Jesus told a parable and, as usual, the people did not understand him. So he explained it: "I am the gate for the sheep" (John 10:7). In this parable, the sheep are God’s people, and they are entering a safe place, a sheep pen, representing salvation. We enter salvation through Jesus.
"I am the good shepherd," Jesus continued, and "the sheep follow the shepherd because they know his voice. But they will never follow a stranger; in fact, they will run away from him because they do not recognize a stranger’s voice" (vs. 11, 4-5). God’s people hear the voice of Jesus and recognize it, but they stay clear of other voices.
The voices we hear
If Jesus has the voice of salvation, what are the other voices (the "strangers") that might call for our attention? In the first century, it might have been the Pharisees, who were trying to lead God’s people. And it would have included the Dead Sea Scroll commune, who had their own path to pleasing God. The Herodians offered another approach to life: do whatever it takes to stay on good terms with the Roman government.
In our own day, various groups offer different paths to salvation: Muslims, Hindus, New Agers and others offer people different paths — even different ideas of salvation. For some, salvation is physical pleasure; for others it is the absence of feeling. Some focus on the afterlife, others on life right now. "Come to my sheep pen," they might be calling. "You’ll be safe here."
But these voices do not sound like Jesus. They do not have the message of grace from the God who loves us. Instead, they usually offer a message of "Do this and try harder." Jesus says that we need a radical change, and just working harder will not be effective. Humans cannot save themselves — we can be saved only because God himself came into our world, suffered the pain of our corruption himself, and not only paid the ultimate penalty, but also lived the perfect life in our place.
Some versions of Christianity fall away from grace, and begin to preach works — good works, usually, but works nevertheless. There are conservative do-gooders and liberal do-gooders. Some people have the right words for Jesus (Lord and Savior, Son of God) but subtly drown out his voice by preaching about works as the key to salvation.
Such a message turns into a message about family values (which are very good) with a little Jesus thrown in for spice. Or it turns into political action, with a little Jesus thrown in for credibility. Some have even turned Jesus into merely a good teacher, a good example who encourages us to try harder and do more.
"Come into this sheep pen," they might say. "This will give your life more meaning" — and it does, since it gives a semblance of purpose in life, which is more satisfying than selfishness. But it still falls short of the gospel of Jesus Christ, because in the message of "do good and try harder," people always fall short. Jesus says, "Come into my sheep pen, where the burden is light and there is no condemnation" (Matt. 11:30; Rom. 8:1). Do we hear his voice, or are we attracted to the gospel of good works?
God made us to do good works (Eph. 2:10), but he also made us to find our meaning and purpose in Jesus Christ. We were made through him, by him and for him (Col. 1:16), and we will never be fully satisfied until we find our meaning and purpose in him.
Thieves and robbers
If people try to get to the sheep pen in any way other than Christ, they are thieves and robbers, Jesus says (John 10:1). They are trying to get something in an unlawful way — they are trying to give life meaning without the Creator of life.
They may mean well. Maybe they don’t understand who Jesus is and what he is offering. Maybe Jesus’ grace insults their ability to work hard and direct their lives on their own. Maybe they think grace sounds too easy, too cheap. Whatever the reason, if they try to achieve life’s purpose in any other way, through any other gate, they will fail.
The people who offer other paths to salvation generally mean well. They honestly believe that they have a better way — and their way probably is better than what they had before. But it falls far short of what Jesus offers: full and unconditional pardon. They offer different sheep pens, and invite people to come in.
Many of us have tried those sheep pens. Some have tried Islam, some have tried Hinduism, some have tried liberalism and some of us have tried legalism. "My sheep hear my voice," Jesus says, but by that he does not mean that our response is automatic. Rather, he is encouraging us to hear him, to listen for him, to respond to him instead of the counterfeits. We need to train our ear so that we hear him better, so that we recognize a false gospel for what it is: a thief and a robber that will short-change our happiness.
The other gospels do not intend to maim and kill, but that’s what they end up doing. They offer something attractive, something good, but it’s just not good enough. It’s not Jesus, it’s not grace, it’s not finding our meaning in Christ.
Many voices can lead us away from Christ. If we have drifted away from Christ, what voices are we listening to? Are we so consumed by business, sports, television, partying, politics, sex, alcohol or other diversions that we have little or no time left for Jesus? Such things, when they crowd Jesus out, become thieves and robbers. They take our time, maybe even the rest of our life, but they will not give us life.
The shepherd who gives his life
"I am the good shepherd," Jesus said. "The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 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" (vs. 11-12). All the other shepherds will let you down. Only Jesus died and rose for you. Only he deserves your full allegiance. Do you hear his voice?