THE GOOD SHEPHERD OF ANCIENT ISRAEL
The Lord and God of the Old Testament, usually referred to by the Israelites as Jehovah, was labeled by ancient Hebrew poets and prophets as the “Good Shepherd.” No figures of speech, no parables, no metaphors, no similarities brought greater peace and joy to the Israelites’ hearts than the distinguished declaration: Jehovah is our Shepherd.
Israel's very lives depended upon the safety and breeding abilities of their sheep. Both their physical and spiritual welfare revolved around Israel’s flocks and herds. The food for their meals, their clothes, and the sacrifices for their altars all came from their flocks. In desolate deserts, on steep mountain slopes, in the sullen and sinister valley of the shadow of death, a strong bond of mutual reliance and love formed between the sheep and the shepherd. Those who cared for the flocks were not sheepherders but shepherds, not hired helpers but pastors; sheep were not driven, but led; they listened and followed the voice they had come to know. At night the flocks were commingled in one safe sheepfold where a single shepherd stood guard against the wolves and terrors of the night. In the morning each shepherd called his own sheep out and they followed him to green pastures and still waters.
King David begins the awe-inspiring hymn of worship, Psalm 23, with the alluring line: “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.” Similar expressions of stirring praise and adoration to the “Good Shepherd” are found in some of the other Psalms. The prophets Isaiah, Zachariah, and Ezekiel symbolized Jehovah as the “Great and Good Shepherd.” All who loved and accepted him were regarded as the sheep of his fold.
THE GOOD SHEPHERD OF THE NEW TESTAMENT
When Christ was teaching the gospel in the Holy Land, he called himself the Good Shepherd, the same title used by ancient Israel to refer to Jehovah in the Old Testament. Jesus pointed out clearly that the shepherd and the sheep will enter into the door, but thieves and robbers attempt to climb into the sheepfold by some other method. He described the tender care given the sheep by the shepherd who owned the flock, saying: “he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice.”
Later Jesus added these words:
“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.
“He who is a hired hand and not a shepherd, who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees, and the wolf snatches them and scatters them.
“He flees because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep.”
Jesus made other important remarks regarding his position as shepherd after which many of the people who were listening to him became furious. They were familiar with the teachings of the Old Testament prophets who had predicted that Christ, their Messiah, would be the Good Shepherd, and so they said: “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Christ, tell us plainly.”
Jesus answered: “I told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name bear witness about me,
“but you do not believe because you are not among my sheep.
“My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.
“I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand.”
What possible response can his hearers—then or now—make to this divine doctrine? Jesus proclaimed his divine Sonship. From God the Father he inherited the power of immortality, the power to live forever. An immortal being cannot die. No man can take his life from him. From Mary, who is his mother, he inherited the power of mortality, the power to die. Jesus was the only person—the Son of the living God; the Son of the mortal Virgin—this One Man who had power to live or die. He chose to die, having also the power to live again.The response—then as now—can be only one of two things: either we believe, or we don’t. There is no middle ground, no gray area, no room for compromise. Either Jesus is the Atoning One or he is not. As C. S. Lewis eloquently exclaims:
“You must make your choice: either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon; or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.”
C. S. Lewis (2014). “God in the Dock”, p.289, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing
The Jewish excuse for rejecting Jesus was: “He has a demon, and is insane; why listen to him?”
As C. S. Lewis indicates, unless Jesus’ claims of divinity are true, then of course he is mad, insane, totally devoid of reason or sense. Yet some chose to believe based on Jesus’ words and his works. His words flowed with such divine fluency and conviction that no enlightened person could reject them. His works could only be performed by someone approved of God.
“These are not the words of one who is oppressed by a demon. Can a demon open the eyes of the blind?”
If someone is approved of God—as Jesus’ works testify—says, 'God is my Father,' how can his testimony be other than true?
The following description from a Christian minister who spent many years in the Holy Land helps us better appreciate the richness of the Savior's parable of the Good Shepherd:
“The shepherd depends upon the sheep to follow, and they in turn expect him never to leave them. They run after him if he appears to be escaping from them, and are terrified when he is out of sight, or any stranger appears instead of him. He calls to them from time to time to let them know that he is at hand. The sheep listen and continue grazing, but if anyone else tries to produce the same peculiar cries and guttural sounds, they look around with a startled air and begin to scatter.
“As he is always with them, and so deeply interested in them, the shepherd comes to know his sheep very intimately.”
George M. Mackie, Bible Manners and Customs, 33–34.
You can learn more about the Good Shepherd in El Shaddai: Honoring His Holy Name.