Sheep appear more often than any other animal in the pages of the Bible, mentioned over seven hundred times. They often represent people, and in a special case, one particular person (discussed below). Sheep are gentle and social creatures that function best in a flock, but their individual tendencies lead them to wander. That combination requires an attentive shepherd to guide and tend a large flock. Because of their usefulness in providing milk, meat, and wool, vast numbers of sheep were part of daily living in Bible times. More importantly, lambs played an important role in sacrifices. Lambs were sacrificed every morning and evening (Exod 29:38-42), along with lambs presented as personal sacrifices. When Jesus cleared the temple court (John 2:13-17), he was reacting to the why his Father’s house had been taken over as a marketplace for sheep and other items used in worship.
THE GOOD SHEPHERD
Humankind is represented as one large flock when Isaiah writes, “We have all strayed like sheep. Each one of us has turned to go his own way, and the LORD has laid all our sins on him” (53:6). Jesus highlighted just how seriously God takes this description of our condition as sinners when he told the parable of the shepherd with ninety-nine sheep in the fold and one out wandering and lost (Matt 18:12-14; Luke 15:3-7). God cares for lost sheep, and he is willing to humble himself and identify with the lowest occupation in the ancient world to rescue them. Jesus didn’t shy away from the title of Good Shepherd as he indicated what he would do: “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd gives his life for the sheep” (John 10:11). He is a guide, protector, and leader for his people; yet he is so close to them that he sleeps among them, and they know his vice (John 10:1-8).
One of the best known and most loved passages in the Bible features the confession made by the author speaking as a sheep and declaring, “The LORD is my shepherd” (Ps 23:1). David applied all the lessons he had learned as a young man about caring for sheep in expressing how he understood God’s care for him as a sheep like creature.
SHEPHERDS OF THE CHURCH
Our identification as sheep is not limited to our sinfulness but remains a picture of our need for a spiritual shepherd throughout life. False religious leaders are described as bad shepherds. They care more for themselves than their flock (Ezek 34) and lead them astray (Jer 10:21; 50:6). By contrast, when Jesus pulled Peter aside for reconciliation and commissioning, he told his disciple three times, “Feed my sheep” (John 21:15-19). Godly leaders who follow the Good Shepherd help their flock stay on the straight and narrow path.
LAMB OF GOD
God surprises us by not only picturing himself as our Shepherd but also by identifying with us in a unique way as the sacrificial Lamb of God. John the Baptist, sent to be the forerunner of Christ, pointed out Jesus to the crowd and announced, “Look! This is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29).the following day he repeated this description (John 1:36). This was apparently John’s personal insight, for the title Lamb of God is used nowhere else in Scripture. The idea of bringing a sacrificial lamb to create atonement for their sins was familiar to John’s audience, but God stepping in and offering his own Lamb to cover the sin of the world was startling news.
In Revelation, the Lamb of God is seen as the Lamb with God. The apostle John’s vision presents Christ in the form of a lamb, taking certain roles in salvation that no one else can. When John sees a sealed scroll that no one can open, he weeps bitterly (5:1-4). But then he sees
a lamb standing in the center near the throne. . . . The lamb looked like he had been slaughtered. . . .He took the scroll from the right hand of the one who sits on the throne.
When the lamb had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the 24 leaders bowed in front of him. Each held a harp and a gold bowl full of incense, the prayers of God’s holy people. Then they sang a new song.
“You deserve to take the scroll and open the seals on it, because you were slaughtered. You bought people with your blood to be God’s own. They are from every tribe, language, people, and nation. You made them a kingdom and priests for our God. They will rule as kings on the earth.” (5:6-10).
The imagery of Christ as the once-for-all sacrificial Lamb continues throughout Revelation. Those who are victorious against Satan even in death are honored in Revelation because of their connection to the Lamb (12:11). The final marriage, banquet, and city that represent life in the new heaven and the new earth will be overseen by “the throne of God and the Lamb” (22:1,3). From the first sacrificial lamb in Genesis (chap 21) to the final pages of Revelation, salvation comes through the blood of the lamb.