I Have Authority to Lay It Down and I Have Authority to Take It Up Again
I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. He who is a hireling, and not a shepherd, who is not the owner of the sheep, beholds the wolf coming, and leaves the sheep, and flees, and the wolf snatches them, and scatters them. He flees because he is a hireling, and is not concerned about the sheep. I am the good shepherd; and I know my own, and my own know me, even as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep. And I have other sheep, which are not of this fold; I must bring them also, and they shall hear my voice; and they shall become one flock with one shepherd. For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life that I may take it again. No one has taken it away from me, but I lay it down on my own initiative. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This commandment I received from my Father.
The Difference Between Renters and Owners
The interest rates on home loans are lower than they have been in years and so the housing market is hot. In March sales were 20% ahead of the same month last year. 5,588 homes were sold last month in the Twin Cities. One of the things people think about when houses are selling around them is not just who will live next door, but will they be renters or owners? Will the owner of the house next door be an absentee landlord, or will he be a homesteader in the building?
Now why does that matter? Well, as a matter of fact it may not matter in any given case. But statistically it matters because homesteaders tend to take better care of their property than renters do. It's not a good commentary on human nature, but in general it's true. Kids get a lot more angry about the misuse of their own bikes than they do about their misuse of other's. And adults are a lot more likely to throw trash out the window of their car than they are to throw it in their own backyard.
Our standards for our own homes and our own car and our own toys and our own tools is higher than our standards for the things of others. That's not good. It's one of the things Jesus came into the world to change (Matthew 7:12; Philippians 2:3–5). But that's the way human nature is apart from the transforming grace of God through Jesus Christ. And Jesus knew it and used it to contrast his commitment to his own sheep with the commitment of hired help.
The Shepherd, the Sheep, and the Hireling
He pictures himself in this text as a shepherd. And he pictures his people as the sheep that he owns and cares about. And in verses 12–13 he contrasts the way the owner responds to wolves and the way the hired help responds.
He who is a hireling, and not a shepherd, who is not the owner of the sheep, sees the wolf coming, and leaves the sheep, and flees, and the wolf snatches them, and scatters them. He flees because he is a hireling, and is not concerned about the sheep.
To the hireling sheep-tending is just a job. (It's just rental property, not a homestead.) They don't really care about the sheep. They are doing this to earn a living, not because they love sheep. And so they say, "No job is worth your life. If you're just working for a living, then you sure don't need a job that might kill you." So if a pack of wolves attacks your sheep, and you're just a hired hand, you run. You don't risk your life and fight the wolves. Who cares about a few sheep?
Who cares if the place gets trashed; it's not our house anyway. We understand these hired hands. We've dished it out ourselves at times, and we've had it dished out to us at times.
The Good Shepherd
But the reason Jesus mentions these hired hands is to show that he's not like that. He's not a hired hand. He's the good shepherd and the owner of the sheep. Verse 14: "I am the good shepherd; and I know my own, and my own know me."
The difference is that the hired hand loves his life more than the sheep, but Jesus loves his sheep more than his life. Four times in this passage Jesus says he lays down his life for the sheep. Verse 11: "I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep." Verse 15b: "I lay down my life for the sheep." Verse 17: "For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life." Verse 18: "No one has taken [my life] away from me, but I lay it down on my own initiative."
So Jesus is not a hired hand, because the sheep belong to him and because he loves the sheep more than he loves his own life.
When he sees the wolves coming, he does not leave the sheep to be destroyed. He fights the wolves and saves the sheep. And in doing it, he lays down his life for the sheep.
What's This Really About?
So what's this really talking about? What does it have to do with us? If we are the sheep that he loves, what are the wolves? What is it that threatens to destroy us?
Three Destroying Wolves
There are at least three things—three destroying wolves—mentioned in the gospel of John. Three wolves that Jesus lays down his life to save us from.
First there is the wolf of sin: John 1:29 says of Jesus, "Behold the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world." Sin is a wolf that destroys the world and cuts us off from God. And Jesus came into the world to draw the wolf of sin off the world onto himself, and to die in the place of his sheep. When the good shepherd sacrifices himself for the flock, he becomes like a Lamb and bears the sin of many (Isaiah 53:6–12).
The second and third wolves are death and divine judgment. Death is a great destroyer. It attacks and destroys everyone, great and small, rich and poor, men and women, every race, every creed. It is an omnivorous wolf of destruction. And after death comes judgment: "It is appointed unto man once to die, and after that the judgment" (Hebrews 9:27). Death does not destroy by ending what we had planned in this life and leading to nothingness. It destroys by ending what we had planned in this life and leading us into the courtroom of God Almighty whose law we have broken and whose glory we have despised (Romans 3:23).
Jesus Lays Down His Life to Destroy Them
But Jesus is not a weak shepherd. When those three wolves threaten his sheep, he lays down his life to destroy them and to save us from them. He says in John 5:24,
Truly, truly, I say to you, he who hears my word, and believes him who sent me, has eternal life, and does not come into judgment, but has passed out of death into life.
When Jesus laid down his life for the sheep, he saved us from three destroying wolves: sin and death and judgment. He saw them coming; he went out to meet them; he drew them away from the flock and gave his life to kill them and take away their power so that they could not destroy the flock.
Are the Sheep Left Shepherdless?
But now, if the story ended here, there would be a great problem. If a flock of sheep lose their shepherd because he laid down his life to save them from a pack of wolves, they are now shepherdless. And even if no more wolves come, they will sooner or later run out of green pasture and wander away into the desert valleys of death and perish. And in the end they will not be saved. And the death of the shepherd will have been in vain.
But the story doesn't end with a mangled shepherd lying dead among three dead wolves, and sheep scattered thirsting and starving in the desert. Verse 18 tells us why:
No one has taken [my life] away from me, but I lay it down on my own initiative. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This commandment I received from my Father.
Jesus' Authority and Jesus' Triumph
When Jesus came into the world to save his sheep from sin and death and judgment, he came with a commandment from his Father in heaven. The commandment was that he should die for sinners and rise again. And with the commandment came the authority to do it. "I have authority to lay down my life, and I have authority to take it up again."
He decided by his own authority when he would give himself into the jaws of sin and death and judgment. And after he had lain among the slain for three days, he alone had the authority to take back his life again.
And when he did, it became clear for all who would see that the battle had not been a draw: with sin and death and judgment just as triumphant as Jesus—with them dead and him dead, even-steven. No. He alone had authority as the Son of God to take back his life. And therefore he alone was triumphant. Sin and death and judgment can never again destroy the sheep of Jesus.
The Sheep Have a Shepherd
But not only that; the sheep now have a shepherd. Christianity is not merely being saved from sin and death and judgment; it also means having a living shepherd to guide you and feed you and heal you and protect you and help you love. The words of verse 14 are astonishing, if you've ever dreamed of a deep, deep, deep relationship: "I know my own, and my own know me, even as the Father knows me and I know the Father." Jesus took his life back again from death so that he might have that kind of personal relationship with all his sheep: "I know them and they know me; and the relationship that we enjoy is like the relationship between God the Son and God the Father." And there is no deeper, nor more satisfying, relationship in the world than the eternal relationship between God the Father and God the Son.
The Shepherd Has a Worldwide Mission to Fulfill
But there is more. He took back his life from sin and death and judgment not only to prove that he, and not they, was triumphant, and not only to give himself to his sheep in the deepest personal relationship, but also because he now has a worldwide mission to fulfill with the very authority with which he rose from the dead. Verse 16:
And I have other sheep, which are not of this fold; I must bring them also, and they shall hear my voice; and they shall become one flock with one shepherd.
Jesus didn't come into the world to lay down his life only for a few Jewish disciples in Palestine. He has other sheep that are not of that fold. He has sheep in Antioch, and Athens, and Rome, and Cairo, and London, and New York, and Mexico City, and Sao Paulo, and Tokyo, and Manila, and Sydney, and Singapore, and Jakarta, and Beijing, and Calcutta, and Kabul, and Tehran, and Moscow, and Minneapolis.
And he is not in the grave waiting to see if there might be enough recruits to bring him out. He is the living Shepherd, triumphant over death, and with authority over all the world to gather his own sheep from all the peoples of the world. After his resurrection he said, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations" (Matthew 28:18–19).
The Shepherd Cannot Be Defeated
And because he moves now through the world with the very authority that raised him from the dead, he cannot be defeated. His sheep will hear his voice and they will become one flock with one shepherd. The Christian movement began with a dozen blue-collar men filled with the love and the Spirit of the risen Christ, and today 1.3 billion people from every country of the world give some kind of allegiance to Jesus Christ. And we are perhaps only a few years away from seeing sheep gathered from every one of the 24,000 people groups in the world. The risen Christ cannot fail. He reigns by virtue of an indestructible life, with absolute authority over every created reality.
Are You One of Christ's Sheep?
And so the utterly crucial question for each of us this morning is this: Are we his sheep? Are you one of Christ's sheep today? That is, do you hear his voice? Do you follow him? Do you trust in his saving work and promise of life? This is what it means to be his sheep. John 10:27–28,
My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me; and I give eternal life to them, and they shall never perish; and no one shall snatch them out of my hand.
I plead with every one of you this morning: Listen to the voice of Jesus, and follow him when he calls you to trust him. You will not come into judgment but will pass from death into life (John 5:24).