A sheepish theology (part 1)

All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have all turned to our own way,
and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.
He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,
yet he did not open his mouth;
like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,
and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent,
so he did not open his mouth.
(Isa 53:6-7, NRSV)

Having spent some time now on Jesus’ claim in John 10 to be the Good Shepherd, I thought it might be appropriate to engage in some “sheepish theology” before moving on. We are, after all, quickly approaching the story of the last days of his ministry, and it’s worth reflecting a bit on sheep and shepherds before we come to the sacrifice of the Lamb of God.

John, of course, is not the only biblical writer to use the metaphor of sheep and shepherds. Indeed, as we have seen, the image would lose much of its resonance if it did not reflect a longstanding tradition of referring to God’s people as sheep, and to God and even his chosen king as shepherds (e.g., Ezek 34).

The image of Jesus himself as the Shepherd is found, of course, in John, but also picked up by later writers. Peter, echoing the Isaiah passage quoted above, says that we “were going astray like sheep” but have “returned to the shepherd and guardian of [our] souls” (1 Pet 2:25). The writer of Hebrews, in the final benediction to his letter, refers to Jesus as “the great shepherd of the sheep” (Heb 13:20).

Jesus also refers to himself as a shepherd on the night of his arrest, when he quotes Zechariah 13:7 to his disciples: “I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered” (Matt 26:31). His concern for the sheep is highlighted in passages like Mark 6:34 and Matthew 9:36, where the crowds are described as “sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew adds the memorable phrase “harassed and helpless”).

There should be no question, whether we enjoy the idea or not, that we are like sheep in need of a shepherd. But notice that in the passage from Isaiah quoted above, and referenced by Peter, Jesus as the embodiment of Isaiah’s Suffering Servant is not a shepherd, but a sheep himself: a lamb to be slaughtered, a sheep to be passively fleeced. Indeed, this passage is the core of the gospel proclaimed by Philip in Acts 8:32-39 to the Ethiopian eunuch, who wants to know who the sheep is (note that the words “sheep” and “lamb” are used interchangeably, since the order used in Isaiah 53 is reversed in Acts 8).

So yes, we need a shepherd. But even as Peter and the author of Hebrews refer to Jesus as our shepherd, they do so in the context of describing him as the crucified one, the one who “bore our sins in his body on the cross” and by whose wounds we have been healed (1 Pet 2:24), the one who was raised from the dead “by the blood of the eternal covenant” (Heb 13:20).

Maybe what we need is not merely to ponder what it means for us to be sheep and for Jesus to be our shepherd, but what it means for Jesus to be the Lamb who was slain. More on that in the next post.