Sheep in the Bible, Part 3: The Sheep Today
Sheep in the New Testament
When we come to the New Testament and to mix a metaphor, God did not change horses in the middle of the stream (of history) with His sheep. The Bible is consistent throughout. The sheep in the New Testament are still the same people they symbolized in the Old Testament; namely, the Israelites. When Jesus first sent out His apostles to “get their feet wet” in healing and casting out demons, He very specifically instructed them concerning to whom they were to minister and whom they were to avoid.
Matthew 10:5 These twelve Jesus sent forth, and commanded them, saying, Go not into the way of the Gentiles, and into any city of the Samaritans enter ye not:
6 But go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.
To drive the point home, Jesus clearly stated to whom He was sent in Matthew, chapter 15:
Matthew 15:24 But he answered and said, I am not sent but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel.
Note first that Jesus commands His disciples not to go the “Gentiles.” In this case, “gentiles” means non-Israelites. Sometimes, however, it actually means Israelites! Hence, it is a very confusing word to many Christians. Its meaning in the Bible must be discerned according to context. To obtain clarity on this word “gentiles,” see A Study into the Meaning of the Word “Gentile” as Used in the Bible. Jesus also commanded His disciples not to go to the Samaritans. The Samaritans were a people of mixed ancestry, mostly non-Israelite, but perhaps with a trace of Israelite blood. But, good heavens! That sounds like Jesus was laying down a very exclusionary and discriminatory policy, doesn’t it? Well, …doesn’t it?
I know that such a thought is politically incorrect, socially incorrect and religiously incorrect in contemporary America, but let’s be honest. Isn’t that exactly what Jesus was saying? There is no way to sugar coat or soft-peddle the idea that Jesus instructed and commanded his followers to discriminate! That word has come to connote hatred and racism today, as though no one should ever be allowed to discriminate. It is an unfortunate perversion of the word.
To discriminate simply means to recognize a difference and to make judgments based on differences. It is as natural as breathing. Everyone discriminates every day. Example: when you were grocery shopping, you looked at the refrigerated meat in the butcher shop area. You chose one package of meat over another. You discriminated. You later filled up your gas tank at the pump and you chose unleaded regular over premium grade. You discriminated.
Getting more to the issue, the learned, witty and wonderful Walter Williams, professor of economics at George Mason University, wrote a column—or maybe I heard him say this on the radio—regardless, the point is that he took issue with the political correctness of discrimination. He proclaimed that decades ago as he began looking around for a woman to marry, he immediately excluded all white, Asian and Latino women. “I discriminated,” Williams declared. “I am a black man and I was only interested in marrying a black woman.”
But we are not talking “merely” about the issue of one’s right to discriminate in choosing a marriage partner, but in reference to the gospel, we are addressing something of even greater gravity—the issue of eternal life and salvation. Does the fact that Jesus declared “I am not sent but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel” mean that people of all other races, families, and people groups are not eligible for salvation to eternal life? Actually, no. That would be eisegesis (reading into the text something that it does not say). Nor does Jesus’ statement necessarily imply that others cannot obtain eternal life.
In fact, as regular readers of this website know, we teach (not the “Universalism” of the Unitarian Universalists, nor the “Universalism” of Judaism), but biblical, Christian Universal Reconciliation. So how do we get from Jesus’ seemingly very exclusionary and discriminatory statements in Matthew 10:5,6 and Matthew 15:24 to the idea of everyone being saved? To explain that is not possible in these brief journal entries. I did an extensive series of lectures (38 in all) some years ago, building the case “line upon line.” They are available in a set of four CD albums under the overall title God’s Plan for Man. (Scroll down to page 4 in the preceding hyperlink.)
My book, Sacred Secrets of the Sovereignty of God, was based on part of that series, and there are two or more follow-up books to come which will offer even more than is in those audio lectures. But just in the issue raise here today about Jesus’ exclusion of the Samaritans, we suggest you hear our two lecture study entitled The Samaritans. It goes into great detail concerning this very “exclusionary” and “discriminatory” policy laid down by the Savior. (Order CD numbers 323 & 324; $10 ppd.) The key point, of course, is timing. Jesus was sent ONLY to the “lost sheep of the House of Israel.”
By the way, the House of Israel is NOT the “Jews.” Ah, discrimination again! Yes, and one must rightly divide the word of truth. See the article The Bible Distinction Between the “House of Israel” and the “House of Judah.”
Once you see that great truth, you will read God’s Word with newly-enlightened eyes. But timing is the key. Jesus was sent to the House of Israel and then Israel was commissioned to carry the gospel (good news) to the rest of their brother Israelites first, and afterwards and in the process to the rest of the world! Because part of the covenant God made with Abraham was that …
Genesis 28:14 …and in thee and in thy seed shall all the families of the earth be blessed.
Does that leave anyone out? Does that exclude anyone? It could not mean only Israel because Jacob-Israel, the head of the family, had not even been born yet when God made that promise to Abraham! “All the families” means just what it says. It includes “…all nations, and kindreds, and people, and tongues…” (Revelation 7:9). So to those of you whose ancestry is other than Israel, rest assured that you are not forgotten in God’s great Plan.
He chose the children of Israel (the seed of Abraham, and of whom came the singular seed, Jesus) for a very special purpose, and frankly, we as a people have failed miserably. But that, too, was part of God’s great Plan. And as an Israelite (but not a “Jew”), I rest in the knowledge that at the return of Christ, those chosen to be Overcomers, will attain to incorruptible immortality and then we will truly be blest as (gradually) all the globe comes under the gracious rulership of King Jesus!
Gospel of John
The climax of the sheep theme and where it is expounded upon most is in the discourse of the Savior himself. We will only skim the surface in this monograph.
John 10:1 Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that entereth not by the door into the sheepfold, but climbeth up some other way, the same is a thief and a robber.
2 But he that entereth in by the door is the shepherd of the sheep.
Sheep have this very peculiar ability to recognize the voice of their shepherd. Two shepherds can allow their flocks to mingle at the brook or watering trough, but each sheep will follow only the voice of his respective shepherd when the time comes to depart.
3 To him the porter openeth; and the sheep hear his voice: and he calleth his own sheep by name, and leadeth them out.
4 And when he putteth forth his own sheep, he goeth before them, and the sheep follow him: for they know his voice.
5 And a stranger will they not follow, but will flee from him: for they know not the voice of strangers.
Keep in mind that every time Jesus speaks of His flock or of His sheep He is referring to His chosen people Israel. Since the Lord said that His sheep would “hear his voice and follow him” (verse 27), is it not clear then that this means that the Israel people would become Christians? And there is nothing in Scripture which says that His people Israel would wait 2,000 or more years before becoming Christians. In general, they responded and became Christians when they heard the gospel (His voice) preached, beginning on the day of Pentecost. This centuries-long process has been the fulfillment of many prophecies, not the least of which is the following one given by the Lord Jesus Christ:
16 And other sheep I have, which are not of this fold: them also I must bring, and they shall hear my voice; and there shall be one fold, and one shepherd.
Although many ministers and theologians are quick to say that the “other sheep” are the “Gentiles” (by which they mean non-Israelites), this is clearly a misapplication of the Bible type. The sheep symbolize the Israel people and no other! Then who are the “other sheep?” The small community of Judahites and Benjamites in Judea and Galilee were one fold of sheep. The other fold was none other than the millions of Israelites of both the northern (Israel) and southern kingdoms (Judah) who had been deported and scattered into captivity six and seven hundred years before Christ.
By the time the apostles were sent out, these dispersed Israelites were all over the (known) world: from the Indus river at the border of India to the steppes of southern Russia to Asia Minor to Greece to the British Isles and Scandinavia and all points in between. They were indeed scattered among the heathen, just as had been prophesied, and now they were about to begin to be regathered under the banner of Christendom, as had also been prophesied elsewhere. [Cf. Jer. 23:3; Ezek. 37:11-22]
While they went in all compass directions, the greater bulk of the migration of these Israelite people was in a northwesterly direction; i.e., into and spread across Europe. Thus, over the next several centuries after Christ the people of Europe became Christian (not perfect, but at least nominally) to such an overwhelming extent that Europe was for many centuries known simply as “Christendom.”
Sometime after the ascension of Christ, the apostle Peter is writing to believers who were “… scattered throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia” (i.e., in Asia Minor). In verse 2, he addresses them as “elect,” which is another word for “chosen.” In chapter 2, verse 25, he unequivocally identifies them as Israelites who have by faith in Christ now been gathered into the one fold of Jesus Christ.
1 Peter 2:25 For ye were as sheep going astray; but are now returned unto the Shepherd and Bishop of your souls.
Finally, in the gospel of John, we find the Lord instructing Peter on behalf of all the apostles and for later ministers of the gospel:
John 21:17 … Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me? … Jesus saith unto him, Feed my sheep.
Yes, God’s chosen people, the Israelites, had to have been fed (instructed) first, so that they could then carry out their mission to bless “all the families of the earth.” The work is still in progress. HalleluYah!