Frederick W. Robertson

Sermon 41


The Good Shepherd

Preached March 20, 1853

  Frederick W. Robertson

"I am the good shepherd, and know my sheep, and am known of mine. As the Father knoweth me, even so know I the Father: and I lay down my life for the sheep.” - John 10:14, 15


As these words stand in the English translation, it is hard to see any connection between the thoughts that are brought together.

It is asserted that Christ is the good Shepherd, and knows His sheep. It is also asserted that He knows the Father; but between these two truths there is no express connection. And again, it is declared that He lays down His life for the sheep. This follows directly after the assertion that He knows the Father. Again, we are at a loss to say what one of these truths has to do with the other.

But the whole difficulty vanishes with the alteration of a single stop and a single word. Let the words “even so” be exchanged for the word “and.” Four times in these verses the same word occurs. Three times out of these four it is translated “and,”-and know my sheep, and am known, and I lay down my life. All that is required then is, that in consistency it shall be translated by the same word in the fourth case: for “even so” substitute “and:” then strike away the full stop after “mine,” and read the whole sentence thus: “I am the good Shepherd, and know my sheep, and am known of mine as the Father knoweth me, and as I know the Father: and I lay down my life for the sheep.”

At once our Redeemer’s thought becomes clear. There is a reciprocal affection between the Shepherd and the sheep. There is a reciprocal affection between the Father and the Son; and the one is the parallel of the other. The affection between the Divine Shepherd and His flock can be compared, for the closeness of its intimacy, with nothing but the affection between the Eternal Father and the Son of His love. As the Father knows the Son, so does the Shepherd know the sheep: as the Son knows the Father, so do the sheep Know their heavenly Shepherd.


I. The pastoral character claimed by Christ.

II. The proofs which substantiate the claim.


I. The Son of Man claims to Himself the name of Shepherd. Now we shall not learn any thing from that, unless we enter humbly and affectionately into the spirit of Christ’s teaching. lt is the heart alone which can give us a key to His words. Recollect how He taught. By metaphors, by images, by illustrations, boldly figurative, in rich variety-yes, in daring abundance. He calls Himself a gate, a king, a vine, a shepherd, a thief in the night. In every one of these He appeals to certain feelings and associations. What He says can only be interpreted by such associations. They must be understood by a living heart: a cold, clear intellect will make nothing of them. If you take those glorious expressions, pregnant with almost foundless thought, and lay them down as so many articles of rigid, stiff theology, you turn life into death. It is just as if a chemist were to anaIyze a fruit or a flower, and then imagine that he had told you what a fruit and a flower are. He separates them into their elements, names them and numbers them: but those elements, weighed, measured, numbered in the exact proportions that made up the beautiful living thing, are not the living thing-no, nor any thing like it. Your science is very profound, no doubt; but the fruit is crushed, and the grace of the flower is gone.

It is in this way often that we deal with the words of Christ, when we anatomize them and analyze them. Theology is very necessary, chemistry is very necessary; but chemistry destroys life to analyze, murders to dissect; and theology very often kills religion out of words before it can cut them up into propositions.

Here is a living truth which our cold reasonings have often torn into dead fragments-“I am the good Shepherd.” In this northern England it is hard to get the living associations of the East with which such an expression is full.

The pastoral life and duty in the East is very unlike that of the shepherds on our bleak hill-sides and downs. Here the connection between the shepherd and the sheep is simply one of pecuniary interest. Ask an English shepherd about his flock, he can tell you the numbers and the value; he knows the market in which each was purchased, and the remunerating price at which it can be disposed of There is before him so much stock convertible into so much money.

Beneath the burning skies and the clear starry nights of Palestine there grows up between the shepherd and his flock an union of attachment and tenderness. It is the country where at any moment sheep are liable to be swept away by some mountain-torrent, or carried off by hill-robbers, or torn by wolves. At any moment their protector may have to save them by personal hazard. The shepherd-king tells us how, in defense of his father’s flock, he slew a lion and a bear: and Jacob reminds Laban how, when he watched Laban’s sheep in the day, the drought consumed. Every hour of’ the shepherd’s life is risk. Sometimes for the sake of an armful of grass in the parched summer days, he must climb precipices almost perpendicular, and stand on a narrow ledge of rock where the wild goat will scarcely venture. Pitiless showers, driving snows, long hours of thirst-all this he must endure, if the flock is to be kept at all.

And thus there grows up between the man and the dumb creatures be protects, a kind of friendship. For this is, after all, the true school in which love is taught-dangers mutually shared and hardships borne together; these are the things which make generous friendship-risk cheerfully encountered for another’s sake. You love those for whom you risk, and they love you; therefore it is that, not as here where the flock is driven, the shepherd goes before and the sheep follow him. They follow in perfect trust, even though he should be leading them away from a green pasture, by a rocky road, to another pasture which they can not yet see. He knows them all-their separate histories, their ailments, their characters.

Now let it be observed how much in all this connection there is of heart-of real, personal attachment, almost inconceivable to us. It is strange bow deep the sympathy may become between the higher and the lower being: nay, even between the being that has life and what is lifeless. Alone almost in the desert, the Arab and his horse are one family. Alone in those vast solitudes, with no human being near, the shepherd and the sheep feel a life in common. Differences disappear, the vast interval between the man and the brute: the single point of union is felt strongly. One is the love of the protector: the other the love of the grateful life: and so between lives so distant there is woven by night and day, by summer suns and winter frosts, a living network of sympathy. The greater and the less mingle their being together: they feel each other. “The shepherd knows his sheep, and is known of them.”

The men to whom Christ said these words felt all this and more, the moment He had said them, which it has taken me many minutes to draw out in dull sentences: for He appealed to the familiar associations of their daily life, and calling Himself a Shepherd, touched strings which would vibrate with many a tender and pure recollection of their childhood. And unless we try, by realizing such scenes, to supply what they felt by association, the words of Christ will be only hard, dry, lifeless words to us: for all Christ’s teaching is a Divine poetry, luxuriant in metaphor, over, flowing with truth too large for accurate sentences, truth which only a heart alive can appreciate. More than half the heresies into which Christian sects have blundered, have merely come from mistaking for dull prose what prophets and apostles said in those highest moments of the soul, when seraphim kindle the sentences of the pen and lip into poetry. “This is my body.” Chill that into prose, and it becomes Transubstantiation. “I am the good Shepherd.” In the dry and merciless logic of a commentary, trying laboriously to find out minute points of ingenious resemblance in which Christ is like a Shepherd, the glory and the tenderness of this sentence are dried up.

But try to feel, by imagining what the lonely Syrian shepherd must feel towards the helpless things which are the companions of his daily life, for whose safety he stands in jeopardy every hour, and whose value is measurable to him not by price, but by his own jeopardy, and then we have reached some notion of the love which Jesus meant to represent, that eternal tenderness which bends over us-infinitely lower though we be in nature-and knows the name of each and the trials of each, and thinks for each with a separate solicitude, and gave Itself for each with a sacrifice as special and a love as personal, as if in the whole world’s wilderness there were none other but that one.

To the name Shepherd, Christ adds an emphatic word of much significance: “I am the good Shepherd.” Good, not in the sense of benevolent, but in the sense of genuine, true born, of the real kind-just as wine of nobler quality is good compared with the cheaper sort, just as a soldier is good or noble who is a soldier in heart, and not a soldier by mere profession or for pay. It is the same word used by St. Paul when he speaks of a good, i. e., a noble soldier of Christ. Certain peculiar qualifications make the genuine soldier certain peculiar qualifications make the genuine or good shepherd.

Now this expression distinguishes the shepherd from two sorts of men who may also be keepers of the sheep: shepherds, but not shepherds of the true blood. 1. From robbers. 2. From hirelings.

1. Robbers may turn shepherds: they may keep the sheep, but they guard them only for their own purposes, simply for the flesh and fleece; they have not a true shepherd’s heart, any more than a pirate has the true sailor’s heart and the true sailor’s loyalty. There were many such marauders on the hills of Galilee and Judea: such, for example, as those from whom David and his band protected Nabal’s flocks on Mount Carmel.

And many such nominal shepherds had the people of Israel had in by-gone years: rulers in whom the art of ruling had been but kingcraft; teachers whose instruction to the people had been but priestcraft. Government, statesmanship, teachership-these are pastoral callings-sublime, even Godlike. For only consider it: wise rule, chivalrous protection, loving guidance-what diviner work than these as the Master given to the shepherds of the people? But when the work is done, even well done, whether it be by statesmen or by pastors, for the sake of party or place, or honor, or personal consistency, or preferment, it is not the spirit of the genuine shepherd, but of the robber. No wonder He said, “All that ever came before Me were thieves and robbers.”

2. Hirelings are shepherds, but not good shepherds, of the right pure kind: they are tested by danger. “He that is a hireling, and not the good shepherd, whose own the sheep are not, seeth the wolf coming, and leaveth the sheep, and fleeth; and the wolf catcheth them, and scattereth the sheep.” Now a man is a hireling when he does his duty for pay. He may do it in his way faithfully. The paid shepherd would not desert the sheep for a shower or a cold night. But the lion and the bear-be is not paid to risk his life against them, and the sheep are not his, so be leaves them to their fate. So, in the same way, a man may be a hired priest, as Demetrius was at Ephesus: “By this craft we get our living.” Or a paid demagogue, a great champion of rights, and an investigator of abuses-paid by applause; and while popularity lasts be will be a reformer-deserting the people when danger comes. There is no vital union between the champion and the defenseless-the teacher and the taught. The cause of the sheep is not his cause.

Exactly the reverse of this Christ asserts in calling Himself the good Shepherd. He is a good, genuine, or trueborn sailor who feels that the ship is as it were his own; whose point of chivalrous honor is to save his ship rather than himself-not to survive her. He is a good, genuine, or true-born shepherd who has the spirit of his calling, is an enthusiast in it, has the true shepherd’s heart, and makes the cause of the sheep his cause.

Brethren, the cause of man was the cause of Christ! He did no hireling’s work. The only pay He got was hatred, a crown of thorns, and the cross. He might have escaped it all. He might have been the Leader of the people and their King. He might have converted the idolatry of an hour into the hosannas of a lifetime: it He would but have conciliated the Pharisees, instead of bidding them defiance and exasperating their bigotry against Him: if He would but have explained, and, like some demagogue called to account, trimmed away His sublime sharp-edged truths about oppression and injustice until they became harmless, because meaningless: if He would but have left unsaid those rough things about the consecrated temple and the sabbath-days: if He would but have left undisputed the hereditary title of Israel to God’s favor, and not stung the national vanity by telling them that trust in God justifies the Gentile as entirely as the Jew: if He would but have taught less prominently that hateful doctrine of the salvability of the heathen Gentiles and the heretic Samaritans, and the universal Fatherhood of God: if he would but have stated with less angularity of edge His central truth-that not by mere compliance with law, but by a spirit transcending law, even the spirit of the cross and self-sacrifice, can the soul of man be atoned to God:-that would have saved Him. But that would have been the desertion of the cause-God’s cause and man’s-the cause of the ignorant defenseless sheep, whose very salvation depended on the keeping of that Gospel intact: therefore the Shepherd gave His life a witness to the truth, and a sacrifice to God. It was a profound truth that the populace gave utterance to, when they taunted Him on the cross: “He saved others, Himself He can not save.” No, of course not; lie that will save others can not save Himself.

Of that pastoral character He gives here three proofs. I know My sheep-am known of mine-I lay down My life for the sheep.

I know my sheep, as the Father knoweth Me. In other words, as unerringly as His Father read His heart, so unerringly did He read the heart of man and recognize His own.

Ask we how? An easy reply, and a common one, would be-He recognized them by the Godhead in Him: His mind was Divine, therefore omniscient: He knew all things, therefore He knew what was in man: and therefore He knew His own. But we must not slur over His precious words in this way. That Divinity of His is made the pass-key by which we open all mysteries with fatal facility, and save ourselves from thinking of them. We get a dogma and cover truth with it: we satisfy ourselves with saying Christ was God, and lose the precious humanities of His heart and life.

There is here a deep truth of human nature, for be does not limit that recognizing power to Himself-He says that the sheep know Him as truly as He the sheep. He knew men on the same principle on which we know men-the same on which we know Him. The only difference is in degree: He knows with infinitely more unerringness than we, but the knowledge is the same in kind.

Let us think of this. There is a certain mysterious tact of sympathy and antipathy by which we discover the like and unlike of ourselves in others’ character. You can not find out a man’s opinions unless he chooses to express them; but his feelings and his character you may. He can not hide them: you feel them in his look and mein, and tones and motion. There is, for instance, a certain something in sincerity and reality which can not be mistaken-a certain something in real grief which the most artistic counterfeit can not imitate. It is distinguished by nature, not education. There is a something in an impure heart which purity detects afar off. Marvellous it is how innocence perceives the approach of evil which it can not know by experience, just as the dove which has never seen a falcon trembles by instinct at its approach; just as a blind man detects by finer sensitiveness the passing of the cloud which he can not see overshadowing the sun. It is wondrous how the truer we become the more unerringly we know the ring of truth, discern whether a man be true or not, and can fasten at once upon the rising lie in word and look, and dissembling act. Wondrous how the charity of Christ in the heart finely perceives the slightest aberration from charity in others, in ungentle thought or slanderous tone.

Therefore Christ knew His sheep by that mystic power always finest in the best natures, most developed in the highest, by which like detects what is like and what unlike itself. He was perfect love, perfect truth, perfect purity: therefore He knew what was in man, and felt, as by another sense, afar off the shadows of unlovingness, and falseness, and impurity.

No one can have read the Gospels without remarking that they ascribe to Him unerring skill in reading man. People, we read, began to show enthusiasm for Him. But Jesus did not trust Himself unto them, “for He knew what was in man.” He knew that the flatterers of to-day would be the accusers of to-morrow. Nathanael stood before Him. He had scarcely spoken a word; but at once unhesitatingly, to Nathanael’s own astonishment-“Behold an Israelite indeed, In whom there is no guile!” There came to Him a young man with vast possessions: a single sentence, an exaggerated epithet, an excited manner, revealed his character. Enthusiastic and amiable, Jesus loved him: capable of obedience, in life’s sunshine and prosperity, ay, and capable of aspiration after something more than mere obedience, but not of sacrifice. Jesus tested him to the quick, and the young man failed. He did not try to call him back, for He knew what was in him and what was not. He read through Zaccheus when he climbed into the sycamore-tree, despised by the people as a publican, really a son of Abraham: through Judas, with his benevolent saying about the selling of the alabaster-box for the poor, and his false kiss: through the curses of the thief upon the cross, a faith that could be saved: through the zeal of a man who in a fit of enthusiasm offered to go with Him whithersoever He would. He read through the Pharisees, and His whole being shuddered with the recoil of utter and irreconcilable aversion.

It was as if His bosom was some mysterious mirror on which all that came near Him left a sullied or unsullied surface, detecting themselves by every breath.

Now distinguish that Divine power from that cunning sagacity which men call knowingness in the matter of character. The worldly-wise have maxims and rules; but the finer shades and delicacies of truth of character escape them. They would prudently avoid Zaccheus-a publican: they-

There is a very solemn aspect in which this power of Jesus to know man presents itself. It is this which qualifies Him for judgment-this perfection of human sympathy. Perfect sympathy with every most delicate line of good implies exquisite antipathy to every shadow of a share of evil. God bath given Him authority to execute judgment also, because He is the Son of Man. On sympathy the final awards of heaven and hell are built: attraction and repulsion, the law of the magnet. To each pole all that has affinity with itself: to Christ all that is Christlike: from Christ all that is not Christlike-forever and forever. Eternal judgment is nothing more than the carrying out of these words, “I know my sheep:”-for the obverse of them is, “I never knew you, depart from me all ye that work iniquity.”

The second proof which Christ alleges of the genuineness of His pastorate is that His sheep know Him.

How shall we recognize truth Divine? What is the test by which we shall know whether it comes from God or not? They tell us we know Christ to be from God because He wrought miracles; we know a doctrine to be from God because we find it written: or because it is sustained by an universal consent of fathers.

That is-for observe what this argument implies-there is something more evident than truth: Truth can not prove itself: we want something else to prove it. Our souls judge of truth-our senses judge of miracles; and the evidence of our senses-the lowest part of our nature-is more certain than the evidence of our souls, by which we must partake of God.

Now to say so is to say that you can not be sure that it is midday or morning sunshine unless you look at the sun-dial: you can not be sure.that the sun is shining in the heavens unless you see his shadow on the dial-plate. The dial is valuable to a man who never reads the heavens-the shadow is good for him who has not watched the sun: but for a man who lives in perpetual contemplation of the sun in heaven, the sunshine needs no evidence, and every hour is known.

Now Christ says, “My sheep know Me.” Wisdom is justified by her children. Not by some lengthened investigation, whether the shepherd’s dress be the identical dress, and the staff and the crozier genuine, do the sheep recognize the shepherd. They know him, they bear his voice, they know him as a man knows his friend.

They know him, in short, instinctively. Just so does the soul recognize what is of God and true. Truth is like light. visible in itself, not distinguished by the shadows that it casts. There is a something, in our souls of God, which corresponds with what is of God outside us, and recognizes it by direct intuition: something in the true soul which corresponds with truth and knows it to be truth. Christ came with truth, and the true recognize it as true: the sheep know the shepherd, wanting no further evidence. Take a few examples: “God is Love.” “What shall a man give in exchange for his soul?” “He that saveth his life shall lose it: and he that loseth his life for my sake shall find it.” “All things are possible to him that believeth ... .. The sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath.” “God is a Spirit.”

Now the wise men of intellect and logical acumen wanted proof of these truths. Give us, said they, your credentials. “By what authority does thou these things?” They wanted a sign from heaven to prove that the truth was true, and the life He led, Godlike, and not devil-like. How can we be sure that it is not from Beelzebub, the prince of the devils, that these deeds and sayings come? We must be quite sure that we are not taking a message from hell as one from heaven. Give us demonstration, chains of evidence-chapter and verse-authority.

But simple men had decided the matter already. They knew very little of antiquity, church authority, and shadows of coming events which prophecy casts before: but their eyes saw the light, and their hearts felt the present God. Wise Pharisees and learned doctors said, to account for a wondrous miracle, “Give God the glory.” But the poor unlettered man,whose blinded eye had for the first time looked on a face of love, replied, “Whether this man be a sinner or not, I know not: one thing I know, that whereas I was blind, now I see.”

The well-read Jews could not settle the literary question, whether the marks of his appearance coincided with the prophecies. But the Samaritans felt the life of God: “Now we believe, not because of thy word, but because we have heard Him ourselves and know that this is indeed the Christ.”

The Shepherd had come, and the sheep knew his voice. Brethren, in all matters of eternal truth, the soul is before the intellect: the things of God are spiritually discerned. You know truth by being true: you recognize God by being like Him. The Scribe comes and says, I will prove to you that this is sound doctrine by chapter and verse, by what the old and best writers say, by evidence such as convinces the intellect of an intelligent lawyer or juryman. Think you the conviction of faith is got in that way?

Christ did not teach like the Scribes. He spoke His truth. He said, “If any man believe not, I judge him not; the word which I have spoken, the same shall judge him in the last day.” It was true, and the guilt of disbelieving it was not an error of the intellect but a sin of the heart. Let us stand upright: let us be sure that the test of truth is the soul within us. Not at second-hand can we have assurance of what is divine and what is not: only at first-hand. The sheep of Christ hear His voice.

The third proof given by Christ was pastoral fidelity: “I lay down my life for the sheep.” Now here is the doctrine of vicarious sacrifice: the sacrifice of one instead of another life saved by the sacrifice of another life.

Most of us know the meagre explanation of these words which satisfies the Unitarians: they say that Christ merely died as a martyr, in attestation of the truths He taught.

But you will observe the strength of the expression which we can not explain away, “I lay down my life for,” i. e, instead of “the sheep.” If the Shepherd had not sacrificed Himself, the sheep must have been the sacrifice.

Observe, however, the suffering of Christ was not the same suffering as that from which He saved us. The suffering of Christ was death. But the suffering from which He redeemed us by death was more terrible than death. The pit into which He descended was the grave. But the pit in which we should have been lost forever, was the pit of selfishness and despair.

Therefore St. Paul affirms, “If Christ be not risen, ye are yet in your sins.” If Christ’s resurrection be a dream, and He be not risen from the grave of death, you are yet in the grave of guilt. He bore suffering to free us from what is worse than suffering-sin: temporal death to save us from death everlasting: His life given as an offering for sin to save the soul’s eternal life.

Now in the text this sacrificing love of Christ is paralleled by the love of the Father to the Son. As He loved the sheep, so tile Father had loved Him. Therefore the sacrifice of Christ is but a mirror of the love of God. The love of the Father to the Son is self-sacrificing love.

You know that shallow men make themselves merry with this doctrine. The sacrifice of God, they say, is a figment and an impossibility. Nevertheless this parallel tells us that it is one of the deepest truths of all the universe. It is the profound truth which the ancient fathers endeavored to express in the doctrine of the Trinity. For what is the love of the Father to the Son-Himself yet not Himself-but the grand truth of Eternal Love losing Itself and finding Itself again in the being of another? What is it but the sublime expression of the unselfishness of God?

It is a profound, glorious truth; I wish I knew how to put it in intelligible words. But if these words of Christ do not make it intelligible to the heart, how can any words of mine? The life of blessedness-the life of love-the life of sacrifice-the life of God, are identical. All love is sacrifice-the giving of life and self for others. God’s life is sacrifice-for the Father loves the Son as the Son loves the sheep for whom He gave His life.

Whoever will humbly ponder upon this will, I think, understand the Atonement better than all theology can teach him. Oh, my brethren, leave men to quarrel as they will about the theology of the Atonement; here in these words is the religion of it-the blessed, all-satisfying religion for our hearts. The self-sacrifice of Christ was the satisfaction to the Father.

How could the Father be satisfied with the death of Christ, unless He saw in the sacrifice mirrored His own love?-for God can be satisfied only with that which is perfect as Him. self Agony does not satisfy God-agony only satisfied Moloch. Nothing satisfies God but the voluntary sacrifice of love.

The pain of Christ gave God no pleasure-only the love that was tested by pain-the love of perfect obedience. He was obedient unto death.