God Our Shepherd
God is our Shepherd. This truth is not for mere intellectual assent, nor a kind of badge to hang on our own board of orthodoxy. To know the one who is Shepherd is a precious reality from which the believer draws strength, comfort, and life.
“Shepherd” is an intimate name used by God’s people. For instance, take Jacob’s confession at the end his life: “The God before whom my father’s Abraham and Isaac walked, the God who has been my shepherd all my life long to this day” (Gen. 48:15, emphasis added). He is the one who makes the hands agile, who helps, and who blesses (Gen. 49:24–25).
As shepherd, God is with his people all the days of their life (Gen. 48:15; Ps. 23:1–6; 28:9). Psalm 23 paints this most beautifully. “The Lord is my shepherd” says the psalmist, and his sheep have no want (v. 1). Why?
- He provides (vv. 1, 5)
- He leads (vv. 2, 3)
- He restores (v. 3)
- He protects (v. 4)
- He is present (vv. 4, 6)
God is with his people. Graciously providing, righteously leading, gently restoring, and ferociously protecting. He is their strength and shield to their ever-fearful and cowardly disposition (Ps. 28:8–9). He loves them, and he is with them. He is their shepherd-king (Ps. 80:1), in whom all other earthly kings are to reflect—shepherds after his own heart.
In the prophets, the Lord used severe language against the leaders, who should have been shepherds but utterly failed. He accuses them of feeding themselves and neglecting to feed the sheep (Ezek. 34:2–3, 8). They were harming the sheep when they should be protecting and caring for them. As a result, the flock is scattered and unprotected, becoming food for the wild beasts (34:5–6). There is no one to pursue them and search for them in their wandering (34:6).
In response to their leader’s failure, God promises that he will be the shepherd of Israel (34:7–16). He will rescue his sheep from the shepherds’ mouths and will search out his sheep (34:10–12). He will bring the exiles home, where they were scattered because of their disobedience and unfaithfulness to the covenant (34:13). He will feed them and they will lie down in good grazing land and rich pasture (34:14–15). God will seek the lost, bring back the strayed; he will bind up the injured and strengthen the weak (34:16).
Not only will God be the shepherd, but he will set over them one Shepherd— “David” (34:23), who will be a shepherd and prince among them (34:23–24). Through him, God will establish a new covenant of peace (34:25), where he will banish wild beasts so that his flock can dwell securely in the land (34:25–28). Israel will know that he is the Lord and that they are his people when he frees them from slavery (34:27, 30). They are the human sheep of God’s pasture (34:31). A few chapters later, God promises again:
My servant David shall be king over them, and they shall all have one shepherd. They shall walk in my rules and be careful to obey my statutes. … I will make a covenant of peace with them. It shall be an everlasting covenant with them. And I will set them in their land and multiply them, and will set my sanctuary in their midst forevermore. My dwelling place shall be with them, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. Then the nations will know that I am the LORD who sanctifies Israel, when my sanctuary is in their midst forevermore (Ezekiel 37:24–28).
God promises a new covenant. The promise of a new David who will be king, the one shepherd (37:24). In this, the reader is left with a tension: God will be shepherd and David will be shepherd, yet there will be one Shepherd. No more slavery. No more exile. Protected, provided for, and God’s presence will be among his people. The prophets set up a cliff-hanger that keeps Israel on the edge of their seat until the time of New Testament, waiting to see how God’s promises would be fulfilled.
How will this be possible? Only in Christ.
The Good Shepherd
Jesus said a lot of things to ruffle the feathers of religious leaders of his day, but they couldn’t have been more unprepared for his claim in John 10: “I am the Good Shepherd.”
This saying is given in Jesus’ interaction with the religious leaders of Israel from Chapter 9. A man born blind is given his sight by the gracious provision of Christ. Though dungeoned in darkness, Christ the light of the world opens his eyes. The religious leaders do not give glory to God, but on the contrary, interrogate the man, accuse him of sin, bully him, and eventually expel him for the man’s allegiance to Christ. Those who should have been shepherding God’s people, are instead bullying them. They are devouring them. The Good Shepherd statement is on the cusp of this interaction, and Christ is speaking to these religious leaders. Christ sets himself forth in a glorious picture. He is a Good Shepherd.
If we want to know what it means for God to be shepherd, we need to look to Jesus. There, and there alone do we see the revelation of the Father shining out.
The Shepherd’s Self-Sacrificing Love
The first thing we see is the self-sacrificing love of the Shepherd:
I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. He who is a hired hand and not a shepherd, who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees, and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. He flees because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep (John 10:11–15).
This statement gets Christ into hot water, because, as we saw in Ezekiel, is an exclusive claim. This claim is why they call him a demon (v. 19), want to stone him (v. 31), and, a few chapters later, have him crucified.
What does he mean by “the Good Shepherd”? Jesus is claiming that he is the fulfillment of this long-awaited Messianic, Salvific promise that we read back in Ezekiel. He is the “fulfilment of God’s promise to shepherd his people personally and the fulfillment of his promise to appoint a Davidic shepherd ruler.” By claiming to be the Good Shepherd, Jesus is claiming to be the one Shepherd, truly God and truly man, who has come to shepherd his people.
What does it look like to be “the Good Shepherd”? Four times he says, “He lays down his life for his sheep” (vv. 11, 15, 17, and 18). The love of the Shepherd is revealed, in his self-giving sacrifice for the sheep. Unlike the religious leaders of the day, or leaders of the Old Testament, Jesus loves his sheep more than his life. He proves this love by sacrificing himself and laying his life down. The hirelings run away when they see the wolf coming. They are okay to be around when things are going well, but flee the moment things go bad. But not the Good Shepherd. He loves his sheep, and not only stays in the battle, but fights to the death for them.
Notice a few things about his death on behalf of the sheep.
A Willing Death
First, it was a willing death. Jesus was not a helpless victim. He took the initiative. His death was willing and voluntary. He makes this clear three times, “I lay it down,” and “no one takes it from me, but I lay it down on my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again” (10:18). He was meticulously and exhaustively in control. Not a hair on his head could be moved apart from his sovereign will. “For the joy that was set before him, he endured the cross” (Heb. 12:2).
Friend, are you discouraged by your sin? Perhaps you think God’s love for you teetertotters based upon your performance this week (or this month, or this year?) Maybe the Lord is grudgingly putting up with you? Take heart, Christ’s love for his people propels him to the cross where he dies in their place. Where he dies in your place.
A Personal Death
Second, Christ’s death was a personal death. Jesus did not die for an unspecific group of people. Christ’s death on the cross did not create a possibility for men to be saved. Christ’s work on the cross secured salvation for a particular people. His people: “I know my own and my own know me” (10:14).
Do you hear Christ’s voice, have you entered through him? Have you heard his voice, trusted and believe in in him? Have you entered through him as your only hope in life and death? Then you are his. You have been given by the Father. Christ took your name to the cross. Christ took your sin to the cross. He did not die for the possibility of your salvation, he secured it. Salvation is personal because knowledge of Christ union with him is personal.
A Substitutionary Death
Thirdly, Christ’s death was a substitutionary death: “I lay down my life for the sheep” (10:15). Left on our own, none of us wants God. Apart from his gracious intervention and initiative, none of us would be his sheep. “We have all turned away. None is righteous, no, not one!” (Rom. 3:10–12). But from heaven he came and sought us. As both shepherd and Passover lamb, he died in the place of sinful sheep (John 1:29, 1 Cor. 5:7). As Scripture says:
He was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all (Isa. 53:4–6 emphasis added);
For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God (1 Pet. 3:18 emphasis added);
For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures (1 Cor. 15:3 emphasis added).
At the cross, Christ has done for us what we could never do for ourselves. He has died in our place and for our sin, “the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God” (1 Pet. 3:18 emphasis added). Christ the Shepherd is not just willing to die for his sheep, but he is faithful to carry it out, deliberately absorbing the suffering that we deserved: “He drinks the cup so that we should not drink it; is cursed so that we should not be cursed … is condemned so that we should not be condemned.”
This is how far love is willing to go.
I beheld God’s love displayed,
You suffered in my place,
You bore the wrath reserved for me,
Now all I know is grace.
The Shepherd’s Love for the Nations
God’s intention in salvation from the beginning was never a specific ethnic people, but instead to use a specific people (Israel) as a kingdom of priests to be the means by which all nations would come under the loving lordship of the one true Shepherd King, God (Ex. 19:6): “And I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd” (10:16). He has those other sheep already, he will bring them in, and they will listen to his voice. Christ’s work on the cross is the means by which he will bring in the sheep, not just from Israel, but from every tongue, nation, and tribe (Rev. 7:9; 14:6). The Shepherd’s love is not set upon one ethnic people, but upon the true offspring of Abraham in whom “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female … circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free, for all are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28–29; Col. 3:11).
The Shepherd’s Authority in Resurrection
But the scene doesn’t end with a dead shepherd. A dead shepherd is useless to the sheep. Sheep need a living shepherd. The death of the Shepherd was necessary. But it isn’t the end:
Then bursting forth in glorious day,
Up from the grave He rose again!
Death could not hold him. “I lay down my life that I may take it up again … I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again” (10:17–18 emphasis added). If Jesus was not raised, there is no victory, he is only a victim of martyrdom. If Christ was not raised, “your faith is futile and you are still in your sins” (1 Cor. 15:17). We are not to think of the cross apart from the resurrection. Jesus’ victory comes through his death-defeating resurrection.
The point of Christ’s death is not just to save you from the judgment of your sins—though it most certainly does that. The point is that he brings us to himself: “And this is eternal life: that we know the only true God” (John 17:3). We don’t have a dead Shepherd. We have a living Shepherd.
This power is shown a few verses later:
I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand. I and the Father are one (John 10:28–30).
Here, Christ expands on the consequence of being part of his flock—he gives his sheep eternal life and they shall never perish. The same power that raised Christ from the dead is the same power that grants eternal life and is the same power that secures the believer. In contrast to the wolf who “snatches the sheep and scatters them” (10:12), no one will and no one is able to snatch the sheep out of Christ’s hand. Why? Because “My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand. I and the Father are one” (10:29).
As the Father is greater than all, so is the Son—they are one. And believers are in their hands. They are held fast by the one who cannot fail.
Though believers may have a life of trials, temptations, sorrows, and hardships, one second in heaven will cast all of these away. For finally, definitely, and securely, “the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes” (Rev. 7:17).
Because Christ is the Good Shepherd, he is worthy to be loved, worthy to be worshiped, worthy to be trusted; we have no need to fear because he is with us. He provides for all of our needs and protects us from the threats of Satan and sin. He leads us in paths of righteousness and tenderly brings us back when we wander. We love him because he first loved us. To know him is a precious reality from which we draw strength, comfort, and life.
Your sure provisions gracious God
attend me all my days;
Oh, may your house be my abode,
and all my work be praise.
Here would I find a settled rest,
while others go and come;
No more a stranger, nor a guest,
but like a child at home.
 Though some have suggested David’s repentance being what made him a man after God’s own heart, a better understanding is that that had the heart of a shepherd. David is anointed as king (1 Samuel 16:13) as one who is a “man after his own heart” (1 Samuel 13:14 emphasis added), and who is a “shepherd of my people Israel” (2 Samuel 5:2; 7:7–17). This is especially seen in the David and Goliath narrative: though the people of Israel along with King Saul himself “were dismayed and greatly afraid” (1 Samuel 17:11), like sheep who tremble, paralyzed at the fear of danger, waiting for a redeemer to rescue them from Goliath. David, who is a shepherd and used to protecting sheep, sees the Goliath the Philistine as a predator. Goliath is a beast terrifying the people of God and defying the Lord (17:36) and as the Lord promised in his Word, and as David has experienced in the past, the Lord will deliver him (17:37). David, who is the true king (1 Samuel 16:13), is a shepherd king. As the good shepherd pursues wild predators who would attempt to harm the helpless, dismayed sheep, David will pursue Goliath, the terrifying predator of God’s flock. Israel is delivered. This is what a King looks like—a shepherd king—a man after God’s own heart.
 See Daniel Hames and Michael Reeves, God Shines Forth: How the Nature of God Shapes and Drives the Mission of the Church, Union Series (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2022), 27.
 Timothy S. Laniak, Shepherds after My own Heart: Pastoral traditions and leadership in the Bible, NSBT 20 (Downers Grove IL: InterVarsity Press, 2006), 211.
 Donald Macleod, Christ Crucified: Understanding the Atonement (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2014), 85.
 Jordan Kauflin, “All I Have is Christ.”
 For a few examples: Abraham, the father of the nation of Israel, was called to be a blessing to all the families of the earth (Gen. 12:3). God’s judgement on Egypt partly functioned so that “the Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord” (Exodus 7:5; cf. 9:14; 20, 29; 14:18) and that “my name may be proclaimed in all the earth” (Exodus 9:16). Rahab, the Gentile, not only marries a Nahson, who was a prince of Judah (Numbers 7:12), and entered into the people of God (Joshua 6:25; cf. Hebrews 11:31), but from her Christ comes (Matthew 1:5). The people of Gibeon, who were Hivites (Joshua 9:7) and Amorites (2 Samuel 21:2) and therefore under the “ban” of people to be judged and devoted to destruction (Genesis 15:16), because of their fear in the living God, were allowed to live among the people of God and have access to the knowledge of the Lord. Gibeon is given as one of the cities to the line of Aaron, the priests (Joshua 18:25; 21:17), and David eventually put the tabernacle in this city (1 Chronicles 21:29–30). Ishmaiah of Gibeon became a mighty man among the thirty and a leader over the thirty (1 Chronicles 12:4). Gibeonites are in the list of remnants who returned from exile (Nehemiah 7:25) and who help rebuild the wall (Nehemiah 3:7). Furthermore, the Gentiles were part of Israel and were allowed to celebrate the Passover and worship with Israel (Numbers 9:14; 15:13–16; 1 Kings 8:41–42; Leviticus 24:22). Ruth, a Moabite, also enters into the people of God (Ruth 1:16) and through her comes Christ (Ruth 4:22, cf. Matthew 1:5). The prophets, time after time, promise the inclusion of the Gentiles (Isaiah 18:7; 19:18–25; 23:17–18; 24:15; 55:1; 56:6–8; Amos 9:11–12). See also Jason S. DeRouchie, “Father of a Multitude of Nations: New Covenant Ecclesiology in OT Perspective,” in Progressive Covenantalism: Charting the Course between Dispensational and Covenant Theologies, eds. Stephen J. Wellum, and Brent E. Parker (Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2016), 7–38.
 Keith Getty and Stuart Townend, “In Christ Alone.”
 Isaac Watts, “My Shepherd Will Supply My Need,” stanza 3.