In our last article, after some introductory remarks, we began dealing with the relation between Christ and His people as that relation is defined in Scripture in terms of a shepherd and his sheep. We discussed the fact that this is the implied relationship in what is called, “Pastoral Theology”—the general subject with which this rubric has to do. We discussed the fact already that Scripture often calls Christ the Shepherd of His sheep, and we made brief mention of the fact that Christ is the Shepherd because He is the revelation of Jehovah God, Who alone is our Shepherd. We also pointed out that Scripture often calls those who are appointed in the church to teach the people of God, shepherds, and that Scripture has some very strong words of condemnation for those who are unfaithful shepherds.
We want to turn now to the fact that God’s people are considered sheep; This is already either stated or implied in some of the passages to which we referred and which we quoted; but we want to call attention to a few more such passages in order that we may draw some conclusions from them.
Before we enter into this idea specifically, it is perhaps worthwhile to notice that Jesus Himself is sometimes referred to as a sheep or a lamb. Already in the Old Testament economy, there were sacrifices of sheep, (see Lev. 1:10, Num. 18:17, and many similar passages). A sheep or a lamb was indeed a particular kind of offering. This is evident from Abel’s sacrifice which, inHeb. 11:4, is described as a more excellent sacrifice than Cain’s. It was this because of the fact that Abel, by offering a lamb, showed his awareness of his sin and his hope in the promise of God that sin would be removed by the sacrifice of a perfect lamb. Isaiah also describes the sacrifice of Christ in these terms: “He is brought as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is dumb, so he openeth not his mouth.” Isaiah 53:7b. When writing this beautiful prophecy, in which Isaiah saw so clearly the atonement of Christ that it seems almost as if he were standing at the foot of Calvary, Isaiah compares Christ’s suffering with the shearing and slaughter of sheep. And he finds that the silence of sheep under such circumstances was a picture of the silence of Christ. This figure is not meant to convey to us the idea that during Christ’s trial He never spoke. The gospel narratives show us clearly that when the defense of the truth of God and His own calling required of Him to speak, Christ spoke many words. But the figure is intended to show us that Christ went to the cross in perfect obedience to His Father. He did not complain; He did not make an effort to defend Himself; He did not rail against His accusers; but He submitted without argument to the various judgments which were pronounced upon Him. And He did this because it was required of Him that He walk the way of the cross in order to accomplish the atonement for which God had sent Him into the world. There is, therefore, a mixed figure when Scripture refers to Christ both as the Shepherd and as a sheep. But the latter figure refers particularly to Christ from the viewpoint of His perfectly obedient suffering to accomplish redemption for His people. It is as if the Scriptures are saying that Christ, by means of becoming a sheep, could and did become the perfect and exalted Shepherd of the flock. It was through the way of His obedient walk which led Him to the cross that He was exalted to the position of chief and only Shepherd of His people. It is with all the prophecies of the Old Testament in mind that John the Baptist pointed out Christ to the multitudes with the words: “Behold the lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world.” John 1:29b.
But God’s people are also called sheep in Scripture. It is not surprising that this figure is used repeatedly in the Psalms. Psalm 23 has this figure underlying its entire metaphor. In Psalm 44:22 the Psalmist writes: “Yea, for thy sake are we killed all the day long; we are counted as sheep for the slaughter.” It is this precise verse which Paul later quotes in Romans 8:36. In Psalm 78:52, in speaking of the wonders God performed for Israel, the Psalmist writes: “But made his own people to go forth like sheep, and guided them in the wilderness like a flock.” And Asaph confesses in Psalm 79:13 “So we thy people and sheep of thy pasture will give thee thanks forever: we will show forth thy praise to all generations.”
But there are several passages which especially give to us the reasons why God’s people are called sheep. The first group of these passages always defines a particular relationship between God and His people through Christ. That is, the people of God are called sheep in Scripture because they are peculiarly God’s own people. The idea of being God’s sheep implies possession, and carries with it therefore the idea of election. We read, e.g., in Psalm 9.5:7, “For he is our God; and we are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand.” Or, again, in Psalm 100:3 “Know ye that the Lord he is God: it is he that hath made us, and not we ourselves; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.” All these texts emphasize that, because we are sheep, we are the possession of God. We belong to him in a special and unique way. And all of this carries us back to the decree of sovereign election.
This idea is probably stressed most strongly in the “parable” of the sheep and the goats found in Matthew 25:31-46. In this passage we read of the Son of Man coming in His glory with His holy angels. When He sits upon the throne of His glory and when all nations are gathered before Him, He separates the sheep from the goats and sets the sheep upon His right hand. To these sheep He says, “Come, ye blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” The very fact that the kingdom was prepared for them from the foundation of the world indicates that they were God’s chosen people from all eternity. That they are sheep, therefore, indicates that they are God’s elect people.
But there is yet another idea involved in this concept of sheep. The Scriptures also bring this idea to the foreground in various passages. This idea is indicated in, e.g., the parable of the lost sheep in Luke 15:3-7. God’s people are portrayed in that parable by the figure of the sheep which wanders away from the flock. This is not an uncommon figure in the Scriptures. The Psalmist confesses in Psalm 119:176: “I have gone astray like a lost sheep; seek thy servant; for I do not forget thy commandments.” And although once again unfaithful shepherds are to blame, Jeremiah speaks God’s Word when he says in chapter 50:6: “My people hath been lost sheep: their shepherds have caused them to go astray, they have turned them away on the mountains: they have gone from mountain to hill, they have forgotten their resting place.” Isaiah puts a similar confession in the mouths of God’s people when he writes: “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned everyone to his own way.” Isaiah 53:6. G.F. Handel perhaps missed the point here a bit when he wrote his glorious oratorio, “The Messiah.” The music which accompanies this chorale number is obviously intended to convey the idea of sheep blithely and unconcernedly frolicking through the meadows and straying farther and farther away from the safety of the flock. And, while this is indeed a sadly true picture of how God’s people actually do go astray in many instances, nevertheless, the words of Isaiah 53:6 are a sorrowful confession of sin which pours forth from the lips and heart of the child of God. The same idea is expressed by the Apostle Peter in I Peter 2:25: “For ye were as sheep going astray; but are now returned unto the Shepherd and Bishop of your souls.” If we take these passages into account along with such passages as Psalm 23 and the general figure of a sheep which Scripture as a whole portrays for us, then we see why it is entirely appropriate for God’s people to be pictured as sheep.
If any of you who reads this has ever worked with sheep, then you will know that sheep are perhaps the most stupid of all domesticated animals. And in their stupidity, they are also the most helpless. They are unable to take care of themselves in any respect. They cannot find their own pasture and water unless it is right under their noses. They will literally eat themselves to death if they manage to break into an alfalfa field. They cannot have their young by themselves, and the shepherd must be with them constantly. They will not seek shelter in a blizzard though the shelter be within 20 feet of them. They panic easily at unexpected noises and will rush off sometimes to destruction if they are not watched. They will foolishly stray away from the flock if they are not kept close by the shepherd and his dogs—even though they are totally unable to cope with the dangers of mountains, cliffs, ravines, and wild animals. And so they must be perpetually watched and cared for. So much is this true that in sheep country, people talk of “sheep men.” That is, not every man is successful in raising sheep. This work takes a particular kind of man. It takes a man who has endless patience, who will not chafe under the inconvenience that sheep cause him, who is willing to forego his own personal comforts for the welfare of the sheep, and who will provide for the sheep all their needs because they cannot provide for themselves. Not every man can do this. In short, it takes a man who loves sheep, not because they are such lovable creatures—for they are quite the contrary; but simply because he loves them. This is the main attribute required.
It is for this reason, too, that the figure of sheep is so appropriate for God’s people. All that sheep are in the natural sense, God’s people are in the spiritual sense. God’s people are utterly helpless of themselves. They cannot find the green pastures and the quiet waters which are so essential to their spiritual wellbeing. They need a shepherd to find these pastures for them and to lead them beside the still waters. They cannot protect themselves from the enemies that surround them, yet in their foolishness they are repeatedly straying away from the safety of the flock and exposing themselves to all kinds of dangers in which they will surely perish if their shepherd does not go to search for them and to restore them again to the fold. They never know what is best for themselves, and will, in their stupidity, usually do what is harmful to them. They would indeed kill themselves if the Shepherd and Bishop of their souls did not watch carefully over them in love and with tender regard.
It is exactly against the background of this figure that the whole idea of Christ as the Good Shepherd stands out so sharply in Scripture.
The two ideas are, of course, connected. God’s people are sheep by virtue of the decree of eternal election. And as such, they are the objects of God’s eternal and unchangeable love. That love is revealed centrally in Christ Who laid down His life for the sheep. Therefore, Christ is their Shepherd. He goes to seek them when they are lost. It matters not how hard the way may be that He must travel to retrieve them—even if it means going to the death of the cross; Christ goes to find them. He, as it were, forgets Himself and the comforts of His home, the warm meal that awaits Him at the fireside; He forgets the weariness of the day and the safety of His dwelling; His only concern is to search for His sheep which is lost. And having found that sheep, He does not drive that foolish sheep which had caused Him such discomfort with a stick back to the fold, but He tenderly lifts that weary and footsore and terrified sheep upon His mighty shoulders to carry it back to safety. And He comes rejoicing. So greatly does He love that sheep that He is willing to lay down His life that His sheep may live. No price is too great to pay and no suffering too great to endure.
But as the Shepherd of His sheep, Christ cares for all the needs of His sheep throughout their entire life in the world. Never does He take His eye from them; never for a moment does He leave them; always He watches over them and cares for them, protecting them from all danger and insuring the safety of their souls, until such a time as He can take them to glory with Him.
And all this for sheep who are so stupid they deserve nothing. This is the wonder of the figure, Christ and His sheep.