I once heard a sermon in which the speaker compared humans to sheep and told in some detail how dumb sheep are. For example, he said, they don’t groom themselves and often wander away. In the same way, the speaker claimed, we humans, like dumb sheep, make decisions that adversely affect our lives and, as the lyrics of a song put it, are “prone to wander.” I am mostly bald, so I am glad the speaker didn’t dwell on the “grooming” part.
The Bible does refer often to sheep: the New Living Translation of the Bible lists 231 occurrences of the word, beginning with Genesis 12:16, where sheep are one of the “gifts” that Pharaoh gave to Abram. Lot, who traveled with Abram, was wealthy with flocks of sheep, goats and herds of cattle. (Genesis 13.5) It was good to own a lot of sheep (and goats, etc.). Think, for example of Job who first owned 7,000 of them (Job 1.3) and then 14,000 at the end of his life (Job 42.14).
God’s people are compared with sheep in the book of Psalms: we are in His pasture and are led along like sheep (77.20). David finds himself wandering away like lost sheep (119.176). That is kind of dumb, but we all do it.
In Genesis 22, God tests the faith of Abraham by asking him to sacrifice his only son Isaac. Normally the burnt offering would be a sheep or a goat, but Abraham was willing to obey God and offer his son. However, in the final moment as Abraham is poised to kill and offer Isaac, God stops him and supplies a ram instead. Much later we read that Jesus was led “like a sheep to the slaughter” (Acts 8.32) and does not protest.
In Ezekiel 34 God says that he will search for his scattered flock of sheep and that he will rescue them from their enemies. But God will also judge the sheep (34.22) and one from every flock of two hundred will be used in offerings (45.15).
In the NT, sheep are often portrayed as harmless (Matthew 7.15) and helpless (Matthew 9.36), even as lost creatures (Matthew 10.6). Jesus sends his disciples out like sheep among wolves (Matthew 10.16). and instructs them to be shrewd, like snakes and harmless, like doves. However, when Jesus predicts Peter’s denial in Matthew 26.31, he says that as a result “God will strike the Shepherd and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.”
People are also compared to lost sheep in the parable of a man who had 100 of them, but one was lost (Matthew 18). The owner was so concerned that he left the 99 and went looking for the lost sheep. In the same manner, God is willing to search for one lost sinner.
Jesus is the good shepherd of the sheep (John 10.11), not a hired hand who will run away because he is working only for the money and doesn’t really care about the sheep (John 10.13). The good shepherd knows his own sheep and they know his voice as well (John 10.27). That tells us the sheep are not as stupid as we might be led to believe—they don’t follow blindly, instead they know the voice of the one who is looking after them.
Shepherds and sheep owners had sheep pens to protect the sheep from robbers and thieves. Likewise, we are also protected by the Chief Shepherd from those who would like to steal our faith. We learn to know his voice and respond to his leading because he is the gate keeper, and we are well cared for. This is important because there are false shepherds who call for our attention and allegiance. Jesus said, “I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me” (John 10.14).
Our Shepherd goes much further than the normal one: He lays down his life for the sheep. And, lest we think we are the only sheep, he reminds us that there are other sheep that “I must bring them in also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd” (John 10.16)
In a moving and personal confrontation with Peter, Jesus asks him about his love and when Peter affirms that he does (three times), Jesus tells him to feed and care for his sheep (John 21.16-17). It is clear that Jesus wants us to be cared for and not run away from the Shepherd for feeding elsewhere.
It would be difficult for a shepherd to know the names of each sheep in a large flock, but Jesus assures us that he knows our names (John 10.3).
Sheep are eventually slaughtered, and Jesus also “was led like a sheep to the slaughter, and as a lamb before its shearer is silent, so he did not open his mouth” (acts 8.32, quoting Isiah 53.7; see also Romans 8.36: “we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered”).
There may be some truth to the claim that sheep are “dumb.” but Jesus died for our sins, and we are only dumb when we don’t follow him.
Now may the God of peace, who through the blood of the eternal covenant brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great Shepherd of the sheep” (Hebrews 13.20),