“A good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” John 10.11
In this passage, the main point Jesus is making is about his own impending death. At the same time Jesus was also explaining the example he was setting and laying out his expectations for those who would respond to the call to pastor in the church he was about to build. There seems to be a clear (underlying) reference here to the prophecy against the shepherds of Israel in Ezekiel 34 which leads into the messianic promise that the Lord himself will come and shepherd his people (the echo of Ezekiel 34 is unmistakable in Jesus’ teaching in John 10). In the Ezekiel passage you can see the juxtaposition between how good shepherds act and how bad shepherds act. To sum it up:
A good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. A bad shepherd does the opposite.
Which reminds me of the story of how Saul’s reign ended. Saul knew he had been rejected as king of Israel. When the Philistines attacked, the Lord refused to give Saul any direction, so he consulted a medium who told him he and his sons were going to die in the battle. Since he was king, he knew this meant many others would die and yet, despite this knowledge, he went into battle anyway, needlessly risking the lives of his entire army and even his own sons. Why? Because pain, death, and destruction seemed better to him than relinquishing his power. The result? “The Philistines attacked Israel, and the men of Israel fled before them. Many were slaughtered on Mount Gilboa.” (1 Sam. 31.1) Saul could have walked away, but he chose to let his own people (even his own sons) die instead. He laid down the sheep to save himself. Except it doesn’t work that way. Saul died anyway, he just took everyone else down with him. Because that’s what bad shepherds do.
There are many good pastors in the church Jesus built, but there are also many bad shepherds. Most are like Saul, they began well (having been chosen by God) and even in their latter state are still loved by their people (Saul’s men went willingly into battle that day because they loved their king; they went again later to retrieve his body). But when it comes to it, they sacrifice others to save themselves. The move from good to bad may be gradual, it may not always be easy to tell, but this is how you know: Does the shepherd lay down his life or the life of others? This is the test.
Meditate this week on Jesus’ statement. Think about how he backed up his words with his actions and how he called his followers to do the same. Then answer these questions (based on the test above, not how you may feel): Are you following a bad shepherd? Are you being a bad shepherd? Are you defending a bad shepherd or tolerating one having care over a flock you have responsibility for? Good shepherds lay down their lives for those they are called to pastor (because when you lay down your life, you gain it). Bad shepherds try to save themselves and their positions, but they do a lot of real harm to the souls they were supposed to protect and still do not save themselves (because when you seek to save your life, you lose it).