The Good Shepherd

by The Doctor

“I am the Good Shepherd. The Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10:11).

The society of Jesus’ day was largely built around farming and livestock, things that are not always so familiar to those of us who live in today’s age of industry and information. Because of this, it can sometimes be a little difficult to really understand some of the things that Jesus says in the Bible -things that would have been easily understood in His own day and age.

Take the verse quoted above for example. What exactly did Jesus mean when He referred to Himself as the “Good Shepherd”? Well, perhaps it would be a good idea to talk a little about sheep and shepherding to help us understand what Jesus really meant by this term.

Sheep are animals that are raised both for food and the wool that they produce. Raising sheep was very important in the Biblical era, so it’s not surprising to find that the Bible mentions them over 700 times.

While sheep tend to be somewhat curious about their surroundings, they also tend to be not very smart. Unfortunately for them, this combination of curiosity along with a lack of intelligence often leads to problems.

For example, it’s not unusual for a wandering sheep to find itself caught in a thorn bush or stuck in a hole or falling off some hillside cliff. If that wasn’t enough, sheep are unable to find food and water on their own like other grazing animals. In fact, sheep tend to be so dopey that they are unable to find their way back home even if they can clearly see their sheep fold. These things combined to make the shepherd very important in the life of the sheep.

The shepherd was the person responsible for looking after the welfare of the sheep and a shepherd’s life often involved a lot of hardship. Although leading a flock of sheep might sound like a pretty brainless job, the shepherd actually had many important responsibilities…

  • In the morning, the shepherd had to lead his flock out of the sheepfold.
  • After the flock arrived at the pasture, the shepherd was responsible for keeping an eye on things. Sometimes the shepherd had sheepdogs to assist him and sometimes he was on his own. If any of his sheep strayed away, the shepherd had to go out and look for it until he found it.
  • The shepherd was also responsible for making sure that his sheep had enough water. Unfortunately, finding a good spot for water sometimes presented a real challenge for the shepherd. You see, sheep tend to be very afraid of moving water. So in order to get his flock to drink from a running stream, the shepherd would have to pry loose some large stones to dam up a place where the water was still so the sheep could drink. The shepherd would also carry a pail which he would repeatedly fill with water so that the smaller or weaker sheep could also drink.
  • Finally at the end of the day the shepherd brought his sheep back to the fold and checked to make sure that none were missing.

So far from being an easy job, a shepherd’s life could actually be very difficult. Think for a moment about the challenges that a shepherd had to face each day…

  • The shepherd was regularly exposed to all kinds of weather conditions including extreme heat and cold.
  • His food often consisted of whatever he was able to find. A shepherd’s diet typically consisted of things like figs, carob pods or even locusts and honey.
  • The shepherd had to constantly be on the lookout for predatory animals such as lions, wolves, leopards, bears, jackals and hyenas.
  • If that wasn’t enough, the shepherd had to also be on guard against robbers and bands of thieves who would seek to steal sheep from his flock. The only help that the shepherd had in defending his sheep were his trusty dogs, if he had them.

Because of these things the shepherd’s job required him to be constantly watchful, especially at night. The shepherd had to be particularly mindful of the young sheep and the weak sheep- the ones who couldn’t keep up with the flock. When baby sheep were being born, the shepherd had to guard the mother while she was¬†giving birth. Sometimes the shepherd would even carry an infant sheep until it was able to walk on its own.

To meet all of these challenges, the shepherd carried just a few simple items-

  • The shepherd’s robe was usually made of sheepskin with the fleece on. It had no sleeves and hung over his shoulders like a cloak. At night the shepherd’s robe doubled as a blanket to help keep him warm.
  • He had a pouch to hold his food for the day.
  • He carried a sling from which he would fire stones to get a wandering sheep’s attention or to chase away predators.
  • Finally, the shepherd carried a staff. The staff was about six feet (2 meters) long with a curve on one end and was used as both a weapon and a tool for managing the flock. The curved end was used to help keep a sheep from wandering away or to hook onto a sheep to help pull it out of a hole that it had fallen into. He also had a 2 foot (61 cm) long club called a “rod” that was used to persuade stubborn sheep and to help keep away enemies.

Because the shepherd and his flock spent so much time together, the sheep got to become very familiar with their shepherd. In fact, the shepherd and his flock got to know each other so well that the sheep would immediately begin to follow their shepherd at the first sound of his own unique call.

Even if two shepherds called their flocks at the same time from the same field, each individual sheep would always follow the sound of their own shepherd’s voice. It is even said that if a stranger were to change clothes with a shepherd, the sheep would still follow the sound of their own shepherd’s voice and would refuse to follow the voice of a stranger who looked like their own shepherd, but really wasn’t.

So now that you know a little bit about shepherds and sheep, check out these two Biblical passages -one from the New Testament and one from the Old Testament- and see what kind of applications you can make in your own life with your new found knowledge…

“I am the Good Shepherd. The Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. A hired man will run when he sees a wolf coming and will leave the sheep, for they aren’t his and he isn’t their shepherd. And so the wolf leaps on them and scatters the flock. The hired man runs because he is hired and has no real concern for the sheep. I am the Good Shepherd and know my own sheep, and they know me, just as my Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep.” (John 10:11-15)
“The Lord is my Shepherd, I have everything I need. He lets me rest in green meadows; He leads me beside peaceful streams. He renews my strength. He guides me along right paths. Even when I walk through the dark valley of death, I will not be afraid, for you are close beside me. Your rod and your staff protect and comfort me. You prepare a feast for me in the presence of my enemies. You welcome me as a guest, anointing my head with oil. My cup overflows with blessings. Surely your goodness and unfailing love will pursue me all the days of my life, and I will live in the house of the Lord forever.” (Psalm 23 NLT)