The I AM Statements in John: I AM the Good Shepherd

The events surrounding Judah’s Babylonian captivity give us much to consider as the background for the Lord’s Good Shepherd teaching. Ezekiel, prophesying in that era, wrote of the nation’s leaders as derelict shepherds who had neglected their responsibility to feed the flock, strengthen the weak, provide medical attention for the ailing and go after the strays (Eze 34:3-4). Jeremiah gives us more of the Lord’s warnings to these oppressive leaders in the 23rd chapter of his prophecy, and ultimately supplies Jehovah’s summary of the situation when he records, “My people hath been lost sheep: their shepherds have caused them to go astray” (Jer 50:6).[1] However, as a refreshing encouragement, both of these writers point to the eventual intervention of God in gathering together His people in a kingdom having one righteous Shepherd/King (Jer 23:3-6; Eze 34:11-24).

After the refreshing era of King Josiah (a unique king who initiated unique reforms), the nation returned to its evil ways. By rejecting the word of the Lord, the leaders willfully led the people back into the sins that had initially garnered the ire of the Almighty. At different times Assyria and Egypt came up against Jerusalem, leaving fear in their wake. But as Babylon’s armies surrounded the city, the last of Israel’s historical kings weighed up his options: obey the word of the Lord and save the city, or preserve his selfish pride and neglect his duty as a protector (Jer 38:17-19). As the Chaldean wolves attacked, the hireling fled, leaving the city to be burned and the sheep to be scattered (cf. Joh 10:12). Then, as his wives and daughters were about to be carried away with the rest of the nation, Zedekiah witnessed the death of his sons just before he became permanently blinded by the king of Babylon (Jer 39:1-10).

To summarize, the nation’s rebellion reached its tipping point when Zedekiah rejected God’s word of warning. By spurning this final word, this “bad shepherd” brought about his own blindness and ensured that the city and the temple would be destroyed.

The parallels to the days of the Lord Jesus are simple and practical. In the 600 years since Zedekiah’s failure, different empires had left their mark on world government and politics. Now, in His public ministry, the Lord Jesus encounters a group of men who are limited in their power to make judicial and administrative decisions but are nevertheless responsible for Israel’s spiritual leadership.[2] Sadly, though, they are more concerned about their place and position than their shepherding responsibilities (Joh 11:48).

The confrontation between these hirelings and the Lord in John 9-10 focuses on the man who had received his sight, but the fundamental issue is summarized in the Lord’s rebuke to His debaters: “I told you, and ye believed not” (10:25). They had rejected God’s final and full revelation when they determined not to acknowledge the Son. Even as they claimed to be enlightened by the law and their traditions, their rejection of Christ, the true Light (1:9), actually secured their own spiritual blindness (9:39-41)! This resistance to God’s Light would eventually lead to that dark day when Titus and the Roman army would raze Jerusalem and destroy the temple, the prophetic warnings pointing to wrath even beyond their generation.

Under these conditions, the Lord presents Himself as the Good Shepherd. As One who would give His life, this Shepherd’s only concern was the well-being of the flock, and, in fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophetic words, He came to feed, gather, carry and gently lead His sheep (Isa 40:11). The contrast couldn’t be greater: thieves, robbers and hirelings, who were using their position for personal gain at the expense of the sheep, versus the Good Shepherd, who sacrificed everything for the flock.

The devotional tones from the Good Shepherd discourse provoke worship as we muse on the comfort and care He gives, but let’s not lose sight of the practical lessons the theme conveys. In the New Testament, we are taught that leaders among the Lord’s people in local assemblies are seen as overseers, elders and tenders of sheep (Act 20; 1Pe 5). While the qualifications, authority and responsibilities of these men are highlighted in the Scriptures, it is also essential to see that the Good Shepherd Himself takes a sincere interest in the work of the beloved caretakers of His flock.

In the intimate seaside conversation of Acts 20, the apostle Paul exhorts the elders from the assembly at Ephesus, while warning them of coming danger. In this context, the entire Godhead is used to express the importance of shepherd work, as Paul says, “Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood” (v28). We notice here that the little flock belongs to God, that these men have been appointed to their task by the Holy Spirit, and that the Good Shepherd Himself paid for the little flock with His own blood. With such lofty language used to describe God’s interest in the local assembly, overseers must always be conscious of the fact that the sheep don’t belong to them; it’s God’s little flock. Furthermore, the Good Shepherd gave His life for them.

In 1 Peter 5, Peter, the elder, encourages overseers to continue feeding the flock in the face of adversity, not for money or with authoritarian tactics but as good examples. The encouragement comes through the reminder that there is One who is so interested in their work that He watches carefully with a desire to reward their faithful service! With this in mind, the imperatives flow: be clothed with humility, be sober, be vigilant. But above all, in light of the roaring lion on the prowl, remember the concern of the Chief Shepherd and cast “all your care upon him, for he careth for you” (v7).

Set against the failing leaders of Israel, the Lord Jesus provides the perfect pattern for pastoral care; He gave His life for the sheep. Now, in resurrection glory, He takes a deep interest in the work of assembly overseers as they sacrifice for the good of the little flock. May we, as the Lord’s people, continue to be encouraged in our service as we are led and fed by the Good Shepherd.

[1] Bible quotations in this article are from the KJV.

[2] “The occupying power had the ultimate authority, yet this Jewish council possessed religious, judicial and administrative powers.” John Heading, John: What the Bible Teaches (Kilmarnock: John Ritchie Ltd., 1988), 205.