At Christmastime, our thoughts often turn to the biblical account of the shepherds watching over their flocks. The shepherds’ scene is indeed symbolic: It brings to mind the care with which our Heavenly Father watches over all of his children, and the loving concern he feels for each of us. And it helps to remind us that he sent his beloved Son to guide us back to him—the babe born in Bethlehem of Judea, the Good Shepherd with an unparalleled, divine mission.
A major part of our scriptures presents types and shadows of the coming of Jesus, his mortal ministry, and his mission as the Savior of all mankind. Certainly symbolism is apparent in the many references to the Shepherd and the flock. Indeed, the Savior himself used these symbols often in his teaching.
It would have been natural for the Savior to refer to sheep and the flock in his attempts to teach the worth of souls as he went about establishing his ministry. His fellow Galileans understood the value of sheep, the necessity for a flock, and the responsibilities of a shepherd. His followers could therefore more clearly perceive the truths that he was teaching them. And those he selected as his disciples could more easily understand what he had to say to them about their responsibilities in helping him carry out his divine commission.
In introducing his mission among men, Jesus identified himself as the Good Shepherd: “I am the good shepherd: the good shepherd giveth his life for the sheep.” (John 10:11.) In the Savior’s time and place, a shepherd who was the owner of the sheep not only loved them but would risk his life for them. This was true of David. When his father’s sheep were attacked by a bear and a lion, David slew them both. (1 Sam. 17:34–35.) At the time he was anointed by Samuel to be king, David was the shepherd of a flock in Bethlehem. And through his lineage, Jesus would be born in Bethlehem, the Good Shepherd whose flock would take in all the world.
The Savior provided his disciples with ways of recognizing him. He compared the true shepherd to one who does not really care for his flock, who just tends sheep for a living: “But he that is an hireling, and not the shepherd, whose own the sheep are not, seeth the wolf coming, and leaveth the sheep, and fleeth: and the wolf catcheth them, and scattereth the sheep.” (John 10:12.)
This may be an allegory about the wolf as Satan, coming in various ways to catch and to scatter the sheep. Here the hireling shepherd is one who gives way instead of resisting Satan’s temptations. But the Savior points out that he is the Good Shepherd, that he knows his sheep, that they are known of him, and that he will lay down his life for them—all of them. This, of course, reminds us of the passage in 3 Nephi: “Other sheep I have which are not of this fold; them also I must bring, and they shall hear my voice; and there shall be one fold, and one shepherd.” (3 Ne. 15:21.)
In the account recorded in John, Jesus pointed out that he was ready to give his life for all of the children of our Father in Heaven. He also was describing what would actually take place through his crucifixion and atonement.
Also, in John 10:7, the Savior explains that it is through him as the Savior, and only him, that mankind can gain entrance into his Heavenly Father’s kingdom: “Then Jesus said unto them again, Verily, verily, I say unto you, I am the door of the sheep.” There were two kinds of sheepfolds in Jesus’ time. One, a large building with beams covered with tree branches and straw, was used in the winter for the sheep. In the summer and spring the sheep for an entire town were kept in a large enclosure open to the sky but with walls high enough to keep predators out. At night all the individual family shepherds brought their flocks to the large fold and one man stood guard through the night instead of all the shepherds.
Jesus used this parable to illustrate that he was the shepherd who took care of the sheep at night; he was the protector and guardian of the flock and no man could come into the fold without knowing the gospel and knowing his relationship to his Father in Heaven. Indeed, Jesus is the gatekeeper “and he employeth no servant there.” (2 Ne. 9:41.)
Through the analogy of the sheep and the shepherd, the Savior also explained that his followers would recognize his voice. They would know that he was the true shepherd who would find them and call them out of the world. “The sheep hear his voice: and he calleth his own sheep by name, and leadeth them out.” (John 10:3.)
When I was in Israel I saw a little boy who could whistle and call his sheep as we call dogs. My son-in-law, who spent two years there, told me that these shepherds are so close to their sheep that they literally call the sheep by name and the sheep come out of the flock. Jesus, understanding the nature of sheep, referred to them in characterizing the Pharisees and others who did not belong to his fold and did not recognize who he was. They did not come out and follow him as he called. In this manner, he clearly pointed out the difference between the true followers and their shepherd and the hypocrites and their counterfeit shepherd.
In the ninth chapter of John, we read that the Pharisees asked the Savior why he had healed a blind man on the Sabbath. After considerable discussion, the Savior suggested that “he that entereth not by the door into the sheepfold, but climbeth up some other way, the same is a thief and a robber. But he that entereth in by the door is the shepherd of the sheep. To him the porter openeth; and the sheep hear his voice: and he calleth his own sheep by name, and leadeth them out.” (John 10:1–3.)
Continuing, the Savior said, “The sheep follow him: for they know his voice. And a stranger will they not follow, but will flee from him: for they know not the voice of strangers.” (John 10:4–5.)
The Savior was pointing out that the blind man, who had been excommunicated unjustly by the Pharisees, had now found refuge in the flock of the Good Shepherd.
In some ways, the Pharisees were like goats. Nearly all flocks in the Middle East have sheep and goats, as was the case in Jesus’ time. Both are used—the hair of the goats is useful for many practical purposes, and cheese and yogurt are made from the milk. But sheep and goats are very different and do not graze very well together. Shepherds usually prefer the sheep, since goats get into all sorts of trouble. They climb steep, hazardous slopes and often browse while standing on tree branches. Sheep are gentle, walk slowly, and usually obey. This is not so with wandering goats.
References to sheep are also used by the Savior to explain his deep concern for the worth of every soul. In Luke 15:4 we read, “What man of you, having an hundred sheep, if he lose one of them, doth not leave the ninety and nine in the wilderness, and go after that which is lost, until he find it?” And in Matthew 9:36 we read: “But when he saw the multitudes, he was moved with compassion on them, because they fainted, and were scattered abroad, as sheep having no shepherd.” [Matt. 9:36]
Sheep turned out into the mountains to graze without the care of a shepherd are subject to all kinds of difficulties. Although most sheep follow the flock, wandering aimlessly and exposing themselves to predators, some sheep are taught to follow the shepherd, who leads them in safe paths. In either case, if there is no one to care for the sheep, the predators will come and the sheep will be scattered in the mountains and be killed or go astray.
The people of Israel were sheep without a shepherd. They had been betrayed by their own priests and subjugated by foreign nations, and they suffered from lack of leadership. In addition, they were soon to be scattered following the destruction of Jerusalem. Jesus had been sent to the flock to lead as many back as would follow him. But he knew that, initially, those who followed would be few in number.
As today in some places in the Mideast, the large flock may have been made up of several thousand sheep that belonged to many families and were taken care of by several shepherds. In this way the flock was more secure; therefore, people preferred to have their sheep in large flocks. Small flocks usually had only one shepherd and were much more likely to be victims of robbers. But in Luke 12:32 the Savior said, “Fear not, little flock; for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” Apparently he was telling his people that though they were a little flock they had no need to fear, even though there were not thousands of them with many shepherds. Their Father in Heaven would see to it that even with just one shepherd they would still be taken care of.
The Savior used the analogy of sheep in his great post-resurrection call of Simon Peter. In John 21 we read that the risen Lord told his Apostles, who were fishing at the Sea of Tibereas, to cast their nets in a particular spot. When they did so they obtained a great catch. A little later, after they had dined with Jesus, he said, “Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me more than these?” Peter’s answer was, “Yea, Lord.”
Then three times the Savior commanded him to feed his sheep. (John 21:15–17.) Though he was talking to a fisherman, he referred to sheep. It seems that the Savior was explaining to Peter that the work of saving souls is a much greater work than that expended for making a living and feeding our physical beings.
This event was of great importance because Jesus was asking Peter to become the chief shepherd, the head of the flock on earth, now that Jesus was to return to his Father in Heaven. The Savior was telling Peter that he was the new leader, that his new occupation was to be the work of saving the souls of men—the sheep of the Savior’s fold.
The analogy of the lamb also provided a clear, understandable context for the Crucifixion and the Atonement. John 1:29 reads, “The next day John seeth Jesus coming unto him, and saith, Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world.”
At each Passover, an unblemished lamb was slain as part of the meal to be eaten to celebrate Israel’s deliverance from Egypt. The lamb had to be male and was selected beforehand. It was sacrificed before the whole congregation, and its blood was sprinkled on the family’s doorway.
In this context, the lamb is an apt symbol for the Savior, who was unblemished by sin and whose atonement delivered us from the bondage of sin. Truly John spoke of him as the Lamb of God, the one who was to be sacrificed.
In Acts 8:32, the eunuch read from Isaiah, “He was led as a sheep to the slaughter; and like a lamb dumb before his shearer, so opened he not his mouth.” When the eunuch asked Philip who Isaiah was referring to, Philip began to preach to him of Jesus. This symbol of the sheep provided a meaningful, beautiful comparison to an Easterner who knew about the sheep and the flock and could understand in the true sense the humility, patience, and meekness of the Savior. Following their discussion the eunuch was baptized. (Acts 8:34–38.)
References in the scriptures to sheep and the shepherd as types and shadows enrich our understanding and appreciation of the Savior and his mission on earth. Through these references, we realize more fully the nature of his mission, his manner of calling disciples to help him with his work, and his loving concern for all of mankind. Our appreciation of him as the Good Shepherd who came to lead us back to our Heavenly Father deepens, intensifying our yearnings to live a better life and renewing our hope and faith in a better future when Christ will come again to the earth to reign in love and peace.