This is a dominant and beautiful “picture of redemption” from Genesis to Revelation. It should be noted at the outset, however, that this picture has a significant limiting factor: if our Lord Jesus Christ is pictured as the shepherd and we are the sheep, we must remember that we are not, literally, “sheep.” We are so much more than dumb animals; we may take much more responsibility for our own thoughts and actions. Yet in some important areas we are very much like sheep: sheep in need of a “shepherd” who are powerless to protect ourselves, or even hide
ourselves from the “wolves” and “bears” that threaten us; sheep that foolishly may wander away from the safety provided for us.
The role of the
Firstly, there was a very different relationship than exists today in western countries. The shepherd’s relationship to the sheep was a very close and personal one. He lived with them; he slept next to them; he called them by name, and they responded to his kind words with something very much like affection and love.
This relationship is illustrated by the reflections of W. M. Thomson, a minister who lived in and traveled extensively through the Holy Land in the early part of the nineteenth century, when so much he saw and wrote about was virtually unchanged from what might have been observed in Bible times.
Of the shepherd and the sheep, he wrote:
“I notice that some of the flock keep near the shepherd, and follow whithersoever he goes, without the least hesitation, while others stray about on either side, or loiter far behind; and he often turns round and scolds them in a sharp, stern cry.
“Not unlike the Good Shepherd. Indeed, I never ride over these hills, clothed with flocks, without meditating upon this delightful theme. Our Savior says that the good shepherd, when he putteth forth his own sheep, goeth before them, and they follow (John 10:4). This is true to the letter. They are so tame and so trained that they follow their keeper with the utmost docility… Any one that wanders is sure to get into trouble.
“Some sheep always keep near the shepherd, and are his special favorites. Each of them has a name, to which it answers joyfully; and the kind shepherd is ever distributing to them choice portions which he gathers for that purpose. These are the contented and happy ones. They are in no danger of getting lost or into mischief, nor do wild beasts and thieves come near them. The great body, however, are mere worldlings, intent upon their own pleasures or selfish interests. They run from bush to bush, searching for variety or delicacies, and only now and then lift their heads to see where the shepherd is...
“Did you ever see a shepherd gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom (Isa 40:11)? Often; and he will gently lead along the mothers, in those times when to overdrive them even for a single day would be fatal” (Gen. 33:13). (The Land and the Book, pp 202-205).
“On the roads of Palestine, and on the hills, you see the good shepherd. He comes along at the head of his flock, generally carrying over his shoulders a lamb or an injured sheep.
“A most remarkable thing is the sympathy that exists between him and his flock. He never drives them as our own shepherds drive their sheep. He always walks at their head, leading them along the roads and over the hills to new pasture; and, as he goes, he sometimes talks to them in a loud sing-song voice, using a weird language unlike anything I have ever heard in my life.
“Early one morning I saw an extraordinary sight not far from Bethlehem. Two shepherds had evidently spent the night with their flocks in a cave. The sheep were all mixed together and the time had come for the shepherds to go in different directions. One of the shepherds stood some distance from the sheep and began to call. First one, then another, then four or five animals ran toward him; and so on until he had counted his whole flock.
“More interesting than the sight of this was the knowledge that Jesus must have seen exactly the same sight and described it in his own words: ‘He calleth his own sheep by name, and leadeth them out. And when he putteth forth his own sheep, he goeth before them, and the sheep follow him: for they know his voice. And a stranger they will not follow...’ This parable spake Jesus unto them, ‘I am the good shepherd, and know my sheep, and am known of mine’” (H. V. Morton, In the Steps of the Master, p 154).
Abel (Gen. 4) kept flocks of sheep, and brought offerings to the Lord out of those flocks -- the first in the long line who typified Christ’s work. Like other good shepherds after him, he showed constant concern for each individual animal (John 10:3). Devoutly he brought into the presence of the Lord offerings for himself, as well as for his rebellious brother (this point is suggested by Genesis 4:7 -- the “sin” or “sin-offering” which lay ready at hand, even for Cain). But it was to no avail.
For his faithfulness to Yahweh, and because Yahweh looked with favor upon him, Abel was hated and then killed by his brother. The way of a righteous shepherd was not easy, even in the beginning! Thus Abel was practically the first of his race to point forward to the coming Messiah: “By faith Abel offered God a better sacrifice than Cain did. By faith he was commended as a righteous man, when God spoke well of his offerings. And by faith he still speaks, even though he is dead” (Heb. 11:4).
The first martyr
Thus Abel’s blood cried out to the Lord from the ground (Gen. 4:10); it was like the blood of the sacrifices that was poured out at the base of the altar as a witness and testimony (Lev. 17:10,11). And it was the first blood of martyrs, of which there have now been multitudes, which continues to cry out to God:
I saw under the altar the souls [ie, ‘lives’ or ‘blood,’ because ‘life is in the blood,’ Lev. 17:11] of those who had been slain because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained. They called out in a loud voice, ‘How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?’” (Rev. 6:9,10).
Jesus calls Abel a “prophet” (Luke 11:50,51), even though not one word of his is recorded in scripture. Yet through his shed blood he speaks, even though dead. As an enacted type of Christ he is eloquent -- his blood sprinkled on the ground speaking poignantly of the Saviour’s blood to be sprinkled in confirmation of the new covenant.
In the very beginning, then, we may see -- in Abel -- that the way of redemption was the way of suffering and death, the way of the shepherd’s crook, the way of the cross.