In the tenth chapter of John, we have a beautiful picture of Christ as the Good Shepherd caring for His sheep.  This is a passage that many in the churches of today have taken to themselves as a picture of their relationship to their Savior.  Yet I think that in order to truly understand the meaning of this passage and what the Lord would have us to learn and know about it, we need to realize that this picture of the Lord as a shepherd has its root in the figurative language and the promises of the Old Testament.

Let us look at several passages from the Old Testament that have to do with the shepherd and the sheep.  First, let’s look at Psalm 95:6-7.

Oh come, let us worship and bow down;
Let us kneel before the LORD our Maker.
For He is our God,
And we are the people of His pasture,
And the sheep of His hand.

Here we clearly see the picture, just like John 10, of a people who are the sheep of the LORD.  What People is this?  Who are they who make up this group that are His sheep?  Are they lost sinners of the Gentiles, as we are today, who are spoken of here as sheep?  Or are they the nation of Israel, God’s chosen people?  We can answer this question most definitely by continuing the chapter in verses 8-11.

Today, if you will hear His voice:
“Do not harden your hearts, as in the rebellion,
And as in the day of the trial in the wilderness,
When your fathers tested Me;
They proved Me, though they saw My work.
For forty years I was grieved with that generation,
And said, ‘It is a people who go astray in their hearts,
And they do not know My ways.’
So I swore in my wrath,
‘They shall not enter My rest.’”

Who are the people of His pasture?  Who are the sheep of His hand?  The same people who hardened their hearts in the rebellion (Numbers 20:13).  The same people who did so again in the day of the trial in the wilderness (Exodus 17:7).  The same people whom God was angry with forty years in the wilderness and swore they would not enter His rest.  What people was that?  There can be no doubt!  They were the people of Israel.

Now let us look at another passage relating to the sheep, Isaiah 40:10-11.

Behold, the Lord GOD shall come with a strong hand,
And His arm shall rule for Him;
Behold, His reward is with Him,
And His work is before Him.
He will feed His flock like a shepherd;
He will gather the lambs with His arm,
And carry them in His bosom,
And gently lead those who are with young.

Here, the Shepherd of the sheep is revealed.  It is the Lord GOD Himself, coming with a strong hand to rule and to feed His flock like a shepherd.  Notice how closely this relates to what happened back in chapter 6 of John!  There, the Lord fed His people like a shepherd.  Now, He reveals to them that He is the Good Shepherd spoken about in Isaiah 40, Who will someday come to care for His people.  And again, in verse 9, we can find out what people are the flock spoken of in this passage.

O Zion,
You who bring good tidings,
Get up into the high mountain;
O Jerusalem,
You who bring good tidings,
Lift up your voice with strength,
Lift it up, be not afraid;
Say to the cities of Judah, “Behold your God!”

There can be no doubt that again here the sheep are the people of Israel, the people of Judah and Zion.

Another relevant passage is found in Jeremiah 23:1-4.

“ Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of My pasture!” say the LORD.
Therefore thus says the LORD God of Israel against the shepherds who feed My people: “You have scattered My flock, driven them away, and not attended to them.  Behold, I will attend to you for the evil of your doings,” says the LORD.
“But I will gather the remnant of My flock out of all countries where I have driven them, and bring them back to their folds; and they shall be fruitful and increase.
“I will set up shepherds over them who will feed them; and they shall fear no more, nor be dismayed, nor shall they be lacking,” says the LORD.

Here we have a contrast: the destructive shepherds who were scattering the LORD’s flock, and the shepherds whom He will set up in the future who will feed the people as they should.  Then, if we continue a little farther in the passage (verses 5-6,) we encounter One Who will be the greatest Shepherd of all over the sheep.

“Behold, the days are coming,” says the LORD,
“That I will raise to David a Branch of righteousness;
A King shall reign and prosper,
And execute judgment and righteousness in the earth.
In His days Judah will be saved,
And Israel will dwell safely;
Now this is the name by which He will be called:

In this passage we can clearly see Who the Shepherd of the sheep is.  It is this great One Who will sit as a King and rule.  Moreover, this One is no less than “THE LORD OUR RIGHTEOUSNESS” Himself!  What an amazing truth about the Shepherd this is to find in the Old Testament.

A final passage we will consider is Ezekiel 34:11-15.  This chapter starts out like Jeremiah 23 did, with the LORD speaking against the shepherds of Israel for not doing the job they were supposed to do.  Then, in verse 11, He says,

“For thus says the Lord GOD: ‘Indeed I Myself will search for My sheep and seek them out.

Here more clearly than in any passage we have looked at so far, the LORD reveals that He is the One Who is the Shepherd of the sheep.  He will search for His sheep and seek them out!

“’As a shepherd seeks out his flock on the day he is among his scattered sheep, so will I seek out My sheep and deliver them from all the places where they were scattered on a cloudy and dark day.

He will deliver the sheep from all the places where they were scattered on a cloudy and dark day.  I think that there can be little doubt that He is referring to the day in which we ourselves live.  A cloudy day is one where the light does not shine through clearly.  It might be seen vaguely, filtered and reduced by the clouds so that it can hardly be recognized.  Yet the day is dark, and men need to carry their own lights with them if they wish to see clearly.  The same is true in our day.  We do not have direct light from God in heaven.  Unlike in the days of Ezekiel, we have no prophet to speak God’s words directly to us.  No light shines right out of heaven to enlighten and influence us.  Instead, we are tied down to the portable lights we can carry with us: the Word of God in its written form, the lamp to our feet and the light to our path!  (Psalm 119:105)

When our current dark and cloudy day draws to a close, the Lord will gather all His sheep from all the places to which they were scattered in our time.  What sheep are these that He is speaking of?  Can there be any doubt?  He is talking about the children of Israel, scattered around the world and far from their home in the land God gave them.

“’And I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them to their own land; I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, in the valleys and in all the inhabited places of the country.

The Shepherd will lead His sheep back to their own land of Israel and will care for them there.

“’I will feed them in good pasture, and their fold shall be on the high mountains of Israel.  There they shall lie down in a good fold and feed in rich pasture on the mountains of Israel.

Again, they will be cared for in their own land by their Shepherd.

“’I will feed My flock, and I will make them lie down,’ says the Lord GOD.”

This is God’s promise, and it will come true someday!

So we see the truth that the Old Testament has to tell us about the sheep and the Shepherd.  The illustration of the sheep and the Shepherd is used to show forth God’s relationship with the people of Israel.  He is the Shepherd, and they are the sheep of His pasture.  He is the One Who will gather them and care for them someday in their own land, the land of Israel, as He promised.

In light of this truth learned from the Old Testament, can we imagine that Christ meant anything different when He spoke in John 10 of being the good Shepherd of the sheep?  I certainly cannot believe that He was!  He was speaking to the people of Israel, the people who would have known these Old Testament passages and who would have clung to them as God’s great promises to them.  And now He was announcing to them the great truth that He Himself was the Shepherd spoken of in these passages.  There can be no other explanation for His words here!

Thus we see that this passage has to do with the sheep of Israel and their shepherd, Jesus Christ.  It has nothing to do with the believer of today and his relationship to the Savior.  We should not imagine ourselves as the sheep in this chapter, for that would simply not be the truth.  The Lord was talking to Israelites and about Israelites and their relationship with Him.  We Gentiles have no place here.

Is this passage worthless to us then?  Can we learn nothing from it or take nothing out of it?  Not at all!  We too have a relationship with this same One, Jesus Christ, whom these people of Israel had a relationship with.  We too depend on Him just as they did.  We too need his leadership and care and guidance.  Just because this passage is not talking about us does not mean that the things spoken here cannot help us.  We might not interpret this passage to be talking about our relationship with the Lord, but we can apply this passage to our relationship, and use it to learn more about the wonderful Savior Whom we love and serve.