Sheep have a reputation, and from what I understand, it’s well-deserved: they aren’t the brightest of creatures. They think with their stomachs. They get lost and frightened, easily. They do whatever the other sheep are doing, even if it means walking into a slaughterhouse where everything smells of death.
So the next time you sing something like, “Savior, Like a Shepherd Lead Us,” think about what that means. Are we really willing to accept that biblical image of who we are?
Because if we aren’t, it will be harder to be grateful for the Shepherd.
In one of the great “I Am” sayings of the gospel of John, Jesus declares, “I am the good shepherd” (John 10:11, 14). The shepherd knows his sheep; they know him and listen to his voice (John 10:14, 16).
Many of Jesus’ hearers would have associated the imagery of a shepherd with God. Even we know the Shepherd Psalm: “The Lord is my shepherd” (Ps 23:1). But the idea that God’s people desperately needed someone to lead them can be found elsewhere in the Hebrew scriptures. For example, when Moses was told that he would not enter the Promised Land because of his disobedience, his concern was for the people. He asked God to appoint a new leader, lest the people “be like sheep without their shepherd” (Num 27:17; see also 1 Kings 22:17; 2 Chron 18:16; Isa 13:14).
And centuries later, Mark the evangelist would write this: “When Jesus arrived and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them because they were like sheep without a shepherd. Then he began to teach them many things” (Mark 6:34). That’s despite the fact that Jesus and the disciples had been so busy ministering to people that they didn’t even have time to grab something to eat. The plan had been to get away from the crowd in a boat and take a break — but the crowd had other ideas. The boat landed; a crowd had already gathered in anticipation. And with loving compassion, Jesus went right back to work.
This is the kind of sacrificial service that prefigures the ultimate sacrifice: the shepherd would soon die to save the sheep (John 10:11).
Three times, Jesus asked Peter if he loved him. Three times, Peter said yes. And each time, Jesus responded with a command:
“Feed my lambs.”
“Take care of my sheep.”
“Feed my sheep.”
It’s not necessary to make something different out of the three statements; the gist of all three is that Peter is being called to follow in the footsteps of the shepherd (cf. John 21:19b), and so to demonstrate his love. Hadn’t Peter insisted he would follow Jesus anywhere, even to death? He was about to be given the chance.
Using figures of speech, Jesus prophesies Peter’s fate. The language — “You will stretch out your hands” (John 21:18) — implies crucifixion. Tradition does indeed have it that Peter was martyred on a cross during the reign of Nero. But he was crucified upside-down, at Peter’s request, because he didn’t want to be thought of as worthy to die in exactly the same way as his Master.
Does Christian tradition have it right? Who knows. But that’s not the part that matters. John tells us that the purpose of Jesus’ cryptic prophecy was “to show the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God” (John 21:19). In John’s gospel, Jesus’ crucifixion is repeatedly linked to his and the Father’s glorification.
What matters, in other words, is not how Peter died, but to what end: the glory of God.
That’s always what matters, though we often forget.