“Shepherd My Little Sheep”
FOR thousands of years sheep have played a vital role in the lives of pastoral people. In Bible times they were a common sight, and their characteristics were well known to the people of that time as well as the responsibilities that rested upon the shoulders of shepherds. It is understandable, then, why this meek animal is mentioned over 700 times in the Bible and is frequently used there in a symbolic manner. Jesus Christ used them this way when he told Peter: “Shepherd my little sheep.” (John 21:16) He was referring to Christians whose care he was placing in the hands of overseers like Peter.
Unlike most domestic animals, sheep are timid and unable to defend themselves. This fact requires them to depend entirely upon their shepherd for protection from predatory animals. So too Christians trust in the Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ, and the Great Shepherd, Jehovah God. In Bible times when sheep were led back to their sheepfold in the evening, they had no reason to fear wild animals that might be lurking in the dark shadows of rocky valleys. Their shepherd was with them and ready to protect them with his sturdy staff and other weapons even at the cost of his life.
David, who was well acquainted with sheep because of having been a shepherd himself, beautifully expressed this trust when he wrote in the twenty-third Psalm: “Even though I walk in the valley of deep shadow, I fear nothing bad, for you are with me; your rod and your staff are the things that comfort me.” Like a trusting sheep, David looked to Jehovah God as his Shepherd for protection, guidance and the provision of his needs. “Jehovah is my Shepherd. I shall lack nothing.”—Ps. 23:4, 1.
Although sheep can exist longer without water than most domestic animals, they should be within easy reach of it. Depending upon how hot the weather is, they will drink from one to four quarts of water every day. In Bible times shepherds would bring their sheep to water around noon, when the sun had become very hot. There in the shaded watering place the sheep were permitted to drink their fill and to rest on patches of green grass, contentedly chewing their cuds. Alluding to this, David wrote: “In grassy pastures he makes me lie down; by well-watered resting places he conducts me. My soul he refreshes.” (Ps. 23:2, 3) So too is the Christian refreshed by the waters of truth that his spiritual shepherds see that he receives.
It is the custom of sheep to start feeding early in the morning and then to lie down during midday in a shaded place to regurgitate the food they have eaten that it might be thoroughly chewed. Similarly the Christian who is conscious of his spiritual need begins each day by feeding upon Scriptural truths. During the day he will bring back to mind what he has read that he might meditate upon it.
As an interesting feature of sheep it might be mentioned that the animal has a stomach with four compartments. The first two act as a storage place for the food eaten during the feeding periods. After the food has been regurgitated and chewed, it is swallowed a second time and passed into the third section of the stomach where considerable digestive action takes place. From there it moves into the true stomach and finally into the intestines. Because the intestines of sheep are often over one hundred feet long food requires three to five days to pass through them. Like sheep, Christians require time to assimilate the heavier truths of God’s Word.
The shepherds of Palestine do not take their sheep to distant pasture lands when spring comes and carpets the land with green grass. Instead, they pasture them near home and in grainfields as they are harvested. After the gleaners have finished working through a freshly harvested grainfield, the shepherd brings his sheep in to feed upon the dried blades of wheat and barley, succulent growths sprouting in the midst of the stubble and upon grain that the gleaners missed. When these nourishing pickings are gone the sheep are led to the more distant pasture lands. There the spring grass will, by then, have been dried to hay, providing well-preserved food for the sheep throughout the summer and fall months. As these shepherds make certain that their sheep have a steady supply of food, so the undershepherds of the Christian congregation see to it that a steady supply of spiritual food comes to those under their oversight. In this way they obey Jesus’ command: “Feed my young lambs.”—John 21:15.
Because Palestine is lashed with rainstorms during the winter, shepherds do not take their sheep out to distant, windswept pasture lands where there is no shelter. Although sheep can endure cold weather, they need protection from rain. The shepherds, therefore, keep their sheep near home until summer, when the rains cease. In view of this custom, the announcement of Jesus’ birth could not have been made to shepherds in the open fields on December 25, as many professed Christians are led to believe. Scriptural evidence indicates that the announcement was made in the fall when shepherds were still in distant pasture lands bringing their flocks together at night for mutual protection.
The sheepfold of Bible times usually consisted of an open enclosure with stone walls, a single entrance and a shelter of some kind at one end. Sometimes more than one flock would be housed in one of these enclosures. In the evening when the shepherd returned with his sheep he would place himself by the narrow entrance to count the sheep and to prevent any other animals, such as a dog, from sneaking in. With the door to the sheepfold securely locked, there was no way a predatory animal or a thief could get in except by climbing over the walls.
The sheepfold was used in an illustration given by Jesus to teach an important truth that involved symbolic sheep. He said: “Most truly I say to you, He that does not enter into the sheepfold through the door but climbs up some other place, that one is a thief and a plunderer. But he that enters through the door is shepherd of the sheep. All those that have come instead of me are thieves and plunderers.” (John 10:1, 2, 8) Counterfeit messiahs have never been interested in the welfare of God’s people, who are pictured here as sheep. But, like robbers, they have sought to destroy God’s flock.
The thief that succeeded in climbing over the wall of the sheepfold undetected would quickly cut the throats of as many sheep as he could and then hoist their carcasses over the wall to his accomplices. “The thief does not come unless it is to steal and slay and destroy.”—John 10:10.
Jesus came to bring life to the world of mankind, not to rob and destroy. As a shepherd shows loving concern for his sheep, so Jesus Christ showed loving concern for the people, the sheep of God’s pasturage. He proved himself to be the right kind of shepherd. “I have come that they might have life and might have it in abundance. I am the right shepherd; the right shepherd surrenders his soul in behalf of the sheep.”—John 10:10, 11.
Jesus likened himself to the door of the sheepfold when he said: “I am the door; whoever enters through me will be saved and he will go in and out and find pasturage.” (John 10:9) What Jesus was illustrating here was the fact that he is mankind’s Mediator with God. By virtue of the ransom sacrifice that purchased mankind, all people must approach God through him. “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6) As a shepherd leads his sheep into the protective confines of the sheepfold as well as takes them out to pasture, so Jesus Christ cares for those who, by their faith, prove to be his Father’s sheep.
A physical characteristic that is peculiar to the breed of sheep that is popular in the Near East is an enormously fat tail. The tail becomes a deposit of fat that the animal can draw upon when food is scarce. It is a large, loose mass of fat upon the rump and about the root of the tail. Sometimes a tail will weigh as much as thirty-five pounds. When it becomes so large and heavy that it is liable to be injured, the shepherd will support it on a small cart that the sheep pulls as it moves about. The fat is considered a delicacy in the Near East and is frequently used in making pastry. This deposit of fat might be likened to the strength, zeal and devotion of Christians that they draw upon to help them maintain integrity to God.
That this breed of sheep appears to have been the type used in Bible times for sacrifices is indicated by Scriptural references to the fatty tail. “You must take from the ram the fat and the fat tail.” (Ex. 29:22) “From the communion sacrifice he must present its fat as an offering made by fire to Jehovah. The entire fatty tail near the backbone is what he will remove.” (Lev. 3:9) As the fat of these meek sheep was offered in sacrifice, so Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God, offered his strength, zeal and devotion as God’s self-sacrificing Son. This was a sweet smell of appeasement to Jehovah God.
Sheep have the characteristic of flocking together and being willing to follow a leader. Because of this instinct a shepherd that sees a sheep off by itself knows that it is either sick, injured or lost. He will go after it and bring it back to the flock, where he will give what help he can for its sickness. If the sheep has been injured, the shepherd in Palestine will rub the injury with olive oil, as David mentioned: “With oil you have greased my head.”—Ps. 23:5.
Symbolic sheep must also flock together and be willing to follow the leading of the Good Shepherd and their appointed overseers. In fact, they are commanded not to forsake the gathering of themselves together. If one fails to do this, the undershepherds of the congregation know that he is spiritually sick and needs help. If his feelings have been injured, the soothing oil of God’s Word, when applied with loving-kindness, can often heal his injury.
Because a shepherd in the Near East keeps calling to his sheep as he leads them and also calls them by name, they become familiar with his voice and will respond to it. Jesus referred to this on an occasion when speaking about God’s people: “The doorkeeper opens to this one, and the sheep listen to his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has got all his own out, he travels before them, and the sheep follow him, because they know his voice. A stranger they will by no means follow but will flee from him, because they do not know the voice of strangers.”—John 10:3-5.
The shepherd has a very fatiguing job that calls for much love for his charges. He has to keep them together, find the lost and strayed ones, nurse the sick, care for the injured, keep newly born lambs warm and dry, carry wearied lambs, draw water for the flock, move them to fresh pastures and protect them. Persons who are appointed to positions of oversight in the Christian congregation are expected to show the same loving care for the congregation.
When Jesus was on earth he began the gathering of a select group of persons who would be privileged to rule with him in the heavens. They are symbolized as a little flock of sheep who follow the Lamb, Jesus Christ. “Have no fear, little flock, because your Father has approved of giving you the kingdom.”—Luke 12:32.
In addition to this small group there is another group of symbolic sheep of undetermined number who will inhabit the earth under the rule of the little flock. Although they are not in the fold of the little flock who inherit the heavenly kingdom with Christ, those now living are gathered to form, with the little flock, one great flock under the watchful care of the Lamb of God. “I have other sheep, which are not of this fold; those also I must bring, and they will listen to my voice, and they will become one flock, one shepherd.” (John 10:16) These meek ones will possess the earth.—Ps. 37:11, 29.
There is a style of sheepfold that has been used in Palestine with a partition built across it. When a shepherd has a mixed flock of sheep and goats, he divides the sheep from the goats as they enter the sheepfold in the evening, sending the sheep into one section of the fold and the goats into the other. Jesus referred to this practice in a prophecy pertaining to the last days when he would, as a shepherd, separate the peoples of all nations. “All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another, just as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And he will put the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on his left.”—Matt. 25:32, 33.
These are only a few of many Scriptural references that use docile sheep to picture God’s people. From all over the world people who manifest sheeplike characteristics are being gathered into a New World society of dedicated servants of God over whom appointed overseers are obeying Jesus’ command to Peter: “Shepherd my little sheep.” (John 21:16) Because of the good care they receive, they can truthfully say: “Jehovah is my Shepherd. I shall lack nothing.”—Ps. 23:1.