The familiar image of our Savior as a shepherd appears throughout Scripture. Perhaps the most cherished is King David’s reverent ode to the Lord as a shepherd of restoration and provision, a shepherd who makes our comfort complete (Psalm 23). The Apostle Peter refers to Christ as “the chief Shepherd” of our souls (1 Peter 5:4), and the writer of Hebrews echoes this sentiment (in verse 13:20), calling Jesus “the greatest shepherd.” He leads perfectly, and those who follow will never go astray.
Jesus Himself employs the same metaphor in the gospel accounts, memorably so in John 10:14-15.
“I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep.”
This is Christ as the shepherd of grace. He comes to rescue, providing protection, comfort, and direction to lost sheep undeserving of such invaluable gifts. We can point to the manifestation of these gifts countless times in our daily life. Most decisively though, Christ performed His shepherding work on the cross, where He bore our sin and suffered so that we might live, receiving His righteousness through faith and thus escaping the Father’s holy wrath. Why this gift of unmerited grace? He knows us and delights in us. We were the apple of His eye even before our first blink. So He laid down His life to save us. Grateful for His grace, we seek to love this shepherd. We long to rest upon His bosom, basking in shared intimacy just as the gospel writer did.
But elsewhere, Jesus describes Himself as a shepherd fulfilling a different function.
“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left. . . . And these [on the left] will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”–Matthew 25:31-33, 46
Coming in glory with the angels and sitting on His throne before the nations, Christ judges all people according to what they have done. As in John’s gospel, He is a shepherd . . . only now He is a shepherd of truth separating the sheep from the goats. In the first account, Christ is the shepherd who seeks and saves the lost. In the second, He comes to uphold the integrity of His flock.
This passage from the Book of Matthew emphasizes the inviolable connection between what we do and who we are. The sheep–those who have followed Jesus in this temporal life–have borne out their faith in good works, serving others in love and for His sake. The self-righteous goats protest that they would have served Christ if only they had seen Him.
But Jesus’s point here is that it’s not just about selectively doing good deeds. It’s about doing them out of an unbridled love for Christ and gratitude for the work He has done in us. It’s about doing them with a spirit that willingly places our work under the mantle of Christ’s supreme work and purpose . . . about doing work that is similar in kind to the self-sacrificing, humbling, redeeming work He did on the cross. It’s about having eyes that see Christ in the world and then responding with a desire to serve Him by ministering to the people He loves. That the goats consider their empty works sufficient for salvation is tragic. They remain blind even under the bright light of judgment.
For good reason, our hearts warm easily to the shepherd of grace portrayed in John 10 while the tendency is to rationalize as we explain the actions of Matthew 25’s shepherd of truth. But there is only one “Chief Shepherd,” and Scripture consistently presents Him as both Rescuer and Judge. Indeed, these two elements of Christ’s character are foundational, not only with respect to who He is, but also to our faith. Without grace, we’re lost. Without truth, it wouldn’t seem to matter. But it does.