Then Jesus said to them again, . . . – John 10:7a
Ever had a difficult time understanding something? Boy I remember having a hard time understanding Geometry in high school. Algebra was no picnic either. Chemistry was confusing. In Physics sometimes I was so lost it became funny. Foreign languages left me languishing. (There was no Rosetta Stone back in those days!). But I made it through. And it was to a great extent because of teachers willing to go the extra mile. The most effective teachers were those who patiently made time for extra help to explain things over and over again until it clicked. Back in the day there was summer school for those willing or required to sacrifice some precious recreational time to make up what needed to learn to graduate to the next grade. As a student I only thought about my play time lost. As an adult looking back, I see those teachers sacrificed their play time too. It’s no fun all around when you have a hard time understanding something.
God’s people don’t always catch on to what God is revealing. They don’t always listen to His proclamations through prophets and pastor-teachers. God’s people don’t always understand His word. Too often they neglect His word. God’s people are like sheep. Sheep are not the smartest animals in the animal kingdom. They aren’t the sharpest knives in the kitchen utensil drawer; know what I mean. And it’s not by accident that God chose sheep to illustrate the nature of His people. While some are smarter and more gifted intellectually than others, there is always a time when each of us are faced with something we don’t understand. We’re human, not God.
In the Bible God presents Himself as a Shepherd and His people as sheep. The word “shepherd” occurs 102 times in 93 verses of the Bible (NKJV). The word “sheep” occurs 194 times in 183 verses in the Bibles. Shepherds and sheep are found prominently in the Bible. The book of Job is considered to be one of if not the oldest book of the Bible. Job is said to have owned fourteen thousand sheep (Job 42:12). Abel was a keeper of sheep (Genesis 4:2). Abraham’s wealth was based in part on the sheep he owned (Genesis 12:16). Moses had shepherding experience (Exodus 3:1). David drew a great deal on his experience as a shepherd (1 Samuel 16:11; Psalm 23 etc.). At the dedication of the Temple Solomon offered one hundred and twenty thousand sheep in sacrifice to God (1 Kings 8:63). We see sheep and shepherds used throughout the Old Testament as a means to illustrate truths about God and His people. The prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, Hosea, Amos, Micah, and Zechariah all use Shepherd-sheep imagery. One of the greatest and best known Psalms is about God as a Shepherd (Psalm 23). And one of the clearest indictments by God of delinquent self-serving leaders is about false shepherds in contrast with God the true Shepherd (Ezekiel 34). So by using the relationship of a shepherd to his sheep God was using something familiar and known to the people to illustrate truth.
In the New Testament the angels of heaven announce the birth of Messiah Jesus to shepherds (Luke 2:8-20). In the Gospels the Messiah is associated with a coming Shepherd who would come to care for God’s people/sheep (Matthew 2:6; Micah 5:2). In John 10 Jesus will show He is the fulfillment of this Messianic imagery. In the Gospels Jesus looks upon the crowds of people and laments they are like sheep without a shepherd (Matthew 9:36; Mark 6:34). On His march to the cross Jesus quotes Zechariah 13:7 saying “I will strike the Shepherd, and the sheep of the flock with be scattered” (Matthew 26:31; Mark 14:27). At the end of the age Messiah Jesus will separate the sheep from the goats or the righteous from the unrighteous (Matthew 25:32.)
In relatively recent times stories have circulated about how shepherds would deal with sheep who persistently stray from the flock by breaking their legs and then carrying them on their shoulders from place to place until they heal. This supposedly would serve as discipline and a time of bonding as the shepherd carried the sheep around until it healed. However there is no scriptural evidence for the practice of a shepherd breaking the legs of his sheep. God will test and refine us so that we are enriched and edified (Psalm 66:10-12). Our Shepherd God will at times allow us to experience the consequences of our sinful choices (e.g. Jeremiah 2:19). And God will at some point pour out His righteous wrath on a Christ-rejecting world (e.g. Revelation 6:16-17; 11:18; 14:10, 19; 15:1; 16:1, 19; 19:15). But break the legs of His sheep? Not likely.
God does discipline us (Hebrews 12:3-11). But the breaking of a lamb's legs seems to be more cruel than disciplinary. Jesus speaks of a shepherd who leaves the ninety-nine of his flock to go after one stray lost sheep and then of the shepherd’s rejoicing when he finds the lost sheep (Matthew 18:12-13). Jesus speaks of the shepherd then taking that once lost sheep, putting it on his shoulders and taking it home rejoicing all the way. (I’ll bet that sheep would be pretty happy too!) Once home the shepherd calls his family and friends together to celebrate the recovered sheep (Luke 15:4-6). Then Jesus comments, “I say to you that likewise there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine just persons who need no repentance” (Luke 15:7). There is no talk of the shepherd breaking the sheep’s legs. Aren’t you glad Jesus doesn’t break our legs?
Breaking a sheep’s leg would be a very dangerous and life threatening proposition. A shepherd would not likely put a sheep under his care at risk this way. Breaking a sheep’s leg and then carrying it for the weeks it would take for it to heal would also be pretty impractical. Carrying a 50-75 pound sheep around on your shoulders until it healed would be a good workout, but not practical. It would tire the shepherd out. It would hinder him from reacting against predators. It would distract the shepherd from proper care of the other sheep in the flock.
There is such a thing as braking sheep. That is when a shepherd disciplines (short of severe physical abuse on the animal) to keep them from straying. It may involve tying something to the sheep’s leg to anchor it and hinder it from straying. When the prone-to-stray sheep learns to stay with the flock, the “brakes come off.” But breaking its leg is not an acceptable practice.
The imagery of a shepherd breaking a sheep’s legs has no scriptural basis and seems out of sync with the nature of God. Instead we see in scripture, “He 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 NIV). That is more consistent with what God seems to be revealing about Himself and His people by referring to the relationship of a shepherd with his sheep.
In John 10 we see Jesus using the imagery of the shepherd and sheep to communicate a welcoming picture of Himself toward the people. Jesus presents Himself as the Good Shepherd. Suffice it to say what we see in John 10 regarding Jesus as the Good Shepherd mentions nothing about breaking the legs of the sheep. Quite to the contrary, Jesus knows His sheep and they know Him. Jesus calls His sheep; He searches them out. The Good Shepherd Jesus lays down His life for the sheep. No leg breaking here. If you get out of line, Jesus is not going to break your legs. Bad shepherds break the legs of their sheep. Criminals break legs. Jesus Christ the Good Shepherd does not.
As the Good Shepherd Jesus said, “Most assuredly, I say to you, he who does not enter the sheepfold by the door, but climbs up some other way, the same is a thief and a robber.”(John 10:1). Shepherds frequently herded their sheep into the fields and surrounding countryside in order to find green pastures. At night they would keep the sheep in temporary sheepfolds. These sheepfolds were made of branches and surrounding brush. This was designed to keep the sheep together for their protection and provision. This makeshift coral of brush was made with a single opening for the sheep to enter in and exit out of. At night, the shepherd would lay himself at the entryway to block any sheep from wandering out and to be a wall against any predator or thief getting in.
Stealing sheep was a common practice in those days. Thieves wouldn’t bother to break the legs of the sheep. No, they would be far worse than that. One thief would climb over the wall, jump down, grab a sheep, slit its throat, and then hand the dead body over the wall to an accomplice. Breaking legs and blood-letting is not the way of the Shepherd.
“But he who enters by the door is the shepherd of the sheep.” (John 10:2). Each flock of sheep have a shepherd to protect and provide for them. The rightful shepherd of each flock “enters by the door.” He doesn’t climb over the wall. He doesn’t knock down the wall. The shepherd enters one way; the right way to gather his sheep and lead them to where they need to go.
“To him the doorkeeper opens,” (John 10:3a). Each village had a common sheepfold for when the shepherds brought their sheep home from the fields. It was made of stone walls about six feet or higher. The sheep from various shepherds would stay together in this community sheepfold. This stone sheepfold also had one opening to enter and exit through. The shepherds would herd their sheep into the village sheepfold and then return to their homes to sleep. One of them would be assigned or they would take turns guarding the sheep in the entryway as a “doorkeeper” (John 10:3).
Jesus explained, “and the sheep hear his voice; and he calls his own sheep by name” (John 10:3b). With sheep from various shepherds you might wonder how did they know whose sheep belonged to which shepherd? How did they avoid a mix-up of the sheep? Jesus said, “and the sheep hear his voice.” The sheep knew their shepherd’s voice. Some shepherds had a unique call for his sheep. Other times the shepherd would call his sheep with a song. When he whistled, called or sung a song, his sheep would know it was time to go with the shepherd. And Jesus adds, “and he calls his own sheep by name.” The shepherd gave names to his sheep. He knew each sheep personally. He gave them names so he could call them individually. If “Buffy” wandered off he would just call her by name. If “Benedict” was lagging behind he’d call him to speed it up. Names are important. Names enable the shepherd to give instructions to a specific individual sheep. Jesus knows your name. Are you listening when He calls you?
Then Jesus said, “. . . and leads them out. 4 And when he brings out his own sheep, he goes before them; and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice” (John 10:3c-4). When we think of s shepherd we may have an image of a shepherd driving the sheep from behind. We may picture in our minds a shepherd with a stick whacking the sheep in line. But this is not the case. Shepherds lead their sheep and the sheep follow him. If you go to Israel today you will see a shepherd walking in front of a herd of his sheep. Shepherds lead. Sheep follow. They know the shepherd’s voice. Jesus our Good Shepherd is leading. Will you follow Him? Are you following Him?
Jesus gives us further insight. “ Yet they will by no means follow a stranger, but will flee from him, for they do not know the voice of strangers.” (John 10:5). Sheep are very skittish and easily frightened. They respond to the warm and familiar voice of their shepherd. But they immediately know and fear the strange voice of someone other than their shepherd. Even if the right call is given, or the right song sung, if the voice is not familiar, the sheep will not come. Do you know the voice of Jesus? Can you distinguish His word from the words of others?
John then comments, “Jesus used this illustration, but they did not understand the things which He spoke to them. 7 Then Jesus said to them again, . . .” (John 10:6-7a). Jesus used the imagery of a shepherd with his sheep to clearly communicate to the people. But the people didn’t understand. What did Jesus do when they didn’t understand what He was saying? Did Jesus break their legs? Did He berate them? Did He belittle them? No, Jesus simply “said to them again.” Jesus is very patient with us. He will communicate to us in the clearest of ways. And if we don’t pick up on what He is trying to communicate to us, He will patiently speak to us again and again until the message becomes clear to us. That’s what a good shepherd does with his sheep. That’s what the Good Shepherd Jesus does with us sheep.
Breaking legs? Maybe a bad shepherd would do that. Maybe a thief would do that. But Jesus would never do that. That’s not the way of the Shepherd Jesus. He’s the Good Shepherd. He’s not about using His power to break our legs. He patiently and gently holds us to His chest so we can feel His heartbeat for us. He holds us close and whispers His truth into our ears until we come to know His truth. And if we stray, Jesus the Good Shepherd comes looking for us. When He finds us, He protects us from danger, picks us up, carries us home and celebrates our return. Are you having difficulty with something Jesus is trying to teach you or bring you through in life? Stop, wait for His voice. Wait for His instruction. Wait for His arrival. Then jump into His arms. Let the Good Shepherd bring you home. Join Him in the joyful reunion. Aren’t you glad the Good Shepherd doesn’t break our legs?