Leading the Scattered Sheep

Sheep, by their very nature, tend to scatter. How much more when the Shepherd has been struck down! But this Shepherd, described in Matthew 26:31–35, is able to lead even scattered sheep.

The sheep will be scattered. God will strike the Shepherd. On his way to Gethsemane Jesus predicts the desertion of his disciples. In support of the warning he quotes Zechariah 13:7. God is the one who does the striking. Note the first person singular of the verb in the quote (an imperative in the Hebrew of Zechariah). Earlier, in Zechariah 11:17 it is the foolish shepherd that is struck. But this is the Good Shepherd, the messianic figure, who is struck down by the Father’s will. “But the stricken shepherd here cannot be God, because he is expressly distinguished from him. God refers to him as the man who is close to me (7). He is clearly a ‘good’ shepherd, approved by God, and is someone intimately connected with God — but he cannot simply be equated with God. The book of Zechariah has provided us with only one person who fits this description, namely the ideal king of 9:9, whose coming was anticipated in the promises concerning ‘the Branch’ in 3:8 and 6:12. In other words, the striken shepherd is the Messiah. Here is perhaps the profoundest and most precious aspect of the theology of this book: like the great prophet Isaiah before him, Zechariah understood that the Messiah would have to suffer if sin were to be atoned for and Israel’s relationship with God were to be restored.” (Barry G. Webb, The Message of Zechariah, p. 169) One would expect the flock to be preserved by the well-being of the shepherd. But this flock is going to be redeemed precisely through the striking of the Shepherd. As terrible as the events of the next few hours will be, they are not accidental, but the fulfillment of God’s will, which had been recorded in the prophetic Scriptures (“for it is written,” verse 31), see also verse 24.

Despite their denials, the sheep scatter. The striking of the Shepherd will result in the scattering of the flock. There is no indication that the sheep will be in great danger, and what danger exists, they escape by flight. Impetuous Peter strongly denies the he will fall away, verse 33. Peter has made progress. In Matthew 16:21–23, when Jesus had spoken of his death, Peter had taken Jesus aside and rebuked him. Here in Matthew 26, he does not contradict the idea of the Shepherd being struck — he just affirms that he will never deny his Lord. Jesus responds by warning Peter that before cockcrow, he will have denied his Lord three times. But Peter, instead of heeding the sobering warning, avers his willingness to die for his Lord. Peter may have been the most vocal, but the other disciples expressed the same sentiment. Before you point your finger at foolish Peter (and his boast was foolish), recognize your own liability to sin. You and I have greater light than Peter did at this point. We understand what the Messiah was about. We appreciate the need for his death. You may be tempted to say, “I’d never make the mistake of Peter’s boast.” But do you recognize just how contradictory of your relationship with the Lord is sin in your life? Do you understand that what we dismiss as petty, little, sins, are a direct affront to God’s holiness? Do you appreciate that it was precisely because of these sins (among others) that the Shepherd had to be struck? When you’re really honest with yourself you recognize that you, in yourself, are no more faithful or capable of standing than was foolish Peter. You may not face the same occasion of scattering, but you are just as liable to go astray.

The Shepherd will still lead his sheep. The Lord promises to go ahead to Galilee. Attached to Jesus’ prophecy of his death is the promise of his resurrection. The better translation reads the verb as passive: “after I have been raised.” Matthew’s focus on the resurrection appearances is in Galilee. The other Gospels emphasize the appearances in and around Jerusalem, though not exclusively. Matthew, though starting in Jerusalem, emphasizes Galilee, see Matthew 28:7, 10, and 16, before the appearance there in 17–20. Perhaps it fits in with his emphasis that the good news is going to go out to the ends of the earth. Although the Shepherd will be struck down, that is not the end of his work. He will be raised. He will continue to have a connection with his flock. “The sum and substance of the original gospel, therefore, was the Christ who died and rose again. The cross was an immense offense—also for the disciples (Matt. 26:31).But for them that offense was removed by the resurrection.” (Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 3. p. 423)

Trust the Shepherd who still goes before you. The verb translated “go ahead” or “go before you” does not just mean precede. Rather it refers to the activity of a Middle Eastern shepherd, who led his sheep to and from pasture, see John 10:4. The implication is that the Shepherd who would soon be struck down would gather his scattered flock, and would lead them to Galilee. The Lord who died for your sins would be raised for your justification. Even death itself cannot separate him from his sheep. This is not just a reunion of refugees in their home territory. It is the reversal of the scattering occasioned by the Shepherd’s death. “The use of the verb ‘to go before’ in the sense of arriving beforehand must have been chosen because it served to express vividly and emphatically the opposite of what the prediction of their taking offense and being scattered might have seemed to hold in prospect.” (Ned B. Stonehouse, The Witness of Matthew and Mark to Christ, p. 172) Yes, even impetuous Peter would be led there by his Lord and eventually restored to his position of service as an Apostle. Are you burdened by guilt, discouragement, and helplessness? Take heart. Your Shepherd has not abandoned you! You do not physically follow Jesus to Galilee as the disciples did. But the Lord who led the 11 to Galilee has gone on to a better place. But even in that he continues to lead you. The heavenly pastures where he now walks are being prepared for you as well. They are prepared for sinners like Peter, like you, like me. They are prepared for all of those who place their hope and trust in the Shepherd whom the Lord struck down for your salvation.

Like sheep we scatter and go astray. But the Lord who has been raised continues to be your Shepherd. His life is the guarantee of your salvation as you trust in him. Follow him!