“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12 When the hired hand sees the wolf coming, he leaves the sheep and runs away. That’s because he isn’t the shepherd; the sheep aren’t really his. So the wolf attacks the sheep and scatters them. 13 He’s only a hired hand and the sheep don’t matter to him.
14 “I am the good shepherd. I know my own sheep and they know me, 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. I give up my life for the sheep. 16 I have other sheep that don’t belong to this sheep pen. I must lead them too. They will listen to my voice and there will be one flock, with one shepherd.
17 “This is why the Father loves me: I give up my life so that I can take it up again. 18 No one takes it from me, but I give it up because I want to. I have the right to give it up, and I have the right to take it up again. I received this commandment from my Father.”
1 John 3:16-24
This is how we know love: Jesus laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. 17 But if someone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but refuses to help—how can the love of God dwell in a person like that?
18 Little children, let’s not love with words or speech but with action and truth. 19 This is how we will know that we belong to the truth and reassure our hearts in God’s presence. 20 Even if our hearts condemn us, God is greater than our hearts and knows all things. 21 Dear friends, if our hearts don’t condemn us, we have confidence in relationship to God. 22 We receive whatever we ask from him because we keep his commandments and do what pleases him. 23 This is his commandment, that we believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and love each other as he commanded us. 24 Those who keep his commandments dwell in God and God dwells in them. This is how we know that he dwells in us, because of the Spirit he has given us.
For some traditions today is designated as Good Shepherd Sunday. The scripture passages paint a picture of a loving God and the church God wants to bring about in the world. Think about it. Yet even today you can see sheep wagons in the fields during lambing. Shepherds connote care, tending, nourishing, protecting. All of those images speak volumes about our God and Jesus Christ. These words make those images come to life and have for centuries. “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures; He leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul; He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for Thou art with me; Thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies. Thou anointest my head with oil, my cup runneth over. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” [Psalm 23 Jing Kames Version] Are there more powerful words?!
The extent of God’s love and care for us is evident in John 15:13 “No one has greater love than to give up one’s life for one’s friends.” This is a truly glorious example of love in action. The Epistle of 1 John draws on that image and goes one step further. “This is how we know love: Jesus laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters.”
Jesus uses the image of the Good Shepherd, and we are the sheep, indicating his great care and concern for us. The extension is that we become shepherds, under the Good Shepherd – guided by the Good Shepherd – to reach the world.
Do you ever doubt or question your own faith – your ability to walk with God? Sometimes, in light of a mistake we have made, or a good we have failed to do, those feelings can pop up. Other times it may be the magnitude of the task or challenge before us that brings up those feelings. Do you sometimes struggle with a competition within your own self? Because I can so easily relate to it, the words of Paul in Romans 7 are so powerful! ‘When I want to do good I find that evil is right there with me.’ Often, it is our own self-doubt that limits our ability to follow. John’s first Epistle seeks to address that struggle.
The setting is this: 1 John is divided into two rather distinct sections. The verses from 1:5 through 3:10 reflect and advise on the pressures and hostility that comes from the outside a believer – outside the church. Images of darkness and light are powerful ways to picture the challenges faced by Christians in a hostile world. In several ways there are warnings about the world and what to expect. But, then, in 3:11-5:12 John focuses on love within the community – real, actual love demonstrated in actions. Take a look at the transition between the two sections. In verse 3:10 the difference between children of God and children of the devil is very apparent. ” This is how God’s children and the devil’s children are apparent: everyone who doesn’t practice righteousness is not from God, including the person who doesn’t love a brother or sister.” Verse 3:11 then pushes us toward the topic of love amongst ourselves. “This is the message that you heard from the beginning: love each other.” From there to the end, John is trying to bolster our confidence through mutual support and encouragement. The essential definition of the church is love. Everything is filtered through the lens of love – the love of God toward us, and the love of neighbor.
Repetition is a powerful communicator. Three times in our passage this morning John says, “This is how we know… .” One of the three time he modifies the statement in this way, “This is how we will know… .” Last week I developed the idea that the disciples needed to know the risen Jesus as real. He showed them he had a physical body, even eating something in their presence. They could see and hear and touch and experience the Risen Christ. With that knowledge, the disciples could step out boldly to carry the mission of Jesus into the world. I pointed out that we come to belief even though we don’t see Jesus in the same way as the disciples. Jesus’ words to Thomas are written just for us! “Blessed are those who do not see and yet believe.” John suggests that we – the church- need to know we are walking as His disciples. We need the confidence in order to be effective in spreading the Gospel. The words form a kind of litmus test for ourselves.
It comes in the repetition. Let’s look at the three “knows”:
In verse 16 – it is how we know love. “This is how we know love: Jesus laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters.” As Jesus said of himself, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” On February 14th, I preached on “For Love”, where I talked about God’s loving us so much that Peter, James, and John were included in the transfiguration. Jesus wanted them and he wants us to know his business. His business is Love. With the knowledge that Jesus laid down his life for us – for you and me – we can take courage for the challenges we face. John, however, want to make the point even stronger by the example he shares. He asks how the love of God can dwell in a person if that person sees someone in need and, having the ability, does nothing about it. We are to lay down our lives for each other.
Then, in verse 19-20 – the “know” is that we belong to the truth. “This is how we will know that we belong to the truth and reassure our hearts in God’s presence. 20 Even if our hearts condemn us, God is greater than our hearts and knows all things.” This is Christian reassurance at its best. Our hearts are reassured in God’s presence. God is truly with us – incarnate in the world at a time, and now with us through the Holy Spirit. Peter and John are a testament to this knowledge. They were arrested and thrown into jail by the religious authorities in Acts 4. Disciples had put love into action by healing a lame person in Acts 3. After spending the night in jail, they are questioned. Peter, in his boldness says, “ … are we being examined today because something good was done for a sick person, a good deed that healed him?” [Acts 4:9] They knew what they were doing – loving and caring like Jesus wanted them to be and do. They were assured that they were walking in the truth and walking in love. That was the source of their confidence. In the example, then, that John uses he talks about how God overcomes our own self-doubt and self-condemnation, inviting us to place our confidence in our relationship with God.
Then, in the third “know”, we hear the ultimate in confidence builders. In verse 24 – How do we know he remains with us? “ Those who keep his commandments dwell in God and God dwells in them. This is how we know that he dwells in us, because of the Spirit he has given us.” The Holy Spirit is God’s way of dwelling with us. In Acts 4:8, Peter demonstrates the power of the Holy Spirit to embolden us. “Then Peter, inspired by the Holy Spirit … .” It wasn’t Peter’s brashness, like what we heard as he tried to tell Jesus what to do and promised never to deny him. No, this was the power of the Holy Spirit at work in Peter. The power and inspiration to be a follower of God is by the power of the Holy Spirit. We need never lack confidence because we know that God is with us.
Jesus says, “I am the Good Shepherd. I know my own sheep and they know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father.” [John 10:14] Our identity as individuals is that God knows us, and we know God. Are we perfect – a long way from it. Are we always his children? Absolutely. The church, likewise, is known by God and we know God. It is shown in our love and care – for each other, and for the world. So, I ask, how, specifically, have I put love into action in the last week? How has my love encouraged a brother or sister in Christ? Have I pointed out the strengths I see in them? Have I thanked them for something they have done? Have I been a compassionate ear and listened to their struggles? Have I helped someone to know God more deeply? I am aware that these questions are a little easier to answer when I am talking about someone I know well and like or admire. But what happens when the person is a hard person to be around? So, pressing a little further, how might God be calling me to love a person who is not easy to love? What are the tools I can call upon as I seek to love them in practical ways?
“This is his commandment, that we believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and love each other as he commanded us.”
A Shepherd’s View of the Church is one is of a church being perfected in love – an church characterized by love in action. Amen.
Pastor Paul Grossman