The Work of the Shepherds: Part One

The Work of the Shepherds: Part One

© C. O. Bishop, 7/5/16 THCF 7/17/16 Revised 2021

1st Peter 5:1-4; Ezekiel 34:1-22; Acts 20:17, 28-30;


The next three weeks will lean more heavily toward “teaching” than “preaching,” as we are in a passage that gives some very specific directions, and we need to understand the concepts involved: Teaching is for the purpose of building understanding.

We have been working our way through the book of 1st Peter, and we have finally come to the place where Peter briefly describes the Shepherds, or Elders (also called Bishops or Overseers, in other places.) There are three Greek words applied to this office, all referring to the same individuals, and each translated two different ways, as we will see.

Here in 1st Peter 5:1-4, two of those words are used, and the third is implied:

1 The elders which are among you I exhort, who am also an elder, and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, and also a partaker of the glory that shall be revealed: Feed the flock of God which is among you, taking the oversight thereof, not by constraint, but willingly; not for filthy lucre, but of a ready mind; Neither as being lords over God’s heritage, but being examples to the flock. And when the chief Shepherd shall appear, ye shall receive a crown of glory that fadeth not away.

So, the Chief Shepherd (Jesus) is the one to whom the elders answer, and their primary job, (as under-shepherds) is to Feed the Flock…in this particular passage, the word “feed” is “poimanate,” which is just the verb form of “shepherd,” so, perhaps “tend” is an appropriate understanding of what it implies, in this passage.

Structure and Function of the New Testament Church

We sometimes talk about “New Testament Churches,” and how they are organized, how they function, etc. The primary principle is that Jesus is the Head, and every member is to function.

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:

  1. Elders (Presbytery)  
  2. Bishops (Overseers)
  3. Shepherds (Pastors,)

The words “Pastors” and “Presbytery,” in English, are only used once, each: but all six English words are in reference to the same individuals, and all six come from one of three Greek words:

  1. Presbuteros (translated either Elders or Presbytery—it literally means older persons)
  2. Episkopos (translated either Overseers or Bishops—it literally means supervisors)
  3. Poiménes (translated either Pastors or Shepherds—and it literally means shepherds.)

For the sake of this study, I 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 three parts: the first (this lesson) will concern itself with the work, or responsibilities, or “job” of the shepherd; the second will begin addressing the qualifications for the job, and the third will complete the qualifications and deal a little with the selection and care of Elders or overseers. We will discuss the job of the Deacons separately, when we come to it, 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 can go and find out what a shepherd actually does…and we will attempt to do just that.

The second word (bosko) however, is a narrower term, meaning, specifically, to “feed.” It is only used eight or nine times in scripture, and always means “to feed,” including when it is applies to animals feeding themselves in a pasture. Jesus used both of these words in the commands he directed to Peter: (John 21:15-17 “If you love me, feed (bosko) my lambs; tend (poimainé) my sheep, feed (bosko) my sheep!”). He used them both in the same conversation, but the two words are not the same, 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 a person is “feeding the sheep” if all they do is to read the Word in public. And, in fact, that form of “feeding” is commanded. (1st Thessalonians 5:27; 1st Timothy 4:13.)

But teaching and exhortation from the scriptures 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:

  1. Hearing the Word,
  2. Reading the Word,
  3. Studying the Word,
  4. Memorizing the Word, and
  5. Meditating on the Word

Collectively, those five approaches to God’s Word can give us a very solid grasp of its content.

All five are commanded, and the feeding of the flock demands all five in the Shepherds’ lives; this is not supposed to be a “do as I say, not as I do” sort of concept. And Peter specifically commands that the elders serve as examples to the flock, in verse 3.

1st Corinthians 14:3 says that a prophet is to speak, to provide exhortation, edification, and comfort. The person we frequently call a preacher, is what the scripture actually calls a prophet (Greek “prophete:” meaning “one who speaks for God.”) Heis to speak to meet specific needs within the body (exhortation, edification and comfort), as God brings these needs to his attention. (This is slightly different than the Old Testament prophet, mainly because when there was very little of God’s Word in written form, He sent prophets to speak His Word to His people…and often it including “telling the future.” Not so much, in the New Testament.)

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, themselves: feeding themselves, with the intent to meet those needs. That’s 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 actual word “preacher” (Greek “kerux”), is also sometimes used in scripture, and it has a similar definition: a “declarer,” a “proclaimer,” or an “announcer.” It only occurs as a noun three times in scripture, but, along with the verb-form (“kerusso,” which occurs 60 times; mostly in the Gospels and in the book of Acts) it seems that when it occurs, it is primarily directed to a different audience: A “preacher” in scripture, seems to be one who “declares” the Gospel and the Person of Christ to those who have not heard. (It is not a church office or gift.) That would explain why it is very common in the Gospels and the Acts, but much less common in the epistles. For example, Noah was a preacher of righteousness, and was rejected by his audience.

Because a “prophet” is one who “speaks for God,” 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. In our culture, when we use the word “preacher,” we usually just mean a church-leader: a pastor, regardless of his gifting. So the different words can be a little confusing.

All these ideas are part of “feeding the flock,” and all of them could fall under the definition of the Greek word “bosko.” But what about Shepherding? Shepherding clearly includes “feeding the flock”, but also addresses the rest of the job. Is it really enough to just have “great words of encouragement or explanation” coming from the pulpit and from Bible classes? Evidently it is not, because Jesus said to do both the “feeding” and the “tending” or “shepherding!”

“Shepherd the Flock”

What does the Scripture actually say about Shepherds?Looking at the entirety of God’s word, regarding shepherding, at least six things become clear. We will only address three today:

  1. Sheep need a Shepherd. Sheep without a Shepherd are in immediate and deadly danger, even if no predator seems to be around. And, regarding the human flock of God, the greatest and deadliest predator in the world is around, according to 1st Pet 5:8. (Be sober! Be vigilant; for your enemy the devil walketh about as a roaring lion seeking whom he may devour!”)
    Even without the threat of predators, though; as sheep, we often don’t know the difference between good pasture and bad, still waters and treacherous, safe paths and dangerous ones, apart from our Great 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 34:1-10). We need Jesus, the Great Shepherd!
  2. God has assigned human shepherds. These shepherds are “sheep”, too, 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: not to be taken lightly or with wrong motives.
  3. The Work of the Shepherd has clear definition:

1st Peter 5:1-4 says that elders (Greek presbuteros) (who are also shepherds and overseers) are to:

  • Feed the flock of God. (KJV): (Here again, the Greek word is the verb poimanate: “to shepherd, or tend:” This would certainly include teaching, but it also includes the full scope of shepherding responsibilities.)
  • Take the oversight thereof (be an overseer) Take responsibility for the well-being of the flock. (Verb-form of episkopos…episkopountes.)
  • Do so willingly, not grudgingly. If you resent the responsibility you are not approaching the job with the attitude God says it requires!
  • Not for the sake of money. This does not mean that elders are not to be supported in their work, but it does meant that money had better not be their motive for serving.
  • Not lording it over the flock, (You aren’t anything “special!” Don’t act as though you are! Don’t be “bossy!”) but instead, to
  • Lead by example. The shepherds are to be living in such a way that the rest of the flock can “do as they do” and be confident that they are doing right (1st Corinthians 11:1.)
  • Expect a reward from Christ, (the “arch-shepherd,” or Chief shepherd) at His coming, for faithful service. (The contrast would be one who expects his reward from humans. Balaam fell into that trap.)

Ezekiel 34:1-16 (Read it!) says the shepherds are assigned seven tasks:

  1. Feed the sheep: (This means a steady provision of nourishment from God’s Word.)
  2. Strengthen those who are diseased: (This may imply corrective teaching, or encouragement and help to change self-destructive patterns.)
  3. Heal those who are sick: (very similar: promoting spiritual healing through Godly counsel. There is no indication that shepherds all have the gift of physical healing.) This could include corrective teaching to overcome previous misconceptions.
  4. 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 emotional wounds.)
  5. Seek out (and bring back) those who have been driven away: (Sometimes the wounded ones flee the flock, because they are unable to bear the stress of being around the one(s) who hurt them. Or, sometimes they simply are angry, and need to deal with the anger.)
  6. Seek the lost: (refers to both evangelism and reconciliation of the backslidden.)
  7. Prevent them from becoming prey to predators: (Guarding is implied, but not stated in this passage; it is clearly stated in Acts 20:28-30.)

This passage provides a checklist, against which any shepherd can compare himself and see whether he is actually doing the job he was sent to do. It also is a checklist we use when observing whether someone is called to that job: they will begin to do those things, simply because that is their gifting.

Acts 20:17, 28-30: 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 here is poimainein)
  • Be overseers. (Greek “episkopos bishops…supervisors.)

There are whole books written on the topic of Church leadership, not all of them even close to Biblical in focus, but I am not attempting to replace them today: I am only directing your attention to what the Bible clearly says about them. Some consider these ideas to be outdated, or no longer relevant for one reason or another. The Word of God has to stand as a unit. It is either eternally relevant, or it is not.

We will return to the topic of Church leadership next week:

If you want to study ahead, please read the qualifications for leadership in 1st Timothy 3:1-8, Titus 1:5-9, and re-read today’s scripture in 1st Peter 5:1-4. Remember that theseare not a “smorgasbord,” from which we can select our “favorite character traits,” but a comprehensive prerequisite: things that must all be true before a man is considered for the office of an Elder.

One thing we will see as we study this topic is that the leadership is always to be plural. There is only one example of a “solo” pastor of a church in scripture, and it was a bad example; a man who wanted to “be the star:” he wanted the preeminence. (3rd John 9, 10.) We want to avoid that sort of thing, and the best way to avoid it is to do things the way God says to do them!

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.