By Paul Koch –
I think you could write an incredible book that simply explores the theme of what it is to be shepherded by God. Think about it, wouldn’t that be a great read? A systematic unpacking of how our Lord has cared for His people throughout history. Over and again He has called upon prophets, priests and kings to act a shepherd to care for His people. And not all of these were great shepherds, to be sure. Not all of them had the same level of care and protection for the sheep. The point, rather, is that there is a history to this. Long before our Lord Jesus Christ declares that He is the Good Shepherd, there had been other shepherds. God is in the business of shepherding His people.
In fact, an important background to our Lord’s proclamation of being the Good Shepherd is the shepherding imagery from the prophet Ezekiel. Writing over 500 years before the birth of our Lord, Ezekiel paints the image of the rulers of God’s people as shepherds who have failed them. He says things like, “You slaughter the fat ones, but you do not feed the sheep. The weak you have not strengthened, the sick you have not healed, the injured you have not bound up, the strayed you have not brought back, the lost you have not sought, and with force and harshness you have ruled them.” (Ezek. 34:3-5) He goes on to say the that failure of the so-called shepherds has led the sheep to be scattered over the face of the earth and they have become food for the wild beasts. These shepherds have failed in their shepherding and the people of God have paid the price.
So, all those years ago we are given to look into the heart of our God. We are given an opportunity to see His desire for His sheep. As Ezekiel’s prophecy continues to unfold we again hear the voice of God saying, “I, myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I, myself will make them lie down, declares the Lord God. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak…” (Ezek. 34:15-16) Our God is frustrated with the failed shepherding of His sheep, so He declares that He intends to shepherd them Himself. It is emphatic, “I will do it,” declares the Lord. This then leads to the only begotten Son of God having compassion upon the people because they are, as he says, “Sheep without a shepherd.” (Matt. 9:36) And so in John chapter 10, Jesus proclaims to us all, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”
To step back and see the great history of shepherding that culminates in the life, death and resurrection of our Lord is to see a grand story that presupposes a few things that are worthy of our time to consider. The first thing that the constant concern over shepherding presupposes is the need for a shepherd to begin with. Why do you, as the people of God, need a shepherd? Well, perhaps we begin by considering what a shepherd does. A shepherd leads the sheep, guides them to safe and good land. The shepherd makes sure that the sheep thrive and that they don’t waste away from famine and a strenuous life. For you this means that the safe and good land is not some place you will find on your own. On your own you will wander into all sorts of dangers and troubles. On your own you will become (as Ezekiel warned) scattered and lost in the wilderness. A shepherd also protects the sheep from the dangers that lurk out in the world. A shepherd will stand between the sheep and the danger, between you and whatever it is that seeks to destroy you.
This, then, gets to our second point for consideration. If you truly need a shepherd, it not only means that you need help finding the right way, it also means that there are true dangers that seek to devour you. There are wolves that wait to destroy the flock of our Lord. Perhaps more so than our lack of understanding that we need a shepherd, it is the lack of our belief in the presence of wolves that is the real danger. We like to speak of the dangers facing the flock as things like bad luck or unfortunate circumstances. The age of enlightenment has moved us beyond the cosmic struggle and good versus evil and everything is simply placed on a sliding scale of toleration. We tend to forget that to be a child of God, to be one of his flock, is to have an enemy. There is a decided opposition to your sainthood. There are wolves that will do whatever they can to pull you away from hope and confidence in your salvation. There is the devil, the world, and your own sinful self that are the devouring wolves seeking to scatter you to the wind.
This means that the wolves are not just out there somewhere. They are not just something we can keep at bay by locking the doors to the church. No, the wolves are lurking within your own hearts. That’s right, the wolves of destruction reside within each and every one of you. They are the wolves of your own pride, of your lust, of your arrogance and your selfishness. How can you stop these wolves? You may be able to pretend that they don’t exist, but that won’t stop their destructive work in your lives to drive you far from the flock of God.
And so, because there are such things as wolves, because these wolves attack from outside of you and lurk right within you, because you have a habit of wandering off the path of going astray and losing your sense of direction, because of all of this our God has become your shepherd. A good shepherd. And the Good Shepherd lays down His life for the sheep. He does not run from the wolves. He is not turned away by their howling and ravenous cravings. No, He willingly gives His life so that His sheep may live. So that you will live. Your Lord Jesus Christ is this shepherd. He is the fulfillment of the promises of Ezekiel. He is the culmination of what King David wrote about in Psalm 23.
Now, there is a reason that we use this Psalm at almost every funeral you’ve ever attended. It is a word of incredible comfort and hope, a word that reminds us that we are not alone in our darkness and tragedy, a word that declares a way out. This way is led by a Good Shepherd. As we confess our faith that the Lord is our shepherd, we make a daring a bold stand. Defiant in the face of the darkness of this world and in the face of the wolves that circle all about us, we say, “Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil for Thou art with me.” You will fear no evil for you have a Good Shepherd. You have one who shows you the way, who leads you in the paths of righteousness that lead to the good land. You have a Shepherd that will die to bring you through the valley of the shadow of death. No matter how bleak it may seem at times, no matter how powerful the enemy is, the voice of your Good Shepherd still speaks to you.
See, being shepherded by our God is what it is to be a Christian. It is the source of our boldness and courage in the face of a dying and lost world. It is our confidence and strength as we face the wolves within ourselves. And what does your Good Shepherd say to you? What words does He speak that offer guidance and hope and courage and life? Well, it is the words that the world will never say. He doesn’t say, “Don’t worry, it will all be alright, this too shall pass”. No, He says things like, “You deserve to die. You cannot escape on your own. This life, this journey through the valley of the shadow of death is too much for you. After all, you are sheep and the wolves are everywhere. But I have something more for you, I have deliverance and hope and life everlasting. It is all found in me. In my Word, in the voice of your Good Shepherd. A voice that calls to you this day and says, ‘You are forgiven, for you are loved and I will never, never, lose my sheep.’”