On the Gospel of John, Chapter 10
Given in the year 1539
“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.”
Although our dear Lord Jesus Christ gave this sermon on the Good Shepherd, as we just read from the Evangelist John, before his suffering and resurrection, we nevertheless have in it a beautiful testimony of his resurrection, which we are publicly remembering in the church these days. For he says, “My Father loves me because I lay down my life, so that I may take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down on my own. I have the power to lay it down and the power to take it up again” (vv. 17-18). Because our Lord Jesus Christ’s resurrection is the most important thing of all for us and the thing which we enjoy above all else in this world, it seemed good to the Holy Spirit that Christ’s resurrection would be demonstrated with a sure foundation and proof, along with its majesty and glory, not only already after Christ arose from the dead, but also that it would be prophesied about long before Christ arose. To be sure, the prophet David preached clearly and plainly enough about Christ’s resurrection when he said in Psalm 16:10, “Lord, you will not leave my soul in the grave, and you will not permit your holy one to decay.” But here Christ prophesies much more clearly about his resurrection when he says, “I lay down my life and take it up again” (v. 18).
But it will indeed be worth our effort if we explain and hear Christ’s entire sermon along with its meaning. For it is very clearly presented to us, first, how Christ had great concern for his church and protects it. Second, we are also presented with how the church in turn conducts itself in relation to Christ. Finally, this sermon instructs every servant of the church, every government, and every head of a household as well, how he should conduct himself in his calling and office according to Christ’s example. That is merely a necessary part, which is especially important. Therefore, we want to listen to them diligently in succession.
And Christ says, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep. But a hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and abandons the sheep” (vv. 11-12). Now, Christ could have certainly spoken with heavenly language, but he accommodates himself to our poor reason and speaks with us about mere, common matters, yet he does so to instruct us in heavenly, divine matters. And that is what he usually does––he likes to take parables from the common and especially from the useful practices of men. Now he says, “The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sows his seed” (Mt 13:24). Then he says, “I am the vine” (John 15:5). Now he says, “The kingdom of heaven is like a merchant” (Mt 13:45). Then he says, “The kingdom of heaven is like a father who held a wedding for his son” (Mt 22:2). These are nothing but common things, which all people understand. And here he compares himself with a shepherd––this is also something common. Christ, however, uses these parables not only to give his views clearly and understandably, but he also wants to remind us with such parables to consider that we were not created to be occupied primarily with worldly matters. Everyone should work according to his calling and order. None can live in this life without their occupations and daily affairs. Still, however, we were not created because of these things, but we were put into this world primarily to come to know the Lord God and whom he has sent, Jesus Christ, to glorify and praise him, and to strive for true piety for eternal life. That is the purpose for which we were created. And, in order that we may come to such a knowledge of God amidst all our business and affairs, Christ uses parables like this and wants to get us accustomed to being pious and praising God without ceasing in the midst of our worldly business. When a farmer sows his seed he should remember what commonly happens with the preaching of the Gospel, that is, that only a fourth takes itself with earnest and improves itself thoroughly, and he should therefore strive to also be among this fourth part and produce righteous fruit. You may also speak about other occupations in this way.
But now we want to talk about the Good Shepherd. For Christ says, “I am the good shepherd” (v. 11). But immediately before that he says, “All who were before me were thieves and murderers” (v. 8). Here the Lord Christ rejects and condemns all who were before him, but he praises himself alone. All others were not beneficial; he alone is good. But is that even fitting for Christ? Why does he praise himself? Does not the common saying go, “Whoever praises himself is called a blasphemer?” Answer: This saying describes those who by nature are liars and sinners, and those who have nothing at all that is praiseworthy in them. Therefore it is also terrible of them, when they praise themselves. However, Christ is not a liar, but truthful, and this is his office, for which he came into this world: that he should teach the truth. Now, this is the fundamental truth: Christ alone is the Good Shepherd; others, however, were thieves and murderers. Therefore, there is no desire for glory or contempt for other people in Christ, but here he has performed of his office.
“If I hear you right,” you say, “the prophets and apostles were also thieves and murderers?” No, you must understand Christ correctly in his words. He himself explains them in the beginning of chapter ten, from which today’s Gospel is taken. For he says, “Truly I say to you, whoever does not enter into the sheep pen through the gate, but climbs in elsewhere, is a thief and a murderer1” (v. 1). Those who enter through the proper gate are not meant by Christ here and are neither thieves nor murderers. But those who enter the sheep pen elsewhere are thieves and murderers. For this reason the Apostles are not thieves and murderers, since they enter into the sheep pen through the gate. We want to look at what kind of gate this is so that we may properly understand this matter. For Christ speaks well about this and says that he himself is the gate. “I am the gate. Whoever enters through me will be saved and will come in and go out and find pasture” (v. 9). Rather the question is, “Who then is Christ, so that I may know how he is the gate?” Now, when we are talking about Christ, we must consider him in two ways. First, must we look at him according to his person and regard him as true God, the Son of the true God, and also as true man, who was born of the holy virgin Mary. That is, we must regard him as true God and man in one undivided, united person. Second, we must also look at him according to his office which he performed in this world, that is, that he did not come into this world to set up a physical kingdom and to put establish people in external and carnal freedom, but that he came to pay for sin, to reconcile men with God, and to obtain for them the forgiveness of sins and eternal life. This is how Holy Scripture sets Christ before us, as far as it concerns his person and office. From this we can now easily judge and consider who are thieves and murderers, that is, those who do not enter through this gate. And Christ intends to say, that all those who, contrary to Holy Scripture, damage the person of Christ and his above mentioned office, are thieves and murderers. Therefore, we will describe several thieves and murderers, so that we who recognize our enemies can guard ourselves against them. For whoever knows his enemy and knows his trickery and scheming has already subdued and overcome him halfway.
First, we are presented with the philosophers among the pagans, who are called pagan masters or teachers. They were thieves and murderers. Why? For, although they taught excellent and fine things about good virtues, which should by no means be despised, yet, because they believed and asserted that man can be saved through worldly discipline and virtue, they became thieves and murderers through this and did not enter through the right gate, which is Christ, through whose merit alone we are justified and saved. Therefore, they have stolen and robbed the souls of men with their teaching.
Second, when, the Pharisees taught among the Jews several works commanded in the Law, but afterwards taught in addition that such work is perfect piety and righteousness before God, they stole and robbed the souls of men through this and also became thieves and murderers.
Third are the rebels, who came before Christ and who claimed to be Christ, who drew the people to themselves and gave the hope that they would reestablish the fallen kingdom of Israel and bring it to its old privileges and freedoms. Because they preached about the external fulfillment the Messiah’s kingdom, they also did not enter through the right gate, but became thieves and murderers, through whom the poor people were deceived and overwhelmed.
After Christ several kinds of heresies arose in the church against the person of Christ. One denies the divinity in Christ and says that he was not true God. The other says that he was not true man. These heretics are also thieves and murderers and do not enter through the right gate. They steal and murder the souls of men. Yes, they are festering sores and boils to the church, who should benefit nothing. And as in a man’s body, although he is otherwise healthy, excrement always goes out, and at times even sores grows on his body, so also is it in the body of the church. There always are found the filthy, the heretics, and godless people, who submit to the evil enemy’s prompting to bring harm to the church.
Finally, then, besides the other thieves and murderers the papacy also arose, in which the papists also became thieves and murderers. For as those heretics blasphemed the person of Christ, so these ones blaspheme and pollute the office of Jesus Christ and teach that we can obtain the forgiveness of sins through the merit of our good works. From this came the institution of so many masses, convents and monasteries. For all this meant that a person would pay for his sins himself. But that means denying the office of Christ, and along with it, stealing and robbing the souls of men. When one murders another publicly, it is regarded as a horrible act which must not be tolerated. But it is much more horrible that the souls of men are deceived, stolen and murdered with false teaching. It should therefore be endured much less than that act of murder. So here we have heard who are thieves and murderers of the poor little sheep, about whom Christ is talking in this sermon.
Now Christ says he is the right, true Shepherd, for he has all the manner and qualities of a true, faithful shepherd. What then does a faithful shepherd do? He leads his sheep into pasture, calls them by name and goes on ahead of them. He also lets no danger frighten him from his office, but lays down his life for his sheep. Several kinds of danger confront shepherds. When they drive the sheep, it seems as if they are driven towards death. For they know well that wolves and other pests hide and wait in the pasture, where they can snatch a sheep here and there. So, not only the shepherd, but also the sheep have to expect great danger. Moreover, when something happens to the sheep, from that time the blame is on him alone. A good shepherd, however, does not let all this frighten him, but he risks his life for the sheep and would much sooner lay down his life than want to neglect something in the sheep. Christ also regards his pasture, that is, his holy Gospel, in this way and leads his sheep to it. For he has established the public ministry, in which this Gospel is to be preached. He protects his sheep, for he goes on ahead of them both with his teaching and with his life. He knows them, for he also wants to guard and protect each one in particular. But in this shepherd office several kinds of danger confront our Lord Christ. For in the institution of this public ministry he surely knew that he was leading not only himself, but also all shepherds, as well as the sheep themselves into great danger. Yet he does not let all this frighten him from his office and calling, but he puts his body and life into danger for his sheep, and although the sheep themselves ought to expect danger in this pasture, he, for this reason, will not leave them neglected or unfed. For there is no command from God that there will be peace and rest in this world. But it is the will of God that everyone be obedient to God and carry out his office and be found faithful in it. The dear Lord Christ has done and accomplished this most diligently.
Thus we have heard how Christ the shepherd conducts himself in relation to his sheep and to his Christian church. Accordingly, now we should hear more about the sheep too. For a sheep is a totally foolish animal. When they wander, they do not come back onto the right way on their own. It is also within their nature to recognize only the voice of their shepherd. In addition to this, a sheep is also such a useful animal that everything which is in it has its particular use and is good for something. So also people are foolish by nature, and once we have wandered from the sheep pen, we no longer come back to it on our own. But we should like to be led and directed by Christ the Shepherd, and as soon as we hear the sound of his voice, we should rush to him and be brought onto the right way. For that is the nature of Christ’s sheep, as he himself says, “My sheep listen to my voice” (v. 27), and when another shepherd would lure us away to himself, we should neither hear nor accept him. In addition we, along with everything we have in us and are able to do, should also strive to be beneficial both to God and to our fellow man. In this way the sheep will act rightly towards its shepherd, Christ.
Furthermore, our Lord Christ also wants to teach all other people, who have been entrusted with an office and area of concern, how they should conduct themselves. He wants to show the government, as well as church servants and heads of households, what is required from them on account of their office. The ancients also called their rulers and kings shepherds, and God himself made Moses and David, who were shepherds, into princes and kings to show what their office entails. So also church servants are called shepherds in Scripture. For this reason both the government and church servants should have the manner and qualities of good shepherds in them. First and foremost, they should enter through the right gate, that is, they should seek and support the honor and glory of Christ. Second, both in their office should lead their sheep into the pasture also, that is, they should strive to preserve true, pure doctrine and outward, worldly discipline. Furthermore, they should also protect their sheep––the government with the sword, but church servants with the Word and Christian prayer. And they should certainly not let themselves be frightened from their commended office by fear of the dangers which may confront them, but they should diligently make use of their office. The government should not let itself be turned away, but remember, when you distress your subjects, you will lead both yourself and them into great danger. In the same way the church servant should also not think, if you want to continue with the word and preaching, see, there stands this danger that destroys both you and the church together, or if you want to continue preaching and a danger happens, you will bear the blame alone. Someone will say that God gives this and that to the priest, “with his idle talk he brings us into all misfortune and unpleasantness.” Faithful shepherds should not let such dangers trouble them, but they should persevere. For the sheep must surely be led to good pastures. In brief, necessity requires that. Necessity does not require that we have peace and rest. But it does require that everyone perform his office, and in this matter he should always imitate the beautiful examples of the holy kings and rulers of God’s people, like David in 1 Samuel 17, like Moses, and like King Jehoshaphat in 2 Chronicles 20. For they were good shepherds, and although great dangers stood right before their eyes, they nevertheless continued in their office, as the histories in the mentioned passages of Scripture testify about them.
Therefore, everyone should here learn of Christ, what the manner and characteristics of each good shepherd in his office are, so that he follows Christ in view of his office. For, if we do this, then, as Christ says here, there will be a shepherd and a sheepfold. The godless misuse this saying and say that on the last day all men are saved. This is not what Christ means, but he speaks of calling the pagans to the fellowship of the Gospel or to the pasture of Jesus Christ here on earth, and that hereafter in the next life in heaven lions and wolves are gathered together.2