Is Jesus the sheep or the shepherd?
Just about every animal has some unique feature that allows it to defend itself from predators. Some have incredible speed, such as deer, while others have sharp claws, powerful muscles or rows of gleaming teeth. Some animals camouflage themselves into the background while the purpose of some camouflage, like that of zebra, make it difficult to distinguish individuals from the group. Even the slow, ungraceful skunk has a very potent defense mechanism. Just about every animal has something, it seems, except sheep. It’s almost as if God intended them to be food for other animals. Sheep are very nearsighted and have to be led to food and water. They cannot drink fast moving water and can actually drown trying. They have to be led to food, led to shelter, and protected from every type of danger. The Bible uses sheep of all things to represent people.
Jesus had compassion on the crowds in Mark 6 because he saw them as “sheep without a shepherd.” Sheep wander and are easily driven. Jesus described himself in John 10 as the good shepherd. More than a hireling, that might run away in the face of danger, Jesus is willing to lay down his life for the sheep. Jesus as our good shepherd paints a picture of himself caring for those who are unable to care for themselves. We are helpless and hopeless while the devil is like a roaring lion seeking whom he may devour. In steps the good shepherd, the Way, the Truth and the Life, our great provider, protector and redeemer. The first century audience would have understood the imagery well.
Elsewhere Jesus is referred to as the Lamb of God. Think back to the very first Passover that took place in Egypt. The Passover lamb had to be a perfect specimen, one without spot or blemish. The lamb was slain and the blood was displayed on the doorposts so that the angel of death, i.e. God’s judgement, would pass over that home. We will remember the death of Jesus and celebrate his resurrection soon, on Good Friday and Easter Sunday. The Lamb of God was slain, the sacrificial lamb that takes away the sin of the world. The names of the redeemed are written in the Lamb’s Book of Life and God’s judgement will once again pass over.
So is Jesus the sheep or the shepherd? It depends on which analogy we happen to be using at the time. He is both of those things and so much more. The Bible uses many images, symbols and illustrations to convey who Jesus is. The love of God surpasses our understanding. Words are insufficient. In some ways he is like the sacrificial lamb of Passover, but in other ways he is like a good shepherd. At some point every analogy breaks down. He is also like the high priests, going into God’s presence in the Holy of Holies to offer the blood of atonement. But unlike the Levitical priests he has no sins of his own to be cleansed of first. He ever lives to make intercession, continually going into the Father’s presence on our behalf and offering a better sacrifice than the blood of bulls, lambs and turtle doves.
Jesus is the bread of life and living water. He is the rock that gives water in dry places, the rose of Sharon, the Lily of the Valley, the bright morning star, the solid foundation on which the wise build and the stone the builders rejected which has become our cornerstone. All of the metaphors help us paint a portrait as we attempt to understand who and what Jesus is. He is really the Son of God that loved us when we were unlovable, lost in our sins and enemies of God. When we could not come to God he came to us, gathering those that were willing to himself. Why he would do that is mind boggling and that’s why we need the images.