Nobody wants to feel like they’re just a number.
But this tends to happen when dealing with a big organization like a bank or the government. Then you’re just another account number, just another taxpayer. Sometimes the bank sends a nice letter, “We really care about you and we’re grateful for your business”—but you realize that they sent the same letter to 500,000 other addresses! What do they really know or care about who you are?
But each of us has a name. Each of us has a personal history, an often-complicated story of where we’ve come from and what has shaped us. We have our limitations, some strengths and talents, and a handful of dreams that we cherish for our lives. In a way, we’re a simple people, yet still so complex. How good it is then, that Christ knows our name and cares for us. He says in John 10:14,
I am the good shepherd. I know my sheep and am known by my own.
Back in New Testament times, a shepherd’s task was both physical and verbal. Jesus in John 10 describes how a shepherd would speak to his sheep. For there were many noises to startle the sheep: maybe a loud roll of thunder to send them into a frenzy, or the distant roar of a lion to make them panic.
Above the din and danger comes the shepherd’s voice. He calls out warnings, he pushes with encouragement. And his sheep listen. For the sheep are used to his voice; they can recognize and respond to it. Jesus says about this work of the shepherd: “The sheep hear his voice; and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out” (10:3).
To better appreciate what Jesus is teaching, we should know how close a bond could develop between a shepherd and his sheep. As he tended the same group of animals, year after year, seeing them grow, watching them walk, he got to know his sheep well—and they got to know their shepherd.
Like human beings, probably all sheep are essentially alike. Probably every sheep is by nature timid. Probably every sheep enjoys a fresh tussock of grass. Yet each sheep has its own traits and qualities, and a good shepherd knows this.
One of his sheep is afraid of heights. One gets nervous near running water. Another always needs to have other sheep nearby. A loving shepherd recognizes these characteristics in his sheep, and he cares for them accordingly.
What kind of shepherd is the Lord Jesus? He doesn’t manage the sheep remotely, keeping us at arm’s length and forgetting our names and stories. He is a shepherd who knows his sheep and walks alongside us with intimate attention.
He knows the particular temptations that often lead us into sin, whether to pride, or rage, lust or envy. He knows our past too, how sometimes the things that have happened to us remain a serious challenge to walking in faith. Christ is a good shepherd who knows our anxieties and worries. He sees our secret sins. He understands our regrets and fears.
It’s probably true that we often don’t even know our own needs, and we don’t understand why we act in certain ways. From one day to the next, we can’t predict where our sense of confidence will be, or why we’ll be feeling discouraged, or why our resistance to temptation is suddenly so weak. And sometimes we’re not ready to admit that we’re scared or we need help.
But Christ knows all these things, and remarkably, it doesn’t cause him to love us any less! For Christ loves his sheep with a steadfast love. And He responds by pastoring us in a way that will truly help us.
Christ knows the encouragement we need, so He gives it through a Sunday sermon that speaks directly to our heart.
Christ knows when we would benefit from a hardship to keep us humble or faithful, so He sends an illness or a disappointment.
Christ sees our lonely fears and hidden regrets, and He uses our fellow believers to direct and exhort us.
Christ sympathizes with us in all our weakness and temptation, and He prays for us constantly to his Father.
The good shepherd knows us: that’s not in question at all. But do the sheep know him? For we’re slow learners when it comes to holy things. We are forgetful and need constant supervision, otherwise we’ll stray. This is why Jesus says that not only does He know his sheep, but his sheep know him—that is, we need to know him!
Knowing Jesus is not a passing acquaintance, but a personal knowledge. It’s the kind of intimate awareness between two people who have known each other for a long time, like a husband and wife who really come to understand one another after two or three decades of marriage.
We come to know Christ in the same way that sheep came to know their long-time shepherd. We get to know him by experience: following him year after year, slowly learning that He is worthy of our trust. From how He treats us, we start to learn the depths his character: his mercy, his patience, his power and wisdom.
This is the intimate awareness that comes from reading his Word and seeing how everything the Bible says about Christ is true. By walking with Christ by faith, we come to know his heart and to love him deeply.
What kind of Saviour is He, what kind of shepherd? Jesus is gentle and lowly. He is just and true. He is steadfast and unchanging.
We have learned how much He cares for us. We have learned what He wants for us. So listen to his voice, and follow him.
[The Seven “I Am” sayings in John - Part 4]