As a child, my parents used to let me run the streets of our neighborhood. It was a different age—one that preceded the internet making bad things seem omnipresent, thus establishing suspicion and mistrust as the default outlook for responsible parenthood. When my mom wanted me home, she would stand in our driveway and yell. Some of my friends’ parents used more sophisticated methods like bells or whistles. My southern momma hollered.
I could usually discern what she wanted by the tone of her yell. There was a world of difference between the “its-time-for-lunch yell” and the “you-didn’t-finish-your-chores yell.” But I always came if I heard it. No one else would come. I knew intuitively that it was my mother yelling and that only I had an obligation to respond.
Jesus tells us that something similar happens when he calls the names of those who belong to him. In John 10, the Lord relies on the imagery, well-known at the time, of a shepherd and his sheep to teach his people about the relationship he shares with us. A shepherd had to know the sheep that belonged to him. In the sheepfold, herds would mix up with one another, but a shepherd could call and his sheep, recognizing his voice, would come running.
In the same way, Jesus tells us that his sheep recognize his voice and follow him: “The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice” (John 10:3-4).
The imagery of a shepherd with his sheep is used throughout the Bible to illustrate God’s relationship with his people. A sheep was completely dependent on the shepherd for food, for protection, and to be led day-by-day. The prophets predicted that God was going to raise up a good shepherd for his people, and Jesus tell us, in no uncertain terms that he is that shepherd (John 10:11).
But Jesus also wants us to understand that his leadership is not like the leadership we are accustomed to in this world. He is no hired hand who is only in it for personal gain and who runs when danger comes (John 10:12-13). Our shepherd lays down his life for his sheep (John 10:11). He also knows us by name. He knows us intimately, and we know him (John 10:14-15).
What does it mean for God to know us and for us to know God intimately? To know someone intimately means to know them as they truly are, inwardly and outwardly. It’s the opposite of the kind of superficial knowledge that characterizes most of our human relationships. We call people “friends” because we relate to them on social media. The knowledge we have of them, however, is merely external. If we’re honest, we have very few intimate friends. We know very few people intimately.
Tim Keller, in his book The Meaning of Marriage, writes, “To be loved but not known is comforting but superficial. To be known and not loved is our greatest fear. But to be fully known and truly loved is, well, a lot like being loved by God.” Christ’s sheep are fully known and truly loved. We have been invited to share in the very same intimacy that the Son has shared with the Father for all eternity (John 10:15).
What does this mean? It means that you can know God intimately. It means that he already knows everything about you—your worst thoughts, your shameful deeds, your inner motives. And get this: if you belong to Christ, he moves closer to you. Our God does not push us away. He fully knows us—better than we know ourselves—and yet, he fully loves us—more than we’ve ever been loved.
We’ve all experienced the pain that comes when intimacy is lacking. Whether a distant parent or spouse or a child or friend who held back, it hurts when we long to draw close and yet are met with a stiff arm. Know this, our good shepherd will never extend his arm to keep us away. His shepherd’s staff is not weaponized against his sheep. He uses it to fend off our enemies. Our good shepherd knows us by name. And we respond to his voice when he calls.