Sheep and Shepherd

Jesus was responding to the question, “Who then is greatest in the kingdom of heaven?" in Matthew 18.
His disciples raised this question.
Jesus answered them that even the little one on this earth is precious in the Kingdom of Heaven.
Let us start this message by reading His answer.

Matthew 18 : 12 - 14
12    "What do you think? If a man has a hundred sheep, and one of them goes astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine and go to the mountains to seek the one that is straying?
 13   "And if he should find it, assuredly, I say to you, he rejoices more over that sheep than over the ninety-nine that did not go astray.
 14   "Even so it is not the will of your Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish.  (NKJV)

To illustrate the idea that even a little one on this earth is precious in the Kingdom of Heaven, Jesus told them a small parable.
He spoke about a lost sheep and how the shepherd went after it to rescue the animal.
For the shepherd who had a hundred sheep in his fold, even this single sheep that has gone astray is very precious.

To get a clear picture of Jesus’ meaning in this statement, it is helpful to understand a little of that ancient culture, especially of sheep and shepherding.
So let us gather some information about the life of a shepherd and the relationship he has with his fold.
The purpose of a shepherd

What is the purpose of a shepherd during the times of Jesus?
Why should sheep need a shepherd after all?

Sheep are innocent and careless animals.
Sheep are basically helpless creatures who cannot survive long without a shepherd.
Sheep are utterly defenseless and totally dependent upon the care of a shepherd.
Sheep are always subject to danger and must always be under the watchful eye of the shepherd as they graze.
Rushing walls of water down the valleys from sudden, heavy rainfalls may sweep them away, robbers may steal them, and wolves may attack the flock.

Sheep are essentially dumb animals that do not learn well and are extremely difficult to train.
They do not have good eyesight, nor do they hear well.
The shepherd must lead his sheep because they cannot be driven.
By nature, sheep are followers.
In fact, they have been known to plunge blindly off a cliff following one after another.
If the lead sheep steps off a cliff, the others will follow.

Additionally, sheep are easily susceptible to injuries and are utterly helpless against predators.
They are very slow animals who cannot escape predators.
They have no camouflage and no weapons for defense such as claws, sharp hooves, or powerful jaws.
No creature is more defenseless than a sheep.
They are more exposed to wild dogs and other wild animals.
Even the fowls of the air seek their destruction.
Often ravens attempt to destroy lambs by picking out their eyes.
Once their eyes are plucked out, the sheep does not see where it is going.
And the sheep soon fall an easy prey to its destroyer.

If sheep fall into moving water, they will drown.
However, sheep do fear moving water and will not drink from any stream or lake unless the water is perfectly still.
David refers to this habit of sheep in Psalm 23:

Psalm 23:2   He makes me to lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside the still waters.   (NKJV)

Furthermore, sheep are easily frightened and become easily confused.
If a wolf enters the pen, they won’t defend themselves.
They won’t try to run away or spread out. Instead they huddle together and are easily slaughtered.

Of all domesticated animals, sheep are the most helpless.
No creature strays more easily than a sheep and none is more heedless.
Sheep will spend their entire day grazing, wandering from place to place, never looking up.
As a result, they often become lost.
But sheep have no “homing instinct” as other animals do.
They are totally incapable of finding their way to their sheepfold even when it is in plain sight.
And the tragedy with it is that sheep are never capable of finding its way back to the fold, when once gone astray.
It will bleat for the fold, and still run on in an opposite direction to the place where the fold is.

Shepherds were inseparable from their flocks.
The shepherd would lead the sheep to safe places to graze and make them lie down for several hours in a shady place.
Then, as night fell, the shepherd would lead the sheep to the protection of a sheepfold.

Like sheep, we are totally dependent upon the shepherd, our Lord will protect, and care for us.

The fold is his treasure

In the Middle East, during the time of Jesus, sheep were the precious wealth of a shepherd.
Shepherding was the job of hired servants as well as entrepreneurs.
Here, of course, Jesus is not talking about a hired shepherd.
A hired shepherd would not take the risk of searching out a lost sheep in the night.
Here, the shepherd is the owner of the sheep.

The sheep fold is his investment for life.
Whatever he has earned throughout his life so far is invested in the fold.
He had to work hard, giving up all joy and pleasure in his life to earn the money to buy his sheep.
He wanted to live as a shepherd to his sheep fold.
It is the life he chose for himself.

So every sheep, even the little among them is precious for him.
It is his blood and sweat.
He cannot just give up and forget any one of them.

John 10:14 "I am the good shepherd; and I know My sheep, and am known by My own.   (NKJV)

Totally Dependent

Sheep are totally dependent upon the shepherd who tends them with care and compassion.
Shepherds were the providers, guides, protectors and constant companions of sheep.

The shepherd meets the sheep’s every need: food, water, rest, safety, and direction.

As believers of our Shepherd, Jesus Christ, we, too, know that we will have all we need.
We will not lack the necessities of life, for He knows exactly what we need.

Psalm 23 : 1   The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.   (NKJV)

Luke 12 : 29, 30
29   "And do not seek what you should eat or what you should drink, nor have an anxious mind.
 30 "For all these things the nations of the world seek after, and your Father knows that you need these things.   (NKJV)

Sheep will not lie down when they are hungry, nor will they drink from fast-flowing streams.
Sometimes the shepherd will temporarily dam up a stream so the sheep can quench their thirst.

Psalm 23:2 He makes me to lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside the still waters. (NKJV)

So close was the bond between shepherd and sheep that the Middle Eastern shepherds calls them by his voice.
There are chances that the folds of different shepherds are mingled at a well or during the night.
But the shepherds can separate their fold easily by calling their sheep, who know and follow their shepherd’s voice.

John 10:4 "And when he brings out his own sheep, he goes before them; and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice.  (NKJV)

So as the day close and the sheep are gathered in the pen, he counts them one by one.
He knows them by name, color and shape.
He counts, cares and protect them.
Thus, in the parable cited above the shepherd found that one of them is lost.
And when he found that one sheep is missing, shepherd left the flock in charge of his helpers or with another shepherd friend and went in search of the lost animal.

As I said before, sheep are little foolish and careless.
They go on eating fresh grasses and tender leaves and go forward and forward and finally go astray.
They won’t realize this after they have wandered a long way from their fold.

Shepherds care for the sheep because he loves them and wants to maintain his own good reputation as a faithful shepherd.
So the shepherds are very careful and keen in their job.
Still it used to happen – so sheep go astray.

The Door

Let us read another sentence spoken by our Lord:

John 10 : 1 - 3
1     "Most assuredly, I say to you, he who does not enter the sheepfold by the door, but climbs up some other way, the same is a thief and a robber.
 2    "But he who enters by the door is the shepherd of the sheep.
 3    "To him the doorkeeper opens, and the sheep hear his voice; and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.    (NKJV)

Let us also read a similar passage with a different meaning.

John 10 : 9 "I am the door. If anyone enters by Me, he will be saved, and will go in and out and find pasture.   (NKJV)

To understand the above two passages, we should gather some knowledge about sheepfolds or pens.

There were two kinds of sheepfolds or pens.
One kind was a public sheepfold found in the cities and villages.
It would be large enough to hold several folds of sheep.
This sheep pen would be in the care of a porter or doorkeeper, whose duty it was to guard the door to the sheep pen during the night and to admit the shepherds in the morning.
The shepherds would call their sheep, each of which knew its own shepherd’s voice, and would lead them out to pasture.

The second kind of sheep pen was in the countryside, where the shepherds would keep their flocks in good weather.
This type of sheep pen was nothing more than a rough circle of rocks piled into a wall or pillars of wood erected together to form a wall with a small open space to enter.
Through it the shepherd would drive the sheep at nightfall.
Since there was no gate to close - just an opening - the shepherd would keep the sheep in and wild animals out by lying across the opening.
He would sleep there, in this case literally becoming the door to the sheep.

In this context, Jesus is telling us that He is not only the shepherd of the sheep, but also the door of the sheep.
In doing so, He is vividly contrasting Himself with that of the religious leaders of His time whom He describes as “thieves and robbers”.
When Jesus says, “I am the door,” He is reiterating the fact that only through Him is salvation possible.

This is far removed from the ecumenical teachings popular in today’s liberal religious circles.
Jesus makes it clear that any religious leader who offers salvation other than through Christ is a “thief” and a “robber.”

One who believes the gospel and repents of sin is assured of being in “the fold” and of having entered by “the door.”
As followers of Christ, Jesus is both our Shepherd and the Door to the sheepfold who provides for all our needs.
Knowing that the world is full of predators whose sole intent is to destroy us, we must remain always under His protection.
 A difficult job

The job of a shepherd is not an easy one.
Shepherds keep themselves away from their home for long time.
They go around with their fold of sheep wandering in the uninhabited area of the country in search of food and water for the sheep.
They travel from one place to another taking the whole fold with them.
By the time of shearing they come to cities where they get good price for wool.
After shearing their sheep and selling the wool, they collect the money and return to their house.

It is a long wander, away from home and all the comforts of their family.
Thus shepherds pay a price for each and every sheep in their fold.

As I have already said, the shepherd is a wanderer.
He is always in search of food and water for his sheep.
He walk before the sheep through hills and mountains; ditches and valleys; land and water.
He walks in the hot sun bearing all the heat and sleepless in the night watching over his fold.
His skin becomes dark and rough. His cheeks become thin. His eyes become sunken.
He becomes a figure skinny like a sheep.

This is how the great patriarch Jacob describes the hard job:

Genesis 31 : 40         "There I was! In the day the drought consumed me, and the frost by night, and my sleep departed from my eyes.  (NKJV)

Driving snow in winter, blinding dust and burning sands in summer, long, lonely hours each day - all these the shepherd patiently endures for the welfare of the flock.

This is the price he pays for each and every sheep.
Can he forget even a little one among them?

Shepherds give their life

The shepherd has to pay more to protect his sheep.
His sheep has enemies around every pasture.
There are wild wolfs, bear and lions.
Enemies are there in the sky also as flesh eating birds.
The shepherd is the one man soldier to fight against all these.

In fact, shepherds were frequently subjected to grave danger, sometimes even giving their lives to protect their sheep.
Shepherds in Bible times faced incredible dangers in caring for their sheep, putting their own lives at risk by battling wild animals such as wolves and lions who threatened the flock.
In order to be a good shepherd, they willingly lay down their lives for the sheep.
David was just such a good shepherd.
King David spoke of such a fight in his life in the following passage:

1 Samuel 17 : 34, 35
34   But David said to Saul, "Your servant used to keep his father's sheep, and when a lion or a bear came and took a lamb out of the fold,
 35 I went out after it and struck it, and delivered the lamb from its mouth; and when it arose against me, I caught it by its beard, and struck and killed it.  (NKJV)

From the above passage we understand that wild animals were a serious threat not only to the sheep but to the shepherd also.
The shepherd is actually protecting each sheep by his life.
The sheep fold is the life of a shepherd.

Jesus also makes such a statement about the truthful shepherd.

John 10 : 11, 12
11   "I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd gives His life for the sheep.
 12 "But a hireling, he who is not the shepherd, one who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees; and the wolf catches the sheep and scatters them.    (NKJV)

Likewise, Jesus gave His life on the cross as “the Good Shepherd” for his own.
He, who would save others, though He had the power, did not choose to save Himself.
Through His willing sacrifice, the Lord made salvation possible for all who come to Him in faith.
In proclaiming that He is the Good Shepherd, Jesus speaks of “laying down” His life for His sheep.

John 10:17, 18
17   "Therefore My Father loves Me, because I lay down My life that I may take it again.
 18 "No one takes it from Me, but I lay it down of Myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again. This command I have received from My Father."   (NKJV)

So for a shepherd, his fold of sheep is his treasure; his sweat and blood and it is his life itself.

Can he forget even the least of them?

Hence, remember, you are so precious for Jesus, our good shepherd.

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