The Identity of the Good Shepherd

The shepherd is a very common theme in the Old Testament, and it also appears in the Synoptic Gospels, not to mention the rest of the New Testament. One famous passage in mind in Psalm 23. In this song of trust, the shepherd is clearly the Lord Yahweh who cares lavishly for the needs of his flock. Here a shepherd is one who provides food and drink, rest and refreshment of the soul. A shepherd is likened to a leader who brings people into the right path and whose very presence guarantees security and comfort.

As previously mentioned, Ezekiel 34:11-16 is another narrative that talk about God as true shepherd of his own people:

11For thus says the Lord God: I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. 12As shepherds seek out their flocks when they are among their scattered sheep, so I will seek out my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. 13I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land; and I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the watercourses, and in all the inhabited parts of the land. 14I will feed them with good pasture, and the heights of the mountains of Israel shall be their pasture; there they shall lie down in good grazing land, and they shall feed on rich pasture on the mountain of Israel. 15I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord God. 16I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice.

The first ten verses of Ezekiel 34 speak about the bad leaders/shepherds who are
accused, found guilty and condemned. These bad ―leaders of the community were part of the problem, not part of the solution. The bad shepherd is contrasted to the good shepherd, God, who will appoint leaders, tend, provides food, security, peace, blessing and freedom. God is the epitome of the true shepherd (vv. 11-16).

In John‘s Gospel Jesus is portrayed as the good shepherd (10:1-21). Jesus is the embodiment of the good shepherd described in Psalm 23 and Ezekiel 34. Although one finds similarities among the three good shepherd passages, ―there are other qualities attributed to Jesus, the good shepherd, that were not listed in Psalm 23 and Ezekiel 34.

These qualities are: ―he knows his sheep as they know him (10:14b–4c); he lays down his life for them (10:11b, 15c, 17b 18b); he also brings to his fold other sheep that are not of his fold (10:16:ab).

As seen in John 10:13b, Jesus as good shepherd is contrasted with the hireling who cared nothing for the sheep. The hireling who perhaps thinks that the sheep are not his anyway leaves and flees them when the dangerous wolf comes to snatch and scatter them (10:12cde). In the description of Schnackenburg, ―Being a shepherd entails a constant living for one‘s sheep.

And the shepherd-status of Jesus the shepherd, in which all shepherding finds its true fulfillment, makes itself manifest in the sacrifice of his life, so that he may make his sheep the gift of true life. In 10:16a-e we are given the hint that Jesus’ concern as the good shepherd goes beyond the chosen people. ―The Gentiles, too, must be brought into salvation together with the sheep of the fold of Israel. Both Jews and Gentiles alike are invited into the way of salvation and both have to respond to the one Shepherd Jesus.

As the good shepherd, Jesus is willing to freely lay down his life (v. 17b) for the salvation of his flock and to take it up again (17c). In John‘s gospel, ―the crucifixion and resurrection are the two aspects of the glorification of Christ. In his exaltation Christ takes up life not only for himself but also for all who live through the work of salvation.

The passage, which reflects the intimate relationship between the shepherd and the sheep, likewise hints the intimate reciprocal relationship between Jesus and the Father. Jesus the good shepherd knows his sheep and calls them by name. The sheep in turn recognize and heed his voice. Jesus who is eternally one with the Father is also the Son who always obeys the Father. Milne writes, ―In that mutuality lies not only the mystery of the inner life of the Trinity, but also the secret of his mission. What the Son does is in complete obedience of faith to the will of the Father. ―The condition of the efficacy of Christ’s work is the entire freedom of his obedience.

In verses 19-21, considered a sequel, we see the division caused by Jesus. His opponents attribute to him demonic inspiration. This is not the first time in John‘s gospel that he is described as possessed by demon. The false accusations of Jesus’ opponents simply betray their increasing frustration. It is a resolute manifestation of closing their eyes to the light and to the truth.


We have seen in this post Jesus as the Good Shepherd sent by the Father in loving obedience to him to offer the gift of salvation to all, Jews and Gentiles alike. The evangelist of the Fourth Gospel made use of a well-known OT metaphor of the shepherd to portray Jesus’ relationship to his flock. In the Old Testament, the metaphor ―shepherd‖ was used to portray God‘s relation to his people. As the true shepherd, God seeks and gathers his people into one flock.

In the New Testament, Jesus is called the good shepherd by the Johannine Christian community; it is he who will seek and gather the scattered groups into one flock. Moreover, as the good shepherd he offers abundant life to his disciples. He lays down his life for his flock so that they may live abundantly. This is the highest expression of his love for them.

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