Shepherd in the New Testament
The Greek word for shepherd occurs eighteen (18) times, mostly in the Gospels. Outside the Gospel it appears only in Eph 4:11, Heb 13:20, and 1 Pet 2:25. In the Gospels, it is found thrice in Matthew (9:36; 25:32; 26:31), twice in Mark (6:34; 14:27), four times in Luke (2:8, 15, 18, 20), six times in John (10:2, 11 [twice], 12, 14, 16). Only in Eph 4:11 is shepherd translated as ―pastor.
In the book of Luke, the shepherds referred to are all animal shepherds and their mention surrounds the birth of Christ. The shepherds were among the first to visit the new-born babe at the stable. In the other Gospels, in every instance, ―the shepherd,‖ ―the good shepherd,‖ ―the one shepherd‖ all refer to Jesus Christ. In the other verses in Hebrews and I Peter, ―the great shepherd‖ (Heb 13:20), ―the shepherd‖ (1 Pet 2:25), all refer to Jesus Christ. In Matthew 9, Jesus is portrayed as having compassion on his people as sheep without a shepherd and among wolves. In John 10, Jesus talks about himself as the good shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep (vv. 7-18).
In Jesus‘ description of himself he adds to our understanding of what makes for a good shepherd. The good shepherd is sacrificial. The good shepherd is willing to ignore his own needs in order to meet the needs of the sheep. Over and over in the passage he states the good shepherd gives his own life for his sheep (vv.11, 15, 17, 18). At the end of John‘s Gospel, Jesus challenged Peter to prove his love after his betrayal (21:15-17). After each admission of love on Peter‘s part Jesus said, ―Feed my lambs‖ (v. 15), ―Tend my sheep‖ (v. 16), ―Feed my sheep‖ (v. 17) Jesus entrusts his flock to Peter.
The Gospel of Luke presents the parable of the lost sheep where Jesus tells of the joy of a shepherd when he finds his sheep after a difficult search (Luke 15:4-7). This shepherd imagery is used to show the rejoicing that accompanies the repentance of the sinner. The shepherd would leave the ninety-nine who stayed on the right path in order to search for the one lost sheep. The shepherd‘s care for the flock of Israel is expanded in Luke to include ―tax collector and sinners‖ (Luke 15:1; cf. Matt. 9:10), with whom he ate without condemnation.
The Gospel of Matthew uses the image of the shepherd and the flock to illustrate the execution of eschatology judgment. Like a scattered flock the nations are assembled around the glorious throne of the Son of Man (25:3ff.). Here the process of judgment is likened to the separation of the (white) sheep from the (black) goats.
Finally, all the ministers of Christ are to be shepherds to their flocks. In Acts 20, the Apostle Paul exhorts the Ephesian elder to ―keep watch over yourselves and over all the flock, of which the Holy has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God that he obtained with the blood of his own Son‖ (v. 28). In 1 Peter 5, the Apostle charges the elders at the churches in present day Asia Minor to ―shepherd the flock of God among you, not under compulsion, but voluntarily, according to the will of God; and not for sordid gain, but with eagerness; nor yet as lording it over those allotted to your charge, but proving to be examples to the flock‖ (vv. 2-3).
This post and the others before it has given us a general survey of shepherd/ shepherding in the Ancient Near East and in the Bible. Our goal was to understand shepherding in its original context in order to fully appreciate Jesus who, in the Gospel of John states, ―I am the Good Shepherd.
We have seen that in both the traditions of the Ancient Near East and in the Scriptures, shepherds led their sheep to pasture and water. They protected them from wild animals and guarded their flocks at night whether in the open or in sheepfolds where they counted the sheep as they entered. They took care of the sheep and even carried weak lambs in their arms. They searched for the lost sheep. A good shepherd was willing to sacrifice his own comfort, even his own life, for the sake of his sheep.
Because of the richness of the day-to-day experience of the shepherd, it became the primary metaphor for leaders and even God in the Bible. Both Israel‘s leaders and God himself are portrayed as shepherds of their flock/people. If Israel‘s leaders have failed their flock, the Lord God is their good and faithful shepherd. With him as their shepherd, they shall lack nothing. The OT had prophesied the coming of the Good Shepherd who will gather his flock.
The Gospels, especially John, portrays Jesus as the Good Shepherd promised by God. Jesus had fulfilled this prophetic role in some measure in his first coming. He will complete it in his second coming when he comes in judgment to separate the righteous from those who did not know Him, and to finally care for and lead those that are his own.