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04 November 2019

Jesus is the good pastor: The sheep come first.

John 10.11-21.

Roman Catholics tend to call their clergymen “father,” but Protestants prefer “pastor,” which means “shepherd.” Some Protestants are okay with “father” too, but some of ’em really aren’t. Usually they’re anti-Catholics, who like to argue we’re not to call one another “father” because Jesus said so; because we only have one Father, in heaven. Mt 23.9 Fine. But in today’s bible passage, Jesus points out we only have one pastor, namely him, Jn 10.16 so if they wanna be so literal about the one passage, it’s kinda hypocritical for them to ignore the other. But I digress.

If we’re using Jesus as our example (’cause duh) we need to look at the ways in which he’s our pastor, and should expect the same of our various church leaders—whether we formally gave ’em the title “pastor” or not. And when Jesus speaks about being the good pastor, he defined it in pretty much one sentence, the one right after “I’m the good pastor.”

John 10.11-18 KWL
11 “I’m the good pastor. The good pastor puts down his soul for the sheep.
12 For the hiree, who’s not a pastor, the sheep aren’t theirs.
They see the wolf coming and abandon the sheep and flee. The wolf snatches them and scatters.
13 This is how a hiree is: Unconcerned about the sheep.
14 I’m the good shepherd. I know who’s mine, and my own know me,
15 just as the Father knows me, and I know the Father. I put down my soul for the sheep.
16 I have other sheep, who aren’t from this sheepfold: I have to bring them in.
They’ll hear my voice, and they’ll become one flock with one pastor.
17 This is why my Father loves me: I put down my soul so I might pick it up again.
18 Nobody takes my soul away from me, but I put it down on my own.
I have the power to put it down, and I have the power to pick it back up again:
I received this command from my Father.”

In case you missed it, ’cause some of us are pretty dense when it comes to reading comprehension: The good pastor puts down his soul for the sake of their sheep. The sheep come first. Not the pastor.

It’s really popular nowadays for pastors to get up in front of their congregations and proclaim how some things in their life have to take priority over their congregations. Like their spouse and kids. Like their physical and mental health. Sometimes—I kid you not—their creature comforts; the reason they gotta have two weeks vacation four times a year is because ministering to this church is so hard. And of course ministry is hard; we minister to sinners, and some of these sinners are mighty selfish! But I absolutely disagree our personal lives should take priority. No they shouldn’t. Jesus’s didn’t. He shared his eternal life with the entire world, and offers it to us as our salvation.

Pastors need to learn how to minister to their families and church families, simultaneously. How to budget their time properly. How to take proper Sabbaths instead of working seven days a week and burning out. How to teach the kids their soccer games don’t take precedence over Sunday morning services; how sometimes a needy person’s dire circumstances really do come before family.

Particularly now to not covet the conspicuous materialism of their more worldly church members, and justify doing likewise on the grounds they work so hard, so God’s gonna reward them with Mammon. Your working-class church members also work hard; sometimes harder. How d’you think they feel when the pastors whose salaries they donate to, take pleasure trips they can’t possibly afford? Maybe it’s not right that they feel envy, but still: Look at all the vacations Jesus took in the gospels—and notice he wouldn’t stop ministering on every single one of them. So much so, his family thought he was nuts. Because his flock always came first. Still does.

“Laying down one’s life.”

Historically verse 15 gets translated like the KJV has it:

John 10.15 KJV
As the Father knoweth me, even so know I the Father: and I lay down my life for the sheep.

“I lay down my life for the sheep” is how they translated τὴν ψυχὴν αὐτοῦ τίθησιν ὑπὲρ τῶν προβάτων/tin sykhín aftú títhisin ypér ton prováton, “the soul of me, I put down on behalf of the sheep.” Usually we interpret it to mean Jesus is gonna die for his sheep. Mainly because the bit about putting his soul down, then picking it back up again, Jn 10.17-18 implies he’s gonna die and be resurrected.

But it doesn’t just mean that. When people die, we don’t just put down our lifeforce, as if it’s a heavy box. It gets extinguished. It’s gone; we’re dead. Resurrection means God has to re-create our souls and put it in us. He doesn’t just go fetch our old, discarded souls, dust ’em off, and hand ’em back. We get a new, eternal, immortal soul—and live forever.

Putting down one’s soul is therefore a metaphor for submission: Jesus makes his flock a priority. He’s not the priority; we are. If I put down my soul on behalf of my kids, it does not mean I die for them, though I’d do that if it came to that. It means I surrender my lifeforce: My energy, my time, my efforts, my agendas, my likes and dislikes, my desires, my all. It means I think of them before I think of myself.

That’s a challenge. Especially when the people I gotta minister to, are being selfish and awful. But that’s what ministers have to do. That’s what Jesus did. His flock is his greatest concern. We are his greatest concern.

I know: Plenty of Christians claim doing the Father’s will is Jesus’s greatest concern. After all, didn’t he say so?

Actually… no he didn’t. He does say he only does as he sees the Father doing, Jn 5.19 but that’s not because he has to do as we do, and hew closely to the Father as part of a lifestyle of repentance. Jesus never sinned, He 4.15 so he had nothing to repent. He never had to transform his life and conform to God’s will like we do: He already shared God’s will. It’s one of the benefits of having a built-in divine nature. We don’t have that; we gotta learn it. Our lives must change; Jesus’s life didn’t need to. He naturally did as the Father wanted. We don’t.

So he didn’t stress about performing the Father’s will. Instead he stressed about us performing the Father’s will. As always. Throughout the Old Testament, the LORD regularly reminded the Hebrews to stick to his Law, like they promised, so their lives would be blessed. And when we don’t, there’s grace; dust yourself off and go back to following him! Let him save you. Let him give us more than we ever imagined. Jn 10.10

So to help us along, Jesus puts his own lifeforce second. And nobody’s forcing him to do it. It’s a voluntary surrender on his part. It’s an act of love. This, Jesus says, is the reason the Father loves him: Because Jesus loves us. (There are lots of other reasons too, but this is a good reason.)

Some Christians debate whether the Father obligates Jesus to love us, ’cause Jesus does say “I received this command from my Father.” Jn 10.18 If this is the Father’s ἐντολὴν/entolín, “command,” is Jesus really acting out of his own free will, or had the Father commanded Jesus to carry out this mission, and even die for us?

And again: Jesus already shares God’s will. If you wanna do something, and your boss orders, “Okay, go do this,” it’s not so much a command as it is authorization to go do as you already wanna do. It’s sorta like when Nehemiah wanted to rebuild Jerusalem’s wall, but couldn’t really do it till the king of Persia ordered him to do it. Ne 2.5-8 Jesus totally wanted to put down his life for his sheep, and the Father’s command means he all the divine authority to do it. And pick his life back up, if and when he so chooses.

Hirelings, and other flocks.

Jesus compared the good pastor with a μισθωτὸς/misthotós, “wage-earner,” or employee or hiree. This’d be someone who’s not the pastor: Somebody the pastor temporarily hires to watch the flock for a few minutes while the pastor’s off on other business. They’re not really in charge.

Hence they’re not someone the pastor can honestly trust with huge tasks. ’Cause when a real challenge comes, the hiree’s not up to it. If a pack of wolves came to attack the sheep, back in these pre-gunpowder days, the hiree wouldn’t necessarily know how to defend themselves, much less the flock. They’d turn tail and run.

Whereas pastors knew how to fight off wolves. They’d learned, by hard experience, somebody’s gotta do the job—and that’s them. Get out the sling and start hurling rocks. Get out the stick or machete, and beat and stab them.

Same deal with Christian leaders and our churches. When someone comes into the church building, and they clearly need assistance, physical healing, psychological counseling, or even an exorcism, whom do you think everybody looks to? Yep, the pastor. Buck stops there. And when the pastor’s not in the building, it’s rare you’ll find anyone who says, “Pastor’s not here, but I can help you”: Instead they’ll quickly text the pastor, or say, “Pastor’s not here; come back later.”

’Cause the other folks in the church building aren’t pastors. They’re hirees. They don’t think of the congregation as their responsibility. It’s not theirs.

The KJV refers to these folks as “hirelings,” and that word has become Christianese for “pastor who’s not actually in charge.” Different churches have different leadership structures, and sometimes the pastor isn’t in charge: The bishop is, or the denomination’s headquarters are. Or the elders hired the pastor, so they’re really in charge. Or the congregation elected him, and they can just as easily recall him when he pushes ’em too far. In all these cases, the pastor isn’t actually free to lead them wherever Jesus points: The pastor is their hireling.

But in this passage, when Jesus refers to a hiree, he doesn’t mean a neutered pastor. He’s talking about himself, and contrasting himself with someone who’s not a good pastor. He steps up and defends his flock from wolves. A hiree would figure, “Ain’t my sheep,” and do no such thing. Neutered pastors often do care about their flocks, and would defend them… if they could. But their sheep don’t trust them with a sling.

Lastly I should mention Jesus’s reference to “other sheep.” Jn 10.16 Latter-day Saints claim it’s a prophecy about the American Indians, ’cause they claim after Jesus was raptured, he came right back down to earth to visit ancient North America and preach the gospel to them. They’re sorta on the right track: Jesus of course is referring to people who weren’t yet Christian, to whom he’s gonna reach out. Sometimes personally, like he did with Saul of Tarsus; Ac 9.3-5 sometimes through his apostles. Either way, there are other people to add to the sheepfold.

More controversy.

Jesus taught these things after he’d cured a blind man, which stirred up controversy ’cause he did it on Sabbath, and the blind guy’s synagogue expelled him over it, so Jesus called them blind. They needed to see he’s the gate, and he’s the good pastor.

Of course these claims were too much for a lot of them, so they objected.

John 10.19-21 KWL
19 Again, there was a split among the Judeans about this message.
20 Many said of him, “He has a demon. He’s crazy. Why do you listen to him?”
21 Others said, “These sayings aren’t demonized!—a demon can’t open blind eyes!”

“Crazy” and its ancient euphemism “has a demon” are convenient ways for people to dismiss what they’re not comfortable with. If you can’t handle the truth, it’s much easier to claim the truth-teller is nuts, than to admit you follow falsehood… or just don’t care. That’s where the Judeans were who wanted to dismiss Jesus as out of his mind.

The rest rightly pointed out, “A demon can’t open blind eyes!” Something happened here, and either Jesus is working in the Almighty’s power… or perhaps maybe we’ve all gone wrong.

Christ Almighty!