Throughout the Bible, we are given images of God as the “good shepherd…” and there are great reasons for this. Perhaps the simplest and yet most significant explanation behind this metaphor might be the fact that sheep are actually pretty dumb, and can’t get along without a guide. When it comes down to it, so are we. God created us to depend upon Him and He knows we can’t survive without Him. This lesson focuses on an Old Testament passage to emphasize for students the importance of following God as the source of life.
Lesson focus: As humans, we easily stray from what is right, but God promises that He loves us and cares for us if we will follow His instruction.
Passage: Ezekiel 34: 11-24; Luke 15:1-10
Key Verse: As a shepherd looks after his scattered flock when he is with them, so will I look after my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places where they were scattered on a day of clouds and darkness. –Ezekiel 34:12
Target Audience: Pre-k through sixth grade (adaptable)
Materials Needed: Pictures of shepherds, cotton balls, yarn, dark paper cut-outs, clothespins, markers, scissors, marshmallows, Bibles.
Lesson Opening: Which shepherd? Start out with an activity in trust and listening…choose one child to be a blindfolded “sheep,” and select two other children to be a “shepherd” and a distraction. Set up a small obstacle course of sorts and explain that the blindfolded child must make his/her way across the room, listening to the sound of the guiding “shepherd’s voice. However, the other person (or rest of group) will try to distract the “lost sheep” from getting across the room. Play a couple of times to allow multiple “sheep” a turn, if time allows. Additionally, or instead of this activity, you may opt for the classic “hide and go sheep” game wherein cotton balls are scattered throughout the room for students to find. Either way, bring students together and explain that we will be talking today about sheep and shepherds.
Ask students what they might know about sheep. Students might be aware that their wool is used to make clothes, or that they like to eat grass, or live in flocks. But there are other characteristics of sheep in general that the Bible uses to compare the animals to us. Sheep are not very smart. They tend to follow the flock and just do what they see other sheep doing. They also like to wander away and are easy targets for predators, without a watchful shepherd to guide and guard them. Sound familiar? Well, the focus of today’s lesson is on a sheep saying from an old testament prophet, who was warning people that they might be easily led astray by the wrong teachers.
Briefly describe the background of Ezekiel, mentioning that he was a prophet called to preach to the people of Israel while they were living in exile in Babylon (some younger groups might need extra explanation as to the meaning of “exile”). Review jobs of a prophet, and share that Ezekiel had special messages to inform the people. Then invite students to find the Old Testament book in their Bibles, and turn to chapter 34…take turns reading starting in verse 11 and ending in 24…
“‘For this is what the Sovereign Lord says: I myself will search for my sheep and look after them. 12 As a shepherd looks after his scattered flock when he is with them, so will I look after my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places where they were scattered on a day of clouds and darkness. 13 I will bring them out from the nations and gather them from the countries, and I will bring them into their own land. I will pasture them on the mountains of Israel, in the ravines and in all the settlements in the land. 14 I will tend them in a good pasture, and the mountain heights of Israel will be their grazing land. There they will lie down in good grazing land, and there they will feed in a rich pasture on the mountains of Israel. 15 I myself will tend my sheep and have them lie down, declares the Sovereign Lord. 16 I will search for the lost and bring back the strays. I will bind up the injured and strengthen the weak, but the sleek and the strong I will destroy. I will shepherd the flock with justice. –Ezekiel 34:11-16
This seems to be a comforting message…God promises to care for the people of Israel. He will see that they are well and He will shepherd them. Ezekiel has another piece of message to share, though…have someone read the next part of the passage:
“‘As for you, my flock, this is what the Sovereign Lord says: I will judge between one sheep and another, and between rams and goats.18 Is it not enough for you to feed on the good pasture? Must you also trample the rest of your pasture with your feet? Is it not enough for you to drink clear water? Must you also muddy the rest with your feet?19 Must my flock feed on what you have trampled and drink what you have muddied with your feet?
20 “‘Therefore this is what the Sovereign Lord says to them: See, I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep. 21 Because you shove with flank and shoulder, butting all the weak sheep with your horns until you have driven them away, 22 I will save my flock, and they will no longer be plundered. I will judge between one sheep and another.23 I will place over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he will tend them; he will tend them and be their shepherd. 24 I the Lord will be their God, and my servant David will be prince among them. I the Lord have spoken. –Ezekiel 34:17-24
So what do we have going on here? Who are these “rams and goats” that will be judged, and what have they done wrong? Again, explain to students that there were some leaders in the land at the time who were misleading the people. They claimed to be “shepherds” of Israel but they did not operate with care or true consideration. In fact, they were leading them astray and working only for themselves. God is promising that, while He will care for and love the good sheep, He will also judge and condemn those who are doing wrong. And this is part of what God does. Sometimes He has to punish people. Ezekiel is trying to warn them that this will happen.
Interestingly enough, when Jesus came years later, He faced similar problems. The church leaders and priests of His time were trying to tell people things that were not true and lead them astray. But Jesus provides the contrast of being THE Good Shepherd. A shepherd cares for His sheep and takes care of them. Ultimately, “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10:11).
*If time allows, you may wish to visit other “sheepy” passages, including the parable of the lost sheep. But this could also be confusing over-kill…
Bring students back to this comforting passage from John, in fact.
“Very truly I tell you Pharisees, anyone who does not enter the sheep pen by the gate, but climbs in by some other way, is a thief and a robber. 2 The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep.3 The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep listen to his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. 4 When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice. 5 But they will never follow a stranger; in fact, they will run away from him because they do not recognize a stranger’s voice.” 6 Jesus used this figure of speech, but the Pharisees did not understand what he was telling them. –John 10:1-6
In ancient times, the shepherds were willing to fight off wolves and lions, brave bad weather, and endure rough terrain in order to guard their wooly charges. We are the little roaming sheep, but if we listen to the Good Shepherd, He will lead us to good pasture.
Remember the obstacle course at the beginning of the lesson? The “sheep” really had to listen for the voice of who they knew would lead them. And it was the same for the people of Israel in Ezekiel’s time. They had to know what was right and who to follow. The same applied for Jesus’ time, and the same goes for us, too!
Ask students a few follow-up questions about the material…
- Why does the Bible often use sheep as an analogy?
- How are we like sheep?
- How can we know that we are following the voice of the “Good Shepherd?”
- What does God promise when we obey?
Craft: So you have a couple of options here…there are many sheep crafts, but here are some possibilities (basically, make sure you have lots of cotton balls):
- Sheep puppets: decorate paper bags with sheep “ears” and eyes, and glue on cotton balls
- Sheep masks: Attach eyes and cotton balls to paper plates; use popsicle sticks for handles
- Sheep coin bank: Glue cotton balls around an empty coffee can and decorate like a sheep
- Sheep on a string: wrap white yard around a sheep-shaped paper (decorate with color and/or mouth, eyes, etc.).
Prior to closing, allow students to make and eat “marshmallow sheep” using marshmallows and pretzels or toothpicks.
Close with prayer and thank God for loving us as a Good Shepherd. Ask for wisdom and discernment in listening for His true voice and instructions.