I grew up in the suburbs of a major metropolitan area with millions and millions of people. My real life exposure to sheep and shepherding is much more petting zoos and Shaun the Sheep than first hand encounters of a shepherd and sheep like would have been familiar to those in the ancient near east during the time of Jesus. Because many people’s experiences are similar to mine, the language is not only a little archaic, it can also be a little off-putting, especially to those who didn’t grow up in church. It’s not exactly a compliment to be called a sheep these days.
If the Bible had been written today, we might instead hear discussions of a good teacher who knows and meets every student where they are, or a good nurse or doctor, who takes time to compassionately care for the needs of each individual patient. After all, the bible uses all manner of metaphors to reveal bits and pieces about the character of God the Father, Son, and Spirit.
Still, this image of the good shepherd to the sheep is one that shows up continuously in the Old and New Testaments. The shepherd is protector, even to the point of death (the rod and staff are weapons in the hands of the skilled shepherd). The shepherd is provider, leading the flock to food, water, and shelter. The shepherd is the physician to the sheep, caring for the injured. There is a deep bond between the shepherd and the sheep, the one who was there from beginning to end. There is deep love and care for the sheep, as seen by the shepherd that goes searching for the lost sheep. This is God to us. This is Jesus to us.
So it is an awesome, humbling thing to know that scripture uses this same term to describe those who would be leaders among God’s people. These same characteristics are expected of kings and elders of the people in the OT and elders/overseers in the NT. Those who would be godly leaders should love and live and lead like the Good Shepherd.