Why Is Jesus Called “the Good Shepherd?”

Gentle Shepherd,” (detail) by Yongsung Kim

Since ancient times, prophets have compared God with a shepherd in order to emphasize His gentle leadership. King David began a psalm of trust and gratitude with the words, “The Lord is my shepherd” (Psalm 23:1).

Sheep are largely defenseless against their predators. An important role of a shepherd is to to protect his sheep from harm. At the end of his life, Moses pleaded with the Lord to choose a new leader, so that “the congregation of the Lord be not as sheep which have no shepherd” (Numbers 27:17). Many years later on the American continent, King Limhi compared rebellious people with “a wild flock which fleeth from the shepherd, and scattereth, and are driven, and are devoured by the beasts of the forest” (Mosiah 8:21).

Shepherds ensure that their sheep have adequate nourishment. Isaiah taught that the Messiah would “feed his flock like a shepherd: he shall gather the lambs with his arm, and carry them in his bosom, and shall gently lead those that are with young” (Isaiah 40:11).

Soon after resigning from the position of chief judge to dedicate himself completely to the ministry, the prophet Alma preached a sermon in Zarahemla. His purpose in delivering this sermon was to persuade the people to humble themselves, turn their hearts to Jesus Christ, and to repent.

One feature of this sermon is numerous references to the Savior as a shepherd. Alma tells the people that they have “gone astray, as sheep having no shepherd,” echoing the words of Moses (Alma 5:37). He reassures them that “the good shepherd” is calling after them, and if they will hear His voice and follow Him, then they will be counted as His sheep (Alma 5:38, 41, 60). The main impression I get from Alma’s words is that Jesus Christ leads by invitation, not by compulsion. We are free to follow His call or to ignore it. Our status as His sheep is determined by our decision.

During His mortal ministry, the Savior referred to Himself as “the good shepherd.” He contrasted His loving leadership with the leadership of “an hireling,” who “careth not for the sheep.” In contrast, He said, “the good shepherd giveth his life for the sheep” (John 10: 11-13).

Jesus invites us to be shepherds as well. Soon after His resurrection, He pleaded with Peter three times to “feed my sheep” (John 21:15-17). As Sister Bonnie H. Cordon reminded us in the last general conference, this invitation has also been extended to us:

Focused on His sheep, the Savior desired Peter to do what He would do if He were there. He asked Peter to become a shepherd.
Last April, President Russell M. Nelson extended a similar invitation to us to feed our Father’s sheep in a holier way and to do so through ministering.
To effectively accept this invitation, we must develop a shepherd’s heart and understand the needs of the Lord’s sheep. So how do we become the shepherds the Lord needs us to become?… We can look to our Savior, Jesus Christ—the Good Shepherd (“Becoming a Shepherd,” General Conference, October 2018).

Today, I will remember the Savior’s gentle and dedicated leadership. I will be grateful that “the Lord is my shepherd.” I will strive to follow His invitations, knowing that protection and nourishment are available to His sheep. I will strive to follow His example, striving to minister to others as He would do if He were here.

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