Monday, June 13, 2022

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“What do sheep symbolize in the Bible?”

The Bible is full of symbols and pictures intended to help us understand the spiritual realities they depict. But as a young man getting serious about studying scripture for the first time, one of the things I had to learn about Bible imagery is that there is rarely a single, consistent interpretation for any figure or picture.

In one sense all of scripture is the product of a single author in the person of the Holy Spirit of God. Because of this, we might expect perfect consistency between image and intended meaning from Genesis to Revelation. But that would be failing to take into account the way inspiration worked.

Jots and Tittles

While the Holy Spirit indeed carried men along so completely that the Lord Jesus could say with confidence that even the diacritical marks on the characters they penned were trustworthy, the Spirit of God chose to preserve in his work the personalities, language, vocabulary, style and even literary tics of the individual human writers of scripture. This is especially evident when we compare the four Gospels, which tell substantially the same story, but with vastly different emphasis, purpose, literary style and personal flair.

This feature of inspiration explains why a symbol used in Genesis may mean something different in Mark or Titus. Unless the later writer is deliberately referencing the earlier (which certainly happens), he may not be interested in quite the same aspect of the symbol as the first writer. I have written at length, for example, about the figure of a “bride”. It occurs repeatedly throughout the Bible, but I am not convinced the intended meaning of that symbol is identical in every instance it is employed. We need to look carefully at the local context of a metaphor to determine what the Holy Spirit is trying to convey, rather than just assuming that all symbols always mean the same things.

The Sheep Metaphor

Sorry. Longwinded. Sheep, you ask? They are a fine example of why we need to look carefully at local context to determine meaning. If we compare Abraham’s remark to his son Isaac that “God will provide for himself a lamb” with John the Baptist’s announcement, “Behold the Lamb of God”, most readers will probably agree both Moses and John are really speaking about the same person: Jesus Christ. He is God’s provision for the sin of the world. In this case, the sheep metaphor is a way of pointing out that the Lord Jesus was a wholly appropriate sacrifice.

Contrast that with Isaiah’s familiar statement that “All we like sheep have gone astray.” Here it is not appropriateness as a sacrifice that is in view. Not at all. Isaiah is simply saying sheep are headstrong and tend to wander off to do their own thing without guidance, much like the Israelite sinners of his own day. To apply the simile to Christ would be wildly off base.

Or contrast it with David’s famous Psalm 23, where the Lord is compared to a shepherd, not a sheep. His people are his sheep. Moreover, David is not concerned with pointing to a sheep’s innate tendency to stray, but rather to the sheep’s need for someone to feed, care, provide and direct him. The sheep has no natural defenses, and needs someone stronger in charge. The Lord Jesus also points to sheep as a good picture of vulnerability in Luke, when he says to his disciples, “I am sending you out as lambs in the midst of wolves.”

But when the Lord speaks about shepherds and sheep in John 10, something quite different is in view. He uses them to depict relationship. The sheep follow the shepherd, for they know his voice. The shepherd calls them by name, because they are “his own”.

Again, in Revelation John sees the glorified Christ and remarks that the “hairs of his head were white, like white wool”. Here the sheep comparison is about nothing more than color.

Context and Meaning

So what do sheep symbolize in the Bible? The answer is all kinds of things: vulnerability, straying Jews, appropriate sacrifices, the Lord Jesus, white hair, close relationships, things that tend to get lost … If we were to muddle all these similes, metaphors and symbols together, you can imagine we would find ourselves spectacularly confused. But by looking carefully at the local context, we are able to determine which aspect of the appearance, character or religious role of a sheep the writer is drawing our attention to.

That’s the way most symbols in scripture are best viewed.

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