For thus says the Lord God: Indeed I Myself will search for My sheep and seek them out. (Ezekiel 34:11)
Way back when, shepherds were generally despised. Sheep too, for that matter. Feuds, conflicts, and bloodshed often surrounded a shepherd and his sheep, and neither were very welcome anywhere near ‘civilised’ people. The reality of their lives was very far removed for the cute little Bo-Peep pastoral-type of life. Shepherds were ostracised, sheep were – at best – tolerated, and persecution was often the only ‘welcome’ they ever received. Yet God chooses to use the shepherd and his sheep as the enduring analogy for definining the relationship between His Son and His people. Quite a humbling thought, isn’t it?
If nothing else, this truth alone should discourage believers from the ‘holy huddle’ or ‘frozen chosen’ attitudes that often exist within the Body of Christ. Saints we are saved, justified, and made righteous in Christ. But we are still sheep and, as such, can expect the same societal response – resentment, distrust, and persecution. If we don’t encounter this kind of resistance on some level here and there in life, we need to relook our sheep status. If we don’t elicit the expected response from ‘non-sheep,’ we’re not being real sheep.
Of course, we cannot go to extremes. Response is entirely individual, and sweeping judgements are unbiblical. It’s not reasonable to define the depth of ‘spirituality’ of a believer by how much he’s being persecuted. We simply cannot say that if we’re not locked up, beaten, or driven out of town then we’re not a Christian. What we are saying is that ‘real sheep’ will always elicit a response from ‘non-sheep.’ This response will follow two general forms.
The first will be genuine seeking, an openness to listen and hear. These people are those who have yet to join the flock but whom God has already identified as His sheep – those who will choose to follow Him but who have not yet do so. The second is out and out dismissal, mockery, anger and resentment, and total rejection of the Word of God. This may manifest in extremes of attitude, action, or even total abuse. These are the non-sheep who will not become sheep – unless, and this is important, God has already identified them and they haven’t yet stepped across the ‘line.’ The message, of course, is that only God knows who His sheep truly are.
Again, lest we get complacent, we need to remember that Jesus talked about separating the sheep from the goats. It’s important that we understand that, even in our churches, there are those who seem like sheep but are not. It’s also important that we understand that God isn’t interested in a ‘mixed flock.’ He’s after ‘real sheep,’ not substitutes or masquerades. Jesus tells us that one of the ways He distinguishes His real sheep is that they know His voice and follow Him.
This raises the very interesting context of today’s verse, that of the propensity of sheep – even ‘real’ ones – is to scatter. Leave a bunch of sheep to their own devices and you’ll find them scattered. They’re easily startled into rushing off in the opposite direction. They’re easily seduced by what appears to be the best patch of grazing. They happily follow another sheep simply because it seems to be going somewhere interesting, or simply because three others are following.Again, let’s not get complacent. God called us sheep for a reason, and our foolishness might well be part of it.
Scattering the sheep is a ploy that the enemies of sheep have used to good effect throughout history.
The wolf, the fox, the bear, and men have used this strategy with effective and sometimes tragic results. A good shepherd can prevent or address this, but remove the shepherd and the sheep are vulnerable. Inevitably, they will scatter. But a good shepherd also knows that his sheep will often wander of their own accord and will be alert and prepared for this. Sheep are sheep, after all.
This was the truth that leapt out at me on reading today’s verse, that scattering the shhep is most evident when the shepherds are least watchful. In our present age, weak or ‘fad’ shepherds are everywhere. Inevitably, scattering the sheep has begun – the great end time apostasy – and if we are to believe the Bible, it will only get worse. Lack of proper shepherding and the vulnerability of the sheep in a time that is focused on self rather than God is a lethal combination.
But God, our great Shepherd, is here with comfort and assurance. He reminds us today of ‘I Myself.’ Our God is emphasising His truth here, and when that happens, we ought to step back and take notice. It’s also a double emphasis, because it’s prefaced by the word ‘indeed’ which denotes emphatic, indisputible, and absolute truth. We know immediately that what follows is both utterly true and enormously important. The ‘true and important’ here is that God Himself will seek for and search out His scattered sheep and bring them in.
God’s role of shepherd in our lives is active, constant, and deliberate. It’s also intensely personal. To grasp just how personal, we need to remind ourselves of eternity – God knew before the foundations of the world were laid who His sheep are. He knew us individually, searched us out, and called us out. We’re not simply a ‘flock,’ a heterogenous blob of faceless faithfull. We’re individuals gathered together under His care. A really good shepherd knows each of his sheep by name. He can tell them apart, he knows their natures and their weaknesses, and he knows instantly when one of them is missing.
Today’s verse reminds us that God Himself has the care of us, and that He Himself with bring back those real sheep who have scattered. The truth is that all of us are in danger of scattering. Many of us will. We may lose sight of the shepherd, stray onto a wrong path, be separated by our enemies, or be panicked into headlong flight. But if we are real sheep, the real shepherd will search for us, find us, and bring us back to safety. The question, then, appears to be the distinction between real sheep and non-sheep. To be assured of the ‘I Myself’ care of God, it’s obvious that we need to be real rather than non, but how do we make sure of this?
Jesus has already given us the answer – we hear His voice. Biblical shepherds used their voice to call and communicate with the sheep. They were a constant presence, a familiar voice with familiar words and familiar intonations. They went ahead, they called, and the sheep followed because they knew the shepherd’s voice. It was the thing that signified belonging, signified protection, and signified security and assurance. In the same way, Jesus’ real sheep know His voice – but it doesn’t end there. While God assures us today that indeed, He Himself will seek us and search us out, our part is hear and obey.
Hearing His voice is not sufficient. We need to respond. We need to follow, to turn aside from the wrong course and back to the shepherd. True hearing is not simply being aware of or recognising the voice. It means taking it into action and doing – being obedient. Now, more than ever, this shepherd-sheep relationship is absolutely critical to believers. Scattering the sheep will, more and more, become the focus of the enemy. Persecution will increase, new enemies will arise, and being a sheep will become a hard and even dangerous thing. But God says, ‘I Myself.’ He won’t leave us to chance or to someone else’s care. He will do it, if we will hear and obey.
Lord, Your grace is without measure. Thank You that You care for us each individually, that You know us and know when we are off at a tangent or on the wrong course. Thank You that You have promised that You Yourself will seek us and search us out, and help us to know Your voice in active obedience and not simply by hearing.