A Sermon by Martin Luther; taken from his Church Postil, 1523.
A SERMON ON THE GOOD SHEPHERD, JOHN 10
I. This is a comforting Gospel, which so beautifully portrays the Lord Jesus and teaches us what manner of person he is, what kind of works he does, and how he is disposed toward men. And there is no better way to understand it than to contrast light and darkness and day and night; that is, the good shepherd with the wicked one, as the Lord himself does.
2. Now, you have often heard that God has given the world two different proclamations. One is that which is declared in the Word of God when it says: Thou shalt not kill, not commit adultery, not steal (EX 20, 13-
3. The other proclamation is that of the Gospel. It tells where one may obtain that which will meet the demands of the Law. It does not drive or threaten, but tenderly invites us. It does not say, Do this and do that, but rather: Come, I will show you where you may find and obtain what you need to make you godly. See, here is the Lord Jesus; he will give it to you. Therefore, the two are as contrary to each other as taking and giving, demanding and presenting; and this distinction must be well observed. Thus God ever has ruled and still rules the world today. To coarse and rude persons, who are not influenced by the Gospel, the Law must be declared, and they must be driven until they are humbled and acknowledge their imperfections. When this has been accomplished, the Gospel is to be applied.
4. These are the two divine proclamations, which come from heaven. Besides these there are others that are not from heaven, but are human prattle, which the pope and our bishops have invented that they might terrify our consciences. Such men are not worthy of being called shepherds or hirelings, but they are here designated by the Lord Jesus as thieves, murderers and wolves. For if men are to be savingly governed, it must be done with the Word of God; and if it is not done by the Word of God, they are not properly governed.
I. THE NATURE OF THE OFFICE AND KINGDOM OF CHRIST EXPLAINED.
5. Now, here Jesus has in mind the second proclamation. He explains it and sets himself forth as the chief shepherd, yea, as the only shepherd; for that which he does not tend is not kept. This comforting and sweet proclamation we will now consider.
6. You have heard that after his sufferings and death Christ our Lord arose from the dead and entered upon, and was enthroned in, an immortal existence. Not that he might sit up there in heaven idly and find pleasure in himself, but that he might take charge of the kingdom of which the prophets and all the Scriptures have so fully spoken, and might rule as a king. Therefore, we should think of him as being present and reigning among us continually, and never think of him as sitting up there doing nothing, but rather that he from above fills and rules all things, as Paul says to the Ephesians (4,10), and especially that he is taking care of his kingdom, which is the Christian faith, and that therefore his kingdom among us here on earth must prosper. This kingdom, as we have said, is so constituted that we all must daily increase and grow in holiness, and it is not governed by any other power save the oral proclamation of the Gospel.
7. This proclamation is not of men, but Christ himself sent it forth, and then put it into the hearts of the apostles and their successors so that they understood it, and into their mouths so that they spake and declared it. This is his kingdom, and so does he rule that all of his power is comprehended in and connected with the Word of God. They who hear and believe it belong to this kingdom, and the Word then becomes so mighty that it provides all that man may need and bestows all the blessings that we may desire. For it is the power of God, and it can and will save all who believe it, as St. Paul declared to the Romans (1, 16). If you believe that Christ died to save you from all evil, and will hold fast to that Word, you will find it so certain and sure that no creature can overthrow it; and as no one can overthrow the Word, neither can anyone harm you who believe it. Accordingly, with the Word you will overcome sin, death, devil and hell, and you will find a refuge in the Word and attain that which is found where the Word is, namely, everlasting peace, joy and life. In short, you will be participants in all the power that is in the Word. Therefore, it is a peculiar kingdom. The Word Is present and is orally proclaimed to all the world, but its power is deeply hidden, so that none but they who believe realize that it is so effective and that it accomplishes such great things. It must be experienced and realized by the heart.
8. Hence, all that we preachers can do is to become the mouthpieces and instruments of Christ our Lord, through whom he proclaims the Word bodily. He sends forth the Word publicly so that all may hear it, but that the heart inwardly experiences it, that is effected through faith and is wrought by Christ in secret where he perceives that it can be done according to his divine knowledge and pleasure. That is why he says: "I am the good shepherd." And what is a good shepherd? "The good shepherd," says Christ, "layeth down his life for the sheep; and I lay down my life for the sheep." In this one virtue the Lord comprehends and exemplifies all others in the beautiful parable of the sheep. Sheep, you know, are most foolish and stupid animals. When we want to speak of anybody's stupidity we say, "He is a sheep." Nevertheless, it has this trait above all other animals, that it soon learns to heed its shepherd's voice and will follow no one but its shepherd, and though it cannot help and keep and heal itself, nor guard itself against the wolf, but is dependent upon others, yet it always knows enough to keep close to its shepherd and look to him for help.
9. Now, Christ uses this trait or nature of the animal as an illustration in explaining that he is the good shepherd. In this manner he plainly shows what his kingdom is, and wherein it consists, and would say: My kingdom is only to rule the sheep; that is poor, needy wretched men, who well see and realize that there is no other help or counsel for them.
10. But that we may make it the plainer, and may understand it the better, we will cite a passage from the prophet Ezekiel, where he speaks of the wicked shepherds that are against Christ, when he says (34, 2ff) : "Should not the Shepherds feed the sheep? Ye eat the fat, and ye clothe you with the wool, ye kill the fatlings; but ye feed not the sheep. The diseased have ye not strengthened, neither have ye healed that which was sick, neither have ye bound up that which was broken, neither have ye brought back that which was driven away, neither have ye sought that which was lost; but with force and with rigour have ye ruled over them. And they were scattered, because there was no shepherd; and they become food to all the beasts of the field and were scattered. My sheep wandered through all the mountains, and upon every high hill: yea, my sheep were scattered upon all the face of the earth; and there was none that did search or seek after them," and so forth. Accordingly, God reproves the shepherds who do not keep the sheep. And now mark well what he has written. His earnest intent in this paragraph is that the weak, sick, broken, those who are driven away and the lost, are to be strengthened, bound up, healed, and sought again, and that they are not to be torn to pieces and scattered. This you should have done, says he to the shepherds, but you have not done it; therefore, I will do it myself. As he says further on, in verse 16: "I will seek that which was lost, I will bring back that which was driven away, and will bind up that which was broken, and will strengthen that which was sick."
11. Here you see that Christ's kingdom is to be concerned about the weak, the sick, the broken, that he may help them. That is, indeed, a comforting declaration. The only trouble is that we do not realize our needs and infirmities. If we realized them, we would soon flee to him. But how did those shepherds act? They ruled with rigour, and applied God's Law with great severity; and, moreover, they added their own commandments, as they still do, and when these were not fulfilled, they raved and condemned, so that they were driving and driving and exhorting and exacting, continually. That is no proper way to tend and keep souls, says Christ. He is no such shepherd as that; for no one is benefited, but is rather wholly undone, by such a course, as we shall presently hear. Now let us consider this citation from the prophet in its order.
12. First, be says: The sheep that are weak are to be strengthened; that is, consciences weak in faith and troubled in spirit and of tender disposition are not to be driven and told: You must do this. You must be strong. If you are weak, you are lost. That is not strengthening the weak. St. Paul, speaking to the Romans (chapter 14,1) says: "But him that is weak in faith receive ye, yet not for decision of scruples." And shortly afterwards (chapter 15, 1) he says: "Now we that are strong ought to bear the infirmities of the weak." Accordingly, they should not be driven with rigour, but should be comforted, even though they are weak, lest they be driven to despair; and in time they will grow stronger.
13. Isaiah, the, prophet, speaks of Christ likewise (chapter 42, 3): "A bruised reed will he not break, and a dimly burning wick will he not quench." The bruised reeds are poor, tender consciences, which are easily distracted so that they tremble and despair of God. He does not fly at them then, and trample them under foot; that is not his way. But he deals with them gently, lest he break them to pieces. Again, the dimly burning wick, which still burns at least, though there be more smoke than fire there, he does not wholly quench, but lights, and again and again trims it. That is a great consolation, indeed, to such as experience it; and, therefore, he who does not deal gently with tender consciences is no good shepherd.
14. Secondly, the prophet says: "Neither have ye healed the sick." Who are the sick? They are those who are manifestly deficient in certain of their works. The first clause has reference to tender consciences; the second, to outward conduct. As, for instance, when one growls and sulks, and now and then lapses, and in anger and other foolish ways oversteps the bounds; even as the apostles, at times, grievously stumbled. But even those who in their outward works before men manifest their shortcomings, so that people are offended at them and say that they are rude and peculiar, he will not cast away; for his kingdom here below is not so constituted as to embrace only the strong and the whole, as it will be in the life to come. Christ is sent here that he might receive and help just such people.
15. Therefore, even though we are weak and sick, we must not despair and say we are not in the kingdom of Christ. But the more we realize our sickness, all the more should we turn to him; for that is what he is here for, to heal and make us whole. Accordingly, if you are sick and a sinner, and realize your condition, you have all the more reason to go to him and say: Dear Lord, I come just because I am a sinner; that thou mayest help me, and make me good. Thus, necessity drives you to him; for the greater your ailment, the more imperative it is that you seek relief. And that is what he wants; therefore, he tenderly bids us to be of good cheer, and to come unto him. They who are not good shepherds, however, expect to make people good by hatefully scolding and driving them, whereas they are thereby only making matters worse. And this may be seen when we look upon present conditions, brought about by this wrong method, when everything is so piteously scattered, even as the prophet has here said.
16. Thirdly: "Neither have ye bound up that which was broken." To be broken is as though one had a bone fractured or were otherwise wounded. As when a Christian is not only weak and infirm, so that he makes a misstep at times, but when he falls into such great temptation that he breaks his leg; for instance, if he should fall and deny the Gospel, as St. Peter did, when he denied Christ. Well, even though one should make such a misstep as to be impeded or overthrown-
17. Now, all this is effected through the Gospel alone, by means of which we are to strengthen all the weak and heal all the sick; for this Word will satisfy every want of those whose consciences are troubled, and will give full consolation to all, so that no one, no matter how great a sinner he has been, need despair. Hence, Christ alone is the good shepherd, who heals all our infirmities and raises up again those who have fallen. He who does not do that is no shepherd.
18. Fourthly, the prophet says: "Neither have ye brought back that which was driven away." What is meant by "that which was driven away"? It is that despised soul that is fallen so low that all efforts to reclaim it seem to be in vain. Nevertheless, Christ would not have even such dealt with rigorously. He would not have his kingdom narrowed down so as to include only such as are strong and healthy and perfect. That will be the case in the future kingdom that follows this life, as has been said: Now, because he reigns, pure grace and bliss only shall prevail. Even as God promised the children of Israel (Ex 3, 8) that the promised land would be a land flowing with milk and honey. Likewise St. Paul says that our uncomely parts shall have more abundant comeliness (1 Cor 12,23).
19. Fifthly, he concludes: "Neither have ye sought that which was lost." That which was lost is that which is given up as already condemned, so that there is no expectation that it ever will return; as the publicans and harlots mentioned in the Gospel, and as the dissolute and intractable in our day, were and are. And yet, even these he would not have us pass by, but would have everything possible done to reclaim them. This was done by St. Paul, on different occasions; as, for example, when he delivered two men unto Satan, as he said to Timothy (1 Tim 1, 20): "Whom I delivered unto Satan that they might be taught not to blaspheme." And, again, to the Corinthians he said (1 Cor 5,5): "I have concluded to deliver such a one unto Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that the spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus." He had cast these away as condemned, and yet he goes after them again.
20. Therefore, we should so preach Christ as one who will reject nobody, however weak he may be, but will gladly receive and comfort and strengthen everybody; that we may always picture him to ourselves as a good shepherd. Then hearts will turn to him of their own accord, and need not be forced and driven. The Gospel graciously invites and makes men willing, so that they desire to go, and do go, to him with all confidence. And it begets a love for Christ in their hearts, so that they willingly do what they should, whereas formerly they had to be driven and forced. When we are driven, we do a thing with displeasure and against our will. That is not what God desires; therefore it is done in vain. But when I see that God deals with me graciously, he wins my heart, so that I am constrained to fly to him; consequently, my heart is filled with happiness and joy.
21. Now see what an evil it is when one person judges another. Christ's kingdom, as we have heard, is calculated to heal and sanctify only such souls as are sick and needy; therefore all must err who look only upon those who are strong and holy. Consequently, the knowledge that rightly apprehends Christ is great and mighty. By our nature we are knaves to the very hide, and yet we expect everyone to be pious. With open mouth, we do not want to look at anybody but strong Christians. We ignore the sick and weak, and think that if they are not strong then they are not Christians at all. And others who are not perfectly holy we reckon among the wicked, and yet we, ourselves, are more wicked than they, That is what our evil nature does, and our blind reason, that wants to measure God's kingdom by its own imagination, and thinks that whatever does not appear pure in its eyes is not pure in the sight of God.
22. Therefore we must get that idea out of our minds; for if we keep it before us too much, we will finally get into such a state of mind as to think: Oh, what will become of me if only they are Christians who are strong and healthy and holy? When will I ever reach that state? And thus we, ourselves, will make it impossible. Therefore, we must eventually be driven to say: Dear Lord, I realize that I am very weak, very sick and despondent. Nevertheless, I will not allow that to confound me, but I will come to thee, that thou mayest help me; for thou art ever the good and pious shepherd, which I also confess thee to be, and therefore will I despair of my own works.
23. Let us, therefore, ever be wise and learn to know Christ well, and to know that in his kingdom there are only weak and sickly people, and that it is nothing but a hospital, where the sick and infirm, who need care, are gathered. And yet there are so few who understand that! And this fact seems so obscured that even they who have the Gospel and the Spirit are lacking in the knowledge of it; for it is the most
profound wisdom that man can attain. For even though they see that the Scriptures praise this kingdom and speak of its preciousness, yet they do not realize what the words mean, and do not understand that they contain that true wisdom which is far above the wisdom of men. For it is not our wisdom that we deal with, and that we speak of and preach to sensible, prudent and wise people; but it is this, that we go among fools and simpletons, and care for them, not because we find pleasure in so doing, but in order that we may help them to get rid of their sins and foolishness and to find righteousness and true knowledge.
24. So you see that Christian wisdom does not consist in raising our eyes to that which is lofty and wise, to see ourselves reflected there, but in lowering our eyes to that which is lowly and foolish. Let him who knows this, thank God; for such knowledge will fit him to accommodate himself to, and guide him under, all circumstances in this life. Therefore you will yet find many even among those who preach the Gospel, who have not yet attained it. They never taught us thus before, and we were accustomed to think we did not dare to come to Christ until we had first become perfectly pure. Now you must get out of that way of thinking and come to a proper understanding of Jesus, and learn to know him as a true shepherd. But we have heard enough on this point for the present.
25. Now, he contrasts the good shepherd with a wicked one, or a hireling, and says:"The good shepherd layeth down his life for the sheep. He that is a hireling, and not a shepherd, whose own the sheep are not, beholdeth the wolf coming, and leaveth the sheep, and fleeth, and the wolf snatcheth them and scattereth them: he fleeth because he is a hireling, and careth not for the sheep."
26. In the strictest sense, he alone is the shepherd; and yet, as he alone is Christ but nevertheless calls us by the same name-
27. How does that happen? Well, says Christ, in my kingdom, whose whole object is to strengthen the weak, heal the sick, comfort the sorrowing, and so forth, the holy cross will not be wanting. For, if we preach that Christ alone must receive, strengthen, heal and help us poor sheep, and that we cannot, by our own strength and works, help ourselves, and that, therefore, all works and whatever else the world pretends to offer in its many religious services are of no avail, the world cannot abide such preaching. Hence, it is but natural that the Gospel should bring with it the holy cross, and that they who confess it before the world should risk their necks in so doing.
28. Because this is so, the good shepherds are thus distinguished from the hirelings. Whoever is a hireling will preach the Gospel only so long as they say of him that he is a learned, pious and good man; but when he is attacked, and men begin to denounce him as a heretic and a knave, and challenge him to a dispute, he recants or runs away, and abandons the poor sheep in their distress, and things are in a worse state than they were before. For what advantage has it been to the poor sheep that they had once been well kept? Had the shepherds been faithful, they would have sacrificed their bodies and lives for the sake of the sheep, and would have given their necks to the executioner for the Gospel's sake. Accordingly, they are never true shepherds who, in preaching, have their own popularity, profit and advantage in view. They are surely hirelings; for they seek their own advantage, even when they dispense the true doctrine and Word of God. Therefore they continue only as long as they are honored and praised. Hence they retract, and deny the Word, when the wolf comes, or flee and leave the sheep in the lurch. The sheep bleat for pasture and for the shepherd to protect them from the wolves, but there is no one to succor them; thus they are deserted when they most need some one to help them.
29. Such will be the result when men once begin to lay hands on and persecute us in earnest. There will be preachers who will hold their tongues and flee, and the sheep will be pitiably scattered, the one running here and the other there. God grant that there may be at least some who will stand firm and risk their lives to rescue the sheep. Thus Christ has here portrayed the hireling. He then proceeds:"I am the good shepherd; and I know mine own."
30. There is a great deal contained in these words, far too much to be exhaustively treated here. He speaks here of his own peculiar calling. "I know mine own," he says, "and mine own know me." How is this to be understood? That he explains further when he says:"Even as the Father knoweth me, and I know the Father."
III. THE SPECIAL OFFICE CHRIST ADMINISTERS EXPLAINED.
31. How is he known of the Father? Not with an earthly, but with a heavenly, knowledge. Of that we have spoken more fully before, and the substance of it is this: Christ recognizes us as his sheep, and we recognize him as our shepherd. Now, we have heard what a good shepherd is, and also who the weak sheep are. He knows us to be such sheep as are weak, sick and broken. That is: It does not make any difference in his regard for them that they are weak and sickly, and he does not despise and reject them on that account; but he pities and heals them, even though they be so diseased that the whole world concludes they are not his sheep. Such is the world's knowledge, but that is not the way that Christ distinguishes them. He does not look upon their condition, but looks to see whether they are sheep, whether they may be designated sheep. He looks at the sheep, not at the wool.
32. Now, they are good shepherds who imitate Christ and know the sheep in the same way; who look at the person, not at the faults, and know how to distinguish between the sheep and the disease.
33. Even so the Father knows me also, says Christ, but the world does not know me. When the time comes for me to die a shameful death upon the cross, all the world will say: Well, is that the Son of God? That must be a malefactor, owned, body and soul, by the devil. And thus the world will look upon and know me; but my Father will say: This is my beloved Son, my King, my Saviour. For he will not look upon my sorrows, nor upon my wounds, nor upon my cross and my death, but he will see the person that I am. Therefore, though I were in the midst of hell and in the jaws of the devil, I must again come forth, for the Father will not desert me. And thus I know my sheep and am known of them. They know that I am the good shepherd and know me; and therefore they come to me and abide with me, and they are not afraid because they are weak and sick, for they know that I will receive such sheep. He now concludes and says:"And other sheep I have, which are not of this fold; them also must I bring, and they shall hear my voice; and they shall become one flock, one shepherd.”
34. Some have explained this passage in such a way as to make it appear that it will be fulfilled shortly before the last day, when the Antichrist appears, and Elias and Enoch. That is not true, and it is the devil himself who is responsible for this belief of some, that the whole world will become Christian. The devil did this that the true doctrine might be so obscured so that it might not be understood, Therefore be on your guard; for this passage was verified and fulfilled shortly after Christ ascended into heaven, and is still in process of fulfilment. When the Gospel was first proclaimed, it was preached to the Jews; that nation was the sheepfold. And now he says here: "And other sheep I have, which are not of this fold: them also must I bring." Here he declares that the Gospel is to be preached to the gentiles also, so that they also might believe in Christ, that there might be one Christian communion, composed of Jews and gentiles. This was afterwards brought about through the apostles, who preached to the gentiles and converted them to the faith. Accordingly there is now but one church or communion, one faith, one hope, one love, one baptism, etc. And this continues to be so at the present day, and will continue until the day of judgment. Hence, you must not understand this to mean that the whole world, and all men, will believe in Christ; for this holy cross will always be with us. They are in the majority who persecute Christ, and therefore the Gospel must ever be preached, that some may be won for Christ. The kingdom of Christ is in process of growing and is not something that is completed. This is, in brief, the explanation of this Gospel.