With few exceptions, Israel’s ancient shepherds—its leaders—proved to be utter failures, directing the people into all kinds of idolatry. Stories of one failed king after another fill 1 and 2 Kings, and even the rulers who were faithful to the Lord never brought about a revival of truth that lasted very far beyond their lifetimes. Thus, God sent Jesus, the long-awaited Shepherd-King, to fulfill His promise to give His people shepherds after His own heart (Jer. 3:15). This Shepherd-King is the only way to eternal life and safety with our Creator in heaven.
The “I am” saying we find in today’s passage is, “I am the good shepherd.” Immediately Psalm 23 comes to mind. David, the greatest shepherd in ancient Israel, served yet a greater shepherd—the Lord God Almighty Himself. Ultimately, this shepherd-leader of God’s people was just a sheep who followed after the one, true Shepherd. Because God was his shepherd, David never needed to fear evil even in the valley of the shadow of death. He knew no serious lack and even enjoyed a place of honor in the midst of his enemies. David never met this Shepherd as God incarnate, for he lived and died before Jesus was born in Bethlehem. But this Shepherd did indeed take on a human nature and come in the flesh to lead and guide His people. In calling Himself the “good shepherd,” Christ again implicitly claims for Himself the prerogatives of deity. He is the One of whom David speaks in Psalm 23.
In Psalm 23, David emphasizes the Shepherd’s care, guidance, and protection, but Jesus gives us an even fuller revelation of this Shepherd and His role. The Good Shepherd also lays down His life for His sheep. He is no hireling who hires himself out to watch the sheep of another sheep owner; rather, the sheep are His. They belong to Him and He loves them. He loves them so much that He will endure danger and death—even an accursed death on the cross—so that they can be found and brought home to the sheepfold (vv. 15–18).
The Good Shepherd has but one flock, but this flock is not made up of all the same kind of sheep. It includes sheep that are currently in other sheepfolds, and these must be brought to His flock. In other words, God’s kingdom is not limited to the Jews only. Anyone who follows the Good Shepherd has a place in the sheepfold. And when this Shepherd calls, these other sheep will surely hear and enter into salvation (v. 16).