The pastoral imagery of a shepherd guiding his sheep is commonly found throughout the Bible. In Old Testament times, the occupation of a shepherd was held by the Patriarchs, such as Abraham and Jacob.
One of the most well-known shepherds in Israel mentioned in Scripture was David, who was the youngest in his family but was chosen by God to become the greatest king in Israel’s history (1 Samuel 16:11-12). Not only was shepherding a common occupation in the Old Testament but God is also referred to as the Shepherd of His people (Jeremiah 31:10).
By New Testament times, however, the occupation of shepherding sheep was looked down upon because of Israel’s shift to an agricultural lifestyle. Thus, angels appearing to shepherds to declare the good news of the Messiah’s birth would have been very surprising and unexpected to the Israelites at that time (Luke 2:8-20).
Significantly, Jesus regularly identified with the lowly and the outcasts during His ministry, as first exemplified with the shepherds at His birth. Using the imagery from the Old Testament, Christ declared Himself to be the Good Shepherd (John 10:11), which shows He is God (Psalm 23:1; Ezekiel 34:12).
Jesus is the Great Shepherd of our souls, who laid down His life to save us (Hebrews 13:20). Furthermore, He cares for His sheep as He guides and protects us in the paths of life, steadily leading us home.
The Good Shepherd Who Lays Down His Life
Shepherds who deeply care for their sheep protect them at all costs. An example of this is found in David’s experience when he fought and killed a lion and a bear to protect his flock (1 Samuel 17:34-36).
Good shepherds willingly put their lives at risk to protect their sheep from harm and death, unlike hired hands (John 10:12-13). Jesus, the Good Shepherd, not only risked His life for His sheep but willingly laid down His life. As He said, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10:11).
Christ died on the cross to bear the punishment for all the sins of humankind. Although the Jewish people handed Him over to the Romans to be killed, Jesus is the One who gave up His life. No one took it from Him (John 10:17-18).
As conveyed in the Parable of the Lost Sheep, Jesus came to save the lost (Matthew 18:10-14; Luke 15:3-7). He left the ninety-nine “sheep” to save the one who was lost, which correlates with His stated mission to “seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10).
Rejoicing should be the response to Jesus’ saving work, just as there is great celebrating in heaven over a sinner that is saved (Luke 15:6-7). Believers can rejoice that their Shepherd loved them so much to sacrifice His life for them. There is no greater love than this (John 15:13).
Caring for His Sheep
Once a person has Jesus as their Shepherd, they receive His gentle care. Christ never leaves us as orphans without help (John 14:18). Instead, He is the Shepherd of our souls who gives ongoing support and love.
He promises to never leave His followers and instead walks with them throughout their whole life, even into the “valley of the shadow of death” (Psalm 23:4, ESV). The circumstances and tasks of life may prove difficult and challenging, but Christ gives the wonderful assurance that He is always with His followers “to the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:20, NIV).
Psalm 23 describes in beautiful imagery and language the care that the Lord gives to His “sheep.” He gives spiritual nourishment to believers, which is shown in the imagery of a flock being led to green pastures (Psalm 23:2).
Instead of feeding on grass, followers of Jesus find nourishment in His Word (Psalm 119:103; Hebrews 5:12-14; 1 Peter 2:2). Also, just as a shepherd leads his flock to calm waters so as not to scare the sheep, Christ supplies refreshment when His followers are weary and in need of rest (Psalm 23:2-3).
The Lord not only brought salvation but also desires abundant life for His followers (John 10:10). As He said, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Matthew 10:28-29). His care is all-encompassing, which is why people lack nothing when they know Jesus (Psalm 23:1).
Guiding and Protecting His Flock
Jesus is also our Shepherd because He guides His flock. For His own namesake, He guides believers in the way they should go (Psalm 23:3). Experienced shepherds know the best routes to take their sheep and can lead them home without harm from dangerous animals or terrain.
Likewise, believers should always look to Christ for guidance because His plan is always best. The Lord promises to guide and instruct His followers when they seek His counsel (Psalm 32:8; Isaiah 48:17).
To help guide believers, the Lord has given His Word, the Holy Spirit, and the church. Like the guiding light of a lamp, the Bible gives direction to believers’ lives (Psalm 119:105). The Holy Spirit will also help believers understand Scripture and will provide discernment since He is the promised Helper, Counselor, and Comforter (John 14:26; 16:7).
Pastors or overseers can also provide guidance since they are entrusted with the task of shepherding local gatherings of believers (1 Peter 5:2-3). This task was given to them by the Chief Shepherd, who will reward overseers for the job they have done (1 Peter 5:4).
As appointed shepherds, pastors are to guard the truth and protect their local congregation against false teachings from “wolves” that try to sneak into the flock (Acts 20:28-29). The Apostle Paul personally emphasized the solemnity of being a shepherd under the Great Shepherd because he repeatedly warned Timothy to hold to the sound teaching of Scripture (1 Timothy 1:13-14; 2 Timothy 2:2; 3:14).
In addition to providing guidance, Jesus also protects His flock. Jesus does use overseers to protect His followers from falsehood, but also personally protects believers. Shepherds in Old Testament times carried a rod and staff to guide their sheep and to protect against attacks from animals. David uses this imagery of the shepherd’s rod and staff to convey the comfort he received from God’s ongoing protection and presence (Psalm 23:4).
When believers are in trouble or facing a spiritual attack, they can turn to Jesus for help (James 5:7). He has defeated the devil and triumphed over the spirits of darkness (John 12:31; Colossians 2:15; 1 John 3:8). Christ will defend His beloved “sheep” and guide them safely home (see 2 Timothy 4:18).
Jesus Our Shepherd
Reading passages like Psalm 23 and John 10 enables believers to understand why God chose to use the image of a Shepherd to represent His relationship to His followers. As the Good Shepherd, Jesus willingly and sacrificially laid down His life to offer salvation to all who believe in His death and resurrection.
The blessing of experiencing salvation overflows into the rest of a person’s life since Jesus continues to act in His shepherding role by caring, guiding, and protecting His cherished “sheep.” As the Shepherd of our souls, Christ will never leave us. He will continue to guide us through the green pastures and dark valleys of life until we reach our heavenly, eternal home.
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Sophia Bricker is a freelance writer who enjoys researching and writing articles on biblical and theological topics. In addition to contributing articles about biblical questions as a contract writer, she has also written for Unlocked devotional. Holding a Bachelor of Arts in Ministry and currently pursuing a Master of Arts in Ministry, she is passionate about the Bible and her faith in Jesus. When she isn’t busy studying or writing, Sophia enjoys spending time with family, reading, drawing, and gardening.