This is a fascinating excerpt from one of Tim Keller’s Sermons entitled He Welcomes Sinners. In it, we explore the term sheep that is used throughout the Bible to describe what we are like, and how we need a shepherd. Very insightful. (You can listen to the excerpt here rather than read below, Keller on Sheep)
“First of all the sheep, now when you and I hear that we’re sheep and he is the shepherd it just makes us feel warm, fuzzy, gauzy, and we think of fluffy little lambs and green pastures and still waters and you need to know that when the bible calls Him the great shepherd and us the sheep it is a very important and very well meant spiritual insult.
It is an insult, here are the words of a pastor who before he went into the ministry was a shepherd. He understands what it means. He says
“a sheep is a stupid animal. It looses its direction continually in a way that a cat or dog never does. And even when you find a lost sheep the lost sheep brushes to and fro and will not follow you home. So when you find it you must seize it throw it to the ground, tie its fore legs and hind legs together, throw it over your shoulder and carry it home. That’s the only way to save a lost sheep.”
Let’s meditate on the meaning of this metaphor, I’m not kidding. There are two things this teaches us. The bible is trying to tell us two things about ourselves. And the two things are:
First of all, this teaches us that like sheep we need to be rescued; we constantly need to be rescued. Probably the favorite thing my wife and I do is if we get to Britain we get out a book called “back roads of Britain” and we drive into some of the most remote parts we can find and one of the things you’ll see in those remote parts is sheep.
Even a tourist can see something pretty interesting and that is when sheep see grass, no matter where it is, no matter how steep and dangerous the spot they just go for the grass they go and start eating the grass even though they go to a spot that is impossible to climb down from.
So they go and they eat the grass until the grass is gone and then they either have to be rescued or they plunge to their death. And we actually saw this, you know there are all these steep mountainsides and there they are actually eating on them and they fall down, down to their death at the bottom of the cliff.
Sometimes when the minister or the priest gives you the bread in the communion or the Lord’s Supper, the minister or the priest will say “feed on him in your heart by faith”. Now that assumes that your soul is feeding on something. That means that you have taken the deepest hopes of your heart on security and rested them on something. It might be image, status, wealth. It might be family, it could be Mr. X or Mrs. X falling in love with you, but whatever it is, if you’re feeding your soul anywhere but the hand of Jesus or at the feet or Jesus, our Great shepherd, you’re like a sheep on a ledge.
A perfect example of this would be this, look you’re dating somebody, Mr. X, Mrs. X, you’re dating somebody and its one thing to date, it’s one thing to be in love, it’s one thing to hope that the person will marry you. Ok.
It’s another thing to feed your soul. That is to rest your heart’s deepest hopes on that person and that relationship, to say I know I’m somebody. I know I’m ok. I feel secure about the future. I know I’m valuable because this person loves me. Well you know what that means?
You’re like a sheep that has gone up to the grass, if you break up you won’t just be disappointed; it will be a spiritual and emotional plunge.
You have no self left; you have no hope left. And the bible says we’re all doing that, we all like sheep have gone astray, and we’ve all turned to our own way. Therefore all sheep need to be rescued. Not only that, the metaphor doesn’t just teach us that all sheep need to be rescued, but it also teaches how thoroughly they need to be rescued.
Remember the man said the shepherd said about sheep, if you find a lost sheep your job is not over, because the lost sheep will not follow you home, the lost sheep will just run around, you have to grab it and throw it down and tie it up and take it all the way home.
See if your dog is lost or your dog loses its way, well you find your dog and it jumps up and says aha, and follow you home. Or maybe once you point it in the right way to go, all you need to do is point it in the right direction and it gets home itself. Not a sheep.
A sheep not going to follow you home. You know what that means? A sheep can contribute nothing to its salvation. The shepherd to rescue a sheep, unlike rescuing a dog or cat, the shepherd to rescue a sheep has to take basically walks it all the way home. The shepherd has to do everything for the sheep. With the sheep, it’s not a cooperation; the shepherd has to go home for it. The shepherd has to put it on his shoulders and go all the way home. What does this mean?
You know what it means, in traditional language it means that you, me, human beings are utterly lost in sin and can do nothing to contribute to our salvation, they have to be saved sheerly by grace, not by cooperating. It would not have helped, since we are sheep, for God to send just a great teacher who tells us how we should live and gives us an inspirational picture of how to live and then we try to emulate him and try our best to live like Jesus.
I can’t tell you over the years how many people I’ve asked what it means to be a Christian and they say it means trying very hard to live according to the example of Jesus. So you think you’re a dog or a cat but your not, you’re a sheep. We’re sheep, a teacher wouldn’t have been enough, a teacher wasn’t enough. We’ve had all kinds of teachers, there’s a place where Jesus says, “I keep sending you sages and wise men and you’ve killed them all. Sheep with teeth!
We need a savior. We need someone to do everything we should do, has to live the life we should have lived and die the death we should have died.
Now in traditional language we are saying that everyone is utterly lost in sin.
What a great picture as to what our need is: Utterly dependent. Now the real question, does this encourage you or depress you?