I am the Good Shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep…I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep. ~John 10:11,14-15
Hunted, harassed, scattered, hungry, lost or safe, comforted, held, full, found. The difference lies in the presence of a shepherd, a good shepherd. Shepherds populate the scriptures, the patriarchs of the Jewish faith were all shepherds: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, and David. God uses this word picture both to encourage and warn Israel through the Psalms, Isaiah, and Ezekiel passages. Jesus lays claim to this title in John 10 by contrasting a true, good shepherd with one who robs or abandons the flock.
Jesus declares that He lays down his life for his sheep. This picture was understood by the Jews at the time, for that was exactly the risky position of a shepherd. In Biblical times the shepherd was fierce, warrior like with great endurance, and protective of his flock. Robbers and wild animals threatened by day and night. The shepherd was the guardian, allowing or limiting access to the flock, leading them to safe places to sleep, and defending them against any and all attack. A poor man with just a few sheep may hire another to watch his sheep, but Jesus points out the lack of allegiance and protection to the flock when danger comes.
The shepherd was also intimately acquainted with his sheep. Often shepherds will name their sheep and can see the unique traits or characteristics of each sheep and discern between them. Several shepherds may work together with their flocks in order to share the protection and pasturing duties, but when time comes for separation, the task is simply done. The shepherds will stand and call for their sheep. The sheep will begin to separate and follow based on the tone of voice and call of their own shepherd. Again Jesus reminds his listeners that as the good shepherd, He knows his sheep and they know Him just like his relationship with his Father. The intimacy of that relationship should make us pause and soak in the truth of how well He knows us! To be truly known – it is something we all hunger for and fear at the same time. Jesus knows me intimately. He knows my motivating thoughts, wandering ways, the sin that so easily entangles me, and He gave his life for me!
Psalm 23 cites the beauty of being his sheep, of drawing up alongside the One who knows the path to walk in, provides food and water, protects and guides. The shepherd searches continually for green pastures and feeding ground for his flock. He also looks for still waters because rushing water frightens sheep and discourages them from drinking. If there is no still water, the shepherd will lead the sheep to a well for refreshment. The shepherd’s rod and staff bring comfort to the psalmist. The rod was a stick with a thick bulbous end, often with nails, metal, or some sort of sharp weapon tip that was primarily used to ward off enemies. The staff is what we often picture shaped as a hook which can encircle the sheep’s hind leg and force the sheep to pause, balancing on the other three legs. Then the shepherd can redirect or tend to wounds or injuries the sheep may have. The sling that David had when he battled Goliath was a common tool as well for a shepherd. Useful as a weapon against predators, the sling would also be used to expertly sling a stone out further than a wandering sheep, causing the sheep to turn back inward towards the flock.
God displays his shepherd heart in Ezekiel 34. He contrasts His care for his people with the poor leadership of Israel that had resulted in judgment. There is much leadership in this world that is empty, damaging, neglectful, and deceitful. But God delineates in Ezekiel 34 everything that has not been done and promises instead to be the Great Shepherd.
Do you know you need a Shepherd? Do you see the emptiness, pain, and wounds that come from walking without Jesus? Do you know that the Shepherd searches for you? He longs for nothing else than to carry you into His fold, protect you, care for you, bind up your wounds, and strengthen you. Or are you the wandering sheep, fearing you may stay lost because you have wandered too far? He promises to seek and bring back the straying. He rescues. Are you weary in your working? There are shepherds here who teach us to work hard, be good, earn accolades, do a list that signifies your walk with God. God declares that He will make us lie down in good grazing land and on rich pasture, allowing us to rest in Him. He will lead you in paths of righteousness and restore your soul.
When we look at the truth of the gospel and understand our position with salvation as sheep with the good Shepherd, we should rejoice! What relief should fill our hearts that the hardship of walking lost, confused, and hunted like prey is no longer our judgment. For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your soul. (1 Peter 2:25) We are free from wandering. We are found, not lost. We are protected, not harassed. We are cared for and not abandoned.