July 08 Your faith
Join us in our study of the names and descriptions of Jesus
Jesus: Name above all names
Join us in our new Bible study series, as Anne Le Tissier explores the various names and descriptions of Jesus. We begin with possibly the most familiar and best loved scriptural image in both the Old and New Testaments: The good shepherd
“Save your people and bless your inheritance; be their shepherd and carry them for ever,” the psalmist cried (Psalm 28:9) - and while God promised to be the shepherd of his covenant people (Ezekiel 34:11—12), in time, that prayer was answered in the person of Christ.
“I am the good shepherd,” Jesus declared (John 10:11), painting his self-portrait on a background of prophecy with the dramatic strength of character, the rich colour of life and the intricate detail of intimacy imbued by this cherished term.
Listening to their master, the disciples didn’t picture lush Cotswold hillsides, western breeds of sheep, green wellies, sheepdogs or even farmers on quad-bikes rounding up their flocks (a sight I was bemused to watch quite recently!) In fact, shepherds were such a routine sight as they walked the Judean uplands, the disciples required no further explanation to bring to mind their traditional attire: a thick woollen cloak in which he would sleep or fold into a padded seat, a staff (or wooden pole) in his hand, a rod hanging from his belt, and a food-bag containing dried fruit, olives, cheese or bread.
Moreover, the disciples lived in communities dependant upon sheep for wool, milk, sacrificial offerings and, occasionally, for meat; a culture providing ample opportunity to understand and engage with shepherd temperaments. And it’s that personal familiarity that we may be lacking, living in the 21st century West. While Renaissance portraits and Bible encyclopaedias help us to imagine what they looked like, we also need to understand the nature of their character which helps us to relate with our own Good Shepherd.
Understanding the image
First-century Palestinian shepherds were a hardy breed of men - weather-beaten, resilient to living and sleeping outdoors, strong enough to carry full-grown sheep and fit enough to trudge for miles across rough, stony plateaus and hills. They were brave too, and thought nothing of fighting a gang of thieves, a jackal, fox, lion or bear, in order to save their sheep; often getting injured in the process and sometimes even losing their lives.
Nor were they unskilled. They could wield their rod - a cudgel or wooden club studded with nails at one end - in attack or defence, and they could handle a leather sling. In fact, their aim was so precise that when need arose, they could land a stone right next to a sheep’s nose to warn it against straying and encourage it back to the flock!
It was devotion to the sheep, however, which developed these strong and capable men; dedication which kept the sheep’s best interests at heart. The constant companionship bonded shepherd with flock and so they fondly called each sheep by name, (names often relating to their colouring: Brown-foot or Black-tail, for example).
Gnarled but gentle hands tested for broken bones, removed thorns from faces and anointed cuts with oil. Observant eyes kept watch for predators, but also for the welfare of the sick, lame, pregnant and newborns.
Furthermore, each shepherd took responsibility to find fresh pasture and gently flowing water - places providing rest, refreshment and nourishment. And so, he walked out in front, leading them along his chosen route, calling to them to keep following, yet willing to abandon the flock to search for any that had strayed.
Such was his loving devotion to each individual that he would seek out the lost, disentangle brambles from a caught up fleece, or use his staff to haul up those who fell over ledges or into unseen pits. His calming presence would allay their fear as he carried them back to the others.
The shepherd’s unceasing vigilance, patience, loyalty, guidance and sacrificial care provide an awesome portrait of Christ’s love for his people. So let’s consider how these historic shepherding facts can help us engage with our own good shepherd today.
Jesus, our shepherd
David said: “The Lord is my shepherd” (Psalm 23:1) - not ‘our’, ‘your’, or ‘her’ but ‘my’. No matter whether we’re new to the faith or long-term disciples, Jesus is intimately acquainted with us. He knows what happened yesterday and can see what lies ahead; and right now, he is with us, watching over us with constant, loving care. He knows the very number of hairs on our head and calls us each by name (Luke 12:7; John 10:3).
In the hurly-burly bustle of life or the isolation of house-bound frailty; in the joys and sorrows, the ups and downs, the familiar and unexpected, the Good Shepherd longs to give us his best - life in abundant fullness (John 10:10).
But it’s up to us to reach out and receive it. He won’t force us to our knees, pin us to the ground or drag us along on a lead; rather he waits for us to know and appreciate who he is, and thereby find the assurance we need to seek rest in the place of his presence.
Are we willing to “lie down in green pastures” (Psalm 23:2a)? Are we resting in the place Christ has chosen for us, trusting him for provision, purpose, fulfilment and worth in life, or are we scurrying about as we try to provide such nourishment for ourselves? Life’s seasons may change, but the Lord’s provision and care are constant. “I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. He will come in and go out, and find pasture” (John 10:9).
Are we willing to be led? Our Good Shepherd knows that his sheep must drink deeply to receive sufficient strength to cope with the heat of the day. And so, he seeks to restore our souls by leading us “beside quiet waters” (Psalm 23: 2b—3a). Are we willing for him to lead us or do we prefer to follow our own inclinations, schedules, temporary titillations or the expectations of others? If the latter, we can hardly grumble when energy, motivation or inspiration dips; when juggling our responsibilities leaves life feeling full, but far from the inspired, passionate abundance promised by Christ.
Are we straying from his presence? There are predators and pitfalls on our journey too, albeit in the guise of cultural unbelief, materialistic pressures, immoral influences, the preoccupations of busyness, and unseen spiritual forces of evil, to name just a few. The Good Shepherd is ready with rod to oust these predators, but only while we stay close. He’ll zip a warning our way when we’re straying too far from his presence - but again, it’s our choice to respond. If we ignore his convictions to our conscience, he cannot be blamed when we fall into the snares that stifle the breath from our spiritual life. That said, he will always come looking for us and offer his help to take us back to safety; if we want it and are willing to do it his way.
Do we trust him for the unknown? Not every difficult situation implies we’ve strayed from his protective presence. The very nature of the shepherd is to lead his sheep along the right path rather than the wrong one. The “paths of righteousness” in Psalm 23:3b do not in themselves make us ‘righteous’, but they are the ‘right’ paths for us, in keeping with the Good Shepherd’s foreknowledge, purpose and desired destination. Right paths take us through green pastures, but also through ominous valleys. Adversity, and even that of walking in the shadow of death, need cause us no fear while we keep following Jesus. Do we trust him with the insecurity of the unknown?
Are we listening for the comfort of his familiar, guiding voice? The shepherds of Israel are known for their unique calls - warbling cries, tones and intonations that no matter how cleverly mimicked, were never confused by a shepherd’s own flock; the sheep who had grown to know him. So let’s take time to know our Shepherd too, as we listen in prayer, learn through the Word and keep in step with the ways of the Holy Spirit - ever engaging with the voice and the presence of the good and faithful shepherd of our souls.
Take it further
Reflect: God may be challenging us to step out in faith with a new job, ministry or situation. He may be disciplining aspects of our lifestyle or behaviour, permitting difficult circumstances or encouraging us through a season of abundant spiritual fruit. But no matter how we perceive our present path, Jesus remains the Good Shepherd. Are we taking time to know and engage with this comforting, trustworthy character?
Pray: Good Shepherd of my soul, thank you for the comfort, security, guidance and fulfilment promised to me as I follow your paths. In faith, I ask you to help me hear and recognise your voice above the many distractions and difficulties of life.
Study: Psalm 23:1-4; Ezekiel 34:1-16; Luke 15:1-7; John 10:1-18
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