Shepherds should be good. By scriptural definition, a shepherd is a feeder, gatherer, carrier and leader of sheep (Isa 40:11), and goodness should mark any person who is given responsibility for the care of others. God Himself is a Shepherd (Gen 48:15 JND) and has used shepherd-like leaders to establish and maintain His relationship with mankind throughout history. A subsequent article will look at our Good Shepherd in light of the Bible’s bad shepherds, while this paper will compare this “I AM” statement with some of God’s good shepherds from the Old Testament. In doing so, we will notice a pattern that is especially relevant to our study.
After Adam and Eve’s expulsion from Eden, human history’s narrative continued in a downward, sinful spiral from Abel’s murder to the rebellion at Babel. It was there that man’s desire to make a name for himself was manifested and where we first see the precedent for shepherding that enhances our appreciation of John 10. God moved to lead a man out of that idolatrous situation. Abram was separated from what dishonoured God and hindered devotion so he could properly worship and serve in close connection with Jehovah.
Centuries passed and the setting shifted from Ur of the Chaldees to a nation that multiplied in strength and number but found itself in bondage to a tyrannical ruler in a pantheistic culture. Remarkably, God saw the affliction of His people in Egypt, heard their cry and knew their sorrows. At this point, God fulfilled His long-awaited promise of deliverance by calling Moses to lead His people out of Pharaoh’s domain. Then, approximately nine hundred years later, the nation found itself in a quandary again, as their rejection of God and refusal to repent led to their removal from the land into Babylonian captivity, with all the destruction that came with it. When the time was fulfilled, God moved again to lead them out of that pagan society into the place where they could worship and serve God fully. In that era, Ezra, Nehemiah and Zerubbabel were used as shepherds to bring the remnant out in order to lead them in.
Working backwards through our list of leaders, we can continue to prepare our hearts for the Good Shepherd discourse. Nehemiah and Zerubbabel found their lineage in the tribe of Judah (1Ch 3:19; Neh 2:5), which we know to be the tribe of the King. Ezra the scribe was a direct descendent of Aaron the High Priest (Ezr 7:5) and, in the Scriptures, Moses is called a prophet. Finally, the intervention by Jehovah in the life of Abram draws our attention to deity’s direct role in shepherding. Putting these together, we can see that God’s good shepherds came from different backgrounds; the royal line, the priestly line, the prophetic office and deity blend together to give us a fuller view of the significance of the Lord’s statement, “I AM the Good Shepherd.”
God would not be worshipped in the Chaldean chaos. He could not be served in the error of Egypt and was not honoured within Babylon’s blurred lines. His people must be led out. John 10 finds us at another crossroads in God’s dealing with His people. In our haste, we may be quick to judge that the bondage God’s people were enduring resulted from Roman rule, but the truth lies deeper than that. The reality is that the Jewish leaders had become abusers of the law and had created an atmosphere wherein God’s glory had become less important than their power and gain through religious bondage. Faith and the spiritual had taken a backseat to ritual, and the sincere sheep within the fold of Israel were being oppressed and driven away (Joh 9:34)! Upon this scene, the Lord Jesus Christ comes as the Good Shepherd who will lead His sheep out of this system (that only pointed to Christ) into the fulness of God’s purpose for humanity. When we remember that the man announcing His arrival to call His sheep out is King, Priest, Prophet and Jehovah Himself (Zec 6:13; Deu 18:18; Act 3:22; Joh 1:1), our picture reaches its fullness. The word goes out from this Good Shepherd; His sheep hear His voice, they follow Him, and He leads them out (Joh 10:3).
Continuing our comparison of our Good Shepherd to the Old Testament, we look now at other Scriptures. We know that Peter calls the Lord the Chief Shepherd who shall appear (1Pe 5:4). Hebrews tells us of the Great Shepherd of the sheep connected with His resurrection ministry (Heb 13:20), and now we have the Lord’s words reminding us of His role as the Good Shepherd who “lays down His life for the sheep” (Joh 10:15). Let us look at this in light of three well-known Psalms that help us unpack these beautiful titles.
Psalm 23 has helped the Lord’s people through trial and testing since it was first penned. We are thankful that Jehovah is the one who feeds us, leads us, restores us and comforts us. But can you see the parallel to Hebrews 1 – the Great Shepherd, raised from the dead, taking care of His own and leading to peaceful waters? Psalm 24 has prophetic hues that point forward to a day yet to be fulfilled, a day when the King of Glory shall appear and come into the city to sit on the throne that is His by right. Clearly, that’s a part of Peter’s vision as he, to encourage overseers in local assemblies, invokes the Chief Shepherd’s appearance.
But which Psalm would give us the complete picture of the Good Shepherd? It seems as simple as it is profound, but Psalm 22 and the vivid description of the crucifixion of the Lord Jesus Christ checks every box. Giving His life for the sheep, this “worm and no man” is forsaken by His God, while the Jews and Gentiles surround Him in hatred. The world was against Him, His God had forsaken Him, yet His genuine care for the sheep, as a Shepherd and not a hireling, drove Him to lay down His life.
We marvel at the larger context. There would never be an appearing in glory had there not first been the sufferings of Christ. We could never know the guiding hand of the Great Shepherd had it not been for His resurrection and its implications. And finally, let us never forget that this Shepherd stands unique in His goodness because “the Good Shepherd giveth His life for the sheep.”