Slow

Small

Simple

Still

Christ Alone

So when John wrote these words he was already an old man. The last of the apostles. The last living man who could say he had known Jesus face to face. 

And as we are going to see from his writing over the next five weeks, he was a crusty old guy. He had become like one of those stern old grandfather type teachers who throw chalk at you one minute, and then praise you the next. You can see it especially in his letters — 1st, 2nd, and 3rd John — where he keeps calling Christians “my children” and “my dear children” even while he scolds them and comforts them and sets them back on the right path. 

So by the time John wrote these words, fifty years after Jesus lived, he had watched Christianity grow from just a small group in Jerusalem to a Church that was rapidly filling the Roman empire. He was the oldest and most experienced pastor in the world! He had seen it all. 

And he could see the temptation his children were facing; the temptation to turn around, to give up on Jesus, to turn aside and seek some other way. 

So he wrote this gospel, and his three letters, to scold his children, to encourage them, to remind them why they loved Jesus in the first place. 

And we all need a grandfather like that sometimes, don’t we! Because we all get weak, we all turn aside. We lose our faith that Jesus is really what we need, and we start to look around for other options. 

And that is what the Christians of John’s time were tempted to do. They had two major problems: one, the government was persecuting them; and two, false teachers inside the church were leading people in another direction. 

The first problem — persecution — tempted Christians to give up on Jesus, and become Jews instead. See, Christianity was illegal in the Roman empire; but Judaism was legal. So some people were saying, “Look, Jesus was a Jew, he obeyed the Law of Moses. And God was pleased with him. Therefore, it must be okay for us to become Jews and obey the Law of Moses. And that way we won’t be persecuted as Christians anymore!” 

The second problem — false teachings — also tempted Christians to give up on Jesus, but in a different way. The false teachers had taken some ideas from Christianity, and some ideas from Greek religion, and come up with something else. They were teaching that, actually, after you have the Holy Spirit you don’t need Jesus anymore, because God speaks directly to you, giving you new revelations that are not written down in scripture. They were saying things like, “baby Christians need Jesus, because baby Christians need their sins forgiven. But once you become mature like us — once you are completely Spirit-filled — you don’t sin anymore. So you don’t need forgiveness anymore. Which means you don’t need Jesus anymore!” 

So you can imagine, when old Pastor John heard what was going on — that some Christians were leaving the Church to become Jews, and other Christians were leaving the Church to become some kind of sinless Super-Christians — well: he was angry! just like a good father is angry when he sees someone leading his children into danger. 

So John fought back against these two false movements. He thought back into his youth, when he was a teen-ager walking with Jesus, and he remembered things he heard Jesus say — things that Matthew, Mark, and Luke had not written down in their gospels. 

So John began to write down things that he remembered, things that he knew would be especially helpful to Christians who were faced with these two choices: 

And this is one of those things he remembers Jesus saying: 

… 

[1] "I tell you the truth, the man who does not enter the sheep pen by the gate, but climbs in by some other way, is a thief and a robber. 

Now, when Jesus first said this, he was talking to Pharisees. Remember the Pharisees? These were the guys who, first, thought they could please God by obeying the Law of Moses; and second, that they didn’t need Jesus’ forgiveness. 

And Jesus is warning the Pharisees here that they are false teachers. They are trying to capture sheep with their teaching. But instead of entering the sheep pen through the door — preaching the need for Jesus’ forgiveness — the Pharisees are climbing in over the wall or through the window by preaching that “you don’t need Jesus! All you need is to obey Jewish law!” Jesus is pointing out that only thieves and robbers try to climb over the wall; if the Pharisees were truly God’s teachers, they would preach the need for forgiveness; they would enter through the door! 

And it is easy to see how Jesus’ words also applied to the situation fifty years later, when John was an old man. Some false teachers were saying, “go back! Trust in the Law of Moses! Forget about Jesus!” Other false teachers were saying, “go forward! Trust the Holy Spirit alone! You don’t need Jesus’ forgiveness anymore!” But John, by writing down Jesus’ words here, is saying, “these teachers are thieves and robbers, just like the Pharisees were back in Jesus’ day!” 

But the true shepherd enters through the door. [3] The watchman opens the gate for him, and the sheep listen to his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. [4] When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice. [5] But they will never follow a stranger; in fact, they will run away from him because they do not recognize a stranger's voice." 

See, there are two ways we can recognize who is the true shepherd, the true teacher. First, the True Shepherd has the key to the front door! So obviously he owns the sheep-pen. 

But what if someone stole the key, and tried to enter in order to steal some sheep? Well, even if that happens, the sheep won’t recognize the false shepherd’s voice; they will refuse to follow. And apparently, I’m told, this is true. Sheep are not very bright; but they do recognize voices, and they will not follow a stranger. 

So Jesus is telling the Pharisees, “even if you managed to break in, you won’t be able to steal my sheep. They will only follow my voice; they will run away from you!” 

And this also applied to John’s situation fifty years later. Many Christians were worried. They had friends leaving to go be Jews; they had friends leaving to go be sinless Super-Christians; and they were asking John, “how do we know that they are wrong and we are right? What if we’re making a mistake here by sticking with Jesus?” 

So John offered them Jesus’ words as a comfort. He is saying, “oh, my dear children, I know it is painful when friends and relatives abandon us. But the truth is: they don’t belong to Jesus’ flock. We know that we are in Jesus’ flock because we listen to his voice alone. So keep listening. Keep following. And you are going to be okay.” 

But in verse 6 we find out that the Pharisees don’t understand Jesus’ parable. They don’t understand that they are actually the thieves and robbers in Jesus’ story, all because they refuse to recognize Jesus as the only way to God. 

So Jesus tries again: "I tell you the truth, I am the gate for the sheep. [8] All who ever came before me were thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them. 

In other words: “I am the only way in! If you do not accept your need for my forgivnesss, you are not getting in here. If you show up and say, ‘I do my best to obey the Law of Moses, you should let me in!’ or ‘I am so full of the Holy Spirit I don’t even sin anymore, you should let me in!’ — I’m sorry, but that is not the password!” 

You know what the password is? “Lord Jesus, Son of God, have mercy on me.” That’s it. The Pharisees and false teachers who came before Jesus had been trying all the wrong passwords, but they couldn’t get in. The true sheep refused to listen to them. They were waiting for their true shepherd to show up, because, as Jesus goes on to say: 

[9] “I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. He will come in and go out, and find pasture. [10] The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full. 

And how is he going to give his sheep life to the full? 

[11] "I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. [12] The hired hand is not the shepherd who owns the sheep. So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away. Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it. [13] The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep. 

But [14] "I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me--- [15] just as the Father knows me and I know the Father---and I lay down my life for the sheep. 

There is only one shepherd who is willing to risk his life to protect his sheep. Why? First, because they belong to him. They belong to his Father, and this shepherd does not want to disappoint his Father. Second, because he knows his sheep. He calls them each by name. He is personally invested in each sheep of his flock. 

And then Jesus gives us some really good news: his flock is not only made up of Jews. He says, in verse 16, “I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd. 

There is not going to be a Jewish flock, and a Gentile flock. There will be one flock — the Church — and one shepherd: Jesus Christ. 

[17] “The reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life---only to take it up again. [18] No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again. This command I received from my Father." 

So this is how Jesus’ sheep receive life to the full: they have a shepherd who loves each one personally, who will not give up on them no matter how great the danger. They have a shepherd who loves his Father so much that he is willing to obey his Father’s command to die to protect the sheep if he has to. They have a shepherd who has control over everything — over when and how he dies; even over when and how he lives again. 

… 

So Jesus’ message to the Pharisees was a simple one: there is only one true shepherd, and one true flock. This is how we can recognize the true shepherd: he holds the key to the door; he is willing to lay down his life for the flock; and he is able to rise again from the dead. In other words: he alone holds the power of forgiveness. And this is how we can know who are the true sheep in his flock: those who recognize the True Shepherd’s voice, and follow him through the gate of forgiveness — these are the true sheep. 

In Jesus’ time, the Pharisees were the false shepherds, the false teachers. They taught that it is possible to please God by obeying the Law of Moses as best you can, and that — if you are “spiritual” enough — you don’t need Jesus’ forgiveness. 

Fifty plus years later, when John began to write down what he remembered of Jesus’ words, those temptations were still in place. The details had changed a little bit. It was no longer Pharisees leading people astray; it was false teachers within the Church. Some were saying we should go back to being Jews again. Others were saying we should go forward to become “Spirit-filled” Christians who don’t need forgiveness anymore. But the result was the same: Christians were being tempted to turn away from Christ. They were being tempted to trust their salvation to Obeying the Law, or to put their faith in mystical spiritual experiences. 

And old Pastor John hated that. And that’s why he keeps saying, again and again, in his gospel and in his letters: “Jesus is the only Son of God, the only true shepherd of the sheep! Do not listen to any other voice!” 

And it is a good thing John remembered Jesus’ words and wrote them down. Because the temptation to turn away from Christ continued to be a problem. In the hundreds of years that followed, God gave the Church good, wise shepherds and teachers, men and women who guarded the gate well, and opened it to the Good Shepherd alone. But there were also false teachers who crept in, who began to lead many away from Christ. 

And — strangely enough — their teachings were of the same type as the Pharisees’. The Pharisees said that to please God, people have to obey the Law of Moses. These other teachers said that to please God, people have to obey the Laws of the Church. And ordinarily most Christians would agree with that: we ought to submit to the Church. The problem is, though, these teachers — just like the Pharisees — were making stuff up. Just like the Pharisees, they started with ideas that are in scripture; but then they twisted them into something else; and then they called those things the true Law of the Church. 

One important example is this idea of forgiveness. As we have just seen, the bible teaches that Jesus is the only gateway to forgiveness. If you want to be forgiven, ask Jesus, and he will forgive you! But these other teachers took that idea and changed it just slightly: they said that if we want to be forgiven, we should ask Mary, Jesus’ mother, and then she would ask her son to forgive us. 

This idea is captured in the famous prayer called the Ave Maria: “Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death.” It is a beautiful and ancient prayer; but it is actually a misdirected prayer. No where in the bible does Jesus tell us to ask someone else to pray for our forgiveness! 

Ironically, to support these distortions of scripture, these teachers also talked about a mystical sort-of Super-Christianity. They taught that some Christians are more spiritual than others: so Spirit-filled that God speaks directly to them, revealing things that are not written in scripture. The greatest of these Super-Christians eventually came to be known as the Pope: the head of the Roman Catholic Church. And these teachers said it was the obligation of every Christian to submit to the Pope without argument. 

Well, five hundred years ago, some pastors in Europe looked around and realized that many in their congregations had begun to worship Mary along with Jesus. They realized that many in their congregations were living in fear of Hell, in fear of Church Law. And then, when those pastors checked their bibles, they realized that what was being taught as Church Law was actually based on what the Pope said, not on the words of Christ. 

So those pastors went back to teaching directly from scripture. Very quickly they discovered that Jesus alone is the Good Shepherd. So they taught that Jesus alone is the Good Shepherd! And…it got them in trouble. Many were persecuted and killed. They were driven out of their churches. And eventually they came to be called Protestant Christians, because they protested against any teaching that does not point to Christ alone for salvation and life. And the movement that began with them is now called the Reformation, because they wanted to Reform the Church, and turn it back to following Christ instead of tradition. 

Our church here is descended from those first Protestant pastors; this is a Reformation church. That is why, every Sunday, someone stands here and reads directly from the bible. That is why, every Sunday, someone stands here and tries to help us see, from scripture, who Jesus is, and what he means to mankind. We are determined to listen, every week, for the voice of our Shepherd. 

We have to listen, and keep listening, because we face the same temptations today that Christians have always faced. On the one hand there is a voice that calls us back to ritual, to religion, to law; this is the voice that tells us we can save ourselves if we work hard enough. On the other hand, there is a voice that calls us to go forward into mysticism, individualism, to believe we can be led by the Spirit alone; this is the voice that tells us we don’t need to be saved anymore, that we can do whatever we want and call it godly. 

These voices sound like they should be opposites; they seem like they ought to lead in very different directions. Some people seem to prefer the first voice; they prefer legalism, a life bound by rules. Other people seem to prefer the second voice; they prefer licentiousness, which means a life lived without rules. And those two kinds of people seem very different, don’t they! Conservatives on one side, liberals on the other; religious people on one side, “free-thinkers” on the other. 

But actually those two positions are the same. Those two voices are the same voice. Even though they sound very different, and seem to produce very different results, the truth is they actually lead to the same place: away from Jesus, away from life. The religious person and the free-thinking person both believe they don’t need Jesus’ forgiveness. Religious people accept the concept of sin, but they insist that they can work hard enough to pay God back. That is called “self-righteousness”, and it comes from not understanding God very well. But free-thinkers reject the concept of sin; they insist that however they think and act must be the right way to think and act. This is also (quite obviously) called “self-righteousness”, except that this kind comes from not being very self-aware. 

And the temptation for us at this point is to sit back and try to figure out where we are, where our friends and relatives are: this one is religious and uptight, this one is free-thinking and a bit gullible… 

Right? That’s what you’re doing right now, isn’t it! You are categorizing yourself and the people around you. In some ways it’s a survival instinct: we want to know who is on our side, and who is not. But if we pause for a moment, and stop trying to figure out where everyone fits; if we take a good, long, honest look at ourselves…we begin to realize that we all have tendencies toward legalism and tendencies toward licentiousness. We’re all conservative in some ways, and liberal in others. We all have parts of our life where we think, “if I can just work hard enough in this area God will be pleased with me!” Then we have other parts where we look and we say, “oh! Berjaya! Clearly God is already very pleased with me…and rightly so!” 

Right? Come on, now, friends. We’re in a safe place here: we can admit this to each other. Sometimes we are one kind of self-righteous, thinking we can save ourselves by doing good. Other times we are the other kind of self-righteous: thinking we’re already good enough. Just like the Christians in John’s time, we are sometimes tempted to go back to living like Jews, under the Law. Other times, we are tempted to think we are spiritual enough to have a direct line to God, without Jesus or anything else… 

But, you know, the beautiful thing about having Jesus as our only Shepherd is that we no longer have to solve this puzzle. We don’t have to figure out if we’re more conservative or more liberal, more legalistic or more licentious, more “Word-based” or more “Spirit-filled”. In Christ those categories are no longer in conflict, and they are no longer a temptation. In Christ, the Law of God becomes sweet to us, because we hear it spoken with the voice of the one who loves us. We obey not because we think we can save ourselves, but because we love the one who leads us. We trust him to lead us well, and the Law is how he leads us. 

In the same way, in Christ, the Spirit of God is no longer a temptation for us to think that we are more “spiritual” than the next guy. Instead, the Holy Spirit becomes the engine of humility within us, always turning us back to the Shepherd who died for us. 

Jesus tells us that his sheep listen to his voice alone. Which means that his sheep will love the Law of God — but without falling into the trap of thinking that the Law of God saves them. And his sheep will live according to the Spirit of God — but without falling into the trap of thinking they are more “Spirit-filled” than some other Christian. 

… 

So, in the final analysis, then: what is our job, as his sheep? 

Is it our job to balance perfectly between legalism and licentiousness, between Law and Spirit, without falling off on one side or the other? 

No. We are sheep. We are not very bright. We will fall off on both sides. Many times. Every day. 

But you know what we are bright enough to do? Follow our Shepherd’s voice. 

So that is our job. Not balancing. Just following.  

The good news, though, is that the longer we follow, the better we will get at balancing. 

And the really good news is that no matter how many times we fall off — on one side or the other — our Shepherd is always there to catch us, and put us back where we belong. 

That is why we preach Christ Alone, and listen for the voice of Christ Alone. 

Grace Alone

A Brief History of the Satan