Old Testament Identity
“The LORD is my shepherd” are some of the most well-known words from the Bible. In fact, when Jesus identified Himself as the “good shepherd,” He was making a far grander declaration about who He is than the mild cuddlesome image we have of Him. A shepherd is the flock’s sole recourse for protection, guidance and provision. But we see also in this something of the complexity of His servant-king persona in that He, the shepherd, becomes like the sacrificial lamb for the sake of His flock.
This is not the first time that the Bible makes use of shepherding imagery. We have heard how the prophecy of Jesus’ birth (quoted in Matthew 2:6, referring to Micah 5:4 and Ezekiel 34) spoke of a ruler coming “to shepherd” Israel. Ezekiel 34 has a lot to add to the discussion: in contrast to the negligent rulers of Israel, the Lord promises to “rescue” (34:10), to “search for [His] sheep and look after them” (34:11), to “gather them” and “bring them out” to “their own land” (34:14), to “bind up the injured and strengthen the weak” (34:16).
In naming Himself the good shepherd, Jesus calls to mind the promises of God, found throughout the Old Testament, which frequently lament our sinful nature in variations of “we all like sheep have gone astray.” The significance of the shepherd also depends on our acknowledging this, that we need shepherding, much as I hate to admit that my own understanding can only do so much. The Bible both alerts us to our need to be shepherded and, mercifully, the role of Christ as the shepherd whose role is to guide, to gather and to seek.
The Real Shepherd
Have a look at the passage in John 10:1-16. You’ll notice that the first role of a shepherd is to lay down his life for his sheep (John 10:11). Beyond simply recalling us to consider His ultimate self-sacrifice on the cross, this seems rather extreme, doesn’t it? He contrasts the good shepherd to a hired hand, simply going through the motions of the prescribed job. The hired hand is not the owner (verse 12), and his duty only goes so far because his concern for himself is greater and will cause him to abandon the sheep and his duty for self-preservation (verse 12); he “cares nothing for the sheep” (verse 13). Jesus’ shepherd acts completely inverses this. He owns the sheep (verse 12). His shepherd is self-sacrificial: He protects and cares for His sheep at great risk to self.
Consider this. It is no great sacrifice (and indeed it is incredibly healthy) to submit to the guidance of those wiser than you, those who are better-informed, more experienced. How different a relationship can be when you fully trust the person you submit to, and for whom you therefore happily lay all self-interest aside! When Jesus says that He is willing to lay down everything for us, withholding nothing of Himself for His flock, I can be assured that His care for me is profound and, more inconceivably, untainted by self-interest. It demands His utmost, and complete selflessness. Implicitly, we may also infer that He will not take any unnecessary risks with His flock, because He would be the first to bear the consequences. This ought to be a game-changer whenever I face trials and tests: Jesus did not die for me in order that I might spiritually starve. I have every reason to trust Him.
Still, I must confess that sometimes trials have caused me to doubt and wonder whether God isn’t neglecting me. I am often tempted to believe He’s wound me up like a clock, and has left me to “get on” as a good little Christian should. What nonsense when we believe He is being silent! He was willing to give His all to pull me back from the way of destruction. Once He had gathered His flock, it would be inconceivable that a shepherd’s work should end there. Now that I live a life inspired and devoted to being shepherded by Him, how could I think He might neglect me now?
This brings me to my second point.
The Flock Under His Care
As a secondary explanation of the good shepherd, Jesus goes on to say, “I know My sheep and My sheep know Me” (John 10:14). He recognizes the sheep, He knows each by name, and the sheep follow because they recognize Him. In fact, He barely needs to herd them, because they follow where He leads (verse 4). He likens the mutuality of relationship between Himself and His flock to the profound understanding He has with his Father, God (10:15). This is an extraordinary thing to afford us: connection of spirit in truth. This is the sort of lovely connection described in 1 John 4:18: “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment…” He came “that [we] may have life and have it abundantly” (10:10b)! Can you imagine a human version of that kind of love? It’s almost impossible to conceive of.
This is not an arbitrary following like reposting a good quote from a philosopher you don’t personally know. This shepherd is not responsible for a nebulous cloud of sheep who respect His leadership and what He stands for, but have nothing to do with Him on a day-to-day basis—no. They are the deeply cared-for, intimately known members of His herd, and moreover are His property (10:12a). What does this mean? Well, it means for starters that Jesus’ role as good shepherd, as guide, as protection, and His commitment to give His all—all of this is the result of this profound and personal relationship. To listen to our shepherd is not a commandment here, but the definition of those who are part of this fortunate flock of this unparalleled shepherd.
And this would be terribly sad news for all of us, if He wasn’t also the shepherd who seeks and saves as well. Jesus says, “I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to My voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd” (10:16). Elsewhere in Luke 15 and in Matthew 18, Jesus describes the normal duties of a shepherd in this way: “If a man has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? And if he finds it, truly, I say to you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. So it is not the will of my Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish” (Matthew 18:12-14). What a glorious thing for us! His shepherding is not only the promise of protection from the most committed of guides, but also a calling of us to Himself. We need never fear, even if we feel we’re drifting astray. He’s coming for us. He will not abandon anyone. Again, He is self-sacrifical to the last.
Taking Up the Cross
Finally, what then may we say of how this affects our lives? We rest in the assurance of Jesus’ role as guide and carer, built on the knowledge of His great self-sacrifice. We listen steadily to His voice, following His instructions, trusting them even when the way He leads us down looks unappealing.
Jesus’ role as shepherd also informs how we respond to and feel about our churches. 1 Peter 5:2 says that we have shepherds among ourselves. When we follow Christ, we are reluctant to actually emulate Him, to take up His cross and bear similar suffering. Thus my last question is to do with our own leadership, how we lead by example, showing Christ to a world that has fallen deaf to His voice. But moreover, shepherding has unique implications for our churches, the "flock" of Jesus’ shepherding. In teaching ourselves to listen increasingly to Jesus’ voice—to hear it even in the storm—and in enduring the difficulty that is daily laying aside ourselves and our own self-centeredness, are we looking to emulate that self-sacrificial Christ-love for His flock? Do we seek out the lost and those who have gone astray as if we really believed in their recovery, and rejoiced in it?
This talk is completely countering anything you will hear in our culture. Our culture preaches compromise and tolerance but never sacrifice of self, of “being true to oneself.” Jesus preaches self-sacrifice, the laying aside of self and self-interest for the benefit of others. Especially at this time of year, we remember that this was not an idle promise, but that the Good Shepherd really did lay down His life for His sheep. It is the hope we already have, the knowledge of this sacrifice, the assurance of His voice and His voice, as we stoop to pick up our own cross, encouraging others to (and as) they do the same.