Hermeneutics,  New Testament,  Old Testament

Why Does Jesus say, “I am the Good Shepherd”?

photo of Jesus as the good shepherd

“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10:11). Most Christians are familiar with the picture of Jesus as the good shepherd. Typically, the meaning of the good shepherd comparison focuses on Jesus’ care for Christians. I have heard multiple sermons on what it means for Jesus to be the shepherd. In particular, I remember a sermon where the question was asked, “What is a shepherd?” The proposed points in the sermon went something like:

  • A Shepherd Leads the Sheep
  • A Shepherd Feeds the Sheep
  • A Shepherd Loves the Sheep
  • A Shepherd Sacrifices for the Sheep

Now I do not dispute that these points are indeed true of a shepherd. Further, I do think there can be an analogy between these points and the love and care of Christ. However, I think we are missing something if we don’t examine this reference to the good shepherd in light of the authorial intent of John himself.

The Reaction to the Good Shepherd Claim

A hint to the importance of this story in John 10 comes halfway through the chapter.

There was again a division among the Jews because of these words. Many of them said, “He has a demon, and is insane; why listen to him?” Others said, “These are not the words of one who is oppressed by a demon. Can a demon open the eyes of the blind?” (John 10:19-21)

Why did the people respond the way to this claim of Jesus? A sharp division and argument does not arise over someone who is only claiming to have the gentle and protective qualities of a shepherd. There was something more drastic happening here.

The Good Shepherd and Ezekiel 34

The background for understanding why the Jews reacted the way they did comes from Ezekiel 34. In Ezekiel 34 God indicts the leaders of Israel, condemning them for being shepherds who preyed on their own sheep!

Because the leaders of Israel were evil, the Lord declares that he opposes the current leadership of Israel and that he will deliver the people of Israel (Ezek 34:10). God then goes on to proclaim the extent of this restoration.

In describing the coming restoration of Israel God makes a bold statement. He declares, “Behold, I Myself will search for My sheep and seek them out” (Ezek 34:11). God promises a personal involvement in taking care of His people.

Not only does God promise personal involvement, but in a wonderful statement, God promises, “Then I will set over them one shepherd, My servant David, and he will feed them; he will feed them himself and be their shepherd” (Ezek 34:23).

This is obviously not a reference to David (who had died long before). God was speaking of an heir of David, who throughout the latter portion of Ezekiel is accorded a privileged position on par with God (Ezek 34:23-24; Ezek 34:24-25). Thus, this future shepherd of Ezekiel 34 would be in charge over the entire nation of Israel as a ruler equal with the authority of God.

The Good Shepherd and the Purpose of John

Most scholars describe the purpose of John’s gospel is to demonstrate Jesus as the Son of God. John regularly describes Jesus as divine and equated with God (cf. John 1:1; 5:18; 8:42; 13:13; 17:3; 20:17, etc.).

Matching the purpose of the Gospel of John with John 10, we see that John is at it once again—he wants to show us that Jesus is not a normal man, but He is claiming to be the divine Messiah. In claiming to be the good shepherd, there is little question as to what Jesus is referring. This claim of Jesus is why the crowd was so divided—could He really be the one Ezekiel 34 talked about?

Although it is true that being a shepherd would communicate ideas of love and leadership, the main reason John includes this passage is to show us that Jesus was claiming to be the Messianic Son of God. Jesus was the one whom God had appointed as the leader and shepherd of Israel in Ezekiel 34. He was the descendant of David, the shepherd for all of Israel—a divine figure.

photo credit: Waiting For The Word via photopin cc

Peter serves at Shepherd's Theological Seminary in Cary, NC as the professor of Old Testament and Biblical Languages. He loves studying the Bible and helping others understand it. He also runs the Bible Sojourner podcast.

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