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WHO ARE GOD’S “SHEEP”?
It will be helpful to first consider the context of Isa. 53. According to Gerhard von Rad (The Message of the Prophets), this chapter is one of the "servant poems" in the section from Isa. 41-55, and was probably written when the deportees of Israel were in Babylon. This section speaks from the basis of "three election traditions (of the Exodus, of David, and of Zion)..." (von Rad, p 207). Thus, the context is first of all the nation of Israel, but we find that it also speaks of "the nations" (Isa. 42:1-2; 49:1-6). "Their [i.e., the poems'] characteristic is the idea of the eschatological coming of the nations to Jerusalem..." (von Rad, ibid).
In Isa. 53 we read, "All of us, like sheep (or: a flock), have strayed; each to his [own] way, we have turned around, yet Yahweh Himself causes the depravity of us all to come upon Him" (vs. 6). Here, the prophet is speaking first of all concerning Israel, but to Paul it was revealed that the "all" was more than just Israel,
"You see, all at one point veered off the mark (or: all folks deviated; or: everyone fails; everyone sins), and they are continually posterior to, falling short of, inferior to and
wanting of, God’s glory (of a manifestation of God which calls forth praise; of a
reputation which comes from and has the character of God; of God's opinion and
imagination; of [having] an appearance of God)" – Rom. 3:23.
In Ps. 100:3 we read, "Know that Yahweh, He [is] God; He has made us, and we [are] His. [We are] His people: [the] sheep (or: flock) of His pasture." Ps. 23 refers to Yahweh as "my Shepherd." In Jer. 50:6, Yahweh says, "My people have been lost sheep..." Mic. 2:12 compares Jacob and Israel to "the sheep of Bozrah." So we see the metaphor of "sheep" as applying to God's people.
In John 10 we find Jesus using this same metaphor, so we can safely assume that he is referring to those who are His people. Here Jesus pictures Himself as both the Shepherd (and thus, associates Himself with Yahweh, of Ps. 23) and the Door (way of entry) to the sheepfold. He characterizes His disciples as those who recognize His voice, and flee from the voice of another.
Consider that before He began these metaphors He had just been speaking to the Pharisees. These folks were the ones to whom He referred to as being the "thieves and plunderers" (vss. 8, 10) and the "hireling" (vss. 12, 13).
In vs. 14 He narrows the definition of "sheep" as being those who progressively are intimately knowing Him. So from a broad category of "sheep" being the "elect people," Israel, we find Jesus saying that a sheep is one who knows His voice, and is intimate with Him. Just as Jesus used agricultural metaphors that His audience could easily understand, from their Scriptures they would have been quite familiar with the metaphor of “sheep” as a figure for people.
But if we look elsewhere in the gospels, we find Him comparing the multitudes who came to find Him as "sheep not having a shepherd" (Mk. 6:34). And in Matt. 15:24 we read, "Yet He, making a discerning reply, said, ‘I was not commissioned and sent off as an emissary – except into the midst of those sheep having been destroyed, the ones that belong to the house of Israel. (or: Am I not sent away as a representative, if not unto the lost sheep from Israel’s house?).’" So they were sheep, even though being as folks not having a shepherd – as well as being lost and destroyed. In both cases He is categorizing people as folks who need help: Someone to care for them and guide them; Someone to find them, rescue them, restore them, heal them – Someone to lay down His life for them. In this sense He is describing all of humanity, even though His earthly ministry was focused on Israel, and He was their Messiah. Even so, He became the Savior of the world.
Peter, in writing to "the selected and picked out (elect and chosen) exiles (or: alien residents; sojourners; expatriates; strangers residing in a country not your own) of [the] dispersion (or: of a scattering; of [the] Diaspora)," tells them in 1 Pet. 2:25,
“For you folks were continuing to be ‘like sheep, being habitually caused to wander
(being led astray; or, as a middle: people constantly wandering away),’ [Isa. 53:6] but now
in contrast, ‘you are (or: were) turned around and made to return, upon’ [the will of;
the herding of] the Shepherd and Overseer of (Supervisor of; the One who watches
over) your souls (your inner beings).”
So here the term seems to refer to Israelites of the Dispersion, in a similar way that Jesus uses the term in Mk. & Mat.
From these examples, it seems that we should not presume that the term "sheep" has only one application. It is obvious that Israel was God's flock of sheep. It is also clear that Jesus used this term to describe His disciples, in John 10, narrowing its application to His own situation and relationship to those who are His followers. In John 10:16 He indicates that He had more sheep than in His immediate context and situation:
"And I constantly have (hold; possess) other sheep which do not exist (or: are not)
from out of this fold (or: sheep pen), and it is binding (or: necessary) for Me to
progressively lead those also, and they will continue listening to (will habitually hear
and pay attention to [implying: obey]) My voice, and they [other MSS: it; there] will
progressively become One Flock, One Shepherd.”
Does this suggest that Israel (the traditional group known as "the people of God") was only one of His many flocks (groups; peoples)? We see that this is the case, from the work of His disciples reaching out to the nations in the decades that followed the ministry of Jesus. They had learned to shepherd the nations from the Master Shepherd Himself, and were now being led by the Spirit (Rom. 8:14). Can we, today, consider Christianity as being "one" of His flocks?
Reading more in John 10, He affirms that those of the Jewish leadership are not His sheep:
26. "But you folks yourselves are not in the habit of trusting or believing, because
you are not from out of My sheep (or: because you presently exist being no sheep of
Mine), just as I told you,
27. "because My sheep are constantly hearing and listening to [implying: obeying] My
voice, and I Myself am progressively (or: continuously) knowing them by intimate
experience, and they are progressively (or: habitually) following Me,
28. "and I Myself am continuously giving eonian life (age-enduring life; life having the
qualities and characteristics of the Age [of Messiah]; a life from, of and for the ages) to and
in them and so by no means (or: under no circumstances) can they at any point be lost
or destroyed, or even cause themselves to perish; and further, no one will be
snatching them (or: taking them by force) from out of My hand.
This calls to mind Paul's contrast in Rom. 9:6-8,
6. Yet [it is] not such as that God's Word has fallen out (fallen from the midst, or: fallen out [of line]; or: drifted off course; or: = failed in its purpose), for in consideration of all the folks [springing] forth from out of Israel – not [all] these folks [are] Israel!
7. Neither because they exist being seed of Abraham [are] all children! But rather (or: To the contrary),
"In Isaac shall a seed (= a descendant) continue being called in you (or: For you, a
seed will continue being named in Isaac; To you, offspring will continue being invited in
union with Isaac)." [Gen. 21:12]
8. That is, [some MSS: That is because] the children of the flesh (= those born physically by humans; or: = the self that is produced by influence from the alienated System) – these [are] not the children of God! But rather, He is continually considering "the children of The Promise" into [being] seed (or: He is constantly counting into [the] Seed; [that] is habitually reckoned and reasonably concluded for a seed).
Israel as a people group was once called God's sheep, but Jesus became more selective in His use of the term. Now Paul changes the use of the term "Israel" to refer to those "of the Promise," which he pictures as children of the "Jerusalem which is above," in Gal. 4.
Then in Rom. 9:26, he quotes Hosea 2:25 and 2:1,
26. "and it will be in the place where it was declared to them, 'You folks [are]
not My people,' there they will be called 'sons of [the] Living God.'"
With these comparisons in mind, can we conclude that the term "sheep" is a relative term of relationship? It seems that the immediate context and individual speaker must be kept in mind before we jump to conclusions.
Returning to the gospels, we find Jesus speaking of rescuing a fallen sheep in Mat. 12:11-12, and of going after a "lost or destroyed sheep" in Mat. 18:12-14 and in Lu. 15:4-6. Saving sheep was a definite part of His mission. Jesus began a ministry of God which started with Israel, but we see Him telling His followers to go into all the world and make disciples of all ethnic groups and nations (Mat. 28:19-20). Since His disciples were categorized as "sheep," it would seem that now "all ethnic groups and nations" would also be called "sheep" once they have been discipled, from hearing His voice in His disciples. It is thus that we, those to whom Paul referred to as being "far off," can now become sheep -- those who progressively are intimately knowing Him.
So in the final analysis, it seems that the term sheep may simply be a qualitative term that refers to people who need help and guidance, and who in their own order and time (1 Cor. 15:23) become the focus of God's saving ministry via His Spirit and body that brings Christ to them. The significance of being a "sheep" seems to be primarily in a person's relationship to a shepherd: whether it be God, or Jesus, or even a hireling (as, e.g., were some of the Pharisees of Jesus’ day -- those to whom He referred to as being the "thieves and plunderers" in John 8, 10, and as the "hireling," in vss. 12, 13). The sheep that followed Jesus knew the voice of the One that was taking care of them: guiding them, feeding them, protecting them and healing them. They also knew that the Pharisees did not do this for the people (cf Mat. 25:42-45). Ezekiel spoke to this failing in the prophecy "against the shepherds of Israel" (= their religious leaders) in Ezk. 34:1-21. Then, in vs. 22-31, he forecasts the coming of the Messiah, using the Davidic election and salvation tradition (vs. 23-24) as the basis for the Servant-Shepherd that would save and judge His flock (vs. 22) and make a covenant of peace (vs. 25), etc.
We see that Jesus affirmed His solidarity with humanity (via the types given through Israel's prophets) and became a Sheep, Himself: "Hard pressed is He, and He Himself is humbled, yet He is not opening His mouth; like a flockling (or: sheep) to slaughter is He fetched, and as a ewe is mute before her shearers, He is not opening His mouth" (Isa. 53:7, CVOT; cf Acts. 8:32; Rom. 8:36).
It is by being "in Christ" that we become sheep. As with Paul's adjustment on the road to Damascus, it is His choosing that makes this happen – even as He said to His disciples, "You yourselves did not choose Me, but to the contrary I, Myself, selected and picked out (or: chose) you folks and placed (or: set) you..." (John 15:16). Individual members of His called-out community are thus His "elect, or chosen," as one-by-one – from the first twelve and then on into the ages (for He remains the same, the Anointed Savior, on through the ages, just as He was yesterday and is today. Heb. 13:8) – His call comes into them and they become birthed to be a sheep.
May God's goodness overwhelm you,
Paul to Corinth
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