Jesus’ Radical, Revolutionary Claims:
I Am The Good Shepherd!
Don K. Preston
In our modern societies, so far removed from the cultural, historical, theological matrix of the world of Jesus, i.e. the Hebraic world, it is very easy to overlook the power and challenge of much of what Jesus said. We have a tendency to think of Jesus as this soft spoken, gentle Ghandi like figure that went about being so kind as not to offend anyone’s sensibilities. But nothing could be farther from the truth!
One of Jesus’ “parables” that is often interpreted in the above mentioned manner is his famous statement in John 10:11 “I am the good shepherd.” When Jesus speaks of leading his sheep, of protecting the sheep, and caring for the sheep, this is often interpreted in what we shall call a “warm fuzzy” manner, that gives little, if any thought to the prophetic background and significance of what Jesus was saying.
Now, make no mistake, I firmly believe in the loving nature and power of Jesus, and his words do convey that meaning! But there is more, far more, than a simple “parable” with a warm moral point to it at work in John 10.In fact, Jesus’ claim to be the good shepherd was nothing less than a claim that he was the Son of God! He was the Messiah! And, his claim that he was the good shepherd also meant that the leaders of Judah– the Shepherds– were about to be destroyed! Jesus’ claim was therefore, subversive!
This may seem a strange, and perhaps strained claim if we are unaware of the background in which Jesus made his claim. So, what is the background and context in which Jesus uttered his claim to being the good shepherd?
In Israel’s cultural and prophetic thought, the leaders of the nation were looked upon and called shepherds. Lamentably, the history of Israel’s shepherds of leading the nation in the wrong and dangerous paths was well known to Jesus and his audience. For brevity, we can only examine a short list of the history of the failed shepherds.
In Ezekiel 34:3f YHVH indicted the leaders of Judah as the shepherds of the flock. They were failing to guide the flock of Israel in ways of righteousness. Notice the list of their failures:
“You eat the fat and clothe yourselves with the wool; you slaughter the fatlings, but you do not feed the flock. The weak you have not strengthened, nor have you healed those who were sick, nor bound up the broken, nor brought back what was driven away, nor sought what was lost; but with force and cruelty you have ruled them. So they were scattered because there was no shepherd; and they became food for all the beasts of the field when they were scattered. My sheep wandered through all the mountains, and on every high hill; yes, My flock was scattered over the whole face of the earth, and no one was seeking or searching for them.”
Does the list of the failures of the leaders of Judah sound familiar? It should! Just read James 5 and the condemnation of the rich– these were, by almost universal scholarly consent, the rich and powerful leaders in Judea. You will see a direct connection. The shepherds of the first century were repeating the failures of the shepherds of Ezekiel’s day!
It is important to note that YHVH said He would take away those evil shepherds, and then said:
‘For thus says the Lord GOD: “Indeed I Myself will search for My sheep and seek them out. As a shepherd seeks out his flock on the day he is among his scattered sheep, so will I seek out My sheep and deliver them from all the places where they were scattered on a cloudy and dark day. And I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them to their own land; I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, in the valleys and in all the inhabited places of the country. I will feed them in good pasture, and their fold shall be on the high mountains of Israel. There they shall lie down in a good fold and feed in rich pasture on the mountains of Israel. I will feed My flock, and I will make them lie down,” says the Lord GOD. I will seek what was lost and bring back what was driven away, bind up the broken and strengthen what was sick; but I will destroy the fat and the strong, and feed them in judgment.” (Ezekiel 34:11f).
YHVH said the time was coming when He would be the good shepherd! He would seek out the lost sheep. He would gather the scattered sheep of Israel to Himself! He would feed the flock!
Fast forward now to the book of Zechariah, written after the Babylonian captivity, at a time when, once again, the shepherds of Judah were abusing their position, and not caring for the flock:
“My anger is kindled against the shepherds, And I will punish the goatherds. For the LORD of hosts will visit His flock, The house of Judah, And will make them as His royal horse in the battle” (Zechariah 10:3)
(I cannot develop it here, but notice how YHVH calls the leaders of Judah the “goats.” The word for leaders is the same word for goat in the Hebrew. Note then the judgment scene of Matthew 25 and the division of the sheep from the goats. The goats refused to tend to the poor, and to follow Christ). Anyway, back to Zechariah.
In chapter 11 JHVH continued His condemnation of the shepherds who refused to feed the flock, who abused them, and caused them to follow after wickedness. Now, he holds the flock responsible for following the wicked shepherds and assigns the flock to destruction, along with the shepherds:
“Open your doors, O Lebanon, That fire may devour your cedars. Wail, O cypress, for the cedar has fallen, Because the mighty trees are ruined. Wail, O oaks of Bashan, For the thick forest has come down. There is the sound of wailing shepherds! For their glory is in ruins. There is the sound of roaring lions! For the pride of the Jordan is in ruins. Thus says the LORD my God, “Feed the flock for slaughter, whose owners slaughter them and feel no guilt; those who sell them say, ‘Blessed be the LORD, for I am rich’;and their shepherds do not pity them. For I will no longer pity the inhabitants of the land,” says the LORD. “But indeed I will give everyone into his neighbor’s hand and into the hand of his king. They shall attack the land, and I will not deliver them from their hand. So I fed the flock for slaughter, in particular the poor of the flock. I took for myself two staffs: the one I called Beauty, and the other I called Bonds; and I fed the flock. I dismissed the three shepherds in one month. My soul loathed them, and their soul also abhorred me. Then I said, “I will not feed you. Let what is dying die, and what is perishing perish. Let those that are left eat each other’s flesh” (Zechariah 11:1f). There is far too much here to comment on extensively, but, take note of a few salient issues:
1.) The time frame is after the Babylonian captivity. Thus, the destruction being foretold cannot be assigned to that event.
2.) The Lord said He would no longer pity the land or the flock in it.
3.) It is interesting to say the very least, that prominent Rabbi Yohanan Ben Zakkai taught, as early as AD 30, that Zechariah 11:1 predicted a first century destruction of Jerusalem.
4.) In the day of destruction He would break the bond of the covenant between Judah and Israel. This is astounding, but seldom discussed in the literature.
5.) He would dismiss “the three shepherds.” This may well refer to the Pharisees, Sadducees and Priesthood. Note that in Matthew 21, as Jesus told the parable of the wicked husbandmen of the Vineyard, and foretold their destruction, that, “the chief priests and the Pharisees understood he spoke of them” (Matthew 21:45).
6.) All of this would be fulfilled in the day in which “the flock,” now assigned to slaughter,
would eat their own flesh. This is a citation and application of the covenant curse of Deuteronomy 28:54. (Of course, if the covenant curses of Deuteronomy 28 were to be applied in this situation, it is prima facie proof that the covenant itself would still be in force. You cannot have the application of covenant curses, if the covenant itself has been abrogated. This is irrefutably true).
Patently, none of this happened in Zechariah’s day. This is all Messianic, and or course, Joshua the priest and those with him were specifically said to be signs of things to come (Zechariah 3:8).
Notice now, Jesus, the Good Shepherd.
Notice the contrasts between Israel’s Old Covenant Shepherds, as condemned by YHVH, and contrasted with Jesus:
1.) They “killed” the flock– Jesus came to give abundant life (John 10:10).
2.) They failed to protect the flock– Jesus protected the flock.
3.) They failed to lift up the fallen, and to heal the broken– Jesus healed the sick and lifted the fallen (Matthew 11).
4.) They failed to seek the lost– Jesus came to seek and to save the lost (Luke 19:10).
5.) They failed to gather the scattered sheep– Jesus came to gather the children of God scattered abroad (John 11:52f). Note Matthew 23:37 and the fact that Jesus did not come to gather the scattered sheep of Israel into a geographical land! He came to gather them into covenantal relationship with him! See my extensive discussion of the highly significant word gather (episunagogee) found in Matthew 23 / 24:31, in my Like Father Like Son, On Clouds of Glory book. available on this website.
6.) God said He would take away the wicked Shepherds and that He would be their Shepherd. Jesus is that Shepherd!
Notice again Zechariah said that the good shepherd would come in the day when the wicked shepherds were removed and in the day when God would abrogate the covenant bond between Judah and Israel. This would likewise be “in that day” when Israel would eat the flesh of their own children in the siege and judgment of Judah. Without any doubt whatsoever, this was in the first century, in the siege and fall of Jerusalem.
All of this fits perfectly with Jesus’ ministry, as he foretold the removal of the leaders (Shepherds) of Israel, the judgment of Jerusalem, and the passing of the entire Old Covenant world– in AD 70.
So, when we read Jesus’ claim “I am the good shepherd” we are reading a “bad news, good news” claim. It is not all warm and fuzzy! It is wonderful to be sure, on one hand, but, when the Good Shepherd came, that meant that the wicked Shepherds were about to be judged, removed and destroyed! It meant the abrogation of the Old Covenant form of “Shepherding.”
Just as God gave Israel a king in His anger (1 Samuel 8:8) but would take him away in His wrath (Hosea 13:11) when He would rule over His people, He likewise gave them shepherds under that Old Covenant system. However, He would give His Son as the “Chief Shepherd” (1 Peter 5:1) who would, and who does lead His flock to life– abundant life!
Jesus’ claim told the Jewish leaders, in a powerful, although somewhat subtle manner, that they were about to perish, and that he was the promised Great Shepherd! It is little wonder that Jesus’ claims caused such consternation, discussion and division within the Jews! They knew that Jesus’ words were more than mere sermonizing, or platitudes. They knew that Jesus was claiming something awesome, something radical! Unfortunately, Jesus’ words are often lost on us today because we not know the Old Covenant scriptures as we should, and we do not properly think as we should.
When we read and contemplate Jesus’ words therefore, “I am the good shepherd” we can see how revolutionary, how subversive his claim was! He was saying, “I am the Son of God!” I am, “God in flesh” for it was God who said that He would be the Great Shepherd! And he does lead us to life today, and protect those who follow him!