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The Good Shepherd

The world of the Bible was a thoroughly agricultural world. Because farming and caring for livestock were a regular way of life, the metaphor of shepherding became a common image used for God throughout Scripture.

Psalm 23 is probably the most famous use of this image in Scripture, but the shepherd metaphor appears in the prophets as well. In today’s reading from Micah, God promises that despite the coming judgment, He will gather together His people Israel. Drawing on the shepherding metaphor, He declares: “I will bring them together like sheep in a pen, like a flock in its pasture” (Micah 2:12). As their shepherd-king, God “will pass through before them, the Lord at their head” (Micah 2:13). This is a wonderful picture of safety, security, and provision for God’s people.

It should come as no surprise, then, that Jesus used this metaphor for Himself. In John 10, Jesus twice declared: “I am the good shepherd” (John 10:11, 14). Later, Jesus repeated the promises of security and safety when He declared that He would give His sheep eternal life and “no one will snatch them out of my hand” (John 10:28). Wonderfully, this invitation was not just to Israel, but to the whole world: “I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also” (John 10:16). It is a reassuring picture of God’s gentle, loving care for us.

Yet there is another, darker, aspect to Jesus’ use of the shepherd imagery. Not only will Christ gather His people and give them eternal life, He will die for them. When the wolf comes, says Jesus, “the good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10:11). Our great Shepherd, Jesus, will give everything so that we might have life forever in Him.

Apply the Word

The image of Jesus as our loving, sacrificial shepherd may not be one we often consider, but Johann Sebastian Bach wrote an aria (as part of a larger cantata) capturing this theme: “Sheep May Safely Graze.” Find a version of this beautiful musical piece online and reflect on the Shepherd’s love for you and His sacrificial gift of eternal life.

BY Bryan Stewart

Bryan A. Stewart is associate professor of religion at McMurry University in Abilene, Texas. His particular interests are the history of Christian thought and the way that early Christians interpreted the biblical canon. He is the editor of a volume on the Gospel of John in The Church’s Bible series (Eerdmans), and he has done extensive research on the ways that the early Church preached on this Gospel. He is an ordained minister. 

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