Biblical Sheep and Shepherds

Question
I'm teaching a Sunday School class with a focus on sheep. What is the significance of sheep and shepherds in biblical times? Can you offer some pointers to share?
Answer
Sheep are mentioned at least 198 times in the ESV. The Hebrew word for sheep is tson and is also translated as "flock," "little cattle," and "goat.” Sheep are the first animals distinguished by a specific name in the Bible (Gen. 4:4) and the first creatures to hear the announcement of Christ's birth and the good news of the gospel (Luke 2:8-20). After the Fall it is likely that the animal skins that God made and gave to the first couple for covering (Gen. 3:21) were sheepskins as lambs were commonly used as sin offerings (Lev. 4:32; cf. Heb. 9:22). Also, Jesus is "the Lamb of God" that was slain as a "fragrant offering and sacrifice to God" (Eph. 5:2; cf. 1 Cor. 5:7) before the foundation of the world (1 Pet. 1:19; cf. Isa. 53:7; John 1:29, 36; 1 Pet. 1:19; Rev. 5:6, 9, 12; 13:8).

The Bible gives shepherding an elevated status. The heads of the covenants, Adam (Gen. 2:20), Noah (Gen. 7:2), Abraham (Gen. 13:5), Moses (Exod. 3:1), David (1 Sam. 17:15, 34-35) were all associated with sheep for a time. Christ himself is the Good Shepherd who knows his sheep and his sheep know him (John 10:14; cf. Psa. 23:1; 80:1; Ezek. 34:12; Matt. 2:6; Heb. 13:20). God's people are often referred to as sheep (Psa. 78:52; 79:13; 95:7; Jer. 50:6; Matt. 10:6; 15:24; 25:32-36) and Christ is their shepherd (1 Pet. 2:25; 5:4). Even pastors of churches are referred to as shepherds (Acts 20:28; 1 Pet. 5:2).

But of all things, why does God call his people sheep? First, sheep tend to wander as do God's people (Isa. 53:6; Luke 15:1-7). Second, sheep are helpless without a shepherd and Christ's kingly subjects are helpless without him (Num. 27:17; Matt. 9:36: cf. Isa. 53:6). Third, just like God's elect follow him, sheep follow their shepherd (John 10:3-5, 27; cf. Matt. 25:32-36). Fourth, sheep walk closely together in a flock (Isa. 40:10-11) and so do God's servants (cf. Heb. 13:17). Fifth, sheep must be cared for and nourished, and so do God's children (Psa. 23:1-6; John 21:16-17). Sixth, sheep aren't oxen, so they aren't designed to carry heavy loads, and neither are God's sons and daughters (Psa. 55:22; 1 Pet. 5:7). Seventh, there are dangerous threats to sheep, and the Lord's special possession also need to be wary of outward dangers (Matt. 7:15; 10:16).

Answer by Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr.

Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr., D.D., M.Div. is the Theological Editor at Third Millennium Ministries (IIIM).