Jesus, The Good Shepherd, identified His sheep thus: “My sheep hear my voice.” This means of identification was recognized in Jesus’ day. A shepherd could simply speak and his sheep—and no one else’s sheep—would come running to follow. Sheep recognized their shepherd’s voice.
Throughout history the Good Shepherd would speak and His sheep would hear, with the result that they follow Him. But how does He speak, and what do His sheep hear? Some misunderstand and think that Jesus speaks in their minds (or “hearts”), or that he whispers in their ear, or that He speaks to them in dreams or visions. Such voices of those who claim a direct word from Christ are not the voice of the Good Shepherd; these voices must be avoided. Only to His prophets and apostles would the Good Shepherd speak immediately—that is He would speak directly to them. To His sheep today Jesus speaks only mediately—that is through a “mediator” or through “means”.
Today the voice of Jesus is heard through His inspired prophets and apostles. In Ephesians 2:20 Saint Paul explains that Christians are “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone.” Christ’s apostles and prophets were the inspired writers of Holy Scripture, and herein is heard the voice of the Good Shepherd. What does this voice of Holy Scripture—the voice of the Good Shepherd—have to say? This voice must first convey man’s fallen, corrupt, dead, damnable condition. But the Shepherd’s voice that must predominate is the Word of the Gospel. The Good Shepherd himself summarizes: “I am the Good Shepherd, the Good Shepherd lays down His life for the sheep….I have authority to lay my life down and I have authority to take it back up again… My sheep hear my voice…and I give unto them eternal life.” (from John 10) Christ died and rose from the dead to restore His fallen sheep. Hear this voice of forgiveness and life eternal.
Though Holy Scripture is to be read, yet Jesus intended His word to be explained and applied; He intended His Word to be preached. The voice of the Good Shepherd is heard through Christ’s preaching office—that is through Christ’s office of pastor. The word pastor means shepherd, and a pastor is a shepherd under the Chief Shepherd. It is through faithful pastors that the voice of the Good Shepherd is heard. Who then is such a faithful pastor? He is a man who never presumes to be directly inspired by the Good Shepherd’s Spirit. Nonetheless He is a man who preaches—he explains and applies—what Scripture teaches; he explains and applies the words of the apostles and prophets to Christ’s sheep.
Not only do Christ’s sheep hear His voice as His pastors faithfully preach His Holy Word, but Christ’s sheep hear His voice in the Sacraments as well. Many lambs first heard the voice of the Good Shepherd when the sacramental water was applied and the pastor said, “I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Christ’s sin-stumbling sheep hear His voice as the pastor pronounces the shepherd-authorized absolution, “I forgive you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” And the sheep hear the voice of Jesus as it echoes in Holy Communion, “This is my body, given for you….This is my blood, shed for you.”
In summary, Christ identifies His sheep as those who hear His voice. They hear it yet today as the written word is both read and preached. And they hear the voice of their saving Shepherd as they approach and receive the Sacraments He instituted.