Twenty-three times in the Gospel of John we find “I AM” statements (in Greek, ego eimi). To seven of those are attached metaphors, including the passage in which our Lord states, “I AM the Good Shepherd” (John 10:11,14). Why did Jesus choose this word picture to describe Himself?
The land of Israel had a mostly agrarian population. Sheep herding had a long history in the region. Abraham, Jacob, Moses, and David had all spent time as shepherds. It was common for Jesus to use relatable pictures in His teaching. His parables, for example, are full of earthly elements to which He attaches a spiritual lesson. In referring to Himself as the “Good Shepherd,” He wants us to learn something spiritual about Him.
If I were to describe a vacation or a movie as “good,” you probably would not be overly impressed. However, the Greek word kalos, translated “good,” describes that which is noble, wholesome, and beautiful.
It signifies both an inward and outward goodness—His inherent righteousness. As Shepherd of the sheep, He nurtures, protects, and guides His flock. He is even willing to lay down His own life to rescue His sheep.
I am not a farmer, but from what I have heard and read, there is no better example of helplessness and ineptitude than a sheep. Dolphins and pigs are often described as smart; not sheep. Sheep require constant attention. They get into trouble that they cannot get out of on their own. They are often stubborn, unwilling, and slow. They have few natural defense mechanisms. They are easy prey for their enemies. Sound like anyone you know? “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned, every one, to his own way” (Isaiah 53:6). We, like sheep, are stubborn creatures, too dumb to know what is spiritually good for us. We daily wander off the path of righteousness, seek solace in dangerous places, and hopelessly try to fend for ourselves against mighty foes.
We need a Shepherd.
The Shepherd’s Tools
The shepherd David described to King Saul his encounters with a lion and a bear (I Samuel 17:34-35). He struck those enemies of the sheep with a rod, a two-foot club used as a weapon of defense. Sometimes our Good Shepherd uses His power to crush our physical and spiritual enemies (including the head of the serpent, Genesis 3:15). David was also familiar with a staff, a straight sapling about six feet long. It was used to guide his sheep, to knock off twigs and leaves from trees for their food, and to assist in climbing up hills and down ravines. In the same way, our Good Shepherd guides us, feeds us, and cares for us as we traverse
Perhaps the most important tool of the Good Shepherd is His voice. Sheep recognize the voice of their shepherd and follow his lead. So it is with our Good Shepherd. “My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me” (John 10:27). As David says in the familiar Psalm 23, “He leads me in the paths of righteousness for His name’s sake” (verse 3). Remember, it was through the “still small voice” that the Lord revealed His will to Elijah—not through the earthquake, wind, or fire (I Kings 19). So how does the Good Shepherd speak to us? The Shepherd’s voice can be heard in the faithful preaching and reading of His word, and in the godly counsel of family and friends. Let us be like the boy Samuel and respond, “Speak, for Your servant hears” (I Samuel 3:10).
“Now may the God of peace who brought up our Lord Jesus from the dead, that great Shepherd of the sheep, through the blood of the everlasting covenant, make you complete in every good work to do His will, working in you what is well pleasing in His sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen”
(Hebrews 13: 20-21).
Joseph Lau is a professor at Immanuel Lutheran College in Eau Claire, Wisconsin.