“I AM The Good Shepherd; . . . and I lay down my LIFE for the sheep. I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd”(John 10 v 14-16)
Shepherds, sheep or lambs are mentioned 420 times in the Bible. This is because one of the most helpful analogies of the relationship between God and us, is the relationship between a good shepherd and his sheep. The true shepherd cares for his sheep and they trust him. This is how it should be between God and us. The 23rd Psalm still seems to convey a deep meaning, even in this industrialized 21st century. Isaiah conveys the tender care of God for His people, whom He loves so much, which ensures that even the weakest are not left behind: “He shall feed His flock like a shepherd: He shall gather the lambs with His arm, and carry them in His bosom, and shall gently lead those that are with young” (Isaiah 40 v 11). John records how Jesus used this analogy when describing Himself as a good shepherd, who was even willing to lay down his life for his sheep, “I AM the Good Shepherd. The Good Shepherd lays down his LIFE for the sheep” (John 10 v 11).
Sheep rearing today is very different from that which took place during Jesus’ time on earth. Large-scale sheep farming involves enormous flocks with very little, if any, individual contact with a shepherd. The mortality rate is high and the sheep endure extreme weather conditions and distressing commercial practices such as teeth-grinding and tail-cutting. There is no true comparison with the scriptural image, even when flocks are smaller and under the care of a shepherd.
The majority of sheep in biblical times were not reared for meat, as they are today, but for wool. This meant that the shepherd had a long and caring relationship with them which, usually, lasted a natural lifespan. The good shepherd loved his sheep, guiding them through dangers, protecting them from harm, seeking out green pastures for them and rejoicing at their well-being.
These scriptural images however, do more than describe the depth and width of God’s love. They also tell us a lot about what should be the right relationship between humans and animals. In analogies and parables we tend to concentrate solely on what is being illustrated, rather than on the material of the illustration. This pastoral analogy helps to make God’s love real to us. But the point we often miss is that, if God’s love can be likened to the relationship between a good shepherd and his sheep, then great value is given to that relationship itself. The joy of a shepherd at finding a lost sheep, not only gives us an idea of God’s joy when a sinner repents of their ways, but the earthly joy is the same as the heavenly. God’s love for us, and the shepherd’s love for his sheep, are both part of the same universal love.
By becoming human in Jesus, God united earth and heaven and made it clear that there is a similarity between the earthly story and the heavenly meaning of a parable. The love of the father of the prodigal son is of the same kind as that of the heavenly Father; and the joy of the woman who found the lost coin is of the same kind as the angels’ joy over a penitent sinner. Jesus’ love not only illustrated God’s love; it was God’s love, and it was expressed in all the situations of His earthly life; and in the everyday situations out of which He constructed His parables. Jesus is asking us to look for the Kingdom of God within the kind of situations that He describes in His parables.
The relationship between humans and animals is raised to an extremely high level by the frequent use of the analogy of a shepherd to describe God’s love. When David says, “The Lord is my shepherd, therefore can I lack nothing” (Psalm 23 v 1), he is telling us a great deal about the shepherd’s care for his sheep, as well as about God’s love for him. He is saying that, if God is as good to him as a true shepherd is to his sheep, he need have no fear. He is also expressing the complete trust that develops between the sheep and their shepherd. This is what the relationship ought to be like between human beings and the animals that come under their control. When humans show themselves to be trustworthy, both domesticated animals and, to some extent, wild animals will cast fear and suspicion aside.
Whilst some people will say that a shepherd only looks after his sheep in order to make a living for himself, if this were the case, then the biblical analogy would be completely devalued. But Jesus went out of His way to contrast the good shepherd with the mercenary one who cannot be relied on to give consistent care to his flock when it conflicts with his own well-being.
If we look more closely at Jesus’ analogy of the good shepherd, we will see that the relationship between a shepherd and his sheep is very skilfully and beautifully indicated in several ways:-
He Knows Them
The sheep and the shepherd know each other – “I AM the Good Shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me” (John 10 v 14). It is the voice of the shepherd that enables the sheep to distinguish him. A sheep might easily mistake the appearance of a shepherd, as it cannot see very far, but it will not mistake his voice. In his book, ‘A Shepherd Remembers’, Dr Weatherhead describes an incident whereby a stranger dressed himself as a shepherd and misled a flock of sheep for a while, but when he opened his mouth and spoke to them, they fled in panic: “they do not know the voice of strangers” (John 10 v 5). The same writer also talks of an eastern sheepfold housing several flocks. Every morning the shepherds come for them, each calling his own flock, and the sheep sort themselves out and surround their own shepherd: “He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out” (John 10 v 3).
He Calls Them
So the description of the relationship between Jesus and His followers is developed. He knows His sheep; He calls to them. In the Bible, God’s call and mankind’s vocation to respond to His call is a basic conception. God is constantly calling people to follow Him, and His call is always an enabling one. His call includes the whole of creation, too. The intimate concern of the Creator for His creation ought to be the basis of our own reverence for creation. It should be impossible for those who truly believe in God to misuse His creation or, if they do, they should be in no doubt that they are doing wrong.
He Calls Them By Name
However we take the Genesis story which describes God as bringing the different animals He has created to Adam for him to give them their name, the eternal truth that is conveyed by this story is that mankind has a responsibility for the animals and is appointed to be their guardian. In the first chapter of Genesis it is God who gives names to the various parts of His creation, but in the second chapter Adam is asked to name the animals and birds. This is meant to show mankind’s special responsibility for them.
In the Bible, calling by name always implies a very special relationship, so the deep understanding between shepherd and sheep is again emphasized by Jesus, “He calls his own sheep by name” (John 10 v 3). Whilst all sheep look alike to us, in biblical times, a shepherd could not only distinguish between all of his sheep, but often had a name for each. This gives us an important analogy as, in these days when life is highly de-personalised, one of the marks of Christianity is that it upholds the importance of individual persons.
It is interesting to note, as an actual example of Jesus’ personal call, that when God “brought again from the dead that great Shepherd of the sheep” (Hebrews 13 v 20), the first person to see Him was Mary Magdalene. But, because of the change in her Lord’s resurrection body, she didn’t recognise Him; until He called His own sheep by name – “Mary!”, and then she recognised Him with great joy.
He Counts Them
References to counting add a final touch to this picture portraying God’s concern for His creation. The shepherd counts his sheep and, if just one out of a hundred is missing, he is not satisfied. Jeremiah longs for a day of restoration when, “flocks shall again pass under the hands of the one who counts them” (Jeremiah 33 v 13). “Not one is missing” (Isaiah 40 v 26); the law of God’s creation is completeness. Even the sparrow’s fall is marked by God. Jesus describes His own love for His people in terms of a shepherd’s love for his sheep when He says, “none shall pluck them out of my hand” (John 10 v 28); and later, when He prays for His followers, He emphasizes the fact that He has held together His little flock: “I have guarded them, and none of them is lost but the son of perdition” (John 17 v 12).
So the tender loving care of Jesus for His followers is described in this way. He knows His sheep, He calls them, He calls them by name, He counts them. And all the time, BOTH sides of the analogy must be considered. If ever mankind’s concern for sheep, or for animals generally, were to disappear, then this analogy would become pointless. And, not only this, but mankind would be denying his vocation to love and care for the animal creation, a vocation which is implied in the use of this analogy.
‘Part Two’ will follow shortly! Thank you for reading and following our blog! Your comments are always welcome! ~Ros