The Bible is filled with references to shepherds and sheep. While sometimes a sheep is just a sheep, a lot of the time, the term is used as a symbol for human followers in dire need of someone to lead them. See, on their own, sheep (like people) are kind of a mess. They need guidance, provision, and protection to survive and thrive. In the Old Testament, King David compared the Lord to a Shepherd. In the New Testament, Jesus is called the Good Shepherd in John 10:14, the Chief Shepherd in 1 Peter 5:4, the Great Shepherd in Hebrews 13:20, and the One Shepherd in John 10:16. When we look at 5 characteristics of shepherds, we can better understand this metaphor.
Shepherds Are Leaders
The main job of shepherds is to lead their sheep. They would start each morning by gathering their sheep from the sheepfold, a protected area where the animals slept for the night. Then they would lead their sheep to the best grazing land for the time of year. Otherwise, left to their own devices, sheep would graze the same land over and over, leaving them emaciated and malnourished.
Shepherds would also lead the sheep to to water, which was sometimes hard to find in the desert. The water would have to be as still as possible since sheep are afraid of moving water and might fall in and drown. After a cool drink, the sheep would need some time to rest for digestion to occur. Finally, shepherds would lead their sheep back to the sheepfold where they would be protected for the night. Of course, the sheep would follow because they had learned to trust their shepherd as a source of care.
Jesus is Our Leader
Like a Shepherd, God gathers His sheep unto Himself. In John 6:44, Jesus tells us that no one can come to Him unless he/she is drawn by God. After salvation, He leads us to nourishment and growth as Christians by providing the Word of God for us to feed upon. Hebrews 5:12 tells us that we start with milk, the first and most basic concepts of the Gospel. And then we move on to meat, the deeper and more complicated teachings. Just like sheep who would overgraze an area, some Christians need a little prodding to move from milk to meat.
Jesus also leads us to Living Water. In John 7:37. Jesus says, “’If anyone thirsts, let him come to Me and drink.” He is speaking of the Holy Spirit Who is imparted to believers at salvation. God also insists that we rest. That means that we cease from our worry and trust in Him. Proverbs 3:5-6 says to, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He shall direct your paths.” According to Hebrews 4:3a, those who believe in Him (trust Him) will be at rest.
Finally, just like a shepherd who leads and guides his flocks by night, Jesus lights our way in this world. In John 8:12, Jesus says, “’I am the light of the world. He who follows Me shall not walk in darkness but have the light of life.’” Those who belong to Him hear Him, and they allow Him to lead them. John 8:47a says, “He who is of God hears God’s words.” And Romans 8:14 tells us that “For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God.”
Shepherds Are Providers
But food, water, rest, and shelter are just the beginning of the care provided by shepherds. Shepherds also provide grooming services. They make sure their sheep are free from dirt and contaminants and keep their wool shorn close. Otherwise, the sheep can get weighted down and even lose eyesight or freedom of movement when the wool grows too long.
Shepherds also provide medical care for injuries sustained by the sheep’s own careless behavior and preventative measures for sunstroke and pests. A shepherd is trained to handle scratches, cuts, and sprains. He also cares for the sheep by applying oil to sheep’s head, accomplishing two things. The oil both prevents sunstroke and wards off pests such as flies, fleas, and other parasites. It does that by dripping into the eyes, ears, and nose, repelling the insects from those areas.
Jesus is Our Provider
Jesus certainly makes sure that all our earthly needs are met just as Philippians 4:19 says. He also provides for our spiritual needs through His blood. It cleanses us and provides our justification (1 Corinthians 6:11). But while salvation is in a moment, growth and maturity in God is an on-going work. 2 Corinthians 3:18 says we are “being transformed” into His image. God must teach us and even discipline us when necessary for our own good (Hebrews 12:10). In a metaphor similar to the sheering of sheep, John 15:2 speaks of branches that bear fruit being pruned so that more fruit can grow. In this way, we can be fit for His use.
God has always been a healer all throughout the Old and New Testaments. But in Matthew 9:12, Mark 2:17, and Luke 4:23 and 5:31, Jesus likens Himself to a physician. He heals the broken hearted and binds up their wounds (Psalm 147:3). He also anoints His people. In ancient Israel, when God wanted to appoint a new king or priest, the man would be anointed with oil on his head. This was a sign of God’s blessing and meant the man was chosen and set apart to do the job God called him to do. It’s also another symbol of the Holy Spirit. In Isaiah 10:27, we find that it is the anointing that destroys the yoke. That means that it is God’s Spirit Who breaks the yoke of sin and Satan (represented by the pests).
Shepherds Are Protectors
Insects are just one of the many problems faced by sheep. Shepherds must always be watching for danger. Sheep on their own don’t have any natural defenses. They don’t fight back, run, or hide when faced with predators, and they aren’t wise enough to avoid things like poisonous plants or puddles containing parasites. Alert shepherds carried a rod to ward off predators. That’s a long, sturdy stick with nails poking out of the end. They also often carried a sling in their leather pouch (two cords put together with a receptacle of leather), much like the one David used to fight Goliath. When necessary, a shepherd could redirect sheep with a stone slung nearby the animal to startle it back into areas of safety.
Jesus is Our Protector
As Christians, we know that we are in a spiritual battle, surrounded with dangers on all sides. On our own, we are outmatched by Satan’s forces with their vast resources and centuries of experience. We, on the other hand, have a Protector Who is superior to the devil in every area. 1 Samuel 2:9 says that the Lord will “guard the feet of His saints.” In fact, the Bible is filled with passages about the Lord promising to fight for His people (such as Exodus 14:14) if we will wait for Him to save us (like Proverbs 20:22). We also have the Holy Spirit in us to alert us to dangers such as false teachers and bad doctrine (poison and parasites). And we know that 1 John 4:4 says that greater is He who is in us than he who is in the world.
Shepherds Are Saviors
Actually, the greatest danger sheep have to face is their own foolishness and tendency to wander. They often keep their noses to the ground following a trail of grass, oblivious to their own separation from the rest of the flock until it’s too late. A lost, panicky sheep could not find its way back home by itself. Instead, the shepherd had to leave the other animals to search for the one. In extreme cases in which a particular sheep had wandered off several times, the shepherd might even break its leg and then nurse it back to health, carrying it for a time until it was stronger. Once healed, the sheep would not stray from its shepherd’s side again.
Jesus Is Our Savior
It’s true that Christians have been bought by the blood of Jesus and saved from our old sin nature. It’s also true that Jesus continues to save us from our own foolishness. If we ever wander out of the Way, He will come for us and guide us back onto the path. In extreme cases, He can even allow us to fall into hardship to teach us to follow Him more closely. But He never leaves us alone during that time. Instead, He stays with us, teaching us dependence on Him for comfort and care.
Shepherds Are Sheep Lovers
Shepherds spent their days with the sheep, watched out for them, cared for their wounds, and protected them. They were tender with those who were hurt or lost and would guard birthing mothers, carrying the newborn lambs on their shoulders until they were able to walk to the pastures on their own. In fact, they knew their flock so intimately that it was said that a shepherd could tell which lamb went with which nursing mother even in the dark just by feeling its head.
Shepherds loved their sheep with a self-sacrificing love that sometimes required losing sleep or other comforts to make sure their sheep were taken care of. They called their own sheep by name, and the sheep knew their shepherds and wouldn’t trust or follow another. Since they knew that their sheep couldn’t go out and come in on their own, the Shepherds took upon themselves the responsibility of bringing them home.
Jesus Loves His Own
Psalm 139 is the perfect description of God’s shepherding relationship to us as His sheep. He knows us intimately and still cares for us. He chose us and drew us to Himself because He loves us with an everlasting love (Jeremiah 31:3). In fact, there is no greater love than one who lays down His life (John 15:13). His Spirit helps us when we are weak (Romans 8:26), and His grace is sufficient (2 Corinthians 12:9).
Jesus promises to be with us always (Matthew 28:28), never to leave us nor forsake us (Hebrews 13:5). We trust Him, and another we will not follow (John 6:68). And just like shepherds know their sheep’s weaknesses, our Shepherd knows us as well. Jude 24 reminds us that He is able to keep our feet from stumbling and present us faultless before God. He is the author and the finisher of our faith (Hebrews 12:2), and He who has begun a good work will continue to completion (Philippians 1:6). He protects us so that no one can snatch us out of His hand (John 10:28-29).
Christian Sheep Need a Shepherd
In a world that tells us that we must take care of ourselves, what a comfort it is to remember that we are not alone. We have a Savior who drew us, leads us, provides for us, protects us, and loves us. He understands our limitations and the great forces that would come against us. Jesus is always watching and always willing to lead us and teach us the lessons we need when we submit to Him as our Lord. He takes care of our wounds and calls us by name. We follow Him and trust Him to lead us Home.
Check out a short devotional on Psalm 23 in this week’s Summer Psalms Series for Teens and Adults where we find out why King David says, “The Lord is my Shepherd.” Have you ever noticed the SHIFT in the middle?
Or, like articles about shepherds and sheep? Try Why Are Christians Compared to Sheep? Please sign up to receive my blog in your email inbox. You can find that at the upper right of your screen (or at the bottom on a phone). Also, check out my YouTube Channel where I read the blogs out loud. I also have a playlist of hymns from my church.