The Good Shepherd

Rev. David Bast Uncategorized

READ : Psalm 23

It is one thing for God in the Bible to compare himself to a high King or mighty General or sovereign Ruler ? those we would expect. But a shepherd! To call himself a shepherd?

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.

He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.

Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.

Psalm 23, KJV

With the possible exception of the Lord’s Prayer, these must be the most familiar and best-loved words in the Bible. The 23rd Psalm has spoken to more Christians in more different circumstances than any other passage of scripture. 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 in the holocaust of battle, 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. By that I mean that the Psalm uses beautiful language and imagery to express a very simple idea, an idea everybody can grasp and understand. The idea is this: God cares for me. That’s not a deep theological principle or abstract thought. No, God both cares about me, and he takes care of me. God cares for me. And the image is this: he does it the way a shepherd cares for his sheep. “The Lord is my shepherd.”

That is actually a startling metaphor. The only reason it doesn’t surprise us is because we’re so used to it; and because very few of us know much about actual shepherding any longer. It is one thing for God in the Bible to compare himself to a high King or mighty General or a sovereign Ruler those we would expect, speaking of the splendor and greatness of God. But a shepherd! To call himself a shepherd?

Sheep herding was lowly, dirty, thankless work. Shepherds themselves were often considered unclean in ancient Israel; their occupation was despised. Yet the Lord chose that image to convey a powerful sense of the loving care that he has for his people. This is the picture he painted of his willingness to sacrifice for the well-being of those who belong to him for me, and for you too if you know, love and follow him as your Shepherd.

If you are a believer, then this is what you can say: “The Lord is my shepherd.” Like a shepherd, the Lord provides for all my needs: He makes me lie down in green pastures where the forage is rich and all of my needs are supplied for physical life. He leads me to refreshing waters so that I lack for nothing for body as well as for soul. Like a shepherd 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 crook and his club to defend me against all attacks. Like a shepherd, the Lord showers me with his blessings until my cup overflows. And he sees me safely home at the last, 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).

The Good Shepherd

But we have not really understood the full meaning of the 23rd Psalm until we have considered it in the context of the whole Bible. Psalm 23 presents a theme that runs throughout Scripture, the idea of God as the shepherd of his people. But the ultimate expression of that idea comes, not in the Old Testament, but in a passage from the New Testament gospel of John, a passage that corresponds closely with Psalm 23 but reveals the true extent of how the Lord is our shepherd. Speaking to a crowd one day (by the way, it was a Jewish audience, one that would have known and loved Psalm 23 just as much as we do, maybe more), Jesus said this to them:

I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. . . . 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 or, at least, one whom they thought to be only a man stand before them and calmly announce, “I am the shepherd.” The good shepherd. Jesus is claiming nothing less than that the Lord of whom Psalm 23 speaks is he himself. Jesus says that the sheep are his; they belong to him, every last one of them. In other words, he is God. He is the Provider, Protector and Savior of his people.

And that is not all. Look at what Jesus says about the way he knows those who are his sheep. The Good Shepherd is not a typical human owner. 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 operation flowing. But Jesus says he knows all that are his; he knows each one of his sheep. “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 his followers, about the form that his knowledge takes. His knowledge of his sheep is personal. In that same chapter, John 10, it says earlier that Jesus “calls his own sheep by name” (v. 3). Think about that. You are not just a number to the Good Shepherd.

I have often been overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of people while walking the streets of some great city. I have this experience again and again, especially in foreign cities, where people are so different from me. I think to myself, “what a vast world, what a throng of humanity fills it! 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, like that which exists between Jesus and his own 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 problems, your needs and fears, your strengths and weaknesses. And even all your sins, every last one of them, and loves you all the same.

Finally Jesus’ knowledge of his sheep is relational: “my sheep know me just as . . . I know the Father” (verse 14; cf. also verse 27: “My sheep listen to my voice,” he says a little later, “I know them, and they follow me”). Knowing Jesus and being known by him is not a matter of superficial acquaintance. It is a deeply personal encounter. It requires us to respond to him in faith and obedience. In fact, the way you become one of the Lord’s sheep is by hearing his voice and recognizing his call when he names you. Then you set out after him to follow in his way throughout the rest of your life (cf. vv. 3-5).

Who Lays Down His Life for the Sheep

Because the sheep are his, because he knows them and he loves them, the good shepherd does one more thing for his flock. Oh yes, he cares for them, he sends them and provides for their needs as the 23rd Psalm so beautifully says it. He guards and protects, feeds, anoints, gives rest and preserves. He never casts anyone off. He doesn’t abandon the sick, the weak, the lame, or even those who stray from him. He gently leads those that are with young and carries the little ones in his arms for the lambs too belong to the flock. And in the end, of all those whom the Father has given him, he will be found to have lost not a single one (John 10:28-29).

But all of that loving care pales in comparison with this one other thing that Jesus says. The good shepherd, you see, goes beyond merely taking care of his sheep and meeting their needs. He lays down his life for the sheep. And this is where analogy and metaphor break down because in real life a shepherd would not 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 not 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. “I lay down my life for the sheep,” says Jesus (John 10:14). The Lord willingly surrenders his own life to save us from the consequences of our sins.

Jesus’ Other Sheep

There’s one last thing here, as if we haven’t heard enough, one more remarkable truth about what Jesus the Good Shepherd, does for 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 who already are his, whom he has already saved? They must be people who up to that point were not obviously his in other words, the Gentiles, the nations, the non-Jewish peoples 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 hear his gospel, the Lord says they already belong to him.

As God once said in a dream to the apostle Paul, when he arrived in the city of Corinth on one of his missionary journeys, “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). They are already his. He knows them by name just as Jesus Christ knows those who belong to him. He knows those who will come to him, and he counts them already as his sheep.

What an encouragement that is to hope for the salvation of people for whom we’ve been praying, to keep on speaking to them and not be silent, to sound forth the name of the Lord, to call in his voice, his word, so that people will hear it, recognize it and respond to it in faith and obedience.

Have you 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.