When you think about Jesus as a shepherd this is what comes to mind, right?
Gentle Jesus with a docile lamb nestled in his arms or around his shoulders? The nurturing shepherd, protecting his sheep, loving them one and all?
These pictures are everywhere, painted on canvas, etched in stained glass, assembled in mosaics. They are the most popular and enduring images of Jesus and justifiably so.
But when Jesus referred to himself as the good shepherd is this only what he had in mind?
Images of Jesus with a single pathetic lamb owe more to a parable he told in Matthew 18 and Luke 15 about a shepherd leaving his ninety-nine safe sheep to rescue a single lost one. He told the story to explain to the Pharisees why he hung out with “sinners” (a thing the Pharisees clearly frowned on).
But the passage in which he described himself as the good shepherd is John 10.
In that passage he’s also tangling with the Pharisees. They have just subjected a poor beggar blind from birth, who had been miraculously healed by Jesus, to nothing short of spiritual abuse. They brutally haul him and his family through various theological panels demanding he explain who Jesus is and where his power comes from.
The man is illiterate, uneducated, unsophisticated. In his ignorance he can only say what he knows. He was once blind and now can see.
Jesus is incensed by the Pharisees’ bullying methods and says so. When they retaliate he unloads on them, “If you were blind, you would not be guilty of sin; but now that you claim you can see, your guilt remains” (Jn9:41).
In other words, they are blind ones, not the beggar.
But Jesus isn’t finished. He continues with his attack on the legalistic and stultifying religion of the Pharisees.
The people of Israel are like sheep and I am the shepherd for which they are yearning, he says.
They are done with the burdensome yoke of fundamentalism the Pharisees have placed on them. Israel has been locked inside a pen and they are desperate to hear the true shepherd’s voice.
“The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep listen to his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice. But they will never follow a stranger; in fact, they will run away from him because they do not recognize a stranger’s voice.” (Jn 10:3-5)
Jesus isn’t saying he will keep the sheep safe in their pen. He’s saying he leads them out. To freedom. To roam the lush green hills.
To have life, and have it to the full. (Jn 10:10)
The Pharisees have locked Israel inside a pen of controlling legalism. The sheep are trapped, unable to flourish. Israel won’t follow their voices, because they are like strangers. Jesus voice rings true. They hear his message of freedom and their ears prick up. They want to be free.
Indeed, Jesus goes further and says, “I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd” (Jn 10:16)
Jesus has come to set Israel free from the legalistic, fear-based, bad religion of the Pharisees and to lead them into a multinational, multiethnic, redeemed society drawn from every nation and tongue.
In this context, Jesus’ statement, “I am the good shepherd”, isn’t a message of nurture and protection. It’s a declaration of revolution!
Pastors have embraced the shepherd metaphor to describe their work of providing pastoral oversight for a congregation. And often when I hear them speaking about “shepherding the flock” I hear overtones of nurture, protection, and, dare I say it, control?
But all that anxious, controlling religion only leads to deathly rule-keeping and bland homogeneity.
When we speak about Jesus setting the captives free, remember one of the things we need to be freed from is bad religion.
If we’re to lead our congregations like the Good Shepherd himself, surely our job is to lead people to freedom, to get them out of the restricting pen of anxious religion.
Good shepherds know that the church should comprise people from a variety of backgrounds, different ethnicities, and diverse experiences. The best pastoral leadership is the kind that equips us for the radical, unlikely, rarely experienced society Jesus came to inaugurate.
Good shepherding equips the flock to live large, generous, hospitable lives, devoted to Jesus, unthreatened by difference, open to the other, ready to serve. And to be all that we need all the help we can get.
1 thought on “Jesus said, “I am the Wild shepherd””
hi Michael, this is an image which has long fascinated me. it all hinges on Jesus being the messiah, the light of the world, the sun of righteousness. John 10:7-10 “Therefore Jesus said again, “I tell you the truth, I am the gate for the sheep. All who ever came before me were thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. He will come in and go out, and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” The sheep are in the sheep pen for the night. The walls around them are there to protect them from wild animals and thieves. The role of the prophets is to build up the walls, and to stand in the breach should any gaps occur. In this way they keep the sheep safe. It is only with the coming of daylight, in the person of Jesus himself, that it is right to break down the walls, and lead the sheep out to pasture. “But for you who revere my name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings. And you will go out and leap like calves released from the stall.” (Malachi 4:2). note that the Pharisees could not have broken down the walls before Jesus came – that would have made them thieves and robbers according to Jesus own words. They were right to build up the walls “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must obey them and do everything they tell you. (Matthew 23:2-3) It was rather for their hypocrisy that Jesus condemned them; But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. (Matthew 23:3). Interestingly, the idea that the Messiah would break through the walls is an important theme in Jewish thought. it is found in Micah 2:12-13 “I will surely gather all of you, O Jacob; I will surely bring together the remnant of Israel. I will bring them together like sheep in a pen, like a flock in its pasture; the place will throng with people.
One who breaks open the way will go up before them; they will break through the gate and go out. Their king will pass through before them, the LORD at their head.” Here, the one who breaks open the way, in Hebrew the “poretz” links back to Perez, ancestor of David, Genesis 38:29. This itself is due to the “generations” (תּוֹלְדוֹת) of Perez” (Ruth 4:18) being spelt ‘complete’, with the initial vav . The root meaning of the name, to burst/break through or breach, always remains in focus, highlighting this dynamic aspect of the Messiah’s mission. The Rabbinic expository work, The Priestly Gift says, “The last saviour is the Messiah, the son of David, who is descended from Judah’s son Perez… This is the Messiah who will soon appear, because it is written of him that, ‘One who breaks open the way will go up before them” . “The word generations (תּוֹלְדוֹת) whenever it occurs in the Bible is spelt defectively, and for a very significant reason. Thus the word is spelt fully [with a vav] in the case of ‘these are the generations of the heaven and of the earth’, because when God created His world, there was no Angel of Death in the world, and on this account is it fully spelt; but as soon as Adam and Eve sinned, God made defective all the generations mentioned in the Bible. But when Perez arose, his generations were spelt fully again, because from him the Messiah would arise, and in his days God would cause death to be swallowed up, as it says, ‘He will swallow up death forever’” Leviticus Rabbah, 30. Genesis Rabbah 12:6 adds that the vav corresponds to the six things (the numeric value of vav) that Adam was created with, yet through his sin were lost or spoiled, i.e., his lustre, his immortality, his height, the fruit of the earth, the fruit of trees and the luminaries. Verses are quoted to show;
a. that Adam originally had these in full,
b. that as a result of the fall he lost them, and
c. that the Messiah will restore them.“
Though these things were created in their fullness, yet when Adam sinned they were spoiled, and they will not return again to their perfection until the son of Perez comes.”
We can see the Messiah as the one who breaks out of the confines of the law, and how we also rush out, following Him. As Perez burst out of the womb to new life, so we have left our school master behind. It is through His resurrection that Jesus made the breach, through “the new and living way that He opened for us through the curtain (that is, through His flesh) ” Heb 10:20.
Thus the incredibly radical activity of the Messiah is thrown into sharp relief. Returning again to John the Baptist, Jesus continued, “for all the prophets and the law prophesied until John came”. As seen, the Law was given as a fence to Israel, to separate and protect them (Deut 7:6-11). The prophets likewise were those who repaired the fence, who stood in the breach . But with the coming of the Messiah’s herald, everything is changed. He does not simply continue in the tradition of the prophets, but the night is over, and the Shepherd breaks down the wall, and the sheep rush out after Him. As per John 10:7-11; before Jesus, the protection was needed, but now the sheep can go out to pasture, and as Micah 2:13 notes, they go out through the Gate.
The serpent’s bite
“whoso breaketh through a fence, a serpent shall bite him” Eccl. 10:8.
Having seen how the Sages perceived their task in terms of protecting the status quo, by placing a fence around the Torah (itself perceived as a fence), it is unsurprising that they should have employed this verse to guard both their work and God’s commands;
[You ask (the serpent),] “Why do you lurk among the hedges? ” Because I broke through a fence of the world.’ R. Simeon b. Yohai taught: The serpent broke through a fence of the world [by violating God’s law] and was therefore made the executioner of all who break through fences. Midrash Rabbah Ecclesiasies X:12.
To what extent does this understanding apply to the ben Perez, to the breaker?
On the cosmic level, as the as the one breaking into the world, who will restore the Edenic, pre-fall stature of humanity (the second Adam), a run in with the Snake, who opposes this purpose, conforms to the Messianic prophecy from the fall; “he will strike your head, and you will strike his heel” Gen 3:15. The serpent in this sense now guards the fallen world against the breaking in of its redeemer . The strong man has been bound, however, and his goods liberated . As the one who broke through, the Messiah suffered the consequences (Eccl. 10:8), was struck by the Serpent, and tasted death for every one.
I hope you found this interesting,
God bless, Colin