The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers….I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lay down his life for the sheep.
John 10:3-5, 11
The Lord Jesus told us to consider the birds of the air and the flowers of the field, to learn from them more about the Father’s love. Well, this last weekend, I had opportunity to consider sheep instead, and to learn about the Father’s love. There were Wooly and Bully, two Suffolk Sheep, living out their idyllic existence in picturesque Oak Creek Canyon, north of Sedona, Arizona.
I saw Wooly and Bully, actually smelled them first, and immediately felt my lifelong affection for sheep. I grew up on a cotton farm where we had sheep, and always felt that sheep were simply larger versions of the family pet. As a young boy I watched spellbound as they gave birth; I gave names to the newborn, and often fed the lambs with milk from a bottle. I protested tearfully and loudly the killing and butchering of my pets each year around Easter. I really liked sheep.
But this last weekend, Wooly and Bully reminded me of something I had forgotten: how fearful, timid, and helpless sheep are. And how ungrateful sheep can be! Feed them an apple or orange and they just walk away without a lick on the hand or a thank you. Each time I returned to visit Wooly and Bully I thought about how often the Bible compares us to sheep. The Dictionary of Biblical Imagery describes sheep in a most unflattering way: “Sheep are not only dependent creatures; they are also singularly unintelligent, prone to wandering and unable to find their way to a sheepfold even when it is in sight.”
In Bible times sheep were totally dependent upon their shepherd for protection, food, watering, shelter, and caring for injuries. Sheep would not survive for long in the open field without a shepherd. While I might prefer God to compare us to lions or bears, He calls us His sheep.
I watched Wooly and Bully and thought about times I had sheepishly wandered from God. Times I had acted stupidly, defiantly of God. Times I couldn’t see the way, even when it was right in front of me. Yet God loves us, even when our behavior stinks like a sheep! God still delights in calling us “his people, and the sheep of his pasture” (Psalm 100:3).
It is significant that sheep are mentioned more than any other animal in the Bible, more than 400 times. Sheep were of no little importance in Bible times. Sheep represented a person’s wealth and standing in the village. Affluence and influence were often reckoned, not by shekels or gold, but by how many sheep one had. Sheep provided milk, food, warm wool, and hides for tents. But most important of all, sheep were honored for their role as the preferred sacrifice to offer God. Their lives offered up were sweet to God! Jesus even delighted in telling how He was a Lamb who would lay down His life as a sacrifice for others.
In today’s story we see that for Jesus, sheep represent the people who know the Shepherd. The Shepherd calls them by name, and they know how to listen for His voice and follow Him. They are no less sheep than they were before, but they know the Shepherd. That’s what makes the difference! They are no less timid, fearful, and dependent, but they know they have a Shepherd who loves and cares for them. They know they have a Shepherd who will even lay down His life for them!
Just as a villager in the Jesus’ day would brag about how many sheep he had, so Jesus brags about His sheep that know and follow Him. God’s sheep find their confidence and peace in knowing they have a Shepherd. We know where to look for our protection, food, shelter, and the healing of our hurts.
So Jesus sends us forth into the world as sheep, nothing more: “See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves” (Matthew 10:16). We go forth defenseless and dependent as sheep. The wolves can be frightening. But our strength and victory will always be in knowing the Shepherd, and listening to His voice. This last weekend I visited Wooly and Bully, and was reminded how much I love sheep; smelly, stupid, and helpless as they are. But most of all, I was reminded how much our heavenly Father loves you and me, His beloved sheep!
Grace and peace,
photo by Rita Smith