(…continued) The model for Bruce Olson’s ministry was, of course, Jesus Christ himself. Jesus said, “I am the good shepherd, and 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 a wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away. Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it. But I am the GOOD shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me.”
It was that love of Jesus that inspired Bruce Olson to bring the message of Jesus to that South American tribe. He was inspired to be like Jesus, and be willing to lay down his life for them. He was willing to live with them and know them, and he would not, like the hireling, abandon them. He wasn’t hired. He was receiving no pay for his work. Jesus was the inspiration for Bruce Olson’s mission, and in turn, Olson’s work can be seen as an illustration of the ministry of Jesus. Bruce Olson stayed with that tribe so they could get to know him, learn to trust him, and then, be open to his message. In the same way, Jesus, the Son of God himself, came to earth and lived a life like us for 33 years. In that time, Jesus built such trust in those that followed him, that his words were remembered and repeated and taken around to all the world. And those words have changed the world. Most importantly, in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, he brought the message of another kingdom and another life on the other side of the grave. Even now, Jesus is with us still, as he said in his last words to his disciples in Matthew 28, “Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”
In John chapter 10, Jesus compares himself to a shepherd. There are two very different sides to that comparison– one, very exalted and the other very humble. His hearers could choose to hear it however they liked. Both were true. On the one hand, Jesus is alluding to that familiar and popular 23rd Psalm. “The Lord is my Shepherd,” says the Psalmist, and a very good one at that, he goes on to say; ‘leading me beside the still waters, making me to lie down in green pastures, guiding me along right pathways, comforting me and protecting me even in the valley of the shadow of death, and so forth.’ Jesus hearers were already familiar with that verse and image. And then Jesus, who at that time was still just a popular preacher, said HE was the good shepherd. Some people were starting to wonder if he meant that Psalm 23 Good Shepherd, the Lord God Almighty. Already by the very next chapter, some are ready to believe that he was that Good Shepherd, and others are ready to kill him for saying such a thing. Therefore, on the one hand, it was an outrageously arrogant thing to say; unless, of course, he was indeed God. But they did not all know or believe that yet.
On the other hand, shepherds, even those who owned their own sheep, were looked down upon at that time. People didn’t want to be shepherds. You did that only if you could not find anything else to do. The hours were long, the work was dangerous, and the pay wasn’t all that good. And, you were under the obligation to the sheep around the clock. You were not just on call 24 hours a day, you were on duty all day and all night; for many days at a time. I’ve known shepherds, African students at the seminary, who could remember well the long days and nights spent alone and far from home. It was an entry level job, with minimum wage. It was not the kind of job you would be bragging about, but one you would keep only as long as you had to. On your days off, you’d be checking the want ads.
Yet, the Son of God was humble enough to call himself a shepherd, and compare his work to that of a shepherd. Yes, on the other side of this comparison is the 23rd Psalm, but many people may not have had that in mind yet. Those who first heard those words could have interpreted them in two very different ways. But one thing is for sure, the average person would never have applied such a comparison to themselves; not in the spirit of Psalm 23 which would have been blasphemous, and not as that type of lowly worker.
In that illustration of the good shepherd Jesus revealed who he was: our humble brother and friend who will always be with us, and also, the all-powerful Creator God of the Old Testament, able to defeat the powers of sin and death. This Jesus calls you to himself, saying, as he said to people long ago, “My sheep hear my voice and they follow me, and I will give them eternal life.” Who else could we ever find to follow that could make an offer and a promise like that? As Peter once asked Jesus, “Lord, where else can we go? You have the words of eternal life.”
Psalm 23:1a — The Lord is my shepherd…
John 10:11-15 — (Jesus said), “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand is not the shepherd and does not own 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.”
This is one of the earliest known images of Jesus, and it is of him as the Good Shepherd.
Found in the catacombs of Rome, painted in the third century
Where are you pasturing your flock, O good Shepherd, who carry the whole flock on your shoulders? Show me the place of peace, lead me to the good grass that will nourish me, call me by name so that I, one of your sheep, may hear your voice, and by your speech give me eternal life. Amen.
–From the Prayer to the Good Shepherd, Gregory of Nyssa (335-394)