The metaphor of God’s people as a flock is common to both Old and New Testaments. Israel in the wilderness is likened to a flock, with God as their shepherd; He “made his own people to go forth like sheep, and guided them in the wilderness like a flock”, Psa. 78. 52. He did so “by the hand of Moses and Aaron”, 77. 20, who were, so to speak, undershepherds. The “Shepherd of Israel …(led) Joseph like a flock”, 80. 1. Isaiah also pictured God in this capacity, “He shall feed his flock like a shepherd; he shall gather the lambs with his arm, and carry them in his bosom, and shall gently lead those that are with young”, Isa. 40. 11. In Ezekiel’s day, so called “shepherds of Israel” mismanaged and mistreated God’s flock, Ezek. 34. 2-10; cf. Jer. 23. 1-2. What they failed to do, God said that He would do for His sheep, Ezek. 34. 11-16; cf. Jer. 23. 3, 4. He spoke of them as “my flock, the flock of my pasture”, Ezek. 34. 31; cf. Psa. 100. 3.
David saw this relationship in a personal light, “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures; he leadeth me beside the still waters”, Psa. 23. 1, 2; cf. 119. 176. David had been a shepherd and God chose him to be the shepherd of His people, “He chose David also his servant, and took him from the sheepfolds: from following the ewes great with young he brought him to feed Jacob his people, and Israel his inheritance. So he fed them according to the integrity of his heart; and guided them by the skilfulness of his hands”, 78. 70-72. Doubtless David’s experience with straying sheep gave him, as their King, an insight into the ways of men.
In the New Testament, the Lord Jesus is described as “the good shepherd”, John 10. 11, 14; “that great shepherd”, Heb. 13. 20, and “the chief Shepherd”, 1 Pet. 5. 4. As the “good shepherd” He laid down his life for the sheep; as the “great shepherd” He was raised from death in order to “perfect” them—“God… that brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus … make you perfect”; as the “chief shepherd” He will come again to reward those who have been faithful undershepherds, “When the chief Shepherd shall appear, ye shall receive a crown of glory”
Not all Jews of our Lord’s day were His sheep, although He referred to them as “the lost sheep of the house of Israel”, Matt. 10. 6; cf. 9. 36. He said of some who doubted, “Ye believe not, because ye are not of my sheep”, John 10. 26. He had come to remove His own sheep from the Jewish “sheepfold” and, with others, to form them into a flock, “he calleth his own sheep by name, and leadeth them out. And when he putteth forth his own sheep, he goeth before them, and the sheep follow him: for they know his voice”, vv. 3, 4. He knew them and they knew Him, v. 14. He called them His “little flock”, Luke 12. 32, for they were in a minority. In John 10, Jesus envisaged “other sheep”, who, with His own sheep called out from the Jewish fold, would form a flock, “And other sheep I have, which are not of this (Jewish) fold: them also I must bring, and they shall hear my voice; and there shall be one flock (marg.), and one shepherd”, v. 16; cf. 11. 52; 17. 20. These “other sheep” would hear His voice through the testimony of those called out from the Jewish fold, 17. 20.
When Paul spoke to “the elders of the church” at Ephesus, Acts 20. 17, he forewarned them of dangers which would arise to threaten the flock in which the Holy Spirit had made them “overseers”: “Take heed therefore to yourselves, and to all the flock… to feed the church of God … For I know this, that after my departing shall grevious wolves enter in among you, not sparing the flock”, vv. 28, 29; cf. John 10. 12. These under shepherds had need to “take heed” to themselves, as well as to “the flock”, for they would not be immune from danger. Peter, himself an “elder”, 1 Pet. 5. 1, exhorted his fellow-elders, “Feed the flock of God which is among you, taking the oversight thereof, not by constraint, but willingly … neither as being lords over God’s heritage, but being ensamples to the flock”, vv. 2, 3. They were to lead by their example, not by coercion. The flock were expected to recognize and honour their shepherds, v. 5; cf. 1 Thess. 5. 12, 13; Heb. 13. 17. Peter doubtless recalled the Lord’s admonition to him on the shore of the Sea of Tiberias, “Feed my lambs … Shepherd my sheep … Feed my sheep”, John 21. 15-17 (Greek). So doing, Peter would be proving his love for the Lord, which he had protested.
It is characteristic of sheep to go astray, “All we like sheep have gone astray”, Isa. 53. 6; cf. Psa. 119. 176. Peter wrote, “ye were as sheep going astray; but are now returned unto the Shepherd and Overseer (marg.) of your souls”, 1 Pet. 2. 25. A true shepherd is concerned for the recovery of even “one” sheep that goes astray, “what man of you, having an hundred sheep, if he lose one of them, doth not … go after that which is lost, until he find it?”, Luke 15. 4. The “good shepherd” is not less concerned for the reclamation of the one sheep, and rejoices when it is found, v. 6. But just as “God setteth the solitary in families”, Psa. 68. 6, it is not His will that those who are His reclaimed sheep should live in isolation, but in the company and fellowship of the flock, namely the local church, Acts 20. 28. This is in order that they may be gathered, tended and fed. For this purpose He has given “evangelists … pastors and teachers”, Eph. 4. 11.
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