric have combined to limit the shepherd’s office of Jesus to little children, as though there were something childish in the whole idea, something unworthy of the freedom and independence of grown men and women. A Japanese student who once heard a sermon on this text dismissed it with the remark, "I like not to be called a sheep.” And in these go-ahead days, when every man is for himself and has to carve out his own path, the need of shepherding is not obvious, and the mere statement of it is apt to excite feelings of superiority and contempt. In the old days perhaps, when the world was young and man was ignorant, it was all very well. Then men felt themselves to be the sport of circumstances and destiny. They were in the hands of forces they did not understand, and at the mercy of powers over which they had no control, and it was natural that they should look wistfully enough for help outside. But now it is very different. Man has proved himself to be the master of circumstances and the lord of Nature. Forces before which he once trembled he now holds in the hollow of his hand. He has tamed the lightning to do his bidding; wrested her secrets from the bosom of the earth; conquered the elements and almost annihilated space. He has won great and lasting victories, and it is no wonder that his new-gotten power should have turned his head, and persuaded him that he is monarch of all he surveys. He sings with the modern poet:

“How good is man’s life, the mere living,

How fit to employ

All the heart and soul and senses for ever in joy.”

And he submits, with some show of reason, that it is nothing less than ridiculous to compare him, with all his vast achievement, to silly sheep needing a shepherd. And yet even modern man with all his perfect equipment has his limitations, and is sometimes brought sharply up to recognise them. There are still things physically impossible to man, and the wisest of us are those most ready to confess our ignorance. Life is as much of a mystery as ever, and death, though it has been described, analysed, accounted for, and even thwarted and held at arm’s length for a time, is still the same unconquerable foe as when it stirred to terror and brief misery our half-brute, half-human ancestors of primeval days. But putting aside these purely physical limitations of human life, are there not others none the less real? All the advance which man has made in skill and knowledge has not made it one whit the easier to do the right and avoid the wrong. Circumstances have changed for the better, temptations can be guarded against more readily; but the heart still knoweth its own bitterness, and the conscience still shrinks and trembles at wrong done. Nay, it has sadly to be confessed that modern life has increased our temptations without increasing the strength wherewith to meet them. Evil has assumed varied and insidious forms unknown to the men of a simpler and less subtle age. The very means of his advancement which man has used have, as it were, turned traitor, and opened up before him the prospect of dangers unsuspected hitherto. It is no exaggeration to say that so far from man having grown to be self-sufficient, his needs have increased step by step with his acquirements. And at his best he recognises that this is true. There is a shallow self-complacency characteristic of these days, but it is born of ignorance rather than knowledge. He who really knows and thinks is still restless, dissatisfied, conscious of his own helplessness, as men have been from the beginning of time. Larger opportunity means only, to those who can receive it aright, increased responsibility, a profound and worthier sense of their own inability to meet it. Amid all the revelations of science man discovers that the world is vaster than science dreams of. You may cram his body with food and weary it with work, but his soul refuses to rest and be thankful, and the pangs of its hunger make themselves felt in unexpected ways. You may train and develop his intellect to the utmost, but his spirit remains unsatisfied and clamorous for food. The more you teach him of the great world without and of himself, the little world within the greater, the more light will he seek on their mutual relations, and the more impossible does he find it to live well left to himself. The more man investigates the laws and functions of his life according to the flesh, the more does he become conscious of his moral and spiritual life, which has a sphere and requirements of its own. And just as he feels that he can only live the one life in relationship with other men about him, so he seeks to establish relationship with the world above that he may realise himself in a true spiritual life.

“’Tis life, whereof our nerves are scant.

More life and fuller that we want.”

This is the secret of all the dim questioning and restless inquiry of this present age. It is not that we are more than usually plagued with the gadfly of curiosity, but that men are indeed seeking the light, longing to realise themselves, asking on every side for one who shall be the shepherd and bishop of their souls.

2. Divine Shepherding.

And so this claim of Jesus Christ to be the good shepherd of the sheep has in it a message and an assurance which are especially fitted for us and for our time. For what in the long-run does it involve but this, that in Him we have our spiritual master and guide? He meets us in the morning of life, and through Him we are led into the wide pasture-lands of experience and service. And when the midday sun beats hard upon us, and we grow faint and weary, then He is an open door, and in Him we find the cool and shady resting-places that our souls desire. And at eventide, when the darkness deepens and the way is hard and perilous, He is a Saviour and a friend indeed.

But what does it all mean, we say? It is a beautiful imaginative picture; but what is there in reality which corresponds to it? Is there anything in this declaration of Jesus which can have practical bearing on the life, say, of a London city-man, or a hard-worked mother of a family? Surely there is. Man — and woman too, for the matter of that — cannot live by bread alone. And the longer they remain in this world the more true will they find that to be. As life becomes more exacting and daily duty more onerous, the need of escaping from it and rising above it becomes more imperative. Bread and meat and money and goods after all do not satisfy. And there is not one of us who does not at times, in the care and toil and worry of this life, feel like a wild bird caged, beating itself vainly against the bars. And Christ’s is the hand that sets us free. It is no mere imagination or conventional belief but sober truth, that in Him we have the possibility of a larger life, a wider horizon, a freer atmosphere than any this earth can give, and an answer to our most real needs. Go back through history, and in Him will be discovered the one point where humanity sees itself to be divine, and where our life, which from certain aspects of it seems so mean and sordid, is enlarged and glorified by contact with the life of God. It was John himself who said in the light of his own experience: "Who is he that overcometh the world, but he that believeth that Jesus is the Son of God?" And this confession has been endorsed in the lives of the saints from the beginning. In Christ men are not holden of these earthly bonds. Trouble and doubt and care and anguish come on the Christian as on other men, but they do not leave the same marks behind; they have no power to spoil his prospects or to blast his career. In Christ men are able to glory in their tribulations, and that in no mere figurative sense, but because the deeper the waters and the harder the way, the closer and dearer do they find His companionship and help. But they must commit themselves to Him freely first, make Him indeed the shepherd and bishop of their souls. Low views of Christ and slight expectations from Him mean but a meagre experience of His grace. We get from Him just what we look for, and He who expects the greatest things will not be disappointed. No sheep of His flock has ever been left to perish in the wilderness. No man who has ever looked to Christ for shepherding and help has ever been turned empty away.

3. Dying for the Sheep.

But Jesus is not only the shepherd of His people in the sense of leading and helping them, but in the sense of saving them too. "The good shepherd giveth his life for the sheep.” There seems something incongruous in the introduction of the ideas of peril and self-sacrifice amid all this lovely pastoral imagery. But it is strictly true to experience. To eastern shepherds, if not to us, sheep-stealers and wolves were very real and terrible facts. And to the earnest soul life is a serious business, sin and death grim realities. The shepherd man needs is indeed a deliverer, not a mere bland cicerone or winning example. And yet this sterner side of Christ’s activity is one we easily forget or ignore. We picture Him to ourselves as a great French writer has done — a mild, beneficent teacher of men, of a sweet and sunny nature, speaking only palatable truths that men love to hear. And we forget that over the whole of His life there lies the shadow of the Cross, and that it was with a deep, tragic purpose that He presented Himself before men. To Him the world lay in the bondage of sin, and was not to be saved by any rosewater schemes, but by hard conflict and stern self-sacrifice. The teaching of Jesus in regard to sin is moral rather than theological, but none the less true and binding on that account. His method in dealing with it is far removed from fanaticism or extravagance, but it is trenchant and even startling. He has no theory of the origin of evil to propound, nor does He make it His business to denounce it in good set terms. But He so deals with it as to leave an ineffaceable impression of the horror of sin, of the deep and lasting ruin it works in the souls of men. As a diagnosis of the great complaint from which the whole world is suffering, the words of Jesus have been, everywhere admitted to be exact and true. But it is one thing to acknowledge that a physician understands one’s case, and quite another to submit oneself to His remedies. And it is here that many men stop short. For the remedy which Jesus offered for the sin of the world was nothing less than Himself. He does not merely show His sheep the way they must go; He stands between them and their peril, and receives into His own flesh the wolf’s sharp fangs. But men prefer to take Him on their own terms rather than on His own. They pass by His own strong revelation and condemnation of sin, the free forgiveness which He offers to all who will repent, and prefer to rest rather in the theories they have framed to explain these things to themselves. Surely it needs to be insisted on that it is Jesus Himself and not any doctrine of Jesus that saves men from their sins. "The good shepherd giveth his life for the sheep.” And this does not mean simply that He died in order to reveal God’s perfect love to man, and so touch our hearts and lead us to new and holier activities. No doubt these things are among the effects of His action, but they by no means give a complete account of it. "The good shepherd giveth his life for the sheep,” and by His devotion the sheep are saved and helped; and the reason for it all is not simply His desire to sacrifice Himself, but the peril in which they stands Were there no wolves or robbers, the shepherd would not need to give his life; and had there been no sin, Christ need not have died. It is through His death that we realise the true significance of our own state. The soul’s sin lies, not in any evil habit or series of wrong actions, but in itself. And the escape from sin is through the renewal of the man’s inmost life. When we say that Christ died for our sins, we mean that He is suffering for the recovery of a soul, however low it may have fallen. And this is not mere theory, a statement of something that under conceivable circumstances might happen; it is a record of accomplished facts, in the light and strength of which men and women have lived for long years. No doubt it is not easy to give the why and wherefore of it all. But as has often been pointed out in every other department of thought, we begin with facts and hold fast to them, even though many theories are offered to explain them and none are wholly satisfactory. And here, though theories have changed complexion with the changing thought of every age, the fact remains. That Christ died for the sins of men has been the true basis of all Christian life. It has assured men of the reality of the Fatherhood of God, and given them the adoption of sons. It has been the ground of their immortal hope, and has kindled within them the fires of an undying love for Christ. It has inspired the joy and freedom of man’s worship, and has brought home to him the true blessedness of communion with God. It has enlarged and intensified his faith, and even in the presence of the vast mass of human sin and misery, it has spoken peace to the soul, and has filled it with the hope of a love which never faileth and a mercy which endureth for ever. The weakliest and most timid of all the flock have been able to live and be strong in the presence of the good shepherd who "giveth his life for the sheep.”