The watchman opens the gate for him (the shepherd), and the sheep listen to his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice.  John 10:3-4 (NIV, 1978)

Everyone loves a catchy cliche. Church folk are no different. “Let go and let God” is a good one. “You can’t outgive God” is another favorite—especially at offering time. “Get right or get left” is one of the more brutal exhortations to receive God’s free gift of eternal life. A personal favorite of mine is one that is so overused that its beautiful truth is sometimes lost: “Christianity is not about religion—it’s about a relationship.”

There was a day, not long ago, when being a follower of Jesus Christ was synonymous with “being religious.” However, in Jesus’ day, those within the religious establishment were His most outspoken and devious opponents. The Pharisees, the religious elite, were constantly present as He taught about the Kingdom of God and the love of the Father to those who had known only the tradition of religion. The Apostle John gave us one of Jesus’ most beautiful portraits of what it means to follow Him in the verses above.

In the agricultural society of the Galilean region, His audience would have easily grasped Jesus’ reference to the relationship between a shepherd and his flock. The shepherd served many roles for his sheep. He was a guide, protector, rescuer and provider, and those responsibilities would have compelled him to sacrifice his own well-being on behalf of his flock. Jesus saw this as the perfect comparison between Himself and those who would listen, understand, and follow Him.

To the Pharisees, His words were ignorant and without proper reverence to traditional Judaism. To those hungry for hope, peace and a true relationship with God, Jesus’ words filled the void created by their hollow rituals.

Religion doesn’t have a voice. It can only provide rules to be followed or “boxes to be checked” to compel someone to achieve an elusive standard that offers little reward. On the other hand, our relationship to our shepherd is based on our recognition of His familiar voice that has calmed our fears and brought us peace in the most desperate moments of our lives.