To be known is to be loved. All people have a deep need to belong; when we do not have a sense of belonging, we will look for it relentlessly. We long for this in our families and with our friends. In the relationships where we are known intimately yet still accepted, we count those as safe places to hide from the world and a trusted refuge for life. A good leader will help those who are following him to feel known, accepted, and to have a sense of belonging. He will care for them, look out for them and guard them and by doing so, he will gain an ever-increasing trust in his followers.

The greatest level of trust exists in environments where we are known and accepted. This happens in relationships where we are more than mere acquaintance, servants or employees. True intimacy exists when two people know each other. As they grow in their knowledge of each other’s character, preferences, and past, they still keep loving one another and working toward the same goal. While this is a sweet bond between two people, it is the sweetest between God and us.

Knowing or Being Known by God

In the Bible, we see many invitations to know God—but we also see many illustrations of God knowing us. The Apostle Paul gave many exhortations about the importance of being “known” by God. While the New Testament invites us to know God, it proclaims that it is even more wondrous that we are known by God. In passages like 1 Corinthians 8:3, Galatians 4:9 and 2 Timothy 2:19, Paul tells us to embrace the wonder of being known and accepted by God. One of greatest passages he wrote about being known by God is found in 1 Corinthians 13:12 where it states, “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known” (emphasis mine). This side of heaven, we can only see God vaguely and obscurely—but there is coming a time when we will see God clearly, at the same level we already have been “fully known.” God already knows us completely; this should not be frightening, but joyous to our soul. We trust Him as our sovereign, unchanging and trustworthy God. God knows us and accepts us, loves us, and redeems us like a caring shepherd.

The Bible Presents Leadership as Shepherding

Throughout the Old Testament we see references to God as the “Shepherd” of His people. The way He led His people in the wilderness is referred to as His faithful shepherding of them in Psalm 77. He protected His sheep (Num. 14:7–9; Deut. 23:14), provided for their needs (Ps. 78:19,105:40–41), and healed their wounds (Ex. 15:26; Num. 21:8–9). The prophets refer to God’s shepherding leadership time and again (Is. 40:11; Jer. 3:15; 23:1-2, Hos. 11:4).[1] David is quick to use the idea of shepherding when speaking about God and to God, as this labeling certainly carried a special analogy of leadership for this shepherd boy turned king.

It is not just the Old Testament that captures this aspect of God that is to be accepted and emulated by us. Jesus also mentions the shepherd in nature of the Father’s leadership several times in the Gospel.[2] One of the most prominent passages about shepherding is found in John 10:1-18. In this passage, Jesus is speaking of His role as He serves at the pleasure of the Father to love, guard, and care for the sheep. There are many leadership lessons we can grasp from His model. This is a passage to first be internalized for our own trust and growth and then modeled for those whom we lead.

John 10:1-18 — setting the scene for the Shepherd-leader

Jesus had just healed a man born blind in John 9. In his healing of the man, He was compassionate, not shaming, and quick to use this man as an opportunity to speak to the disciples and the opposing Jews about the love of God and the forgiveness He gives to those who believe (Jn. 9:35-41). After concluding His statements about believing and opening the door for the man and others to be freed from their guilt, He gives a clear picture of who He is, what He does, and why He can be trusted.

Jesus said in John 10;1-2, “[1] Truly, truly, I say to you, he who does not enter the sheepfold by the door but climbs in by another way, that man is a thief and a robber. [2] But he who enters by the door is the shepherd of the sheep.”

The first century listener would have heard Jesus speaking about this sheepfold and had a clear picture in their mind of what that looked like: it was a container for the sheep, usually made of stone.[3] It could have also been constructed of sharp sticks with thick sides. Jesus says that the shepherd goes in through the door, but the thief or the robber go over the side. He defines for us what The Great Shepherd is like, making it clear that He is welcoming to His sheep, inviting them to feel at home.

The Shepherd-leader is Welcoming

Not only does He enter by the door—calmly, safely and approachable—but He also becomes the door. He does not climb over walls or lobbing in religious bombs to the flock of sheep to convert them or convince them to follow. He personally enters and interacts with the sheep. By entering gently, He makes a way for their security with God. The idea of Jesus not only being the Shepherd, but also being the door is mentioned in John 10:7, “So Jesus again said to them, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep.’”

Jesus is modeling a level of high invitation and comfort as a leader. He does not force His way in, or coerce His followers to enter in. Rather, He welcomes them and is a welcoming leader. This is an attribute we should mimic in our own shepherding-leadership. If we are not providing a safe place for those we lead to enter into the conversation and the mission, we will minimize their gifts and marginalize the opportunity for them to feel known.

A great Bible Scholar, long dead, Sir George Adam Smith tells a story of a time when he was traveling in Israel (historic Palestine):

Traveling with the guide, he came across a shepherd sheep. He fell into conversation with him. The man showed him the fold into which the sheep were late at night. It consisted of four walls, with only one-way in. Sir George said to him, “this is where they go at night?”

“Yes,” said the shepherd, “and when they are in there they are perfectly safe.”  “But there is no door,” said Sir George. “I am the door,” said the shepherd.

He was not a Christian man; he was not speaking in the language of the New Testament. He was speaking from the Arab shepherd standpoint. Sir George looked at him and said, “what do you mean you’re the door?”

The shepherd replied, “when the light has gone, and all the sheep are inside, I live in the open space and no sheep ever goes out but across my body and no wolf ever comes in unless it crosses my body; I am the door.” [4]

Jesus welcomes the sheep in and is their safe gate. He welcomes those who come, and to him the gatekeeper opens (v. 3). The sheep hear His voice, and He calls His own sheep by name and leads them out. Which leads to the next thing the Great Shepherd does and models for us in leadership: He clearly calls and directs His sheep (vs. 3, 5-6).

A Shepherd-leader is Clear and Directive

Notice the intimacy herein this passage — “He calls them by name” (v. 3). They hear His voice and respond; He knows the sheep and the sheep know Him. There is a deep care for and understanding of each other. There is no more valuable relationship than creation knowing and being known by the Creator. Similarly, when a leader knows his followers, he will better care for them, protect them and guide them. Verse five contrasts Jesus’ leadership with the voice of a stranger. John 10:5-6 states, “[5] A stranger they will not follow, but they will flee from him, for they do not know the voice of strangers.” [6] This figure of speech Jesus used with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.”

They did not follow the stranger because they did not know Him, or they were not known by Him. When it comes to following Christ, familiarity with the voice of God comes by knowing the heart of God (vv. 3-5). As His sheep, we should be spending time in God’s Word, prayer, fellowship and listening to the Holy Spirit. He makes Himself known to us at salvation and continually through our sanctification. As we know our shepherd, we develop a trust in Him that goes far beyond all circumstances.

Unlike Western shepherds who drive the sheep often using sheepdogs or driving them from the back. The shepherds of the Near East now and in Jesus’ day lead their flocks by calling them and leading from the front. This mental picture of a shepherd going ahead of his sheep and drawing them out is a powerful image of the master-disciple relationship. It models for us what servant leadership should be like in our own ministry as we mimic Christ’s leadership. The sheep follow because they know His voice; but at the same time they will run from anyone else they do not recognize. True shepherd-leaders are clear in the directing and calling of their followers. Nothing is left up to accident in Christ’s call on our life. In the same way, we should carry great intentionality when guiding the sheep; we are called to know, lead, and love.

The Shepherd-leader is Protective

This is the third characteristic of the Great Shepherd seen in this passage is that He goes before His sheep. He prepares the way for us. He knows what is coming to harm us before we encounter it, providing for us needed security and provision. The image of the shepherd is an extremely important biblical picture of a “leader” (Num 27:17) because it implies not only an intensely personal relationship between God’s people and their leaders but a style or model of leadership exemplified by Jesus (cf. Mark 6:34). The very word “leadership” is developed from the shepherd imagery, where the shepherd goes before the flock and encounters the problems of the flock first.[5]

John 10:4 says, “When he has brought out all his own, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice.” Jesus continues in verse 8 and says, “[8] All who came before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them.” He is contrasting himself with the thief and the robber. Jesus is saying that the thief or robber will do anything to brutalize the sheep. The thief only has his own benefit in mind. The shepherd has what is best for His sheep in mind.

Jesus as the Shepherd-leader goes first to protect the sheep from (1) False teachers, those who claim other ways to find life or hope. He also (2) protects them from other deceived sheep. These may be unbelievers who do not seek God’s truth, or they take the truth of Christ and twist it. Usually a self-serving, low-view of God with only temporary happiness in mind.

The thief tries to kill your relationship with God by eliminating your hope in the one true Shepard. He tries to steal your affection, loyalty, love and service. He tries to destroy your knowledge, faith and dependence on God. Thieves care least about eternal outcome but work tirelessly for temporary tragedy. Our enemy is real and the protection of the Shepherd is needed. The thieves and robbers paint a picture of those with selfish motives and brutal attacks; Jesus as Shepherd gives a picture of security, ownership, comfort and safety that comes only through Him.

In the same way, as we lead in the marketplace or in the church, we must remember that we lead on behalf of God. The enemy wants to destroy us and the reputation of God on earth. We follow Jesus’ example by going before our sheep, clearing the way (the best we can) of any spiritual, relational or moral obstacles. We work hard to protect the area of domain we have been entrusted with so that our sheep are protected from harm.

The Shepherd-leader is Selfless

Jesus models a selflessness that provides security for His sheep. In John 10:9-10 Jesus say, “[9] I am the door. If anyone enters by me, he will be saved and will go in and out and find pasture. [10] The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.”

Verse 10 is akin to John 14:6, “I am the way the truth and life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” This word picture Jesus uses is the proverbial way of insisting that there is only one means of receiving true and eternal life. He selflessly gives His own life to save the sheep from the one who comes to kill and destroy, so they may have life. His goodness as a leader and Savior is found in the fact that He lays down His life.[6]

John 10:11-14, “[11] I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. [12] He who is a hired hand and not a shepherd, who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees, and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. [13] He flees because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep. [14] I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, [15] just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep.”

It is clear: The Good Shepherd is selfless. Verse 11 is repeated again in verse 14 — “the good shepherd.” The shepherding analogy paints the picture of a loving caretaker. He loves those who are His by covenant or grafted into His family.[7] One commentator wrote, “There is more in Jesus, the Good Shepherd, than you can pack away in a shepherd. He is the good, great, the chief Shepherd and much more! Creation is too small a frame in which to hang his likeness. Human thought is too small, human speech too feeble, to set him forth to the full. He is inconceivable above our conceptions, unutterably above our utterances.”[8]

Jesus is good because He is selfless, but His selflessness is what allowed for us to access the goodness of God. He laid his life down for us selflessly, which is reiterated several times:

  • 11: “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”
  • 15: “I lay down my life for the sheep.”
  • 17: “I lay down my life”
  • 18: “I lay it down of my own accord”

Any other leader would give up on the sheep (vv. 12-13). There is no one, except for God Himself, who would take on the wrath of God for their enemy. Yet that is precisely what Jesus did for us. He had great love and care for us and laid His life down so that we could access all of the goodness found only in God.

The Shepherd-leader is Compassionate

There is a place I go in Israel called “the teardrop church.” It is perched about halfway up on the mount of Olives. The church is marking the supposed site of the place where Jesus looked over Jerusalem and wept. There are several times we are told in the Gospels that Jesus saw the hurting helpless people and was brought to tears. One of those instances is in Matthew 9:36 where it says, “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” The word “compassion” here is a translation of the Greek word that conveys the idea of feeling it in his stomach—feeling it as deeply as you can.

This is not the way some “hired-hand” (i.e. a religious leader) would feel (v. 13). There is no second-rate compassion in Christ’s leadership. Rather, Jesus, as the true Shepherd, feels for the sheep and has compassion on them. His compassion compelled Him to die for us, but He also stayed with them and knows them. Verse 14 and 15 paint a picture of a shepherd who is not quick to run away, but will remain faithful, even when we are faithless. Jesus stays with them, knows them and has compassion on them. We too, as shepherd-leaders should have deep compassion for those under our care that moves us to act selflessly on their behalf.

Moreover, Jesus’ death is hereby presented as a sacrifice for the redemption of his sheep.[9] This emphasis is on the intentionality of Jesus’ sacrifice grounded in Jesus’ intimacy with His sheep. Oh, what intimacy if He would say that He knows us like He knows the Father! Jesus gave Himself over to death by submitting Himself to a cross. He did not die fighting a battle with the world, but died for the world, taking on the fury of God on our behalf. Willingly. Submissively. Selflessly.

The Shepherd-leader Pleases the Lord

The selfless leadership of Christ is a model for us as it made a way for salvation and ultimately pleased God. John 10:17 records Jesus as saying, “[17] For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life that I may take it up again. [18] No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This charge I have received from my Father.”

Jesus says, “I give my life on my own accord and this fulfills God’s mission.” He could have called 10,000 angels to His rescue, but He willingly and desirously went through with the plan. He submitted Himself to God’s wrath so that we would never have to experience it. This was His own decision—not forced by anyone, seemingly not even the Father. John 19:30 captures this again in the moment it happened by saying, “He… gave up His Spirit.” He willingly laid His life down for us, so that we may know God.

The ultimate Shepherd allows His sheep to have what is best for them, even if it means sacrificing Himself to gain it for them.[10] It was His pleasure to do so! This willing sacrifice of the Shepherd-leader, Jesus Christ, pleases the Lord. So also, a true shepherd-leader should strive for one goal: the please the Lord. It is our chief-end in leadership to please God. We do so by living in obedience to His commands (Jn. 15:8-11).

Conclusion

According to John 10, the model of Christ shows us that the Shepherd-leader is:

  • Welcoming (vv. 1-2)
  • Clear and directive (vv. 3-6)
  • Protective (vv. 4, 7-8)
  • Selfless (vv. 9-11, 15, 18a)
  • Compassionate (vv. 12-14)
  • Pleasing to the Lord (vv. 16-18)

We have the high privilege of being able to serve under the true Shepherd as we lead others. It should be our goal to please the Lord by emulating the leadership of Christ we see in the New Testament. As He is willing to lead people to salvation, so we should joyfully lead people in His mission.


[1] Jamieson, Bobby, Biblical Theology and Shepherding https://www.9marks.org/article/biblical-theology-and-shepherding/. Accessed on June 4, 2018.

[2]  D. A. Carson, The Gospel according to John, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Leicester, England; Grand Rapids, MI: Inter-Varsity Press; W.B. Eerdmans, 1991), 379.

[3] Chad Brand, Charles Draper, et al., eds., “Sheepfold,” Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary (Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, 2003), 1479.

[4] Hughes, R. Kent. John: That You May Believe. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2014.) 267.

[5] Gerald L. Borchert, John 1–11, vol. 25A, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1996), 332.

[6] Colin G. Kruse, John: An Introduction and Commentary, vol. 4, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 232.

[7] L. Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans publishing co., 1938), 714.

[8] Hughes, Kent, John: That You May Believe (Preaching the Word), The Good Shepherd, part 1, Crossway. 199. 269.

[9] Robert Jamieson, A. R. Fausset, and David Brown, Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible, vol. 2 (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997), 147.

[10] Kenneth O. Gangel, John, vol. 4, Holman New Testament Commentary (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2000), 199.


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