I just finished putting together a study for jail that includes John 10:1-21, where Jesus gives an illustration using sheep and shepherds. God’s intent was for the shepherds (religious leaders) to feed the people with the truth of God’s Word, provide spiritual nourishment, care for them, help them when they are sick or injured, and warn and safeguard them from danger. The word pastor is related to the word pasture (pastoral), and means “to feed and care for”. Pastors are to shepherd the people. God’s design is that the religious leaders are to be like good shepherds, who care for the sheep, love the sheep, and put the best interests of the sheep above their own needs.
Sheep are mentioned more in the Bible than any other animal by a large margin. It is a fitting illustration, and one well understood by the people who lived in Biblical times. But for us to fully appreciate the significance of this illustration, it really helps to know a little about sheep. I was blessed to grow up on a farm, and we had a flock of sheep until one fateful day when all but a few of them tragically died. More on that later.
Sheep are generally meek and timid by nature. They have very few natural defenses. They aren’t particularly fast, and have pitiful stamina for running. They are easy prey for predators like coyotes, dogs, wolves, and a young girl who would corner them or rope them and crawl on their backs and ride them, which was marvelous fun! That is until they would fall over after a couple minutes of running from hyperventilation, tongues lolling out of their mouths. Thankfully we had a hundred or so sheep in our flock, so I was well supplied for my “mutton busting” adventures… until I would get caught by one very annoyed Daddy!
Sheep have poor natural instincts. Most vets will tell you that every sheep is born looking for a place to die. And ewes (females) have some of the worst maternal instincts of all domesticated farm animals. Rejection and abandonment of their young is not uncommon. As I kid, I benefitted from that, because it meant I got to bottle feed the orphan lambs, which I really enjoyed. Sheep are pretty ugly creatures, but lambs are adorable! Sheep will also sometimes attack other sheep that are weak or injured, butting them with their heads, pushing them out of the flock. This always makes me think of Junior High School!
Sheep don’t have the sense to seek shelter from the rain. Their wool soaks up water and becomes much heavier, making it very hard for them to walk. They also like to hang out in low areas, and won’t always get up and move when a low area fills with water, and they can drown. They also easily get “cast” (get stuck laying down). When that happens, they can’t get up by themselves. Their digestive system shuts down, gasses accumulate, circulation is affected, and they bloat. If it is hot, they can die in just a few hours.
Sheep are also easily startled and easily panicked. Sometimes over something insignificant. When they are panicked, they will often do things that harm themselves and others, including trampling their own young. They will run straight into the side of a barn, into a fence, or into a tree. I learned this first hand from my sheep riding days. Fortunately I figured out pretty quickly to bail off before they smash into the side of the barn, the fence, a tree, or some other solid object!
Sheep are greedy. They are never satisfied with the grass in their pasture, and it gets them into all kinds of trouble. They don’t pay attention to their surroundings, and they will get their wool caught on briars, thorny bushes or low limbs on trees and can get stuck. They will also get stuck trying to go through fences. They will be merrily grazing away and then fall off embankments or in to ditches trying to get just one more bite of grass, even if there is plenty of wonderful grass all around them.
Most grazing animals have a strong instinct to wander, which helps to protect the grasslands. Sheep however tend taking the same path through the pasture over and over until they have created deep ruts that lead to erosion. They also have favorite spots where they overgraze the grass, killing it. Because they spend so much time in their favorite areas, the grass there is destroyed and the area will sometimes become infested with parasites, making it not only useless, but dangerous to the sheep.
Sheep are notorious for not thinking for themselves, and just blindly following the one in front of them with no thought to the consequences. This can be handy at times. For example, if you can get the lead sheep in the trailer, you can easily load the whole flock. It can also be comical at times. If one sheep jumps over a shadow on the ground, they will ALL jump the shadow on the ground.
Sheep also have very little ability to groom themselves, especially when they have a full fleece of wool. Everything they come in contact with gets stuck in their wool – mud, leaves, sticks, everything! They are like walking “Velcro”! And if the shepherd doesn’t remove the foreign objects from their fleece, some objects end up working their way down to the skin, sometimes causing painful mats and even infections in their skin.
No other livestock requires the careful handling and care of sheep. Sheep are incredibly needy! Their welfare is totally dependent on the shepherd’s management, and they need a diligent shepherd if they are to survive, much less thrive.
Sheep are always trying to go somewhere they shouldn’t go, which is how my Daddy ended up retiring from the sheep business. I remember coming home from school on the bus and looking down the train tracks that divided our pasture. I couldn’t quite tell what was there, but it looked like a whole bunch of red and white blobs.
There was a fence that kept the sheep off of the railroad tracks, but apparently one of our sheep managed to get through the fence. I imagine that sheep just couldn’t resist trying to get to the grass on the other side of the fence, even though it was spring and there was a pasture filled with lush, tender spring grass for them to eat. And because sheep are natural followers, most of the rest of the flock, around 100 other sheep, followed that first sheep right up onto the train tracks.
They apparently were pretty much all in a single file line, grazing down the tracks between the two rails. And then the train came through, leaving a bloody wake of dead sheep scattered on both sides of the tracks. If I remember right, there were only about 4-6 sheep that survived the train incident. Daddy hauled the survivors to the livestock sale, and that was the end of having sheep on our farm. I had outgrown riding the sheep, but I did miss getting to bottle feed the lambs in the spring.
So it should be pretty obvious that when the Bible frequently compares us to sheep, it is certainly not a compliment! I encourage you to consider the parallels between the nature of sheep, and our human nature. Sadly, they are plentiful!
Thankfully, we have a Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ. We have a Shepherd who loves us deeply, and desires for us to be well-fed and safe in His care.
Jesus: “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd gives His life for the sheep.” John 10:11