The good Shepherd
One of the most powerful metaphors in the Word of God to describe the relationship between believers and the Saviour is that of the sheep and shepherd. In the Old Testament, Jehovah is called the ‘Shepherd of Israel’ (Psalm 80:1) and his covenant people the ‘sheep of his pasture’ (Psalm 100:3).
When God delivered Israel from the bondage of Egypt, he led them ‘like a flock by the hand of Moses and Aaron’ (Psalm 77:20). When he called David to become Israel’s king, he chose a young man who was a faithful shepherd. Moses had to undergo forty years of training as a shepherd in the Midianite desert, before he was ready to shepherd two million Israelite people across the wilderness.
It is terrible for sheep to be without a shepherd. When the nation was in decline under King Ahab, Micaiah said all Israel was, ‘scattered upon the hills, as sheep that have not a shepherd’ (1 Kings 22:17). The prophets often used such imagery.
As Jeremiah contemplated the Babylonian captivity, he wept when he saw ‘the Lord’s flock … carried away captive’ (13:17). Priests and kings were looked upon as God’s shepherds. The unfaithful ones were condemned and exposed by the prophets (Jeremiah 25:34-38).
People universally, because of their sin, are described as a flock that has gone astray and disobeyed the Lord. Isaiah said, ‘All we like sheep have gone astray’ (Isaiah 53:6). During his public ministry, Jesus ministered firstly ‘to the lost sheep of the house of Israel’ (Matthew 10:6,15).
What are sheep like? Firstly, they are clean animals unlike pigs or dogs, which are often in Scripture identified with filth (Leviticus 11:1-8; 2 Peter 2:20-22). Sheep prefer green pastures and still waters. They do not go to the garbage dump, but eat clean grass.
As sheep, Christians are daily cleansed by the Shepherd as they repent of their sins. They are sanctified by the Lord and aspire to live a clean and holy life. 1 Peter 2:9 says, ‘But ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people; that ye should show forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvellous light’.
Secondly, sheep need a shepherd. Sheep are easy prey for foxes, wild dogs, wolves and hyenas; and even vulnerable to crows, blowflies and diseases. They are helpless and shy. Unlike goats which are agile and alert, they are defenceless, easily frightened and led astray.
They need a shepherd to guide and protect them. So the Psalmist says in Psalm 23:1-2: ‘The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters’. The shepherd knows what is best for the sheep.
Thirdly, it is not a good sign for a sheep to be by itself. A lonely sheep is either sick or lost, for sheep normally gather in a flock. This is a picture of the church. Hebrews 10:24-25 says, ‘And let us consider one another to provoke unto love and to good works. Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is; but exhorting one another: and so much the more, as ye see the day approaching’.
Malachi 3:16 records: ‘Then they that feared the Lord spake often one to another: and the Lord hearkened, and heard it, and a book of remembrance was written before him for them that feared the Lord, and that thought upon his name’.
Fourthly, sheep know their shepherd. Jesus said in John 10:14: ‘I am the good shepherd, and know my sheep, and am known of mine’. The Middle Eastern shepherd had an intimate relationship with his sheep. He gave them names and the sheep heard his voice and obeyed it (John 10:3-4,27).
Today there are many voices out there calling us, but a true child of God will discern and not listen to the voices of strangers, hirelings and wolves. When the sheep keep close to their chief Shepherd, ecclesiastical counterfeits and spiritual charlatans are detected and believers are not easily deceived. Sheep should remain alert and vigilant at all times (Romans 16:17).
The Bible presents the shepherding ministry of Jesus Christ from three perspectives, which correspond to the past, present and future.
As the good Shepherd, he died for the sheep (John 10:11-18). Just as David in his shepherd role risked his own life to protect his sheep against a bear and a lion (1 Samuel 17:34-37), so Christ did not behave like a hireling, caring only for financial gain and running away from his enemies, but was determined to lay down his life for the good of the sheep.
As the great Shepherd, Christ nurtures and ‘perfects’ his people (Hebrews 13:20-21). He equips and renders us acceptable to God. The word used in Hebrews 13 for making ‘perfect’ has the sense of setting a broken bone or mending a net (Matthew 4:21).
Christ is gentle. ‘He will not break the bruised reed or quench the smoking flax’ (Matthew 12:20). He will see us through all the days of our lives (Psalm 23:6). We can trust in him as the Shepherd of our souls.
As the chief Shepherd, he will one day return to gather the sheep and take them home to heaven (1 Peter 5:1-4).
In conclusion, we are to listen for and obey his voice. We may have to cry out for help, if we are lost. But then he will come to rescue us from danger; for no one can pluck us from his hand. We are to obey the Word of God authored by our chief Shepherd.
Thank God for the wonderful assurance and comfort that it brings to know that the Lord Jesus Christ is our great Shepherd and we the sheep of his pasture.