Many of the metaphors in the Bible were deployed to help communicate essential truths to a (now) ancient audience. For instance, God as our “shepherd” had such a straight-forward significance to Jewish people living in the ancient near east thousands of years ago. Genesis 48:15 records Jacob blessing Joseph and calling God “my shepherd all my life to this day.” Psalm 28:9 connects the idea of God as a shepherd with God as a savior. And of course, Psalm 23:1 famously says: “The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing.” While the metaphor seems primitive, the message is just as true for us as it was for them.
So, how do we understand the power of God being our “shepherd”?
Here are three ways in which we can bridge the gap between then and now, and grasp the significance of God being our shepherd.
1. Jesus is the “Good Shepherd,” which is made emphatically clear in John 10:7-18. We must start here, otherwise, we may think this is some auxiliary, secondary sort of title for Jesus. But, drawing on the Old Testament, especially passages like Psalm 23 and Isaiah 40:11, we see that it illustrates some ways in which the Lord cares for us (see points 2 & 3). First, we need to understand that we actually have a shepherd in our lives—we aren’t left alone to wander the earth and try to navigate the messiness of life. We have an actual Shepherd with us for the entire journey. And not just any shepherd, it’s a “good” shepherd, the best (and most perfect) one actually—Jesus.
2. As the Good Shepherd, Jesus protects us. If we picture shepherds as well-groomed, delicate, and even weak persons—think again! They were strong, vigilant, and brave. Once while driving in Ireland on a vacation I nearly hit a few of the sheep of the outer flock. But a shepherd stepped in the path and with his commanding presence and guidance, he led the sheep down the road and out of the pathway of cars. It was quite the scene. Think also about David (yep, the same one that soon became the greatest king of Israel). David’s first job before being “king” was as a shepherd—a role that would actually help prepare him for kingship! In 1 Samuel 17:34-37, David recounts his adventures as a shepherd, including killing a lion and a bear in order to protect his vulnerable flock!
34 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, 35 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. 36 Your servant has killed both the lion and the bear; this uncircumcised Philistine will be like one of them…
Who would want to stand in this shepherd’s way? Let’s now think about this as a “how much more” analogy:
If David (a mere human) could protect his flock from lions and bears, what could possibly snatch us from the strong hand of Jesus?
According to John 10:27-28, no one can snatch us from His grasp!
27 My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. 28 I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand.
Jesus gives us eternal life and no one can rob us of that. As a shepherd to his sheep, Jesus views it as His personal responsibility to safeguard our journey homeward. In fact, life as a whole really is a journey (as the excellent book The Pilgrim’s Progress illustrates so well) toward eternity with out Shepherd, which is an excellent segway to the third point…
3. As the Good Shepherd, Jesus leads us every step of the journey. This is perhaps the most fundamental truth to grasp here. The terrain may feel unfamiliar. Our feet may grow weary. And fears may cast doubt on our ability to keep following the shepherd’s leading. But these are the times we have to remember the shepherd knows the path better than us. Like sheep following a shepherd, we can trust God’s leading because He knows the way!
“How about being a mom of four, can He lead me through that?” Yes, He can. What about at my workplace, where I feel extremely undervalued, can He help me navigate that?” He was the epitome of being underappreciated! So, yes, He can! And I am sure we can think of a long list of “what about’s” and other scenarios. Whatever the circumstance, by His Spirit He can and will direct us.
Jesus leads from the front. He never asks us to take the first step. That’s why we refer to our walk with Him as “following” Him; because He goes before us! We follow after the trail He has pioneered.
Now, we can have confidence regarding all of what we may fear on the trail ahead. Even death, the greatest unknown to us, has been known by Jesus. But Jesus treated death as a hostile enemy, as something that threatened His sheep. Yes, Jesus confronted death itself and conquered it. Now, you and I and all who trust Him, encounter death as a passageway to traverse, not a dead end to our journey.
Some concluding thoughts:
In a world obsessed with talking about leadership, we need more conversations about followership. After all, the best leaders are first and foremost followers—followers of Jesus, the Good Shepherd.
And even when we may grow to live according to His example, shepherding others, we never outgrow having Him as the chief shepherd of all God’s people.