Of Sheep and Shepherds

Posted on November 21, 2010 by


Background Bible study is fascinating and is perhaps one of the most important parts of biblical research. Obtaining a “behind-the-scenes” look into the biblical documents will “contribute to a more precise comprehension of the Word of God.”[1] This observation can be said about the shepherd motif found in Scripture. Since it is dangerous to paint half a picture of anyone or anything – especially biblical topics; we stress, then, that this is but a footnote to the beautiful motif of the pastoral profession (i.e. the shepherd) often employed by the biblical authors.

Shepherding was a great profession in the culture of the Ancient Near East, and so far as it relates to Israel’s history, pastoral work was a constant aspect of nomadic life (cf. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, etc.). Even when they conquered and settled into Palestine, the end of the nomadic life did not stop pastoral work (e.g. David 1 Sam. 16.19; Amos 1.1, 7.14).[2] The widespread awareness of this profession “made motifs of sheep and shepherding apt descriptions of human and divine roles and relationships.”[3]

Notice one Old Testament example. God through Jeremiah pronounces a “woe” upon the leadership of Judah using the pastoral motif:

“Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture!” declares the LORD. Therefore thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, concerning the shepherds who care for my people: ‘You have scattered my flock and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them. Behold, I will attend to you for your evil deeds, declares the LORD.’” (Jer. 23.1-2 ESV)

The “shepherds” failed to maintain the pastoral relationship with God’s flock; consequently, the sheep were scattered. Jeremiah, looking to post-exilic times, promises that God will restore the proper care to his flock with faithful shepherds (Jer. 23.3-4).

There are several related New Testament words used to the work of shepherding. The noun form is poimein, and refers to a shepherd, herdsmen, or pastor,[4] and hence it is a metaphor describing a guardian-leader. The third translation option probably receives the most attention from among the three, and this is due to its connection with the eldership of the New Testament (Eph. 4.11, here teaching-pastors), and its erroneous – but popular – usage in denominational circles.[5]

However, the New Testament uses the term significantly in its normal sense. Jesus refers to himself as “the good shepherd” in John 10.1-18 to distinguish himself from the leaders who had oppressed or neglected the house of Israel. Luke narrates the story of the shepherds, in the field with their flock, who were told of the arrival of the Messiah (2.1-20). Jesus warned his disciples that when he is handed over to the Jews, that they would be scattered like sheep when their shepherd is harmed (Matt. 9.36 = Mark 6.34).

But perhaps the most vivid pastoral scenes are of those moments that relate to our relationship with Jesus. The Lord is described as “the Shepherd and Overseer” of our souls (1 Pet. 2.25 cf. Heb. 13.20), who receives straying sheep as any good shepherd does. Another vivid scene using the shepherd motif is the Day of Judgment, when Jesus “will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats” (Matt. 25.32). This is taken from a understanding that sheep and goats were “pastured together” in Palestine, but at certain appropriate times they “require separation.”[6] The figure is given Christian meaning as a metaphor of the judgment upon faithful and non-faithful Christians.

There are so many relationship lessons that God has taken from pastoral care, we would do well to reflect upon it more. For example: at the birthing of a new lamb, the shepherd “guards the mother during her helpless moments and picks up the lamb and carries it to the field. For the few days, until it is able to walk, he may carry it in his arms or in the loose folds of his coat.”[7] Could we not make an application from this? The shepherd and the lamb have a wonderfully tender relationship, and we would strengthen our fellowship in taking a lesson from this behavioral motif.

Truly, we can see that a pastoral care for Christians will encourage us to help in the development and care of new converts. It will stimulate us to help heal wounded sheep, and protect them as they are nourished to good health. And more personally, perhaps we would be more receptive to the prodding and care by our shepherds in the church. The “pastoral” mentality is not only for the elders, we would all do well to lead on, or be led, ever so gently (Gen. 33.14).

In the Christian age, it is quite common for New Testament students to think of shepherd-pastors as only in terms of the office of a bishop/elder as mentioned in 1 Timothy 3. However, the imagery of a shepherd has a wide application to both describe religious leaders and the effects of their ministries upon their religious constituents, and it also describes how the Lord Jesus and the Father are both presented as providers and keepers of our souls.


  1. Jackson, Wayne. Background Bible Study. Rev. ed. Stockton, CA: Courier, 1999; p.
  2. Miller, Madeleine S., et al. Harper’s Encyclopedia of Bible Life. 3rd ed. San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1978; p. 142.
  3. Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels. Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1992; p. 751.
  4. 4.  Vine, W.E., et al. Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words. Nashville: Nelson, 1986; 2:462, 2:569.
  5. Despite popular usage among denominations as a term for “minister”, typical passages used to support this idea are misapplied.
  6. Lewis, Jack P. Matthew. Abilene, TX: Abilene Christian UP, 1984; 2:137.7.
  7. Patch, J. in International Standard Bible Encyclopedia. Gen. ed. James Orr. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1943; 4:2764.
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