Gold Nugget No. 4: Sermon for Good Shepherd Sunday

by C.F.W. Walter
translated by Aaron Jensen

The final sermon contained in the Gold Nugget collection was first preached by Walther in 1850 on Good Shepherd Sunday (historically called Misericordias Domini). Walther here applies Jesus' words about himself as the Good Shepherd as the model which all who shepherd his flock should follow and the standard by which they should be judged.

Grace, mercy, and peace from God the Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of the Father, be with you all in truth and love. Amen.

Beloved brothers and sisters in Christ Jesus!

Both human preachers and also Christ, the Son of God, bear the name “shepherd” in the Holy Scriptures. Among other things Christ says about himself in our Gospel for today, “I am the good shepherd.” And the talk is clearly about human preachers when in the third chapter of the prophet Jeremiah God gives the promise, “I will give you shepherds after my own heart, who will lead you with knowledge and understanding.” The same is true when St. Paul writes about Christ in the fourth chapter of his letter to the Ephesians, “It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers.” Therefore still now Christian preachers are called by the Latin name “pastor,” which means “shepherd.”

But although Christ, the Son of God, and human preachers both bear the name “shepherd,” Christ bears this name in a sense in which no man, yes, no angel in heaven can bear it.

Human preachers are shepherds of only a defined number of men given over to them, but Christ is the shepherd of the entire flock of men. About them it is said, “Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care,” but about Christ it is said in Micah 5, “He will stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the LORD. . . . For then his greatness will reach to the ends of the earth.” And in our Gospel for today he himself says, “I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen,” that is, who are not from the Jewish people. “I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd.” Jews and Gentiles, therefore all people of the earth, are Christ’s flock, and the entire world his pasture.

Human preachers are also only shepherds in the time in which they live and perform their teaching office in person, but Christ is an eternal shepherd. Already more than a thousand years before his appearance in the world David says about him in the twenty-third Psalm, “The LORD is my shepherd,” and the entire Jewish people says in the ninety-fifth Psalm, “He is our God and we are the people of his pasture, the flock under his care.” But also after Christ’s exit from the world Peter says in our Epistle for today, “You were like sheep going astray, but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.”

Furthermore, human preachers also do not shepherd the flock under their care as their own possession but as the possession of the true arch-shepherd, of whom they are just under-shepherds, yes, of whom they themselves are sheep. For it is said about them, “Not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock.” In contrast, the entire flock of men belongs to Christ as his own, and, to be sure, not only as its God and Creator but also as its Redeemer. For when the flock of men was lost from God through sin, he himself became a lamb and was torn to pieces by the hellish wolf for all. But as a lion, he rose again, triumphing over hell and death, and in so doing ripped the entire flock of men out of the jaws of corruption, obtained it through a great fight, and purchased it with his own blood to be his own eternal and perfect possession. Therefore in respect to this work all human shepherds are only hired hands in comparison with Christ.

Of course the human preachers should and finally also can only lead those under their care to the true pasture and only show them the way to the heavenly sheep pen. On the other hand, Christ, as the true shepherd, has himself also prepared the pasture for his sheep, cleared the way to heaven, and opened to them the heavenly dwellings of eternal rest and the houses of eternal peace. Christ, therefore, is the kind of shepherd whom all men must accept unless they despise their souls here and in death want to find the door of heaven locked and die eternally there. For Christ himself is the bread of life with which he feeds his sheep. He himself is the way which his sheep walk. And he himself is the door of heaven through which his sheep must enter. You see from this that when Christ is called the shepherd of men in the Holy Scriptures this indicates that Christ is the one to whom all men belong, who alone provides the men with everything which they need for time and eternity according to body and soul, and who alone will one day lead them into the eternal refuges of perfect salvation.

Now although, as I said, in this sense no man bears the name “shepherd,” the Holy Scriptures, as we have heard, still give this name also to certain human preachers. And let me speak to you today concerning in which sense they do this, and which preachers alone deserve this name according to God’s Word, on the basis of our Sunday Gospel.

Text: John 10:11-16

“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand is not the shepherd who owns the sheep. So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away. Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it. The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep.

“I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me—just as the Father knows me and I know the Father—and I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd.”

Every Gospel can, my friends, be viewed and applied in two kinds of ways, namely, either according to faith or according to love, and we can also view Christ in all his works in two kinds of ways, namely, either as our Savior and Redeemer or as our example and model. Since up till now we have on the basis of our Gospel for today viewed Christ always according to faith as our Savior and Redeemer, let us today look once at what is said in it about his shepherd office and shepherd faithfulness according to love, that is, as an example which human shepherds have to follow and by which we are to judge them. Let us please consider:

What it means that the name “good shepherd” can also given to a human preacher.

It means according to our Gospel:

  1. That Christ has really entrusted the sheep of his flock to a preacher for refuge and pasture.
  2. That he directs the sheep entrusted to him only to Christ as their only true shepherd.
  3. That he also faithfully and courageously fights against the wolves who do not spare the flock, and finally
  4. That he also bears sincere concern for the sheep who have not yet been called and gathered and are still going astray.

Lord Jesus Christ, Good Shepherd, who thus far has cared so faithfully for us, your poor, easily led-astray flock, revealed all seductive spirits which could corrupt us, and preserved us from the deadly poison of their false teachings, we pray you. Continue to care for us and our children and continually make our congregation into a meadow in which everyone finds the sweet pastures of your pure Word and unadulterated Sacraments. But also have mercy on all Christendom in this and all other lands. Give it shepherds and teachers after your own heart who rightly pasture it and fight for it courageously, and bring to shame all the false shepherds and soul-corrupters who are among it. Oh, see how your Church is torn apart and trampled by your enemies! Oh, arise, then, and again grant your pure Word victory as in the days of our fathers that again all peoples bow down to you and your truth, and all peoples give the honor to you and praise your name that it is you alone who saves. Hear us for the sake of your shepherd faithfulness. Amen.

I.

My friends, John writes already to the Christians of his time in his first epistle, “Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world.” From this we see that it is at all times important and necessary for a Christian who does not want to be deceived about his salvation to know which preachers are good shepherds. But if this has always been important and necessary, then in our time and in this new homeland of ours it is certainly of the highest necessity and importance for a Christian. For now the entire world and especially our America is more full of temptation than ever before.

To be sure, some people are now saying, “How will we lay people, who are not able to be as well versed in Scripture as the learned, judge our preachers? We must believe what they teach us.” But praise be to God! God’s Word has been written so clearly and simply that even the unlearned lay people are very easily able to distinguish the true shepherds from the false shepherds if only they are willing to take God’s Word before them.

We find one glorious touchstone here in our Gospel for today. In it Christ not only calls himself a good shepherd but at the same time shows why he is such, and therefore he also gives into the hands of the simplest Christian a bright mirror in which it is shown by the image of Christ also what it means to give the name “good shepherd” to a human shepherd.

Now what does Christ first say about himself in order to prove that he is a good shepherd? He says, “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand is not the shepherd who owns the sheep. So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away. . . . I lay down my life for the sheep.” The first thing which Christ testifies about himself here is that he is not a hired hand who pastures someone else’s sheep, but that the sheep of his flock are his own, whom he has purchased with his blood and life to be his possession.

Now although, to be sure, no man can make this statement in the sense that Christ did, with this Christ lets us understand that in a certain sense every human preacher should be able to make the statement that he also does not pasture sheep who belong to someone else but who are his own, namely, those which Christ himself has entrusted to him for refuge and pasture, that is, for whose refuge and pasture he has been called in an orderly manner.

We see that this is the case from many passages in the Holy Scriptures in which it is clearly taught that no one should preach without being called and that an uncalled preacher is a sign of the false prophet. For example, it says in the fifth chapter of the letter to the Hebrews, “No one takes this honor upon himself; he must be called by God, just as Aaron was.” Furthermore, Peter writes, as we have already heard, “Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care.” Furthermore, James writes, “Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.” Furthermore, God says in the twenty-third chapter of the prophet Jeremiah in his preaching of punishment against the false shepherds, “I did not send the prophets, yet they have run with their message.” And Christ speaks expressly about the false prophets, “Watch out for the false prophets. They come to you.” Already at that time they were to recognize that they were not sent or called but came themselves according to the urging of their restless hearts.

Therefore, dear hearers, if you don’t want to be deceived in this time so full of temptations, then observe this rule: Whoever takes the honor of being a preacher upon himself without be called to it, whoever shepherds a flock which has not been placed under his care, whoever presumes to be a teacher of another, whoever runs with a message without being sent, in short, whoever preaches to you without being either expressly or tacitly invited by you to do so is a false shepherd no matter what he preaches, even if he proclaims the truth in the tongues of angels. The uncalled preachers who travel through the land and prowl around the houses are very well accustomed to saying that God has sent them and that the Holy Spirit urges them to do this. But God sends and calls no one immediately without at the same time also giving the gifts to do miracles so he is able to prove his divine sending. Therefore if a preacher cannot prove with seal and letter that his hearers have called him in the name of the Lord, he must prove through miracles that God himself has called him in an extraordinary way, as he once called the holy Prophets. Otherwise he is a false prophet whom a Christian must flee and avoid as a spirit of temptation.

II.

Of course, my friends, a human preacher can very well be rightly called and stand in a legitimate office and still not deserve the name “good shepherd.” Secondly, the name means that he directs the sheep entrusted to him only to Christ as their only true shepherd.

Christ says more in our Gospel, “I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me—just as the Father knows me and I know the Father.” But now if according to this Christ clearly reveals himself as the one true good shepherd by knowing his own as his sheep and by being known by them as their only good shepherd, what must it mean for a human preacher to rightfully bear the name “shepherd”? According to this he also clearly bears this name rightly who carries out his office only to the purpose that his hearers are known by Christ and become his sheep and that they may know him as their only true shepherd.

Yes, whoever rightly bears the name “shepherd” among men also demands obedience not towards himself but towards Christ, the only true shepherd. He speaks not with his own voice, but only the voice of Christ, the only true shepherd. He does not lead his hearers to himself but to Christ, yes, away from himself and only to Christ. He rightly bears the name “shepherd” among men also whose teaching and preaching all go to testify about Christ, the only true Shepherd and Overseer of human souls, to beautify only Christ in the hearts of his hearers, to paint him before their eyes, to make him great, glorious, and lovely, to draw and to attract and to lead them to him and to lay them in his arms and on his lap. He rightly bears the name “shepherd” among men also who does not boast of any wisdom other than that he knows Christ, who does not want to know or show any way to heaven other than the way of faith in Christ, who does not want to know any righteousness other than that which Christ has won and given to his believers, who does not have or give any comfort against sin, suffering, and death other than Christ’s suffering and death. In short, the more a preacher steps back and lets Christ step forward and the more a preacher seeks to disappear from his hearers and to display Christ to them in the brilliance of his majesty and grace—the less a preacher wants to be shepherd of his sheep, but rather aims to bring his hearers that they know and accept only Christ as their shepherd—the more such a preacher deserves the name “good shepherd,” just like a man is a better Christian the less he wants to be Christ, that is, the less he wants to redeem himself and instead wants only to be saved by the true Christ.

One such good shepherd, among others, was John the Baptist. The brief content of all his sermons was, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” He did not want to be the Lord, but only the voice of one calling in the desert, “Make straight the way for the Lord.” He did not want to be the bridegroom, but only the bridegroom’s friend. He did not want to be the Messiah or the helper, but only his herald and forerunner. And when someone reported to him with annoyance that many of his disciples had left him and gone to Christ, he cried, “He must become greater; I must become less.”

Therefore, my friends, if you don’t want to be deceived in this time so full of temptations, observe this second rule: Whatever preacher wants to be the shepherd of his sheep and demands obedience towards his words even when they are not Christ’s words, whatever preacher preaches a wisdom other than Christ and shows a way to heaven other than Christ, whatever preacher does not with all his sermons seek to glorify Christ and to lead his hearers to Christ, whatever preacher promotes teachings which take away or diminish Christ’s honor as the only shepherd, as the only master, as the only God and Lord, is not a good shepherd but a dreadful wolf, even though he enters in sheep’s clothing and shines in the brilliance of heavenly holiness. Therefore if your salvation is dear to you, let yourself be warned.

III.

Of course, my friends, there are preachers, who, to be sure, do not belong to the wolves, because through pure teaching they lead their hearers to Christ, the Good Shepherd, and yet they are still not good shepherds, but rather are hired hands. Furthermore, the name “good shepherd” also means that a good shepherd faithfully and courageously fights against the wolves who do not spare the flock.

In order to prove this, we must go back once more to our Gospel. In the first part it says, as we have already heard, “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand is not the shepherd who owns the sheep. So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away. Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it. The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep.”

Now it is certainly true that no human preacher should or can emulate Christ in the way in which he fought against the wolf and laid down his life for the sheep. But in a certain sense Christ is also an example here for all those who will rightly bear the name “shepherd” together with him. Although Christ has hunted and killed the hellish wolf and has opened the heavenly sheep pen to the entire flock of men, Christ’s sheep are still today in great danger. Not only does the conquered Satan still today invisibly prowl around like a roaring lion, looking for someone to devour, sometimes by arousing thoughts of security in the souls, sometimes thoughts of despair, but Satan also has many helpers among men who as ferocious wolves infiltrate Christ’s flocks. And these are the false teachers who either clearly reject Christ’s Word or seek to falsify it under glorious deceptive shows.

Therefore it is by no means enough for a preacher to lead the flock entrusted to him to Christ and pasture it with pure teaching. If a preacher wants to rightly bear the name “good shepherd,” he must also faithfully and courageously fight against the wolves who do not spare the flock. Christ hardly would have been our Good Shepherd if he had only shown us the way to salvation and had not fought against sin, world, death, and hell, and conquered them. A preacher is hardly a good shepherd who, to be sure, shows the true way to heaven, but does not warn about the false ways, namely, the false teachings of the heretics, does not uncover their tricks, or bring their falsifications of Scripture to light, or oppose their objections, or show the dangers and corruptions of their errors, and fight against their wickedness. A shepherd of the sheep hardly deserves his name who, to be sure, leads his sheep onto green meadows and to clear waters but deserts them when the wolf approaches. A preacher hardly deserves the name “good shepherd” who, to be sure, teaches his hearers rightly but does not defend them against tempters because he either fears men or he desires to please them. If he wants to be a faithful shepherd, he must take upon himself the burden of the hostility of all the world and all false brothers, yes, suffer persecution, expulsion, and bloody death, rather than be silent at the falsification of the Word of God. He must act against the heretics with all seriousness or else he will leave his inexperienced sheep in danger.

Therefore, dear hearers, do not adhere to those who now at our time demand that a teacher should be only a messenger of peace, yes, who slander all those who attack false teachers and teachings, and false religions and churches, as quarrelers and trouble-makers. Rather, consider how all the Prophets and Apostles, with Christ at the lead, wielded not only the shepherd staff of peace but also the sword of war. They not only proclaimed truth but also opposed error. They not only painted the Good Shepherd before the eyes of their hearers and drew them to it but also described the wolves to warn their hearers, fought against these wolves, and brought them to shame and conquered them for the well-being of the Church.

Oh, my dear hearers, what would it look like in the Church now if in the past faithful shepherds had not kept watch and fought? What would it look like now if an Athanasius had not once fought against Arius, who denied the deity of Jesus Christ? If an Augustine had not once fought against Pelagius, who denied human wretchedness? If a Luther had not once fought against the papacy on one side and Zwingli’s falsifications of Scripture on the other? What still much greater night would now cover the poor Church! Therefore let us bless, yes, bless these heroes in the camp of Jesus Christ who during their lives were so often misjudged and disgraced. Let us bless these alert watchmen on the battlements of Zion, these field generals courageous and victorious in the battles of the Lord of Hosts. They were faithful shepherds and now bear as the reward for their faithfulness the beautiful crown of a knightly fighter which the arch-shepherd Jesus Christ has offered to them as his faithful under-shepherds.

IV.

Of course, in our Gospel Christ states one more sign of a faithful shepherd for us when in it he says in conclusion: “I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd.” From this we see that the fact that even a human preacher can be given the name “good shepherd” also means fourthly and lastly that he also bears sincere concern for the sheep who have not yet been called and gathered and are still going astray.

My friends, Christ was sent first of all to preach to the lost sheep of the house of Israel, and he did that. But his heart by no means included only them. In his faithful shepherd heart dwelt love and mercy also towards the entire lost gentile world. Also for them, in short, for all men, he lay down his life and when he had finished the work of universal redemption, he sent his disciples out into all the world and gave them the commission to preach the Gospel to all peoples and to gather all to him, the Good Shepherd.

Now would it be possible for a preacher to be a true under-shepherd of Christ if he thought only about the little flock which was entrusted to him and was unconcerned about the millions who still sit in darkness and the shadow of death or are lured away from the green meadow of the pure Word and from the fresh waters of the unadulterated sacraments by tempters? Never! If a human preacher really has received a true shepherd’s heart through Christ’s grace, then he will in his call do everything which he can that the shepherd voice of Christ may be brought also to the heathens, that the light of the pure truth may rise also on those led astray, and that the pure saving teaching may be preserved also for our descendants, that chiefly the welfare of the Church may also be advanced in all ways on a great and grand scale.

Therefore do not think, dear hearers, that it is unfaithfulness and a very false fellowship when a preacher looks out over the boundaries of his congregation and when he also tries to get his congregation to take care of the universal spiritual need of the world and the Church. A preacher must emulate his arch-shepherd as long as a shepherd heart still beats inside him, and a congregation cannot do away with this care for the universal Church as long as it still is and remains a flock of Jesus Christ.

Oh, may God help that this sermon is not useless for you and that you now not only may better learn to always distinguish the wolves from the shepherds and the shepherds from the hired hands but also stay with us, your weak shepherds, in Christ, the only true shepherd, and fight with us against the wolves and care with us for the sheep lost in the desert of this world.

Oh yes, Lord Jesus, we pray you:

If as a shepherd you here abide.
Then your good spirit your flock will guide.
Let it dwell in us and never be leaving.
Let it propel us morning and evening,
Yes, day and night!
Amen.

May the God of peace, who through the blood of the eternal covenant brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great Shepherd of the sheep, equip you with everything good for doing his will, and may he work in us what is pleasing to him, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.