The night he was arrested, Jesus expected his friends to abandon him. He knew they would because the prophets said so.
Matthew 26:31 Jesus told them, “This very night you will all fall away on account of me, for it is written: ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.’” (NIV)
Reading Zechariah 13, it’s not immediately obvious why Jesus would apply this to himself. To make sense of how Jesus understood the text, we need to read the prophets in the context of the story they were telling.
Who was “my shepherd” in Zechariah 13:7?
Zechariah speaks of the shepherd (rā·ʿāh) fourteen times in chapters 10–13. They were God’s flock (9:16), but they’d been scattered in exile under foreign rulers, wandering like sheep oppressed for lack of a shepherd (10:2). God intended the Davidic kings to shepherd his flock, but he had dismissed them as self-serving (11:3-8), worthless shepherds (11:15-17, compare Ezekiel 34:7-10).
This is how Zechariah explains the fact that no Davidic shepherd had returned to manage God’s people, even though some of the flock had returned from exile and built a temple for God. They were still under foreign rule because God had dismissed the Davidic kings from shepherding his flock:
Zechariah 13:7 “Awake, sword, against my shepherd, against the man who is close to me!” declares the Lord Almighty. “Strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered.”
The focus is on what a tragedy this is for the flock. Without a shepherd to protect them, they were vulnerable and exposed. The greater part (two-thirds) of them were struck down and perished (13:8). Those who survived felt like they had been put into the fire (13:9).
Had God abandoned them? Could God’s flock survive? They probably felt like Daniel’s friends in the fiery furnace. God promised to rescue those who called on his name, recognized his authority, and identified as his covenant people:
Zechariah 13:9 This third I will put into the fire; I will refine them like silver and test them like gold. They will call on my name and I will answer them; I will say, ‘They are my people,’ and they will say, ‘The Lord is our God.’
Jesus as God’s shepherd
When Jesus arrived centuries later, God’s flock was still harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd (Matthew 9:36). The leaders they did have (at the temple) were not shepherds appointed by God but thieves and robbers who climbed in some other way — to steal, kill, and destroy the sheep (John 10:1, 10).
That was their intent with Jesus. The robbers saw the good shepherd as a threat to their power. Once again, the abusive and violent attitudes of the leaders led to the death of the shepherd God sent them. Jesus has been explaining this to his followers ever since they recognized him as the Christ, the anointed Son appointed by the heavenly sovereign to lead his people (Matthew 16:16, 21, 28).
Jesus expects to enter into the failure of God’s people, the shepherd struck down because of their disobedience. The shepherd bears in his own body the sins of his people.
The shepherd had a little flock, the foundation of his Father’s kingdom (Luke 12:32). But as they watched their shepherd being struck, this little flock felt as if God’s hand had turned against them (Zechariah 13:7).
Jesus was the Christ, the anointed shepherd for his people. He would carry in himself the failures of his people, the rebellion of humanity against our heavenly sovereign, the sin of the world.
Hear the empathy of the shepherd’s heart. With all that he would face that night, his heart went out to his little flock:
Matthew 26 31 Jesus told them, “This very night you will all fall away on account of me, for it is written: ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.’ 32 But after I have risen, I will go ahead of you into Galilee.”
Jesus faced the temptation to climb in some other way as the self-serving thieves and robbers did (Matthew 4:8-10), but he choose to die for his people, struck down as their shepherd. He went through the fire on behalf of his people, re-establishing humanity as God’s kingdom, the community that finds its identity in him.
Our response to this good news? Returning to live under his authority:
Zechariah 13:9 They will call on my name and I will answer them;
I will say, ‘They are my people,’ and they will say, ‘The Lord is our God.’
What others are saying
Barry Webb, The Message of Zechariah: Your Kingdom Come, BST (Nottingham: IVP, 2003), 169–170:
We have already seen God portrayed as the true shepherd of Israel in 11:4–14, and God himself as the ‘pierced one’ in 12:10. But the stricken shepherd here cannot be God, because he is expressly distinguished from him. God refers to him as the man who is close to me (7). He is clearly a ‘good’ shepherd, approved by God, and is someone intimately connected with God — but he cannot simply be equated with God. The book of Zechariah has provided us with only one person who fits this description, namely the ideal king of 9:9, whose coming was anticipated in the promises concerning ‘the Branch’ in 3:8 and 6:12. In other words, the stricken shepherd is the Messiah. …
In Zechariah’s inspired prophecy the suffering of God and the suffering of his shepherd go hand in hand. … We can (indeed must) say that in the striking of the shepherd God himself is struck. Or to put it in the timeless words of the apostle Paul, ‘God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself.’
R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, NICNT (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007), 998–999:
Zech 13:7–9 is one of a sequence of passages in Zech 9–14 which appear to present a messianic figure who is nonetheless rejected, wounded and killed, a model which seems to have been important for Jesus in understanding his own messianic suffering, and which Matthew draws on several times in his account of Jesus in Jerusalem (cf. 21:4–5 [Zech 9:9–10]; 24:30 [Zech 12:10–14]; 27:3–10 [Zech 11:12–13]). The shepherd in Zech 13:7 is described as God’s shepherd, the man who is God’s “associate” (“who is close to me,” NJB, TNIV). That so exalted a figure should nonetheless be struck down, and indeed by the sword of God himself, expresses in a remarkable way the paradox of a Messiah who is to be killed in accordance with the will of God declared in the scriptures. The sheep in the prophecy are the people of God (as in Ezekiel 34), scattered when they lose their leader, but destined to be refined and restored, even if only one third of them (Zech 13:8–9). So for Jesus his disciples form the nucleus of the new people of God under the leadership of the Messiah. The fact that the following clause in Zech 13:7 refers to them as “the little ones” may have appealed especially to Matthew (cf. 10:42; 18:6–14).