The Great Shepherd and His Sheep
Israel was an agricultural nation throughout its history in Old Testament times. Many Old Testament writers used animal and plant examples to make their teachings more meaningful. Jesus frequently used such pictures in His parables. He communicated the most important truths for mankind in this manner. God created the plant kingdom as a picture of resurrection for believers. Paul explains this in 1 Corinthians 15: 35-44. (Please refer to articles I have previously written on the resurrection for further elaboration of this topic.) Similarly, God created sheep and shepherds to represent His relationship with believers. This article portrays this theme with several Scriptures, critically placed in God’s Word.
A Walk through the Scriptures:
One of the grandest themes threading its way through the Scriptures is the picture of a shepherd leading and tending his flock. King David was a shepherd. God taught him how to lead people and tend their needs by first training him as a shepherd.
Jesus’ bed was a cow’s feed trough (manger) after his birth. He was a baby sheep—the Lamb of God. John the Baptist identified Him as ‘the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1: 29). The picture of Jesus as the Lamb of God continues through New Testament Scripture.
When Jesus was born into this world, the first humans God chose to tell of His birth were shepherds.
She gave birth to her firstborn son; and she wrapped Him in cloths, and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn. In the same region there were some shepherds staying out in the fields and keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord suddenly stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them; and they were terribly frightened. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will be for all the people; for today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2: 7-11).
Sheep represent people in God’s Word. Shepherds symbolize their rulers. The Scriptures portray a special category of sheep, which represent God’s chosen people—His flock. Their leader is the Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ.
The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside quiet waters. He restores my soul; He guides me in the paths of righteousness for His name’s sake. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil, for You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; You have anointed my head with oil; My cup overflows. Surely goodness and loving-kindness will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever (Psalm 23).
Books have been written about this short psalm. This article cannot begin to capture all the treasures this Psalm conveys. It is the favorite of Psalms for many believers. Why is that? Perhaps it is because it uses sheep and their Shepherd to convey a deep spiritual message. The message is simple, but of utmost importance in times of great need. There are several important truths revealed in this Psalm, which are pertinent to all believers. First of all, it is a declaration of truth for each believer in Jesus Christ. The word ‘I’ is used over and over again. The Psalm is true for ‘me.’
Secondly, a believer is but a small dumb sheep being tossed to and fro in the complexities and dangers of life. A believer simply cannot control these circumstances, despite his intelligence and resourcefulness. There are times when every believer feels fragile and defenseless. Death is the greatest example of this. Every human is appointed a time to die, and for many death is a time of great fear and trepidation. But the believer can ‘walk through the valley of the shadow of death’ and fear no evil because the Shepherd is with him.
Thirdly, Psalm 23 reveals the Lord is ‘my Shepherd’ in times of famine, times of plenty, and times of need. He addresses the needs of hunger and thirst. God provides forgiveness for sin, and protection from evil predators for each of His chosen. His flock is spiritually safe and secure. Each sheep is never separate from His vigilant, yet loving gaze.
For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8: 38-39).
Each of His chosen will dwell with Him for eternity. What a comfort when living in a wicked world far from home with predators roving about. The Lord is the perfect Shepherd for His chosen flock.
Know that the Lord Himself is God; It is He who has made us, and not we ourselves; We are His people and the sheep of His pasture (Psalm 100: 3).
This Psalm also affirms God’s utter control over the lives of His chosen. He has ordained our lives and created us for His glory. He sustains us in a wicked world, and guides our way. We are the sheep of His pasture. He is our Shepherd and He owns us.
Then Moses spoke to the Lord, saying, “May the Lord, the God of the spirits of all flesh, appoint a man over the congregation, who will go out and come in before them, and who will lead them out and bring them in, so that the congregation of the Lord will not be like sheep which have no shepherd” (Numbers 27:15-17).
Five hundred years before David, Moses was also a shepherd. Moses was reared in King Pharaoh’s palace. Leaders of the world empire of that day influenced Moses in his formative years. Yet, he was not prepared to lead God’s people. God taught Moses how to lead people by first teaching him to lead sheep—similar to King David. Moses was a shepherd for forty years before God was ready to use him. In this Scripture, Moses pleaded with God to anoint another shepherd to replace him. The congregation of Israel needed a shepherd. Moses was at the end of his days. God appointed Joshua as the new shepherd of His people. God also shepherded Joshua in the wilderness for forty years before calling him as shepherd. Joshua is the Hebrew word for Jesus. The meaning of both names is, ‘God saves.”
The Old Testament Prophets:
But He was pierced through for our transgressions. He was crushed for our iniquities; the chastening for our well-being fell upon Him, and by His scourging we are healed. All of us like sheep have gone astray. Each of us has turned to his own way; But the Lord has caused the iniquity of us all to fall on Him. He was oppressed and He was afflicted, yet He did not open His mouth; Like a lamb that is led to slaughter, and like a sheep that is silent before its shearers, so He did not open His mouth (Isaiah 53:5-7).
This wonderful Scripture from the Book of Isaiah prophesies the crucifixion of Christ over 700 years prior to its occurrence. But more pertinent to this article, it portrays the prophecy with images of sheep and a Lamb. Isaiah was a Jew descending from the lineage of King David. Isaiah was a cousin of King Hezekiah in his day. God sent him to prophesy to his nation of Israel.
Isaiah records his people—the Jews—would each go their own way, ignoring the leadership of their Shepherd. The Shepherd Jesus (‘God saves’), reached out and offered salvation from their sins and God’s kingdom on earth. But the leaders of Israel rejected His offer, and demanded Pontius Pilate to crucify Him. All ‘like sheep have gone astray. Each has turned to his own way.’
But Jesus came ‘as a Lamb that is led to slaughter, like a sheep that is silent before its shearers.’ ‘The Lord caused the iniquity of us all to fall on him.’ The Lamb of God was led to His death on a Roman cross. His blood paid for the sins of all His sheep. The Lamb of God was also the Shepherd of His sheep. What man could ever imagine such a story—the Lamb of God becomes the Shepherd of God’s sheep? Though His own people rejected Him, Jesus also had another flock of sheep that He died for. We will elaborate upon this shortly.
For thus says the Lord God, “Behold, I Myself will search for My sheep and seek them out. As a shepherd cares for his herd in the day when he is among his scattered sheep, so I will care for My sheep and will deliver them from all the places to which they were scattered on a cloudy and gloomy day. I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries and bring them to their own land; and I will feed them on the mountains of Israel by the streams, and in all the inhabited places of the land. I will feed them in a good pasture, and their grazing ground will be on the mountain heights of Israel. (Ezekiel 34: 11-12).
Nearly 150 years after Isaiah prophesied to Israel God rose up another prophet for the land of Judah. God called Ezekiel ‘the son of man.’ It is interesting, but not coincidental that Jesus’ favorite name for Himself was the ‘Son of Man.’ Ezekiel’s prophesy looked far into the future to describe a time when God would gather each of His sheep from all over the globe and place them in their pasture—the promised land of Israel. At the time of this prophecy, the Jews were being deported from their homeland into Babylon. This was the beginning of their worldwide dispersion. Several more world empires would arise over hundreds of years. The Roman Empire, became the world superpower during the life of Jesus Christ. Its military boot stepped down hard on Jews living in Israel during its reign. Ultimately, it killed millions and deported the remaining Jews out of their promised land. The Jews were scattered to far-away places ‘on a cloudy and gloomy day’ while under intense persecution. The Jews have been in their worldwide Diaspora since that time—for more than 2,000 years.
Ezekiel prophesied 2,600 years ago that God would gather His sheep from their dispersion in countries all over the world. He would bring them into their promised land, Israel. He would feed them and nourish them there ‘in a good pasture.’ God fulfilled this prophecy after World War 2, when He gathered the Jews from their horrific persecution in Europe. He collected Jews from Russia, America and even Africa into the land of Israel. They declared themselves a nation among the nations of the world in 1948. All the surrounding Arab nations immediately attacked, and God went before them in battle. Israel prevailed against all odds and increased their territory. They continued their success in subsequent wars with Arab neighbors for the next 6 decades. But the Jews in Israel have not received spiritual nourishment from their Shepherd. They have yet to drink from the rivers of ‘Living Water’ that only He can provide.
Nevertheless, God has gathered the Jews into their land. In due time He will open their eyes so they might recognize their Shepherd. God will soften their hard hearts and remove their spiritual blindness. God will use the ‘time of Jacob’s trouble,’ (Jer. 30: 7) and the great tribulation (Matt. 24: 21) to accomplish this task. Then their ears will hear, their eyes will see, and their hearts will receive their true Shepherd. God “will pour out on the house of David and on the inhabitants of Jerusalem, the Spirit of grace and of supplication, so that they will look on Me whom they have pierced; and they will mourn for Him, as one mourns for an only son…” (Zech. 12:10).
In that time of great remorse they will accept their Shepherd and Messiah, Jesus Christ. He will lead them to feast upon good pasture and to drink from living waters only He can provide. This last part of Ezekiel’s prophecy is yet to be fulfilled. But the Jews are now in their land. Their time is at hand.
“therefore, I will deliver My flock, and they will no longer be a prey; and I will judge between one sheep and another. Then I will set over them one Shepherd, My servant David, and He will feed them; He will feed them Himself and be their Shepherd. And I, the Lord, will be their God, and My servant David will be prince among them; I the Lord have spoken” (Ezekiel 24: 22-24).
The Shepherd term in prophetic verses describes the Messiah—God in the flesh, who will lead His people and rule the world with a righteous scepter (Heb. 1:8). The servant David in prophetic Scriptures is also the name of the coming Messiah, Jesus Christ. Jesus was a direct descendant of King David and will rule on his throne for eternity. When the Messiah reigns, His sheep will have no predators. They will dwell safely under His omnipotent rule.
“My servant David will be king over them, and they will all have one Shepherd; and they will walk in My ordinances and keep My statutes and observe them. They will live on the land that I gave to Jacob My servant, in which your fathers lived; and they will live on it, they and their sons and their sons’ sons forever; and David My servant will be their prince forever” (Ezekiel 37: 24).
This verse echoes the previous one in Ezekiel. The ‘servant David’ will be King (Messiah). His name is Jesus Christ. His sheep and their descendants will live once again in their land of Israel forever.
“And you, Bethlehem, land of Judah, are by no means least among the leaders of Judah; for out of you shall come forth a Ruler who will Shepherd My people Israel” (Micah 5: 2; Matt. 2: 6).
Of course, this was the famous verse recited to King Herod regarding the prophecy of the Christ child. Micah prophesied more than 700 years earlier the town of His birth—Bethlehem. The Gospel of Matthew records the fulfillment of this prophecy. Jesus, the Shepherd and Messiah, came from Bethlehem to rule His people Israel. But His people have not yet subjected themselves to His Lordship. The last part of this prophecy remains for future fulfillment. One day, soon, He will Shepherd the nation of Israel.
“Awake, O sword, against My Shepherd, and against the man, My Associate,” declares the Lord of hosts. Strike the Shepherd that the sheep may be scattered; and I will turn My hand against the little ones” (Zech. 13: 7).
This is a very interesting prophecy recorded by the prophet Zechariah over 500 years prior to the birth of Jesus Christ. It predicts God will strike (kill) the Shepherd (Messiah) and scatter His sheep. The prophecy was fulfilled at the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. His sheep panicked and scattered in fear following this event. But God ultimately brought them to the ‘upper room,’ and the Holy Spirit filled them, giving strength and courage (Acts 2: 1-4).
Jesus Messianic claims to be the Great Shepherd:
Jesus referred to the above prophecy when He addressed His disciples at ‘the last supper,’ just prior to His crucifixion: “Then Jesus said to them, ‘You will all fall away because of Me this night, for it is written, ‘I will strike down the Shepherd, and the sheep of the flock shall be scattered’” (Matt. 26: 31).
These twelve Jesus sent out after instructing them: “Do not go in the way of the Gentiles, and do not enter any city of the Samaritans; But rather go to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. And as you go, preach, saying, ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt. 10: 5-7).
In the above verse, Jesus commanded His disciples to go to ‘the lost sheep of Israel’ and preach God’s kingdom is at hand. It is remarkable Jesus called the Jews ‘lost sheep.’ They were not of His flock. Jesus bade His disciples to gather them into the pasture of the ‘Good Shepherd.’ Israel rejected their invitation.
So He told them this parable, saying, “What man among you, if he has a hundred sheep and has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open pasture and go after the one which is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep which was lost!’” (Luke 15: 3-6).
Luke recorded this parable of Jesus. Jesus used the picture of a shepherd and his sheep. One sheep of the large flock wanders astray, and the shepherd leaves the other ninety-nine to find the one lost sheep. When he finds that sheep great rejoicing ensues. This parable demonstrates the love and care the shepherd has for each of his sheep. The shepherd represents Jesus Christ and the sheep represent each of His chosen followers. A believer is as prone to stray from the ‘narrow path’ as a sheep is prone to wander from the flock. But when that happens, the shepherd will drop everything to find that one sheep. Similarly, Jesus loves each of His followers with an everlasting love. A believer may stray from the path and through God’s fence of protection. But Jesus never lets His guard down. He will never allow the enemy to claim any of His sheep. The ‘good Shepherd’ will secure the path of His sheep into the next life—safe in the eternal pasture of God’s domain.
So Jesus said to them again, “Truly, truly, I say to you. I am the door of the sheep. All who came before Me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not hear them. I am the door: if anyone enters through Me, he will be saved, and will go in and out and find pasture. The thief comes only to kill and destroy; I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10: 7-9).
The Gospel of John, Chapter 10, is devoted to this theme of Shepherd and sheep. Several verses in this chapter bring this theme front and center. Jesus states He is the ‘door’ to the sheepfold in the above verse. The sheepfold was a hastily made fenced in boundary for the flock of sheep. This fence was constructed with logs and branches and arranged in a circular fashion. The sheep were herded through one door, which was closed after all the sheep had passed through. The enclosed area kept the sheep safe from predators and prevented them from wandering off. Jesus claims He is the only opening through which the sheep can pass. He is the door. No one can get to God’s domain of love and safety unless he passes through the door, Jesus. Any other door is a false passageway—created by thieves and robbers to entice the sheep away from their true Shepherd. These other doors are mere passages into hell, where there is only death and destruction. The door into God’s sheepfold is Jesus. Only through Him can one obtain everlasting abundant life.
“I am the good Shepherd; the good Shepherd lays down His life for the sheep” (John 10: 11).
Jesus identifies Himself as the good Shepherd in this very next verse. He claims to be the door of the sheepfold, the good Shepherd, and ‘the Lamb of God,’ “who lays down His life for the sheep.” How can one fulfill all these roles? No human can do so. Only God the Son can accomplish all these tasks. Jesus is God in human flesh. He laid down His life as payment for the sins of His sheep. He purchased them with His blood. He has opened the only door into God’s pasture, where they will dwell for eternity in new glorified bodies, nourished by the Shepherd and free to drink of His living water.
“I am the good shepherd, and I know My own and My own know Me, even as the Father knows Me and I know the Father; and I lay down My life for the sheep. I have other sheep, which are not of this fold; I must bring them also, and they will hear My voice; and they will become one flock with one shepherd” (John 10: 14-16).
Jesus repeats his Messianic claim that He is the good Shepherd. He fulfilled His own prophecy by laying His life down for His sheep. Many of His Jewish kinsmen rejected His claims. The leaders of Israel even rejected Him, and sent Him to Pontius Pilate demanding His crucifixion. But Jesus declared He had other sheep—apart from the Jewish nation. He prophesied He would bring them into His fold. He has fulfilled that prophesy also. He has drawn countless Gentile believers into His sheepfold. They have committed to His Lordship. He is their ‘good Shepherd.’
When one reads John chapter 10, he must deal with Jesus’ claims of Deity. Jesus has presented the facts. The hearer must decide the truth of His claims. Either Jesus is truthful, or He is a liar. But God can never lie (Heb. 6: 18). Several chapters later in this same book, Jesus makes this amazing claim to confirm His previous statements: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me” (John 14: 6). If His claims are true, the reader must make a decision. Is Jesus, in fact, God the Messiah, or not? If He is, what does that mean for me? Am I one of His sheep, or will I go to where there the enemy devours and destroys? These are weighty questions.
I came to that ‘Y in the road’ many years ago when reading these very Scriptures. As I read and searched these Scriptures, I became acutely aware the Shepherd was calling me. He loved me and longed for me. He laid His life down for me, and atoned for my sins on that cross. I could not resist His call. I finally relented and accepted Him as my Lord and Savior. He owns me now. He is my Shepherd and leads where I must go in this short life. I owe everything to Him. I will follow where He leads. Have you made that decision? Do you belong to Him? Perhaps now is the time for you to decide.
“My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me; and I give eternal life to them, and they will never perish; and no one will snatch them out of My hand. My Father, who has given them to Me, is greater than all; and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand. I and the Father are one” (John 10: 27-30).
Jesus makes some wonderful promises in the above Scriptures. The ‘good Shepherd’ knows each of His sheep and He grants eternal life to each one. They will never perish. His flock will forever dwell in the presence of the ‘Shepherd.’ Jesus promises no one will snatch His sheep out of His hand. God the Father is greater than all created beings—including Satan. Jesus declares God the Father has a hold on His sheep that no one can break. He has chosen them and has the power to deliver them into His heavenly kingdom. God is omnipotent—all-powerful.
Furthermore, Jesus claims He and the Father are one. They are both God. The Jewish nation rejected Jesus’ claims to Deity. But myriads of believers have embraced those claims down to this day. Soon those myriads will enter the door of His heavenly sheepfold. Will you be among that number?
Additional Scriptures of Confirmation:
Now the God of peace, who brought up from the dead the great Shepherd of the sheep through the blood of the eternal covenant, even Jesus our Lord” (Hebrews 13: 20).
For you were continually straying like sheep, but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Guardian of your souls (1 Peter 2: 25).
And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory (1 Peter 5:4).