My parents owned a grain farm, then moved and lived in a mixed farming area. By then I was married and we owned a mixed farm nearby. Cattle are the norm in that area, but one season we bought a few sheep. Never again. To say it nicely, sheep are difficult to deal with.
In his book, A Shepherd looks at Psalm 23, published by Zondervan in 1970, shepherd Phillip Keller draws wonderful parallels between the work of raising sheep to the way the Lord Jesus Christ takes care of His people. He also shows how we are like sheep. Sheep easily scatter and wander off. They are prone to predators as well as injury and disease. They need help finding food and water, and are scared of everything.
I read the book a long time ago, yet still shiver a bit when I remember the smell and the seemingly empty heads of those critters. Without a lot of care, I’m sure they would starve, walk obliviously into danger and be eaten by wolves, or simply die of fright.
The Bible uses this image of sheep and our Shepherd in several places. Initially, the most important verse in my mind is the one that defines sin.
All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned, every one, to his own way; and the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all. (Isaiah 53:6)I used to think sin was the big stuff, like murder and stealing, but this verse and others show me that sin is just doing my own thing, ignoring God and ignoring His commands. It is thinking my own thoughts, saying my own words, and doing whatever pleases me. I am like a silly sheep.
Most of that seems innocent enough, yet eventually my selfishness got me into trouble. Even though I am far more aggressive than the average sheep, I hadn’t killed anyone, but Jesus said even wanting to makes me guilty. I hadn’t stolen anything either, but the Bible makes it clear that coveting what others have is as bad. However, I did do things that I knew were wrong and the Holy Spirit began convicting me that I was a sinner, even though I would not have used that word to describe me. Instead, I called myself a colossal failure. I cried much and lost all confidence in my ability to do anything right.
At that low point, the Shepherd walked in. Jesus brought light and life and started to care for me. As the Bible says, I was “like sheep going astray, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.” (1 Peter 2:25)
Keller’s book pointed out that Jesus is the patient and loving shepherd. He saw me going off track and took me into His fold. He said, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd gives His life for the sheep.” (John 10:11)
Jesus did do that. He died for my sin so I don’t have to. Yet the startling truth of His death is that Scripture does not picture a Shepherd on a cross as these verses might suggest, but a lamb, the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world! (John 1:29)
In becoming a lamb, He also became one of us. He is not totally like us in that He didn’t sin, but like us (and like a lamb) in our vulnerability. Right after the verse where Isaiah defines sin, he writes:
He was oppressed and He was afflicted, yet He opened not His mouth; He was led as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before its shearers is silent, so He opened not His mouth. (Isaiah 53:7)The last thing I would have done to take care of my flock of stupid sheep would be to become one of them. While they might understand me better, even a cute lamb is not so cute in reality. But Jesus did that. He became one of us, a lamb, even a sacrificial lamb. Then He allowed Himself to be led to the cross where He silently offered His life for mine.
Easter is next weekend. Commercialism has made it a time of chocolate, eggs, rabbits, and cute little stuffed lambs. How sad, but at least when I see the lambs I can be reminded of the Lamb who was my sacrifice and is now my Shepherd.