11/22/2013 4 Comments
Bad Shepherd, Good Shepherd
By: Eric Boothe
In ancient history being a shepherd was a very common occupation. Much of the land of the Middle East is dry, rocky and hilly, unsuitable for growing many crops. The herds of sheep or other animals the people had were their livelihood, providing for them food, clothing and companionship. They looked after their flocks with care. There was always a shepherd following the flocks around, diligently watching over them and guiding them to safe grounds. This was not an occupation to be taken lightly and demanded constant awareness. The flocks needed to be watched over day and night from critters and other predators that would find sheep that had strayed from the flock and bring them harm. Flock owners hesitated to hire a shepherd for fear that they would not practice the same care as the owner would. The shepherds and owners of the flocks at the time were often found fighting off these predators with their staff and bare hands, at the risk of being killed themselves. The flocks were so precious to them they were willing to put themselves in harms way, even giving their own life if need be.
Did you know the writers of the Bible use the metaphor of a shepherd a lot? It was something the people understood and could relate to. The leaders of the time were often called shepherds, as they led the people and watched out for their interest. Many of the leaders of Israel, God's chosen people, are often spoken of harshly in the Bible. At a later time in Israel's history when the nation was in turmoil and scattered God spoke through many men called prophets. Ezekiel is one of these prophets we read in the Old Testament. God used Ezekiel to bring his messages to the people of Israel and its leaders. The people had been captured and led away from their land, this did not make sense to many of the people of Israel. God gave them an explanation through the prophet Ezekiel, "Woe to the shepherds of Israel who only take care of themselves! Should not shepherds take care of the flock? You eat the curds, clothe yourselves with the wool and slaughter the choice animals, but you do not take care of the flock. You have not strengthened the weak or healed the sick or bound up the injured. You have not brought back the strays or searched for the lost. You have ruled them harshly and brutally. So they were scattered because there was no shepherd, and when they were scattered they became food for all the wild animals" (34:2-5). This was God's explanation as to why the people had been scattered! The leaders of Israel had done a poor job and God couldn't stand the suffering of the flock (the people of Israel) any longer, he was going to do something about it.
Ezekiel doesn't stop there, first he goes on to tell us how God is going to hold these terrible shepherds accountable, "This is what the Sovereign LORD says: I am against the shepherds and will hold them accountable for my flock. I will remove them from tending the flock so that the shepherds can no longer feed themselves. I will rescue my flock from their mouths, and it will no longer be food for them" (34:10). The ironic thing to me in this verse is Ezekiel points out it's no longer a fierce animal preying on the people but its actually the shepherds themselves that are being the predators. Ezekiel gives us a graphic picture of the flock being the food for the shepherds. It's the flock that needs rescued from the mouths of the shepherds!
Ezekiel then goes on to claim that God himself will be the one who rescues the flock. God himself will be the good shepherd. Ezekiel writes, "I myself will tend my sheep and have them lie down, declares the Sovereign LORD. I will search for the lost and bring back the strays. I will bind up the injured and strengthen the weak, but the sleek and the strong I will destroy. I will shepherd the flock with justice" (34:15-16). God is the good shepherd. He will not let the strays wonder out by themselves to be preyed upon. He will heal them when they are injured and give them strength when they are weak. The funny thing about life is that we all at times feel like a stray, we feel injured or weak. I know I lie to myself when I claim I never find myself in such predicaments. I need and often crave a "good shepherd" in my life that will teach me the ways of justice and give me strength when I feel down. God says he will shepherd with justice, something that we all long for in the world.
God told the people through Ezekiel that he would shepherd them. The question is...is this something he has done. We find 600 years later Jesus was walking the earth. The people of Israel were confused by him. Jesus had been traveling around Israel performing miracles, binding up the injured and giving strength to those who were weak. He was making the blind see, those who couldn't walk he made walk. Still after 600 years many of the people were still hurting and looking for a good shepherd (just like people today). He was not what many of them expected (just like people today), so Jesus taught them about himself. John records Jesus saying, "I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep" (10:11). Whoa, wait a minute! Didn't God say through Ezekiel that he would be the good shepherd? He sure did and now Jesus is claiming to be that very shepherd! He even goes as far to say that he will lay down his life for the flock. This is serious business and God must think the flock is worth a whole awful lot to lay down his life for them.
Jesus goes on to say,"The hired hand is not the shepherd who owns the sheep. So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away. Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it. The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep. "I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me--just as the Father knows me and I know the Father—and I lay down my life for the sheep"" (10:12-15). Jesus is claiming a couple of things here. First he is claiming to be God. He is saying he is the good shepherd that God said he would be in Ezekiel. Secondly, Jesus is claiming that he is the owner of the flock. He is not a hired hand. He will not run away when the wolf comes but will put himself in harms way for the good of the flock. The flock is precious to Jesus, he cares for the sheep and he will not abandon them. He is willingly putting himself in harms way so that the flock will not be scattered.
Shortly after Jesus spoke of how he was the good shepherd, many of the people came to him asking,"How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Christ [or for the sake of my post here, by them asking if he is the Christ they are essentially asking, "if you are the good shepherd God promised he would be in Ezekiel"], tell us plainly" (10:24). I can only imagine Jesus' thoughts when they asked him this. He had just told them plainly and yet they refused to believe. I would think he was frustrated. He replied by telling them the miracles he was doing was proof that he was the Christ. He was telling them very plainly who he was while showing them exactly who God was by his actions. He was a good shepherd, full of compassion that had come to bind up the injured and die in their place. All they needed to do was believe and yet they refused.
What will you believe?
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