Like most people today, chances are you do not know any shepherds. For the first Christians, who were familiar with shepherds, the Good Shepherd was a favorite image to associate with Christ. In fact, the earliest Christian art depicts Christ as the Good Shepherd, not the crucified Savior. Often he was portrayed as a beardless youth. Surprisingly, the image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd is still popular. In fact, early childhood education experts tell us that young children find the concept of a shepherd and his love for his sheep enchanting.
In the Old Testament God was called a shepherd, and God's people the flock. For instance, in Psalm 23 the psalmist sings that the shepherd leads him to green pastures near refreshing waters. The shepherd guards him in right paths and protects him from evil. God says, “I myself will pasture my sheep; I myself will give them rest. . . . The lost I will seek out, the strayed I will bring back, the injured I will bind up, the sick I will heal” (Ezekiel 34:15-16).
According to the Gospels, Jesus referred to himself as a shepherd. He said, “My sheep hear my voice; I know them, and they follow me” (John 10:27). A shepherd knows his sheep well. There is a personal relationship between Jesus and his followers. Jesus knows each of us by name. On the other hand, we respond to his voice and do not follow the voice of strangers who may lead us to harm. Jesus said, “I am the good shepherd. A good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10:11). Unlike a hired hand who flees to save his life, Jesus saved his flock from the wolf even though it meant sacrificing his own life.
The parable Jesus told about the lost sheep is a story about Jesus' concern and care for us sinners. He is the loving shepherd who goes to great lengths to search for his lost sheep and when he finds it, carries it back on his shoulders rejoicing.
When Jesus gave Peter the responsibility of leading his Church, he again used shepherd imagery. He told Peter, “Feed my lambs. . . . Tend my sheep. . . . Feed my sheep” (John 21:15-17).
Knowing about shepherds sheds light on the image of Jesus as shepherd. The shepherd uses a staff with a hook on the end to guide the sheep and pull back the stray. Today Jesus guides his flock through bishops, who are known as pastors, the Latin for shepherds. Bishops carry staffs called crosiers. The shepherd has a rod to fend off wild animals that might harm the flock. Jesus saved us from evil.
Jesus restores our souls. Shepherds feed their flocks. Jesus feeds us with the excellent bread of the Eucharist and brings us to living waters: baptism and the Holy Spirit.
The image of shepherds is that they are kind, loving, patient, strong, and self-sacrificing. They are a good image for Jesus. And sheep, who can be rather stupid and foolish creatures, are a good symbol for us!
† The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want! †
Biblical Image of Shepherd
Shepherds were important in the world of the Old Testament. Without the shepherd and his dog, the herd of sheep could not survive, and this led to the use of shepherding as an image of ministry. The chief shepherd is God, "who has been my shepherd / from my birth to this day" (Genesis 48:15). Many of the major figures of the Old Testament were shepherds, including Abraham, Moses, and David. The prophets criticized the kings for not being good shepherds, and Jeremiah foresaw a time when God "will appoint shepherds for them who will shepherd them so that they need no longer fear and tremble" (Jeremiah 23:4).
In the New Testament, Luke has shepherds receive the heavenly message about Jesus' birth. This shows Jesus' lowly origins and ties in with a major theme of Luke's Gospel—God favors the lowly when revealing himself. The 10th chapter of the Gospel of John contains a lengthy passage on Jesus as the Good Shepherd. John presents Jesus as the model shepherd, but at the end of his Gospel he also applies the shepherd imagery to Peter. Jesus tells Peter to feed his lambs and tend his sheep.