Christ Our Shepherd

Rev. David Bast Uncategorized

READ : Psalm 23

This simple message of the 23rd Psalm expresses a profound truth in beautiful imagery. But the New Testament tells us even more: the Lord who is our shepherd is none other than Jesus.

Listen to these familiar words from the most beloved of all the psalms.

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me besides still waters; he restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff—they comfort me.

You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

The 23rd Psalm has spoken to more Christians in more different circumstances than any other passage of scripture, I think. It has brought peace to the sorrowing, comfort to the lonely, courage to the fearful. The words of this psalm have been recited at the graveside, remembered on the way to the operating room, repeated on the battlefield, and prayed everywhere by untold millions of believers. What moving power there is in this psalm!

The reason for that power, I think, lies in the 23rd Psalm’s beautiful simplicity. This psalm uses beautiful language and imagery to express a very simple idea: the idea that God cares for me. God both cares about me, and he takes care of me. Now that’s not a deep theological principle or abstract thought; it’s a truth everybody can understand. And the image by which this truth is conveyed is this: God cares for me the way a good shepherd cares for his sheep.

“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.” That is actually a rather startling image. The only reason it doesn’t surprise us more is because we’re so used to it, and perhaps because very few of us know much about actual shepherding any longer. You know it’s one thing for God in the Bible to compare himself to a mighty king or a great power or a sovereign Ruler—those are things we would expect, speaking as they do of the splendor and greatness of God. But to call himself a shepherd?

Sheep herding was lowly, dirty, thankless work. Shepherds themselves in the Bible were often considered unclean; their occupation was despised. Yet the Lord chose this image to convey a powerful sense of the loving care that he has for his people. This is the picture he paints of his willingness to sacrifice for us. Like a shepherd, the Lord provides for all my needs: He makes me lie down in green pastures where the forage is rich and my physical wants are supplied. He leads me to refreshing waters so that I lack nothing for my soul as well as for my body. The Lord protects me from every danger. Even in the valley of the shadow of death he is there with me, using his shepherd’s weapons, his rod and his staff, his crook and his club, to defend me against all danger. Finally, the Lord showers me with his blessings until my cup overflows. And then he sees me safely home at the last, back to the Father’s house: “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever” (v. 6). That’s the message of the shepherd psalm.

The Good Shepherd

But we haven’t really understood the full meaning of the 23rd Psalm until we consider it in the context of the whole Bible because our deepest understanding comes not in the Old Testament but in a passage from the New Testament Gospel of John, chapter 10, a passage that reveals the full truth of just how the Lord is our shepherd. Speaking to a crowd one day, a Jewish audience that would have known and loved Psalm 23 just as much as we do, Jesus said this to them:

I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.

John 10:11-16, nrsv

Think of the shock it must have been for that audience on that day to hear that man stand before them and calmly announce, “I am the shepherd.” The good shepherd. Jesus, you see, is claiming nothing less than to be himself the Lord of whom Psalm 23 speaks. Jesus here says that the sheep are his; they belong to him, every last one of them. In other words, he is the Lord, he is the God of Israel. He is the Provider, the Protector, the Savior of his people.

And that’s not all. Jesus is the good shepherd who knows every one of his sheep. In our society, the bigger the company grows, the more distant and aloof the boss is. To the person who owns a vast corporation, employees aren’t even names, they’re just interchangeable parts, bodies to operate the equipment and keep the business going. But Jesus says he knows all that are his. “I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep . . . just as the Father knows me” (v. 14).

Notice what that says about how Jesus knows us, about the form that his knowledge takes. First of all, it’s personal. In that same chapter, John 10, it says that Jesus “calls his own sheep by name” (v. 3). Think about that. You are not just a number to the Lord Jesus; he knows your name. I have often been overwhelmed while walking the streets of some great city, for example, by the sheer numbers of people. And I sometimes find myself thinking, “What a throng of humanity! How can God possibly know and care about each and every person?” But he does. He knows them by name, every last one of them.

More than that, the Good Shepherd’s knowledge is intimate. Jesus said it’s like the way Jesus himself knows his Father. This means that the Lord not only knows your name; he knows all about you. He understands your family situation and the circumstances of your life, your trials and your problems, your hopes and fears, your strengths and weaknesses. Don’t be anxious about food and clothes, Jesus once told his followers. “For . . . for your heavenly Father knows that you need them all” (Matt. 6:32). And if he knows our needs, he will surely meet them.

Jesus’ knowledge of his sheep is also relational. “My sheep listen to my voice, I know them, and they follow me” (John 10:27), he said. Knowing Jesus and being known by him isn’t a matter of superficial acquaintance. It is deeply personal. And it demands that we respond to him in faith and obedience. In fact, the way you become one of the Lord’s sheep is by recognizing his voice when he calls, and then setting out after him. You can’t truthfully claim the Lord is your shepherd if you aren’t actively following him.

Finally, Jesus’ knowledge is sacrificial. “I lay down my life for the sheep,” he says (John 10:14). And this is where analogy and metaphor break down, because in real life a shepherd wouldn’t willingly lay down his life for his sheep. It wouldn’t be worth it. He might risk his life in an emergency as David did in the Old Testament, but he would never intentionally die for them. For the shepherd’s life is worth infinitely more than all the sheep put together. But Jesus, the Good Shepherd, deliberately dies for his sheep, and in so doing brings them life. The Lord willingly surrenders his own life to save us from our sins.

Jesus’ Other Sheep

If you haven’t already heard enough, there’s one last thing here in John 10. Jesus makes one more remarkable statement about himself and his sheep: “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd” (v. 16).

Who are these “other sheep” whom the Lord also must gather and unite into one flock with those whom he has already saved? They must be people who up to that point were not obviously his—in other words, he’s talking about the Gentiles, the non-Jewish people throughout the world who would be brought into the church alongside his disciples, the Jewish believers already there.

Jesus always has “other sheep” that he’s gathering, people from every tribe and tongue and nation throughout the world. And this is what he says about them— “I have them. I must bring them. They will listen to my voice.” Before these different people even become Christians, before they even hear the name of Jesus or his gospel, the Lord says that in some sense he already knows them, they already belong to him.

God put it this way once. In a dream to the apostle Paul recorded in Acts, chapter 18, “Do not be afraid; keep on speaking, do not be silent. For I am with you, and . . . I have many people in this city” (Acts 18:9, niv). You see, the sheep are already his. He knows them by name just as Jesus Christ, the Good Shepherd, knows all those who belong to him in the past, in the present, even in the future. He knows those who will come to him and he counts them as his sheep.

Isn’t that a great encouragement to hope for the salvation of someone whom you’ve been praying for, to keep on speaking to them and not be silent, to beat witness to the name of the Lord, to call with his voice, his word, so that people will hear it, recognize it and respond to it by following Jesus.

But I wonder, have you already done that yourself? Are you one of those “other sheep” of whom Jesus spoke? Remember what he said: “My sheep listen to my voice and follow me.” Make sure you’re doing that today, and then why not go tell someone else about the Good Shepherd?