“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand is not the one who owns the sheep. So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away….” John 10:11-12.
The analogy of the Shepherd as used through-out the bible loses much of its potency if we understand it in the western context. The stark and rugged typography of the Middle East is a far cry from the green hills and tranquil landscapes that many would regard as a typical pastoral setting.
Tending flocks in the land of the bible was fraught with danger, as the young David explains to King Saul:
“Saul replied, ‘You are not able to go out against this Philistine and fight him; you are only a boy, and he has been a fighting man from his youth.’ But David said to Saul, ‘Your servant has been keeping his father’s sheep. When a lion or a bear came and carried off a sheep from the flock, I went after it, struck it and rescued the sheep from its mouth. When it turned on me, I seized it by its hair, struck it and killed it.”
1 Samuel 17:33-35.
Jacob explains the conditions under which he shepherded the flocks of Laban:
“This was my situation: The heat consumed me in the daytime and the cold at night, and sleep fled from my eyes” (Genesis 31:40).
It was thus a lowly occupation, often left to those who were despised or held in low esteem.
The prophet Samuel found 7 sons in Jesse’s household, none of whom were destined to be king over Israel, and Jesse informs him, “There is still the youngest … but he is tending the sheep” (1 Samuel 16:11).
Later, when David brings provisions to where his brothers are encamped against Goliath, they enquire of him, “Why have you come down here? And with whom have you left those few sheep in the desert?” (1 Samuel 17.28).
A good shepherd puts the interests of the flock above his own, and would willingly endanger his life for the sheep. Thus God himself is referred to as the “Shepherd of Israel” (Psalm 80:1) – alluding to his intense love and concern for his people – even to the point of self-sacrifice.
“See, the Sovereign Lord comes with power, and his arm rules for him … He tends his flock like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in his arms, and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those that have young” (Isaiah 40:10-11).
This manner of love is also demonstrated in the humility of Moses, who offered his own soul as an atonement for the sins of Israel:
“Oh, what a great sin these people have committed! They have made themselves gods of gold. But now, please forgive their sin – but if not, blot me from the book you have written” (Exodus 32:31-32).
By the principle of substitution, one takes the place of another, in order for the latter to be saved or preserved.
Thus, in his famous Messianic prophesy, the prophet Isaiah proclaims:
“To whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed … we all, like sheep, have gone astray … [yet] he was led like a lamb to the slaughter” (Isaiah 53:1,6,7).
The kings and priests of Israel were rebuked for being self-serving in their shepherding:
“The word of the LORD came to me: ‘Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel; prophesy and say to them: “This is what the Sovereign Lord says: ‘Woe to the shepherds of Israel who only take care of themselves! Should not shepherds take care of the flock? You eat the curds, clothe yourselves with the wool and slaughter the choice animals, but you do not take care of the flock. You have not strengthened the weak or healed the sick or bound up the injured. You have not brought back the strays or searched for the lost.. You have ruled over them harshly and brutally. So they were scattered because there was no shepherd, and when they were scattered they became food for all the wild animals.’” (Ezekiel 34:1-5)
“O my people, your guides lead you astray; they turn you from the path.” (Isaiah 3:12)
Thus the Lord God undertakes:
“For this is what the Sovereign Lord says, ‘I myself will search for my sheep and look after them. As a shepherd looks after his scattered flock when he is with them, so will I look after my sheep … [and] I will place over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he will tend them; he will tend them and be their shepherd.’” (Ezekiel 34:11-12, 23).
Since Messiah laid down his life for us, “so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness … For you were like sheep going astray, but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls” (1 Peter 2:24-25) – we too have an obligation to lay down our lives for the salvation of others. For a “servant is not above his master” (Matthew 10:24).
“Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you” (John 13:15).
“Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness; And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death – even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:5-8).
After his resurrection, the Lord asks Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you truly love me?” He answered, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Take care of my sheep” (John 21:16).
We, the redeemed of the Lord, are likewise admonished to continue in the work of the risen Christ; to strengthen the weak, to heal the sick and bind up the injured. To bring back the strays and search for the lost. “For whoever turns a sinner from the error of his ways will save him from death and cover over a multitude of sins” (James 5:20).
The risks and dangers are apparent to us all, but “greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13).