Jesus is the Only Door to the Fold
So Jesus said to them again, “Truly, truly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep. All who came before Me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not hear them. I am the door; if anyone enters through Me, he will be saved, and will go in and out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” (10:7–10)
Here Jesus changed the metaphor slightly. In the first figure of speech, He was the Shepherd; here He is the Door to the sheepfold. This is the third of seven statements in John’s gospel where “I AM” is followed by a predicate nominative (v. 11; 6:35; 8:12; 11:25; 14:6; 15:1, 5).
Since the religious leaders had failed to understand His first figure of speech, Jesus said to them again, “Truly, truly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep.” Sometimes the shepherd slept in the opening of the sheepfold to guard the sheep. No one could enter or leave except through him. In Jesus’ metaphor He is the door through which the sheep enter the safety of God’s fold and go out to the rich pasture of His blessing. It is through Him that lost sinners can approach the Father and appropriate the salvation He provides; Jesus alone is “the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through [Him]” (14:6; cf. Acts 4:12; 1 Cor. 1:30; 3:11; 1 Tim. 2:5). Only Jesus is the true source of the knowledge of God and salvation, and the basis for spiritual security.
The Lord’s assertion, “All who came before Me are thieves and robbers,” does not, of course, include Israel’s true spiritual leaders (such as Moses, Joshua, David, Solomon, Ezra, Nehemiah, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel, among many others). Jesus was referring to Israel’s false shepherds—her wicked kings, corrupt priests, false prophets, and pseudo-messiahs. However, the true sheep did not hear them; they did not heed them and were not led astray by them (see the discussion of vv. 4 and 5 above).
Then Jesus reiterated the vital truth of verse 7: “I am the door;” and He added the promise, “If anyone enters through Me, he will be saved” from sin and hell. Christ’s sheep will experience God’s love, forgiveness, and salvation; they will go in and out freely, always having access to God’s blessing and protection, and never fearing any harm or danger. They will find satisfying pasture as the Lord feeds them (cf. Ps. 23:1–3; Ezek. 34:15) on His Word (cf. Acts 20:32). In utter contrast to the thieving false shepherds who, like their father the devil (8:44) came only to steal and kill and destroy the sheep, Jesus came that they may have spiritual and eternal life (cf. John 5:21; 6:33, 51–53, 57; Rom. 6:4; Gal. 2:20; Eph. 2:1, 5; Col. 2:13), and have it abundantly. Perissos (abundantly) describes something that goes far beyond what is necessary. The matchless gift of eternal life exceeds all expectation (cf. John 4:10 with 7:38; see also Rom. 8:32; 2 Cor. 9:15).
Life, More Life
“The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.”
I am pausing in our study of the tenth chapter of John’s Gospel to give particular attention to verse 10; for it contains an idea that has become popular in some Christian circles, and it is important that we understand it. The idea is that of the abundant life. Verse 10 suggests it: “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.”
What is the full or abundant life? It is not necessarily a long life, although there are verses that promise a long life to some, such as to those who honor their father and mother (Exod. 20:12; cf. Eph. 6:2–3). It is not necessarily a life free from sorrow or sickness either, although God certainly does spare us many sorrows that we might otherwise have and often preserves us from sickness. It is not a life of sickly piety, where everything is “beautiful” or “precious” or “just wonderful.” The abundant life, as Scripture speaks of it, is, above all, the contented life, in which contentment comes from the confidence that God is equal to every emergency and does indeed supply all our genuine needs according to his riches in glory by Christ Jesus.
The contented life is the life of the sheep who finds himself in the hands of a good shepherd. There may be dangers; in fact, there will be dangers. There may be storms at times, even drought and famine. Still, in the hands of a good shepherd the sheep is content and life is bountiful.
Contentment means satisfaction, and satisfaction means to have enough. This understanding is reinforced by the meaning of “abundance” in English and in most ancient languages.
Our English word “abundance” comes from the two Latin words ab and undare which mean “to rise in waves” or “to overflow.” The first translation gives a picture of the unceasing rise of the waves upon a seashore. There the waves rise again and again. One wave surges forward and exhausts its force on the sand, but another follows and another and another. Thus it will continue as long as time lasts. The other picture is of a flood. This makes us think of a river fed by heavy rains, rising irresistibly until it overflows its banks. The abundant life is, therefore, one in which we are content in the knowledge that God’s grace is more than sufficient for our needs, that nothing can suppress it, and that God’s favor toward us is unending.
The Greek word for “abundance,” perissos, has a mathematical meaning and generally denotes a surplus. In this sense it is used of the twelve baskets of food that remained after Christ’s feeding of the five thousand, as related in Matthew’s Gospel (14:20). It is translated “remains.” The comparative is used to say that John the Baptist excelled the Old Testament prophets in dignity and importance (Matt. 11:9) and that love is more important than all sacrifices (Mark 12:33).
Before one can know the abundant life, he must first know life. That is, he must first be made alive through faith in Christ. Christ is speaking of this when he says, “I have come that they may have life.” It is only after this that he adds, “and have it to the full.”
Are you aware that you have been made alive spiritually? You should be just as certain of this as you are that you have been made alive physically. In fact, one whole book of the Bible has been written so that Christians (who have been made alive through the new birth) might be certain of it and might grow in Christ on the basis of that assurance. The book is 1 John, and John tells us that this is his purpose in writing. He says, “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life” (1 John 5:13). A few verses earlier he tells us that God has given life to all who believe on Jesus as God’s Son and that they can be assured of this because God himself tells them that this is what he has done.
The Twenty-third Psalm
This brings us to the abundant life itself, and in order to discuss it in its fullest biblical framework I want to take you to the Twenty-third Psalm. This psalm is, above all, the psalm of the contented life. When it begins by saying “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want” this is precisely what it is talking about. Not to be in want is to be content, and this state can exist only when the sheep is in the care of a good shepherd. In the psalm David tells us that he is content in the Lord in reference to five things.
First, he does not lack rest. He indicates this by saying, “He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside quiet waters, he restores my soul.”
In the small but very rewarding book, A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23, author Phillip Keller, who was himself a shepherd, tells of the difficulty there is in getting a sheep to lie down. Sheep do not easily lie down, he says. In fact, “It is almost impossible for them to be made to lie down unless four requirements are met. Owing to their timidity they refuse to lie down unless they are free of all fear. Because of the social behavior within a flock sheep will not lie down unless they are free from friction with others of their kind. If tormented by flies or parasites, sheep will not lie down.… Lastly, sheep will not lie down as long as they feel in need of finding food. They must be free from hunger.” Freedom from fear, tension, aggravation, and hunger! These are the four necessities. And the important thing, as Keller points out, is that it is only the shepherd himself who can provide them.
This is an interesting picture. For when the psalm begins with the sheep at rest it begins with a picture of sheep who have found their shepherd to be a good shepherd, that is, one who is able to meet their physical needs and to provide them with release from anxiety. Moreover, it is interesting that it begins at this point. For the other advantages of the contented life—guidance, comfort, safety, provision, and a destiny—come only to one who has found the Lord adequate to his every need.
Second, the psalmist tells us that he does not lack guidance. For “he leads me beside quiet waters” and “he guides me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.”
Sheep are stupid creatures. In fact, they are probably the most stupid animals on earth. One aspect of their stupidity is seen in the fact that they so easily wander away. They can have a good shepherd who has brought them to the best grazing lands, near an abundant supply of water—still they will wander away over a hill to where the fields are barren and the water undrinkable. Or again, they are creatures of habit. They can have found good grazing land due to the diligence of the shepherd; but then having found it, they will continue to graze upon it until every blade of grass and even every root is eaten, the fields ruined, and themselves impoverished. This has actually happened to sheep and the land they graze on in many parts of the world—Spain, Greece, Mesopotamia, North Africa, parts of the western United States, and New Zealand.
No other class of livestock requires more careful handling and more detailed directions than do sheep. Therefore, a shepherd who is able to give good guidance is essential for their welfare. He will move the sheep from field to field (before deterioration sets in) and will always stay near water. He will chase strays. He will plan the grazing to fit the seasons of the year. In the same way, we too need the Good Shepherd. We do not lack guidance if we will but have it.
Third, David tells us that he does not lack safety, even in the presence of great danger. “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.”
This verse often has been taken as providing words of comfort for those who are dying; and it is not wrongly used in that way. God certainly is a source of comfort in death. Primarily, however, the verse speaks of the shepherd’s ability to protect the sheep in moments of danger. The picture in this verse is of the passage from the lowlands, where sheep spend the winter, through the valleys to the high pastures where they go in summer. The valleys are the places of richest pasture and of abundant water. But they also are places of danger. Wild animals lurk in the broken canyon walls to either side. Sudden storms may sweep down the valleys. There may be floods. The sun does not shine so well into the valleys. So there really is shadow, which at any moment might become death’s shadow. It is through such experiences that our Lord leads us in safety.
In the book that I referred to earlier, Keller notes how often Christians speak of their desire “to move on to higher ground with God,” wanting to move above the lowlands of life and yet not realizing that mountaintop experiences are entered into only by passing through the valleys. Strong faith comes from having faith tested. Patience comes from having lived through tribulations. This means that life will not necessarily be smooth under the direction of our Shepherd. He will sometimes lead us through rough places. Nevertheless, as we go through them we can know of his ability to keep us from falling and to present us before the presence of his Father with great joy.
Keller writes: “The basic question is not whether we have many or few valleys. It is not whether those valleys are dark or merely dim with shadows. The question is how do I react to them? How do I go through them? How do I cope with the calamities that come my way? With Christ I face them calmly. With His gracious Spirit to guide me I face them fearlessly. I know of a surety that only through them can I possibly travel on to higher ground with God.”
Fourth, Psalm 23 speaks of the shepherd’s provision for each physical need of the flock. “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies, you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.”
Keller thinks that the reference to preparing the table refers to the shepherd’s advance preparation of the high tablelands or mesas where the sheep graze in summer. If so, it refers to the elimination of hazards, the destruction of poisonous plants, and the driving away of predators—all before the sheep arrive. If it does not refer to this, it must be taken merely of God’s provision of peace and feeding even when enemies lurk nearby. In such a time, says David, God anoints him with oil and fills his cup of wine to overflowing.
In biblical imagery oil and wine speak of joy and prosperity; for the growing of olives and grapes and their transformation into oil and wine take time and gentle care. In times of domestic turmoil or war these tasks were forgotten.
Moreover, oil and wine well suited the inhabitants of a dry and barren land and were therefore highly valued. In Palestine, where the sun shines fiercely most of the year and the temperature continually soars up into the hundreds, the skin quickly becomes cracked and broken, and throats become dusty and parched. Oil soothes the skin, particularly the face. Wine clears the throat. Therefore, when a guest arrived at the home of a friend in Palestine in Christ’s or David’s day, hospitality demanded the provision of oil and wine so that the ravages of travel might be overcome and friends might make merry in each other’s company. David spoke of this elsewhere when he prayed, “O Lord … let your face shine on your servant” (Ps. 31:14, 16). A shining face was the face of a friend. In another passage he thanks God for “wine that gladdens the heart of man, [and] oil to make his face shine” (Ps. 104:15).
David knew of God’s great love and provision; his face shone, and his heart was made merry because of it. Oh for the shining face and the merry heart today! Far too many have scowling faces and gloomy hearts, but that is not what God intends for his children. Instead, if we will allow him to lead us to the high pastures of the Christian life we will find our table prepared, our heads anointed with purest oil, and our cups overflowing with the wine of joy.
A Heavenly Home
Finally, having spoken of all these provisions, David adds no less gladly that he does not lack for a heavenly home. He is blessed in this life, but it is not in this life only that he knows God’s goodness. He will know it forever. Thus he declares, “Surely goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever” (Ps. 23:6).
To have a sure home is one of the great desires of the nomadic people who have generally occupied that area of the Near East bordered by the Mediterranean Sea, the Red Sea, and the great Arabian desert. T. E. Lawrence, who gained fame as Lawrence of Arabia during World War I, has written of this eloquently in his classic Seven Pillars of Wisdom. He tells in the opening pages of that book how, because of the geography of this area, one tribe after another came out of the desert to fight for the lush Judean highlands, which contained the best trees, crops, and pastures. The Israelites in their conquest of Palestine under Joshua were just one of these peoples. When one group (like the Israelites) succeeded, the conquered people generally moved just a bit south into the Negev (which was also good land but not quite as good as that to the north) and displaced others. Those who were displaced in turn displaced others, and those displaced still others, with the result that there was always a constant movement around the entire area. The last of the peoples would be forced back into the desert with nothing before them but Damascus. At some point all the peoples of the Near East had this background. So, for most of them, Damascus with its ample rivers and fields became the symbol of true abundance at the end of life’s pilgrimage. It symbolized home.
For us who know the Good Shepherd there is also a similar longing; but the longing is not for Damascus or any other earthly home. Our longing is for that great and final home that the Lord Jesus Christ has himself gone to prepare for us. He has said, “I am going to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am” (John 14:2–3). With such a promise we know that we will dwell in the house of the Lord forever. Of our state in that home John the evangelist later wrote in the Book of Revelation: “Never again will they hunger; never again will they thirst. The sun will not beat upon them, nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd; he will lead them to springs of living water. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes” (Rev. 7:16–17).
The blessings of this life and heaven too! Nor can we forget that this was achieved for us by One who himself became a lamb in order to die for us so that we might be able to enter into the fullness of such a great salvation.
“The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.” (John 10:10)
Why did Jesus Christ come into this world? There could hardly be a more important question. Jesus spoke of this frequently, including some of his most memorable sayings.
For instance, when Peter and the other disciples wanted Jesus to impress people with his miraculous power, Jesus refused, since he had not come for that reason. “Let us go on to the next towns, that I may preach there also,” he said, “for that is why I came” (Mark 1:38). Jesus came to reveal God and preach his gospel to the world. But those who would limit Jesus’ mission merely to teaching fail to realize that this was just the beginning.
As Jesus drew near to the end of his time on earth, he spoke further about the reason for his coming. In Luke 19:10, he said, “The Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” In Matthew 20:28, Jesus emphasized his death on the cross: “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
But probably the greatest statement of the reason for Jesus’ coming into the world is found in John 10:10, as the conclusion of his claim to be the door to salvation. Jesus had said, “I am the door. If anyone enters by me, he will be saved and will go in and out and find pasture” (10:9). He meant that those who trust in him would be saved, would be safe, and would be satisfied. Then, to make his great purpose clear, Jesus added, “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly” (10:10). It was to give eternal life that Jesus came and taught, and gave his life on the cross.
The One Who Gives Life
We should remember that Jesus spoke these words in the midst of his dispute with the Pharisees. In John 9, Jesus had healed the man born blind, but the Pharisees immediately afflicted this man and even cast him out from the synagogue. So everything that Jesus says about himself in John 10 is intended to contrast with the attitude of the false religious leaders. This accounts for the first half of John 10:10, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy.”
This is Jesus’ assessment not only of the Pharisees, but of all false religious leaders. Those who preach a way of salvation based on good works or ritual performance or the paying of money—or any way other than faith alone in Christ—are as wolves among the sheep. The Pharisees were widely admired in their day, but their attitude toward Jesus and his followers showed the evil in their hearts. Today, false religious leaders include those who preach tolerance for sin but who will not tolerate the Bible’s teaching. They also include those who minister for personal gain and twist the gospel to attract followers. Jesus, by his atoning death on the cross, is the one and only door to true life, and faith alone is the one way of entering through him. All others who try to enter themselves and would lead others over the wall are thieves and robbers. Jesus says that they come “only to steal and kill and destroy.”
This is even more true when we consider unbelieving, worldly leaders, who entice the masses with their myths of utopia. D. A. Carson comments:
The world still seeks its humanistic, political saviours—its Hitlers, its Stalins, its Maos, its Pol Pots—and only too late does it learn that they blatantly confiscate personal property (they come “only to steal”), ruthlessly trample human life under their foot (they come “only … to kill”), and contemptuously savage all that is valuable (they come “only … to destroy”).
Moreover, this is true not only of blatant despots but also of the more pleasurable tyrants of materialism and sensualism. Just as the idols of the Old Testament always enslaved their followers, the more sophisticated idols of consumer society never give life but only take it. This is why God’s Son came: to grant life. It was the Tree of Life that Adam and Eve lost when they fell into sin, and only the Savior from heaven can deliver us from sin and restore us to true and eternal life.
When it comes to eternal life, we have a tendency to think mainly in terms of its quantity. It is life everlasting. But in John 10:10, Jesus emphasizes the quality of the life he gives: “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.” Jesus came to give abundant life. In this chapter, he paints a living portrait of the plentiful life he gives, using the illustration of a flock of sheep under the care of a good shepherd. He says that his flock will come in for safety and go out for rich provision in pastures prepared by God, all under the watchful eye of their loving Shepherd.
When we picture this imagery, those familiar with the Bible may think of the Twenty-third Psalm, which depicts weak and foolish sheep who find life and blessing simply because they can say, as the psalm begins, “The Lord is my shepherd” (Ps. 23:1).
I Shall Not Want
Psalm 23 poetically describes the life provided to those who trust the Lord as their Shepherd. Phillip Keller wrote a valuable book on this theme, based on his own experience as a shepherd. He points out the importance of the shepherd’s care to the sheep’s well-being:
The welfare of any flock is entirely dependent upon the management afforded them by their owner.… For Him there is no greater reward, no deeper satisfaction, than that of seeing His sheep well contented, well fed, safe and flourishing under His care.… He will go to no end of trouble and labor to supply them with the finest grazing, the richest pasturage, ample winter feed, and clean water.… From early dawn until late at night this utterly self-less Shepherd is alert to the welfare of His flock.
Based on this analogy, when Jesus says that he came to give abundant life, this doubtless involves his providing care. Meeting the needs of his sheep absorbs a shepherd’s time and energy. And because of this care, those who belong to Jesus can say, “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want” (Ps. 23:1).
But this raises a question. When Jesus says that he came to give abundant life, and when Psalm 23 says, “I shall not want,” what sort of provision is promised? This is an important question because of the spread of the so-called prosperity gospel, which teaches that God promises material wealth to all who trust in him.
So widespread is this teaching today that TIME magazine has run a cover story titled “Does God Want You to Be Rich?” The article begins with the testimony of George Adams. Adams lost his job at an Ohio factory and moved his family to Houston, Texas, so that he could join the church of the popular prosperity teacher Joel Osteen. Osteen’s inspirational best seller, Your Best Life Now, is widely credited for spreading the prosperity gospel from Pentecostal churches into the evangelical mainstream. He preaches a Christian faith that not only provides blessings in heaven, but also consists of happiness, success, and fulfillment here on earth. Embracing Osteen’s positive message, George Adams approached life with a new confidence. Applying for a job as a car salesman, he immediately began making sales. He exults, “It’s a new day God has given me! I’m on my way to a six-figure income!” When asked what he hopes to receive through his faith, he says, “Twenty-five acres, and three bedrooms. We’re going to have a schoolhouse.… We want horses and ponies for the boys, so a horse barn. And a pond. And maybe some cattle.” “I’m dreaming big,” Adams declares, “because all of heaven is dreaming big.”4
Osteen expresses his version of the prosperity gospel: “I think God wants us to be prosperous. I think he wants us to be happy. I think he wants us to enjoy our lives.” And he unabashedly defines these in material terms. A more extreme example comes from the popular and aptly named Creflo Dollar, whose list of “Believer’s Rights” consists of financial wealth, glowing good health, power to heal the sick, bearing children, positive answers to all prayers, and constant protection. Moreover, Dollar claims the believer’s right to be a capitalist: “Owning corporations is a part of your destiny as a believer,” he writes. Finally, true believers have power to raise the dead: “If Jesus raised the dead, so can you,” he insists.
What are we to make of this prosperity gospel? First, we might note some of its positive influences. Prosperity teachers often point out that many people feel downtrodden and hopeless and are inhibited by poor self-esteem. They frequently point out that Christians should not approach life pessimistically or doubtful of God’s favor. In this, they are right. When they emphasize that changes in our life demand changes in our thinking, they are also right. Furthermore, people who think optimistically do tend to be more successful. Given the widespread depression in our society today, it is not surprising that people are flocking to hear an upbeat message promising prosperity.
One great concern about the prosperity gospel is its reluctance to speak about sin and our need to find grace at the cross. Sin is a depressing topic, its proponents explain, and telling people to confess their sins and seek forgiveness injures their self-esteem. Prosperity is promised by the sheer power of believing, as though our faith exercised divine power on its own. Moreover, one does not receive God’s favor merely by believing or declaring it to be so, as prosperity teachers emphasize; only sinners who come to God by the blood of Christ will be saved, and only they may rely on God’s blessing in this life and the life to come. To teach otherwise is to deceive the unredeemed with a false hope of God’s favor.
What about the prosperity gospel’s central claim that God wants all his children to enjoy earthly wealth, perfect health, and worldly success? Is this biblical? The answer is No.
Prosperity-gospel preachers typically teach that trials such as an illness, the loss of a job, and relationship problems are the result of a lack of faith. But the Bible says that trials are part of God’s fatherly plan for growing believers into maturity. The apostle James taught, “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness” (James 1:2–3). Moreover, it is disturbing to read of prosperity believers’ defining salvation almost exclusively in terms of houses, ponds, stables, and other possessions. Jesus taught, “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal” (Matt. 6:19–20). He concluded with a stinging rebuke to all who focus on earthly prosperity: “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matt. 6:21). This means that those whose treasures are on earth do not have their heart set on God, and it raises questions about the eternal situation of those whose gospel is of earthly riches. Jesus called his followers to self-denial in this life, not self-absorption: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23).
John 10:10 is frequently cited by prosperity preachers because Jesus states that he came to give abundant life. But Jesus did not say that he came to give an abundance of things. He came to give life, and that abundantly. And Jesus taught, “One’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions” (Luke 12:15). The fact is that money and possessions do not convey happiness, much less life. Kent Hughes writes, “Money can buy things—it can even buy a pasture, but it cannot buy satisfaction.” Jesus promises a satisfied soul, especially as his sheep feed in the plentiful pastures of his life-giving Word.
Spiritually mature Christians will often enjoy worldly success, though not always. Those who are blessed with material riches should not feel guilty about it, so long as their true treasure is in heaven. The stewardship of wealth is a high calling, and those with excess wealth to give are often a great help to the cause of the gospel. Nonetheless, Jesus often warned that money is a spiritual snare; he said, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God” (Luke 6:20).
It has sometimes been noted that God is a father, not a grandfather: he does not spoil his children but trains them in righteousness. He promises to meet all the genuine needs of his people, but not to gratify our earthly cravings. Paul exulted, “My God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:19). Our main needs are spiritual. Every believer may rely on God’s provision of “righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Rom. 14:17).
In fact, God especially delights to cause us to prosper spiritually in the midst of earthly difficulties. This is one of the points of the book of Job. Satan argued that Job trusted God only because of his earthly prosperity, but when Job continued to praise God in the midst of suffering, God was greatly glorified. The believer’s true wealth is that his or her joy does not depend on earthly prosperity. Jesus supplies us with abundant spiritual life in any circumstance, so that Christians can contentedly praise him: “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want” (Ps. 23:1). Those who pursue worldly happiness will ever be restless, always needing more. But those who find their contentment in Christ can say with the psalmist: “He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters” (23:2).
Guidance for the Journey
Having spoken of provision, Psalm 23 goes on to promise the Good Shepherd’s guidance: “He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake” (Ps. 23:3).
The comparison between Christians and sheep is not a compliment. James Montgomery Boice writes: “Sheep are stupid creatures. In fact, they are probably the most stupid animals on earth. One aspect of their stupidity is seen in the fact that they so easily wander away.” Sheep like to eat foods that poison them, and they like to do things that will cost them their life. Therefore, sheep require a shepherd to survive.
The same is true of us spiritually. When Jesus says that he came to give life to his sheep, this involves his ongoing guidance. This is why we have the Bible; the abundant life that Jesus gives is one that is lived under the guidance of his Word. He also provides leaders in the church as well as fellowship among believers. When needed, he is willing to extend his staff to pull us back into line. By all these means, Jesus promises life-giving guidance to all who follow him.
Psalm 23 continues with spiritual comfort, which the Good Shepherd gives to his flock. Jesus promises abundant life, but still we live in a world shadowed by death. Psalm 23:4 therefore says, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.”
The shadow of death deprives many people of the joy of life. But not so the Christian who knows the Lord’s promise. We must face death, but we need not fear it. Why? Because the Lord promises to be with us, and his sin-atoning cross has removed everything that a Christian has to fear in death.
Some time ago I had the privilege of ministering to a Christian brother who was facing the rapid approach of death. At our last meeting, we both knew that he would pass through death within a day or two. Psalm 23 comforted him with its message that the valley of the shadow of death is not the end; indeed, it is in the middle of the psalm. It tells the believer that death is now but a shadow, the substance of death having been conquered on the cross. But still, my friend worried about the actual experience of dying. He asked me, “Pastor, what is it going to be like to die?” I had to confess that I had little to say, except that the Lord has promised to be with him for comfort and to remove any harm from the experience: “For you are with me,” David exulted; “your rod and your staff, they comfort me.”
Even more, Christians have every reason to look forward to the life that awaits us beyond the grave. Here is where full and unfettered prosperity truly awaits us, where moth cannot destroy, thief cannot steal, and time will cause no rust.
Psalm 23:5 makes three comforting promises about the life to come. First, “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.” This speaks of our acceptance into God’s glorious presence. Despite the accusations of sin and the devil, a place has been prepared for each believer in Christ. Whatever famine lies before us here, a table of feasting awaits us above. Jesus promised: “In my Father’s house are many rooms.… I go to prepare a place for you” (John 14:2).
Second, the psalmist wrote, “You anoint my head with oil.” Ancient hosts provided wine and oil to the weary traveler—oil to soothe the skin and wine to cleanse the dusty throat. For this reason, a shining face was known as the face of a friend. In Psalm 104:15, David thanks God for “wine to gladden the heart of man, oil to make his face shine.” Here we have a vision of Christ welcoming us into heaven with oil to soothe the hurts of our passage through life and death.
Third, Psalm 23:5 comforts us with promised abundance in the life to come: “My cup overflows.” Whatever we hope for in heaven, holding out our longings as a cup to the Lord, what we actually experience will cause that cup to overflow. What a comfort it is, living in a sinful, difficult world like ours, to know that overflowing glories await us in heaven.
The Lord Is My Shepherd
Jesus came to give us not money, not possessions, not earthly positions of power and prestige. He came to give us life. And that life is found through fellowship with him. “In him was life,” John wrote, “and the life was the light of men” (John 1:4). David concluded Psalm 23 with a similar statement of divine fellowship and life, both now and in eternity: “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever” (Ps. 23:6).
But what is the key to this abundant life? Does prosperity depend on our cultivating high self-esteem and a bright outlook, or developing effective life skills? According to Psalm 23, the abundant life depends not on the supposed strength, wisdom, or skill of the sheep themselves. In fact, the characteristic of all sheep is that they have little of these. What matters is having the right Shepherd—a Good Shepherd who will provide for us, guide us, comfort us, and receive us into the green pastures of the life to come. Jesus came as a life-giving Savior. He promises, “I am the door. If anyone enters by me, he will be saved and will go in and out and find pasture” (John 10:9).
Can you say of Jesus, “The Lord is my shepherd”? If not, then what could possibly keep you from coming to him for this loving care and provision? Is it your love of sin? Surely, as the Spirit helps you, you can see that the beaten-down path of sin never leads to such green and quiet places. Jesus died to free you from the bondage of sin’s false advertising; his cross is the gate to the sheep pen so that there you might confess your sins, have the burden of your guilt drop from your back, and be received into the fold of his purchased, privileged flock.
If you have done that, if you can say, “Yes, I am part of that flock, for the Lord is indeed my Shepherd,” then surely you ought to refresh your faith in him, renew your vow of love for him, and follow with new strength in the path where he is leading. “The Lord is my shepherd,” we say by faith. And Jesus replies with words of manifold blessing: “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly” (John 10:10).
10. The thief cometh not. By this saying, Christ—if we may use the expression—pulls our ear, that the ministers of Satan may not come upon us by surprise, when we are in a drowsy and careless state; for our excessive indifference exposes us, on every side, to false doctrines. For whence arises credulity so great, that they who ought to have remained fixed in Christ, fly about in a multitude of errors, but because they do not sufficiently dread or guard against so many false teachers? And not only so, but our insatiable curiosity is so delighted with the new and strange inventions of men, that, of our own accord, we rush with mad career to meet thieves and wolves. Not without reason, therefore, does Christ testify that false teachers, whatever may be the mildness and plausibility of their demeanour, always carry about a deadly poison, that we may be more careful to drive them away from us. A similar warning is given by Paul, See that no man rob you through vain philosophy, (Coloss. 2:8.)
I am come. This is a different comparison; for Christ, having hitherto called himself the door, and declared that they who bring sheep to this door are true shepherds, now assumes the character of a shepherd, and indeed affirms that he is the only shepherd. Indeed, there is no other to whom this honour and title strictly belongs; for, as to all the faithful shepherds of the Church, it is he who raises them up, endows them with the necessary qualifications, governs them by his Spirit, and works by them; and therefore they do not prevent him from being the only Governor of his Church, or from holding the distinction of being the only Shepherd. For, though he employs their ministry. still he does not cease to fulfil and discharge the office of a shepherd by his own power; and they are masters and teachers in such a manner as not to interfere with his authority as a Master. In short, when the term shepherd is applied to men, it is used, as we say, in a subordinate sense; and Christ shares the honour with his ministers in such a manner, that he still continues to be the only shepherd both of themselves and of the whole flock.
That they may have life. When he says that he is come, that the sheep may have life, he means that they only who do not submit to his staff and crook (Psalm 23:4) are exposed to the ravages of wolves and thieves; and—to give them greater confidence—he declares that life is continually increased and strengthened in those who do not revolt from him. And, indeed, the greater progress that any man makes in faith, the more nearly does he approach to fulness of life, because the Spirit, who is life, grows in him.
11 I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd giveth his life for the sheep. 12 But the hireling, and he who is not the shepherd, whose own the sheep are not, seeth the wolf coming, and leaveth the sheep, and fleeth, and the wolf teareth them, and scattereth the sheep. 13 The hireling fleeth, because he is a hireling, and careth not for the sheep. 14 I am the good shepherd, and know my sheep, and am known by mine. 15 As the Father knoweth me, I also know the Father, and I lay down my life for the sheep.
10 Using vivid language, Jesus says that the Jewish establishment (the “thief”) has as its purpose “to steal and kill and destroy.” But this is not true of Jesus the shepherd—he has come so that his followers “may have life, and have it to the full.” The former are life denying, while Jesus is life affirming. The life that Jesus came to provide is not physical but spiritual. Yet that which is spiritual naturally overflows into every aspect of physical existence. Life embraces all that it means to be alive in this world and firmly attached by faith to the living Lord. Fullness of life is the reward of faith. It is by trusting Jesus and forgetting self that real life—physical and spiritual—breaks into one’s consciousness like the dawning of a new day (cf. Mk 8:35 par.).