The light colored coat, illuminated by brilliant sunshine, stands in stark contrast to the lush green background that surrounds it. There is no hiding for this one, or any attempt of secrecy being made by it. Its life’s purpose is solely to serve humans, and it does so without defense or hesitation. “Ovis aries” is the name of this common domestic breed numbering over one billion in a species that is deeply entrenched in human culture.
The contributions it makes have filled crucial human needs in societies throughout the history of human kind. Whether grazing the lush hills of New Zealand or browsing across sparsely growing fields in Africa; their hair, pelts, meat, dairy and laboratory uses fill many of the complex needs of modern societies. We know them as, sheep.
“Lamb” refers to the tasty meat of a sheep that is less than one year of age, after which it is referred to as “mutton.” Their prized meat is flavorful and tender and is often served as, “lamb chops,” “lamb shank,” “leg of lamb,” and “rack of lamb.” The latter refers to its row of eight small ribs whose delicate size will fit on an outstretched hand. As tasty as these tender lamb dishes are, they come at a price: the death of a precious little lamb.
Surely there are few lives more innocent than that of a lamb. After its five-month gestation period, it tumbles out of its mother and soon takes awkward first steps. This baby of the sheep family is of a subspecies that is without aggression or menace, and poses no danger to anyone or anything, except grass. It has no horns, no weapons and no intention of hurting anyone. When frightened, its defense is simply to run away.
God created sheep with specific traits that allow them to harmonize with humans, which provides an unusual opportunity to graze important animals with unparalleled convenience.
The sheep of Christ
Sheep are intelligent and quite smart about things that are good, noble, and upright. They remember the faces of up to 50 other sheep and of caring humans for two years. We are to have a similar trait as Christ’s sheep.
“I am the good shepherd; and I know My sheep, and am known by My own” (John 10:14).
Sheep graze a zigzagging path allowing themselves backward glances utilizing excellent eyesight that can spot danger a half a mile away. They are very food-oriented and develop an innocent trust of those who feed and tend them.
“All that the Father gives Me will come to Me, and the one who comes to Me I will by no means cast out... This is the will of the Father who sent Me, that of all He has given Me I should lose nothing, but should raise it up at the last day. And this is the will of Him who sent Me, that everyone who sees the Son and believes in Him may have everlasting life; and I will raise him up at the last day” (John 6:37-40).
Being gregarious social animals, sheep love the company of their kind and become easily stressed if separated or alone. Consequently, sheep tend to congregate closely together and move as a group. God made their only defensive strength to be an intimidation they give when bunched tightly together. Shepherds work to keep small groups from wandering off from the main herd. Similarly, Christ’s “flock” is intended to be together for the unity and strength it supplies.
“And let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works, not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much the more as you see the Day approaching” (Hebrews 10:24-25).
By nature, sheep have a strong “follow” tendency. A “leader” among them is often just the first one to move. There are no “prima donnas” among the flock, none trying to gain a following, take from another, and no one insisting that he or she is better than others (other than male competitions during rut season). Likewise, we are to be Christ’s humble sheep, following Him and being led by God’s Holy Spirit.
“But the wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality and without hypocrisy. Now the fruit of righteousness is sown in peaceby those who make peace” (James 3:17-18).
Sheep vs. goats
Outwardly, goats appear similar to sheep in shape and size due to their species being related at higher level of taxonomy. At first glance, it can be difficult to distinguish between sheep and goats, their most defining attribute being tails that turn upward, or hang down. Jesus used their outward similarity in His analogy of selecting true “sheep” for the Firstfruits of the God Family.
“When the Son of Man comes in His glory…He will separate them one from another, as a shepherd divides his sheep from the goats” (Matthew 25:31-32).
Just as Christ’s allegory highlights a contrast between these species, sheep and goats have little in common beyond their outward appearances. While sheep are gregarious, harmless, trusting followers, goats are typically ultra-curious and self-willed. All goats, unless they are polled, have horns, which they use both offensively and defensively, and sometimes just because they can. Unlike grazing sheep, goats are browsers with a reputation for chewing on nearly anything they can get their mouths on (although they are particular about what they actually swallow). They have a propensity to eat the most prized of decorative shrubs, along with decimating the trees, fruits and vegetables grown by humans. They are independent and self-driven with a curiosity that takes them everywhere to chew up almost anything they find.
Once, on our fenced farm in Arkansas, we had a herd of goats that could not be contained, either with barbed wire or and electric fence. Their whereabouts often involved their devouring neighboring farmers’ gardens, or playing “King of the Hill” atop our car. Goats resist following a shepherd and dislike trying to be led by one. They are self-directed animals that vie to be the highest in stature (or altitude) among the herd.
We humans have developed goatish tendencies during our lives. Human nature tends to be self-directed, self-promoting, arrogant, ambitious and rebellious (2 Timothy 3:2-4). God gave us His perfect Son, partly as an example of the type of Lamb, which we are to become. Those eventually selected for His Kingdom may not have become fully Lamb-like. However, they will have made it as far as becoming like “sheep.” Those choosing to retain their goat-like qualities will be separated for slaughter (Matthew 25:41), while those who have become “sheep” will be transformed (Matthew 25:34) into Firstfruits at Christ’s return (James 1:18, Revelation 14:4).
Christ our Passover lamb
The first Passover lambs were killed in accordance with God’s directive (Exodus 12:3-8). Their perfect little bodies were lifted into waiting arms before their throats were slit and their blood was poured out and spread upon doorposts. The entire carcass was roasted and the flesh eaten before the death angel passed over and the Israelite firstborn were saved. The carnage involving little lambs must have made a powerful impression about how the Innocent had to die in order for the lives of humans to be spared. But the lesson is necessary, and it provides us with an awakening to the terrible consequences that our sins generate.
“Who committed no sin, nor was deceit found in His mouth; who, when He was reviled, did not revile in return; when He suffered, He did not threaten, but committed Himself to Him who judges righteously; who Himself bore our sins in His own body on the tree, that we, having died to sins, might live for righteousness—by whose stripes you were healed. For you were like sheep going astray, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.” (1 Peter 2:22-25).
1,984 years ago this March 25th, our perfect God with His loving, serving nature was flogged mercilessly, nailed to a tree, cut open and bled to death. He paid the penalty of death for sinning humans, which He had in no way harmed. Passover helps us to appreciate the magnitude of His perfect gift for us. At the same time, it becomes an example to us of a perfect life of loving, selfless service to others (Luke 10:3). After coming to appreciate His fervent life of service and sacrifice, we are to take up our “cross” (Mark 8:34) and imitate His example of personal obedience, sacrifice and service for the good of others (1 Peter 2:21-25). In doing so we will fulfill His desire for us to become Christ-like ourselves (Philippian 2:5-8).
Sheep husbandry is an integral component of cultures throughout most of the inhabited world. Likewise, “sheep” husbandry continues to be Christ’s work in His Church as He leads and cultivates godliness in His Flock (Acts 20:28). David felt very at home here under the tutelage and guidance of the Great Shepherd (Psalm 23). Those growing into true “sheep” in Christ’s flock are receiving gracious mercy from His sacrifice, and will one day share an inheritance with Him as members of the Family of God.
“Surely, goodness and mercy shall follow me All the days of my life; And I will dwell in the house of the LORD Forever” (Psalm 23:6).