The Great Shepherd and the Resurrection
One of the most rewarding ways to study the New Testament is to investigate the ways the biblical authors quote or allude to their Scriptures, what we today call the “Old Testament.” A helpful place to begin such an investigation is the volume edited by G. K. Beale and D. A. Carson, Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007). The contributors of this volume highlight each NT book’s use of the OT, example by example, looking at the OT context and the biblical author’s NT application. But the NT is so packed with OT allusions that it is nearly impossible to treat all examples in a single work. One such example not found in Beale and Carson’s Commentary is the apparent allusion to Moses in Hebrews 13:20–21.
20 Now may the God of peace who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant, 21 equip you with everything good that you may do his will, working in us that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen.
Why does the author appear to connect the resurrection of Jesus with this title, “the great shepherd of the sheep”? What does Jesus as a shepherd have to do with the resurrection? The answer may be found in comparing Hebrews 13 and Isaiah 63. In Isa 63:11, we discover a phrase identical to the one in Heb 13:20 translated “shepherd of the sheep.” The meaning of the Isaiah text in its context reveals why the author may have alluded to it here.
In Isaiah 63, the prophet Isaiah is speaking of the judgment of God upon his own people, a judgment that God promised would come to pass if they refused to follow him in obedience. But in verses 11–14, Isaiah says that even though God has to send them into exile, he will remember his people and redeem them, leading them to salvation just like he did years before when he rescued them from Egypt and brought them through the Red sea.
Isaiah says in verse 11:
Then he [the LORD] remembered the days of old,of Moses and his people:
Where is he who brought them up out of the sea with the shepherds of his flock?
Where is he who put in the midst of them his Holy Spirit …
The phrase, “the shepherds of his flock” in the Septuagint Greek translation quoted by the author of Hebrews throughout the letter, is the same phrase we find in Heb 13:11. When God brought his people “up out of the [Red] sea,” someone was leading them. Who? We discover the answer in the next verse:
12 who caused his glorious arm to go at the right hand of Moses,who divided the waters before themto make for himself an everlasting name,13 who led them through the depths?
Like a horse in the desert they did not stumble.
14 Like livestock that go down into the valley,the Spirit of the Lord gave them rest.
So you led your people,
to make for yourself a glorious name.
God led his people through the Red sea by the hand of a chosen shepherd, Moses. So why does the author make the connection between Moses leading God’s people through the Red sea and Jesus as a resurrected shepherd? Well, what would happen to a flock of sheep if the shepherd were to try to lead them through the Red Sea? It would certainly be their end! The sea is too wide and too deep and too powerful.
But Moses is pictured as a shepherd, who leads God’s flock through the sea—what should have been most certainly their death and defeat—and brings them to the other side quite alive (see Exodus 14). However, when their enemies try to go through the Red Sea without the shepherd, they are destroyed by the experience.
The author of Hebrews is saying that Jesus himself went through a similar experience, an experience that should have most certainly been his defeat and his final end, his crucifixion. But Jesus was brought out of this experience. He did not come out of a raging sea, however. Jesus burst forth from the realm of death itself! And because God brought this shepherd—not merely “the shepherd of the sheep” but “the GREAT shepherd of the sheep—through the realm of death alive, Jesus, the ultimate shepherd, the new Moses, is able to lead his people like a flock through death and into everlasting life.
This allusion identifies the sheer significance of Jesus’s resurrection for his followers. We will all die someday, unless the Lord returns for us first. But believers in Christ do not succumb to death; they survive it, and pass through safely to the other side. That is because their shepherd himself, the Lord Jesus, passed through to the other side, so he is able to lead them where he has gone.
Moreover, the idea of Jesus leading us to life through the resurrection as a shepherd is a wonderful word picture. For when we think of all that Hebrews teaches us about Jesus’s ministry to us it all sounds so formal. His death for our sins, his regal ascension to the right hand of the Father, his new office of high priesthood through which he represents us as righteous before the very presence of God, welcoming us into the real most holy place in confident fellowship—this can all sound so formal in its magnificence.
But here in Heb 13:20 we find a reference to Jesus as a shepherd. Jesus is not only the regal, ascending king and priest, he is our kind and gracious shepherd, welcoming us to the throne of God as we follow him. Jesus is our Shepherd who tends us, nourishes us, cares for us, loves us as his own.
So the God of peace led out from the dead our great shepherd, so that our great shepherd could lead us out of death and into eternal life.
Hallelujah, Christ is risen!