“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd gives His life for the sheep.” (John 10:11, NKJV)
Just as we can appreciate light more fully by contrasting it with darkness, so we can understand what Jesus means by calling Himself the good shepherd by distinguishing Him from a bad shepherd.
In this metaphor, shepherds are those appointed by God to care for His flock. The flock in view is His people. The shepherds are those tasked with the spiritual direction, protection, and provision of the needs of the sheep entrusted to them.
God gives a scathing performance review of the shepherds of Israel in Ezekiel 34:1-6. They had failed in every respect. Here is an excerpt of that review: “The weak you have not strengthened, nor have you healed those who were sick, nor bound up the broken, nor brought back what was driven away, nor sought what was lost; but with force and cruelty you have ruled them” (Ezek. 34:4).
Because of their utter failure and dereliction, God Himself will be the shepherd of His people (Ezek. 34:11-16). He declares, “I will feed them with good pasture, and on the mountain heights of Israel shall be their grazing land. There they shall lie down in good grazing land, and on rich pasture they shall feed on the mountains of Israel. I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I myself will make them lie down, declares the Lord GOD” (Ezek. 34:14–15, ESV).
In God’s declaration we find echoes of the shepherd of Psalm 23 where the shepherd is the Lord Himself. He will not desert the sheep but instead lead them to grazing fields of green pastures and to refreshing drink from still waters. Under His watch the sheep need not fear evil.
These words take on flesh when we hear Jesus say, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd gives His life for the sheep” (John 10:11). Contrary to the false shepherds who were concerned only for themselves, Jesus would not desert the sheep.
God had come in the person of His Son to shepherd the sheep. Jesus describes His mission in terms of life. He came to His sheep that they may have life and have it abundantly (John 10:10). He would die for them, and gather those for whom He died (John 10:14-16). Those purchased by Christ can say with confidence: “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life; and I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever” (Psa. 23:6).
The picture Jesus gives us of Himself as the good shepherd is not simply replacing an incompetent and corrupt workforce with one that will do the job well. It is a picture of God doing what mere men could not. Even David, a man after God’s own heart proved to be insufficient for the task. After David counted the people under his rule, he realized his sin of pride and confessed that sin to the Lord. As a consequence of his foolishness, God offered him three options: three years of famine, three months of fleeing from his foes, or three days of pestilence in the land. David chose the last and God sent destruction that killed 70,000 men throughout Israel. Seeing these people fall, David cried out to the Lord: “Surely I have sinned, and I have done wickedly; but these sheep, what have they done?” (2 Sam. 24:17).
David, the cream of the crop, had failed as God’s shepherd. But Jesus came as the good shepherd, the one to carry out the Father’s will, the one who would not fail. Those who are His are not merely numbered on a roll to be counted. They belong to Jesus. He calls them by name. He knows them and holds them fast. “My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me. And I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; neither shall anyone snatch them out of My hand” (John 10:27–28), says the good Shepherd.
1. How is Jesus the good shepherd?
2. What does it mean to be in His fold?
Scripture quotations marked NKJV are from The Holy Bible, New King James Version, copyright ©1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Those marked ESV are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright ©2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.