Do you know what the difference between a shepherd and a sheep-herder are? A sheep-herder is one who herds the sheep – steers them where to go from behind, pushes them. A shepherd is one who leads, trusting that the sheep will follow. How is it that the sheep will follow him? Because they trust him, too. He takes the time to get to know them individually and make sure they know that he loves them, cares for them and that they can trust him. They know his voice and because they know they will be safe with him, they’ll follow and do whatever he says. If anyone else comes in that they don’t know, they’ll either run away or just not listen. THAT is the reason why Jesus Christ is often referred to as “the Good Shepherd.”
John 10:1-18 is one of my favorite passages. I’ve always loved the parable of the sheep and shepherd. Today as we discussed it in Relief Society, I came to love it even more. Verse 4 says: “…he goeth before them, and the sheep follow him: for they know his voice.” It reminded me of a paragraph in Preach My Gospel (which full-time missionaries use as a study guide every day of their missions to teach and prepare them to be teachers of Christ’s Gospel) which gives a quote from President Boyd K. Packer: “A teacher of gospel truths is not planting something foreign or even new into an adult or a child. Rather, the missionary or teacher is making contact with the Spirit of Christ already there. The gospel will have a familiar ‘ring’ to them”.
The Gospel of Jesus Christ is not something we’ve never learned before. We lived with God before this life. He created our spirits and taught us the same truths we learn in our lives here. When we hear truth, occasionally we feel as if we’ve heard it before, even when we know we never had. At least, not in this mortal life. We feel that way because we HAVE heard it before. So when we hear Christ’s voice through the Spirit, or in truths, or wherever He might be, we KNOW who it is and we have the desire to follow Him. Whether we choose to or not is still up to us. We may feel the desire to follow very strongly or not quite so obviously, but that desire IS there. We choose to embrace it or push it away.
John 10:14 – “I am the good shepherd, and know my sheep, and am known of mine.” So who are His sheep? Who does He know and who knows Him? Well, we’ve already established that all of us know Him because every one of us on Earth once lived with Him. To me that means that He knows each one of us just as we know Him. Which means that each one of us are His sheep. Whether we acknowledge it or want it or don’t, we are His sheep and He knows each and every one of us. Some sheep are lost and wandering. Some are wild and refuse to listen to the Shepherd. And some are safe and have no reason to fear because they constantly choose to listen.
So which sheep are you?
President Ezra Taft Benson taught:
“In Jesus’ time, the Palestinian shepherd knew each of his sheep. The sheep knew his voice and trusted him. They would not follow a stranger. Thus, when called, the sheep would come to him. At night, the shepherds would lead their sheep to a corral or a sheepfold. High walls surrounded the sheepfold, and thorns were placed on top of the walls to prevent wild animals and thieves from climbing over. Sometimes, however, a wild animal driven by hunger would leap over the walls into the midst of the sheep, frightening and threatening them. Such a situation separated the true shepherd – one who loved his sheep – from the hireling who worked only for pay out of duty. The true shepherd was willing to give his life for the sheep. He would go in among the sheep and fight for their welfare. The hireling, on the other hand, valued his own personal safety above the sheep and would usually flee from the danger.”
Our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, is exactly like the true shepherd. He HAS given His life for His sheep. He suffered in Gethsemane and on Golgotha so that we could overcome temptation, sin, pain, affliction and any other negative effects of this life. Without Him, we couldn’t survive the hungry wild animals that jump into the walls of our safe haven on occasion, and we most definitely won’t survive outside of the safe pen without Christ in our lives. If we do wander outside the walls He has created to keep us safe and happy, He is more than willing to leave the rest of the flock to come after us. He’s willing to jump in front of whatever danger we face because He loves us.
So I’ve asked which sheep you are. Let me ask you this: Which shepherd are you? Do you herd sheep from behind? Do you flee from the danger? Or do you love the sheep enough that they know they can trust you and follow you wherever you go without having to fear any danger? Would you do anything to keep your sheep safe and make sure that none of them are lost or killed?
Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the 12 Apostles gave a talk in the October 2012 General Conference entitled The First Great Commandment. It’s one of my favorite talks from conference and one I don’t think I could ever get tired of reading and studying. He retells the story of Christ asking Peter “do you love me?” and adds a few thoughts to enhance the story. I can’t even begin to say what Elder Holland says so I’ll share his own words:
“Looking at their battered little boats, their frayed nets, and a stunning pile of 153 fish, Jesus said to His senior Apostle, “Peter, do you love me more than you love all this?” Peter said, “Yea, Lord; thou knowest that I love thee.” The Savior responds to that reply but continues to look into the eyes of His disciple and says again, “Peter, do you love me?” Undoubtedly confused a bit by the repetition of the question, the great fisherman answers a second time, “Yea, Lord; thou knowest that I love thee.” The Savior again gives a brief response, but with relentless scrutiny He asks for the third time, “Peter, do you love me?” By now surely Peter is feeling truly uncomfortable. Perhaps there is in his heart the memory of only a few days earlier when he had been asked another question three times and he had answered equally emphatically—but in the negative. Or perhaps he began to wonder if he misunderstood the Master Teacher’s question. Or perhaps he was searching his heart, seeking honest confirmation of the answer he had given so readily, almost automatically. Whatever his feelings, Peter said for the third time, “Lord, … thou knowest that I love thee.” To which Jesus responded (and here again I acknowledge my non-scriptural elaboration), perhaps saying something like: “Then Peter, why are you here? Why are we back on this same shore, by these same nets, having this same conversation? Wasn’t it obvious then and isn’t it obvious now that if I want fish, I can get fish? What I need, Peter, are disciples—and I need them forever. I need someone to feed my sheep and save my lambs. I need someone to preach my gospel and defend my faith. I need someone who loves me, truly, truly loves me, and loves what our Father in Heaven has commissioned me to do. Ours is not a feeble message. It is not a fleeting task. It is not hapless; it is not hopeless; it is not to be consigned to the ash heap of history. It is the work of Almighty God, and it is to change the world. So, Peter, for the second and presumably the last time, I am asking you to leave all this and to go teach and testify, labor and serve loyally until the day in which they will do to you exactly what they did to me.” Then, turning to all the Apostles, He might well have said something like: “Were you as foolhardy as the scribes and Pharisees? As Herod and Pilate? Did you, like they, think that this work could be killed simply by killing me? Did you, like they, think the cross and the nails and the tomb were the end of it all and each could blissfully go back to being whatever you were before? Children, did not my life and my love touch your hearts more deeply than this?””
If we are part of the fold who has been found and willingly listens to the True Shepherd, then we are called to be shepherds. As we go through this mortal life and choose to listen and follow our Savior, we learn through His example to be shepherds as He is.
The reason the sheep follow their shepherd when they hear His voice is because they love Him. The reason they love Him is because He loves them and shows it through every action and word He does or says. “The crowning characteristic of love is always loyalty” (Elder Holland). Because our Savior shows His loyalty to us, no matter what we ever do, all we ever feel from Him is love. Jesus Christ will always lead us to safety and never lead us astray. As sheep, and shepherds in training, it is our decision to allow ourselves to feel His love, see His loyalty and show the same in return.
As we follow the teachings and love of the Lord, we will always find peace and safety. On those occasions where a hungry wolf jumps into our safe shelter, we need only choose to trust our Shepherd as He gives everything He could ever give to protect us from harm. Following the Shepherd does not mean we can never be harmed. There are trials and difficulties in life we cannot escape, but the loyalty and love of our Savior can ease the burden and give us the strength we need to come through it all into a state of peace, comfort and joy.
I choose to be a sheep who willingly follows my Shepherd, and I choose also to be a shepherd in His stead. There are gifts, talents and experiences I can offer to the other sheep of the fold and to those who are lost and afraid. Because of who I am and what I’ve learned in my life, I can be a shepherd to others who have no one else to love and lead them. I’m not perfect and showing love isn’t always the easiest thing for me to do, but I am trying and I intend to continue trying as long as I continue to follow the True Shepherd.