“All scripture is given by inspiration of God” (2 Timothy 3:16).
God-breathed, and there Scripture came – that is literally what “given by inspiration” means. In His Word, God is pleased to reveal His secret counsel and will to us. Further, in His revelation to us, God is also pleased to use different and various metaphors, symbols, parables, and types in order that we, as His people, may understand the spiritual realities and truths of His Word. One of the many earthly figures used in Scripture is the sheep. In this article, we will delve into the symbolisms and significance of sheep.
The Symbolism of the Lamb as Jesus
Oftentimes when we come across verses on sheep in Scripture, we are quick to relate the reference to us – we are called the sheep of Jesus (Psalm 23, 44:22; Romans. 8:36)! While sheep has its reference to us (which we will look at in the following paragraphs), it is not the only symbolism. Jesus is also at times referred to as the Sheep, or more familiarly, the Lamb (John. 1:29; Revelation 12:11, 14:4, 17:14, 22:3). The picture of the lamb has its spiritual reality in Jesus because lambs were used as sacrifices for sin offerings in the Old Testament. When our first parents fell into sin and tried to cover their shame by sewing fig leaves (Genesis 3:7), God taught them that He alone could take away their shame and guilt of sin through the sacrifice of Jesus by providing them with coats of skin (Genesis 3:21).
Adam and Eve then taught their children to offer a lamb of sacrifice for their sins as it pointed to the spiritual reality that was to come – Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross. By faith, Abel held on to the promise of the Lamb and offered “unto God a more excellent sacrifice than Cain, by which he obtained witness that he was righteous, God testifying of his gifts: and by it he being dead yet speaketh” (Hebrews 11:4). Throughout the Old Testament, the people of God offered the best of their flocks, those without blemish, as atonement for their sins (Leviticus 1). The sacrifices made by the Old Testament saints were not only in awareness of their sins, but also in hope of the promise that their sins will be atoned for by the perfect sacrifice of the sinless and spotless Lamb that was to come. In essence, these offerings and sacrifices in the Old Testament were pictures that pointed to the spiritual reality—Jesus Christ.
The Significance of the Lamb as Jesus
“He [Jesus] was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth: he is brought as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is dumb, so he openeth not his mouth” (Isaiah 53:7).
In the prophecy of the coming of Jesus, Isaiah likened Jesus’ suffering throughout His lifetime to the shearing and slaughtering of sheep. Just as a sheep is silent and does not resist when it is under such circumstances, Jesus was silent when He was mocked and despised (Matthew 26:57-68). Jesus’ silence does not equate to Him being weak in any sense. Rather, Jesus’ silence was His perfect submission and humble obedience to His Father’s will (Matthew 26:38-39). Jesus had all power – He is also very God (HC. Q.A. 17) – to go against His enemies, but He knew that His suffering, not just on the cross, but all the time He lived on earth, was necessary in order to “redeem our body and soul from everlasting damnation, and obtain for us the favour of God, righteousness and eternal life” (HC. Q.A. 37). The picture of a sheep has reference to Jesus from the perspective of His perfect obedience of suffering to accomplish the will of His Father – atonement and redemption for His people (John 1:29b).
The Symbolism of Sheep as the People of God
“Thus shall they know that I the LORD their God am with them, and that they, even the house of Israel, are my people, saith the LORD GOD. And ye my flock, the flock of my pasture, are men, and I am your God, saith the Lord GOD.” (Ezekiel 34:30-31).
As mentioned, we, as those whom God has chosen are also called His sheep (Psalm 78:52, 79:13; Matthew 27:31-46; John 21:15). At this point, before moving on, we ought to note that the representation of Jesus as a Lamb is different than the representation of us as sheep. The picture of a lamb pointed to the aspect that Jesus showed perfect obedience and humility as He did His Father’s will. On the other hand, when the same picture is used on us, it has a different meaning.
Why are we called sheep? Before we answer the question, let us look at some characteristics of sheep first.
Sheep are dependent creatures
Sheep depend on their shepherd to search for suitable pastures for them to graze in. If sheep were to graze on pastures that are uncommon to their diet, they may die from bloating. Sheep are also helpless because they are defenceless against their predators. Unlike the deer who have strong legs to run fast when in danger or huge tusks like the elephants to fight back against their predators, sheep have neither of those mechanisms to defend themselves. They rely heavily on their shepherd to protect them.
Sheep are directionless creatures
Sheep are prone to wander. Such is especially prevalent when they are in a comfortable environment – one that has lush pastures and still waters. Neither do sheep have enough sense to find their way back to the flock. They need their shepherd to watch out for them and to keep them together as a flock.
Sheep are stubborn creatures
Ever tried to move a sheep? If a sheep refuses to move, it would not budge a bit. There is great necessity to move the flock together, for there is safety! But does the stubborn sheep want safety? In its obstinate ways, the sheep just wants its own way, not knowing what is best for itself.
Does the description of sheep sound awfully familiar?
Consider this: Do we know how to protect ourselves against spiritual dangers and against our enemies (Ephesians 6:12)? Do we know where the straight and narrow path that we ought to take is? Do we know that it leads to the gates of splendour? Or are we unwittingly led onto the wide and broad path that leads to the gates of destruction (Matthew 7:13-14)?
Just like sheep, we are utterly dependent on God, who is the giver and taker of life; without whom, we can do nothing at all (Matthew 10:29; Hebrews 1:3). Absolute dependence on God extends further than just our physical life – it includes our salvation (Acts 4:12). We, who daily increase our debt of sin, can in no wise deliver ourselves from it. We depend entirely on Jesus to save and deliver us from all our sins (Hebrews 7:25).
Just like sheep, we are prone to wander. As the prophet Isaiah writes, “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way” (53:6). From the days of Moses, we have seen how often the people of Israel murmured when their journey to Canaan was difficult; how often they blamed Moses and wanted to return to Egypt where there were better food and conditions (Exodus 16:1-3; Numbers 11:1-6). Just as Israel coveted after a prosperous physical life, we fall into the same sin of covetousness when our hearts lust after earthly riches and pleasures. Taking a vacation is not wrong in itself, neither is having more wealth than others. God may be pleased to bless us with such physical gifts. However, to what extent do we seek after such earthly treasures? Have they become mammon that we seek to serve (Matthew 6:24)? When our hearts crave after the things of the world, have we then wandered away from God?
Just like sheep, we are obstinate in our sinful ways. The root of our stubbornness is actually pride (Acts 7:51). The attitude that our hearts take is one of “I-know-better-than-God”. How often are we slow to respond when the Word of God comes to us! In our stubbornness, we dread and refuse to break the fallow ground of our hearts—we allow our ‘pet’ sins to thrive (Jeremiah 4:3-4; Hosea 10:12-13). Like the stubborn sheep that refuse to budge, we insist on following our deceitful hearts.
The Comfort God Gives to His Sheep
“My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me: And I give unto them eternal life; and they shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand.” (John 10:27-28)
Though we are dependent, wandering, and stubborn sheep, God takes pity upon us for the sake of His Son who came as a Lamb and sacrificed Himself for the atonement of His sheep (John 10:11, 15). Jesus, not only the Lamb of God, but also the good Shepherd, has claimed us to be His! By the work of His Spirit in us, we hear His voice in the preaching of His Word; we hear His voice in the reading of the Bible. The voice of Jesus is efficacious, continually and constantly working in us, sanctifying our hearts. In response to His voice, we obey Him in love. We cleave to the Shepherd, trusting that He will always lead us to green pastures and still waters, where there is safety (Psalm 23:1-2). And finally, as His sheep, we are assured that we have eternal life with Him, now and in heaven. The assurance given by Jesus in the original language strongly emphasises—it is in fact one of the strongest negations in Scripture— the impossibility of perishing. What a great comfort we have as sheep!
Yes, we are dependent sheep – but what greater joy and comfort do we have from depending on the illimitable and omnipotent Saviour than depending on our weak and sinful selves! And yes, we are wandering sheep – but our Shepherd never leaves us wandering; rather, He seeks and brings us back to His fold (Matthew 18:12-14; Luke 15:3-7)! And yes, we are stubborn sheep, by nature – but the Holy Spirit has renewed our hearts that we may confess our frailty and need to be turned by the grace of God (Psalm 73:26)!
His sheep shall never perish! What great comfort we have as His sheep!
Written by: Lim Tze Yan | Issue 39