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 and loving concern with which our Heavenly Father watches over all of his children. And it helps to remind us that he sent his beloved Son—the Good Shepherd with an unparalleled, divine mission—to guide us back to him.
Many of our scriptures present 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.
To introduce 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). A shepherd who owns the sheep not only loves them but will often risk his life for them.
In contrast to this true shepherd is 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 Satan, the wolf, 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 and that he is ready to give his life for all of Heavenly Father’s children. This, of course, he actually did through his atonement.
In John 10:7, the Savior explains that it is through him, and only through him, that mankind can gain entrance into his Heavenly Father’s kingdom: “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. In the summer and spring, an entire town’s sheep were kept in a large enclosure open to the sky but with walls high enough to keep predators out. At night all the individual shepherds brought their flocks to the large fold, and one man stood guard through the night.
Jesus used this metaphor 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 some 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 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.
“… And 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 10:1–5).
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. Many flocks contain sheep and goats. But sheep and goats are very different and do not graze well together. Shepherds usually prefer the sheep, since goats get into all sorts of trouble. Sheep are gentle, walk slowly, and usually obey. This is not so with wandering goats.
The Savior also used references to sheep 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 [Matt. 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.”
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 or killed.
The people of Israel were sheep without a shepherd. They had been betrayed by their own priests and subjugated by foreign nations. 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.
In the Savior’s time, large flocks 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 followers that 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 they would be taken care of with just one shepherd.
The Savior used the analogy of sheep in his calling of Simon Peter. In John 21 we read that the risen Lord told his Apostles, who were fishing at the Sea of Tiberias, 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). This event was of great importance because Jesus was asking Peter to become the head of the flock on earth now that Jesus was to return to his Father in Heaven. The Savior was telling Peter that his new occupation was to be the work of saving 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 a family’s meal celebrating Israel’s deliverance from Egypt. This previously selected male lamb 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. In Acts 8:32, an Ethiopian 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 Ethiopian asked Philip who Isaiah was referring to, Philip began to preach to him of Jesus. This symbol of the sheep provided a meaningful comparison to a person who knew about sheep and could understand in the true sense the humility, patience, and meekness of the Savior. Following their discussion, the Ethiopian was baptized (see 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, and his loving concern for all of mankind.