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Sheep, Lamb, Goat, and Shepherd


Sheep rearing had been a traditional occupation of people is clear from the story of Abel and Cain where Abel was a shepherd and Cain a farmer (Gen 4:3-4). Since Abel’s sacrifice of sheep was pleasing to God, people used to sacrifice sheep along with other animals to appease God (Ex 20:24; Lev 9:2-4; 12:6). Sheep rearing is for meat and wool.

The Bible speaks of sheep, lamb, ewe, ram, and goat. Though they are of the same animal family, they are different. The lamb is a young sheep less than one year of age. Ewe is an adult female sheep and ram is an adult male sheep. Goat is a different from sheep because of its variation in physical appearance and behavior.

Lambs represent children who need faith formation and new converts in the Church. Sheep represent all other Christians, male and female, who are adults in faith.


The Bible compares the relationship between God and Israel as a shepherd and sheep. God cares Israel like a shepherd who owns, loves, and takes diligent care of his sheep. David sang, “The LORD is my shepherd; there is nothing I lack. In green pastures he makes me lie down; to still waters he leads me; he restores my soul. He guides me along right paths for the sake of his name. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff comfort me” (Ps 23:1-4). The Lord led Israel “like a flock by the hand of Moses and Aaron” (Ps 77:21). “Like a shepherd he feeds his flock; in his arms he gathers the lambs, Carrying them in his bosom, leading the ewes with care” (Isa 40:11). The sheep is helpless without a shepherd because they need guidance to find pastor and protection from enemies.

God shepherded Israel through his representatives who were the leaders or shepherds in the community. Israel’s acknowledgement of the LORD as their shepherd is expressed in Psalm 95:7, “For he is our God, we are the people he shepherds, the sheep in his hands.”


Though wild sheep are adapted to take care of themselves, domesticated sheep depend on the shepherd for their survival and protection. The shepherd must lead the sheep to good pastures daily because they need daily food. If the pastureland is wide and unfenced, the sheep might get lost, fall off a cliff, or can be victims of predators, wild animals, or thieves. God chose human representatives to guide them in keeping their covenantal relationship with God, to safeguard them from their tendency to sin, and to protect them from the snares of Satan.

The leaders of Israel who were God’s representatives to shepherd His sheep often failed in their responsibility. The LORD addressed the awful shepherds of Israel through Ezekiel, “Woe to the shepherds of Israel who have been pasturing themselves! Should not shepherds pasture the flock? You consumed milk, wore wool, and slaughtered fatlings, but the flock you did not pasture. You did not strengthen the weak nor heal the sick nor bind up the injured. You did not bring back the stray or seek the lost but ruled them harshly and brutally. So they were scattered for lack of a shepherd, and became food for all the wild beasts. They were scattered and wandered over all the mountains and high hills; over the entire surface of the earth my sheep were scattered. No one looked after them or searched for them” (Ezek 34:2-6). “The lost sheep were my people, their shepherds misled them, leading them astray on the mountains; from mountain to hill they wandered, forgetting their fold” (Jer 50:6).


Almost similar was the situation of the shepherds and sheep in Israel when Jesus did his public ministry. The Jewish leaders did not show any commitment to the people of God. Instead, they ignored or mistreated their sheep. Jeremiah presented Israel as a “lost sheep” misled by their shepherds (Jer 50:6). Ezekiel spoke of the selfish shepherds of Israel and God’s promise that He himself would rescue His sheep. “I will search for my sheep myself, and I will look after them” (Ezek 34:11). Jesus, the Son of God, came as a shepherd to his sheep, Israel (Jn 10:11-16). He considered the house of Israel as a lost sheep (Mt 10:6; 15:24). He exemplified himself as a good shepherd by laying down his life for the sheep (Jn 10:11) and authorized his apostles and their successors to continue shepherding the faithful on his behalf.


Jesus compared himself and his followers as shepherd and sheep. He presented himself as a good shepherd who takes care of his sheep, risking his life (Jn 10:1-18). He is the gate for the sheep (Jn 10:7) that leads to their salvation (Jn 10:9). “I am the good shepherd, and I know mine and mine know me” (Jn 10:14).

The “good,” here stands for the shepherd’s commitment for the sheep distinct from normal shepherds. Jesus exemplifies the goodness of a shepherd by stating that he “lays down his life for the sheep” (Jn 10:11, 15). A typical example is David. When King Saul asked David on his ability to attack the giant Goliath, he said: “Your servant used to tend his father’s sheep, and whenever a lion or bear came to carry off a sheep from the flock, I would chase after it, attack it, and snatch the prey from its mouth. If it attacked me, I would seize it by the throat, strike it, and kill it. Your servant has killed both a lion and a bear” (1 Sam 17:34-36).

Jesus proved his quality as a good shepherd by laying his life for us (1 Jn 3:16; Jn 15:13). Jesus said that the Son of man came “to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mt 20:28). Unlike an accidental death of a shepherd while fighting with the enemy of the sheep, Jesus came to rescue us with his death. It was a willful and voluntary decision of Jesus and his Father for the sake of God’s sheep. His death was the substitute sacrifice of Isaac, the son of Abraham, and a replacement of the imperfect animal sacrifices in the Temple of Jerusalem.

Jesus came to the world in a similar situation when the Scribes and the Pharisees were misguiding and exploiting the people. Matthew presents Jesus’ denunciation against them in chapter 23. Jesus acknowledged that they sit on the chair of Moses (v 2). Since they do not practice what they teach, the disciples should not follow their example (v 3). Unlike the Scribes and the Pharisees who seek recognition and exalt themselves, the disciples should be servants to others (v 11).

During his Galilean ministry, Jesus was moved with pity for the people “because they were troubled and abandoned, like sheep without a shepherd” (Mt 9:36). Since the shepherds of the time were not willing to accept him as the Messiah and change their leadership style, he reestablished Israel with the Church. He selected and trained his disciples as new shepherds who should be faithful to their calling.


Sheep may wander away from the flock. Jesus came is search of the lost sheep (Mt 18:12-14). He voluntarily sacrificed his life for the salvation of humanity. “We had all gone astray like sheep, all following our own way; But the LORD laid upon him the guilt of us all. Though harshly treated, he submitted and did not open his mouth; Like a lamb led to slaughter or a sheep silent before shearers, he did not open his mouth” (Isa 53:6-7).

Jesus used the term sheep for his disciples and wolf for the persecutors of the church. When Jesus commissioned the twelve, he said: “Behold, I am sending you like sheep in the midst of wolves; so be shrewd as serpents and simple as doves” (Mt 10:16; Lk 10:3).


The shepherd is not just providing food but also taking care of all their needs, like caring for them, guiding them to greener pastures and still waters, guarding them from wild beasts and thieves. Jesus wanted Peter along with other apostles and their successors to minister to the faithful with quality spiritual nourishment, guide them to the eternal glory of God, and protect them from the influences of Satan.

Feeding the lamb means nurturing it with spiritual food. It also involves feeding the hungry, healing the sick, and educating the illiterate, as exemplified by Jesus during his public ministry. For that reason, Christian missionaries and pastors do take care of the various necessities of the people along with providing pastoral nourishment and guidance to the eternal glory of God through Jesus.

Peter had learned how to lead the Christian community following the model of Jesus, who used the example of a shepherd feeding the sheep. Later, Peter advised his fellow presbyters, “Tend the flock of God in your midst, overseeing not by constraint but willingly, as God would have it, not for shameful profit but eagerly. Do not lord it over those assigned to you, but be examples to the flock” (1 Pet 5:2-3).


On the judgement day, the Son of Man all assemble all the nations before him. “And he will separate them one from another, as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will place the sheep on his right and the goats on his left” (Mt 25:32-33). The parable is based on the difference in nature of the sheep and goat. The sheep symbolize the obedient followers of Jesus. They are by nature gentle, loving, and obedient animals that respect the guidance of the shepherd. The goats are independent and aggressive. They stand for disobedient people.


Let us remind ourselves that we are the sheep Jesus rescued from the snares of Satan. Like a sheep we have to remain with the shepherd and the flock. If we go astray from the church, independent like the goats, we might fall again. Our goal in life must be to lead a life according to Jesus’ teaching and be at his right hand on the last day of judgement.

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