Why is Jesus called the Good Shepherd?

Luke Wayne
3/15/17

When Jesus called Himself the "Good Shepherd," He was not merely describing His role or His care for His people. He was claiming to be the fulfillment of a specific Messianic prophecy and arguably asserting His deity as well.

The Good Shepherd and the Promised Messiah

While one of Jesus' more well-known titles, the term "Good Shepherd" occurs only during the episode in John 10:1-21. On this occasion, Jesus not only asserts His own authority as "the good shepherd," but also rebukes the false religious leaders. He refers to them as false shepherds who are actually thieves and robbers (10:1,8) who come to the flock to "steal, kill, and destroy," (10:10). He also calls them hired hands who are acting only in their own interest and not for the benefit of the sheep (10:12-13). Jesus, by contrast, is the good shepherd who owns the flock and lays down His life for the sheep (10:11,14-17). Thus, this passage is a running analogy in which the people are the sheep, Jesus is their true Shepherd, and the rival religious leaders are rebuked and denounced as false shepherds who prey on the flock.

This has striking parallels to a prophecy in Ezekiel 34. Like in Jesus words, this passage compares the religious leaders of Israel to wicked shepherds who are, in fact, thieves and destroyers of the flock. God denounces them with words like:

"Woe, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding themselves! Should not the shepherds feed the flock? You eat the fat and clothe yourselves with the wool; you slaughter the fat sheep without feeding the flock," (Ezekiel 34:2b-3).

God likewise denounces them for failing to protect the flock and leaving them to be devoured by wild beasts (Ezekiel 34:5-6). Thus, the denunciations of the false shepherds of Israel in Ezekiel 34 closely parallel those in John 10. After detailing these rebukes further, God goes on to promise:

"I will deliver My flock, and they will no longer be a prey; and I will judge between one sheep and another. Then I will set over them one shepherd, My servant David, and he will feed them; he will feed them himself and be their shepherd. And I, the Lord, will be their God, and My servant David will be prince among them; I the Lord have spoken," (Ezekiel 34:22-24).

Thus, in contrast to the false shepherds, there is the promise of a future shepherd. One true shepherd for all God's sheep who care for them. This Shepherd will be "my servant David." This is obviously meant to point to the Messiah, the promised Son of David who was to come. This is the Good Shepherd, and this is who Jesus openly professed to be. In fact, John makes it explicit that Jesus was making a Messianic claim just a little further down in the chapter. Immediately after the "Good Shepherd" episode, John reports:

"At that time the Feast of the Dedication took place at Jerusalem; it was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple in the portico of Solomon. The Jews then gathered around Him, and were saying to Him, 'How long will You keep us in suspense? If You are the Christ, tell us plainly.' Jesus answered them, 'I told you, and you do not believe; the works that I do in My Father’s name, these testify of Me. But you do not believe because you are not of My sheep,'" (John 10:22-26).

At the onset of this next episode, Jesus is challenged to plainly say whether or not He is the Christ (the Messiah). He responds by asserting that He has already told them. When did He tell them? Obviously, He told them when He claimed to be the Good Shepherd. How do we know that this is what Jesus means? Because He jumps right back into the Shepherd analogy! He rebukes them again, telling them that they are not His sheep. He goes on:

"My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me; and I give eternal life to them, and they will never perish; and no one will snatch them out of My hand. My Father, who has given them to Me, is greater than all; and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand. I and the Father are one," (John 10:27-30).

Clearly, Jesus having already told them that He is the Messiah connects directly with His self-identification as "The Good Shepherd," which makes perfect sense in light of what we see in Ezekiel 34. "The Good Shepherd" is a messianic title rooted in Old Testament Prophecy.

The Good Shepherd and the Deity of Christ

But in saying this, is Jesus also saying a bit more? There seem to be implications regarding Christ's deity as well. Note, for example, who it is that owns the flock. When Jesus distinguishes Himself from the "hired hand," He emphasizes that the hireling does not own the sheep. The Good Shepherd gives Himself for the sheep precisely because they are His sheep. Indeed, throughout the whole passage, Jesus refers to the flock as "My sheep." These are not merely sheep that He is charged with the care of; they are His own sheep. They belong to Him. The flock is Christ's flock. But to whom does the flock belong? Note in God's rebuke of the false shepherds:

"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," (Ezekiel 34:10).

He goes on to promise things like:

"For this is what the Sovereign Lord says: I myself will search for my sheep and look after them. As a shepherd looks after his scattered flock when he is with them, so will I look after my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places where they were scattered on a day of clouds and darkness," (Ezekiel 34:11).

"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," (Ezekiel 34:15).

"You are my sheep, the sheep of my pasture, and I am your God, declares the Sovereign Lord," (Ezekiel 34:31).

Where God previously appointed others to shepherd His flock, God says that He will shepherd them and care for them Himself. Of course, as we already read, the passage also says that God will "set over them one shepherd, My servant David, and he will feed them." This is what makes the passage clearly Messianic. Yet, somehow, the promise of the Messiah is not merely the promise that God will appoint a better shepherd. God repeatedly promises that He will directly shepherd the flock Himself rather than appointing other shepherds to the task. In some way, the coming of Messiah represents God's direct rule rather than the appointment of a merely human intermediary. Also, nothing in this passage would suggest that God surrenders ownership of the flock, yet Christ repeatedly claims not only to be the shepherd of the flock but to be its owner. Could it be that these texts point to a divine Messiah? It would certainly be consistent with the rest of John's gospel (see, for example, HERE, HERE, and HERE).

It is also interesting that Jesus emphasizes the sheep hearing His voice. Note:

"The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. 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," (John 10:2-4).

"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," (John 10:16).

"My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand," (John 10:27-28).

This is striking as it strongly parallels with a phrase from the Psalms, which says:

"For He is our God, And we are the people of His pasture and the sheep of His hand. Today, if you would hear His voice," (Psalm 95:7).

Finally, Jesus concludes that the flock is in His own hand and no one can snatch them out, that the flock is in the Father's hand and no one can snatch them out, and that this is true because He and the Father are one, (John 10:28-29). The crowd then threatens to stone Him, "because you, a mere man, claim to be God," (John 10:33). Jesus retorts:

"If I do not do the works of My Father, do not believe Me; but if I do them, though you do not believe Me, believe the works, so that you may know and understand that the Father is in Me, and I in the Father," (John 10:37-38).

Again, this points to the idea that Jesus shepherding the flock is God shepherding the flock directly. Jesus ownership of the flock is God's ownership of it. Jesus work is the very work of God. The crowds certainly understood Jesus as claiming to be God and, refusing to believe His claims, they were ready to stone Him for blasphemy. All together, everything in this passage points to the idea that Jesus' claim to be the Good Shepherd was a claim to be the divine Messiah who is both sent and appointed by God and yet is God, who is the servant of God and yet who is God Himself shepherding His people directly. This makes sense of all the scriptures involved, coheres perfectly with the rest of John's gospel, and affirms yet again the Christian doctrine of the Trinity.