Are you an animal lover? If so, maybe you can relate to this post a little bit more.
In our modern society, most of the animals we keep are just pets. But for ages in the past, and even until just a few generations ago, people kept animals as a way of life. Cattle, sheep, and goats provided food and clothing. Horses and donkeys provided the fastest transportation. And, in the context of the Bible times, God often used these animals to teach us the most important lessons.
Do you ever learn lessons from your pets? I know I do. We have two fun little kitty cats. We like to try to train them, and observe their personality. When you’re working with animals, you have to learn to be gentle and consistent. You learn to communicate with them in ways they understand. You learn their peculiar personalities and temperaments, and yes, they learn yours, too!
Maybe that’s why, over and again, God compares Himself and His leaders to shepherds—people who spend their lives caring for some of the most vulnerable animals in the world!
When God wanted to prepare Moses to lead the children of Israel, he first sent him into the wilderness, where he spent 40 years as a humble shepherd. Only then, with so many years of experience herding sheep, did God call him to lead the children of Israel to the promised land.
Why do sheep need a shepherd? Why can’t they just be turned lose, like cattle, to fend for themselves in the great outdoors? You see, sheep are very docile creatures. They aren’t exceptionally intelligent, and tend to follow whoever or whatever they please—and that often gets them into trouble! A shepherd can gently lead his sheep through difficult terrain—over mountains, through rocky paths, to get to green pastures and cool fresh water. It may be difficult for a sheep to follow a shepherd, but without a shepherd, the sheep will die.
Time and again, through the Old Testament, God compares Himself, and the promised Messiah, to a gentle Shepherd.
Most familiar, of course, is the 23rd Psalm: “The Lord is My Shepherd, I shall not want…” But take a look at these beautiful passages:
Behold, the Lord God shall come with a strong hand,
And His arm shall rule for Him;
Behold, His reward is with Him,
And His work before Him.
11 He will feed His flock like a shepherd;
He will gather the lambs with His arm,
And carry them in His bosom,
And gently lead those who are with young.
‘He who scattered Israel will gather him,
And keep him as a shepherd does his flock.’
11 For the Lord has redeemed Jacob,
And ransomed him from the hand of one stronger than he.
The chapter of Ezekiel 34 contrasts God, the faithful shepherd, with the unfaithful shepherds who were guiding Israel. Here are just a few verses:
2 “Woe to the shepherds of Israel who feed themselves! Should not the shepherds feed the flocks?”
11 ‘For thus says the Lord God: “Indeed I Myself will search for My sheep and seek them out.
16 “I will seek what was lost and bring back what was driven away, bind up the broken and strengthen what was sick;”
31 “You are My flock, the flock of My pasture; you are men, and I am your God,” says the Lord God.
Zechariah 10-11 speak of the unfaithful shepherds of Israel, and then Zechariah 13 speaks of the coming True Shepherd—the Savior, who would be stricken, and the sheep would be scattered.
Jesus took this metaphor and applied it to Himself in His touching discourse with His disciples in John 10:14
I am the good shepherd; and I know My sheep, and am known by My own. 15 As the Father knows Me, even so I know the Father; and I lay down My life for the sheep.
Jesus describes this good shepherd in Luke 15—how though he has 99 sheep safe in the fold, yet he will risk his life to traverse mountain and vale and midnight to find his one lost sheep. When he is found, he rejoices and calls his friends and neighbors to rejoice with Him!
Friend, with such a picture of our loving Savior, wouldn’t you want to be part of His flock? Jesus speaks in John 10:16 of his “other sheep.” He says, “And other sheep I have which are not of this fold; them also I must bring, and they will hear My voice; and there will be one flock and one shepherd.”
Often we take this verse to mean other Christians—people who believe differently than we do, but people who truly belong to Christ. After all, all the people in the world truly belong to Christ, because He has created them and He has redeemed them! Certainly in Jesus’ day there weren’t Seventh-day Adventists, or Pentecostals, or Catholics, or Baptists. No—there were Jews, and Gentiles, and then a small band of Jesus’ disciples and followers—at this point all of them Jews, but who would later become Christians. No, I don’t think Jesus was talking about making other Christians into Adventists. I don’t have a problem if we want to interpret it this way, but I think Jesus had a deeper meaning. Remember those unfaithful shepherds we read about in Ezekiel? The ones who pretended to be serving God, but who were really serving themselves? The ones who were feeding off of the flock, who weren’t protecting the sheep, but allowing them to be scattered? In the same way, in Jesus day, there were many leaders who weren’t leading people to God.
Satan is behind the false leaders—the unfaithful shepherds—in this world. He is the one who is the author of selfishness. And Jesus made it His mission to go after His sheep—the innocent ones who were being victimized—and to bring them from these other folds where they were being held hostage, and welcome them into the fold where He could shepherd them.
Have you ever adopted an animal that had been abused? I remember a dog my family had, when I was a teenager. If I remember right, he just showed up one day. We didn’t know exactly where he came from, but he was a beautiful black lab / chow mix, and he just loved people. He was hungry, so we fed him, and he stayed around, so we decided he was part of our family.
We named him Licorice. Licorice loved to play fetch. He would fetch for hours on end. And he loved to be petted. But every time I reached down to pet him, he would duck his head down and away from my hand, like I was hitting him. I never knew for sure why he did that. Once I started petting him, he would snuggle up to my hand, and I could pet him all over his head, down his back, and rub his belly. But whenever I reached down to pet him, he would cower away at first. I would hate to know what kind of abuse he had suffered by his previous owners, whoever they were!
Around the same time, we had another dog, Honey. Honey was a golden retriever—she was always sweet and loving to us, but not always well-behaved. We got her as a puppy, and put her in the fenced-in area where my dad had a small vineyard and orchard. As she grew, she developed the habit of chewing. Before long, she managed to chew off every grapevine in the vineyard, right above the ground level! Once she finished that, she started in on the orchard trees! We tried everything to keep her from chewing. I think we eventually had to tie her to a chain inside her fence, until she outgrew that chewing stage!
Like I said, she was the sweetest dog. We tried to train her, and she learned to “sit” and “stay” and “come”, and basic things like that. And she was pretty good at it, as long as she was inside her fence. But the moment someone opened the gate, she would try her best to slip outside. Once she got out, she would run. She would run down the street, out into the open fields, and disappear. Sometimes she would be gone for hours. A few times she was gone for days. We would go looking for her. Sometimes we could find her. Sometimes the neighbors would find her, and call us. Sometimes we just had to wait for her to come home. And she would come back with her fur all matted, filled with stickers and cockleburs. It would take what seemed like hours to brush out all her fur. She didn’t like it. She would whine and try to bite at the brush when I hit the tangled and matted spots. I would work as gently as I could, and eventually get her fur clean and smooth. Then she would eat, and sleep, and eat some more. And every time I opened the gate, she would try to get out again and go run through the weeds and the mud.
And as I sat there, again and again, day after day, combing out the briers and cockleburs out of her fur, I couldn’t help but think—isn’t that just like us, as humans? Jesus is the good Shepherd. He knows what’s good for us. He’s brought us into His sheep fold. He cares for us, and takes us to green pastures to feed His flock. But we are constantly trying to go astray. Every time, we run through the mud-hole, and the brier patch, and then He has to carefully (and sometimes painfully) pick us up, bring us back, and clean us off. As much as I grumbled about taking care of the dog, I realized she had a lot of lessons to teach me. (In case you’re wondering why Kristina and I have cats and NOT dogs—this is also the reason!!!)
Sometimes, I’m tempted to wonder, “Why do I go through difficult trials in life?” Recently both Kristina and I were sick, and in fact we’re still both getting over some kind of upper respiratory bug that’s had us down. And we’ve not always been the most pleasant company to be around—just the two of us and our bugs!
Remember, as I said—the life of a shepherd and his sheep is not always easy. The sheep must be led through difficult paths. The sheep go through a shearing process, where their wool was shorn off to be made into cloth. But, if the sheep’s wool isn’t shorn, the coat will grow so heavy that the sheep could hardly carry it!
1 Peter 4:12-13:
Beloved, do not think it strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you, as though some strange thing happened to you; but rejoice to the extent that you partake of Christ’s sufferings, that when His glory is revealed, you may also be glad with exceeding joy.
As Christians, we shouldn’t expect life to be a bed of roses, so to speak. In fact, we can expect to experience trials in our lives. Sometimes, these come in the form of persecution, as Peter speaks of here. Jesus said in Matthew 5:11-12:
Blessed are you when they revile and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely for My sake. Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
When trials come in the form of persecution, we can rejoice, for we know that we are but following in the steps of our master—the Good Shepherd.
Sometimes, the trials of life come because of the decisions we’ve made. All of us have made poor decisions in the past, and although we praise God because Jesus has forgiven us, yet in this life we still often face the consequences of those choices. Yet we can claim the promise that God made to the apostle Paul, when he says in 2 Corinthians 12:9, “My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.”
Sometimes the trials come, not because of something in our lives, but because of the great controversy that rages around us. This was the case with Job—when Satan accused God of being unfair, and God allowed Satan to test Job. The trials had nothing to do with Job’s past, but God allowed Satan to test him in order to show how faithful he would be to God.
Sometimes—and I believe for us this may be most of the time—God allows trials in our lives to make us stronger.
I’m not exactly a body-builder, but I do like to get exercise. Since I work a sedentary job, mostly, I have to discipline myself to get regular exercise. On pleasant days, I go outside to walk, jog, and run. On rainy days, I have small weights, and a rebounder, and an exercise bike, to get a bit of physical activity. The other day, I did a bit more exercise on the rebounder than I am used to doing. I did quite a few squats, etc, and you wouldn’t believe how sore I was by the next day!
But, that’s how we build muscles! Those sore muscles today will translate into stronger muscles tomorrow. In fact, every time we exercise, it causes a bit of damage to the tiny fibers in our muscles. Then, as we rest afterwards, our bodies repair that damage and build the muscle up stronger. Those healthy, toned muscles in an athlete aren’t the result of accident, or some great vitamins or a genetic predisposition. They come from hard exercise, consistently, day after day.
It’s the same with our spiritual live. God knows that, in order for us to make it through difficult trials ahead, he has to allow us to go through little trials today. As we exercise faith, it grows stronger. I may not have the faith today to do through huge and difficult trials, so God allows the smaller trials today to strengthen me for the next.
My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience. But let patience have its perfect work, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking nothing.
Job declares confidently in Job 23:10 “But He knows the way that I take; When He has tested me, I shall come forth as gold.”
To use yet another metaphor, we can look at Isaiah 64:8
“But now, O Lord,
You are our Father;
We are the clay, and You our potter;
And all we are the work of Your hand.”
Have you ever watched a potter working clay on a spinning wheel? He beats and hammers the clay, working it back and forth, up and down. If he finds a lump or a hard spot on the clay, he will squish it until it’s smooth. He always keeps it moist, and works it over and over until it’s perfectly smooth. Then he can carefully mold that soft, pliable clay into a vessel of his choosing.
But even then, he’s not done. He cuts it free from the wheel and sets it carefully aside to dry. Once it’s dry, it’s still only a lump of dry clay. But he takes that vessel and fires it in a fiery hot kiln. The clay heats up until the the little particles practically melt and fuse together into ceramic. Then, once it cools, it will hold its shape forever. No amount of heat or cold or moisture will cause it lose its shape.
My friend, Jesus, our Lord and Savior, is the good shepherd. He is the one who leads us beside still waters—and yes, he leads us through the valley of the shadow of death. Yet we need to fear no evil, because He is with us. His discipline—the rod and the staff—may seem difficult to bear in the moment, yet they bring comfort and joy. In another metaphor, He is the refiner of gold—through He brings us through the severest of trials, yet in the end, our lives are purified as finest gold. And in yet another metaphor, He is the master potter—molding and shaping our lives in His Divine purpose. My friend, my question is this: will you let Him? Will you follow him? Will you learn to know His voice—to enter His fold, and to abide in relationship with Him? Will you trust Him in every trial, knowing that He will bring you through? Trust Him, and allow Him to take your life far beyond your wildest imagination!