The Good Shepherd

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There are lots of metaphors for our relationship with God, aren’t there? Father/children, groom/bride, vine/branches, and the list goes on. I think my favorite one, though, is that of the Good Shepherd and his sheep.


 Photo credit: Giulio Bernardi on Flickr

The metaphor tells us a lot about who God is but also a lot about who we are. Knowing those two things tells us in turn what our relationship with God should look like. I want to take a quick look at that with this post. There are two main chunks of scripture that talk about this metaphor, one in John and one in Psalms. They each correlate with a certain aspect of the relationship displayed in this analogy. So without further ado…

What does a shepherd do? (John 10:1-18)

  • Speaks to his sheep (verse 3). The sheep is able to recognize its shepherd’s voice only because the shepherd talks to it! In the same way, we become able to recognize God’s voice not because of any special ability that we have but because he takes the time to talk to us. He gives us ample opportunities to listen to his voice, and we become able to discern it from other voices as time goes on.
  • Leads his sheep (verse 4). He goes before his flock and makes sure the way is safe. Then he leads them. He doesn’t expect the flock to somehow know where to go without his help. He guides them in the way he’s mapped out for them. God does the same for us. He’s mapped out places for us to go and things for us to do (Ephesians 2:10). He doesn’t expect us to do it on our own… Thank goodness.
  • Lays down his life for his sheep (verse 11). In Biblical times, sheep were really valuable. A shepherd would definitely not want to lose one of his sheep. They would often go to great lengths to protect their valuable flocks. Check out what David told Saul before he fought Goliath in 1 Samuel 17:34-36: “But David said to Saul, ‘Your servant used to keep sheep for his father. And when there came a lion or a bear and took a lamb from the flock, I went out after him and struck him and delivered it out of his mouth. And if he arose against me, I caught him by his beard and struck him and killed him. Your servant has killed both lions and bears, and this uncircumcised Philistine shall be like one of them, for he has defied the armies of the living God” (ESV). Isn’t that legit?! David literally risked his life by fighting lions and bears to protect the sheep in his charge. How much more did God lay down his life for us?
  • Cares for his sheep (verse 12). This verse contrasts a true shepherd with a hired hand. The hired hand isn’t willing to put himself in a dangerous situation for the sake of the sheep; if the situation arises, he’ll abandon them. He doesn’t really care about them. He’s just making money off of them. The shepherd, though, truly cares about the sheep and isn’t willing to let them get eaten. (Seriously. Shepherds. Hardcore.) God cares for us, too. He isn’t willing to let us be destroyed if we are part of his flock. He watches out for us vigilantly. So cool.
  • Knows and is known by his sheep (verse 14). The shepherd knows the characteristics and habits of each of his sheep. He knows which ones are the most prone to wander away. He knows which babies belong to which mothers. He knows which ones are a little slower than the others and which ones have a tendency to go faster than the rest of the flock. He is able to tell if a sheep that doesn’t belong to him wanders into his flock, and he is able to tell if one of his sheep wanders into another flock. He knows which sheep belong to him and which don’t. He also allows his sheep to know him; they recognize his face and voice because they are constantly around him. In the same way, God knows every last thing about us, and he allows us to know him. Isn’t that crazy?


 Photo credit: Brent Scheneman on Flickr

How do sheep interact with their shepherd? (Psalm 23:1-4)

  • They understand who their shepherd is (verse 1). “The Lord is my shepherd.” The sheep don’t follow just anybody. They know exactly who their shepherd is (see the last point above). Sheep are designed to follow. Without a shepherd, they will follow each other, wandering aimlessly. They accomplish nothing and often put themselves in danger because there is nobody watching out for or protecting them. Have you ever been walking around with someone, just following their lead, and asked where you were going only to have them say, “I don’t know, I was following you!” That’s what it’s like when we allow other people to shepherd us instead of the Good Shepherd. We’re all sheep. You can’t expect another sheep to be your shepherd and have it turn out well.
  • They know that the shepherd will take care of their needs (verse 1). “I shall not want.” Do you imagine that sheep spend a lot of time worrying about what’s going to happen once they’ve eaten all the good grass in a certain pasture? Or what’s going to happen if they don’t get sheared, and their wool gets too heavy? No. The sheep just trusts that his shepherd will take care of that stuff. It’s not the sheep’s job to find the next pasture or try to shear his own wool. There is a complete reliance on the shepherd to fulfill the sheep’s needs. We have to be the same way. What’s the point of worrying about things we can’t even control?
  • They trust that the shepherd will protect and feed them (verse 2). “He makes me lie down in green pastures.” If you don’t know much about sheep, this doesn’t seem like anything too profound. Sheep like to lie down. Great. But this actually says a lot about the character of the shepherd and the trust that the sheep has in him. Domestic sheep do not have any sort of self-defense mechanism. The only thing they can do to get out of danger is run from it. Sheep won’t lie down if they’re hungry or scared. If a sheep senses danger, it knows that the only thing it can do is run, so it won’t lie down. So the fact that the shepherd makes the sheep to lie down means that the sheep trusts entirely that the shepherd will protect it from whatever danger might come its way. It feels entirely safe in the presence of its shepherd. The shepherd has also led the sheep to a green pasture where it can eat. It doesn’t go hungry, and it doesn’t feel threatened.
  • They trust that the shepherd has led them to the right place (verse 2). “He leads me beside still waters.” Again, if you don’t know much about sheep, this doesn’t seem that radical. Sheep need to drink water. But the key here is that the shepherd leads the sheep to STILL waters. If a sheep falls into water, it’s more than likely that it will drown. Sheep do have the survival instinct to swim in instances like floods, but they can’t go very far. Their wool weighs them down and causes them to sink. Because sheep know that swimming won’t work out well for them, they are innately afraid of rushing water. But the shepherd leads them to still water where they are not afraid and not in danger so that they can drink and rest. The sheep trust that the shepherd will lead them to a place that will not endanger them. They trust that he will provide for their needs and not let them go anywhere where they might drown.
  • They are not afraid but rather comforted by the shepherd (verse 4). “I will fear no evil.” The sheep isn’t afraid of anything that might be lurking along the path because it knows that the shepherd will protect it. “Your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” Rod and staff kind of seem like the same thing, but it’s easier to understand what David means if you think of the rod as a club and the staff as the stereotypical shepherd’s crook. The sheep takes comfort in the fact that the shepherd carries the rod to protect it from anything that wants to hurt it. The rod is a weapon. The sheep can also take comfort that if it starts to wander away or go somewhere that it shouldn’t, the shepherd will catch it with the staff. The staff is designed to hook a sheep going astray by its hind leg and bring it back to where it needs to be. The sheep doesn’t necessarily like being hooked by the staff, but the pain that might be inflicted by the staff is much less than the pain that it might have endured by wandering off. The sheep can take comfort that the shepherd cares enough about it to keep it where it needs to be.

Through these passages, we can understand a little more what our relationship with God is supposed to look like in the aspect of shepherd/sheep. The shepherd is someone to be trusted. He looks out for his sheep even to the point of laying down his life for them. The sheep are natural followers. They follow the shepherd with complete trust that he is taking them where they need to go.

That is exactly how our relationship with God was meant to go. Jesus called himself the Good Shepherd. If he is a shepherd, and we are the sheep, then it stands to reason that we are supposed to trust him. He cares for us and protects us to the point of dying for us. He goes before us and leads us on safe paths where we aren’t in danger. He uses the rod and the staff to protect and discipline us. He meets our every need. He is the perfect shepherd.

While we’ll never be perfect, we’re already pretty good sheep. We long to follow and worship something. We want someone to take care of us, we want our needs met, we want to be safe, etc. The trick to that all happening the right way is for us to follow the right shepherd. If we decide to follow the Good Shepherd, the rest will fall into place. Will we mess up? Yeah, probably all the time. But we can rest assured that the Good Shepherd will never give up on us. If you are his sheep, he knows you, he loves you, he will protect you, and he will take care of you. If we fall into our rightful place with his help, then he will always be in his place perfectly. He will never mess up or forget to shepherd us correctly.

If we trust in the Lord as a sheep trusts in its shepherd, there is no reason for us to ever be afraid or worried about anything. The shepherd is for us. We can rest entirely in that knowledge.

How are you doing with your “sheep-hood?” Are you looking to the right shepherd?

What’s your favorite metaphor for our relationship with God? 


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