Threads – June 4
This is the third week of our series Threads, where we’re exploring some literary images and concepts which weave throughout the entire Bible. Like the “tree of life” (that was week 1), or the chaotic waters of the sea (last week).
The whole point of this series is to help equip you to be able to explore and understand and engage with this “library of scrolls” on your own.
For example, when you come across passages that talk about “the sea” or “Leviathan,” hopefully after last week you’ll be swept into the biblical drama of our Creator God bringing order out of chaos - the chaos of our world, and the chaos of our lives.
These threads don’t always mean the exact same thing every time we see them, but they are all a part of a dynamic story that leads to Jesus.
Well, today we are going to talk about the biblical thread of… sheep. And shepherds.
And let me tell you. I thought the last two weeks were hard because I had to cram a ton of passages and theological developments and ideas into two very short messages.
But this week we’re talking about sheep and it is downright ridiculous.
There are over 700 verses of the Bible that mention sheep or shepherds or pastures in one form or another.
Suffice it to say, we are not going to look at all of them. What we are going to do is explore how the idea of sheep in the Bible invites us into a whole new appreciation for the profound and compassionate love of God.
THE WORLD BEHIND THE TEXT
Before we open up our Bibles, though, I want to make two comments about the world behind the text. The world that the biblical authors were living in that may be a little different than ours.
First of all, why sheep?
Well, in the ancient world, sheep were a majorly significant part of the economy. They were used for wool, for meat, and for milk. They were probably one of the first animals domesticated by humans. So sheep were a big deal to ancient people.
And in Israel, specifically, sheep were an even more important source of wealth because the Judean hill country was pretty arid. It was hard to grow staple crops there consistently. So sheep were a great alternative, because they could just graze in the scrubland which was otherwise useless to people.
All you had to do was move your flocks from place to place and make sure they had access to fresh greenery. Your sheep would have babies, and your wealth would grow. It was a great solution in a dry place.
All that to say, sheep were a significant part of everyday life in Israel, and they were a readily available metaphor for the biblical authors to draw from.
So that’s one thing. The second “world behind the text” idea to understand is that sheep are what’s called “prey” animals (as opposed to “predators”).
This is something I’ve learned a lot about through the creatures my wife and I have adopted. If you don’t know, we have a small animal rescue farm where we have potbelly pigs, domestic rabbits, and even some rescue chickens.
We don’t yet have any sheep, although Liv and I did transport one to Oinking Acres in my Prius a couple months ago.
Anyway, what I’ve learned about prey animals is that that have a very specific set of behaviors which grow out of their relative vulnerability.
For example, they are very social creatures. They bond with one another, they have finely tuned social hierarchies, and develop strong, trusting ties with their caretakers. This is how they survive in a dangerous world. Together.
They are also very cautious and can startle easily. They kind of don’t have “fight or flight” response. It’s just “flight.”
This is one of the reasons sheep get a reputation as being dumb, because in their fear they’ll sometimes get stuck places or the whole flock will go the wrong direction, etc.
They’re actually very intelligent creatures, but in a hostile world their bodies are finely tuned to get them away from danger. They are prey animals.
I tell you all this because most of us don’t have livestock in our day to day lives, but the Bible’s original readers would have and they would have all seen how prey animals behave with their own eyes.
Alright. So keep those two ideas in mind as we dive in. Sheep were everywhere in Israel, and sheep are prey animals.
Ok. So the overarching metaphor we need to hold onto as we explore this biblical thread of sheep is this:
We are God’s flock. He is our shepherd.
This is how the biblical authors describe the relationship we have with Yahweh, our Creator. It’s everywhere.
Acknowledge that the LORD is God!
He made us, and we are his.
We are his people, the sheep of his pasture.
Let us kneel before the LORD our maker,
for he is our God.
We are the people he watches over,
the flock under his care.
And this makes sense as a metaphor, right? When you understand the nature of sheep as prey animals, it’s a great illustration for people. Just like sheep in this hostile, chaotic world we are vulnerable, we’re afraid, and we’re totally dependent on a shepherd or leader to guide us.
I love the way the prophet Isaiah describes this.
Yes, the Sovereign LORD is coming in power.
He will rule with a powerful arm.
See, he brings his reward with him as he comes.
He will feed his flock like a shepherd.
He will carry the lambs in his arms,
holding them close to his heart.
He will gently lead the mother sheep with their young.
I love that image. God is a powerful warrior… who is holding baby lambs in his arms.
So, God is the ultimate shepherd over his people. He will protect us, and he will lead us to green pastures. That’s the baseline idea.
But the biblical authors take this idea one step further. Because it’s not just God who is the shepherd of the people. The Bible describes human leaders as shepherds too. God gives them the responsibility of caring for his flock.
Like King David, for example. He started out as an actual, literal shepherd, but when he became ruler over Israel, God expanded this calling.
He chose his servant David,
calling him from the sheep pens.
He took David from tending the ewes and lambs
and made him the shepherd of Jacob’s descendants—
God’s own people, Israel.
God entrusts his flock to human leaders like David.
This is all well and good when Israel’s kings and priests are godly and just, but what happens when the rulers of the people are unjust and corrupt?
Well that’s what the prophet Ezekiel talks about. In chapter 34 he has this searing prophecy for the leaders of Israel who were failing in their call.
Ezekiel 34:2-4, 10
What sorrow awaits you shepherds who feed yourselves instead of your flocks. Shouldn’t shepherds feed their sheep? You drink the milk, wear the wool, and butcher the best animals, but you let your flocks starve. You have not taken care of the weak. You have not tended the sick or bound up the injured. You have not gone looking for those who have wandered away and are lost… This is what the Sovereign LORD says: I now consider these shepherds my enemies, and I will hold them responsible for what has happened to my flock. I will take away their right to feed the flock, and I will stop them from feeding themselves. I will rescue my flock from their mouths; the sheep will no longer be their prey.
Ooh. That’s intense. You shepherds are starving your flock and fattening yourself, and now you’re my enemy, God says…
All that to say, as the tension in the biblical story builds, we’re left with this aching realization: The people of Israel - God’s flock - need good shepherds to lead them, but God himself might be the only one who’s up to the task.
So, hold that thought because there another aspect of this sheep thread that is important for us to remember. Throughout the biblical narrative,
Sheep are a substitute for sinful humanity.
All through Scripture we see sheep sacrificed for the sins of humans. Because they’re innocent creatures, because they’re guiltless, in the ancient mind sheep could take the place of sinners.
For example, in Exodus we see the Israelites sacrificing a lamb and using its blood on their doorposts to spare their families during Passover.
Every year on the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) a spotless, perfect ram was sacrificed as a burnt offering for the sins of the whole nation.
And as individuals, Israelites would sacrifice sheep throughout the year to atone for their own sins. Literally, they would put their hand on the head of the sheep as if to say, “This creature is me.”
Then they would take its life and burn it on the altar so the smoke of this innocent creature would rise to heaven in place of the sinful person who could never do that in their sin. That was the sacrificial system of Israel.
Now, look. I’m not defending the practice. If I’m spending my time driving rescue sheep around in my Prius, I’m not exactly a fan of animal sacrifice.
But this was a huge part of ancient Israelite culture, and it is vital for us to understand it if we want to grasp what the biblical authors were trying to communicate about God.
The people need a sacrifice because our sin has separated us from our shepherd. And to the Israelites sheep were seen as a suitable substitute…
But were they?
I’ve mentioned that these biblical threads are dynamic, and this is a perfect example. Because some of the biblical authors - especially the prophets - start to question this whole concept. Is sacrificing sheep really going to be enough or are the people too sinful? Too corrupt?
The prophet Isaiah, for example, suggested that what was really needed was not a sheep but a righteous human to be a sacrifice. A servant of God who is innocent like a lamb, but who would take the sins of the people on himself as a substitute.
But he was pierced for our rebellion,
crushed for our sins.
He was beaten so we could be whole.
He was whipped so we could be healed.
All of us, like sheep, have strayed away.
We have left God’s paths to follow our own.
Yet the LORD laid on him
the sins of us all.
He was oppressed and treated harshly,
yet he never said a word.
He was led like a lamb to the slaughter.
And as a sheep is silent before the shearers,
he did not open his mouth.
Now I know exactly where our minds go when we hear this passage, but remember this was written probably around 550 B.C.
For centuries the people of Israel understood that they needed a greater substitute for their sin. But they had no idea when or if such a selfless servant would ever take their place.
So we have two ideas converging as we come to the New Testament. First is the idea that God himself may be the only one truly qualified to shepherd his flock.
Second is the idea that one of God’s flock - a truly spotless lamb, a sinless servant - may be the only one suitable to take the place of sinful Israel as a sacrifice.
We can see where this is leading. Yeah. It’s Jesus.
But not just in a “well, it’s Church so of course the answer is Jesus” kind of way.
No! There are hundreds of biblical passages which use sheep and shepherds as a way of making sense of this world, and Jesus is the fulfillment of all of them. And this is where things get so cool…
For one thing, Jesus calls himself the “good shepherd.” He takes on himself the mantle of God, the warrior shepherd of Isaiah. He sees us as his flock.
When he saw the crowds, [Jesus] had compassion on them because they were confused and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.
Jesus sees himself as the good shepherd and the people as his flock. Why? Because he is God walking among us. He is the chief shepherd who loves us with unfailing love.
And he is going to make right what those failed shepherds of Israel got wrong. Remember that prophecy from Ezekiel 34? With those evil so-called shepherds neglecting and eating the flock?
Well, Jesus understood himself as a fulfillment of that passage. Here’s what God says in Ezekiel:
I myself will tend my sheep and give them a place to lie down in peace, says the Sovereign LORD. I will search for my lost ones who strayed away, and I will bring them safely home again. I will bandage the injured and strengthen the weak.
And here is what Jesus says in John:
John 10:10-11, 14-15
The thief’s purpose is to steal and kill and destroy. My purpose is to give [my flock] a rich and satisfying life. I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd sacrifices his life for the sheep… 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.
Jesus is the Good Shepherd, putting the flock’s needs above his own, unlike those corrupt shepherds before him.
But right here we see the real twist. Yes, he’s the shepherd, but He’s also the sacrificial lamb. He is the sinless one, like in Isaiah 53, who would take the sins of the people on himself.
Having done nothing wrong, Jesus would die to save his flock. Because of his sacrifice, we are not defined by our sin and shame anymore.
And we’re not constantly slaughtering sheep to make right our sinful rebellion. We can enter God’s pastures once again because Jesus took our place on the cross once and for all.
The whole New Testament echoes with this concept.
1 Peter 1:18-19
For you know that God paid a ransom to save you from the empty life you inherited from your ancestors. And it was not paid with mere gold or silver, which lose their value. It was the precious blood of Christ, the sinless, spotless Lamb of God.
The sacrificed lamb, who is also the good shepherd.
For the Lamb on the throne will be their Shepherd. He will lead them to springs of life-giving water. And God will wipe every tear from their eyes.
As I said before, all of these threads about sheep and shepherds come to their fruition in the person of Christ.
Jesus is the good shepherd. Jesus is the lamb who was slain.
And because of these two truths coming together, we know a one thing for sure: We are safe under his care.
Yes, this world is chaotic and terrifying. We are like prey animals at the mercy of this world’s brokenness. Death, pain, violence, injustice…
Everything in us wants to flee when faced with the evil around us and within us. But our good shepherd is here, he has made us spotless, and he will lead us home.
Our job is not to save ourselves. Our job is to listen to the good shepherd’s voice. To trust in him. And to follow the one who knows the way to greener pastures.
Jesus is the good shepherd. Jesus is the lamb who was slain. We are God’s flock and the gate to his pasture is wide open.
Now I said before that sheep are mentioned in the Bible hundreds and hundreds of times. Obviously, we barely scratched the surface today. But I hope I at least made you aware of how this biblical thread hums through the pages of our Bibles.
As we close today I want you to do two things.
First, I have a new take-home passage for you. Every week in this series we’re giving you a challenge to read one more Scripture passage on your own to see how this thread shows up.
This week it’s John 21, specifically the part where Jesus reinstates Peter after he betrays him. But, if you’re willing to do a bit of extra digging, I want you to first read Ezekiel 34 and Isaiah 53. Tell me if that doesn’t bring John 21 into some new light for you.
(I put all those passages in the app notes and we’ll post about it later this week on social media.)
Finally, as we’ve been doing every week in this series, I want to give you space to allow this biblical thread to weave into your life.
Go ahead and close your eyes if you’d like, try to imagine yourself as a sheep. A prey animal, dependent on your shepherd. Think about your life:
• What are you afraid of right now?
• What enemies – what predators – are you facing?
• What hardships are you going through?
As you consider the dry valleys and wolves of your world, practice putting your trust in what Jesus, the sacrificial lamb, has done for you. Listen for your good shepherd’s voice speaking to you as I read this psalm:
The LORD is my shepherd;
I have all that I need.
He lets me rest in green meadows;
he leads me beside peaceful streams.
He renews my strength.
He guides me along right paths,
bringing honor to his name.
Even when I walk
through the darkest valley,
I will not be afraid,
for you are close beside me.
Your rod and your staff
protect and comfort me.
You prepare a feast for me
in the presence of my enemies.
You honor me by anointing my head with oil.
My cup overflows with blessings.
Surely your goodness and unfailing love will pursue me
all the days of my life,
and I will live in the house of the LORD