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I am the good shepherd

Dr. Jim Denison is the CEO of Denison Forum.
His Daily Article and podcast globally reach over 160,000 subscribers. Dr. Denison guides readers to discern today’s news—biblically. He is the author of multiple books and has taught on the philosophy of religion and apologetics at several seminaries. Prior to launching Denison Forum in 2009, he pastored churches in Texas and Georgia. He holds a Ph.D and a Master of Divinity from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. Jim and his wife, Janet, live in Dallas, Texas. They have two sons and four grandchildren.

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Topic Scripture: John 10:11–15

In the 2018 NFL draft, my favorite story involved a linebacker named Shaquem Griffin. He played at Central Florida, where he was named the American Athletic Conference Defensive Player of the Year. He ran for NFL scouts last month, posting the fastest forty-yard time by a linebacker since 2003.

He also has only one hand. His left hand was amputated when he was four years old due to a birth defect.

As inspiring as his story is, the bottom line is still the bottom line. Shaquem Griffin will succeed or fail in the NFL the same way every other player does: by his performance on the field. In football, and in much of life, you are what you do.

With Christianity, it’s exactly the opposite. Your status and identity are based not on what you do but on what Jesus has done. Let’s learn why that is true and what it means for our souls today.

Why did Jesus have to die for us?

This week we’re continuing Jesus’ “I am” statements, coming now to his fourth claim: “I am the good shepherd” (John 10:11). Our Lord calls himself the “good” shepherd, distinguishing himself from a shepherd who cares little for his sheep. As he explained, “He who is a hired hand and not a shepherd, who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees, and the wolf snatches them and scatters them” (v. 12).

By contrast, Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father” (vv. 14–15a). Then comes the proof: “and I lay down my life for the sheep” (v. 15b).

Scripture consistently repeats his assertion:

  • “Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit” (1 Peter 3:18).
  • “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed” (1 Peter 2:24).
  • “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree'” (Galatians 3:13).
  • “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).
  • “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Ephesians 5:25).

So, we know that Jesus died for us to pay our debt and purchase our salvation. The question is, why did he have to do so? Why couldn’t God have forgiven our sins without calling his Son to die on the cross?

If I run into your car in the parking lot, I assume someone doesn’t have to die for my debt to be paid. Why did God require the death of his Son to pay ours?

The answer is that sin separates us from the holy God who is the only source of life (Isaiah 59:2; John 14:6). That’s why the Lord warned Adam that if he ate the forbidden fruit “you shall surely die” (Genesis 2:17). That’s why “the soul who sins shall die” (Ezekiel 18:20). That’s why “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23).

Sin leads to death. It stands to reason, therefore, that the only one who could pay the debt sinners owe is someone who has never sinned. If I have a thousand dollars in my bank account and owe that amount to creditors, I cannot use that money to pay your debt as well as mine. Since Jesus was the only sinless person who has ever lived (Hebrews 4:15), he alone could pay our debt.

As the chorus says, “He paid a debt he did not owe; I owed a debt I could not pay.”

Why did he have to die by crucifixion?

So the logic of Good Friday makes sense. Now let’s consider a second question: Why did Jesus have to die by crucifixion?

The manner of Jesus’ death fulfilled the prophet’s prediction, “They will look on me, the one they have pierced” (Zechariah 12:10). It also matched David’s description, “They have pierced my hands and feet” (Psalm 22:16). But why did the Holy Spirit lead these writers to predict that Jesus would die in such a gruesome way?

The Jews executed by stoning (as with Stephen in Acts 7). Rome executed its citizens by beheading. Presumably, any form of death would pay the penalty for our sins. Why did Jesus have to suffer the most horrible, heinous form of execution ever invented?

I have two answers.

First: The cross shows how horrible sin really is.

If Jesus’ death had been painless and antiseptic, the sins for which he died could seem less catastrophic. As it is, every time we are tempted we can remember the thorns that lacerated our Savior’s scalp, the whip that scourged his back, the nails that pierced his wrists and feet, the spear that ruptured his heart. That’s what your sins and my sins did to Jesus. That’s what he chose to suffer for us.

No one watching Jesus writhe in horrible agony on the cross would have called the day of Jesus’ death, “Good Friday.” The Germans get closer to the historic reality: They call it “Karfreitag,” meaning “Sorrowful Friday.”

Second: The cross shows how great God’s love really is.

If Jesus had died in an antiseptic, painless way, we would still be grateful for his atoning sacrifice. But his death in the most horrific manner possible shows the depth of his sacrificial love as nothing else could.

Know that this love is shared not only by the Son, but also by his Father: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but eternal life” (John 3:16). As a father and grandfather, I cannot begin to imagine the pain our Father felt as he watched his Son be whipped, tortured, and crucified.

He did all of that for you. He would do it all over again, just for you.

Know that you are loved

You and I live in a culture that measures us by the Three P’s: performance, possessions, and popularity. We are taught from infancy that we are what we own, what we do, and what others think of what we own and do.

It’s easy to import this thinking into our theology, assuming that God loves us more if we are righteous and less if we are sinful, that there are things we can do to make him love us more or less.

The cross proves that it’s not so. If the Father could love you even though your sins nailed his Son to the cross, what else could you do to lose his love? If he could love you before you became his child through faith, what could you do now that you are his child to lose his love?

My sons will forever be my sons because they were born as my sons. They may not want to be my sons or act like my sons, but they will always be my sons by birth. In the same way, you and I are the children of God by the “second birth.” We will always be his sons. There is nothing we can do to lose a love we did nothing to gain.

At the end of the day, God loves us because he is love (1 John 4:8). He loves us because his character is to love us. Not because of anything we can do. Not because of anything we have done.

The next time you’re facing a tough place and wonder if God loves you, remember the cross. Remember that your “good shepherd” laid down his life for you. And be grateful.

Conclusion

What have we learned about God’s love today?

One: God’s love is inspiring.

The Bible says, “We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19). We are to love God, not so he will love us but because he already does. We worship and pray and serve out of gratitude, not guilt. We love him because he loves us, at the cross and every day of our lives.

Two: God’s love is inclusive.

Scripture adds: “Whoever loves God must also love his brother” (v. 21). When we see the depth of God’s love for us, we are called to love others in the same way, to “pay it forward.” Jesus died for you; if you’re good enough for him, you’re good enough for me.

Three: God’s love is unchanging.

There is nothing we can do to lose or gain it. No matter what happens in your life, God still loves you.

Charles Spurgeon was out hiking one day and came across a windmill with the words “God Is Love” turning in the breeze. He asked the farmer, “Do you mean that God’s love is as shifting as the wind?” The farmer smiled and explained, “Not at all. I mean that no matter how the wind blows, God is still love.”

What winds are blowing in your soul today?