“Seeing the people, He felt compassion for them, because they were distressed and dispirited like sheep without a shepherd.” –Matthew 9:38
Jesus often referred to his followers as sheep. Once I heard a pastor teach that the reason he did so was because sheep are dumb. He said that without the proper leader, a sheep would wander itself off of the side of a cliff. That if left to their own devices, sheep would surely find themselves to be extinct. I remember thinking, “is that really how Jesus sees us?”
I later learned that sheep are quite intelligent and relational. Sheep are capable of recognizing up to 20 other sheep faces along with several human faces, and can remember them for up to two years. They can even recognize the bleats of sheep from their own flock as well as the voices of their human caretakers and shepherds. Sheep are also famously good followers, willing to follow their shepherds pretty much anywhere; which is why they would follow one another off of a cliff. It’s not because they are dumb, it’s because they are loyal, even to the point of death. Sheep were first domesticated in Mesopotamia in around 11,000 B.C., meaning that sheep have been around for a while. Sheep have also learned to adapt to various environments. As a matter of fact, today there are over 1,000 different breeds of sheep all over the world and over 50 breeds just in the United States.
So why does Jesus call us sheep? I think it’s because of their loyalty. Jesus wants his church to trust that the Gospel is true, that this life is a good one, and that when we follow him, that he will keep us from danger and lead us into the pastures of joy and peace. Because sheep are naturally born followers, without a leader, they are prone to wander and get lost and eventually end up on the menu of one of their many predators. Jesus calls himself our Good Shepherd and he teaches us that his sheep know his voice.
I also think the adaptive ability of sheep is a characteristic that Jesus would want us to take on as his followers. My friend, Jim LeShana likes to say, “It takes all kinds of churches to reach all kinds of people.” We must learn to adapt to the cultures around us; the changing times and trends and themes of our day. Not to compromise the Gospel message, but to earn a hearing for it. When we get so stuck in the way we’ve come to appreciate things, we lose credibility with the watching world around us, and soon we are like trapped sheep, cooped up in our own pen, slowly dying off until there is nothing left of our local flock. If we can tap into our “sheephood” and learn to adapt to the changing world, we will be able to build relationships with those who are wandering and lost, and potentially allow them to hear the voice of the Good Shepherd and join his flock.
Sheep aren’t dumb, they just need a shepherd. Jesus calls us sheep because they are survivors, they are teachable, they are relational, they know and love their shepherd and one another, and they are able to adapt to the world around them.
“My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me…” -John 10:27