The Good-to-Great Shepherd

Editor’s Note: The following article was first published as part of the Dying to Preach series on patheos.com.

At Christmastime, it’s worth remembering what made Jesus “the great shepherd of the sheep.”

. . . our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep . . . (Hebrews 13:20)

Certainly we know less about the birth of Christ than we pretend to. There were no wise men who attended the birth, and we do not know whether there were three or thirty who came afterward. We don’t know the date, and the birth site, in all probability, was not a rickety barn painted by Norman Rockwell. Most shocking of all to our sentiments, there is no command to celebrate the birth of Christ in Scripture. These are all traditions.

Even so, I don’t want to be that guy: the guy bent on crashing your Christmas with more facts than wisdom. We had such a couple visit our home when I was young. They went into a long explanation as to why “Satan Claus” was not welcome in their home. I honestly thought my sweet Baptist mother was going to practice her best WWF headlock.

Yet, of all the things we get wrong about the birth of Christ, perhaps the most glaring misrepresentation is the event of the shepherds. This was not a conversation between one guy in a bathrobe and another, slightly taller guy in a bathrobe. Not at all.

When the shepherds were tending their flocks, out of nowhere an angel of God appeared. When the angel appeared, they were surrounded by glory, by light. The hills, the sheep, and the other shepherds where all hidden—nothing surrounded them but brilliance. The angels brought with them the very throne room of God, where His glory dwells. The shepherds were devastated by this awesome multi-sensory transport from heaven to earth that brought earthlings to heaven.

We do not know what he looked like, but the angel had a message.

The first part of the message, “Fear not,” is this necessary but nonsensical statement. They had every right and responsibility to fear. This was an angel for heaven’s sake. An angel for the sake of heaven. The rest of the message told the reason for their soon-to-be joy: A Savior had been born for them, Christ the Lord. After some instructions on where to find him, the heavens emptied with a “host” of angels. The word host often describes armies, but these angelic soldiers came to bring peace and not a sword.

The word host often describes armies, but these angelic soldiers came to bring peace and not a sword.

We are not sure how many. We’re just told “a multitude.” But again, understand, this was not a barbershop quartet in bathrobes. This was thousands upon thousands of angels. This is not your school play. They were drenched in brilliant light, shocked by an angel that materialized before them while watching heaven empty with thousands upon thousands of angels.

So many questions come to mind, but the principle one is why shepherds? Shepherds were not the intellectual or cultural elite. And even if the angels wanted to make the point that Jesus came for the Everyman, he could have done it for the farmer, or ship builder, or carpenter just as easily.

Any attempt to explain it is speculation. We do know that God loved the shepherding metaphor. He referred to Himself as the Shepherd of Israel, and his strongest leaders—Moses, David, Joshua—all tended flocks. Shepherding was short hand for the dirty work of leadership.

Of course, Jesus uses the title for Himself in John 10. And Peter and the author of Hebrews follow suit. Perhaps the most fascinating time it is used as a title is Hebrews 13:20 where the writer describes Jesus as “. . . the great shepherd of the sheep.” The title is as fascinating as it is mysterious. However, the title is a fitting and perfect ending to the book of Hebrews. A few thoughts about the title.

The Shepherd
The title is definite. He is the shepherd. There is a hint here of his Messianic role. In Ezekiel 34 God criticized the shepherd-leaders of Israel because they were neglecting the sheep. They were selfish, they did not protect the sheep and, worst of all, they were eating the sheep. It’s hard to claim you are a good shepherd when your breath smells like roasted lamb. God decides He will be the shepherd of Israel, and He would do this by raising up King David to shepherd them. “And I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them . . .” (34:23). What the shepherds of Israel would not do, David would.

David was a great leader, but the best man is a man at best. David showed at once how great a human king could be and how limited. He won and he failed. So Israel would have to wait for the ultimate shepherd to arrive. So in John 10, when Jesus refers to Himself as the Good Shepherd, and in 10:16 where he says there will be “one sheep, one shepherd,” it is no mystery that this was a reference to Jesus coming to be everything David was not. It’s definitive. He is the shepherd and he would provide what others could not.

One can’t see that title and not think of Jesus as the shepherd of Psalm 23. The point of the beloved Psalm is his provision, “I shall not want.” I shall not want for daily provision, I shall not want for rest, I shall not want for protection from my enemies. Jesus is the Good Shepherd.

But this is not his title in Hebrews 13:20. The title is also specific. He is not the Good Shepherd, He is the Great Shepherd.

The Great Shepherd
So why is his title the Great Shepherd? The answer is in the text. “Now may the God of peace who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant . . .” The Great Shepherd is the perfect title for Christ because in the resurrection Christ provides everything the book of Hebrews describes.

Peace on earth was not won in a manger. It was won on a cross.

The writer takes pains to describe that in his death he was our atoning sacrifice (9:12). And, after he arose, he not only became the priest who makes a way into the holy place (9:23, 24) but the one who keeps that access open (9:25, 26). He makes a way, and he keeps the way open! He is the way-maker, and he is the Way: he is the access and the accessibility. The one who granted us access stands as a permanent way into the holy. In the resurrection, Jesus is the great shepherd.

Peace on earth was not won in a manger. It was won on a cross. Therefore, the shepherding nature of Christ has as much to do with a tomb in Jerusalem as it does with a manger in Bethlehem.

That’s the truth that guts heaven of its angels to come to earth. That’s what makes soldier-angels talk to shepherds about peace. And this is what the shepherds were to go see. The Great Shepherd who would make peace with His blood.

Merry Christmas—and all praise to Jesus, the Great Shepherd!

Steven Smith

Steven Smith

Vice President for Student Services at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary
Dr. Smith teaches in the School of Preaching and serves as Vice President for Student Services. He is married to Ashley and they have three children - Jewell, Sydney, and Shepherd.
Twitter: @StevenWSmith
Website: stevenwsmith.net
Steven Smith

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