Wednesday, December 27, 2017

What Does It Mean for Jesus to be the "Good Shepherd"?

Image result for the good shepherdIn John 10, Jesus describes Himself as the "good shepherd" who "lays down his life for the sheep." Have you ever stopped to consider what the implications are of Jesus' statement in regards to His identity? I have shown previously that Jesus' statements in John 10:22-39 is a claim to divine status and co-equality with the Father. But Jesus' statements to be the "good shepherd" are similarly provocative.

To find out why, let's take a look over at Ezekiel 34. In verses 1-10, God speaks about the judges of Israel, whom He deems to be wicked, evil and corrupt shepherds. In verses 11-24, God tells us that He Himself will shepherd his flock in place of the corrupt and evil shepherds. Take particular note of the underlined sections in bolt print.
11 “For thus says the Lord God: Behold, I, I myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out. 12 As a shepherd seeks out his flock when he is among his sheep that have been scattered, so will I seek out my sheep, and I will rescue them from all places where they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. 13 And I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land. And I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the ravines, and in all the inhabited places of the country. 14 I will feed them with good pasture, and on the mountain heights of Israel shall be their grazing land. There they shall lie down in good grazing land, and on rich pasture they shall feed on the mountains of Israel. 15 I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I myself will make them lie down, declares the Lord God. 16 I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, and the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them in justice.17 “As for you, my flock, thus says the Lord God: Behold, I judge between sheep and sheep, between rams and male goats. 18 Is it not enough for you to feed on the good pasture, that you must tread down with your feet the rest of your pasture; and to drink of clear water, that you must muddy the rest of the water with your feet? 19 And must my sheep eat what you have trodden with your feet, and drink what you have muddied with your feet? 20 “Therefore, thus says the Lord God to them: Behold, I, I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep. 21 Because you push with side and shoulder, and thrust at all the weak with your horns, till you have scattered them abroad, 22 I will rescue my flock; they shall no longer be a prey. And I will judge between sheep and sheep. 23 And I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd. 24 And I, the Lord, will be their God, and my servant David shall be prince among them. I am the Lord; I have spoken.
Compare these words from Ezekiel with the words of our Lord Jesus in John 10:1-11,14-16. Again, pay particular attention to the underlined words in bold font:
“Truly, truly, I say to you, he who does not enter the sheepfold by the door but climbs in by another way, that man is a thief and a robber. 2 But he who enters by the door is the shepherd of the sheep. 3 To him the gatekeeper opens. The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. 4 When he has brought out all his own, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice. 5 A stranger they will not follow, but they will flee from him, for they do not know the voice of strangers.” 6 This figure of speech Jesus used with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.7 So Jesus again said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep. 8 All who came before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them. 9 I am the door. If anyone enters by me, he will be saved and will go in and out and find pasture. 10 The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly...14 I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep. 16 And I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.
The parallels between these texts are striking. The words of Ezekiel 34:17,20 -- where God says He will judge between sheep and sheep, between rams and male goats, between fat sheep and lean sheep -- can also be compared to Jesus' statements in Matthew 25:31-34:
31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left. 34 Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.
We also see the imagery of Ezekiel 34 employed in Jesus' statement in Luke 19:9-10: "For the Son of man came to seek and to save the lost." Jesus tells the Canaanite woman in Matthew 15:24 that He had been sent to "the lost sheep of the house of Israel." Jesus also says to Simon Peter in John 21:15,16 to “Feed my lambs” and "Tend my sheep"

In case there were any doubt left whatsoever that Jesus is asserting Himself to be Israel's God, consider his words slightly later in John 10 in verses 27-28:

27 My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. 28 I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand.
This text alludes to Psalm 95:7-8, in which God Himself says (in reference to Israel's rebellion in the wilderness):
7For he is our God, and we are the people of his pasture,  and the sheep of his hand. Today, if you hear his voice,8 do not harden your hearts, as at Meribah, as on the day at Massah in the wilderness...
The text is also an allusion to Deuteronomy 32:39:

“‘See now that I, even I, am he, and there is no god beside me; I kill and I make alive;    I wound and I heal; and there is none that can deliver out of my hand.
That Jesus claims the titles and prerogatives of the God of Israel in these texts is undeniable.

Thus far, we have seen that Jesus seems to have, on more than one occasion, drawn upon this text from Ezekiel 34 (and also related texts), where Yahweh is portrayed as the good shepherd who will seek out His sheep and lead them onto fresh pastures. There are, however, some other important features of this text that are important for us to consider. Take a look again at Ezekiel 34:23-24:
23 And I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd. 24 And I, the Lord, will be their God, and my servant David shall be prince among them. I am the Lord; I have spoken.
This is a curious statement. First we were told that God Himself would shepherd his flock, and then we are told that God will set up one shepherd who will feed them and be their shepherd -- and that shepherd will be His servant David. The only problem is that David was long dead by the time Ezekiel penned those words. How, then, can David be shepherd over God's flock? When we read the Old Testament as a whole, we realize that it makes perfect sense. There is a special blessing reserved for the house of David, one which has previously not been hitherto enjoyed. The Messiah Himself is one day to sit on David's throne and administer justice on the earth. He can truly be said to be the second David. One such text that springs to mind is Amos 9:11-12:
11 “In that day I will raise up the booth of David that is fallen and repair its breaches, and raise up its ruins and rebuild it as in the days of old, 12 that they may possess the remnant of Edom and all the nations who are called by my name,” declares the Lord who does this.
Isaiah 9:7 also speaks of the Messiah, saying,
Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore.The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.
Words to the same effect can be found in many Messianic passages. Thus, we learn from Ezekiel 34 that the one shepherd of the sheep of Israel is both God and Messiah. Thus, again we see that the Messiah must be a divine person.

But it gets even more interesting still. In a previous post I highlighted some Messianic themes from the book of Zechariah. There is also interesting imagery of a shepherd in Zechariah 13:7:
7“Awake, O sword, against my shepherd,    against the man who stands next to me,”declares the Lord of hosts.“Strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered; I will turn my hand against the little ones.
Jesus interprets this text as a reference to Himself (Matthew 26:31, Mark 14:27). Here, we see that God is going to pour out his wrath (spoken metaphorically as his "sword") against His shepherd -- who is identified as "the man (geber) who stands next to me (amiti)." Who is the shepherd who is to be struck with God's wrath? Key to understanding this is the Hebrew word amiti, which is translated here as "stands next to me." The word appears nine other times in the Hebrew Bible, all of which are in Leviticus (Leviticus 6:2; 18:20; 19:11,15,17; 24:19; 25:14-15,17). In all of those instances, the word is used as a synonym for a fellow brother or a blood relative, or to one living nearest to another. Thus, the word refers to someone who belongs to the same genus -- or, who is of the same essence. This means that Yahweh and the shepherd, the man who stands next to him, are of the same category of being -- and yet this individual who shares His essence is both God and man.

This interpretation is granted by rabbinic interpreters. However, they attempt to escape the conclusion by arguing that the text is referring to wicked gentile rulers who merely think they are equal to Yahweh. A careful examination of the context, however, suggests against this interpretation. When we turn back to Zechariah 10:3, we read,
“My anger is hot against the shepherds, and I will punish the leaders; for the Lord of hosts cares for his flock, the house of Judah, and will make them like his majestic steed in battle.
Here again we see the contrast between the wicked shepherds and the good shepherd, the Lord Himself, who "cares for His flock, the house of Judah".

In Zechariah 11:7-14, we read of Israel's rejection of the true shepherd. God uses the prophet Zechariah to represent the part of the good shepherd and His rejection:
7 So I became the shepherd of the flock doomed to be slaughtered by the sheep traders. And I took two staffs, one I named Favor, the other I named Union. And I tended the sheep. 8 In one month I destroyed the three shepherds. But I became impatient with them, and they also detested me. 9 So I said, “I will not be your shepherd. What is to die, let it die. What is to be destroyed, let it be destroyed. And let those who are left devour the flesh of one another.” 10 And I took my staff Favor, and I broke it, annulling the covenant that I had made with all the peoples. 11 So it was annulled on that day, and the sheep traders, who were watching me, knew that it was the word of the Lord. 12 Then I said to them, “If it seems good to you, give me my wages; but if not, keep them.” And they weighed out as my wages thirty pieces of silver. 13 Then the Lord said to me, “Throw it to the potter”—the lordly price at which I was priced by them. So I took the thirty pieces of silver and threw them into the house of the Lord, to the potter. 14 Then I broke my second staff Union, annulling the brotherhood between Judah and Israel.
Here, God identifies Himself as the good shepherd, as the thirty pieces of silver is said to be the "lordly price at which I [i.e. the Lord Himself] was priced by them." The Lord was worth no more to the people of Israel than the price of a common slave.

In the next chapter, Zechariah 12, we read in verse 10,
10 “And I will pour out on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of grace and pleas for mercy, so that, when they look on me, on him whom they have pierced, they shall mourn for him, as one mourns for an only child, and weep bitterly over him, as one weeps over a firstborn.
Again, this speaks of the good shepherd who was rejected by the people. This text dovetails with what we read in the very next chapter, with the shepherd being struck in Zechariah 13:7. Thus, the character of the shepherd who is stuck is consistent with the picture given previously by Zechariah of the Lord Himself.

In fact, Revelation 1:7, interprets this verse to be about the return of Jesus. Thus we again see the New Testament proclaiming Christ to be the God of Israel Himself:
Behold, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him, even those who pierced him, and all tribes of the earth will wail on account of him. Even so. Amen.
This text again is applied to Jesus in John 19:36-37:
For these things took place that the Scripture might be fulfilled ... “They will look on him whom they have pierced.”
If my interpretation of the shepherd of Zechariah 13:7 being a divine-human person is correct, then it is especially interesting that we read in Zechariah 14:9 that,
...the Lord will be king over all the earth. On that day the Lord will be one and his name one.
The Hebrew word used here for "one" is echad, which allows for a composite or compound unity (e.g. as in Genesis 2:24 and various other instances). This is very consistent with what we might expect in view of the Triune nature of God -- although there are two divine persons in view in Zechariah 13:7, they are essentially one in substance or essence.

The imagery of the sword in Zechariah 13:7 is given as a metaphor for God's wrath, which is employed here against the shepherd. In a previous article I showed that the picture of the Messiah given in Isaiah 53 likewise is that of a divine-human person who participates in the very essence of Yahweh and who is struck with God's wrath in order to redeem His people. The allusion to the sheep being scattered finds its partial fulfillment in the scattering of Christ's disciples upon His arrest, but it more probably refers more specifically to the dispersion of the Jewish nation in A.D. 70, as a consequence of their rejection of their Messiah.

What about the statement "I will turn my hand against the little ones" in 13:7? What does this refer to? A look at other usages of the phrase "turn my hand against" in the Scriptures reveals that it can have two meanings -- it can mean to pour out his judgment upon (e.g. Psalm 81:14, Amos 1:8) but it can also mean to protect or to interpose in favor of. We see this latter meaning in the case of Isaiah 1:24-26:
24 Therefore the Lord declares, the Lord of hosts, the Mighty One of Israel: “Ah, I will get relief from my enemies and avenge myself on my foes. 25 I will turn my hand against you and will smelt away your dross as with lye and remove all your alloy. 26 And I will restore your judges as at the first, and your counselors as at the beginning. Afterward you shall be called the city of righteousness, the faithful city.”
Here, the meaning is obviously that God will interpose in favor of Israel. Which meaning is to be preferred, then, in the case of Zechariah 13:7? Some commentators suggest the latter interpretation. For example, the Jamieson-Fausset-Brown Bible Commentary state that "The hand of Jehovah was laid in wrath on the Shepherd that His hand might be turned in grace upon the little ones."

In view of the context of verses 8 and 9, however, it seems to me to be a plausible enough reading that it refers to God striking Israel for her rejection of the Messiah, only allowing a third to be spared -- a remnant that God will spare for Himself:
8 In the whole land, declares the Lord, two thirds shall be cut off and perish, and one third shall be left alive. 9 And I will put this third into the fire, and refine them as one refines silver, and test them as gold is tested. They will call upon my name, and I will answer them. I will say, ‘They are my people’; and they will say, ‘The Lord is my God.’”
Another possible way of reading it is that the little ones are those on whom God turns his hand of protection and delivers, because this is the small portion of Israel that remains faithful to Christ and thus remains alive in the end. The elect remnant of Israel will thus see the Lord Jesus Christ, their Messiah, and they will call upon Him as their Savior, Redeemer, and Lord.

What another beautiful prophetic foreshadowing of God's Messiah in the Hebrew Scriptures. In future posts, we will continue to examine Messianic prophecy and what it tells us about the identity, mission and nature of Israel's Messiah.