“[H]e who enters by the door is a shepherd of the sheep. To him the doorkeeper opens, and the sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he puts forth all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. A stranger they simply will not follow, but will flee from him, because they do not know the voice of strangers... 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… I am the good shepherd, and I know My own and My own know Me…I have other sheep, which are not of this fold; I must bring them also, and they will hear My voice…My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me; and I give eternal life to them, and they will never perish; and no one will snatch them out of My hand.” - John 10:2-5, 8-9, 14, 16, 27-28
The passage quoted above is from Jesus’ parable of the Shepherd and the Sheep, which takes up the first half of the tenth chapter of John’s Gospel and is again mentioned in the second half of that chapter. It is a complicated parable. There is a sheepfold, a door to the sheepfold, thieves and robbers who do not enter through the door, a doorkeeper, a shepherd (the good one, to whom the sheep belong and who lays down his life for the sheep), sheep, wolves, hired hands (who do not care for the sheep), other sheep (who are “not of this fold”), and strangers whom the sheep do not follow. What a cast of characters! I will not attempt in this brief article to explain the whole parable but leave it to you to ponder on your own. What I do want to do is to focus on one major part of the parable, that is, what it teaches us about the importance of listening to, and heeding, the voice of Christ.
Please note first of all that knowing and following the voice of Christ, the Good Shepherd, is not something extra that belongs to especially spiritual believers. Rather, it is the basic equipment of all who are truly Christ’s sheep. It is how we can tell if we truly are His sheep. Christ’s sheep will not follow strangers. This is logical since if they did follow the strangers, they would be led away from Christ and not follow Him. Let me hasten to add that this does not at all mean that if we ever make a mistake doctrinally or practically we must therefore conclude we do not belong to Christ’s flock. Let’s take, for example, the great Apostle Peter, the one to whom Jesus said, “Blessed are you, Simon Barjona, because flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but My Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 16:17) Jesus said this because Peter had boldly declared his faith that Jesus was “the Christ, the Son of the Living God!” (verse 16) Yet shortly after this Jesus had to rebuke him, saying, “Get behind Me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to Me; for you are not setting your mind on God's interests, but man's.” (verse 23) This was because Peter had rebuked Jesus for foretelling His death at the hands of the authorities in Jerusalem. Peter had been listening to God’s inward testimony that Jesus was indeed God’s Son, the Messiah. He heard that voice and he believed it. For this, Jesus praised him. But Peter was at that moment listening to another voice, the voice of Satan, who used Peter to try to tempt Jesus to turn away from the cross. This all happened within a short space of time. How could one who was truly one of Christ’s sheep listen, even for an instant, to the ultimate “stranger”, Satan, and become misled?
While we live in this world, we are constantly subject to temptation and besieged by voices other than that of the true Shepherd. Jesus says that His sheep hear His voice and they will not follow a stranger. While Peter unwittingly followed Satan’s lead he also heard swiftly and definitely from Jesus. The antidote to Satan’s lie was quickly administered by Jesus. Yes, it was a shocking thing for Peter to hear but he did not take offense at it. His love for Jesus, springing out of faith in Jesus’ love of him, had wrought an unbreakable bond between them. Yes, it was being tested and Peter would fail even more dreadfully before his faith in Jesus would be rewarded by the sight of Him raised from the dead. Peter would publicly deny Jesus three times, as Jesus foretold. Nevertheless, Jesus said to Peter, “but I have prayed for you, that your faith may not fail; and you, when once you have turned again, strengthen your brothers.” (Luke 22:32)
In the case of Judas, however, Jesus’ words only strengthened his desire to depart from Jesus. He saw that Jesus’ idea of the Messiah would not result in riches and power for Judas. This was a sinking ship, a hopeless cause. Jesus was determined to die and Judas had no intention of following Jesus’ invitation to take up his cross and follow after! While Peter too was cowardly and weak, his failure of nerve was in the heat of the moment rather than in the coolness of Judas’ calculative maneuvering. Peter was one of Jesus’ sheep and Judas was not. Peter loved Jesus but Judas only respected Jesus as “innocent”. (Matthew 27:4) Peter knew Jesus in a way Judas, apparently, did not. While the magnetic forces of the world, the flesh and the devil could throw Peter off temporarily, his inner compass always returned to true north. When Judas was struck with remorse he did not repent and seek the forgiveness of God for his crime. He gave in completely to despair and ended his life. When Peter realized what he had done, he wept bitterly but was in a position to respond with joy when Jesus returned from the dead.
So knowing the voice of the true Shepherd and distinguishing if from the false voices which constantly clamor for our attention is a vital part of our journey of faith here on earth. This is not a matter of literally hearing voices. The voice of Jesus is rarely an outward, audible voice. The urgings of the flesh, the lies of Satan and the whimsies of the world are truly voices that speak to us constantly, yet except in the case of the voices of worldly people, they are not literally audible. Even the influence of the world is mostly inaudible, subtle and yet so deafening that we must really concentrate to hear the “still small voice” (1 Kings 19:12, KJV) of our Savior.
That truly is the key to hearing the voice of the good Shepherd – concentration. We must care enough to concentrate. After all, doesn’t the voice of Jesus bring order out of chaos, light out of darkness, hope out of despair, power out of weakness and life out of death? It’s infinitely worth the trouble to sit at Jesus’ feet and drink in His word. If we think that Jesus will speak to us while we listen to every other voice but His, we are sadly mistaken. Yes, the other voices are speaking loudly, like the rock-rending wind, the mountain shattering earthquake and the raging fire, but Elijah did not find the Lord in them, nor will we! We must wait for them to pass, to wear themselves out, as it were, and then listen to what the Lord says.
But on what are we to concentrate if there is only very rarely an audible voice and that only to a few? We are to concentrate first on what God has already said through His prophets and apostles. That is what we find in the Scriptures of Truth, written under the direction of the Holy Spirit and preserved by God’s providence for our instruction. If we neglect His instruction there, we are wasting God’s breath. Why should He say more to us if we are ignoring what He has already said? In fact, most of what we need to hear from Him He has spoken to us through the Holy Scriptures. But here is the wonderful thing about paying attention to the words of the Lord that are written: as we diligently seek to know their meaning and application to our lives, we become aware of something more than words on the page. We start to hear through them the living voice of Jesus. We feel as though the Author Himself has come to sit beside us and is instructing us personally from the contents of His Book. That is what the hymn writer, Mary A. Lathbury, meant when she wrote: “Beyond the sacred page I seek Thee, Lord; My spirit pants for Thee, O Living Word.” So, if you are indeed one of Christ’s sheep, you will love to hear Him and be led by Him. And if you are not, He is calling to you now: “Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart and you will find rest for your souls…” (Matthew 11:28-29)