The good shepherd

Jesus often used parables and analogies to describe the kingdom of heaven to those that wanted to know about the spiritual life that awaited them after their physical death. One of the ways Jesus portrayed himself in the believer’s journey to heaven was a shepherd caring for his flock of sheep. Perhaps, the most famous psalm written by King David was Psalm 23 which stated, “The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want, he maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters” (Psalm 23:1-2). The role of the shepherd was to protect and guide his sheep along a pathway that was usually predetermined in order to keep them safe and well fed. When Jesus referred to himself as the “good shepherd” (John 10:11), he meant that he was perfectly suited for or well adapted to the circumstances of a shepherd (2570). The reason why that was true was because Jesus made it as easy as he possibly could for believers to go to heaven by making it a free gift that one could obtain simply by believing that he was who he said he was, the Savior of the World. Essentially, you could say that Jesus paved our way to heaven through his death on the cross.

Jesus’ statement, “I am the door of the sheep” (John 10:7), was a reference to the gate that had to be passed through in order for a sheep to enter the sheepfold, a place for him to rest at night. Jesus went on to say, “I am the door: by me if any man enter in, he shall be saved, and shall go in and out, and find pasture” (John 10:9). The connection between entering the sheepfold and being saved was evident in the purpose of the sheepfold, to keep the sheep from the death they would certainly face if they were to be left out in the open, unattended overnight. Jesus depicted Satan as a thief that wanted to steal, kill, and destroy his flock of sheep (John 10:10). In order to drive home the point that Satan would stop at nothing to damage God’s kingdom, Jesus said, “I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd giveth his life for the sheep” (John 10:11). Jesus also stated that his death was a voluntary act that he was predestined for. He said, “Therefore doth my Father love me, because I lay down my life, that I might take it again. No man taketh it from me, but I lay it down of myself. I have power to lay it down and I have power to take it again. This commandment have I received of my Father” (John 10:17-18).

An aspect of Jesus’ analogy that may have been difficult for his listeners to grasp was the reference he made to his sheep hearing and knowing him by his voice (John 10:3-4). In the same way that someone today might be labeled crazy if he said he had heard God speak to him, the people that lived in Jesus’ time didn’t expect God to speak to them directly. Up to that point, God had always spoken to his people through prophets who were considered to be his spokespersons or quite literally his mouthpieces (5030). Something that Jesus made clear was that his voice was a unique identifier that made it possible for his followers to distinguish him from strangers (John 10:5), and more specifically, to prevent believers from being influenced by satanic forces that might try to lead them astray (John 10:8). Jesus’ primary goal as the good shepherd was to protect his sheep from anything that might harm them. One thing that made Jesus more than just a good shepherd was his ability to fulfill every spiritual need of those that chose to follow him. Jesus said, “I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly” (John 10:10). The Greek word translated abundantly, perissos can mean to go beyond or exceed (4053). In other words, the life Jesus gives us exceeds our expectations.

Good news

The birth of Jesus came suddenly and unexpectedly, at a time when there was little hope left that God would fulfill his promise to bring a Messiah to his chosen people, the Jews. Luke made a specific reference to a historical event, so that the date of Jesus’ birth would be accurately recorded. He said, “And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Cesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed (and this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria)” (Luke 2:1-2). The Roman government was at the height of its success in dominating the world and wanted to take advantage of its opportunity to collect taxes from every person that fell under its jurisdiction. God used the decree of a pagan emperor to fulfill an important prophecy recorded in Micah 5:2. It says, “But thou, Beth-lehem Ephratah, though thou be little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of thee shall he come forth unto me that is to be ruler in Israel; whose goings forth have been from of old, from everlasting.”

The location of the Messiah’s birth wouldn’t have been as critical if the Jews had remained in the Promised Land and their population kept in tact. Because the Jews had been scattered throughout the world during their captivity, and their geographical footprint altered by Roman occupation, the only way to know for certain that Jesus was actually a descendent of King David was to have his birth occur during the Roman census. Luke recorded, “And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David:) to be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child” (Luke 2:4-5). Joseph’s residence in Nazareth indicated that his relationship to King David was of no benefit to him. Most likely, it was unknown to everyone around him, and perhaps even to Joseph himself, that he was of royal descent until the Roman census occurred.

The shepherds that were keeping watch over their flocks the night that Jesus was born may have been the only group of people that were collectively willing to believe the good news they were told about their Messiah’s birth. The fact that the shepherds were given a sign to assure them that what the angel said was true suggests that even they were skeptical about the message they received (Luke 2:12). After seeing and hearing “a multitude of the heavenly host praising God,” (Luke 2:13) it appears that the shepherds were still unconvinced. At the conclusion of this amazing worship event, Luke 2:15 tells us, “And it came to pass, as the angels were gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds said one to another, Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us.” It wasn’t until the shepherds saw the sign promised them, the babe lying in a manger, that their belief became evident. Luke said, afterwards “the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, as it was told unto them.” (Luke 2:20).

The good shepherd

The leaders of Israel, kings as well as prophets and priests, were sometimes referred to as shepherds because they were responsible for the safety and well-being of God’s people. God condemned the shepherds of Israel and said, “Woe be to the shepherds of Israel that do feed themselves! should not the shepherds feed the flock? Ye eat the fat, and ye clothe you with wool, ye kill them that are fed: but ye feed not the flock” (Ezekiel 34:2-3). King Zedekiah in particular proved to be a worthless shepherd. When Jerusalem was attacked by Nebuchadnezzar, the desperate king fled by night with his army into the desert and left the people of Jerusalem to starve to death (Destruction of Jerusalem 586 B.C.).

Using the metaphor of sheep that were scattered (Ezekiel 34:5), Ezekiel blamed the exile and dispersion of the Jews on a lack of leadership in God’s kingdom. He said, “because there was no shepherd, neither did my shepherds search for my flock, but the shepherds fed themselves, and fed not my flock…Thus saith the Lord GOD; Behold, I am against the shepherds; and I will require my flock at their hand, and cause them to cease from feeding the flock” (Ezekiel 34:8-10). God promised to seek out his flock and to himself become their shepherd (Ezekiel 34:11-12). He said of the Messiah, “And I will set up one shepherd over them, and he shall feed them, even my servant David; he shall feed them, and he shall be their shepherd. And I the LORD will be their God, and my servant David a prince among them, I the LORD have spoken it” (Ezekiel 34:23-24).

Jesus referred to himself as the good shepherd and talked about entering in by the door of the sheepfold (John 10). In order to differentiate himself from the leaders of the Old Testament, Jesus said, “But he that entereth in by the door is the shepherd of the sheep. To him the porter openeth; and the sheep hear his voice: and he calleth his own sheep by name, and leadeth them out” (John 10:2-3). Jesus’ reference to calling his own by name implied the existence of a relationship, a personal relationship in which a recognition of his voice was possible. The leaders of the Old Testament did not associate with the common or average people with the exception of king David who was himself a shepherd before he became king. It is possible God chose David to be the king of Israel for that very reason.

Jesus’ explanation of his role as the good shepherd pointed to the salvation of his people. He said, “Verily, verily, I say unto you, I am the door of the sheep. All that ever came before me are thieves and robbers: but the sheep did not hear them. I am the door: by me if any man enter in, he shall be saved, and shall go in and out, and find pasture” (John 10:7-9). Although Jesus’ reference to being saved included both Jews and Gentiles, his primary concern was the nation of Israel which had been lost due to mismanagement of God’s kingdom. Jesus said, “I am the good shepherd: the good shepherd giveth his life for the sheep” (John 10:11). Ultimately, Jesus’ death served the purpose of setting God’s people free from the political and religious influences that blinded them to God’s love. Ezekiel concluded, “Thus shall they know that I the LORD their God am with them, and that they, even the house of Israel, are my people, saith the Lord GOD” (Ezekiel 34:30).