I wrote this journal article while serving in Africa as a missionary. At the time, I was living in a small village far away from city life. The observations made in my time there profoundly shaped how I understand the Bible. I pray this one does the same for you.
An exegetical fallacy commonly made today is overextending a metaphor or broadening the semantic range of a word too far to include more meanings than it is given by its original context. In other words, loading a word or metaphor with more meaning than the author intended.
That's a whole lot of words to simply say: we stretch the meaning of a word until it says what we want it to. It is easy to do. By overloading a text, you can use it to make your own points—the things you wish it said. Many well-intended preachers and teachers are guilty of this, and I may be committing the same crime in this very article. Nevertheless, I have made some interesting observations of sheep during my time in Africa so far.
I Just Wanna Be a Sheep, Baa…?
Scripture commonly refers to Christians as sheep. In the United States, I think the significance of this comparison is often missed if not completely lost. I am no longer convinced it is intended in any way as a compliment. I have found sheep to be the least intelligent of any domesticated animal I have ever seen. Livestock free range in this part of Africa, and when I say free range, I use the term loosely. What I really mean is people let their animals freely roam all over the place without any restraint.
Due to this approach to raising livestock, it is a common occurrence to see goats, chickens, cattle, and sheep in the middle of the road. While goats, cattle, and chickens have the common sense to run out of the road at the sight of an oncoming vehicle, sheep do not appear to be blessed with this foresight. Instead, they will stay put in the middle of the road, or worse, run from the side of the road out into the middle as if trying to get hit.
The Ugly Truth
In addition to their lack of intelligence, sheep also seem completely incapable of taking care of themselves. Again, consider the conditions in which the livestock are provided for (or not provided for) here. When they are born, sheep are some of the cutest little things. Most are pure white with a soft coat of fur.
But within weeks they become the most unpresentable of creatures. The white fur quickly gets filthy and the sheep seem to have no concern (unlike most of the other animals) with keeping themselves clean. Within a month, sheep typically turn this grotesque shade of brown and are covered with all kinds of substances I care not to mention. They are pitiful looking, aimless creatures that wander around all day barely keeping themselves alive.
Now contrast this with the “Precious Moments” image of a cuddly little sheep with some Bible verse comparing Christians to the cute little animal in the picture. I think this may say something more about how we view ourselves as Christians than how God intended this metaphor to be used. Is it possible that we have misapplied this idea in our heads and made ourselves out to be pure, innocent (howbeit sometimes slightly misguided) people who are just too cute to be bad?
Instead, after observing sheep for the last several months, I am convinced of a new reality. We are an aimless group who, without the daily guidance and protection provided by the Great Shepherd, would have no means of taking care of ourselves. We would be in a ditch, needing a way out. We are helpless, but we serve a God who is able.
I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep… I know my own and my own know me. (John10:11-14)
Keelan Cook serves as Senior Church Consultant for Union Baptist Association and Instructor of North American Missiology at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. His primary areas of ministry focus include urban missiology, church planting, church revitalization, and unreached people groups.