“I came so they can have real and eternal life, more and better life than they ever dreamed of. I am the Good Shepherd. The Good Shepherd puts the sheep before himself, sacrifices himself if necessary.” (John 10:10b-11, MSG)
The fish and the lamb were some of Christianity’s earliest symbols, followed soon by the Good Shepherd. In fact, the Good Shepherd image was popular before Christianity, but proved to be appropriate and meaningful in representing the new faith. However, in the Christian incarnation, the animals were no longer being led to the slaughter for sacrifice, as they were in the old religions. The lamb was now viewed as a representation of Christ’s followers, and the Shepherd was seen as Christ as Protector, the Good Shepherd lovingly watching over His flock, “I myself will search for my sheep and look after them… I will search for the lost and bring back the strays. I will bind up the injured and strengthen the weak” (Ezekiel 34:11b, 16a NIV).
In this image, from a 3rd century fresco in Rome’s Catacomb of Priscilla, the Good Shepherd is a young, beardless man in the tunic and leggings worn by sheep herders of the day. It would not be until the 5th century that Christ would be depicted in long, white robes and halo.
Note how He carries a lost lamb on his shoulders, while two other lambs calmly look on (“The Lord their God will rescue his people, just as a shepherd rescues his sheep. They will sparkle in his land like jewels in a crown. How wonderful and beautiful they will be!” – Zechariah 9:16b-17a, NLT). The two birds, perched in the flowering trees to the right and left of the Shepherd, were most likely symbols of paradise.