Friends I want to try and put into words a tension I feel and that I know many Pastors experience as they ‘shepherd’ those in their care.
And in doing so I hope to correct what I think is a faulty expectation about the role of the Shepherd in caring for the flock.
Then I would like to ask for your prayers – both for me and our church family.
Let me start with what the Bible says about the ‘Shepherd’.
The Best Shepherd
Psalm 23 makes clear that the best Shepherd is the first shepherd and that is the Lord.
A psalm of David.
1 The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing.
2 He makes me lie down in green pastures,
he leads me beside quiet waters,
3 he refreshes my soul.
He guides me along the right paths
for his name’s sake.
4 Even though I walk
through the darkest valley,
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
they comfort me.
5 You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies.
You anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
6 Surely your goodness and love will follow me
all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord
There is so much in this short Psalm that speaks of the care that this best Shepherd provides – he lies with the sheep, restores the soul, guides in paths of righteousness, walks together in trouble, protects, provides, blesses, and dwells forever. Quite an uplifting and comforting picture.
Psalm 78:52-53 further expands what the Lord did for his people Israel:
52 But he brought his people out like a flock;
he led them like sheep through the wilderness.
53 He guided them safely, so they were unafraid;
but the sea engulfed their enemies.
Shepherding involves protection, leading by example, guiding often in the face of dangers.
Yet the role of ‘shepherding’ extended further to that of the leaders of Israel whom the Lord held to account as the shepherds of his people (c.f. Ezekiel 34:1-11). Instead of caring for the flock in their care, they take care of themselves (‘Woe to the shepherds of Israel who only take care of themselves’ – verse 2) and failed in their job to strengthen the weak or heal the sick or bind up the injured or seek out the stray or search for the lost. The result is that God removes them from the role of tending for the sheep and rescues the flock himself.
Despite their failure, God does make a promise that he will place over the people his own shepherd, David, who will tend to Israel (his sheep) and rid the land of wild beasts and help them to live in peace under God (c.f. Ezekiel 34:23-24). An appointment that foreshadows an even better Shepherd who arrives in the New Testament, that is Jesus.
The Good Shepherd
Jesus picks up that language in John 10:11-30 as he claims the title of ‘good shepherd’. Instead of slaughtering the sheep as the faulty shepherds of Israel had, he ‘lays down his life for the sheep’ (10:11). It is a picture of a shepherd who puts the needs of his flock before his own. It is a picture of selfless sacrifice as Jesus willing lays down his life both for his sheep and ‘the other sheep that are not of this sheep pen’ (10:16) to bring them in also – this picture is of Jesus dying not just for Israel but for all nations.
But notably, the sheep know Jesus (10:14), they listen to his voice (10:16,27) and they follow him (10:27) in contrast to those who are not his sheep (10:26). Note this proviso, it is a faulty assumption to suggest that the sheep have no role to play here. Jesus is not suggesting that the sheep are doing anything to save themselves, but he is suggesting that there is a difference between those sheep that hear, listen and follow the shepherd and those who do not.
The implication is that those who don’t want anything to do with Jesus, who run away and hide with no intention of being found, are not part of his flock. Jesus will look, he will call, he will provide reason to return, but his role is not to force his sheep to do what he says – those sheep are not his.
Here is where I think we today can hold faulty expectations. I wonder, if we are at risk of thinking that we are doing Jesus a favour in ‘following him’. Being part of this church family is akin to being part of his flock. We are not doing Jesus a favour by being involved in his family – he is doing us the favour by Shepherding us. Our part is to continually seek to know him, listen too him, and follow him.
The Lost Sheep
Another passage that is often used (and misquoted) in discussions about the role of the shepherd is the Parable of the Lost Sheep which Jesus tells to the tax collectors with the Pharisees and teachers of the law listening in in Luke 15:1-9. It is a parable about repentance.
Notably the language of Shepherd is not used, but Jesus suggests that if one sheep was lost and someone went out to find him (leaving the ninety-nine sheep) that when found there is great rejoicing. You could suggest that the ‘shepherd’ figure here is being irresponsible for leaving his flock at bay, but that is not the point of the parable – the point is that when one lost sheep is found, when a sinner repents, then there is great rejoicing.
What does that say about the sheep who does not want to be found, the person that is running the other direction and has no intention of repenting?
The implication of this parable is not to suggest that one should run away, hide and do everything they can to avoid the shepherd – at best it paints a picture of a sheep who strays and gets lost, but when found is brought back into the flock with great joy. Notice however, that the sheep returns to the flock in repentance.
The ‘Shepherd’ Today
What can be said then for ‘Shepherding’ a Church family today?
In Acts 20:28-32 the leaders of the church of Ephesus are instructed to ‘keep watch over yourselves and all the flock’ and to ‘be shepherds of the church of God’ (20:28). Paul’s instruction in how to do that, is to follow his pattern of ministry and ‘proclaim the whole will of God’ (20:27) – which given he was in Ephesus for only three years (c.f. 20:31) probably means he taught them everything necessary regarding the will of God – that is the gospel.
Paul writes his ‘Pastoral’ Epistles to Timothy and Titus and looks to the future – and his instruction is to raise up leaders, be clear on priorities, emphasize both life and doctrine, shape character, and teach. He is working to ensure that the gospel remains central to the life of the church. Notably minimal in the Pastorals, is instruction to do what we would often today call ‘Pastoral Care’ and when it is mentioned (for example 1 Timothy 5:1-6:10, the care for widows and the management of money) it is structured in a way that protects the ministry of the word.
Shepherding today is to help watch over, grow, and care for people in accord with the proclamation of the Word of God. I take it that the Pastor (Shepherd) needs to hold out the Word of God and to do that in the raising up of leaders, in the ordering of priorities, in the teaching about life and doctrine, in the shaping of character and in the teaching of the church – and in that, he best shepherds the flock in his care.
But friends, this Shepherd (not being the best Shepherd) will fail and will come up wanting – because they are only a caretaker shepherd.
The ‘Shepherd’ Then
There is a goal which the gospel leads people towards – a perfect and unhindered relationship with the true shepherd who significantly is also the best example of what it means to be a Lamb! It is the picture of future Christian hope.
For the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd; ‘he will lead them to springs of living water.’ ‘And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes (Revelation 7:17)
The tension I feel is that the expectation of me as a ‘Shepherd’ is to first care for the needy, provide for the poor, befriending the lonely, helping people with problems, follow up those who are running away, find answers where there seems to be none – all good things to do. But all are limited, if the person in question does not want to be found, or helped, refuses to listen, ignores the Word of God, and is unwilling to be called to repentance.
So friends, I would like to ask you to pray for me (as 5pm Church Pastor), and us as a church family.
Pray that I might be a Pastor who selflessly aims to care for our church family and not to do that as a means of caring for myself (I would like to be more like Jesus and less like the leaders of Israel).
Pray that I might be a Pastor who holds out the Word of God as a first priority and to do that in the raising up of leaders, in the ordering of priorities, in the teaching about life and doctrine, in the shaping of character and in the teaching of our church.
Pray that I might be a Pastor who continually seeks to know Jesus, listen to him and follow him.
And Pray that as a church family, we individually and corporately would be people who continually seek to know Jesus, listen too him, and follow him.
And Pray for those in our family who ‘under-shepherd’ us – our Home Groups Leaders and Ministry staff – that as they care for us they would do so with wisdom and grace and that we would each match that in equal measure by the way that we accept godly encouragement, correction and rebuke.
And then may I ask, would you Pray that as a church we together would care for the needy, provide for the poor, befriend the lonely, help people with problems, follow up those who are running away, and find answers where there seems to be none.