In an effort to better understand scripture I began a study this morning on sheep. Sheep? Yes, sheep. Jesus consistently refers to his followers as sheep. He also references the lost as goats, a study I plan to take on as well. The word sheep is used 40 times in the New Testament alone. It’s used over 180 times throughout the Bible. The word is not always used in reference to a believer, but it quite frequently is.
Verses like Matthew 9:36, “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” Matthew 10:6, “but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Matthew 18:10-14 & Luke 15:1-7, the parable of the lost sheep, John 10:4, “When he has brought out all his own, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice.” And finally the passages on the final judgment when Jesus will separate believers from unbelievers as a shepherd does the sheep from the goats.
As I started to consider this consistent reference to sheep, I started to wonder how much having a better understanding of sheep might make more of scripture clear. As believers, we tend to read scripture, and study scripture, picking apart each word or verse and trying to better understand what is being said. At least in my experience. But what we tend not to do is look at the whole of what is being said. What does Jesus mean, what is he trying to portray, and how much more might I understand about other passages if I just understood what sheep really are like?
Before starting my research I knew almost nothing about sheep. They’re dirty white, we get wool from them, and their milk can be consumed. We can make cheese from their milk, and often there is a shepherd assigned to their care. This essentially summed up my understanding of sheep.
Upon initial searching I ran across a quote that for whatever reason really struck me. Sheep have flocking behavior. This might seem logical to most people, but I didn’t really consider it. It seems all animals kind of travel in groups in my mind, but thats likely a byproduct of living in America, in a major city. My experience with all animals tends to be those which are in a pen, or cage, where quite possibly, a lack of room causes them to seem as though they are flocking, or gathering. But sheep, will do this on purpose.
Sheep are seemingly weak, and ultimately there are strength in numbers. They will flee from what frightens them, and will “band together in large groups for protection.” When I read this, I couldn’t help think about the times in scripture we are told to flee from things. While the passages are not a direct reference to being “sheep” it does strike an interesting similarity to me when we’re told to flee from sin, temptation, and sexual immorality. Not only should we be driven, by our reverence for God, and fear of correction to run from such things, but also by the damaging effects of sin on our lives and the lives of those around us. We understand that God can have no part of sin, and I can’t speak for anyone else, but that scares me when I’m faced with temptations, or succumb to them.
This then made me consider: If a sheep senses danger, but does not respond, it could cause him to die. But, since the sheep all count on each other, couldn’t it also allow other sheep, who might not have sensed the same danger, but are counting on each other, to also perish? Couldn’t the same issue be attributed to the believer? If in the flock, a wolf, or temptation is on the prowl, and the one who senses it remains quiet, could it not endanger the whole flock?
This reminded me of verses which tell us not to forsake the gathering together of brothers and sisters, and the picture drawn of the church in the New Testament when it talks about caring for each others needs and building each other up. How references are made to bring a brother back from sin, and how we’re told repeatedly to be of one mind. Being together, one unit, one mind, one goal, unites us and helps us survive attacks from Satan.
Sheep are gentle animals. Even Rams are most often gentle, with the exception of mating season when they can get a little aggressive. What male can’t right? They are social animals, they are playful, and interestingly they are followers. What I thought was likely the most profound quote in relation to sheep came in the explanation of how strong their “follow the leader” instincts are. “The flocking and following instincts of sheep are so strong that it caused the death of 400 sheep in 2006 in eastern Turkey. The sheep plunged to their death after one of the sheep tried to cross a 15-meter deep ravine, the rest of the flock followed.”
Do you see the implications of this when an analogy to a believer is made? How many times has a small group of believers ended up astray, or following false teachers because of one, or a few of the flock? When I read this, I couldn’t help but be amazed at how important this makes the job of the shepherd. How diligent the shepherd must be to ensure that he is following the great shepherd, and leading the flock, not allowing any to stray.
I’m not done studying by any stretch of the imagination, but I can’t believe how much just understanding the behaviors of sheep a little bit has presumably opened up my understanding so far. Or how it’s allowed me to just see things a little bit differently, perhaps better. I’m looking forward to studying further on the topic, and reading up on shepherds, as well as goats.