There is a strong connection between what Jesus reveals about himself and the ministry of the prophet Ezekiel to the people of Judah during their exile in Babylon. In those days the prophet preached against the false shepherds of God’s people. They had abused their spiritual privileges and abandoned their responsibilities. In response, God promised judgment upon the faithless shepherds and that he would send a true Shepherd, one who would perfectly fulfill his calling (Ezekiel 34:1-31). It was in the Person and work of Jesus Christ that God’s promise through Ezekiel was fulfilled. In this passage we read Jesus’ fourth “I Am” statement: “I am the good shepherd.”
The Good Shepherd’s mission to save, care for, and guide God’s flock extends well beyond ethnic Israel as Jesus promises to bring all those called by God who are outside the bounds of Judah (vs. 16). This is not an indication that God has two people or multiple ways and means of salvation. On the contrary, the vast multitude of believers from the world’s nations and tribes constitute the one people of God who are saved solely by the dying and rising of Jesus, the Good Shepherd (vs. 11).
Rarely would a shepherd die in the line of duty. Indeed, as Jesus points out, a shepherd merely operating as a hired hand will abandon the sheep rather than risk death. However, for a faithful and invested shepherd, fighting predators was a necessary part of the vocation. We recall David having to fight off a lion in defense of the sheep. Jesus, our Good Shepherd did not merely risk his life on behalf of the sheep. Jesus came expressly to die for his sheep; to voluntarily lay down his life in ransom for theirs (vs. 18). “I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep” (vv. 14-15).