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The Good Shepherd

The image of the shepherd finds deep roots in the earliest stories of the people of Israel. It is not only that the first families subsisted as sheep and goat herders, though they did. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were subject to the semi-nomadic life required for the care of their flocks. Jacob in particular won independence from Laban through his canny husbandry (Gen. 30:37-43); and in the great swing of his life from manipulation to receptivity, he was finally able to rest in the theological vision of “the God who has been my shepherd all my life to this day” (45:12).

Moses seems to have experienced shepherding as a sort of “return to his roots” after assimilation to the sophistication of Pharaoh’s court. He served the flocks of Jethro for a full 40 years after his flight from Egypt as a murderer, and he was called as deliverer literally from the pasture (Exod. 3:1; Acts 7:30). The OT writers understood that in those years Moses was reshaped as the needed shepherd of the people, under the great shepherd and God of the covenant (Psalms 77:20; Isa. 63:11).

The rise of towns and an urban culture in Israel might have dimmed the appreciation of shepherding as something essential to the nation,1 but in fact the metaphorical value of shepherding, particularly in understanding Yahweh as the Great Shepherd, seems to have kept it alive. It comes to its greatest expression in the writings associated with David, whose career trajectory from the pasture to the palace was aided poignantly by the shepherd’s accoutrements of sling and harp. Psalm 23 articulates for all time the assurance of personal “shepherding” by the Lord; and David continues the tradition that understands the leader as the under-shepherd serving the flock of God (his anointing as ruler at Hebron included a prophetic word that “You will shepherd my people Israel,” 2 Sam. 5:2)

The prophets extended the metaphor historically and eschatologically, understanding the ups and downs of Israel’s rulers in terms of good shepherding and bad (Jer. 23:1-2; Zech. 10:2-3), prophesying the coming of a Davidic shepherd to protect, judge, and feed (Ezek. 34:23-24). And at the last “the Lord God will come with might; …like a shepherd he will tend his flock” (Isa. 40:10-11).

Shepherding images cluster around Jesus. The shepherds attending his birth (Luke 2:2-20) testify to a pure, though poor, Israel ready to receive this fresh revelation. Jesus’ parables, though more apt to draw on agriculture for their imagery, also explore the dynamics of the flock: guarding, nurturing, judging (Matt. 7:15; 12:11; 18:12-14; 25:32-33). Jesus’ own leadership as “good shepherd” emerges from his ministry. Matthew, summarizing Jesus’ exhausting labors among the people, explains that “he felt compassion for them because they were distressed and downcast, like a sheep without a shepherd” (Matt. 9:36). Mark gives the same motive for the Jesus’ teaching and then feeding the 5000 (Mark 6:34). Jesus’ own self-identification as “good shepherd” remains mainly an inference, though he observes that his target audience is not the Gentiles but “the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matt. 15:24; cf. Luke 12:32). The exception is the discourse of John 10, in which Jesus explores several aspects of his role as shepherd; he is the “door” of the sheep, providing protection and pasturage (10:1-10); he is not a hireling, but the goods shepherd willing to die for the welfare of the flock (10:11-19); and the sheep know his “voice” as he knows them, in a relationship that means ultimate security (10:27-29).

What is notable in this metaphor of shepherding is the depth of its meaning and the relative simplicity of its content. Both in the OT and in the Gospels, the work of the good shepherd can bring the full blessings of covenant peace and salvation. And yet details are rarely mustered for what this might actually entail, beyond the again metaphorical references to protection, nurture, and judgment. These three elements have far-reaching implications, to be sure: securing the boundaries and identity of the community; providing for the circumstances of healthy growth and development; and ensuring internal community structure and justice. But one’s impression in reading this literature is that shepherding has less to do with a list of tasks and more to do with a commitment, exercised creatively and diligently.

The impression is confirmed in the rest of the NT; the writers use the metaphor to evoke a breadth and a depth of responsibility, but not to spell out specific tasks. At the end of John Jesus presents his three-fold challenge to Peter to “feed my lambs” (John 20:15-17). It is commitment rather than logistics that he is after; as Calvin puts it, “Peter was not yet sufficiently aware how deeply the love of Christ must be engraven on the heart of those who have to struggle against innumerable difficulties” in the ministerial office.2 

1 Peter provides the fullest treatment outside John of shepherding in relation to Christian leadership. His focus is entirely on the motive and attitude of the elders who “shepherd the flock of God,” expressed in three phrases: “not under pressure but willingly, not because of any stipend but eagerly, not by harsh command but by example.”3 Further, Jesus has clearly taken his own place as “the shepherd and guardian of your souls” (1 Pet. 2:25), not least by dint of his sacrificial death (2:24). The elders who shepherd “God’s” flock can hope to be rewarded by Christ “the chief shepherd” at his eschatological appearance (5:4).

Perhaps surprisingly, it is the element of protection from outward and inward dangers that predominates in most other NT references. Paul’s address to the elders of Ephesus (Acts 20:17-35) includes an exhortation to “shepherd the church of God,” which he understands especially as a task of protection against “savage wolves” who will distort the truth. In the Apocalypse, Rev. 2:26-27 cites Psalm 2:8-9, that the Messiah will “shepherd with a rod of iron,” smashing disobedience as easily as clay pots (see also Rev. 12:5; 19:15; the verb is “rule” in most translations); and indeed Christian art from the first centuries, when depicting Jesus a shepherd, put a heavy club in his hand rather than the slender staff of later imagination. But there is also in Revelation the poignant glimpse of the Lamb who will be Shepherd to the martyrs as he relieves their hunger and thirst, leading them “to springs of the water of life” (Rev. 7:13-17).

The reference to shepherding that has been most influential for Christian leadership, and is most tantalizing in its brevity, is the reference in Ephesians 4:11 to the “shepherd” as a regular office in the Church. We read it in translation as the Latinized word “pastor,” and in Protestant traditions it has emerged as a foremost church office. But Ephesians gives no explicit help to us in determining its range of meaning and responsibility, and there is no mention of it in any of the rest of the Pauline literature. The commentators’ suggestions must draw on parallels in other writings; it may imply “nurture, care, and guidance,” or administration and oversight, or an overlapping responsibility with teachers for ministry of the word.4 

For those seeking to understand and practice the charge of 1 Peter to shepherd the flock of God, Jesus must remain central. A clear shift from the OT is evident in the NT as the divine role of the “Great Shepherd” is applied to Christology as well as to theology (Heb. 13:20). In its reach for leadership in “shepherding the flock of God” the church is able to look to the particular compassion of Jesus as well as his effective administration of physical and spiritual needs. But the church is also challenged by the unreserved self-sacrifice that characterized Jesus’ deepest motives as he accomplished his life, death, and resurrection as the Good Shepherd.

—Theopulos




1 Craig Keener offers a thorough review of attitudes to shepherds in both the Jewish and the Hellenistic contexts in The Gospel of John: A Commentary (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2003), vol. 1 pp. 799-801.

2 John Calvin, Commentary on the Gospel of John, Vol. II (ET W. Pringle; reprint Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003) pp. 291-92. The observation of many scholars that the threefold challenge seems to echo and resolve Peter’s threefold denial, should not obscure the fact that this pericope is a challenge to love and feed, not an absolution per se.

3 Paul J. Achtemeier, 1 Peter (Hermeneia. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1996) p. 326.

4 Andrew T. Lincoln provides a thorough discussion; Ephesians (WBC. Nashville: Thomas Nelson,1990), pp. 250-251.