(Part 5 of a series – my thoughts on some of the unusual ways that Jesus describes Himself. I have not researched how theologians think about these passages, but their influence may appear implicitly nevertheless since I have attended church for years, heard a lot of preaching, and read a lot. If a citation is needed, I’m happy to insert it and will do so honestly if I am aware one is needed.)
“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” John 10:11
“I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me – just as the Father knows me and I know the Father – and I lay down my life for the sheep.” John 10:14-15
In order to figure out what this might have to say, I like to think about the subject. What is a shepherd, and what are sheep? To understand the analogy, one must understand the subjects of the analogy.
A shepherd is first off a caretaker. He takes care of sheep – an animal largely recognized for being only of limited intelligence and strongly habit-driven. Sheep have strong flocking instincts, following each other away from what they fear and toward each other for protection. The tendency to follow the leader is instinctual, for better or worse. Sheep also have fairly poor vision and are reluctant to go where they cannot see (www.sheep101.info). To properly care for sheep, a shepherd must know his sheep well and be familiar to the sheep or the sheep will not follow him. In agricultural communities with limited resources, multiple flocks of sheep can intermingle at a local watering hole. The shepherd doesn’t need to tag each one, or keep an eye on them, because at the sound of his voice the sheep that belong to him follow him. These sheep grew up from lambs with the shepherd by their side. The sound of his voice is as familiar as the scent of each lamb’s mother.
Secondly, a shepherd is a steward. While it may be that the sheep belong to the shepherd, it is often the case that the shepherd is taking care of somebody else’s flock. That is, the sheep do not necessarily belong to the shepherd. The shepherd has a great responsibility to nurture the flock and prevent loss of the sheep if they do not belong to him, but a greater investment still if the sheep do belong to him. The purpose of tending sheep is to help the sheep flourish – to grow strong and healthy, and reproduce. The shepherd, then, stewards the flock by leading them to areas where they can flourish, where food is abundant and predators are absent.
Third, a shepherd is a guardian. Sheep are prey animals, with little-to-no defense mechanisms other than flocking. This makes them vulnerable to predation from outside enemies. The shepherd must be vigilant, constantly attentive to the surrounding environment to make sure that not only is the environment good for the sheep to graze in but also safe from predators. If a predator does appear, the shepherd’s duty is to defend the flock to the best of his ability. Furthermore, if a sheep gets lost then the shepherd must go find it. Each sheep in the flock is valuable for its meat, wool, and/or reproductive ability. To lose one sheep is significant, so if one goes astray then that sheep must be found.
Being compared to sheep in this passage, we can gain insight into human nature. Humans have limited intelligence compared to God, who sees all and knows all because He made all. We flock by nature, gravitating toward one another by habit and following a leader in the crowd whether it is a good idea or not. We have relatively poor vision, focusing mostly on what is immediately in front of us, worrying about what we cannot see, and failing to see the “big picture” and how God works within it.
Likening Himself to a good shepherd, Jesus is stating that He is the great caretaker. As His sheep, we need to know Him and be known by Him. Because we were created as image-bearers of God (Gen. 1:27) and created through Christ (John 1:3), the great caretaker and good shepherd already knows us intimately. He knows us without even trying, because He has spent more time than we can imagine making us – designing us (Psalm 139:13) and guiding our lives. He knows us better than we know ourselves. But we need to know Him and trust Him to be a successful member of the flock, living up to our full potential. To this end, we need to listen to His voice and trust his direction. We can only do so, though, if we truly know His voice. How can you discern the voice of the good shepherd? His is a voice that speaks to your spirit – addressing the deep concerns of your heart rather than the superficial concerns of your mind. His is a voice that is rich in love, calling you to a better way than you might choose on your own. His is a voice that builds up rather than condemns.
Jesus is the great steward of the flock of God. In the passage, Jesus refers to “my sheep”, indicating that He owns His flock. “My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all.” (v. 29) tells us that we have been given to Christ by the Father, for His stewarding. Stewards don’t just make sure something remains intact, but nurture that something so that it develops into its fullest potential. A steward acts for the benefit of what is being stewarded, so that it can flourish. This is how Christ acts in our lives – giving us direction and nurturing so that we can flourish under His stewardship. As our caretaker and steward, He knows our strengths and gives guidance to us toward environments where our strengths can be utilized and exercised. He also knows our weaknesses, and serves as a reliable leader who can be followed and trusted.
Jesus is the great protector. “I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand.” (v. 28) reveals that once we are part of Christ’s flock, we can never be removed from it. While the devil prowls around us (1 Peter 5:8), we can rest peacefully knowing that we belong to Christ. He lays down His life for His sheep (v. 15), and stops at nothing to keep His people for Himself. We also know that if we go astray, He will bring us back into the fold. This comes up when Jesus tells the parable of the lost sheep in Luke 15:3-6:
Then Jesus told them this parable: “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Does he not leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.'”
Likewise, as the good shepherd Jesus will do whatever is necessary to bring His sheep back into the fold. Even give up His life on a cross.