A hopeless leper sits outside the city commiserating with his diseased companions. A well-respected Roman centurion feels powerless as he watches his beloved servant laying paralyzed. Two tormented men, ravaged by the effects of demon possession, haunt cold tombs by a herd of swine. A penniless woman leaves her home knowing this day, like each day for the past twelve years, would be one of social stigma and rejection. Blind men set up shop outside the temple where they will once again cast their livelihood upon the charity of faceless strangers. A father leads his family to synagogue while contemplating whether God is indeed merciful, or if he shares the heartless character of the legalistic religious rulers who dominate so much of their lives. It was into the milieu of this culture that Jesus stepped when he began his earthly ministry. How would he respond?
Matthew 9:36 When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.
As we learned in our last lesson, Jesus was the promised Messiah who would take up David’s throne as shepherd-king. We also learned that Jesus was the satisfaction of God’s promise to shepherd his people directly, in the face of the failures of his under-shepherds.
When we witness Jesus’ incarnation and his earthly ministry, what we are witnessing is God himself finally stepping onto the scene to gather his lost sheep to himself and to provide for them the tender watchcare which they desperately needed. This is why Jesus, upon seeing the state of Israel, had such a visceral reaction. The one with the perfect shepherd’s heart was moved with compassion when he saw his suffering sheep.
Matthew tells us that Jesus perceived the people to be “harassed and helpless.” Harassed, in that they were dominated by a hypocritical, legalistic, and unspiritual religious class who, instead of leading them into relationship with their creator, burdened them with manmade rules and slammed the gate of the kingdom of heaven in their faces. The religious class in Jesus’ day were the spiritual progeny of the wicked under-shepherds we read about in Jeremiah, and Ezekiel in our last lesson. They were men who claimed to be spiritual shepherds but abused the sheep.
Jesus also saw the people as helpless. That is, like sheep they needed a shepherd. They were like a scattered flock, wandering, lost, hungry, thirsty, injured and in danger. They needed the provision, protection and guidance that only a faithful, tender shepherd could provide. Jesus was exactly the shepherd they needed.
This morning, if you find yourself feeling harassed and helpless, burdened by your sin and your lostness; convinced of your own inability to cure your spiritual condition, Jesus is just the shepherd that you need too.
The Shepherd Gets to Work
The shepherd had arrived on the scene only to find the sheep harassed and helpless. He had his work cut out for him, and so he got right to it.
Matthew 9:35 And Jesus went throughout all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction.
Matthew 4:23-25 And he went throughout all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction among the people. 24 So his fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought him all the sick, those afflicted with various diseases and pains, those oppressed by demons, those having seizures, and paralytics, and he healed them. 25 And great crowds followed him from Galilee and the Decapolis, and from Jerusalem and Judea, and from beyond the Jordan.
Jesus’ ministry was marked by words and wonders of mercy. His miracles were never mere showmanship. They were acts of mercy meant to convey both the power and compassion of the Lord. They lent credence to Jesus’ claims of being the Son of God, and provided a foretaste of the coming kingdom when all sin and suffering would be eradicated.
Everywhere Jesus went he alleviated physical, social, spiritual, and religious suffering. He brought real rest to a distressed people. A rest they had been denied by the reigning religious class. Picture it – masses of individuals beginning to physically follow Jesus as he supplied healing, guidance, solace and rest. The way in which Jesus conducted his earthly ministry was like that of a shepherd calling into the wilderness and gathering together a scattered, and suffering flock. He cried out, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest,” and many came running.
It’s no wonder that Peter described our salvation in this way:
1 Peter 2:25 For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.
And that Jesus described his own ministry in these terms:
Matthew 15:24 He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”
Jesus, the Good Shepherd, had finally come and the harassed and helpless sheep could at last find rest for their souls.
Healing Hidden Hurts
Because a sheep has a thick coat of wool, it can be difficult to see underlying conditions which might be causing it pain or discomfort. A caring shepherd will use his rod to part a sheep’s wool so that he can see the skin beneath. Just as this shepherd might detect an otherwise unseen, underlying problem leading to a sheep’s misbehaviour, so too Jesus could see right to the heart of what tormented individuals. He could see past the physical manifestations of their soul anguish and treat it at its source.
Although the gospels feature many accounts of Jesus healing those suffering physically, they also record many instances where Jesus proved himself to be the shepherd of souls – looking past the outward, even sinful behaviour of individuals, and getting to the heart of the matter. In these situations, Jesus was shown to have a keen awareness of just what it was that was distressing people, and just how to bring rest. Like a good shepherd, he was empathetic to their suffering, sympathetic to their weaknesses, and knew how to perfectly address both.
Consider Jesus’ interaction with the Samaritan woman at the well as recorded in John 4. In this woman existed a serious emptiness which she sought to fill through illegitimate means. It appears her chosen idol was men. She longed for joy, or happiness, or security, or meaning and felt she could find it through relationships. She burned through five marriages and hadn’t yet learned her lesson. Her present live-in boyfriend didn’t bring happiness either. When Jesus met her, knowing her life situation, he knew exactly what she needed.
Jesus saw past this woman’s sinful choices and religious misconceptions and offered her what her soul needed. She needed an intimate relationship with her creator. She needed forgiveness. She needed eternal life.
Like a shepherd might lead a sheep to water, Jesus offered this woman water which would “become a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” She could find satisfaction, but only after she stopped her wandering and returned to the shepherd of her soul. Jesus called her, provided the healing she needed, and added her to his flock.
Consider also the woman with the discharge of blood who desperately touched the hem of Jesus’ garment, seeking healing. This woman suffered for twelve years (perhaps since puberty) with a condition which left her persistently ceremonially unclean, and socially ostracized. For all intents and purposes, she was an outcast, barred from both the temple and the synagogue.
It was not permitted for her to mix with the crowd but in her desperation, she threw off all social convention and pushed through the masses to reach for Jesus’ robe. The cover of the crowd provided her the comfort of anonymity. But just then, her worst nightmare – Jesus stopped moving and addressed the crowd, He asks “who was it that touched me?” Her cover was blown.
The woman came trembling before Jesus, and the crowd. Would he be displeased with her? Would he reverse her cure? This woman, acclimated to a life of solitude now finds herself as the center of attention. With a mix of emotions, she testifies to the crowd that the moment she touched Jesus, she was healed.
What is amazing, and instructive in Jesus’ interaction with this woman is found in what he says next:
Luke 8:48 And he said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace.”
In an act of tenderness and divine insight, Jesus calls this woman “daughter.” For twelve years she had felt the pain of rejection, but now he speaks words of acceptance. For over a decade she had felt cast out by the Jewish religious leaders but now Jesus affirms her identity as a daughter of God. Jesus acknowledged her faith and told her she could be assured of her standing before her heavenly Father. She came with an anguished soul, but left with peace. As a shepherd might comfort a sheep, distressed because it has been separated from the flock, Jesus offered this woman the comfort she needed, and welcomed her back into the fold.
As the Good Shepherd, Jesus reminds us that individuals are souls. This is an important reminder in a culture where people like to define themselves by their political beliefs, or sexual preferences. It becomes too easy for us to look at people as if they are their ideas, or are their sin. Instead, we should practice seeing others as precious souls, made in the image of their creator who need Jesus’ tender compassion and saving power. This is exactly what Jesus did, as he welcomed sinners into his fold.
Jesus, Friend of Sinners
Sinners, though culpable for their sin, are also sufferers. We all exist in a fallen world, suffering the effects of sin all around us, and struggling with the influence of sin within us (Romans 7). Jesus understood the human condition perfectly and so maintained a compassion toward sinners, while simultaneously rejecting their sin. This perfect balance of holiness on one hand, and compassion toward sinners on the other was highly unusual within the religious context of his day. It’s for this reason that when news got out about this man who preached repentance, yet loved sinners, the sinners flocked to him.
Luke 15:1 Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him.
The religious class of Jesus’ day were judgmental hypocrites. They saw sinners as enemies to be resisted instead of a mission field to be won. Consequently, moral outcasts saw nothing appealing about their religious system. On the other hand, when Jesus came, perfectly representing the holiness and compassion of the Father, these sinners came to him in droves. Instead of learning from his example however, the Jews responded predictably:
Luke 15:2 And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.”
Sinners rushed to Jesus like a suffocating man might rush to fresh air. They had become accustomed to the stifling religion of the Pharisees and saw no appeal in it. They knew they were enemies of the religious class and saw no hope in their system. What a reminder to us that standing in judgment of the world and viewing sinners as enemies is no way to shine as lights in darkness. We should preach the loving compassion of Jesus and pray that unbelievers see us as offering the same life-giving mercy that Jesus preached.
The hard-heartedness of the religious leaders (who were ostensibly operating as God’s under-shepherds), continually grieved Jesus. On this occasion, he responded to their criticism by telling a parable. As we should expect, it was a parable about shepherding.
Luke 15:3-7 So he told them this parable: 4 “What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open country, and go after the one that is lost, until he finds it? 5 And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. 6 And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ 7 Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.
When the religious rulers saw sinners, they saw moral reprobates fit for judgment. When Jesus saw sinners, he saw wandering sheep in need of rescue. Just as a shepherd might leave his ninety-nine sheep who are safe and secure, to go after one lost sheep who is in danger, so too faithful spiritual leaders should be willing to leave the confines of their comfortable religious community to seek out sinners.
Because sheep are flock animals, when they are lost, they become very distressed. The missing sheep in Jesus’ parable may have been separated because if was fleeing a predator, or because it had fallen over (MN: famously, sheep sometimes can’t right themselves after they’ve rolled on their backs), or because it was injured. Regardless of the reason, its present state was one of isolation and distress. It was helpless and in need of a shepherd who cared enough about it to leave the existing flock, and come find it.
Note also, the joy which the shepherd experiences when he finds his lost sheep. He’s so happy that is sheep has been recovered, that he throws a party and invites his friends and neighbours! Does that seem a bit over the top? It was Jesus’ way of capturing the joy of the Father when a sinner repents of their sin and is restored to him.
The religious elite were criticizing Jesus for being a friend of sinners. Incredibly, what they were actually criticizing was the heart of God toward the lost. They were so far removed from what should have been their calling as God’s under-shepherds that when they saw someone actually carrying out the responsibilities of a spiritual shepherd, they were disgusted by it.
In being a friend of sinners, Jesus was fulfilling God’s promise of one day coming to shepherd his people directly:
Ezekiel 34:11-16 “For thus says the Lord GOD: Behold, I, I myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out. 12 As a shepherd seeks out his flock when he is among his sheep that have been scattered, so will I seek out my sheep, and I will rescue them from all places where they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. 13 And I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land. And I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the ravines, and in all the inhabited places of the country. 14 I will feed them with good pasture, and on the mountain heights of Israel shall be their grazing land. There they shall lie down in good grazing land, and on rich pasture they shall feed on the mountains of Israel. 15 I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I myself will make them lie down, declares the Lord GOD. 16 I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, and the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them in justice.
Jesus was a friend of sinners because God has compassion upon the lost. It was this compassion which drove him to see beneath their sin, to its source. He knew their problem was spiritual, and so it required a spiritual solution. Its for this reason that Jesus sometimes described his ministry as that of a physician healing the sick:
Matthew 9:11-13 And when the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” 12 But when he heard it, he said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. 13 Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”
Spiritual shepherding requires a compassion upon the lost, a willingness to seek them out, a sensitivity to their real needs, and the ability to offer appropriate spiritual solutions. Then, when a sinner repents of their sin, a tenderhearted shepherd will rejoice, knowing that God in heaven is rejoicing along with him!
The Good Shepherd
Jesus came as the shepherd of God’s covenant people. As such he called men and women to himself, lead them to repentance, gave them eternal life, and promised to be with them forever. Like a good shepherd he provides everything they need for life and godliness, protects them from the enemies of their souls, and guides them into righteousness. Yet, there remains an aspect of Jesus’ shepherding ministry which stands above all the rest. As we will learn in the tenth chapter of John, as the good shepherd, Jesus came to secure the life of his sheep, by sacrificing his own.
John 10:1-5 “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who does not enter the sheepfold by the door but climbs in by another way, that man is a thief and a robber. 2 But he who enters by the door is the shepherd of the sheep. 3 To him the gatekeeper opens. The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. 4 When he has brought out all his own, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice. 5 A stranger they will not follow, but they will flee from him, for they do not know the voice of strangers.”
Sometimes multiple flocks of sheep might be held together in a common field and be overseen by a hired gatekeeper. When a shepherd came to the gate to receive his flock the gatekeeper would open, the shepherd would call his sheep, those who recognized his voice would come out of the mixed crowd, fall-in behind their shepherd, and begin to follow him.
In the first part of Jesus’ parable about sheep, he presents himself as the true shepherd who both owns and knows the sheep. The special relationship he has with the sheep is made evident when he calls them because they recognize his voice and follow him.
This is a tender relationship of trust, familiarity, and dependence on the part of the sheep and care, knowledge, responsibility, and ownership on the part of the shepherd. Jesus’ followers belong to him like sheep belong to a shepherd. He knows them intimately, cares for them tenderly, leads them gently, and protects them continuously.
Whether one belongs to Jesus or not is revealed as he calls out men and women to follow him. Those who belong to Jesus answer his call by falling-in behind him. Those who do not belong to him, do not come but rather ignore his voice.
APP: This morning, if you have responded to Jesus’ call to repentance and faith in him, you have proven yourself to be his sheep. You’ve responded to the voice of the shepherd and entered his fold.
Notice also in verse 3, that Jesus does not drive his flock as some might drive cattle but instead leads them.
John 10:3 To him the gatekeeper opens. The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.
Leading instead of driving is only possible if the sheep are following willingly and trustingly. This reminds us of Isaiah 40:11:
Isaiah 40:11 He will tend his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms; he will carry them in his bosom, and gently lead those that are with young.
Jesus does not drive his sheep with fear and intimidation. Instead, he has proven himself to be meek, gentle, loving, compassionate, merciful and trustworthy and has therefore naturally drawn his sheep to himself. If one’s concept of Jesus is that of a harsh taskmaster demanding compliance under threat of disapproval and punishment, then they’ve gotten it wrong. Jesus leads his sheep; he does not drive them.
Finally in verse 3, we see that Jesus knows his sheep by name.
John 10:3 To him the gatekeeper opens. The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.
Although Jesus is the Good Shepherd, leading a flock, he knows each one of his sheep by name. Although there are millions of men and women who belong to Jesus the world over, he knows each one intimately, personally. He knows our personality, our character, our strengths, our weakness. He knows our worries, our anxieties, our struggles and our sin. He knows our sorrows, our regrets, and our feelings of guilt and failure. He knows who we are, and he knows exactly how he can meet the deepest longings of our heart. Jesus knows his sheep.
Next in John 10, Jesus shifts to another sheep-related analogy. He says:
John 10:7-10 So Jesus again said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep. 8 All who came before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them. 9 I am the door. If anyone enters by me, he will be saved and will go in and out and find pasture. 10 The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.
With this statement, Jesus is making a direct reference to Psalm 23 which reads, “The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake” (Ps 23:1-3). In doing so, he is presenting himself as one with Yahweh (the LORD).
The divine shepherd of David’s psalm who provides rest and sustenance and spiritual restoration, is present in the person of Jesus. Further, if anyone would experience that rest, they must come through him. Salvation, abundant life, and spiritual rest are the exclusive privileges of Jesus’ sheep (cf. John 10:25-27). Jesus said elsewhere, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. (John 14:6)”
So far Jesus has presented himself as the good shepherd by stating that he is the one who owns the sheep, who knows the names of the sheep, whose voice the sheep recognize, whose leadership the sheep follow, and the one who provides true rest for the sheep. Next, Jesus offers the greatest evidence that he is indeed the good shepherd:
John 10:11-15 I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12 He who is a hired hand and not a shepherd, who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees, and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. 13 He flees because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep. 14 I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep.
If a shepherd truly cared for his sheep the way a good shepherd should, he would be willing to place his life in danger for their wellbeing. When David recounted his time as a young shepherd, he said to Saul, “Your servant used to keep sheep for his father. And when there came a lion, or a bear, and took a lamb from the flock, I went after him and struck him and delivered it out of his mouth. And if he arose against me, I caught him by his beard and struck him and killed him” (1 Samuel 17:34-35). David understood that protecting the flock meant potentially endangering the shepherd’s life.
Jesus however is not talking about a willingness to potentially endanger himself for the temporal safety of his people. Rather, he is saying that he has come with the express purpose of laying down his life in order to save the sheep. This is the only way to provide them with eternal life. The rest and pasture which Jesus has promised to his sheep can only be secured through his sacrificial death.
According to Jesus, only a good shepherd would give himself for the sheep, because only he has a genuine care for the sheep. It’s because of this intimate relationship in which his sheep know him, and he knows the sheep, that he is willing to make the ultimate sacrifice.
After a long history of unfaithful shepherds who were willing to sacrifice the sheep for their own profit, Jesus came to sacrifice himself for the sheep. His willingness to die for the sheep flowed from his tender care for them. When he looked at the sheep, he saw precious souls who were tormented by their lost state and were helpless to rectify it. Moved with compassion, he gave himself on the cross to defeat the enemies of their souls.
Through his sacrificial death, Jesus secured salvation for his people. Because of the torment he endured, they could enjoy rest. Because he bore the iniquity of his straying sheep, they could find peace. Or, as the prophet Isaiah put it:
John 21:25 Now there are also many other things that Jesus did. Were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.
During his earthly ministry Jesus walked about as the Good Shepherd, calling men and women to himself and showing them the path to spiritual rest. But what about after his death and resurrection? How did he ensure that his sheep would continue to be shepherded in his absence?
The Good Shepherd Chooses Under-Shepherds
As Jesus carried out his earthly ministry as the good shepherd, he kept eleven of his disciples especially close. Jesus would continually find opportunities to teach, train, and correct these men with the intention of preparing them to build his church. These disciples, later named apostles, would be called by Jesus to adopt his shepherd’s heart and to lead his people with the same tender compassion which he exemplified. This training continued, even after Jesus’ death and resurrection:
John 21:14-17 This was now the third time that Jesus was revealed to the disciples after he was raised from the dead. 15 When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Feed my lambs.” 16 He said to him a second time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Tend my sheep.” 17 He said to him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter was grieved because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” and he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep.
After Jesus was arrested, Peter succumbed to fear and denied him three times. After his resurrection, Jesus mercifully appeared to Peter and provided him with an opportunity to counter those three denials with three confessions of love. Peter learned his lesson and with each opportunity unashamedly expressed his love for Jesus. Notice how Jesus responds to Peter each time he expresses his love. He says “Feed my lambs.”; “Tend my sheep.”; and “Feed my sheep.”
Considering everything we’ve learned in the last two lessons; this is a remarkable passage. We’ve seen incredible failures by those who claimed to be God’s under-shepherds in the past, and we’ve seen promises that God would answer those failures by shepherding his people directly. Now however, we find Jesus, the promised Davidic shepherd-king, entrusting his sheep to another group of under-shepherds. How could this be?
Even this was prophesied. Immediately before Jeremiah prophesied that the Lord would “raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land,” he said:
Jeremiah 23:4 I will set shepherds over them who will care for them, and they shall fear no more, nor be dismayed, neither shall any be missing, declares the LORD.
Jeremiah had also previously prophesied:
Jeremiah 3:15 “‘And I will give you shepherds after my own heart, who will feed you with knowledge and understanding.
God’s plan to have his Messiah shepherd his covenant people directly, did not preclude the delegation of those shepherding duties to under-shepherds. In fact, such an arrangement was in God’s plans from the beginning. What would be entirely different this time however was that these under-shepherds would be regenerated individuals who had the presence of Christ always with them, in the person of the Holy Spirit. Jesus would shepherd his sheep, through Christlike under-shepherds, who were themselves led by the Holy Spirit.
Peter, and by extension the other apostles, were called to care for Jesus’ sheep. He entrusted his flock to them prior to his ascension and then empowered his chosen under-shepherds to carry out their duties by sending his Spirit.
We see a glimpse of Christ’s shepherd’s heart in the Apostles as Paul wrote to the church in Thessalonica, he said:
1 Thessalonians 2:7-8 But we were gentle among you, like a nursing mother taking care of her own children. 8 So, being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us.
The same tender love which led Jesus to give himself for the life of the sheep continued in the ministry of the apostles. Though they could never atone for sin, as Jesus did, they could care for his sheep with a Christlike love.
Pastors as Under-Shepherds
Does it seem strange to you that Jesus would entrust the shepherding of his beloved sheep, whom he purchased via this blood, to the apostles? If so, you will be amazed by what we see next.
After the descent of the Holy Spirit, the apostles were only twelve in number (a number that would not increase). The Lord’s plan was to create a sort of new Israel, under a new covenant, constituted by spiritually new people. The twelve tribes had given way to twelve apostles. These twelve were foundational to the church so that when their tasks were finished, they would pass off the scene.
Since God’s plan did not include apostolic succession, how would the shepherding work which God entrusted to the apostles carry on after their deaths? More urgently, how would the shepherding be manageable as the first-century church exploded in growth?
From the early years of the church in Jerusalem we see that God’s plan for leadership in his church included both the apostles, and elders. Consider the following passages:
Acts 14:23 And when they had appointed elders for them in every church, with prayer and fasting they committed them to the Lord in whom they had believed.
Acts 15:2 And after Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them, Paul and Barnabas and some of the others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and the elders about this question.
Acts 20:17 Now from Miletus he sent to Ephesus and called the elders of the church to come to him.
The apostles provided teaching, leadership, guidance and correction during their earthly lives, while also penning the scriptures. However, their ministries were intended to be temporary. When they passed from the scene, the leadership model which they left in place was that of a plurality of (non-apostolic) elders exercising oversight in each local church. These men were charged with continuing in the apostle’s doctrine, and faithfully shepherding the flocks with which they were entrusted.
Consider Paul’s interaction with the elders of the church in Ephesus. As Paul looks ahead to his journey to Jerusalem and his likely martyrdom, he gives these men a final charge regarding their pastoral responsibilities. He says:
Acts 20:28 Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood.
From this text it is apparent that when Jesus entrusted Peter and the apostles with the task of “tending his lambs,” this included the training up of other faithful men who could help bear those responsibilities during the apostolic age and forever thereafter.
These elders were appointed by the Holy Spirit as overseers, and entrusted with the precious flock whom Jesus purchased with his own blood. These are serious responsibilities to be entrusted to men. Yet, it is this delegation of shepherding (or pastoral) duties which has been the pattern for Christ’s church from the first century, to present day, and will continue to be until Jesus returns.
Peter, to whom Jesus’ flock was first entrusted, would later write to fellow elders:
1 Peter 5:1-4 So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: 2 shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; 3 not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock. 4 And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory.
Notice that Peter does not refer to himself as an apostle here, but as a “fellow elder.” Why would he do this? Because, when it comes to shepherding God’s people, the apostles and the elders shared the same responsibilities. Jesus entrusted Peter with the task of tending his lambs and Peter knew this task included the training up elders who would carry on this watchcare long after his death.
Peter goes on to encourage the elders to “shepherd the flock of God” and to do so with watchful, gentle, willing and exemplary hearts. He then encourages them to remain faithful as they look forward to giving an account of their stewardship to the chief Shepherd. The age of the apostles was ending, but the example they left in how to shepherd Christ’s sheep would live on until Christ’s return, in the office of elder.
This leadership model of a plurality of elders in every local church, taking up the responsibilities of shepherding Jesus’ flock, just as he would, was in place even before we get out of the first century. This is clear in Paul’s letter to Titus as he wrote:
Titus 1:5 This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you—
The legacy of the apostles would be carried on in local churches as a plurality of elders would assume the task of shepherding Christ’s sheep. In our church, our desire is to fall in line with God’s design for his local church and ensure that we are led by a plurality of qualified elders who are determined to shepherd the flock just as Jesus would.
In our next lesson we will consider some attitudes which are essential if elders are to follow the example of the Good Shepherd, in shepherding his sheep.
The terms elder, pastor, and shepherd are interchangeable terms in the New Testament. They each refer to the office of overseer which God has instituted as the pattern of leadership over his church.
As you consider whether or not you desire and are qualified for the office of elder, you should know that the office is nothing short of taking up a delegated oversight over Jesus’ sheep. To be an elder is to be entrusted by the Holy Spirit with a stewardship over the flock for whom Jesus gave his life. It is to serve as under-shepherd to the chief Shepherd, with a willingness to one day give an account to him.
As stewards of the Good Shepherd’s sheep, we as elders must lead and love like Jesus. We must share a Christlike compassion which is moved by the spiritual plight of others. We must be so empathetic toward the suffering which sin inflicts that we desire to usher others into the spiritual rest which only Christ offers. We must be so tenderhearted and spiritually minded that we can perceive the hidden hurts of others and offer appropriate spiritual solutions. We must embody the Good Shepherd’s balance between loving holiness, while also showing love to sinners. Finally, as shepherds, pastors, or elders, we must recognize that to follow Jesus in shepherding means the likelihood that we will sometimes suffer for the wellbeing of the sheep.
I hope this lesson gives you a sense of the weightiness of shepherding while also sparking within you a passion to be used by Jesus to gather and lead his sheep.