Is the Good Shepherd a Gambler?
The phrase "lay down his/my life" is peculiar to John. He uses it in his writings 8 times. The expression is not found at all in the Septuagint. You know what that expression means? The Good Shepherd is a gambler.
Think Texas Holdem here. It's a way to play poker that makes for big pots of money. If you're not doing so well, you can get back in the game by pushing all your chips into the pot saying, "I'm all in." Whoever wants to stay in matches that bet. If you lose, you're out of the game. If you win, you win big. When Jesus says, "The Good Shepherd lays down His life for the sheep," He's saying, "I'm all in." The word for life' can be translated "soul, life, self." And the word lay down' is literally "place." Think of placing a bet, of plunking chips down. Only in Jesus' case they're not chips. They're "Me, Myself, and I." They are His body and soul, not just His humanity but His divinity. Because if only Jesus' human nature is in the pot, it's not enough to redeem a single sheep.
When you go "all in" in poker, you're placing "all your chips" or maybe an expensive watch, a car, a house even, but always you have something left. Jesus holds back nothing in this divine game of Texas Holdem. And what's it all for? It's "for the sheep." Translating "for" isn't strong enough. It's "in place of" or "on behalf of" or "instead of." Somebody is going to be tortured for sin. Somebody is going to be damned for sin. Somebody is going to die for sin. It's either the sheep or the Good Shepherd. The Father chose His beloved Son, the Good Shepherd, instead of the sheep.
The Good Shepherd places His soul, life, self for sheep who love to wander. That's amazing. More amazing still. He places it for sheep who don't even know they're sheep. Jesus here sees what Satan showed Him on the Mount of Temptation. He sees all the kingdoms of the world of all time, and He sees there are sheep in every last one of them. They don't know they're sheep until they hear the Master's call, the Good Shepherd's voice. They're Ugly Ducklings who've yet to find out they're beautiful swans. It's adulterous David hearing God has put away His sin. It's murderous Paul hearing that the One He has been persecuting chooses Him. Think a tell.'
A tell' in poker is the name for any change in a player's behavior that indicates what the cards in his hand are either good or bad. If you believe Kenny Rogers, you can know "what their cards are by the way they" hold their eyes. What's this have to do with our text? Actually, it has to do with the whole Gospel of John. How many times does John record Jesus saying things like "I can do nothing of Myself but what I see the Father doing" (5:19)? "I have come down from heavento do the will of Him who sent Me" (6:38). "I speak exactly what the Father has taught Me" (8:28). "I have not spoken on My own but speak exactly what the Father has taught Me" (12:49). "The Words I say to you, I do not speak on My own" (14:10). Or here: the Father has given Him the commission as God the Son and the authority as the Son of Man to lay down His life and to take it back up again.
Do such passages bother you? Do you think Jesus is saying "that's above My pay grade"; or, "I'm not in charge"; or, "Hey, if you've got a problem with what I do or say, speak to the Boss not Me. I'm just an employee"? If so, that's subordinationism. Jesus is subordinate to the Father in essence and majesty. He is God in a secondary or lesser sense (Lutheran Cyclopedia, 741). That's can't be true because Jesus says, "I and the Father are one. (10:10)" "He who sees Me has seen the Father" (14:9). No, Jesus is the Father's tell.'
Want to do know what the God who dwells in light unapproachable and is a consuming fire thinks? Want to know what cards God Almighty holds in His hands? Better yet, want to know what cards He has dealt that you can't see yet, the cards in "the turn" and "the river"? "The turn" and "the river" are the last two cards in Texas Holdem that nobody sees until the dealer flips them on the table. You know the cards he has dealt you in life up to now, but you want to know about the card that will flip tomorrow or ten years from now.
You're not alone. All the ancient world did. The priestly classes from Egypt, to Babylon, to Greece, to Rome were held in high esteem because it was thought they could tell rulers, generals, people what the next card to flip would be. Modern people who think they have successfully dealt with God by being unsure, or agonistic about God existing, say luck, fate, chance determines the cards. Or worse, they think that God can only do as much or what they think He can. In any event, the popularity of psychics, tarot card readers, and horoscopes, tells me people still ache, yearn, lust after finding out what cards are yet to be flipped in their life.
In Texas Holdem the dealer doesn't see the cards until he flips them, so it wouldn't matter if he had tell' or not. But the all-knowing God, knows all the cards, and Jesus is His tell.' Jesus says in Matthew 11:27, "No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal Him." In our text Jesus says, "I know My sheep and My sheep know Me. Just as the Father knows me and I know the Father." This is the intimate knowing the Hebrew conveys when it says, "Adam knew his wife" (Buls, Exeg. Notes, B, 100).
Jesus says He knows the Father; the Father knows Him; and He knows you and you know Him and the Father He reveals to you. You can "tell" (I use that word on purpose) what cards are in your future, by who holds the cards. They are in the hands of the One who holds you and from which nothing not angels, not demons, not life, not death, not the past, not the present, not the future can snatch you out of. You are in the hands that suffered, bled, were damned, and died for you.
When you're raising small children, humanly speaking, they are totally in your hands. You know what is in their future the doctors, the needles, the challenges. Now, it does happen that a child, even a small one, can be anxious about their future, but as a parent, the things you can and do control coming into their lives, you aren't anxious about. You don't doubt for a minute that the cards you are dealing are only for the good of your child. Let us not think more of our love for our children than of God's love for His children in Christ. Let us not believe that God has in His nail pierced hands cards that He means for our harm. How sad we would be to find out our child thought that! What would we do to reassure them? Hugs? Kisses? Smiles? The true God gives us a bath; the true God shows a smiling face in Absolution. The true God puts a seal of forgiveness, life, and salvation over our entire future by giving us His Body and Blood to eat and drink.
Think Texas Holdem; think tell' and think sacrifice not gamble. Jesus knows exactly what will happen six months from our text. Augustine said that the why, the when, and the how of His death were all in the hands of Christ (ACC, IVa, 352). He knows it's beatings and blood, dust and mud. It's the roar of the Good Friday crowd for His life. It's white in His knuckles; it's the iron in Roman buckles; it's thorns and nails; it's damning, dying, and being sealed in a stone-cold tomb.
There's no gamble here. Jesus knows exactly what He is placing on the table. He knows He is the One who is "all in" and He is in in place of all of you. He wills this. He wants this. A good man may, says Paul, die in place of another good man, but Christ died for the ungodly. Rather than be fixated on future cards that God has not revealed to you, and doesn't what you trying to peek at, look at what Jesus knows, what Jesus did, and what Jesus does.
Isaiah 53:7 paints what Jesus in place of us looks like. "He was oppressed and afflicted, yet He did not open his mouth; He was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is silent, so He did not open His mouth." Sheep are silent when they are getting sheared, but if an orthodox rabbi is right, he told me that they aren't if they're in line to be slaughtered. Jesus was. Remember how Pilate and Herod marveled that Jesus didn't open His mouth. Not a bleat, not a but, not a "wait!"
This superhuman silence shows Jesus is a willing sacrifice. He says in our text, "No one takes My life from Me (this is bold, emphatic Greek), but on the absolute contrary, I lay it down of My own accord." I don't know if believe this, but I've read in hunting magazines that animals taken quickly so that fear and pain can't send hormones racing through their blood taste better than an animal that is killed after wounding or running. I do know that sweat produced by fear stinks in a way other sweat doesn't. I know Jesus sweat blood in Gethsemane. I know there He said His soul was overwhelmed to the point of death. But He says it was with sorrow not fear. So, in the blood He shed on the cross and gives us here to drink, there is no taste of fear, regret, panic, or anger.
The Good Shepherd saw the wolf coming, and He didn't forsake the sheep, didn't flee the wolf, but stayed to fight. And He defeats the wolf by giving up His life, by going to hell, by shedding His blood. I don't know what wolves may be bearing down on my life, let alone yours, right now. But I know the Good Shepherd does, and He's "all in" on my side. I can tell that not from the way He holds His eyes, but from the way He held me back from suffering, from paying for my sins. The Good Shepherd, the only Son wasn't held back. So, we conclude with St. Paul: "He who did not spare His own Son, but gave Him up for us all--how will He not also, along with Him, graciously give us all things?" (Rom 8:32). Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Fourth Sunday of Easter (20180422); John 10: 11-18