Christmas is closing in and I’ve been thinking about Jesus’s grandfathers: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Judah, David. These were men with staffs in their hands and wool in their beards. Centuries before sheep and herdsmen welcomed Jesus into the world, shepherding personified Israel.
Then came the age of kings and “shepherd” took on a new, royal meaning.
In times past, when Saul was king over us, it was you who led out and brought in Israel. And the LORD said to you, “You shall be shepherd of my people Israel, and you shall be prince over Israel” (2 Sam. 5:2).
Jesse’s son was both shepherd and king. David traded his sheepskin and staff for a robe and scepter. He left the fields to ascend a throne.
[The LORD] chose David his servant
and took him from the sheepfolds;
from following the nursing ewes he brought him
to shepherd Jacob his people,
Israel his inheritance.
With an upright heart he shepherded them
and guided them with his skillful hand (Ps. 78:70-72).
Time marched on and David’s grandsons—Israel’s shepherd-kings—stumbled as leaders. Most fell.
Then Jesus was born and shockwaves thundered across Israel because here was a man claiming more than herdsman-ship. Jesus pointed to himself and said, “I am the Good Shepherd” (Jn. 10:11).
What’s more, he called himself “King” (Matt. 27:11).
Marks of a Good Shepherd
Jesus’s Jewish hearers knew what bad shepherding looked like. Their ancestors had bled under it.
Ah, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? …The weak you have not strengthened, the sick you have not healed, the injured you have not bound up, the strayed you have not brought back, the lost you have not sought, and with force and harshness you ruled them. So they were scattered… (Ezek. 34:2-5a).
A good shepherd—a healthy, faithful leader—rescues, gathers, herds, heals, tends, feeds, and bandages his sheep (Ezek. 24:16). It’s not that he doesn’t lose lambs, but that he searches until he finds them, cradles them across his shoulders, and carries them home (Lk. 15:4-5).
With a good shepherd on the watch, no stray sheep stays lost.
And Jesus epitomized that. Jesus gathered. Herded. Healed. Tended. Fed. Bandaged. Searched for every wandering, blundering lamb. Rescued each one.
For the Son of Man came to seek and save the lost (Lk. 19:10).
The Son of man came to seek and save his lost sheep—his people. Us.
I will save my flock. They will no longer be a prey… I will establish over them one shepherd, my servant David… He will feed them and be their shepherd. I, the LORD, will be their God…
You are my flock, the human flock of my pasture, and I am your God… (Ezek. 34:22-24, 31, CSB).
The Divine Shepherd
There’s more to Jesus’s shepherd claim than food and warmth and security for us. In Ezekiel 34, God Almighty calls himself our Shepherd. In John 10, Jesus does too.
“If Yahweh, the God of Israel, is the Shepherd, and Jesus is the Good Shepherd, then Jesus is the incarnation of Yahweh.”[i]
Jesus isn’t just offering a green pasture, a guiding staff, or streams of crystal water. He’s offering himself—a man of bones, muscles, joints, fingers—as God in the flesh. A touchable Almighty.
A divine but human Shepherd.
When the Shepherd Became a Lamb
David was a good shepherd with a keen eye, quick reflex, and fierce care for his flock. When Saul doubted his strength against Goliath, David responded:
Your servant used to keep sheep for his father. And when there came a lion, or a bear, and took a lamb from the flock, I went after him and struck him and delivered it out of his mouth. And if he arose against me, I caught him by his beard and struck him and killed him (1 Sam. 17:34-35).
Good shepherds willingly embrace danger—even death—for the sake of their lambs. But only the Good Shepherd willingly embraced danger and death by becoming a Lamb (Phil. 2:6-8).
Good shepherds sweat, suffer, and sacrifice themselves for their flock’s security. The Good Shepherd sweated, suffered, and was slain as a sacrificial Lamb for his flock’s eternal security (1 Cor. 5:7).
A flock of wandering, blundering sinners.
All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.
He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not its mouth (Is. 53:6-7).
Shepherds, Kings, and a Lamb
This is the cornerstone of Christmas. This is why we give, sing, laugh, feast, commune, and celebrate. This—the Good Shepherd-King who became a Lamb—is our joy and hope.
And this is why the nativity scene is such a glorious one.
I see shepherds with lambs across their shoulders kneeling before the Good Shepherd of all shepherds.
I see kings in their robes and jewels bowing before the King of all kings.
I see a Lamb—spotless, sinless, yet helpless.
I see baby fingers groping at the night, promising to Israel—and to us— the kingdom to come, where “the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes” (Rev. 7:17).
[i] Ligonier Ministries (The Servant Who Shepherds His People)