Sheep And Shepherds In Scripture
As sheep were important in the economy of the Middle East in biblical times, it is the animal mentioned most often in Scripture. In fact, a man’s wealth was judged by the number of livestock he owned – such as sheep, goats, cattle, donkeys, camels and oxen. Job had 14,000 sheep, and the plunder taken from the Midianites included 675,000 sheep (Job 42:12; Num. 31:32).
Shepherds were employed to care for the sheep to see that they had water, pasture for food, and a safe place to sleep. They protected the sheep from predators such as wolves, lions and bears. Old Testament shepherds included Abel, Abraham, Lot, Isaac, Jacob, Rachel, Moses, Achan, David, Nabal and Amos. Raising sheep was an important occupation, as thousands of them were killed for sacrificial offerings to God. One of Jerusalem’s ten gates was called the Sheep Gate, near the temple where sheep were sacrificed (Neh. 3:1). Interestingly, shepherds were the first ones told of the birth of the Savior (Lk. 2:8-20).
It’s not surprising that God uses images of sheep and shepherds in the Bible. Sheep illustrate people, and shepherds illustrate leaders, such as kings and God Himself. Let’s look at what the Bible teaches in John 10:1-30 about our Divine Shepherd.
The Good Shepherd And The Sheep
Jesus said, “I am the Good Shepherd. The Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” He likened Himself to a shepherd and people to sheep (Jn. 10:11 NIV). He also said, “My sheep listen to My voice; I know them, and they follow Me” (10:27). Throughout the Bible, God’s people are seen as sheep (Ps. 79:13; 100:3). Jesus called His disciples a “little flock” (Lk. 12:32).
How are people like sheep? Sheep mindlessly follow others, without thinking of the consequences. While they are trusting, they can also be stubborn. They are dependent on others for protection, food, water and care. They also need special attention when it’s cold, when there’s danger and when they are giving birth.
How is Jesus like a shepherd? In biblical times sheep herding was hard work. The sheep needed constant care and attention, as they were not kept in fenced fields. They could wander anywhere. Every day the shepherd needed to lead the flock to suitable pasture and water, and care for the sick or injured. When they travelled, the shepherd led and the sheep followed behind.
When Jesus saw crowds of people “He had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Mt. 9:36; Mk. 6:34). He saw their spiritual needs. He told a parable of a shepherd who searched for a lost sheep. When the sheep was found he carried it home and celebrated (Mt. 18:12-14; Lk. 15:3-7). The shepherd put great value on the lost sheep. The lesson is that Jesus, the Good Shepherd, puts great value on those who don’t know Him or have strayed, and there is great joy in heaven when one is found by Him.
Isaiah wrote, “We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all” (Isa. 53:6). Because of our sin and selfishness we strayed like lost sheep away from the God who made humanity in the beginning (Ps. 119:176). But Jesus Christ suffered the punishment we deserved. If we confess our sins and trust God’s offer of forgiveness through Christ’s death and resurrection, our relationship with God is restored. Peter wrote, “You were like sheep going astray, but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls” (1 Pet. 2:25). So conversion is like a lost sheep returning to the care of the shepherd.
In John 10 we see that Jesus, the Good Shepherd, is contrasted to three bad shepherds: the “thief and a robber” who came to steal and kill and destroy the sheep (10:1,8,10); the “stranger” – like the Pharisee – who was only interested in the sheep for personal gain (10:5); and the “hired hand” who abandoned the sheep when the wolf came and scattered the flock (10:12-13). Bad shepherds had no relationship with the sheep and didn’t care for them.
The Pharisees didn’t understand this illustration and didn’t believe what Jesus said because they were not His (10:6,26). If they had accepted God’s offer of salvation, they would have recognized the Good Shepherd’s voice and followed Him. They didn’t realize that Jesus was the Messiah, the gate to eternal life. He said “I am the gate for the sheep … whoever enters through Me will be saved” (10:7-9). Jesus Christ is the only way to salvation from the penalty of sin. Salvation can only be received though Christ. Those who follow the Savior receive eternal life; they “have life, and have it to the full” (10:10).
The Good Shepherd Cares For His Sheep
A good shepherd owned, lived with and cared for the sheep. The relatively small flocks in biblical times enabled the shepherd to know and call each sheep by name. A flock of 100 was large (Mt. 18:12). The shepherd knew when one of his sheep was missing. Jesus Christ “calls His own sheep by name” (10:3). He called His disciples by name, and knew them (Jn. 1:43,48). He still calls those who receive Him: “Faith comes from hearing the message … through the word of Christ” (Rom. 10:17). The Lord knows His followers personally. He knows all about them.
When He calls, “the sheep listen to His voice” (10:3,16,27). They know their shepherd and respond to His voice (10:4). When Jesus was on earth many Jews recognized that He was the Messiah and followed Him. Today His sheep listen when the gospel is preached and they respond by following Him.
Palestinian shepherds led and their sheep followed because they knew their shepherd’s voice: “He goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him” (10:3-4, 27). The sheep didn’t follow thieves, robbers and strangers because they didn’t recognize their voices (10:5,8). Instead they ran away. David wrote of the good shepherd: “He guides me in paths of righteousness” (Ps. 23:3). Likewise, Jesus’ followers desire to go where He leads them.
Where did the shepherds lead their sheep? To pasture for eating and to water for drinking. David wrote, “The Lord is my Shepherd, I have everything I need. He makes me lie down in green pastures, He leads me beside quiet waters, He refreshes my soul” (Ps. 23:1-2). This image is one of God’s providing all our needs. In a drought or famine there are no green pastures and there is little water. Those who follow the Good Shepherd are said to “find pasture”; “I am the gate; whoever enters through Me will be saved. They will come in and go out, and find pasture” (10:9). The Christian’s sustenance is the Bible which provides spiritual food to grow to spiritual maturity (1 Cor. 3:2; Heb. 5:12-14; 1 Pet. 2:2).
A good shepherd would risk his life to protect his sheep, as did David (1 Sam. 17:34-37). Jesus said, “I am the Good Shepherd. The Good Shepherd lays down His life for the sheep” (Jn. 10:11). The word “good” means “worthy, honorable, excellent.” He’s the best example of a shepherd: “I lay down My life for the sheep” (10:15). In the Old Testament sheep were sacrificed for sins; here we see the Shepherd sacrificed for His sheep. But that was not the end; Jesus said that He had authority to lay down His life and take it up again (10:17-18). This means He’s a living Shepherd who died to pay the penalty we deserved (1 Cor. 15:3-4). Have you accepted Jesus’ sacrifice for you? Do you thank Him for it?
Because they spent a lot of time together, the shepherd knew the distinctive characteristics and needs of each sheep he cared for. Jesus said, “I know My sheep and My sheep know Me – just as the Father knows Me and I know the Father” (10:14-15,27). This shows the close relationship between the Lord and His followers. It’s like His relationship with God the Father. Jesus said “I and the Father are one” (10:30). He also told His disciples, “I am in My Father, and you are in Me, and I am in you” (Jn. 14:20). The Holy Spirit lives in each believer and each believer is in Christ, accepted by God on the basis of Christ’s work of salvation. Jesus knows us very well (Lk. 19:5; Jn. 1:47-50; 2:24-25).
The Good Shepherd And His Global Flock
Jesus said, “I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to My voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd” (10:16). What does He mean by “other sheep” combining with the sheep He has been talking about to form “one flock”? Christ came as the Messiah of the Jews, but they did not receive Him (Jn. 1:11). In the Old Testament God is described as caring for the Jews like a shepherd cares for his flock (Is. 40:11; Jer. 31:10; Ezek. 34:11-16; Mic. 2:12; Mt. 2:6). The “other sheep” mentioned in John 10:16 are Gentile followers, who, in Acts, began to listen to the Shepherd’s voice after Pentecost.
Paul was the missionary God sent out to the Gentiles around the Mediterranean Sea. Today the “one flock” is known as the Church and is comprised of Jews and Gentiles. Paul described the Church as “one body” comprised of many nationalities: “We were all baptized by one Spirit into one body – whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free – and we were all given the one Spirit to drink” (1 Cor. 12:13). So the one flock is now global, comprised of those who say, “We are His people, the sheep of His pasture,” (Ps 79:13; 95:7; 100:3). Do we recognize all the “other sheep” that are in the Church?
Shepherds protect their sheep. David killed lions and bears that attacked his sheep (1 Sam. 17:34-37). Jesus said about His sheep, “I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of My hand” (Jn. 10:28). Eternal life is fellowship with God now and forever. This relationship cannot be broken as God’s power is stronger than any other. The Lord promises that none of His sheep will be lost because He provides safe pastures for them (Ps. 79:13). God protects the weak: “He gathers the lambs in His arms and carries them close to His heart; He gently leads those that have young” (Isa. 40:11).
For example, David could say, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me” (Ps. 23:4). God’s people do not need to fear death because God is always with them to help in all circumstances. He promised, “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you” (Heb. 13:5).
God sent Jesus to earth on a mission and He has a mission for His people. He prayed to the Father, “As you sent Me into the world, I have sent them into the world” (Jn. 17:18). This was not an easy task; He told His disciples, “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves” (Mt. 10:16). They were to preach the kingdom to the “lost sheep of Israel” (Mt. 10:6). Sheep among wolves is a dangerous situation. But sheep are safe as long as they are in the shepherd’s care. Likewise, Christians are safe from the dangers of this world as long as they remain in touch with the Good Shepherd. The inward strength provided by the Shepherd overcomes the outward threat of the wolves. Jesus came to earth as a baby and as a Lamb amongst wolves. His divine strength was triumphant in the end over the wolves.
What Should We Do?
John 10:1-30 is a powerful passage that describes how God has chosen to work in our world. Jesus, the Good Shepherd, was motivated by love, not selfish gain. He is our Shepherd and we are His sheep. Are we thriving under His care with an abundant and fruitful life? Is there evidence of eternal life, spiritual light and divine love in our lives? Are we enjoying a close relationship with our Shepherd? Are we regularly feeding on His Word? Do we ruminate over His Word or are we starving spiritually like sheep in a drought? Do we seek His guidance and follow His example or do we follow the Pharisees of our age – legalism and materialism? Do we experience His presence and protection? Are we becoming compassionate shepherds seeking to help lost sheep find the Shepherd?
The Church is Christ’s global flock. His pastoral care is to be consistently expressed within the local church. The word “pastor” is Latin for “shepherd.” As a church flock, we should experience meaningful pastoral care, guidance, and security. The church is also to have compassion and take the message of the Good Shepherd to the lost sheep.
As Christ is no longer on earth physically, He provides shepherd care through the Holy Spirit, the Bible, prayer, pastors and fellowship. The Good Shepherd who gave His life for the sheep is also the “Great Shepherd” who rose from the dead and the “Chief Shepherd” who’s coming again (Heb. 13:20; 1 Pet. 5:4).