The Work of the Shepherds
© C. O. Bishop, 7/5/16 THCF 7/17/16
Ezekiel 34:1-22; Acts 20:17, 28-30; 1st Peter 5:1-3
We sometimes talk about “New Testament Churches,” and how they are organized, how they function, etc. One critical aspect of the whole picture, though, is how the spiritual leadership of a New Testament Church is supposed to function. We need to know how to identify those leaders, and what they are supposed to be doing. Their various job titles tell us a little about what to expect of them. Those leaders are called by six different words, in the New Testament:
- Presbytery (plural)
The words “Pastors” and “Presbytery” are only used once, each, in English…but all six English words are in reference to the same individuals, and all six come from one of three Greek words:
- Presbuteros (translated either Elders or Presbytery—it literally means an older person)
- Episkopos (translated either Overseers or Bishops—it means a supervisor)
- Poiménes (translated either Pastors or Shepherds—and it literally means a shepherd)
For the sake of this study, we will refer to them all as “shepherds”, mostly, because that is what the Old Testament usually calls them, and, ironically, that is where we will find the most information about their job. You may wonder why we look in the Old Testament to find information about the New Testament job of shepherding: It is because sheep haven’t changed, so the job of shepherding has also not changed. When we read Psalm 23, we can still apply it to our lives, today. Thus, the work of the shepherd as described in Ezekiel 34 is also still valid.
Further, we will break the teaching into two parts: the first will concern itself with the work, or responsibilities, or “job” of the shepherd; the second with the qualifications for the job. We will discuss the job of the Deacon separately, as it is a different job, with a different description, though very similar qualifications.
The Work of the Shepherds
The Work of the Shepherds can be seen in two ways, since, in the New Testament, there are two Greek words used for the task. The most common usage is simply a verb-form (poimainé) of the noun “Shepherd” (poimén), so that doesn’t shed much light, unless we go and find out what a shepherd actually does…and we will attempt to do just that.
The second word is a narrower term, meaning, specifically, to “feed” (bosko)—Jesus used it in one of the phrases he directed to Peter—“feed my sheep” (John 21:15-17). He used the other word, too, in the same conversation. But the two words are not the same and they are both used repeatedly, so we have to address both. Let’s look at the “feeding” idea first.
“Feed the Flock”
God commands the Shepherds (in all dispensations) to “feed the flock.” He refers to His Word as the “food” that his sheep need. (1 Peter 2:2; Hebrews 5:11-14, etc.) We could say that one was feeding the sheep if all they did was to read the Word in public. And, in fact, that form of feeding is commanded. (1st Thessalonians 5:27; 1st Timothy 4:13)
But the exhortation and expounding of the concepts of Scripture are also commanded (1st Timothy 4:13; 2nd Timothy 4:2), and exemplified all through the Bible. There are five ways described in scripture to ingest, or feed upon the Word of God:
- Hearing the Word,
- Reading the Word,
- Studying the Word,
- Memorizing the Word, and
- Meditating in the Word
Collectively, those five approaches to God’s Word give us a very solid grip on the content. (Think “five fingers.”)
All five are all commanded, and the feeding of the flock demands all five of the Shepherds, themselves.
1st Corinthians 14:1-3 says that a prophet (what we call a “preacher”, but the Greek word is prophete) is to speak to exhortation, edification, and comfort. These are all part of feeding the flock. A teacher (Greek didaskalos) simply seeks to build accurate understanding of the scripture, including the spiritual truths and potential application to any believer’s life, in a general (or specific) sense. This is a specific gift, by the way, not to be confused with preaching, though the two overlap quite a bit. (I am more of a teacher than a preacher, but both gifts are needed.)
The person in our culture, frequently called a preacher (Greek kerus), is what the scripture actually calls a prophet (Greek prophete: “one who speaks for God”) He is to speak to specific needs within the body (exhortation, edification and comfort), as God brings these needs to his attention. The collective leadership of any given body of believers should be closely enough in contact with the members to know what the general need is. And all of the leaders are to be studying and meditating upon God’s word, with the intention of meeting those needs. That’s all part of feeding the flock.
The word “preacher” is also sometimes used, in scripture, and it has a similar definition (a declarer; an announcer); It is not used very often, but it seems that when it occurs, it is directed to a different audience. A “preacher” in scripture, seems to be one who “declares” the person of Christ to those who have not heard. A “prophet” is one who “speaks for God”, so his work could include the work of the preacher; but the New Testament prophet is specifically called to meet the spiritual needs of the church through exhortation, edification and comfort. When we use the word “preacher”, however, we usually mean a church-leader: a pastor.
All these things are part of “feeding the flock,” and could fall under the definition of the Greek word “bosko.” But what about Shepherding? Shepherding clearly includes “feeding the flock”, but what about the rest of the job? Is it enough to just have great words coming from the pulpit and from Bible classes?
Shepherd the Flock
What does the Scripture say about Shepherds? Looking at the whole of God’s word, regarding shepherding, at least six things become clear:
1. Sheep need a Shepherd.
Sheep without a Shepherd are in immediate and deadly danger, even if no predator is around—and the greatest, deadliest predator in the world is around, according to 1st Pet 5:8. Even apart from the issue of predators, we often don’t know the difference between good pasture and bad, still waters and treacherous, safe paths and dangerous ones, apart from our Shepherd leading us—(Psalm 23:2, 3).We sing “Savior, like a shepherd, lead us; much we need thy tender care….” This is a direct reflection on God’s determination to be the Shepherd of His Flock Genesis 49:24, Ezekiel 34). We need the Shepherd.
2. God has assigned human shepherds.
These shepherds are “sheep”, themselves, as well. But they have been assigned the task of performing the work of shepherds. And they cannot do a faithful job apart from the direct leading and control of Jesus Christ, the true Shepherd. (John 15:5; Psalm 127:1) God holds them accountable for his flock. (Ezekiel 34, James 3:1; Hebrews 13:17) This is a huge responsibility.
3. The Work of the Shepherd has clear definition:
- Ezekiel 34:1-16 says that the shepherds are to:
- Feed the sheep: (This means a steady provision of nourishment from God’s Word.)
- Strengthen those who are diseased: (This may imply corrective teaching, or encouragement to change self-destructive patterns.)
- Heal those who are sick: (very similar: promoting spiritual healing through Godly counsel.)
- Bind up those who are broken: (This may mean promoting Forgiveness for past injuries by other believers, or acceptance of God’s Grace to heal those wounds.)
- Seek out and bring back those who have been driven away: (Sometimes the wounded ones flee the flock, unable to bear the stress of being around the one who hurt them. Or, sometimes they simply were angry, and need to deal with the anger.)
- Seek the lost: (refers to both evangelism and reconciliation of the backslidden)
- Prevent them from becoming prey to predators: (Guarding is implied, but not stated in this passage; clearly stated in Acts 20:28-30.)
- Acts 20:17, 28-30 says that the elders (v. 17; also identified as shepherds and overseers) are to:
- Guard themselves—recognize that they themselves are also in danger,
- Guard the flock against predators (sometimes coming from among the leaders),
- ‘Feed’ the flock (KJV), or ‘shepherd’ the flock (the Greek word is poimainein))
- Be overseers. (Greek episkopos)
- 1 Peter 5:1-4 says that the elders (Greek presbuteros) (who are also shepherds and overseers) are to:
- Feed the flock (KJV): (here again, the Greek word is the verb poimanate—“shepherd”)
- Take the oversight thereof (be an overseer)
- Do so willingly, not grudgingly
- Not for the sake of money
- Not lording it over the flock, but
- Leading by example,
- Expect a reward from Christ, (the “arch-shepherd”) at His coming, for faithful service.
4. Shepherds face Judgment:
Apart from faithful attention to God’s assignment, Judgment is coming, in one form or another…The Lord’s flock is precious to Him: He defends it against all enemies, even the enemies from within the flock. Ezekiel 34 is a discourse on this very issue: God is rebuking the shepherds of Israel for malfeasance and nonfeasance of their duties. He says he is going to take them off the job and do the job himself. James 3:1 and Hebrews 13:17 all address the issue as well. Revelation 3:14-16 tells the long range result of failure in this area: the local church can die or become so infected with spiritual disease that God closes it down.
5. Clear guidelines are given, as to the Qualifications of the Human Shepherds:
These are given in order to protect the flock from unstable, immature, or otherwise flawed leadership. We will discuss these at a later date. If you want to read them ahead of time, they are found in 1st Timothy 3:1-8, Titus 1:5-9 and 1st Peter 5:1-3.
6. Jesus Christ is the Good Shepherd, the Great Shepherd, the Chief Shepherd—
(Perhaps one could say, “the only true shepherd” John 10:11-15, Hebrews 13:20, 1st Peter 5:4), and He is, by necessity, our example in all things: apart from Him, we truly have nothing to offer. Hudson Taylor used to say “God’s work, done in God’s way, will never lack God’s provision.” I believe that is a scriptural viewpoint. I believe that unless we truly strive to adhere to the job description, and the instructions that come along with it, we are doomed to failure.
So—looking back over the list of tasks associated with the job of Shepherding—(feeding, leading, seeking, binding up, healing, guarding, etc.) How do we do each of these? Is it just “up for grabs”, so to speak, or can we find scriptural examples, at least, and principles to guide our efforts?
I believe we can find both scriptural examples and principles by which to guide our efforts. We can first look at the example of The Lord, all through Scripture. (Examples: Genesis 49:24; Psalm 23; Psalm 80:1; Isaiah 40:11; Ezekiel 34; John 10; Hebrews 13:20; 1 Peter 2:25; etc.)
Then we can look at the positive examples of human shepherds in Bible history. (Examples: Jacob, Moses, David, etc.) We can also look at the negative examples (3rd John, Ezekiel 34, and perhaps Revelation 2, 3)
Finally, we can look at the principles taught regarding leadership in general (kings, judges, fathers, etc.) and shepherding in particular (John 10:11-13), and draw our teaching from these.
Methods will vary—no one doubts that—but the principles in God’s Word never change. If the methods are based firmly on God’s principles, they will be good. If the methods replace God’s principles, then no matter how good they seem, they fail God’s test: “Did it originate with God?” (Proverbs 14:12). So, to answer the rhetorical question above: No, it is not just “up for grabs”. Proverbs warns against that approach to life in general (Proverbs 3:5, 6)—how much more should the warning apply to shepherding the flock of God? Please keep this in mind as we continue to study the Word of God regarding the Work of the Shepherd.
Identifying a Shepherd
So the shepherds we seek to identify among us are those who actually step in and begin to function in several or all of the identified responsibilities. Perhaps they are teaching…perhaps they are caring for the members of the flock in other ways. Perhaps they are gifted in management, and can readily see needs in the church, whether spiritual or physical. Those who specialize in meeting the physical needs of the Church are called “deacons”…it means “servants”, as they serve the Lord by serving the local assembly, managing the physical needs. There is some overlap, but Elders are primarily tasked with the spiritual feeding of the church, and, in fact, teaching is one of the job requirements. We will talk about the office of deacon separately, at another time.
But in the meantime, we are to look for those who care for the flock, comforting, blessing, feeding, helping, protecting, and, in general, showing that they are committed to the well-being of the flock, as opposed to just being committed to their own benefit. God’s accusation against the “shepherds” of Israel was that they were committed to feeding themselves, and were only in the job for what they could gain. We hear that accusation today as well: “They only want your money!” And, at least in some instances, it has been shown to be true. So, we seek those who, by their track-record, in our observation (not just letters of recommendation), have shown themselves faithful, and gifted to shepherd the flock, and, specifically, to feed the flock.
Paul told Timothy to find “faithful men”—reliable believers—to whom he could entrust the Word of God. He was not only to find people whom he could teach, but to find those who could teach others. There is supposed to be a spiritual “chain reaction” going on. Those are the ones who God will raise up to be shepherds in the Church, one way or another. It doesn’t require college, or seminary degrees, so much as a faithful heart, spiritual giftedness, and a commitment to the Flock of God. We need to keep our eyes open for those individuals, and pray that God will raise them up among us.
If you are one of the ones God has called to this work, then you need to study these passages and apply them to your own life, so as to prepare for the job of shepherding, or strengthen your hands to continue in the work.
Next time we will discuss the job requirements…the specific “qualifications” for the job.
Lord Jesus, you encouraged us to “pray ye therefore the Lord of the Harvest, that he send forth laborers into the harvest.” We echo that prayer, and ask that you also raise up shepherds, and make us a healthy flock, honoring you in every way.