In the gospel accounts, Jesus took the picture of the shepherd and made it a portrait of himself. However, this portrait of Jesus does not reach its most complete form until John 10:1-14. To understand the immense beauty of the relationship we have with Jesus as our Shepherd, let's take a moment to look at the shepherds of ancient Palestine.
The equipment of the shepherd was very simple. He carried a small bag made from the skin of an animal in which he carried his food. Since the shepherds of Palestine did not have dogs to send after a straying sheep, they would often use their sling to drop a stone in the path of a straying sheep, warning him to turn back. He also carried his staff, which was a long stick with a large curved hook on the end, which the shepherd always carried in his hand when he walked. When a nearby sheep showed signs of straying, the shepherd would reach out and gently pull it back. The shepherd also carried a rod which was a club about three feet long, and was always carried in his belt. It was used to drive off wild beasts, and defend the flock against robbers who would often try to steal the sheep.
Almost everything in the life and work of the shepherd illustrates the words of Jesus. In ancient eastern cultures, the relationship between the shepherd and the sheep, was entirely different from that of western cultures. In the ancient east the shepherds were very closely attached to their flocks, and were often together for as long as eight or nine years. The shepherd would give each sheep and lamb in the flock their own particular name, and the sheep actually came to know their names. In the New Testament, we are told that the Good Shepherd also calls his own sheep by name, (John 10:3).
At times, flocks of different shepherds would intermingle while grazing; so to separate them, the shepherds would simply go to opposite sides of the flocks and call their sheep. Since each shepherd had a peculiar call, which only his sheep knew, the flock would only respond to the call of their particular shepherd. Jesus says his sheep will also hear, recognize and respond only to the voice of their Shepherd, (John 10:3-4).
When moving the flock from one location to another, the shepherd would never drive the sheep before him; rather he would walk in front of them, and they would followed along behind. Jesus said that as the Good Shepherd, he also "goes before them and the sheep will follow him," (John 10:4). Quite often the shepherd had to lead his flock through the dark, narrow valleys, where thieves, robbers or wild beasts were often waiting. At times like this, the shepherd would first go to make certain it was safe for the sheep to follow. This is why the psalmist David wrote, "Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for thou art with me, and thy rod and staff, they comfort me." (Psalms 23:4)
Jesus also draws a distinction between the courageous shepherd and the cowardly hireling, (John 10:12-13). In Palestine, the shepherd often owned the flock, or was the son of the owner. In other instances the shepherds were hired to tend the flock but were not paid money. Instead, they were given a share of the produce of the flock, and also given a certain number of lambs for their own. Then there were those shepherds who were hired for a set amount of money per day; the "hireling." They never came to know the sheep, nor did the sheep know them. They were only in business for their own selfish interests. When danger came, the hireling would often flee for his own safety, leaving the flock defenseless. On the other hand, the shepherd who spent years with his flock and who loved and cared for his sheep was ready to lay down his own life to defend them.
Isaiah said the Servant of God, "will feed his flock like a shepherd," (Isaiah 40:11). Since pastures and wells were scarce in many regions of Palestine, the shepherd had to know where to lead the flock so they would have enough food and water to survive. Quite often, if the shepherd could not find ample amounts of grass, he would spend his entire day cutting the branches of trees so the sheep could feed on the green leaves and tender twigs.
Shepherds had to frequently carry the little lambs who did not have enough strength to keep up with the flock. It was not uncommon to see a shepherd with a small lamb under each arm, and two or three more in the hood of his cloak. Isaiah says the Servant of God, "will gather the lambs in his arms, he will carry them in his bosom, and gently lead those that are with young" (Isaiah 40:11). The shepherd knew just how far the flock could travel before becoming exhausted, and would never demand from the sheep more than their strength would allow.
Every evening, the shepherd would gather the flock into the fold, a corral made from stones or bushes clumped together forming a large circle. Each sheep had to enter the fold through a narrow entrance, and as they entered, the shepherd stretched his long staff across the entrance, close to the ground, making each sheep to pass "under the rod." As each sheep passed through, the shepherd gave it a quick examination to see if it had suffered any injury during the day. This is the picture Ezekiel gives of Jehovah's loving care for his people, when the prophet hears God say, "I will make you pass under the rod," (Ezekiel 20:37). Once the flock was safely inside the fold, the shepherd would lay down across the entrance so no sheep would get out, and no threat could enter without passing over the shepherd's body. In this way, the shepherd literally became a protecting door to kept the flock safe. This is the very idea the Good Shepherd had in mind when he said, "I am the door: by me if any man enter in, he shall be saved, and shall go in and out, and find pasture," (John 10:9).
Finally, shepherds were constantly watchful, because some sheep were always ready to stray. Some were gentle and obedient, and never strayed very far from the presence of the shepherd. But others would either stray thoughtlessly away, or lingered behind. Since Palestine was filled with desolate hills and valleys, and with high cliffs which plunged into deep ravines, the shepherd's watchful care over his flock never ceased for a moment. If a sheep strayed from the flock, the shepherd would track it until he found it. Quite often, he would find the sheep in a place where he would have to risk his own life to reach.
It is no wonder then that Jesus took the picture of the shepherd and made it a portrait of himself. The shepherd had a deep love for the sheep in his flock, and a self-sacrificing spirit. He would willingly risk, or even lay down his own life for the sake of the sheep who had gone astray.