The Good Shepherd and the Flock of God
When our niece came to live with us several years ago, she had never really had a dog of her own. As she began to watch for dogs in the paper, she became particularly interested in Australian Shepherds as a breed. One day she saw an ad for a puppy that caught her attention, and we agreed to drive out to the country to look at it. “Now, we’re only going to look, Uncle Bob,” she said. “After we’ve had time to think about it, if we decide to buy it, then you can begin to bargain with the owner.” You see, my niece had been with us long enough to observe me in the process of buying a couple of cars. From her limited observation, she was convinced that I could buy almost anything for half of what the owner was asking, and she was certain I could strike the same kind of bargain with the owner of this pup.
We made our way out into the country where the breeder lived, and he invited us into his home. We learned that the man had just the one pup left. He went outside and brought the pup into the house. My niece was sitting on the floor, and the pup immediately ran over to her and plopped in her lap. “I’ll take him,” I said, grabbing for my wallet. Without so much as a hint of dickering, I paid the man exactly what he was asking. She called him “Billy Boy,” or “Bill” for short; I (at times) called him “Big Bopper.” And he certainly did fit the “big” part – he came to weigh 70 pounds. Sometimes in the night, I experienced all 70 pounds of the “Big Bopper” when he would leap unannounced onto the bed in one single bound.
Eventually, “Billy Boy” and our niece moved to the Pacific Northwest, and he now lives on a small ranch, along with a small flock of sheep – a sheep dog’s version of heaven. One thing I’ve noticed about sheep dogs is that they really don’t seem to care for sheep all that much. From my experience, it’s all about dominance. Sheep dogs like to “herd” (as in “boss around”) almost anything … children (if there are enough of them), ducks, cows, you name it. It’s a contest between the dog’s will and the determination of the animal being herded. The sheep dog locks eyes with whatever creature he is seeking to control. If that isn’t intimidating enough, he will rush toward the animal. And if that isn’t sufficient, the dog is not above a little nip in the backside or on the hoof to make its point.
Sheep dogs are very effective, but in my limited experience, they are nothing like a shepherd. In this lesson, we are going to study the church by turning our attention to the biblical imagery of a shepherd and his flock, or more precisely the “Good Shepherd” and His flock, the church. This lesson is important, not only because it helps us to understand how God leads us, but also because it instructs us how we should lead if we are to be like God. Let us listen well, then, to what the Bible teaches us about the Good Shepherd and His sheep.
One of the most common images in the Bible is that of the shepherd and his sheep. Even if we have not grown up on a farm, we should have little trouble grasping this imagery, because it is so commonly spoken of in the Bible.
We should remember that God’s chosen people were shepherds. Abraham was a keeper of sheep (Genesis 13:3). As a matter of fact, Abraham was so successful that he and Lot had to split up, because they could not sustain both of their herds in the same grazing areas (Genesis 13:7). Jacob, too, was a shepherd, and this is how he became wealthy while working for Laban, caring for his flocks (Genesis 30:43). When Jacob and his family went to join Joseph in Egypt, they were shepherds, which is part of the reason why the Egyptians avoided intermarrying with the Hebrews (Genesis 46:33-34; 43:32). If Judah married a Canaanite and allowed his sons to do likewise (Genesis 38), it would not have been long until the tribe of Judah (from which the Messiah would come – Genesis 49:8-10) would have ceased to exist as a distinct tribe, due to their intermarriage with the Canaanites. Since the Egyptians loathed shepherds, they would not (with the possible exception of Mrs. Potiphar – Genesis 39) have considered intermarrying with the Hebrews.
Shepherding is an image that pertains to ruling, to a leader (or shepherd) exercising authority over a group of people (his flock). This is clearly indicated in both the Old and the New Testaments. You will remember the story of Jehoshaphat, king of Judah, Ahab, king of Israel, and Micaiah the prophet of God in 1 Kings 22. Ahab wanted Jehoshaphat to join him in battle against Syria. Jehoshaphat wanted divine confirmation that this was truly God’s will, and the theatrical production of the 400 prophets of Ahab failed to convince Jehoshaphat. And so Micaiah was called for a “second opinion.” Micaiah warned Jehoshaphat against this military alliance and informed Ahab that if he were to go to war against Syria, it would cost him his life. Notice the imagery he uses to describe the death of Ahab, king of Israel:
17 Micaiah said, “I saw all Israel scattered on the mountains like sheep that have no shepherd. Then the Lord said, ‘They have no master. They should go home in peace’” (1 Kings 22:17, emphasis mine).28
In His earthly ministry our Lord expressed great compassion for the people because they lacked spiritual leadership. He described the plight of the people in “shepherding” terms:
36 When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them because they were bewildered and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd (Matthew 9:36).
To be a shepherd over a flock is thus to be a leader over a group of people. It is little wonder, then, that David saw his relationship to God as that of a sheep to its shepherd:
1 The Lord is my shepherd,
I lack nothing.
2 He takes me to lush pastures,
he leads me to refreshing water.
3 He restores my strength.
He leads me down the right paths for the sake of his reputation.
4 Even when I must walk through a dark ravine,
I fear no danger, for you are with me;
your rod and your staff keep me calm (Psalm 23:1-4).
God’s relationship to the nation Israel was likened to that of a shepherd and his flock; God was Israel’s Shepherd, and the people were His flock:
Yet he brought out his people like sheep;
he led them through the wilderness like a flock (Psalm 78:52).
6 Come! Let’s bow down and worship!
Let’s kneel before the Lord, our creator!
7 For he is our God; we are the people of his pasture,
the sheep he owns.
Today, if only you would obey him! (Psalm 95:6-7)
Realize that the Lord is God!
He made us and we belong to him;
we are his people, the sheep of his pasture (Psalm 100:3).
The imagery of a shepherd and his flock thus provided a picture of the way God cared for His people, and thus this imagery also serves as a model for human leaders. God cares for His people as a shepherd cares for his flock. Human leaders are likewise to rule over men as a shepherd tends his flock. I believe we can safely infer that God prepared Moses to lead the Israelites by first having him serve as a shepherd in the wilderness for 40 years (cf. Exodus 2 and 3). God likewise prepared David for leadership by his experience as a shepherd in the days of his youth.
8 “So now, say this to my servant David: ‘This is what the Lord of hosts says: “I took you from the pasture and from your work as a shepherd to make you a leader of my people Israel”’” (2 Samuel 7:8; see also 1 Chronicles 17:7).
70 He chose David, his servant,
and took him from the sheepfolds.
71 He took him away from following the mother sheep,
and made him the shepherd of Jacob, his people,
and of Israel, his chosen nation.
72 David cared for them with pure motives;
He led them with skill (Psalm 78:70-72).
When David spoke of going to battle against Goliath, his oldest brother mocked him by referring to his seemingly insignificant service as a shepherd:
28 When his oldest brother Eliab heard him speaking to the men, he became angry with David and said, “Why have you come down here? To whom did you entrust those few sheep in the desert? I am familiar with your pride and deceit. You have come down here to watch the battle!” (1 Samuel 17:28)
David saw this situation with Goliath and the armies of Israel in a very different way. It was his experience as a shepherd that gave him the confidence to challenge Goliath. He was confident of this because of the way God had empowered him to care for his “little flock” of sheep:
33 But Saul replied to David, “You aren’t able to go against this Philistine and fight him! You’re just a boy! He has been a warrior from his youth!” 34 David replied to Saul, “Your servant has been a shepherd for his father’s flock. Whenever a lion or bear would come and carry off a sheep from the flock, 35 I would go out after it, strike it down, and rescue the sheep from its mouth. If it rose up against me, I would grab it by its jaw, strike it, and kill it. 36 Your servant has struck down both the lion and the bear. This uncircumcised Philistine will be just like one of them. For he has defied the armies of the living God!” 37 David went on to say, “The Lord who delivered me from the lion and the bear will also deliver me from the hand of this Philistine!” Then Saul said to David, “Go. The Lord will be with you.” 38 Then Saul clothed David with his own fighting attire and put a bronze helmet on his head. He also put body armor on him (1 Samuel 17:33-38).
To be a good leader was to be a good shepherd. The same principles that guided David as the shepherd of a little flock prompted David to step forward in the face of Goliath’s ranting. Just as David must have seen his little flock terrorized by a bear or a lion, so he saw the armies of Israel terrorized by the Philistines, and Goliath in particular. God had given David the strength to care for his flock, and God would surely give David the strength to care for this larger flock, by attacking the one who threatened them.
The shepherding model not only encouraged David to stand up against Goliath, it also served Nathan well when rebuking David for his abuse of power as Israel’s king. When David sinned against God by taking Bathsheba and killing her husband, Uriah, God confronted him through the prophet Nathan. Nathan got David’s attention by telling him a story that would have touched the heart of any good shepherd:
1 So the Lord sent Nathan to David. When he came to him, Nathan said, “There were two men in a certain city, one rich and the other poor. 2 The rich man had a great many flocks and herds. 3 But the poor man had nothing except for a little lamb he had acquired. He raised it, and it grew up alongside him and his children. It used to eat his food, drink from his cup, and sleep in his arms. It was just like a daughter to him. 4 “When a traveler came to the rich man, he did not want to use one of his own sheep or cattle to feed the traveler who had come to him. Instead, he took the poor man’s lamb and fed it to the man who had come to him.” 5 Then David became very angry at this man. He said to Nathan, “As surely the Lord lives, the man who did this deserves to die! 6 Because he committed this cold-hearted crime, he must pay for the lamb four times over.” 7 Nathan said to David, “You are that man! This is what the Lord God of Israel says: ‘I chose you to be king over Israel and I rescued you from the hand of Saul. 8 I gave you your master’s house, and put your master’s wives into your arms. I also gave you the house of Israel and Judah. And if all that somehow seems insignificant, I would have given you so much more as well! 9 Why have you shown contempt for the word of the Lord by doing evil in my sight? You have struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword and you have taken his wife as your own. You have killed him with the sword of the Ammonites. 10 So now the sword will never depart from your house. For you have despised me by taking the wife of Uriah the Hittite as your own.’ 11 This is what the Lord says: ‘I am about to bring disaster on you from inside your own house. Right before your eyes I will take your wives and hand them over to your companion. He will have sexual relations with your wives in broad daylight. 12 Although you have acted in secret, I will do this thing before all Israel, and in broad daylight’” (2 Samuel 12:1-12).
As you well know, through this story Nathan got the point across, and David repented of his sin (see Psalm 51). Later, David sinned by numbering the people. When God gave David his choice of punishment, David responded with the heart of a true shepherd:
17 David said to God, “Was I not the one who decided to number the army? I am the one who sinned and committed this awful deed! As for these sheep, what have they done? O Lord my God, attack me and my family, but remove the plague from your people!” (1 Chronicles 21:17)
The shepherd model became the standard for all leaders. God used shepherd imagery to describe the abuses of power that characterized Israel’s leaders. Because of their sins, the leaders of Israel would lose their flocks and lose their positions of leadership over the people of God:
18 The Lord told me, “Tell the king and the queen mother, ‘Come down from your thrones. That is because your glorious crowns will be removed from your heads. 19 The gates of the towns in southern Judah will be shut tight. No one will be able to go in or out of them. All Judah will be carried off into exile. They will be completely carried off into exile.’” 20 Then I said, “Look up, Jerusalem, and see the enemy that is coming from the north. Where is the flock of people that were entrusted to your care? Where are the ‘sheep’ that you take such pride in? 21 What will you say when the Lord appoints as rulers over you those allies that you, yourself, had actually prepared as such? Then anguish and agony will grip you like that of a woman giving birth to a baby” (Jeremiah 13:18-21, emphasis mine).
1 The Lord says, “The leaders of my people are sure to be judged. They were supposed to watch over my people like shepherds watch over their sheep. But they are causing my people to be destroyed and scattered. 2 So the Lord God of Israel has this to say about the leaders who are ruling over his people: “You have caused my people to be dispersed and driven into exile. You have not taken care of them. So I will punish you for the evil that you have done. I, the Lord, affirm it” (Jeremiah 23:1-2, emphasis mine).
1 The word of the Lord came to me: 2 “Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel; prophesy, and say to them—to the shepherds: ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: Woe, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding themselves! Should not shepherds feed the flock? 3 You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the choice animals; but you do not feed the sheep! 4 You have not strengthened the weak, healed the sick, bound up the broken, brought back the strayed, nor sought the lost; but with force and harshness you have ruled over them. 5 They were scattered because they had no shepherd; and when they were scattered they became food for every wild beast. 6 My sheep wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill. My sheep were scattered over all the face of the earth, but there was no one to seek or search for them. 7 “‘Therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: 8 As I live, declares the Sovereign Lord, because my sheep have become a prey, and have become food for all the wild beasts, since there was no shepherd and my shepherds did not search for my flock, but fed themselves and did not feed my sheep, 9 therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: 10 This is what the Sovereign Lord says: I am against the shepherds; and I will demand my sheep from their hand. I will make them stop feeding sheep; the shepherds will not feed themselves anymore. I will deliver my sheep from their mouth, so that they will no longer be food for them’” (Ezekiel 34:1-10, emphasis mine).
God not only condemned Jewish leaders for their injustice and oppression; He also judged other rulers for abusing their position and power. While the term “shepherd” is not used in Daniel 4, I think we can see that God disciplined and humbled the mighty Nebuchadnezzar because of his oppressive leadership:
24 “This is the interpretation, O king. It is the decision of the Most High that this has happened to my lord the king. 25 You will be driven from human society, and you will live with the wild animals. You will be fed grass like oxen, and you will become damp with the dew of the sky. Seven times will pass by for you, before you understand that the Most High is ruler over human kingdoms and gives them to whomever he wishes. 26 Now in that they said to leave a taproot of the tree, your kingdom will be restored to you when you come to understand that heaven rules. 27 Therefore, O king, may my advice be pleasing to you. Break away from your sins by doing acts of righteousness, and from your iniquities by showing mercy to the poor. Perhaps your prosperity will be prolonged.” 28 Now all of this happened to King Nebuchadnezzar. 29 After twelve months, he happened to be walking around on top of the walls of the royal palace of Babylon. 30 The king uttered these words: “Is this not the great Babylon that I have built for a royal residence by my own mighty strength and for my majestic honor?” 31 While these words were still on the king’s lips, a voice came down from heaven: “It is hereby announced to you, King Nebuchadnezzar, that your kingdom has been removed from you! 32 You will be driven from human society, and you will live with the wild animals. You will be fed grass like oxen, and seven times will pass by for you before you understand that the Most High is ruler over human kingdoms and gives them to whomever he wishes.” 33 Now in that very moment this pronouncement came true with Nebuchadnezzar. He was driven from human society, he ate grass like oxen, and his body became damp with the dew of the sky, until his hair became long like an eagle’s feathers, and his nails like a bird’s claws. 34 But at the end of the appointed time I, Nebuchadnezzar, looked up toward heaven, and my sanity returned to me. I blessed the Most High, and I praised and glorified the one who lives forever. For his rule is an everlasting rule, and his kingdom extends from one generation to the next. 35 All the inhabitants of the earth are regarded as nothing. He does as he wishes with the army of heaven and with those who inhabit the earth. No one slaps his hand and says to him, ‘What have you done?’ 36 At that time my sanity returned to me. I was restored to the honor of my kingdom, and my splendor returned to me. My ministers and my magistrates were seeking me out, and I was reinstated over my kingdom. Tremendous greatness was restored to me, greater than before. 37 Now I, Nebuchadnezzar, praise and exalt and glorify the King of heaven, for all his deeds are right and his ways are just. He is able to bring low those who live in pride (Daniel 4:24-37, emphasis mine).
God also judged the leaders of Assyria and Babylon for their cruelty against God’s people. This time He did use the shepherding model as the basis for His rebuke:
1 The Lord spoke concerning Babylon and the land of Babylonia through the prophet Jeremiah. He said: 2 “Announce the news among the nations! Proclaim it! Signal for people to pay attention! Declare the news! Don’t hide it! Say, ‘Babylon will be captured. Bel will be put to shame. Marduk will be dismayed. Babylon’s idols will be put to shame. Her disgusting images will be dismayed. 3 For a nation from the north will attack Babylon. It will lay her land waste. People and animals will flee out of it. No one will live in it.’ 4 “When that time comes,” says the Lord, “the people of Israel and Judah will return to the land together. They will be coming back with tears of repentance as they seek renewed relations with the Lord their God. 5 They will ask the way to Zion, and turn their faces toward it. They will come and bind themselves to the Lord in a lasting agreement that will never be forgotten. 6 “My people have been lost sheep. Their shepherds have let them go astray. They have wandered around in the mountains. They have roamed from one mountain and hill to another. They have forgotten their resting place. 7 All who encountered them devoured them. Their enemies who did this said, ‘We’re not liable for punishment! For those people have sinned against the Lord, their True Pasture. They have sinned against the Lord in whom their ancestors trusted.’… 17 “The people of Israel are like scattered sheep which lions have chased away. First the king of Assyria devoured them. Now last of all King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon has gnawed their bones. 18 So, I, the Lord God of Israel who rules over all, say, ‘I will punish the king of Babylon and his land just as I punished the king of Assyria. 19 But I will restore the flock that is Israel to their own pasture. They will graze on Mount Carmel and in the land of Bashan. They will eat until they are full on the hills of Ephraim and in the land of Gilead. 20 When that time comes, no guilt will be found in Israel. No sin will be found in Judah. For I will forgive those of them I have left alive. I, the Lord, affirm it’” (Jeremiah 50:1-7, 17-20, emphasis mine).
Israel’s leaders were a great disappointment. The patriarchs were far from perfect. Even the best of Israel’s leaders had feet of clay. Moses’ failure as a leader kept him from entering the Promised Land.29 David abused his powers as king when he sinned by taking Bathsheba and killing Uriah.30 His leadership with his family was flawed,31 and his last days as king were not his finest.32 Eli33 and Samuel34 were great men, but their leadership, especially in regard to their families, was far from exemplary. Even the great prophet Elijah sought to resign from his ministry, and from life itself.35 Solomon’s early years as king were awe inspiring, but his later life was in shambles.36 In the end, there was no perfect leader throughout the history of Israel.
How, then, could any human king ever fulfill all of God’s promises and Israel’s hopes for a coming king who would sit, forever, on the throne of David as promised in 2 Samuel 7:12-13? When the Old Testament prophets spoke out against the wicked leaders of their day, they spoke words of hope concerning a “Good Shepherd,” Who would someday come and tenderly rule over His people:
1 The Lord says, “The leaders of my people are sure to be judged. They were supposed to watch over my people like shepherds watch over their sheep. But they are causing my people to be destroyed and scattered. 2 So the Lord God of Israel has this to say about the leaders who are ruling over his people: “You have caused my people to be dispersed and driven into exile. You have not taken care of them. So I will punish you for the evil that you have done. I, the Lord, affirm it. 3 Then I myself will regather those of my people who are still left alive from all the countries where I have driven them. I will bring them back to their homeland. They will greatly increase in number. 4 I will install rulers over them who will care for them. Then they will no longer need to fear or be terrified. None of them will turn up missing. I, the Lord, promise it. 5 “I, the Lord, promise that a new time will certainly come when I will raise up for them a righteous descendant of David. He will rule over them with wisdom and understanding and will do what is just and right in the land. 6 Under his rule Judah will enjoy safety and Israel will live in security. This is the name he will go by: ‘The Lord has provided us with justice’” (Jeremiah 23:1-6, emphasis mine).
10 This is what the Sovereign Lord says: I am against the shepherds; and I will demand my sheep from their hand. I will make them stop feeding sheep; the shepherds will not feed themselves anymore. I will deliver my sheep from their mouth, so that they will no longer be food for them. 11 “‘For this is what the Sovereign Lord says: I myself will search for my sheep and seek them out. 12 As a shepherd seeks out his flock when he is among his scattered sheep, so I will seek out my flock. I will deliver them from all the places where they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. 13 I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from foreign countries and bring them to their own land; and I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the streams and all the inhabited places of the land. 14 In a good pasture I will feed them, and the mountain heights of Israel will be their pasture. There they will lie down in good grazing ground, and they will feed on rich pasture on the mountains of Israel. 15 I will feed my sheep and I will make them lie down, declares the Sovereign Lord. 16 I will seek the lost and bring back the strayed, I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy—I will feed them with judgment… . 23 I will set up one shepherd over them, and he will feed them—namely, my servant David. He will feed them and will be their shepherd. 24 And I, the Lord, will be their God, and my servant David will be prince over them; I, the Lord, have spoken. 25 “‘I will make a covenant of peace with them and will rid the land of wild beasts, so that they can live securely in the wilderness and sleep in the woods. 26 I will make them and the regions around my hill a blessing; and I will make showers come down in their season; they will be showers of blessing. 27 The trees of the field will yield their fruit and the earth will yield its crops. They will live on their land securely; and they will know that I am the Lord, when I break the bars of their yoke and deliver them from the hand of those who enslaved them. 28 They will no longer be prey for the nations and the wild beasts will not devour them; they will live in security and no one will make them afraid. 29 I will establish for them a renowned planting place, and they will no longer be victims of famine in the land and will no longer bear the insults of the nations. 30 They will know that I, the Lord their God, am with them, and that they, my people, are the house of Israel, declares the Sovereign Lord. 31 And you, my sheep, are the sheep of my pasture, you are people, and I am your God, declares the Sovereign Lord’” (Ezekiel 34:10-16, 23-31).
12 I will certainly gather all of you, O Jacob, I will certainly assemble those Israelites who remain. I will bring them together like sheep in a fold, like a flock in the middle of a pasture; and there will be so many of them they will make a great deal of noise. 13 The one who can break through barriers will lead them out they will break out, pass through the gate, and leave. Their king will advance before them, The Lord himself will lead them (Micah 2:12-13, emphasis mine).
We can see from the prophecies above that the Good Shepherd would be God Himself. The wonder of it all was that the Good Shepherd would Himself become a lamb, on Whom the sins of the world would be placed:
5 He was wounded because of our rebellious deeds, crushed because of our sins; he endured punishment that made us well; because of his wounds we have been healed. 6 All of us had wandered off like sheep; each of us had strayed off on his own path, but the Lord caused the sin of all of us to attack him. 7 He was treated harshly and afflicted, but he did not even open his mouth. Like a lamb led to the slaughtering block, like a sheep silent before her shearers, he did not even open his mouth. 8 He was led away after an unjust trial— but who even cared? Indeed, he was cut off from the land of the living; because of the rebellion of his own people he was wounded. 9 They intended to bury him with criminals, but he ended up in a rich man’s tomb, because he had committed no violent deeds, nor had he spoken deceitfully. 10 Though the Lord desired to crush him and make him ill, once restitution is made, he will see descendants and enjoy long life, and the Lord’s purpose will be accomplished through him (Isaiah 53:5-10, emphasis mine).
The One of whom Isaiah spoke was none other than our Lord Jesus Christ, the “Lamb of God,” Who came to bear the penalty for our sins:
On the next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, “Look, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! (John 1:29, emphasis mine)
21 For to this you were called, since Christ also suffered for you, leaving an example for you to follow in his steps. 22 He committed no sin nor was deceit found in his mouth. 23 When he was maligned, he did not answer back; when he suffered, he threatened no retaliation, but committed himself to God who judges justly. 24 He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we may leave sin behind and live for righteousness. By his wounds you were healed. 25 For you were going astray like sheep but now you have turned back to the shepherd and guardian of your souls (1 Peter 2:21-25).
In John 9, we read of our Lord healing the man born blind, something that had apparently never happened before (1 John 9:32-33). The Jewish religious leaders first attempted to prove that the man claiming to have received his sight was not really who he claimed to be. When this failed, they sought to explain the miracle in some way that did not acknowledge Jesus to be the Messiah. In the end, these leaders excommunicated the healed man for believing Jesus was someone who came from God (9:33-34). The transition from the end of chapter 9 to the beginning of chapter 10 is really seamless. I take it, then, that chapter 10 is closely related to chapter 9. Is John not underscoring the fact that the Jewish religious leaders are really “evil shepherds,” as is evident in their response to the man who was healed,37 and to Jesus, the Messiah?
In contrast to these “evil shepherds” in chapter 9, Jesus proclaims Himself to be the “Good Shepherd” in John 10.
11 “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12 The hired hand who is not a shepherd and does not own sheep, sees the wolf coming and abandons the sheep and runs away. So the wolf attacks the sheep and scatters them. 13 Because he is a hired hand and is not concerned about the sheep, he runs away. 14 I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me— 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father—and I lay down my life for the sheep. 16 I have other sheep that do not come from this sheepfold. I must bring them too, and they will listen to my voice, so that there will be one flock and one shepherd” (John 10:11-16, emphasis mine).
The “Good Shepherd” cares for His sheep, so much so that He will lay down His life for them. He cares for the sheep because they are His sheep. And because they are His sheep, He knows them, and they know Him. They recognize His voice, and they follow Him. Ultimately, the Good Shepherd lays down His life for His sheep. Notice how this text also indicates that the “Good Shepherd” has “other sheep that do not come from this sheepfold” (10:16). What a beautiful way to describe the inclusion of the Gentiles into God’s flock!
Before the “Good Shepherd” ascended to heaven, He provided for the on-going care of His flock by appointing men as under shepherds:
15 Then when they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these do?” He replied, “Yes, Lord, you know I love you.” Jesus told him, “Feed my lambs.” 16 Jesus said a second time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” He replied, “Yes, Lord, you know I love you.” Jesus told him, “Shepherd my sheep.” 17 Jesus said a third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter was distressed that Jesus asked him a third time, “Do you love me?” and said, “Lord, you know everything. You know that I love you.” Jesus replied, “Feed my sheep” (John 21:15-17, emphasis mine).
Who better than Peter to address those whom God had appointed as shepherds over God’s flock?
1 So as your fellow elder and a witness of Christ’s sufferings and as one who shares in the glory that will be revealed, I urge the elders among you: 2 Give a shepherd’s care to God’s flock among you, exercising oversight not merely as a duty but willingly under God’s direction, not for shameful profit but eagerly. 3 And do not lord it over those entrusted to you, but be examples to the flock. 4 Then when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that never fades away (1 Peter 5:1-4, emphasis mine).
Jesus had earlier warned of “wolves in sheep’s clothing” (Matthew 7:15-23), and so does the apostle Paul. Paul’s parting words to the Ephesian elders, like our Lord’s words to Peter in John 21, instruct elders to fulfill their calling as shepherds by protecting God’s sheep from false teachers:
28 “Watch out for yourselves and for all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God that he obtained with the blood of his own Son. 29 I know that after I am gone fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock. 30 Even from among your own group men will arise, teaching perversions of the truth to draw the disciples away after them” (Acts 20:28-30, emphasis mine).
When our Lord returns, He will do so as a shepherd (among other things), separating the “sheep” from the “goats,” separating true believers from those who are not.
31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 All the nations will be assembled before him, and he will separate people one from another like a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. 34 Then the king will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world’” (Matthew 25:31-34, emphasis mine).38
What are we intended to learn from the imagery of the Good Shepherd and the flock of God? First of all, we learn something about ourselves, as sheep. I must warn you that it is not a very flattering image. Sheep are not all that smart. They seem prone to trouble. They are easily led astray. They are vulnerable to wolves and other animals (who would gladly make a meal of them).
Whether we like it or not, sheep are often destined to die. I am reminded of Charlotte’s Webb, a book which my grandchildren have read and watched as a video, and of Wilber the pig. What a shock it was for Wilber to learn that pigs became bacon and ham and pork chops! Sheep, too, are often destined for slaughter:
You handed us over like sheep to be eaten;
you scattered us among the nations (Psalm 44:11).
Yet because of you we are killed all day long;
we are treated like sheep at the slaughtering block (Psalm 44:22; see Romans 8:36).
The best thing about being a sheep is that we belong to the “Good Shepherd.” Sheep belong to the Shepherd, who owns them. Under His care, they are tenderly looked after, and all of their needs are met. As David put it, “The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing” (Psalm 23:1). He leads us; He protects us, and He goes after us when we wander too far from Him. And best of all, He gave His life for the sheep, so that we might have eternal life.
The wonderful thing about this imagery of a shepherd and his flock is that it depicts the tender way God leads His own, His flock. Think of it, the all-powerful, all-wise God could rule over mere men any way He chose. I remember a particular seminar I taught in one of the Texas state prisons. One inmate was really large and muscular. He had many scars on his body, proof that he had seen his share of conflict, and his front teeth had all been knocked out. I had never heard “Amazing Grace” sung toothless before that seminar. But my friend Dick introduced this fellow by saying, “Here’s Mo. He’s going to sing for us. Let’s see, what is he going to sing? Anything he wants!”
Mo was big enough that he usually got his way. God is infinitely bigger. Who could resist if He chose to rule over men as a cosmic tyrant? And yet He has chosen to lead His own people as a shepherd tends his flock. He loves His church as a groom loves his bride. He leads His church as a shepherd tends his flock. There is no other kind of leadership I would rather be under than that of the Good Shepherd.
The invitation of the gospel is that we submit ourselves to the leadership of the Good Shepherd, Who became the Lamb of God to bear the penalty for our sins. The gospel is an invitation to submit ourselves to the Great Shepherd of the sheep (Hebrews 13:20). What a gracious and tender invitation the gospel is:
28 “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke on you and learn from me, because I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy to bear, and my load is not hard to carry” (Matthew 11:28-30).
All Christian leaders are to follow the example of our Lord and to lead as shepherds. This was the kind of leader Paul was. What a contrast there is between Paul’s leadership and those who loved to flex their muscles and abuse their authority:
18 Since many are boasting according to human standards, I too will boast. 19 For since you are so wise, you put up with fools gladly. 20 For you put up with it if someone makes slaves of you, if someone exploits you, if someone takes advantage of you, if someone behaves arrogantly toward you, if someone strikes you in the face. 21 (To my disgrace I must say that we were too weak for that!) But whatever anyone else dares to boast about (I am speaking foolishly), I also dare to boast about the same thing. 22 Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they descendants of Abraham? So am I. 23 Are they servants of Christ? (I am talking like I am out of my mind!) I am even more so: with much greater labors, with far more imprisonments, with more severe beatings, facing death many times. 24 Five times I received from the Jews forty lashes less one. 25 Three times I was beaten with a rod. Once I received a stoning. Three times I suffered shipwreck. A night and a day I spent adrift in the open sea. 26 I have been on journeys many times, in dangers from rivers, in dangers from robbers, in dangers from my own countrymen, in dangers from Gentiles, in dangers in the city, in dangers in the wilderness, in dangers at sea, in dangers from false brothers, 27 in hard work and toil, through many sleepless nights, in hunger and thirst, many times without food, in cold and without enough clothing. 28 Apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxious concern for all the churches. 29 Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is led into sin, and I do not burn with indignation? 30 If I must boast, I will boast about the things that show my weakness. 31 The God and Father of the Lord Jesus, who is blessed forever, knows I am not lying. 32 In Damascus, the governor under King Aretas was guarding the city of Damascus in order to arrest me, 33 but I was let down in a rope-basket through a window in the city wall, and escaped his hands (2 Corinthians 11:18-33).
The “false apostles” led in a very different way. They abused their authority and those who submitted to it (11:20). Their gullible followers confused domination and dictatorial edicts with apostolic authority. Paul’s authority was that of God’s Word, and his authority as an apostle was demonstrated by the suffering and sacrifice he made to carry out his mission. Paul not only led as a shepherd, but as a father, and as a nursing mother:
5 For we never appeared with flattering speech, as you know, nor with a pretext for greed—God is our witness— 6 nor to seek glory from people, either from you or from others, 7 although we could have imposed our weight as apostles of Christ. But we became little children among you. Like a nursing mother caring for her own children, 8 with such affection for you, we were happy to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own lives, because you had become dear to us. 9 For you recall, brothers and sisters, our toil and drudgery: By working night and day so as not to impose a burden on any of you, we preached to you the gospel of God. 10 You are witnesses, and so is God, as to how holy and righteous and blameless our conduct was toward you who believe. 11 As you know, we treated each one of you as a father treats his own children, 12 exhorting and encouraging you and insisting that you live in a way worthy of God who calls you to his own kingdom and his glory (1 Thessalonians 2:5-12, emphasis mine).
Here is the leadership style we should practice:
25 But Jesus called them and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those in high positions use their authority over them. 26 It must not be this way among you! Instead whoever wants to be great among you must be your servant, 27 and whoever wants to be first among you must be your slave— 28 just as the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:25-28).
24 And the Lord’s slave must not be a fighter but kind toward all, an apt teacher, patient, 25 correcting opponents with gentleness. Perhaps God will grant them repentance and then knowledge of the truth 26 and they will come to their senses and escape the devil’s trap where they are held captive to do his will (2 Timothy 2:24-26, emphasis mine).
It is the leadership style of our Lord, the Good Shepherd. The question is, “Are you one of His flock?” In John 10, Jesus told us how we may know who the Good Shepherd is, and who His sheep are:
1 “I tell you the solemn truth, the one who does not enter the sheepfold by the door, but climbs in some other way, is a thief and a robber. 2 The one who enters by the door is the shepherd of the sheep. 3 The doorkeeper opens the door for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. 4 When he has brought all his own sheep out, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they recognize his voice. 5 They will never follow a stranger, but will run away from him, because they do not recognize the stranger’s voice.” 6 Jesus told them this parable, but they did not understand what he was saying to them. 7 So Jesus said to them again, “I tell you the solemn truth, I am the door for the sheep. 8 All who came before me were thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them. 9 I am the door. If anyone enters through me, he will be saved, and will come in and go out, and find pasture. 10 The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come so that they may have life, and may have it abundantly. 11 “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12 The hired hand who is not a shepherd and does not own sheep, sees the wolf coming and abandons the sheep and runs away. So the wolf attacks the sheep and scatters them. 13 Because he is a hired hand and is not concerned about the sheep, he runs away. 14 “I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me— 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father—and I lay down my life for the sheep. 16 I have other sheep that do not come from this sheepfold. I must bring them too, and they will listen to my voice, so that there will be one flock and one shepherd” (John 10:1-16).
As I close, I must warn you that while our Lord’s relationship to His church (those who have trusted in Him for the forgiveness of sins) is that of a Good Shepherd to His flock, the church, this image does not describe our Lord’s relationship to those who have rejected Him and His offer of salvation:
10 Look, the sovereign Lord comes as a victorious warrior; his military power establishes his rule. Look, his reward is with him; his prize goes before him. 11 Like a shepherd he tends his flock; he gathers up the lambs with his arm; he carries them close to his chest; he leads the ewes along (Isaiah 40:10-11).
Those who follow Jesus as the Good Shepherd know Him as a shepherd, but those who reject Jesus as the Good Shepherd will experience His coming in a very different way.
9 As a result God exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow —in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess to the glory of God the Father that Jesus Christ is Lord (Philippians 2:9-11).
1 Why do the nations cause a commotion?
Why are the countries devising plots that will fail?
2 The kings of the earth form a united front;
the rulers collaborate against the Lord and his chosen king.
3 They say, “Let’s tear off the shackles they’ve put on us!
Let’s free ourselves from their ropes!”
4 The one enthroned in heaven laughs in disgust;
the sovereign Master taunts them.
5 Then he angrily speaks to them and terrifies them in his rage.
6 He says, “I myself have installed my king on Zion, my holy hill.”
7 The king says, “I will tell you what the Lord decreed.
He said to me: ‘You are my son!
This very day I have become your father!
8 You have only to ask me, and I will give you the nations as your inheritance,
the ends of the earth as your personal property.
9 You will break them with an iron scepter;
you will smash them as if they were a potter’s jar.’”
10 So now, you kings, do what is wise!
You rulers of the earth, submit to correction!
11 Serve the Lord in fear!
Repent in terror!
12 Give sincere homage! Otherwise he will be angry,
and you will die because of your behavior,
when his anger quickly ignites.
How happy are all who take shelter in him! (Psalm 2:1-12)
Those who reject Jesus as the Good Shepherd will, in the end, confess Jesus to be Lord, but not as one of His sheep. I pray that you are one of His sheep, and that you know and love the Lord Jesus, the Good Shepherd. If so, you can say with the psalmist:
Then we, your people,
the sheep of your pasture,
will continually thank you.
We will tell coming generations of your praiseworthy acts (Psalm 79:13).
27 Copyright 2003 by Community Bible Chapel, 418 E. Main Street, Richardson, TX 75081. This is the edited manuscript of Lesson 4 in the A Study of the Church series prepared by Robert L. Deffinbaugh on December 7, 2003
28 Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the NET Bible. The NEW ENGLISH TRANSLATION, also known as THE NET BIBLE, is a completely new translation of the Bible, not a revision or an update of a previous English version. It was completed by more than twenty biblical scholars who worked directly from the best currently available Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts. The translation project originally started as an attempt to provide an electronic version of a modern translation for electronic distribution over the Internet and on CD (compact disk). Anyone anywhere in the world with an Internet connection will be able to use and print out the NET Bible without cost for personal study. In addition, anyone who wants to share the Bible with others can print unlimited copies and give them away free to others. It is available on the Internet at: www.netbible.org.
29 Numbers 20:1-13.
30 2 Samuel 11-12.
31 He failed badly in the matter of the rape of his daughter Tamar by his son Amnon (2 Samuel 13), and he did badly in dealing with his son Absalom (2 Samuel 13-15, 18, 19).
32 It would seem that David should have handed the kingdom over earlier. He had to be prodded to act decisively to insure that the kingdom was given over to his son Solomon (1 Kings 1).
33 1 Samuel 2:22—3:18.
34 1 Samuel 8:3; 16:1.
35 1 Kings 19.
36 1 Kings 11.
37 Matthew 23 is also a powerful indictment of the Jewish religious leaders.
38 Compare Ezekiel 34:15-24.
Related Topics: Ecclesiology (The Church)