Image from the Crypt of Lucina (2nd century)
Unknown Artist
public domain

Easter 4, John 10:11-18

Historical Description:

Sunk below the streets of Rome are subterranean cemeteries called catacombs. As pedestrians traverse the famous Via Appia, they unknowingly step over early Christian burial crypts. This painting of Jesus as the Good Shepherd adorns the walls of one of those catacombs—The Crypt of Lucina.

Thought to be from the 2nd Century, this painting is among the more famous depictions of the Good Shepherd. Though a catacomb fresco can be somewhat foreign to contemporary Christians, a modern parallel can be seen in similar images placed on our gravestones (cross, ichthus fish, praying hands). Cast in this light, the underground depiction of the Good Shepherd serves the same purpose as our gravestone images: to comfort God’s people in the face of death. 

Devotional Reflection:

Sheep are very simple creatures. You could say that sheep are a good reason to deny Darwinism; they simply are not the fittest of species and their survival all these centuries is enigmatic. Sheep are not the pride of the animal kingdom and they are not intellectual giants; they do well when food and water is placed clearly before them. In fact, sheep are such non-extraordinary animals that counting them puts us to sleep.

Still, despite being a bleating banality, the earliest Christ followers loved to think of themselves as being sheep of the Good Shepherd. As evidenced by the Good Shepherd fresco in the Crypt on Lucina, the image of the Good Shepherd was a source of comfort—especially in death—for the earliest Christians. These were people who spent a lifetime herding sheep. They knew this less-than-extraordinary animal well. They knew the mental and physical limitations of the sheep they tended. Nevertheless, they loved the words of John 10; they longed to be called sheep of the Good Shepherd.

Whether we admit it or not, we too are like sheep. From the dawn of creation, we have always been sheep. It began when, like a lost sheep, Adam followed Eve off a cliff into sin and death. Then Cain followed his own sinful instincts off a cliff that ended in murdering his brother. Joseph’s brothers followed their self-doubts off a cliff that ended in their brother’s enslavement. The entire city of Nineveh, like a herd of sheep, were lost, not knowing their right from left. This sheep-like streak in all of humanity—the sheephood of all humanity—has been passed down from man’s fall.

As a result, we are blinded by sin and penned in by our desires, lusts, greed, anger, and addictions. We are lost. We do not know our right hand from our left. We run into the same sins again and again. We are sheep in need of a shepherd.

Nevertheless, take heart! We are not just sheep; we are Christ’s sheep and He is our shepherd. He is the good shepherd that leads us beside still waters. Christ is the one who restores our soul. Christ is the one who walks with us in the valley of the shadow of death. We are more than just sheep—we are His Sheep!

He knows us by name and He will call us by name to be with Him. In the valley of the shadow of death, the Good Shepherd does not need a name etched on a gravestone in order to call His sheep home; on the last day the Good Shepherd will call His sheep, one-by-one, from their earthen vaults to be with Him.

So it is that we rejoice knowing the sound of our Good Shepherd’s voice. If tomorrow we were to stray from our shepherd, He would seek us out; He would leave the others to bring back just one of His lost sheep.

And as we look forward to the day when the Good Shepherd will call us to be with Him, we can also look backward; we look back knowing that we are not the only ones who have rejoiced in the Good Shepherd. This painting of the Good Shepherd from over seventeen hundred years ago reminds us: Christ has been leading His sheep for millennia. He is not just the shepherd for you and for me. He is not just the shepherd for a few hundred or thousand sheep. He is the Good Shepherd for all of God’s sheep for all time. He is the Good Shepherd now and He has always been the Good Shepherd.

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