Throughout both the Old and New Testaments, the shepherding metaphor is used to relate God’s promises to the context in which his people lived. Agrarian life was a mainstay in ancient near eastern society. And this was not always to be seen as a lowly position. On the contrary, when David was anointed king, his charge was to be a shepherd over God’s people, leading them in the ways of righteousness (2 Samuel 5:2). The call to shepherd God’s people was dignified by the office of king, especially a king like David. But Jeremiah, prophesying near the demise of the kingdom of Judah, makes it clear that Israel’s kings had all but abandoned the call to lovingly shepherd God’s people.
Jeremiah 23 recounts God’s righteous anger toward these evil shepherds who cared only for their own glory, rather than for the good of the flock, God’s people. God speaks through the prophet of his impending judgment on such shepherds, and then he foretells the future gathering of his flock to himself—and that with no one missing. Finally, in consummate prophetic expression, Jeremiah foretells of the one who makes all this possible, the Righteous Branch who will reign as king. It is no mistake that this prophecy comes on the heels of the shepherding metaphor, for this Branch would be the true Shepherd-King, everything that David pointed toward, and everything that the evil shepherds should have been. However, this Shepherd has a name unlike any other: the Lord is our righteousness (Jer. 23:6).
In John 10, Jesus is the Good Shepherd, not only guiding his sheep toward the way of righteousness, but literally becoming the way of righteousness for them. Here, he is not only the shepherd, but also the door—the only way to enter the sheepfold (John 10:7-9). All of the shepherds who came before him—and all who would come after—could merely point to the way. Jesus came to be the way. The Lord is our righteousness.
And it is Christ himself who harkens back to Jeremiah 23, among other prophecies, to declare that none of his chosen sheep will be missing. He says
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. And I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. (John 10:14-16 ESV)
Make no mistake, this declaration—though forged in blood—was meant to erase all bloodlines of privilege and position. I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also. This act of redemption, this exodus from exile, would include sheep from every tribe, tongue, nation, and people—and there will be one flock.
The Apostle Paul wrote of the removal of such bloodlines.
For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. (Ephesians 2:14-16 ESV)
There was a historically pretentious kind of hostility which existed between Jews and Gentiles. We see this throughout the New Testament, embodied in the actions of the Pharisees, and even the Apostle Peter, as he withdrew from the Gentiles in the presence of the Jews (Galatians 2). The rift between Jews and Gentiles was deeper than location, culture, and more. It was spiritual. To the Jews, Gentiles were unclean. They were outsiders who did not merit inclusion in the commonwealth of heaven. They were not to be allowed within the realm of God’s blessing. In fact, the “dividing wall” Paul is referring to here may well have been a literal wall located on the outer courtyard of the temple, bearing an inscription which warned Gentiles of passing into this space, on the threat of death.
The point is this: there existed from Jews to Gentiles an “us & them” mentality which bred ethnic superiority and hostility between the two groups. And as we know all too well within our cultural context, an “us & them” mentality is devastating to communal flourishing. Most recently, we have seen this “us & them” mentality become the source of unrest in communities like Ferguson, and all over the United States as protesters (both peaceful & otherwise) have taken up the causes of the racially oppressed. No matter what you believe about the policies behind the recent Supreme Court decisions, it is impossible to deny that the root of these issues is disunity based on “us & them.”
In light of all that the Bible teaches about the sheepfold of Jesus, it is passively irresponsible, or actively prideful (and in both cases sinful) for any Christian to use “us & them” language with regard to ethnicity, socioeconomic status, or virtually any other distinction. To be clear, I am not speaking of pointing our differences, distinctions, or cultural norms, for these should be celebrated in light of God’s plan to redeem a diverse but unified people. When I speak of “us & them” I am referring to a hostile kind of pretention not unlike that described between the Jews and Gentiles throughout the New Testament. There is no room for this kind of talk within the family of God.
Christians, our first response to such divisive issues should always be a movement toward reconciliation, whether prayer, honest and open discussion, or—perhaps most appropriate for today’s issues—simply listening. White Christians, we need to listen to our African-American brothers and sisters. Seriously listen. Do we have any idea what it feels like to be suspected of criminal activity anywhere we go based on the color of our skin? No, we don’t. Do we have any idea how deep the wounds from periods prior to the Civil Rights movement run? No, we don’t. Do we have any idea how the remaining vestiges of racism affect our society today? I believe most of us don’t. Or at least we don’t try to.
I’m not making this into merely an ethnic issue. There are a million “us & them” qualifiers out there. Here are a few: private school & public school, old & young, educated & uneducated, rich & poor, spiritual & sinful, and the list goes on. Can you think of a qualifier you struggle with that I haven’t mentioned?
One of the only occurrences of “us & them” we see in the New Testament comes from Paul’s argument for unity in 1 Corinthians 6.
Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. (1 Corinthians 6:9-11 ESV)
In other words, the only “us & them” qualifier that amounts to anything is “those who have been washed & those who haven’t.” However, the key here is who does the washing. You see, the Jews thought their cleanliness came by their ritual observance. They were believed to be active in it. Not so with Christ’s Church. We were washed “in the name of the Lord Jesus and by the Spirit of our God.” We were washed in regeneration—once dead, now made alive—and all this is from God, through the blood of Jesus. In light of the list above, one wouldn’t even want to boast the “us & them” mentality in this case, except perhaps to proclaim “I once was lost, and now I’m found.”
Christians, we have one shepherd, and we are one flock. We must strive for unity because the Bible tells us time and again that unity is the very reason our Savior came to die. We are united to God in Christ, and we are united to one another by his blood. We are a new family, a new humanity. Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all. (Colossians 3:11 ESV)
Soli Deo Gloria