First, some remarks concerning the nature of sheep.
Then contrasting the Shepherd and the Thief or Stranger:
Concerning their legitimacy, their voice, and finally their purpose.
I saw recently on the internet (so it must be true), that the Merriam-Webster dictionary has updated its entries once again, and a new word it has added is the word, “sheeple”. You can see how this somewhat pejorative portmanteau made from “sheep” and “people” means to compare certain people with sheep who blindly, trustingly, and perhaps foolishly follow their leader.
Martin Luther comment similarly on the foolishness of sheep:
Sheep, you know, are most foolish and stupid animals. When we want to speak of anybody’s stupidity we say, “He is a sheep.” Nevertheless, it has this trait above all other animals, that it soon learns to heed its shepherd’s voice and will follow no one but its shepherd, and though it cannot help and keep and heal itself, nor guard itself against the wolf, but is dependent upon others, yet it always knows enough to keep close to its shepherd and look to him for help. Now, Christ uses this trait or nature of the animal as an illustration in explaining that he is the good shepherd. In this manner he plainly shows what his kingdom is, and wherein it consists, and would say: My kingdom is only to rule the sheep; that is poor, needy wretched men, who well see and realize that there is no other help or counsel for them.
To confess we are sheep, therefore, is to admit our limitations, our need, our weakness. It is tantamount to confessing our sin, which is what has put us in this predicament of neediness. Thanks be to God we have, in Jesus, the Good Shepherd, who even lays down his life for the sheep!
But the good part about sheep can also be that they are trusting – if their trust is well placed. What is foolishness to the world, is wisdom when it comes to God. And so sheep that follow a Good Shepherd will be well cared for.
So what do we know about this Good Shepherd? Throughout this passage, Jesus casts a contrast between himself, the Good Shepherd, and the thief and stranger, or in other passages the “hired hand”. And the first of these contrasts has to do with the way the Good Shepherd enters, or comes to his sheep – as opposed to the way of the thief and robber.
Just who is this thief or robber? Of course, we first of all think of the original enemy, the Devil himself. He who slithered into Eden and stole away the holiness of Adam and Eve, who handed it over willingly. He who would steal away any of the sheep, if he could, from the flock of God's people. A prowling lion looking for someone to devour. A ravenous wolf who often comes in sheep's clothing.
But it could also include any false prophet or false teacher who seeks to lead the sheep astray. Indeed, Jesus indicates that many of these thieves and robbers came before him. False Messiahs abounded. False gods were worshipped. False religions led many astray. And the original thief, the Devil, certainly delighted in it all.
The Devil comes, though he is not invited. He usurps a role that is not his, like when he offered to give Jesus all the nations of the world if he'd simply bow before him. For one, the nations aren't his to give. And for two, the worship isn't his to receive.
Likewise, all false preachers and teachers are illegitimate. They climb over the fence, but do not have the authority to be there. And even a pastor who is rightly called and ordained exceeds his authority and delegitimizes himself when he preaches a word other than the word of God. There is only one way into the sheep pen, and it is through the truth – the Gospel of Jesus Christ crucified for sinners. No self-help, power of positive thinking, name it and claim it, look within yourself false gospel will do. Only Jesus born and crucified and risen and ascended for you.
For his part, Jesus comes with the legitimate authority. The true Shepherd. The sheep belong to him. They were created by him. The sheep owe everything to him, even though he came to his own who did not know him. He doesn't need to sneak in, for he comes with all the legitimacy and authority there is.
And when Jesus preached he did so publicly, teaching openly in the synagogues and the temple. His word today is also preached publicly, proclaimed openly. There are no secrets in the Christian church – no decoder rings or secret handshakes. His word is plainly set forth for all to see. The doctrines of the church are public and for all, they are not secret for the select few.
And in the church things are done in good order. All regard the vocations in which the Lord has placed us. It all starts with our Good Shepherd, who obeyed his calling perfectly, and “became obedient even unto death, even death on the cross. Therefore God the Father has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name.”
Yes, God the Father accepted His Son's sacrifice, and raised him in glory from death to show just that. Thus the Good Shepherd bears the ultimate seal of approval, the utmost mark of authority, the all-surpassing legitimacy of one who has power, even over death.
The Good Shepherd has legitimate authority, unlike the thief. And the Good Shepherd's voice also stands in contrast to the Stranger. When our Good Shepherd speaks, we, the sheep, know his voice. Faithful sheep who have been taught the Gospel and believe it can hear the voice of the Good Shepherd through whatever mouthpiece he chooses to speak it. Faithful sheep know when they're being fed cutes stories, or what their itching ears may desire, and when they are not hearing the letter that kills and the Spirit that gives life.
It's that voice of Jesus, the voice of his Gospel, that makes us his sheep to being with. It is the Spirit of Jesus, through the word, that calls and gathers the sheep and sanctifies and keeps the sheep.
I've been talking with our youth over the past few Sundays about how, for example, the simple teachings of the Catechism can help us give answer to almost any question of theology. These basic teachings reflect the voice of our Good Shepherd, and help us filter out the strange voices which would cry for our attention and trust. And when it comes time for you, should you move away, to find a new congregation... are you listening for the true voice of the Good Shepherd?
When you hear the voice of the stranger, what should you do? Run away! Flee from false teaching. Make no room for man-centered doctrine and preaching. Only the truth can set us free. Only the voice of the Good Shepherd is worth hearing and obeying. Jesus is the door, after all, the only way in to safety for his sheep. He is the WAY, the truth and the life, the only way, that is. Every other way leads to destruction and death.
And finally, a contrast in purpose between the Good Shepherd and the Thief. Jesus says, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.”
The thief, that is the Devil, any of his henchmen, or anyone concerned with his own agenda that is at odds with Christ – is there only to do harm. They are working against the sheep and for their own selfish purposes. But Jesus the Good Shepherd comes to do the opposite. He comes with abundant life in a free offer. He comes not to take, but to give. He comes not to steal, but to lay down his everything for you, dear sheep.
So be a sheep. Trust in the Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ. He openly and freely gives you all the blessings won by his cross and resurrection. He speaks to you, even today, with a voice that you know... a voice that forgives sins and therefore brings abundant life. Tune out the stranger's voice. And fear not the thief and robber. You belong to the Good Shepherd, who will lead you to lush valleys and still waters, who will prepare a feast before your enemies, and anoint your head with oil while your cup overflows. And you, dear sheep, will dwell in the house of the Lord forever. In Jesus Christ, Amen.