Sometimes you can easily spot a fake. I’m guessing a lot of moms have noticed how their children can instantly tell if a macaroni and cheese product is the official Kraft brand or another brand. Some can smell the difference a mile away. Maybe you have a favorite type of coffee. Some people can’t tell the difference between one coffee or another. Yet those who love their organic premium roast coffee wouldn’t let any inferior imitation come near their cup. Macaroni and coffee brands are (despite what some might say) not vitally important. Yet sometimes spotting the difference between the real thing or an imitation can be crucial. Consider faith. What is real and what is a cheap knock-off when it comes to Christian faith? We see the answer today in John 10 as a crowd asks Jesus to verify if he is legitimate or not.
Can you picture Jesus in the temple courts encircled by men who were about to pelt him to death? John records how that scene occurred one Hanukkah almost two thousand years ago. Jesus was walking in the temple courts in Jerusalem. The city was celebrating a festival. Two hundred years earlier the temple had been defiled by a Greek ruler, Antiochus IV Epiphanes. He sought to eradicate the Jewish religion. So, he made it illegal to read the Bible and had an altar to Zeus built in the temple. Then he had swine offered on the altar. The ancient Jew could spot this type of false worship a hundred miles away. This had been a double insult –idol worship using a ceremonially unclean animal. Then the Maccabean rebellion cleared the temple. The priests rededicated it to pure worship. All Israel gave a sigh of relief as the cheap, false imitation god was removed from the temple and worship of the true God was restored. The Feast of Dedication celebrated the cleansing of the temple. It was celebrated ever since as a week-long festival. Still today it is celebrated by devout Jews. It is better known today as Hanukkah.
The unbelieving Jews in Jesus’ time wanted to carry out what they thought would be another act of purification in the temple. They thought they had spotted a fake. They wanted to try to rid the temple and the world of Jesus. They had already at least once tried to kill him and failed. Now their ambush was set. We read that they “gathered around Jesus.” The word here means to “fully encircle.” They didn’t want Jesus to have any escape. Then they prodded him with one simple question: “How long will you keep us in suspense? When will you tell us plainly if you are the Christ?”
Their question wasn’t for clarification. It was a challenge for commencing an execution. Jesus already had been teaching that he was the Messiah. But they wanted a direct answer so that they could kill him on the spot. A simple “yes, I am,” would be evidence enough to stone him for claiming to be the Son of God. Their trap was set.
Jesus responded, “I already told you, but you do not believe.” Have you ever encountered someone hostile to the Word of Christ? Don’t get me wrong, not everyone hostile to the word of Christ is walking around with a big sign saying they are an atheist. These Jews were certainly not atheists. They had very strong religious notions and were deeply spiritual people. Spiritual matters shaped their lives. But they were still hostile to the Word of Christ. You might find someone who already knows the Word of God but cannot believe it. They challenge God’s Word by asking, “Do you really believe that this world was made in six days?” Or “Do you actually believe that God would make us male and female?” No answer you give them can change their mind. “Do you really believe that all those animals fit on Noah’s ark?” “Would God really ever say close communion is a good idea?” “Your Church really thinks that things like Baptism and the Lord’s Supper convey God’s grace to us?” “You belong to that church that still believes that!” You are left to answer with a simple yes or no. They don’t want to listen or believe. They only want to surround and challenge the truth. In misguided religious zeal they want to put away the Word of Christ.
Brothers and sisters in the faith, when this happens, how do you respond? You can’t change a heart by answering yes or no. You can’t change a mind by posting a cute post on Facebook that airs your opinion on theology. When surrounded by a crowd hostile to Christ you can’t reason with them or change their minds! How do I know this? Listen to what Jesus says regarding those who would not believe him. “I did tell you, but you do not believe. The miracles I do in my Father’s name speak for me but you do not believe…” He had told them the truth many times. He had performed miracles to back up his teachings. But still, they did not believe. He had fed the crowds of over 5000. He had healed the blind and the paralyzed. He had driven out the powers of Satan and demons. Anyone with a level mind would no doubt conclude: This man is what he says he is. You would have to conclude with faith like Nicodemus, “You could not do the things you do if God were not with you.” But they didn’t believe him.
Why doesn’t everyone listen to Christ? The leaders of the Jews thought they had spotted an illegitimate fake. Jesus points out they are really the imposters: “You do not believe because you are not my sheep.” The kingdom of God has only two ways of dividing the people. Either you belong to God, or you do not. Either you are Jesus’ sheep, or you are not. There is no in-between-disciple. If you do not believe the Word of Christ, you do not belong to God.
These unbelieving Jews thought they were serving God as they schemed to rid the world of Jesus. But they were actually encircling and opposing the only True God. They were rejecting his Word. They were, like all are by nature, ready to kill God and shut his Word out of this world. They already had a shepherd, but it wasn’t the Lord. It was the slave driver, the devil. He snatched mankind from the glory of paradise into his pigsty. The devil convinces his followers to offer unclean sacrifice and insult the Lord. He and all who follow him will perish forever with him in hell. You cannot force someone from the flames of hell and the goat-pen of Satan. Not even miracles can convince the lost.
But when the true Shepherd speaks, his sheep listen. His Word has power to save the lost! The picture is clear. A shepherd calls after his sheep. They hear the voice of the shepherd. They don’t run. They don’t fear. They come near. When guided through even the darkest places, the sheep listen and recognize his voice. And they respond to his voice. Despite all the deception and lies of the devil, despite the world’s cunning, they listen to Christ as their Shepherd. He speaks the truth. And don’t misunderstand. To listen to the voice of Jesus is to listen to all of the holy Scriptures, not just the red letters in a red-letter bible. Some believe that you don’t need to listen to every part of the Bible. They will even make such arguments as “Jesus never spoke against homosexuality. That was Just Paul, and Moses, and Jude, and others, but not Jesus.” Or they say things like, “Jesus said love one another and do not judge.” So, they pick the words of Jesus that they like and decide they only want to hear and listen to those words.
But listening to Jesus means listening to the Word of God. He is the Word. He testified to the authenticity of Moses. He commissioned and sent out his apostles. He promised them the Spirit to give them the exact Words to share. He is the Word who spoke from the beginning. He says that everything written in Moses, the Psalms, and the Prophets is true. He warned his church when he appeared to John, “Don’t add to what I have given you and don’t subtract from it.” To listen to Jesus is nothing more and nothing less than hearing and following his Word.
This means above all hearing the promises and covenant he has made with us. This means following him into glory because we know our Good Shepherd has laid down his life for us to rescue us. And it also means listening to and following all Scripture which is God-breathed and given to us for our good and our learning. It means loving his Word and listening to it as you open your Bible at home and meditate on it day and night. It means hungering and thirsting for his Word and his means of grace. It means gathering with his flock regularly to hear and proclaim his Word. It means not despising his Word, but regarding it as holy, hearing it, learning it, living in it.
“My sheep listen to my voice.” Listen, fellow sheep: the real Good Shepherd has some really good words for you to hear! Hear Jesus call you his own. We all like sheep have strayed and we don’t deserve to be called his sheep. But he in grace calls you “my sheep.” He is not an impersonal and distant God. He calls us his own. “I know my sheep.” He knows each and every one of us as his own. “They follow me.” He guides us through this life with his Word. He directs us through the sin and guilt to see his cross. And as we take up our cross and follow him, we fear no evil, even in the darkest valley, because we are following Jesus. We know where he leads his flock. “I give them eternal life.” Notice he doesn’t say, “My sheep have earned eternal life.” Nor does he say, “I grant all my worthy sheep eternal life and give a little something to those who are good and punish those who have strayed.” He says he gives us the gift of eternal life. We now have this gift. “They will never perish.” In strong contrast to those who do not belong to Jesus, we will never face eternal suffering and death. “Whoever believes in him, will not perish, but have eternal life.” You will never face punishment or separation from your Shepherd. You will never join with the devil and his angels in the lake of fire. “No one can snatch them out of my hand.” You are secure. You belong to God; you cannot not be forced away.
How can we know what is real and what is a cheap knock-off when it comes to Christian faith? Only the voice of Jesus can give us truth. And the good news that he, true God, cares for and gives life eternal to his sheep. He protects them forever as his own. This good news changes hearts. It is what gives us comfort in dark nights. It is what soothes the heart of every sheep under his care. When the enemy comes to snatch us and pull us away, we fear not. Our shepherd holds us secure. We listen to his voice as we gather as a flock for worship together. In our worship we listen to his Word. And we follow him as we gladly obey his commands, follow where he leads us, and live a new life of thanks honoring our Shepherd, who laid down his life and took it up again. We hear what he does and promises, and we believe because we are his sheep. And we walk in his commands for he has set our hearts free.
As his sheep, continue to listen to his voice. Jesus doesn’t say that his sheep take instruction class, get confirmed, or just listen when they are little. They keep listening to his voice. He invites you to do it today through your pastor, and always through his Word. I invite you to listen to Jesus’ voice as we gather as a flock to study his Word each Sunday. I encourage you to read and meditate on his Word every moment of your lives. Never stop listening to and following Jesus. You can listen to all the lies around you and the promises of so many voices on social media and on the news. The devil wants you confused and trapped in his cage. But another voice wants you free and in his loving hands. He is your true Shepherd. Only one voice will forever make you secure in his care and never fail you.
Jesus concludes with the answer they wanted. He affirms that he is the true Word, the Son of the Father. “My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand. I and the Father are one.” Jesus’ sheep are secure in his hands; they are in the Almighty Father’s hands. Jesus, the Son of God is one being with the Father –and with the Father and the Spirit is forever worshipped. He is our living God. And I believe, you believe, all his flock around this world believes that we are forever secure in his hands.