Imagery comparing Jesus Christ to a shepherd is at least as old as Jacob's prophecy in Genesis 49. It pervades the Old and New Testaments and the Book of Mormon and is a frequent theme in the teachings of latter-day prophets, apostles and other Church leaders.
The parallel is instructive, meaningful and poignant. Listeners young and old can understand the comparison. It is easy for one to picture a loving shepherd willing to go in search of the one sheep that has strayed from the fold, a shepherd willing to give his life to save the flock, one who knows each of the sheep individually and whose voice they recognize and follow.Such an image facilitates an understanding of Christ's love and example of service. It fosters an inclination to draw near to the Savior, love and worship Him and keep His commandments.
Jacob's reference to the Shepherd occurs in Gen. 49:24, a statement that "the shepherd, the stone of Israel," that is, the Messiah, would come from the lineage of Jacob.
One of the most familiar and beloved references to Christ as a shepherd is Psalm 23, in which David draws peace, strength, courage and comfort from the image.
It is noteworthy that shepherds were chosen to receive the announcement from angelic messengers of the birth of the Messiah and to be witnesses of His Advent. (See Luke 2:8-18.) Perhaps they, of all people, because of their occupational background, could understand and revere the relationship between the Shepherd and His flock.
"Immense numbers of sheep were reared in Palestine in biblical times, and in some parts of the country that is still the case," notes the Bible Dictionary (p. 723) in the LDS edition of the Bible. "The flocks were protected from wild beasts at night by men who watched them with their shepherd dogs. Shepherds still, as of old, go before the sheep, and the sheep follow, being apparently more or less attached to their masters, whose voice they instantly recognize."
Thus, the Master's metaphor is apt in the 10th chapter of John. "I am the good shepherd and know my sheep, and am known of mine.
"My sheep hear my voice, and I know them and they follow me." (Verses 14 and 27.)
In that chapter, Jesus also likens Himself to the door of the sheepfold (verse 9), indicating that He provides the only way to salvation and eternal life.
In verse 16, He alludes to the descendants of Lehi on another continent, calling them "other sheep" of a separate fold, which also must be shepherded.
The shepherd metaphor for Christ was common among Book of Mormon prophets also. For example, Ammon compares those who will not receive the Lord to "a wild flock which fleeth from the shepherd, and scattereth, and are driven, and are devoured by the beasts of the forest." (Mosiah 8:21.)
In the April 1983 general conference, President Ezra Taft Benson, then of the Quorum of the Twelve, analyzed John 10.
"At night, shepherds would bring their sheep to a corral called a sheepfold. High walls surrounded the sheepfold, and thorns were placed on top of these walls to prevent wild animals and thieves from climbing over.
"Sometimes, however, a wild animal driven by hunger would leap over the walls into the midst of the sheep, frightening them. Such a situation separated the true shepherd - one who loved his sheep - from the hireling - one who worked only for pay and duty.
"The true shepherd was willing to give his life for the sheep. He would go in amongst the sheep and fight for their welfare. The hireling, on the other hand, valued his own personal safety above the sheep and would usually flee from danger."
President Benson used the comparison to issue a call to priesthood holders to do as Jesus directed Peter: "Feed my sheep." (See John 21:15-17.)
"We want you to watch, to feed, to tend, and to care for the flock and, in the event that some are temporarily lost, we challenge you to find them," he said.
That theme was prominent at the most recent general conference in April. President James E. Faust, second counselor in the First Presidency, told of being assigned as a boy to care for a lamb. One night during a storm, he heard the lamb bleating but did not get up to help it. The next morning the lamb was dead, killed by a dog who had also heard its bleating.
"I resolved that day, as a little boy, that I would try never again to neglect my stewardship as a shepherd if I were ever placed in that position again," he commented.
Thus, leaders have repeatedly urged priesthood holders to emulate the Good Shepherd, a message expressed in the hymn, "Dear to the Heart of the Shepherd." (Hymns, No. 221.)
Hark! he is earnestly calling,
Tenderly pleading today;
"Will you not seek for my lost ones,
"Off from my shelter astray?"
. . .
Green are the pastures inviting;
Sweet are the waters and still.
Lord, we will answer thee gladly,
"Yes, blessed Master, we will!
"Make us thy true undershepherds;
"Give us a love that is deep.
"Send us out into the desert,
"Seeking thy wandering sheep."