And when He brings out His own sheep, He goes before them; and the sheep follow Him, for they know His voice. (John 10:4)
Having been internet-less for a few days as a result of a huge storm in our area, I had a little time to ponder the ponder the nature of the shepherd-sheep relationship, and to realise that just how much is wrapped up in this seemingly simple analogy. It’s a complete study all on its own, and is well worth the time, especially if we include a little background research to fully understand the shepherd role in biblical times and its relevance to the ‘people of His pasture.’
While those of us from farming backgrounds may well be familiar with sheep, it’s a modern understanding from a pastoral life softened by well-fenced pastures, sturdy, protective enclosures and the virtual absence of predators. For the most part, sheep are ‘herded’ rather than led, often with the help of the invaluable and well-trained sheep dog whose responsibility it is to interpret the commands of the shepherd and shivvy the sheep to respond accordingly.
There is no doubt and enormous amount of skill and effort that goes into the shepherd-sheep dog dynamic, so this isn’t about diminishing that at all. Modern life is modern life. But the essential shepherd-sheep role has changed, and we run the risk of missing the wonderful relationship Christ intended through our modern perspective.
In biblical days – and in many cultures today that remain relatively uninfluenced by modern life – the essential role of the shepherd was to lead the sheep. He walked in front. The sheep learned to recognise his voice, and when he called, they followed. There was a strong connection between the voice and the response of the sheep, so much so that they would not respond to a strange voice, only that of the shepherd they knew. What a wonderful truth.
I had to smile when I dug a little deeper and looked from shepherd to sheep for a moment in an effort to understand this dynamic better. The truth is, the basic nature of sheep is to follow. Anyone who has had any encounters with sheep will know that it only takes a single sheep to send the entire flock off on a tangent. They can be trundling along, all nice and tidy and perfectly well-behaved. But let one silly bundle of wool get an odd idea or a fright, and in seconds, the whole bunch is racing furiously in the opposite direction, bleating wildly and dodging all attempts at redirection. I have a renewed respect for the tireless and very clever sheep dog.
That, of course, is the fundamental characteristic of mankind that Jesus painted for us. It’s so easy to focus of the shepherd – the protector, the guide, the provider – and miss a really critical truth. The sheep need a shepherd because they are…well, sheep. We need the protection, care and provision – sheep really have nothing at all in the way of horns and no claws and, sadly, even lack a sharp brain to cleverly evade danger. They really, if left to themselves, are pretty helpless. But add this to their incredible propensity for following the wrong thing, and we have a perfect recipe for disaster. Sheep, left to their own devices, are doomed.
And this is the beauty inherent in the biblical nature of the shepherd-sheep relationship. The Shepherd leads. He doesn’t shivvy us from behind. He knows the way, and leads us in ways that He knows are safe. He guides us through rough patches, always finding water and good pasture, and is there to help the young ones when the way is too difficult. If need be, He will even carry a sheep when it cannot walk on its own. All of these are wonderful truths for us to take hold of, and provide comfort and encouragement along our own rough and rocky journey.
But let us never lose sight of the critical truth – Christ is there to lead, and we are there to follow. His role is to speak, to teach to guide. Our role is to listen, to learn His voice, and to obey. The sheep does not outrun the shepherd. The sheep does not formulate it’s own plans or pursue its own desires, or decide what is best for itself. At the end of each day, the sheep lies down with the Shepherd close by, and in the morning, the sheep wakes to Shepherd’s call.
Our Shepherd is offering us a remarkable relationship, one that is clearly displayed in the shepherd-sheep dynamic of old. The shepherd lived with the sheep. He was there through the day, and present through the night. His voice was a constant, familiar sound, one associated with safety, protection and provision. They knew him and recongised his sovereignty, and acknowledged his will and strong hand when they went astray. His voice became the sound around which their lives revolved, the sound that superceded every other sound, every other temptation. They lived to the sound of his voice.
What a wonderful, enduring truth. We are His own, called out by Him to live by His voice alone. We were created with the fundamental urge to follow, but not the things, desires and temptations of the world. The spirit within us, in unity with His Spirit, brings us to the place of listening for Him and hearing His voice. That is all the care, the comfort, the protection and provision we need.
The real challenge for the people of God is to first acknowledge that we are sheep and not shepherd, and that basic nature of sheep is to follow. The second challenge is to determine what it is we are following. Do we follow His voice half-heartedly, straying right and left, and even backwards at times, as something a little more tempting or comfortable catches our attention? Are we easily distracted by the sounds and sights of the world? We can, like real sheep, continually go our own way and set ourselves up for one distaster or another. Or we can choose the way of obedience, yield to His voice, and make it the single most important thing, the sound by which we live our lives by day and by night.
Shepherd-Lord, forgive our waywardness, our obstinate inclination to follow our own desires and to try to lead when we should follow. Thank You that You are ever the faithful shepherd, there to lead us out and lead us back in, that You are quick to forgive an gracious to guide. Help us to yield to Your perfect voice. Speak, Lord, that Your voice would become the first sound we hear in any situation, the joy of our waking and the comfort of our rest.