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Does He Break Our Legs?

There’s an apocryphal story that gets retold again and again from pulpits and in small-group Bible studies. It is retold and retold and seemingly just accepted as truth because someone they trusted shared it with them. A well-meaning pastor or Sunday school teacher is usually the one sharing this story. It goes something like this.

This painting (of which there are many different renderings) depicts Jesus, the Good Shepherd. And the story that is frequently told is that the lamb he’s carrying is the one that wandered off too many times, so Jesus broke its legs and then nurtured it back to health. When I first heard it, I thought to myself, “Wow. I don’t want to be that lamb.

And that is the desired effect of the story. It’s a warning to not stray and remain close to the Shepherd.

But the more I heard this story repeated, the more my discernment radar pinged. People were just repeating this story, but no one was providing any evidence that it was actually true. So I began digging; not furiously, just as it came across my mind or I heard it told again, I would try to find sources that gave this tale some validity.

I found nothing except more people retelling it without citing any kind of source.

Then I came across an article from a blog called The Pulpit and Pen. Complete honesty: I don’t always agree with the authors who run this discernment ministry. They are decidedly cessationists and founded the blog for the purpose of “catalog[ing] the theological downgrade within the Southern Baptist Convention and greater American Evangelicalism.” However, on this particular matter, I found the gold I was looking for. According to their article, the first mention of this tale happened around sixty years ago. Prior to that, there is no record of it, even going all the way back to the Church fathers and ancient Jewish literature. There’s absolutely no historical evidence anywhere that this was a practice.

So, pastors and teachers, please stop sharing this myth.

Now that the leg-breaking-shepherd myth is debunked, there remains a question. Though it seems the story is a myth, is the moral of the story Biblical? Can we Biblically say that Jesus metaphorically breaks the legs of the sheep who keep running away? Does He harm us so that He can heal us?

Yes and no. Let’s deal with the yes first.

5 And have you forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons?
“My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord,
nor be weary when reproved by him.
6 For the Lord disciplines the one he loves,
and chastises every son whom he receives.”
7 It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? 8 If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons.
– Hebrews 12:5-8 (ESV)

There is an aspect of Fatherly discipline that every child of God will endure. These verses from Hebrews tell us two definite things.

  1. Because God loves us, He disciplines us.
  2. If you never receive His discipline, you aren’t His son.

All His sons are loved and therefore undergo chastising when correction is needed. But, is this the kind of harm that is implied in the mythical breaking of the lamb’s legs? I’m not sure that you can say that unequivocally.  In fact, the discipline in mind in this passage happens to us whether we stray or not. You could be latched to Jesus’ hip and never leave His side, and you would still receive this Godly discipline. Now let’s deal with the no.

60 When many of his disciples heard it, they said, “This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?” 61 But Jesus, knowing in himself that his disciples were grumbling about this, said to them, “Do you take offense at this? 62 Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? 63 It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. 64 But there are some of you who do not believe.” (For Jesus knew from the beginning who those were who did not believe, and who it was who would betray him.) 65 And he said, “This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father.”
66 After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him. 67 So Jesus said to the twelve, “Do you want to go away as well?”
– John 6:60-67 (ESV)

Note: Jesus did not chase after the disciples who couldn’t handle the hard teachings He taught. Sure, you can argue that the disciples who left weren’t really “saved,” but at this point, none of them were “saved.” None of them had been indwelled with the Spirit and received new hearts and new spirits. None of them. Yet, the twelve remained, and the others left. The point here isn’t the soteriology; the point is that Jesus didn’t chase after them. He didn’t go get those sheep and “break their legs” so that they couldn’t stray again. In fact, you could argue that He just broke them with hard teachings, and they limped away wounded.

What am I getting at? Jesus doesn’t break our legs because we wander away. No, in fact, He lets you wander away.

Well, what about leaving the ninety-nine to chase the one?

Ah, yes, the reckless love of God thing. Actually, the parable of the lost sheep (Luke 15:1-7) has nothing to do with found sheep. If you’re a believer, you are a found sheep. The lost sheep – the unsaved – is whom the LORD chases. If you are a found sheep wandering from the fold, that parable isn’t about you. He will let you wander. It is your responsibility to return to the fold.

The prodigal son was not chased by his father. He came to his senses when he was at his lowest and returned home. He took responsibility for his life and went back to his father’s house.

Fellow believers, once you know the Truth, you are responsible to walk in obedience to the Truth. I’m not saying that when we wander that we’re left to our own devices. The good news is that the Holy Spirit indwells us, and He is a constant friend who calls us to repentance when we stray and empowers us to return to obedience. But, the choice still remains ours because walking in maturity demands that we choose our paths wisely according to the Truth we’ve received.

Here’s the bottom line. If you’re a found sheep and you intentionally wander outside the sheepfold to eat some of that greener grass, it’s on you. Jesus isn’t going to break your legs to make you stay. The wolves outside the sheepfold will break them, but not Jesus. And when you call on Him for rescue from those wolves, He’ll come, and He’ll heal, but your broken legs are a thing of your own doing.

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Last modified: April 16, 2023
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