We’ve all seen paintings, stained glass windows, and statues of Jesus with a staff in his hand, lovingly carrying a lamb on his shoulder. It’s an image that resonates with us because Jesus identified himself as the Good Shepherd, and we often think of ourselves as the lamb he has found and rescued. Maybe these bucolic images are also appealing because of the contrast they offer to the fast-paced, high-tech world we live in today.
But beyond just a beautiful image, this title of Good Shepherd reveals aspects of who Jesus is and how he wants us to relate to him. During the Easter season, when we celebrate Good Shepherd Sunday, we want to delve more deeply into what it means for Jesus to be our Shepherd. We want to see how this title can give us a fresh way of understanding God’s heart and his ardent desire to shepherd us.
The Father as a Shepherd. It’s not surprising that the prophets of ancient Israel would refer to God as a shepherd. After all, they lived in an agrarian culture and were very familiar with sheepherding practices, which required the constant presence of a shepherd to watch over and care for his flock. In just the same way, the prophet Isaiah wrote, God cares for us:
Like a shepherd he feeds his flock;
in his arms he gathers the lambs,
Carrying them in his bosom,
leading the ewes with care. (Isaiah 40:11)
God’s love and tender care for his flock stood in sharp contrast to many of Israel’s shepherds—the kings and religious leaders who had at times abused their power and used it for their own gain. As the prophet Ezekiel said, “Woe to the shepherds of Israel who have been pasturing themselves!” (34:2). But through Ezekiel, God promised that he would take their place: “I myself will pasture my sheep; I myself will give them rest. . . . The lost I will search out, the strays I will bring back, the injured I will bind up, and the sick I will heal” (34:15, 16).
God would fulfill this promise through the very real Person of his beloved Son. The Father would “raise up a righteous branch for David” in place of the negligent shepherds, the prophet Jeremiah wrote (23:5). Jesus, Son of David, would shepherd his people in his Father’s name, searching out the lost, healing the sick, and bringing them back to his fold.
We Are the Sheep. In order to fully understand Jesus’ role as the Good Shepherd, let’s first take a step back and see how we sometimes resemble sheep. These farm animals are not known for their keen intelligence. They tend to follow one another mindlessly. They can’t find good pasture or fresh sources of drinking water on their own. They have no way of protecting themselves against predators. Without their shepherd, they would quickly perish.
We are smarter than sheep, of course, but not as smart as we sometimes think! We are inclined to believe that we are self-sufficient and can succeed on our own strength. We tend to look only to the things of this world to quench our thirst and satisfy our hunger, things that don’t really satisfy us; sometimes we pursue things that actually hurt us. We aren’t always aware of the evil around us, or even if we are, we don’t have the strength to protect ourselves.
The truth is, we all need God’s guidance and protection, although we don’t always recognize it. But unless we allow Jesus to lead us, he won’t be the Good Shepherd for us, personally. In order for him to truly shepherd us, we have to give him permission to guide us. This is not a onetime yes but an ongoing work of conversion in our lives. We have to decide to follow the Good Shepherd so that we can say yes to him over and over again, wherever he is leading us. The Good Shepherd wants to guide us every day.
Called by Name. In chapter 10 of John’s Gospel, Jesus tells us that he is the Good Shepherd who “calls his own sheep by name and leads them out” (10:3). Just think—there are so many sheep, and yet Jesus knows you by name, and he always has. Stop for a minute and imagine Jesus calling your name. Listen to the sound of his voice as he calls you. What a joy it is to be welcomed by the Shepherd, who already knows you and wants you to come to know him more and more each day! As he said, “I know mine and mine know me” (10:14).
Not only does Jesus call us by name, but he also promises that “whoever enters through me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture” (John 10:9). Once we’ve heard Jesus calling our name and decide to follow him, we can let go of our anxieties and worries. We are with Jesus, our Shepherd! He protects us from every evil and leads us to lush pastures where we can become strong and bear fruit for him. This is the “abundant life” Jesus promises (see 10:10). The Good Shepherd not only gives us life, but a life that spills over with goodness and plenty.
“I Lay Down My Life.” Jesus tells us that a good shepherd is prepared to go to any lengths to protect his sheep—even to the laying down of his life (John 10:11). A hired hand would desert the sheep when a wolf comes to attack them, but Jesus will pay the ultimate price to rescue his sheep (10:12). That’s how much he loves us. That’s how willing he is to sacrifice himself in order to save us: “I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down on my own” (10:17-18). He does it freely out of love for his Father and for each one of us.
Brothers and sisters, this is our Good Shepherd! In using this title, he shows us who he is and what he is about. This is why we can trust him with all that we are and have. We can be in no better place than in God’s flock as we follow him and learn to recognize his voice (John 10:4).
The Lost Sheep. We are all familiar with Jesus’ parable of the lost sheep (Luke 15:1-7). Jesus told this story to show the Pharisees that the tax collectors and “sinners” who gathered around to listen to him were lost sheep that his Father loved and wanted to save. The shepherd in Jesus’ parable left the ninety-nine to look for and rescue just one lost sheep. Maybe there was a time in your life when you were that sheep whom Jesus rescued and called to himself. And when you returned to him, all of heaven rejoiced (15:7).
But however you came to Jesus—whether dramatically or over time, whether recently or many years ago—it takes a lifetime to learn to recognize the Shepherd’s voice and do what he says. In his book A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23, W. Philip Keller writes about his years as a sheep farmer. Describing the different personalities of his ewes, he noted that some were particularly stubborn. One, whom he called “Mrs. Gad-about,” was constantly trying to escape into the neighboring pasture, even though it was dry and withered compared to his own green and thriving pasture. Another ewe would insist on drinking dirty, germ-infested water when there was plenty of clear drinking water only a few yards ahead.
We all possess stubborn streaks that keep us from following God’s wisdom and guidance. We can sometimes be attracted to polluted waters or to things outside the sheepfold. When we stray, the Good Shepherd calls us back to him, away from the dangers we face. He has already laid down his life for us. He has already paid the price for us, and he doesn’t want to lose us. He wants to take care of us. He is ever ready to forgive us and welcome us back when we return to him.
Our Shepherd Is Good. Good shepherds lead, guide, nourish, and protect. This is who Jesus is and why he calls himself the Good Shepherd. This is what he longs to do for you and me—and for every human being. He won’t ever force us to follow him, and yet he offers us freedom and an abundant life inside his fold. May we always recognize his voice calling out to us, and may we always say yes to that call.