“A Shepherd Looks at the Good Shepherd” (Book Review)

Jonathan Fischer

Philip Keller grew up in East Africa alongside native herders and also worked as a sheep rancher himself. In A Shepherd Looks at the Good Shepherd, he looks at Jesus’ words in John 10 from the perspective of someone who has worked intimately with his own sheep and who has observed others operating within a context and culture more similar to that of the Bible than is our own. Keller’s ultimate purpose is to draw on his experience and observations to draw out some of the wealth of Jesus’ words in John 10, in order that readers would draw close to Jesus as their Good Shepherd.

Gathering in the Strays

In one chapter, Keller describes how in an Eastern cultural context, stray sheep are rounded up. Shepherds do not use ATVs or sheepdogs or helicopters. Instead, there are some sheep that follow the shepherd particularly closely, almost as if they were his shadows. In the morning, the shepherd leads these pet sheep up into the hills where his strays have wandered. There the pet sheep graze alongside the strays throughout the day. Then, when the shepherd begins to return home, his pet lambs naturally follow him – and after having spent the day grazing alongside the pet sheep, the strays come as well. Keller writes, “He [Jesus] simply asks me to be one who will be so attached to Him, so fond of Him, so true to Him, that in truth I shall be like His pet lamb…” Keller then makes the observation that, like the pet sheep’s effectiveness in having a part in the strays being gathered in, “any Christian’s effectiveness in winning others [to Jesus] is directly proportional to his own devotion to the Master.” If others are to be drawn to Jesus through us, it will primarily be as we draw and remain close to Him ourselves.

Do Not be Conformed

TruthScript exists to encourage Christians to not conform to the world, but instead to be transformed by the renewing of their minds. How is this accomplished? The way to both not conform to the world and to help others be transformed is by remaining in a close, trusting, obedient relationship with Jesus. If you read A Shepherd Looks at the Good Shepherd, not as a theological treatise or a guide to discerning the culture of our time, but as an impassioned call to trust and obey the Good Shepherd, you will find it a good companion in the life of discipleship.

The Emptiness of Knowledge without Knowing

Without deep knowledge of the Bible, without being a student of history, without reading quality books, without wise counsel, and without communication skills you will be less effective in the world and more vulnerable to deception from the world, the flesh, and the devil. But it is also possible to know the Bible, know history, be an avid reader, have wise counselors, and be an excellent communicator, and yet fail to be closely following the Good Shepherd. Apart from following Him, we will avoid conforming to the pattern of this world in one way while inevitably conforming in another. Both nature and the human heart abhor a vacuum, and unless we are actively in close and obedient relationship with our Good Shepherd, we will follow any number of counterfeits. Keller does not come across as a water-tight biblical exegete, a cutting-edge cultural critic, or an expert in precise ancient middle-eastern shepherding practices, but his book is saturated with love for Jesus as his Good Shepherd—that by God’s grace will be contagious to readers. This book is for those who are curious about Jesus but not yet committed, as well as long-time Christians who want to be reminded of what (and Whom!) we are saved for: “Now this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.” (John 17:3)

A General Review

In the introduction to his three-part trilogy (on Psalm 23, John 10, and “Jesus as the Lamb of God”), Keller writes, “Many who…study the Scriptures in the twentieth century come from an urban, man-made environment. City people, especially, are often unfamiliar with such subjects as livestock, crops, land, fruit, or wildlife. They miss much of the truth taught in God’s Word because they are not familiar with such things as sheep, wheat, soil, or grapes. Yet divine revelation is irrevocably bound up with the basic subjects of the natural world. Our Lord Himself…continually used natural phenomena to explain supernatural truth in His parables.” (Keller, 5-6) Keller seeks to give us a clearer glimpse of the world and wealth of meaning that Jesus’ first listeners would have known intuitively—not leading to some original, unique reading of the passage, but to more deeply plumbing the depths present in the passage all along.

As he then walks the reader through Jesus’ words in John 10, Keller dedicates each chapter to one or two verses at a time. He weaves together references to other passages, observations from his first and second-hand shepherding experience, and thought- and heart-provoking questions and invitations to the reader to respond (and continue responding) to Jesus in faith.

Knowing Jesus and Making Him Known

Like any book, read this one with discernment; it is not perfect, and Keller is not writing a robust treatise on the church or on biblical theology, and his exegesis is not water-tight. He speaks more about the cost experienced in this life of not following Jesus than of the eternal cost, and I would have appreciated more application of those doctrines of grace seen in John 10. This book would be well-paired with resources on the Church from IX Marks, for instance, which would bring a more robust understanding of the corporate reality of the people of God. But as you read this book, read it with the prayer that you will recognize the Good Shepherd’s character and claim on you anew, and repent of ways in which you have misjudged, wandered from, ignored, or resisted Him. If eternal life is knowing the Father and knowing Jesus, then all of our learning and efforts must be in service of this ultimate end in our lives and the lives of those around us. That is Keller’s aim.

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