Straying Sheep, Saving Shepherd
Published April 6, 2023
This week, we remember the event of Jesus’s death on a Roman cross over 2000 years ago. Even centuries before the events of our Lord’s trials, suffering, death, and burial, the prophet Isaiah documented Jesus’s death in Isaiah 53. Isaiah, before crucifixion was practiced, wrote that this horrific punishment would be how the Suffering Servant would pay for our sins, noting that He would be scourged and pierced in verse five – the very things that happened to the Savior on Good Friday.
And in verse six, Isaiah gives us a fresh and unique perspective on the death of Jesus: “All of us like sheep have gone astray. Each of us has turned to his own way; But the Lord has caused the iniquity of us all to fall on Him.” We see ourselves in this passage as wandering sheep, and we observe Jesus, the Servant of the Lord, as the shepherd who dies for His sheep.
We are described in the first part of the verse as straying sheep. The imagery of sheep is not a flattering picture. Sheep are not known for being wise, easy, strong, or impressive. Sheep, in fact, suffer from several fears that can lead them into all kinds of trouble. They are also stubborn and willful, and it is not uncommon for sheep to go astray.
Phillip Keller, in his book A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23, tells the story of one particularly stubborn sheep he had in his time as a Middle Eastern shepherd. He named this sheep Mrs. Gadabout, because she was always straying. Mrs. Gadabout was never content with what her shepherd provided; and no matter what field or pasture they were in, she would walk along the fence line always looking for a way to get to the other side, to the other pasture, or to an area she ought not be. The ironic thing was that whenever Mrs. Gadabout was able to find a loophole through which to crawl, she would usually find herself grazing in burned, barren, dry grass – rather than the lush green grass that was provided for her. Mrs. Gadabout was not only a straying sheep, constantly seeing the grass as greener on the other side; but she would teach others to follow her lead, so that Keller would have to wrangle multiple sheep who also slipped away, straying into some other shepherd’s field.
This is the picture painted in Isaiah 53:6.
We are all by nature Mrs. Gadabout. We should be content with the things the Lord has provided, and we should be delighted to feast in His pastures. But sin deceives us all, and we look out at the other pastures, burned and barren as they are; and we are convinced that only if we could go astray and wander away, we would be happy.
And that is precisely what we do. We each turn to our own way, rather than following the way of our shepherd.
The Bible calls this straying sin. It is to fall short of the glory of God; to carve out our own way rather than to follow God’s way; to see God as the oppressor, the one keeping us from what is fun or good or exciting; and to wander from His care; or to violate His law in the same way that a sheep violates the boundaries of the shepherd when it crosses the fence line into another field.
We transgress the law of God, and we put ourselves under His judgement. It is not uncommon in the aforementioned instances that if the sheep is particularly stubborn, the shepherd has no recourse other than to put it down because it becomes not only a danger to itself but a danger to the rest of the sheep who follow it. In fact, this particular sheep met just such a sorrowful end.
This is the very end we deserve because of our sin and transgression, because we have gone astray and turned aside from our shepherd, going our own way. But the glorious reality for straying sheep is that there is a saving shepherd.
That is what the end of verse six is all about. Here we see that the proper and fitting response of any shepherd to such a straying sheep is that the sheep would pay the consequence for its repeated and continuous rebellion. But in the case of God and His people, God sent His Son to bear our iniquity, and to pay the price of our straying, our sinning, and our rebellion.
Jesus picked up this imagery in John 10, where He called Himself the Good Shepherd and said that the Good Shepherd lays down His life for His sheep. Jesus sees our plight; He sees our danger; He sees that we are on the precipice of destruction forever for our sins – and as the Good Shepherd, He lays down His life to save us.
Isaiah 53 makes it clear that when Jesus lays down His life for His sheep, God places the iniquity of us all on His Son. That means that what we deserved for our sinning is no longer upon us, but upon Christ. Our very sins themselves are placed on Christ on the cross, so that He bears our sins and the full punishment they deserve.
This is the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ: We are sinners who have strayed and gone our own way, which means we deserve God’s judgement. But Jesus, the Good Shepherd, came, and He died in our place, taking our punishment, so that through His life, death, and resurrection, we have peace with God, forgiveness of sins, and eternal life.
If you have not repented and turned away from your sins to trust in Jesus Christ, then today is the day He calls you to do so. But if you have believed in Jesus Christ, then He has brought you home to His pasture; He has saved you from death by dying in your place, and you have eternal life with Him.