Shepherds are some of the most frequently depicted figures in the Bible. Abraham, Jacob, Rachel, the ancestors of the 12 tribes, Zipporah, Moses and David were all shepherds. They learned about guiding and caring for animals and applied those lessons to guiding and caring for humans. We celebrate the truth in this week’s psalm that the Lord is our shepherd. But what does it mean for God to be our shepherd and for us to be God’s flock?
After that familiar opening, Psalm 23 describes what kind of shepherd God is. God not only provides ample food in green pastures but also keeps the sheep safe by leading them to still waters rather than wadis or rivers whose swift waters could sweep them away. Even when the sheep tread a dangerous path through hostile lands, the shepherd is there, armed and capable of defending them. This is our shepherd, who knows what is best for us and seeks to protect us from harm and danger.
But what are the responsibilities of sheep that have been claimed by God? While Jesus is walking through the temple courts during the cold days of Hanukkah (John 10:22), he is asked bluntly if he is the messiah. Jesus responds to this question about his identity by commenting on the identities of the questioners—they did not believe Jesus was the messiah because they weren’t his sheep (26). Then Jesus identified two important aspects of his flock: Jesus’ sheep know his voice, and they follow him (27).
This will make sense to anyone acquainted with traditional shepherding societies, where intermingled flocks can be quickly separated out by master shepherds whose sheep recognize their voices. Jesus gives eternal life to his sheep who follow him.
This week’s passage from Acts offers two excellent examples of people who act like sheep following their shepherd. The disciple Tabitha knows what it means to follow Jesus—she was always doing good and helping the poor (Acts 9:36). Then she falls ill and dies. This could have been the end of a faithful and Christlike life, but God intervenes. At the request of Tabitha’s loved ones, Peter comes to her home, where several widows line up to show him the clothes Tabitha has made for them (39). He kneels by her side and prays for her, and she is returned to life. Then Peter presents this godly woman to the many people who have come to mourn her, especially the widows (41).
Jesus, the lamb who was slain, has also become our shepherd.
Tabitha followed her shepherd messiah and obeyed his command that she care for “the least of these” (Matthew 25:36-40), which certainly included poor widows in need of clothing. Peter, too, heard the voice of Jesus, who said: “The one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these …” (John 14:12). In this text, Peter becomes a conduit for God’s power, raising Tabitha from the dead.
Revelation presents an image of the glorious celebration of Jesus’ conquest over the powers of sin and death. A great multitude, recognizable as people from every nation, tribe, people and language group, assemble to sing praises and worship God and the Lamb (Revelation 7:10). Then one of the elders attending the throne of God proclaims that “the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes” (7:17). Jesus, the lamb who was slain, purchased redemption and salvation by laying down his life for the sheep (John 10:11).
In Jesus we see the best shepherd. He guides and protects us, sustaining us along the journey. He guides us as we seek to follow him and coaxes us back with his voice when we wander. He shows us the way forward and how to emulate him as we care for our neighbors. And like the very best of shepherds, he goes ahead of us to prepare a glorious place for us. Jesus, the lamb who was slain, has also become our shepherd.