On the evening of February 28, 1909, a passenger train climbed a mountain slope through Shiokari Pass in Japan. Inexplicably, the last carriage car came uncoupled from the train and began to slide back down the hill. Inside, the passengers panicked as the car picked up speed. Passenger Masao Nagano, who was also head of the Transportation Office, knew that the tracks behind them took a sharp turn. At their rate of speed, they wouldn’t be able to take the turn and would certainly derail.
Nagano, a devout Christian, who was on his way home to marry his sweetheart, knew he had to act fast in order to save his fellow passengers. He pulled the emergency brake which slowed the car down, but it was still moving too fast to take the turn. There was only one option left. He moved to the back of the car, looked at all the bewildered passengers, waved goodbye, and jumped out of the train to lay his life down on the tracks. His body stopped the train and everyone on board was saved.
Later, rescuers discovered that Nagano was carrying his Last Will and Testament inside his coat pocket. It read, “I am equally grateful for all the hardships, happiness, life, and death. With gratitude, I offer all I have to God.” Nagano offered all he had by laying down his life, not for his friends, but for dozens of strangers on a runaway train car.
“I am the good shepherd”
To know this kind of willing sacrifice is to know the heart of Jesus who willingly and knowingly laid down his life for his sheep. This is the fourth “I am” statement of Jesus, and he’s already described himself as the Bread of Life, the Light of the World, and the Door to Sheep.
But perhaps, this picture of a shepherd with his sheep is the one most familiar to us. Certainly, his audience of religious Pharisees and disciples was well-acquainted with this metaphor as it was woven throughout the Old Testament. The most famous, of course, is Psalm 23 written by the shepherd king, David.
- “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” (Psalm 23:1)
- “Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel, you who lead Joseph like a flock. You who are enthroned upon the cherubim, shine forth.” (Psalm 80:1)
- “He (God) will tend his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms; he will carry them in his bosom, and gently lead those that are with young.” (Isaiah 40:11)
- “And I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them; he shall feed them and be their shepherd.” (Ezekiel 34:23)
With this familiar and Messianic imagery in mind, Jesus said,
“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd gives his life for the sheep.”John 10:11
The shepherd, the good one
It’s interesting to note the immediate repetition of the phrase ‘good shepherd.’
John MacArthur said, “This is an important construction for us to understand. The emphasis here is this: “I am the shepherd, the good one.” It’s as if to say, in contrast to all the bad ones, I’m the good one.”
If the repetition of ‘the good shepherd’ is notable in verse 11, consider the repetition of what the good shepherd does in the next few verses. Five times in this passage he says that the good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep (John 10:11, 16, 17, twice in 18).
How very unlike the shepherds in Israel’s day, or ours! The shepherd, the good one, acts not in accordance with the whims of the so-called shepherds, who are only in it for the paycheck. They are the hirelings who don’t care for the sheep and take off to save themselves when danger comes (John 10:12).
But the shepherd, the good one, is not like them. He owns the sheep and they know his voice, and they follow him. So secure are the sheep in his care that no wolf, no thief, and no robber stand a chance against the good shepherd, who will die to protect his sheep. This is the love and goodness of our good shepherd.
The duel nature of the good shepherd
However, I’ve often failed to feel the appropriate worshipful response to the phrase, “I am the good shepherd.” Maybe I’ve brushed it aside because it’s too familiar, and at the same time, too disconnected from my suburban life. (I see dogs and cats every day, not sheep and shepherds.) Or maybe I’ve been numb to it because I think of a Sunday School drawing of Jesus holding a lamb in his arms. The good shepherd seems sweet and gentle and generally non-threatening.
But this is only one side to the dual nature of the shepherd.
Yes, the good shepherd embodies all that is good, noble, and excellent. He loves his sheep, unlike the hired help, and the sheep feel completely secure in his care. But he’s also a terrifying threat to the wolves, thieves, and robbers.
They can’t face him, so they have to come into the fold through unauthorized ways (John 10:1). They climb over the sheep gate in order to pick off the weakest sheep on the edges of the fold, and delight in the terrified squeals and the scattering of the flock.
But the good shepherd is there with his rod and his staff ready to defend to his death, his beloved sheep. He willingly lays down his life. He’s no defenseless martyr, jumping in front of an oncoming train, powerless to stop the forces of evil barreling his way. Rather, he’s in ultimate control, not only laying down his life but more importantly, taking it back up again, of his own accord (John 10:17-18).
By crook or by hook
Dear fellow sheep, you can trust your life in the care of the good shepherd. Dust this familiar statement off in your mind, and see it afresh. It is richer, deeper, and more worship-producing than you might’ve previously thought.
The good shepherd is unlike any shepherd who may have left you high and dry in the past. He is not only gentle and lowly, but he will stop at nothing to protect you and love you to the very end. Yes, the shepherd, the good one, will by crook or by hook, do whatever is necessary to save you his beloved lamb, even lay down his very life for yours.
You are safe in his loving arms, for he alone is the good one.
P.S. You can dig deeper into the Shepherd’s care by downloading my free e-book Paths of the Righteous. It’s a 6-devotional series looking at Psalm 23 through the real-life examples of missionaries.