The Passion of the Shepherds
© 2023 C. O. Bishop
1st Thessalonians 3:6-10
6 But now when Timotheus came from you unto us, and brought us good tidings of your faith and charity, and that ye have good remembrance of us always, desiring greatly to see us, as we also to see you:
7 Therefore, brethren, we were comforted over you in all our affliction and distress by your faith: 8 For now we live, if ye stand fast in the Lord.
9 For what thanks can we render to God again for you, for all the joy wherewith we joy for your sakes before our God; 10 Night and day praying exceedingly that we might see your face, and might perfect that which is lacking in your faith?
Paul had sent Timothy to Thessalonica to find out how the church was doing. He had feared that because of the heavy persecution against the infant church, they might have collapsed under the load of abuse. But he was thrilled to find out that the Thessalonian believers were not just “doing well,” but truly flourishing! Back in chapter one he had alluded to that, saying that wherever he went, now, he was hearing about their rich testimony of grace, faith, courage and Agapé Love.
But there had been a time when he was unsure about them. That is understandable, since he had only been with them for three or four weeks at most. From a human perspective, that was simply not enough time to gain any stability in the Lord. But God was the One in control. Human strength is very limited, but God’s authority and ability is truly unlimited.
Fire on the Mountains
There is a book (no longer in print, but still available on the internet) called “Fire on the Mountains” by Raymond Davis. This book chronicles the beginning of the evangelical church in Ethiopia; before, during and after World War II.
In 1937, Mussolini’s armies invaded Ethiopia, and the missionaries were forced to leave both the country and the fledgling church they had led to Christ. Their years of labor and love had only resulted in 48 believers, who were scarcely trained in the scriptures at all, as not much of the scriptures had yet been translated into their language. The missionaries were heartbroken, of course, because they were sure that the church would fail under the extreme persecution, and especially without the careful teaching the missionaries themselves had been providing.
God Was at Work
The war ended in 1945, but it was another two years before the missionaries were allowed to return. So, they went back, expecting to have to start over and rebuild all the work that was lost during the war years. What they did not know was that God had protected His Flock, and He had caused it to thrive under the persecution!
They had left behind 48 believers who had only small portions of the scriptures in their own language. But, when the missionaries returned in 1947, they were met by a church numbering over 10,000 believers! Obviously, there were some serious needs for teaching and training, but, instead of a tiny group of fearful saints, there was now an army of enthusiastic, committed Christians!
Paul may have felt the same joy and amazement those missionaries felt. He knew how terribly the new believers had been treated by their unbelieving neighbors and fellow-citizens, and was fearful that his own work had gone to waste. But He didn’t know that God was at work in Thessalonica!
We might say, “Well, he should have known!” But bear in mind that Paul was just as human as we are, and he was there to see the horrific treatment the believers received. I can easily see how he could begin to doubt the Grace of God sustaining the believers in his absence.
Pat James was justifiably fearful for the future of this church, here at True Hope. He had planted the church, and worked for years, teaching and encouraging and praying, and investing his own life for the future of the believers, here. Especially later, as Pat began to suffer from the disease that eventually killed him, he despaired of the future of the church he loved. The church was his passion, and his calling. Feeding the flock, and praying for the believers, and defending this flock against false teachers was what he lived for! So, he was heartbroken to see the church dwindling and then to know he was getting too sick to even continue the work!
But God had good plans for the church. It stabilized, after the initial shock of losing the founding pastor, and it began to get healthier. Finally, during the Covid pandemic, it began to grow, numerically. It was growing spiritually, as people became hungrier for the Word of God, and began to study on their own. God was tending to His flock, just as He did the church in Thessalonica, and in Ethiopia. And, in the last few years of their lives, Pat and Jan James had the joy of seeing the church prospering and growing.
Now We Live!
Paul said, “For now we live, if ye stand fast in the Lord!”
He felt that “life was worth the hard times” if the result was the stability of the believers and their firm walk with God! I’m sure Pat James felt the same way, seeing that the church he loved was growing and thriving, after he had thought it would fail and die.
I know, in my own life, it thrills my heart, too, when I see more than half the people in the church also showing up for Wednesday night service. I remember when it was difficult to get more than half a dozen people to attend on Wednesdays, and they seemed to mainly be there to “support the cause.” Now I see people who are eagerly feeding on God’s Word and anxious to understand it for themselves. That is the sort of thing that makes all the hard times and sad times worthwhile!
Easing our Fears
And, from a committed Shepherd’s point of view, it eases the fears of “what will happen to the church when I die or when I am forced to abandon the work?” The missionaries in the case of the Ethiopian church were convinced that all their work had been in vain. They were heartsick for ten years, praying for the fledgling church and the 48 believers they had left behind. They did not know whether they would ever be allowed to return. (Remember that, at the beginning of the war, all the battles seemed to be going in favor of the Axis powers.)
Had those dictators remained in power, the missionaries might never have returned. But, again, God was at work. Ten years is a long time, from a human perspective, but it is less than a blink of the eye, to God! And, in the absence of the evicted missionaries, He had worked miraculously. The church blossomed, strictly because of God’s Work, not their own.
The Passion of the Shepherds
Every shepherd who is earnestly responding to the call of God to feed and strengthen the flock is gripped by the sense of urgency and vital importance of feeding the flock on the Word of God. And, since God gave us the Written Word of God as the “designated sheep food,” we also reasonably expect and anticipate spiritual growth and health to result from that food.
Sometimes it takes time for people to thrive, as was the case in Ethiopia and in the Dom people of Papua New Guinea, where Jim and Judy Burdett invested their lives. Other believers may thrive immediately, as did the churches in Thessalonica, and Philippi..
Corinth was one of those cities, where despite the initial positive reception of the Gospel, there was a thick “layer” of carnality and worldly behavior to be “peeled away” before they could begin to flourish. Paul was there for about eighteen months, but both of his letters to that church are almost completely devoted to corrective teaching. They had problems!
Paul was in Ephesus for about two years. and they seem to have done well. I do not know why one group of people will respond well and another will respond with only moderate interest, but it seems to be more dependent upon the recipients than upon the messengers. Paul brought what was effectively the same message, everywhere he went, but the responses varied wildly.
How will they Respond?
His heart’s desire in every case, though, was that the people would feed on the Word and thrive on that clean food. When I worked as a teacher, in the industrial trades, one concept I held to is that “teaching has not been accomplished until learning occurs.” It is not sufficient to “recite” a great pile of facts or theories: if your audience is either not grasping what you are saying, or cannot see how to apply them, then “reciting” is all you accomplished. When learning has truly occurred, your students can put into practice the concepts you have taught, and use them in everyday life. That is the result of teaching.
When I taught the principles of welding supervision, most people seemed to respond well, but when I heard reports back from the shop floor, how at least some of them were applying what they had learned in class, it brought me great joy. Because then I knew that “teaching had truly been accomplished!”
Since the learning and spiritual growth of the church is the whole goal of the shepherd, it becomes the driving passion, taking precedence over virtually everything else. We want to know that the principles of God’s Word are not just being placed in the mental “library shelves” of believers, but are being implemented in the “Living Room.” They are no longer just head-knowledge, nor just “fun-stuff-to-know-and-tell:” They have become a living, working reality.
That is what Paul was anxious about, and that is what brought him great joy, when he heard the answer!
Who are the Shepherds?
There are a wide variety of “shepherding jobs” that a believer can step into. It is not just the “Pastors, Elders, Deacons, etc.” It can include any believer who matures to the point that they devote themselves to feeding the flock around them. It can be simple mentoring, as several people in my life have served. It can be formal teaching. It can be just drawing alongside a younger believer and being an encourager.
When your heart is exercised to “do the will of Him who sent you and to finish His Work” as Jesus said, then you are becoming “one of the shepherds,” in a practical sense. You are joining with Jesus in that job, and He will assign you tasks as He sees fit.
If you are interested in what the work of the Shepherd entails, please read Ezekiel 34:1-10. If that passage stirs your heart and sounds to you like a “call to action,” then you should consider whether God is directing you to join with Him in the job of feeding His flock.
If you are devoting yourself to praying for the believers around you, and seeking their stability, growth, and blessing, then you probably are one of the shepherds, even if you don’t see yourself that way.
How does God see the Matter?
In Hebrews 5:12, 13, the writer admonishes the believers, saying “You should have been teachers by now, but instead, you now require someone to re-teach you the things you should have mastered long ago. Instead of maturing, you have become babies again!” What a sad thing to have to say to a flock! What a hard thing to have to hear about yourself!
How should We See it?
But what we can “take away from” that passage is that all believers are called to grow at least to a level where we can function as examples and mentors for younger believers and encourage them to grow up too. Does that mean you have to teach? Not necessarily. But it does mean that we are called to bear fruit, in the sense of spiritual reproduction, and that new believers ought to find us to be faithful examples of the Love of Christ as well as faithful Ambassadors, and handling His Word in a faithful manner. We are not to stagnate in babyhood, as believers. We are to grow to maturity.
The Passion of Jesus, the Great Shepherd … is to see us grow to be like Him! That is called “discipleship!” We are to follow Him and learn to be like Him. That is the result of choosing to join Him in double harness and to learn from Him as we work beside him.
Lord Jesus, raise us up to walk in Your footsteps, and to serve with you, caring for the scattered flock in this world.. Give us Your Compassion and commitment to Your Word. Make us the disciples You have called us to be!