References to sheep are found throughout the Bible. Sheep were often used as sacrificial animals (Numbers 28:4; Exodus 29:39). They were also a primary source of income in ancient Middle Eastern cultures. But sheep are also used symbolically to represent God’s people (Matthew 25:32). The Bible even refers to Jesus Christ as the “ Lamb of God” (John 1:29; 1 Peter 1:19).
One of the Bible’s first references to sheep is in Genesis 4:4 when Abel sacrificed “fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock” to the Lord. Although the Bible does not state specifically that this sacrifice was a lamb, most scholars agree that it was likely a sheep because of the word flock and because sheep were among the first domesticated animals. An even earlier reference to sheep may be in Genesis 3:21 when “the LORD God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife and clothed them.” Again, while the Bible does not state explicitly that these were sheepskins, it is very likely that God used sheep because of the later symbolic importance of lambs as sacrificial animals (Numbers 6:14; Leviticus 14:10; Exodus 12:5). In the Garden, God showed us that sin can only be forgiven through the shed blood of the innocent (see Hebrews 9:22). His killing of a sacrificial animal to cover Adam’s sin and shame set the stage for His plan of redemption for the world (John 3:15–18). If that animal was a sheep, the metaphor continues when Jesus became our sacrificial Lamb (Revelation 5:12).
While sheep were a major source of income in agrarian societies, shepherding was one of the lowliest occupations. Wealthy landowners hired out the job of tending sheep to boys and men unqualified for more dignified labor. The youngest child in a family often had the job of tending sheep, as was young David’s lot when the prophet Samuel sought him out to anoint him the next king of Israel (1 Samuel 16:11–13). David the shepherd boy was considered so insignificant that his own father did not include him as a candidate for kingship. The humble status of a shepherd may be one reason Jesus chose that title when He described His relationship with us (John 10:14). Identifying as a Shepherd demonstrated Christ’s meekness and emphasized the fact that He came for even the lowliest of the low (Matthew 11:29).
God first compared the Israelites to sheep and later applied that label to all who are called by His name (Ezekiel 34; Matthew 10:6; 15:24). God’s people are compared to sheep for several reasons (Psalm 79:13; 100:3). First of all, sheep are one of the few animals that do not have a defense system. Sheep are helpless without a shepherd (Matthew 9:36; Numbers 27:17). The first line of Psalm 23 reflects the wonderful truth that God Himself is our Defender: “The Lord is my Shepherd, I lack nothing.” Without the Lord our Shepherd, we are helpless when our enemy Satan attacks (2 Thessalonians 3:3).
Second, sheep are notorious for following the leader, regardless of how dangerous or foolish that may be. Like sheep, human beings are extremely gullible when an attractive or charismatic leader promises a shiny new idea. History is replete with tragic illustrations of the “herd mentality” in action (Acts 13:50; 19:34; Numbers 16:2). That sheep-like mentality was in evidence when Pilate brought Jesus before the people to ask what should be done with Him. Only days before, Jesus had been the popular Teacher who healed, forgave, and taught about God. People eagerly followed Him. But, less than a week later, “the chief priests stirred up the crowd to have Pilate release Barabbas instead” (Mark 15:11). Within moments, the very crowd that had witnessed His miracles was shouting, “Crucify Him!”
A third reason human beings are compared to sheep in the Bible is that sheep are prone to wander away from the flock (Isaiah 53:6). A sheep’s only chance of survival is with the flock under the care of a competent shepherd. Yet sheep become overconfident, rebellious, or distracted, and they wander away. They spy greener grass in the other direction or fail to notice when the flock moves away. Peter had this tendency in mind when he warned the church to be on the alert because the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour (1 Peter 5:8). A lion does not attack the flock. It waits until a solitary lamb wanders too far from the shepherd. One of Jesus’ most famous parables is about a lamb that strayed so far it became lost. Jesus, the Good Shepherd, left the ninety-nine sheep in the fold and went in search of the one lost lamb (Luke 15:2–17).
Sheep were the first creatures to witness a sky filled with angels as their shepherds heard the good news of Jesus’ birth (Luke 2:8–15). God could have sent the news of the newborn King to the palace or the temple. Instead, He announced the arrival of the Lamb to a field full of sheep. Jesus is often compared to a lamb because He was meek and non-threatening (John 1:29, 36; Isaiah 53:7). Even in heaven, when the Day of the Lord arrives, Jesus is still called the Lamb (Revelation 5:12; 13:8). But in an ironic twist, the One called the Lamb pours out His wrath like a lion to destroy all those who continue to oppose Him (Revelation 6:16; 14:9–11).
Sheep are significant throughout the Bible. We can learn a lot about God and His dealings with humanity by understanding their nature. They teach us about ourselves and our helplessness without Christ. They remind us about sin’s shocking consequences when innocence is sacrificed to atone for the guilty. But they also teach us about God and His desire to deal tenderly with us: “He tends his flock like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those that have young” (Isaiah 40:11). When we study the ways sheep are used as teaching tools in the Bible, it helps us better understand ourselves in relation to our Good Shepherd.