What comes to mind when I mention the following stories?
- The Boy Who Cried Wolf
- The Tortoise and the Hare
- The Little Engine That Could
Each tale teaches an important life lesson:
- Always tell the truth.
- Slow and steady can win the race.
- Believe that you can.
Although we can simply state a moral principle outright, using a story to illustrate a life lesson brings the moral alive and creates a lasting impact.
Shepherding: An Old Testament Analogy
In Scripture, God uses stories and pictures to help people understand His character and to describe how He interacts with human beings. He is the King of kings, the most powerful ruler of the universe. He is a rock and a fortress, our stability and protection. God also describes Himself as the Shepherd of Israel.
Shepherds and their sheep were an integral part of Jewish culture throughout Israel’s history. When God called people to become leaders, He charged them to shepherd His people and care for them. Unfortunately, many leaders failed their charge miserably. God chastised these kings and prophets for deserting, destroying, and scattering the very souls they were supposed to care for. These evil shepherds fed themselves but left the sheep to starve. They ruled with harshness and cruelty and neglected the weak and injured sheep. As a result, the sheep scattered and became easy prey for wild animals. But God would have the last word!
God would search for His scattered sheep and rescue His flock. He will lead them by the rivers and take them to lush pastures to feed. As the Good Shepherd, He will provide a safe and peaceful place to lie down and rest. He will search for the lost ones and bring them safely home, bandaging the injured and strengthening the weak. And although many kings failed as shepherds to care for God’s people, God spoke of a future descendant of King David, who would be a true and loving shepherd over God’s people.
Jesus Fulfills the Old Testament Analogy
In the Gospels, Jesus often used illustrations from the everyday lives of His audience to teach a spiritual truth. To help His disciples understand God’s character or the Kingdom of God, Jesus spoke of beautiful lilies, branches in a vineyard, a farmer sowing seeds, and a woman sweeping her house searching for a lost coin. In one such story, Jesus fulfilled the Old Testament analogy by comparing Himself to a shepherd.
I tell you the truth, anyone who sneaks over the wall of a sheepfold, rather than going through the gate, must surely be a thief and a robber! But the one who enters through the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep recognize his voice and come to him. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. After he has gathered his own flock, he walks ahead of them, and they follow him because they know his voice. John 10:1-4
In a small first-century Jewish village, most families owned a few sheep that were kept in a walled courtyard connected to the house. Each morning a shepherd, usually a son or daughter from one of the families, would take the sheep of the village out to graze in the open country. As the shepherd moved from house to house, the doorkeeper, who knew the shepherd, would open the door to the courtyard and allow the shepherd to call out the sheep. After gathering the flock, the shepherd walked ahead of the sheep, and the sheep followed in the shepherd’s footsteps.
Thieves and Robbers
Anyone who tried to sneak over the wall of the courtyard rather than going through the gate must surely be a thief. The sheep, however, wouldn’t follow a robber because they knew the voice of their shepherd and felt safe with them.
In John 10, Jesus referred to Himself as the true Shepherd of the sheep and to the Pharisees as thieves and robbers. The Pharisees dedicated their lives to the study and proper interpretation of Jewish law. Over the centuries, teachers of the law handed down commentary on the Old Testament scriptures through spoken memorization, which came to be known as the “oral law.” The oral law developed restrictive rules for a Jew in everyday life. For example, the oral law determined how many steps a person could walk on the Sabbath before their walking turned into “work.” The Pharisees were obsessed with obedience to this oral law. When Jesus refused to accept the teachings of the oral law as Scripture, the Pharisees became hostile. They repeatedly criticized Him and His disciples for breaking the “law” by picking grain on the Sabbath or not washing their hands properly before a meal. Unconcerned about God’s people, the Pharisees selfishly fought to protect their positions of power. They refused to acknowledge God’s work through Christ and repeatedly used their influence over the people to try to draw them away from Christ. Jesus taught His disciples that obeying the oral law of the Pharisees destroyed the lives of God’s people. These religious leaders were trying to steal the sheep away from their true Shepherd.
Jesus: The Good Shepherd
When the people didn’t understand Jesus’ story, he explained further,
[Jesus] explained [the illustration] to them: “I tell you the truth, I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me were thieves and robbers. But the true sheep did not listen to them. Yes, I am the gate. Those who come in through me will be saved. They will come and go freely and will find good pastures. The thief’s purpose is to steal and kill and destroy. My purpose is to give them a rich and satisfying life. I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd sacrifices his life for the sheep…. I am the good shepherd; I know my own sheep, and they know me, just as my Father knows me and I know the Father. So I sacrifice my life for the sheep. John 10:7-15
When Jewish shepherds stayed overnight in the open country with their sheep, they constructed a circle of stones or thorny branches to protect the sheep from wild animals. Then, the shepherd would lie down and serve as the gate in a small opening.
Jesus, the Good Shepherd, loves His sheep and laid down His life, sacrificing it as the gate for His followers. Through Christ’s life and resurrection, He is our gate to enter eternal salvation. As Jesus’ disciples, we not only are given spiritual salvation but are led out to good pastures, an illustration for a rich and satisfying life. While the Pharisees’ self-centered obsession with their oral law sought to steal and destroy the lives of God’s people with legalistic and unjust laws, Jesus voluntarily sacrificed His life for His sheep to give them freedom and to restore their souls.
Jesus, our Good Shepherd, gave His life for us on the cross. He knows each one of us intimately and by name. And when we learn the voice of our Shepherd by spending time with Him and through listening to His voice in Scripture, He leads us. We follow in our Good Shepherd’s footsteps into a rich and satisfying life – not a life free from suffering or a life of ease, but an abundant spiritual life of contentment, peace, and joy.
Place Yourself in the Care of the Good Shepherd
The desert can be a perilous and barren place for sheep. Although rain falls several months of the year, at other times, water and food are scarce. Wild animals are a constant threat. But in the desert of life, our Good Shepherd will watch over us. He leads us to rest in green meadows and leads us beside peaceful streams. He guides us to walk in the right paths, so we do not get lost. He is close beside us, protecting and comforting us. He holds us close to His heart and gently leads us into a life overflowing with His eternal treasures.
Spend time with your Shepherd today and learn His voice. Listen to the Courage For Life audio Bible any time on your Apple or Android device. Download for free today.