“I am the good shepherd,” Jesus said. “I know my own, and my own know me” (John 10:14 NAS).
Throughout the Bible, God illustrates his relationship with his people as a Good Shepherd caring for his flock of sheep. From the early days of the patriarch Jacob (or Israel, as he was known in his later years), God was viewed as a shepherd of his people. When the man Israel was in his last days on earth, he told his son Joseph this: “God…has been my shepherd all my life to this day” (Genesis 48:15).
The prophet Isaiah said of the Lord: “Like a shepherd He will tend His flock; in His arm He will gather the lambs and carry them in His bosom. He will gently lead the nursing ewes” (Isaiah 40:11, NAS).
It is true that throughout the Scripture, the Lord is seen as a God who is concerned for the individual, but in addition to that, he is shepherd of his whole flock.
In our present day, with so much emphasis on individual perspectives, we do not speak or think much in terms of the whole church as a flock. Our emphasis is more on the specific aspects that exist for the individuals within the church. We think more about our individual needs.
Because of this, it is easy for us to lose sight of how important the concept of the flock is to God. We are often less interested in the importance of the whole of the Christian church and instead more captivated by programs of self-betterment and individual goals and achievements. These may also be worthy pursuits, but they can easily become centered only on self. It is true that we, as individuals, are important, but it is also important to see the grander perspective of God.
In God’s kingdom, the two perspectives of the individual and the group are interrelated. In God’s kingdom, the individual only can reach his or her highest potential as he or she finds their place in a relationship with others.
This often goes contrary to our western culture, where we place an excessively high value on individualism and self-fulfillment. We react against depersonalization, and often for good reason. To our dismay, we are commonly identified only by our social security number or a bar code printed on our driver’s license. Our number is more important than our name. However, it is precisely because of this negative reaction to depersonalization and because of this concern, that the understanding of the concept of the flock is important to us.
Lest we think that to God we are only nameless cogs in some great heavenly machine, or that we are merely a nine-digit number in some sort of divine organizational system, God calls us the sheep of his flock, and himself, the Good Shepherd. There is no depersonalization in the flock of the Good Shepherd. Despite the fact that we are part of the larger flock, we are also important as individuals.
“What do you think?” Jesus asked, “If any man has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go and search for the one that is straying? And if it turns out that he finds it, truly I say to you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine which have not gone astray” (Matthew 18:12-13 NAS).
It is true that the individual is supremely important to God, but we have lost much of the perspective that shows us that the flock is also important. For us today, much of the importance of the flock has been sacrificed on the altar of individualism and self-fulfillment. We are often so absorbed in our quest of some undefined feeling of self-importance and self-worth, that we have relatively little regard for the flock. I am afraid that it has often been our undoing in the church. It has led to many scandals and failures in our churches. It has led also to hurt feelings and fighting within the church.
What is even more frightening about our misplaced goals is that when we come to the end of our quest for individual self-fulfillment, we only find that our total absorption with self has not brought us closer to the satisfaction and happiness that we seek. In the end of it all, we are often so disoriented as to who we are as individuals that we are no longer even able to identify what our goal was in the first place. Like the one-hundredth sheep in the story Jesus told, at the end of all our wanderings, we come to realize that we are still without a clear idea of our own identity and without direction in our lives. We are simply alone and in the wilderness.
The Flock That Follows the Shepherd
We have seen in other parts of Scripture that the people of God are defined in various ways in the Bible. However, of all of the illustrations for the people of God that we find, there is none so endearing as the Shepherd with his flock. This comparison is again brought out in the exodus of the Jewish people. As it was written of this event: “You led your people like a flock by the hand of Moses and Aaron” (Psalm 77:20 NAS).
Indeed, wherever we find reference to a flock in the Bible, it is always in connection with a shepherd. It must be this way, for without a shepherd, the sheep are merely many individuals in proximity to one another. Like being in a crowded airport, you may be in the presence of many people who are all going somewhere, but you are still very much alone. In this condition, the sheep also are left without a relationship to one another. However, if they have a shepherd, they are a flock.
In the exodus of the Israelites out of the land of Egypt, as this great band of people followed the lead of Moses and Aaron, this multitude seemed like a mighty army and a great invasion force to the people of some of the countries through which the Israelites traveled. From the perspective of God, however, the Israelites were his flock being led through the wilderness. Indeed, with Moses, the leader of the people at the front and the people following behind, it seems to me that from above it must have looked very much like a shepherd with his flock.
And it was not only from above that the similarity of a shepherd with a flock was evident. Prior to leading the Israelites out of Egypt, Moses had been in the wilderness for forty years, shepherding the sheep and goats of his father-in-law. The care and leadership that Moses gave to the people as he led the Israelites must have reminded him of the days when he cared for sheep in the wilderness.
So much did Moses think of himself in terms of a shepherd for the people, that when he learned that he was soon to die, his concern was for the flock of Israel. The request that Moses asked of God was that God would “appoint a man over the congregation, who will go out and come in before them, and who will lead them out and bring them in, that the congregation of the Lord may not be like sheep which have no shepherd” (Numbers 27:16-17 NAS).
Viewing Situations from a Shepherd’s Perspective
David also knew well what it was to be a shepherd. While his brothers were preparing themselves for warfare, David was in the pastures caring for his father’s flock. Before David led the nation of Israel as king, this young boy first learned how to care for his father’s sheep. This training in the field gave David the preparation that he needed to recognize and deal with predators of his flock.
The predator of Israel in the days of young David was not a wolf or a bear, but the army of the Philistines, and most notably, the giant, Goliath. To the army of the Israelites, these foes were insurmountable. At one point of conflict between the two armies, they were confronting one another in the valley of Elah, which was some twenty miles west of the city of Bethlehem. The Philistine army was on a mountain on one side of the valley, and the Israelite army was encamped on another mountain, on the opposite side. The valley lay in between the two armies.
Every day, both in the morning and in the evening, the giant, Goliath, would step forward and taunt the army of Israel. “Am I not the Philistine and you servants of Saul?” the giant shouted—
Choose a man for yourselves and let him come down to me. If he is able to fight with me and kill me, then we will become your servants; but if I prevail against him and kill him, then you shall become our servants and serve us. I defy the ranks of Israel this day; give me a man that we may fight together.
1 Samuel 17:8-10 (NAS)
For forty days the giant shouted his insults. The reaction of the Israelites to this threat was much like sheep without a shepherd. They simply wanted to flee. We read that these Israelite warriors, threatened by the presence of Goliath, “fled from him and were greatly afraid” (1 Samuel 17:24).
The difficulty here was that the army of the Israelites was looking upon their opponents strictly from a militaristic perspective. From their point of view, it was simply a question of which army had the greatest force. From the perspective of where they stood as they compared their army with that of their enemy, it was the Philistines, especially with their champion, Goliath, who were the stronger of the two armies.
When David came upon the scene, however, he immediately viewed the situation from the perspective of a shepherd. After all, he had just come from his father’s flock to the battlefront, and he had only come to bring provisions for his brothers. To David, rather than seeing Goliath as a warrior, he looked upon the giant as if he were a lion or a bear who was threatening to scatter the people of God. In fact, it was exactly this perspective that David used to convince King Saul to give him permission to go against the battle-hardened giant, even though he was only a young shepherd and inexperienced in warfare.
David said to Saul,
Your servant was tending his father’s sheep. When a lion or a bear came and took a lamb from the flock, I went out after him and attacked him, and rescued it from his mouth; and when he rose up against me, I seized him by his beard and struck him and killed him. Your servant has killed both the lion and the bear; and this uncircumcised Philistine will be like one of them, since he has taunted the armies of the living God.
1 Samuel 17:34-36 (NAS)
David’s reasoning and experience made sense to King Saul. Goliath was as a predator, threatening the army of the Israelites. Because of this, the king allowed the young shepherd to go to battle against the giant, even though the fate of the entire Israelite army was at stake (1 Samuel 17:9).
Of course, we remember the outcome of that confrontation. David told the giant that the Lord does not deliver by sword or by spear. Young David said to Goliath, “The battle is the Lord’s” (1 Samuel 17:47).
Later in life, I am sure that David must have thought of this very incident when he wrote the words, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want…even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil, for You are with me” (Psalm 23:1, 4 NAS).
The Good Shepherd
The comparisons of the people of God to a flock of sheep continue in the Bible, and we follow the flock on through its pages right up to the time when Jesus, the Good Shepherd, was with his own flock. In all of these stories and illustrations of the Bible, God has loved this picture of the shepherd with his flock, and he uses it to demonstrate to us what his relationship is to his people.
When he was on earth, the flock of Jesus was not a great nation of people. His true followers numbered only a few. Nevertheless, Jesus most definitely viewed himself as a Shepherd in his relationship to his people.
“I am the good shepherd,” Jesus told his little flock—
The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. He who is a hired hand and not a shepherd, who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees, and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. He flees because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the 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 10:12-15 (ESV)
In the same way, it is always God’s love for his flock that motivates him. As the Good Shepherd, God is grieved when he sees his flock being mistreated or mistreating one another. As Jesus walked among the people of his day, he taught the way of the kingdom of God and busied himself with healing those who were sick or infirm. Jesus did this because it is the natural way of a shepherd. We read that Jesus felt compassion for the people because they were “distressed and downcast like sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9:36 NAS).
Seeing this need, Jesus said to those few disciples that were with him, “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Therefore beseech the Lord of the harvest to send out workers into his harvest” (Matthew 9:37-38 NAS).
The Heart of a Shepherd
When Jesus was about to return to the Father, he almost echoed the sentiments of Moses when Moses was about to leave and when he spoke his concern “that the congregation of the Lord may not be like sheep which have no shepherd.”
Shortly before Jesus ascended, he took Peter, his disciple, aside. “Do you love me, Peter?” Jesus asked him this question not once, but three times.
Much has been said about this conversation between Jesus and Peter, why the question was put to Peter three times and the different Greek words that were used for “love,” but it is interesting to hear what Jesus said to Peter after each of Peter’s responses to the questions. Each time the response of Jesus made reference to a shepherd leading and caring for his sheep:
“Tend My lambs.”
“Shepherd My sheep.”
“Tend My sheep” (John 21:15-17).
“Shepherd My sheep.”
“Tend My sheep” (John 21:15-17).
Peter took the responsibility seriously. The apostle, in turn, told the leaders of the church to “shepherd the flock of God.” He told the elders of the churches to shepherd the churches “according to the will of God” and by being “examples to the flock.”
“When the Chief Shepherd appears,” Peter told them, “you will receive the unfading crown of glory” (1 Peter 5:1-4).
The Apostle Paul, though he is known as a great debater and defender of the faith, above all took this matter of the flock seriously. Like Moses and like Peter, and like Jesus himself, Paul was concerned for the flock, and that those who would presume to shepherd the flock, would do so in faithfulness.
Paul told the leaders of the church of Ephesus, “Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood” (Acts 20:28, NAS).
Paul was concerned for the flock and spoke of “savage wolves” that would come and not spare the flock. There would even be those, Paul told the church, who would come right from the midst of their own people and who would deceive the flock and draw the disciples away from the truth. Those who would be the shepherds of these flocks, therefore, must remain alert.
However, in the end, the ability to remain a faithful and capable shepherd cannot merely come from being alert. It must instead come from another source.
The Wisdom of the Shepherd
At Paul’s departure from the leaders of the Ephesian church, he said this: “And now I commend you to God and to the word of His grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified” (Acts 20:32 NAS).
It is the Word of God and God’s grace that will sustain the shepherd.
The relationship of the shepherd with the flock is one that God loves when describing his relationship to his people. With all of our talk and programs of self-improvement and self-realization, we must never lose this perspective of the flock. We are God’s people and the sheep of his pasture (Psalm 100:3).
God does look upon us as individuals, that is true, but we are also his flock. It is in his care and as members of his flock that we find safety and security.
A Shepherd for Eternity
Near the closing of the writings of Scripture, that part which speaks of the end of days and of the eternal state, we again read of the flock. Here, we read that they will dwell in complete security and safety. “Never again will they hunger,” the Scripture tells us, “never again will they thirst. The sun will not beat upon them, nor any scorching heat.”
And there, seated at the center of the throne, will be their shepherd. “He will lead them to springs of living water. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes” (Revelation 7:16-17 NIV).
God is still looking for those who would tend his sheep. He is looking for those who possess the heart of a shepherd. We may look for shepherds with great communication skills or the gift of teaching or perhaps other gifts. These also may be important, but of all of the qualifications for a pastor of the sheep, having a heart of a shepherd is the greatest of them all.
Behold, the Lord GOD will come with might, with His arm ruling for Him. Behold, His reward is with Him, and His recompense before Him. Like a shepherd He will tend His flock, in His arm He will gather the lambs, and carry them in His bosom; He will gently lead the nursing ewes.
Isaiah 40:10-11 (NAS)