Who are Jesus’ flock? Notes for a sermon on sheep

To belong to the flock of Christ – to be a part of his church – means to confess that he is one with the Father and that all and everything has been put into his hands. This also means to have a hope that is larger than a particular and narrow hope for the elect only. This larger hope is exactly what distinguishes the church from the pharisees of Jesus’ time and indeed all religious elites who want to narrow down the gospel.

Notes for a sermon in the Baptist church of Bornholm, spring 2018

“And it was at Jerusalem the feast of the dedication, and it was winter. And Jesus walked in the temple in Solomon’s porch. Then came the Jews round about him, and said unto him, How long dost thou make us to doubt? If thou be the Christ, tell us plainly. Jesus answered them, I told you, and ye believed not: the works that I do in my Father’s name, they bear witness of me. But ye believe not, because ye are not of my sheep, as I said unto you. My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me: And I give unto them eternal life; and they shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand. My Father, which gave them me, is greater than all; and no man is able to pluck them out of my Father’s hand. I and my Father are one.” (John 10:22-30)

Giovanni Paolo Panini, Christ among the Doctors 1743

“You are not my sheep”.

These are hard words. The Jews in Jesus’ time must have been accustomed to think of themselves as the flock of the Lord. The Old Testament is full of language drawn from shepherding: “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want”, etc. (Psalm 23).

‘But’, says Jesus when he discusses with the pharisees in front of the temple, ‘you are not my sheep. If you were you would believe in me.’ How are we to understand Jesus’ words?

As I’ve understood it, there’s the thing with sheep that what matters is not so much what exactly is being said, but who says it. Sheep obviously doesn’t understand much, but they recognize the voice of their shepherd, and they follow when they hear his voice.

Notice that Jesus says ‘you don’t believe, because you are not my sheep’. We are used to think of it the other way round. We usually think that we decide whether we want to believe and be disciples of Jesus. As if hearing is a choice.

But the point here is the opposite. Just as the sheep don’t pick and choose their shepherd, we don’t get to choose whether we belong to Jesus’ flock or not. His sheep hear his voice, because they are his flock. They who believe Christ do so because they are his, because he has chosen them.

But who are then Jesus’ flock? Who hears him and believes him? Who, in other words, belong to the church?

Not the self-righteous religious elite. The pharisees are too busy with their identity as the chosen people, their holiness and morality. They are so busy that they have become completely deaf and incapable of hearing God’s address to them in Christ.

Instead, all kinds of sinners, tax collectors and prostitutes gather around Jesus. It turns out that Jesus’ sheep are the unmoral, the unholy, the unrighteous. Not the religious. Not the moral.

But what is it, then, that they hear when they hear his voice? What does it mean to hear the voice of the Lord?

We hear God’s voice in Christ when we understand that he is the Son of God. That he and the Father are one, as he puts it. Those who hear the voice of Christ, follow and obey him, are those who confess that Jesus is the Son of God (1 Jn 5:1). This is to obey Christ.

The identity of Jesus Christ as one with God the Father has been at the core of every Christian confession since the ancient church. Not morality. Not eschatology. Not even soteriology, but Christ himself is the gospel.

That Jesus and the Father are one is good news, as this means that everything which belongs to the Father also belongs to Jesus. ‘What the Father has given me is greater than everything’, says Jesus. In John 3:35 we hear that ‘everything’ has been put in the hands of the Son by the Father.

This lends an important perspective to the words about those who belong to Jesus’ flock and those who don’t.

That everything is in the hands of Jesus means that the Jews are also in his hands – even if they don’t recognize him as their shepherd, even if they do not hear him and obey him.

Yet.

The Jews do not yet follow, obey and confess Christ as the Son of God. Most people don’t. But they will, as we know from Paul. Eventually all will kneel and confess that Christ is Lord (Phil. 2:10).

When the pharisees in front of the temple heard Jesus saying that they were not his sheep, they have probably heard it as a complete rejection of their status as elect. But the Jews have not lost their election. In regards to the gospel they are enemies, but in regards to election they are beloved (Rom. 11:28-31).

We who confess Christ know that they are also in his hands, as all are. To belong to the flock of Christ – to be a part of his church – means to confess that he is one with the Father and that all and everything has been put into his hands. This also means to have a hope that is larger than a particular and narrow hope for the elect only. This larger hope is exactly what distinguishes the church from the pharisees of Jesus’ time and indeed all religious elites who want to narrow down the gospel.

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