On a dusty road, along the sea, atop a mountain, on a grassy plain, in a boat, by the temple, or outside a Samaritan village. For Jesus, any location could serve as an ideal classroom for his disciples. Wherever the Good Shepherd went, he found occasion to instruct his disciples in what it meant to love and lead God’s people. Unfortunately, like most of us when we were in school, the disciples did not appreciate the value of what they were learning in the moment. However, the lessons they learned in the footsteps of the Good Shepherd would later be used by the Spirit to train them up as Jesus’ faithful under-shepherds.
We know the disciples would eventually graduate from Christ’s school of shepherding because their later examples and writings bear it out. These men became Christlike shepherds, caring for God’s flock just like the Lord himself. They would also eventually become teachers themselves, living exemplary lives and penning the scriptures in order to train up future generations of faithful under-shepherds.
In this message we will consider some lessons directly from Jesus, and some from the apostles, each helping us build a profile of what a faithful spiritual shepherd ought to be. As you consider your aspiration, and qualification for the office of elder, humbly sit at their feet, allowing their lessons to challenge, change, or even correct you.
A Short Profile of a Spiritual Shepherd
It is important when dealing with metaphors (and the analogies which flow from them), not to push them beyond what they can bear. Keeping this caution in mind, we remain struck with just how rich with meaning and application “shepherd” as metaphor really is. The character of the shepherd, the nature of the sheep and the discipline of shepherding, all have obvious correlations to what it means to pastor God’s people.
As we consider a short profile of a spiritual shepherd in this limited space, feel the freedom to allow your mind to wander to green pastures where, upon observing a faithful shepherd, you might find even greater applications to what it means to lead Christ’s church.
The Faithful Shepherd is a Steward
While every pastor/elder is called possess the character of a shepherd, and carry out the responsibilities of a shepherd, he must do so while recognizing that he is not the owner of the sheep. That is, in the context of the church, every elder is an under-shepherd, serving to lead the flock which first belongs to Jesus.
Jesus is the Chief Shepherd, and elders are his under-shepherds. Or we could say, Jesus is the owner, and elders are his stewards.
A steward is one who acts as a representative of another. He manages the affairs, tends the duties, or oversees the property of the owner. He does these things with the goal of advancing the interests of the owner, and not those of his own.
A good steward is trustworthy, wise and accountable. Trustworthy in that the owner must have confidence that he can entrust him with his goods without hesitation. He is wise since he must make judgments on how best to manage what he has been given in order to produce the greatest results for the owner. Finally, he must be accountable since his charge does not belong to him, but to the owner, and he must one day answer for how he has managed it.
As elders, we are stewards of the watchcare of God’s people.
Before Jesus ascended to the Father, he charged Peter to, “Feed my lambs;” “Tend my sheep;” and “Feed my sheep.” There was no question as to whom the sheep belonged. These were Jesus’ sheep being entrusted to the watchcare of Peter and the other apostles. He remained the owner, and they were called as stewards. He remained the Chief Shepherd, and they were commissioned as under-shepherds.
It is this stewardship with which elders were also entrusted. Consider Paul’s farewell speech to the elders in the Ephesian church:
Acts 20:26-31 Therefore I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all, for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God. 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. I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them. Therefore be alert, remembering that for three years I did not cease night or day to admonish every one with tears.
We will return to this important passage repeatedly throughout this book. For the purposes of this message, look closely at verse 28. According to Paul, the elders in Ephesus were made “overseers” over the church of God, by the Holy Spirit. The word for “overseers” here is episkopos. It includes the ideas of a watcher, guardian, or supervisor.
Notice next that as the elders exercised oversight, they were to “care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood.” The word “care” is literally “tend like a shepherd.” The fact that the flock has been “obtained with [God’s] own blood” is meant by Paul to emphasize God’s ownership, and the church’s value. A tremendous price has been paid by the Lord to purchase his church and he now has rightful ownership of it. It’s this precious church which he has now entrusted to elders to “tend like shepherds.”
Jesus, the Good Shepherd, laid down his life for the sheep, spilling his own blood to purchase them. The Father gave his own son, crushing him for the sins of unworthy people, so that he could build his church. The church is of immeasurable worth, not because of the collective worthiness of its members, but because of the cost with which it was secured. MN: Eph 5, Christ’s love for the church.
It is this blood-bought flock which has been entrusted to us.
As elders, the reality that God has paid the highest cost in order to secure the church should lead us to “pay careful attention…to all the flock.” We are stewards over God’s most valuable possession. How careful then should we be with how we handle it!
Notice also that Paul charged the elders in Ephesus not only to pay careful attention to the flock, but to “pay careful attention to yourselves.” We will deal with the idea of the elder’s self-watch at great length in a later message but for now, simply consider that the value of the charge with which we have been entrusted should not only lead us to be careful with how we handle God’s people, but should also lead us to keep watch over our own character and purity.
Since, as God’s stewards, we’ve been entrusted with the tremendous responsibility of overseeing Christ’s invaluable church, we must stay fit for the job. To stick to the metaphor, the hard work of keeping watch over the flock requires that the shepherd to be in shape. As spiritual leaders this means remaining spiritually qualified for the job by tending to our own spiritual disciplines.
For Peter this included having to come face to face with the question of his own love for Jesus before he could be entrusted with Christ’s sheep (John 21). If he truly loved Jesus, then he would love what Jesus loved (cf. Eph 5:25ff; 2 Cor 2:4).
Paul develops these same ideas in the letter he wrote to Titus. Paul left Titus on the island of Crete in order to ensure that the fledgling congregations there might be established as organized local churches. He said to Titus:
Titus 1:5-9 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— if anyone is above reproach, the husband of one wife, and his children are believers and not open to the charge of debauchery or insubordination. For an overseer, as God’s steward, must be above reproach. He must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain, but hospitable, a lover of good, self-controlled, upright, holy, and disciplined. He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.
For Paul, a church was not set in order until it had qualified leadership appointed to oversee it. Titus had the task of going from town to town, seeking out qualified men from within each congregation whom he may appoint to oversee them.
Notice that in the midst Paul’s list of qualifications, the apostle states, “For an overseer, as God’s steward, must be above reproach.” The fact that an overseer is a steward of God requires that he keep a careful watch over his own character. As a steward, he would be charged with loving and leading God’s people, just as the Lord himself would love and lead them. An impossible task if that man were to lack the appropriate spiritual character. After all, one cannot lead like Christ if he is not first Christlike.
An elder who recognizes that he has been entrusted with the precious flock which Jesus purchased with his own blood, will handle it with care. He will love, value, and protect the church. He will speak to the church tenderly, guide it patiently, correct it gently, and protect it vigilantly. He will faithfully execute his duties, while maintaining a necessary self-watch. In all things, he will keep his eyes on Jesus, loving and leading the sheep just as would the Chief Shepherd. He will do all of this knowing that, as an elder, he will one day give an account to the Lord for his stewardship. Then, according to Peter, “when the chief Shepherd appears, [he] will receive the unfading crown of glory. (1 Pet 5:4)”
Next, consider that a faithful shepherd is not only a steward, but that he must also assume the character of a servant.
The Faithful Shepherd is a Servant
When Jesus’ disciples considered leadership, their minds would likely have gone to the examples set by the religious leaders in the synagogue, or to the civil leaders in Rome. They certainly would not have considered the shepherds in the fields. That however is exactly where the Lord would have their minds go.
On multiple occasions Jesus challenged his disciples to rethink their notions of leadership. He would have them realize that leading his church would not be a matter of self-serving authority, but of selfless service.
Consider the lesson Jesus gave his disciples after two of them requested seats of honour in his kingdom:
Matthew 20:25-28 But Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
When James and John asked Jesus if they could be given positions of prestige, even over the other disciples, he detected in them an attitude common to the leadership culture of the world. Jesus would have to divest them of this worldly thinking if they would ever be fit to lead his church.
The unbelieving civil authorities loved their authority, and not the people. They relished in “throwing their weight around” and dominating those who were subject to them. They were harsh, dictatorial and unrelenting. These leaders would use their positions of authority to intimidate their charges and to demand submission. The same could be said about the hypocritical religious leadership which was dominant in Jesus’ day. These were unfaithful shepherds, driving the sheep like a herd, instead of leading it like a flock. MN: leading sheep, not driving.
To be sure, the office of elder in invested with serious authority (something we will consider in a later message), but this authority is to be held with the tender love of Jesus. This is a love which sees others as people to be served, not people to be served by. Jesus drives this point home by offering himself as the ultimate standard of leadership. He says that we ought to serve one another “even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
From this we learn that eldership is service. It is not a comfortable position of authority, which sees others tend to our wants. Instead, it is a calling which requires self-sacrifice in service to others.
Matthew reports for us that when James and John asked Jesus about a position of privilege, the ten remaining disciples heard it, and were indignant. Because they were selfless men who had already learned that to lead was to sacrifice? Unlikely. It is more likely that they were indignant because they had the same attitude of rivalry and were afraid James and John would be granted what they asked!
One thing is sure, the disciples (except Judas) would learn Jesus’ lessons on leadership and would put them into practice. We see an example of this as Peter wrote to church 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: 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; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock. And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory.
Peter, to whom Jesus said, “tend my sheep” became a faithful shepherd and a teacher of fellow shepherds. In his first letter above, he offers the leadership lessons he learned from Jesus to the next generation of elders. According to Peter, in order to “shepherd the flock of God… as God would have [them],” these elders would have to exercise oversight without being “domineering over those in [their] charge.” In place of the domineering leadership style so prevalent around them, these elders were to focus on being examples to the flock. First and foremost, their leadership looked like living like Jesus and leading others to do the same.
Humble Foot Washers
The above is not the only example of Jesus giving leadership lessons to his disciples, nor is it the most powerful. For that, we must look to the upper room where Jesus hosted one last supper with his disciples before his death.
John 13:3-7,12-17 Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going back to God, rose from supper. He laid aside his outer garments, and taking a towel, tied it around his waist. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was wrapped around him. He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, do you wash my feet?” Jesus answered him, “What I am doing you do not understand now, but afterward you will understand.”…When he had washed their feet and put on his outer garments and resumed his place, he said to them, “Do you understand what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you. Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.
You can imagine how dirty the sandal-clad feet of the average Jew would become as they walked through the dry, dusty paths of their day. It was the humble task of the house servant, or slave, to wash the dust off the feet of visiting guests. The humiliating nature of this task is reflected in Peter’s outrage and his refusal to allow Christ to wash his feet. So, why did Jesus, the Lord of glory, humble himself to perform the lowly task of a slave? He was setting an unforgettable example of servant-leadership. MN: Ezekiel, shepherds condemned as “lords of the flock”
Jesus said, “You call me teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am” and then proceeded to perform the task of a humble house servant. His point was that his status as Lord of all, did not stop him from acting as Servant to all.
We often clamour for status and prestige. Some work their entire lives to attain titles or positions of prominence. These hard-won credentials are not easily laid aside, but are generally defended with zeal. We work hard to rise to the top of the pecking order and then do whatever we must to ward off any challengers.
On the contrary, Jesus has called us to lay down our arms in the battle for prominence and instead give ourselves in service to one another. Unlike us, he actually had a claim to a greater worthiness, yet he laid it aside (cf. Php 2). How much the more should we, who are all equals, forgo the battle for status and instead serve one another?
The office of elder is not an office to be sought out of a desire for prominence or prestige. It is the exact opposite. The office of elder is the office of a perpetual servant. Like a shepherd gives his life to care for the sheep, so too the pastor dedicates his life to humbly serve others, without consideration of their worthiness.
Having considered that a faithful shepherd is both a steward and a servant, let’s turn now to think about how the elder also functions as a sentinel.
The Faithful Shepherd is a Sentinel
A sentinel is a watchman charged with standing guard against intruders or aggressors. It’s easy to see how a shepherd must serve as a sentinel. He must constantly be on guard against wolves, and other predators. He must always be watchful against plagues of potentially dangerous insects, or other pests. He must be vigilant, inoculating against disease and preventing its spread. He must even be on guard against dangerous weather and ready to spring into action to lead his sheep to shelter.
It’s the thought of this sort of vigilant watchcare which the writer of Hebrews sought to evoke when he wrote:
Hebrews 13:17 Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.
Elders are vigilant watchmen keeping guard over the souls with whom they have been entrusted. We see echoes of stewardship here as well, since these sentinels are motivated to keep their watch in light of the future accounting which will take place at the coming of Jesus. One day Jesus will require the elders to give an answer for how well they have protected the church.
The idea of “keeping watch” includes the idea of not only staying alert, but staying awake. A faithful shepherd knows what it is to go without sleep. Whether it be remaining on guard against nocturnal predators, administering care to sick or labouring sheep, or even protecting against thieves, the safety of his flock takes precedence over even his own rest. MN: Shepherds at night at Jesus birth.
The prophet Isaiah condemned the unfaithful shepherds of Israel who indulged themselves, while turning a blind eye to the vulnerability of the sheep:
Isaiah 56:9-12 All you beasts of the field, come to devour— all you beasts in the forest. His watchmen are blind; they are all without knowledge; they are all silent dogs; they cannot bark, dreaming, lying down, loving to slumber. The dogs have a mighty appetite; they never have enough. But they are shepherds who have no understanding; they have all turned to their own way, each to his own gain, one and all. “Come,” they say, “let me get wine; let us fill ourselves with strong drink; and tomorrow will be like this day, great beyond measure.”
Due to the lazy, self-indulgent, and short-sighted shepherds, the sheep were the easy targets of predators. Those charged with keeping watch were blind. The men charged with warding off predators were silent. The shepherds called to stay alert loved sleep more than they loved the sheep.
The prophet Ezekiel also indicted the uncaring shepherds when he wrote:
Ezekiel 34:4 The weak you have not strengthened, the sick you have not healed, the injured you have not bound up, the strayed you have not brought back, the lost you have not sought, and with force and harshness you have ruled them.
Unlike the spiritual leaders who were targets of Isaiah and Ezekiel, faithful shepherds are continually aware of their responsibility to watch over the souls of the people. The spiritual development of the church weighs heavy upon the heart of the elder, and he remains keenly aware of potential threats against it.
Watching by Teaching
So then, in what ways does an elder fulfill his responsibility to keep watch? As we will explore at length in a later message, the elder is charged with the responsibility to not only teach sound doctrine but also to “rebuke those who contradict it” (Titus 1:9). He must know his Bible and be cognizant of encroaching error or heresy. This means an alertness to theological trends which pose a threat to sound doctrine, or lead the people to imbalance. It also means a willingness and ability to confront such error with the truth of God’s word, and rebuke those who are peddling it.
It was this type of threat against which Paul warned the elders in Ephesus when he said:
Acts 20:28-30 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. I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them.
The “fierce wolves” which stood at the gate were men who distorted the truth and enticed others to follow them in their error. Paul warned the elders in Ephesus that they would have to guard against this error, and fortify their people against the temptation to wander off into heresy (cf. 2 Tim 2:16-18). Their primary tool to aid them in their watch was the word of God, of which Paul had just reminded them, “I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27). If they were to protect their people, they too would have to build up the church in the knowledge and application of the scriptures. MN: 2Cor 11:1-4
Watching by Knowing
In addition to being watchful against false teaching, the faithful overseer will keep watch over individuals who appear spiritually weak or injured (Ezek 34:4). A shepherd knows his sheep to the degree that he can recognize when their normal character or behaviour seems “off.” A slight limp, a new aggression, or a sudden tendency to wander might signal that the sheep is experiencing an underlying problem. The watchful shepherd will respond to these signs with care. He will give that sheep some individual attention and try to find the source of the problem, and then administer an appropriate solution.
Likewise, a watchful elder cares for the souls of the people by knowing them personally and maintaining an awareness of their spiritual progress. He knows individuals well enough that it becomes obvious when something is amiss. When his shepherd-like instincts raise a concern, he cares enough to seek out the individual, give them some personal attention and see if he can get to the bottom of their spiritual struggle.
Watching by Peace-Making
Sometimes this watchfulness means keeping an eye upon how the sheep are treating one another. During certain seasons the rams of a flock become aggressive toward one another, butting heads and potentially causing each other real harm. At times like these, the watchful shepherd must intervene to protect the sheep from themselves. Likewise, the faithful elder remains alert against conflict, division, quarreling, or rivalry in the church. He takes such dangers seriously and is moved to action when he is made aware of their presence.
Elders are charged with protecting the culture of the church. A culture which is largely defined by Jesus’ words in John 13:35, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” The church is to be known from within, and from without, by its love for one another. This is why the New Testament is replete with what we often call the “one-anothers of scripture.”
The one-anothers define what it is to practically live out Jesus’ command to love one another. A church which has been shaped by these commands will treat one another with humility, gentleness, deference, and patience. It will reject judgmentalism, selfishness, gossip, division, slander, or rivalry. Further, when these things fail, such a church will exercise forgiveness and restoration. The list could go on. The point is, a watchful elder takes seriously Jesus’ command that the church love one another, and works to protect such a culture.
Watching by Praying
“Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” These were Jesus’ words of warning to his disciples as he anticipated the spiritual onslaught which they would face upon his arrest and crucifixion. For Jesus, prayer was watchfulness. It was a means of standing against his spiritual enemies by marshalling the forces of heaven against them. For the faithful shepherd who will follow the steps of the Chief Shepherd, watchfulness over the spiritual health of the church will include keeping watch through intercessory prayer (Rom 1:9-10; Eph 1:16ff; Php 1:3-5; Col 1:9ff; 2 Thess 1:11ff; James 5:14-16).
As the early church was exploding in growth in Jerusalem, a problem arose which threatened to tear the apostles away from their priority of spiritual watchcare. Meeting the practical needs of the Greek widows was an essential function of the church (as is obvious by the calibre of men appointed to the task), but could not be allowed to hinder the apostles from tending to their chief responsibilities. Luke reports:
Acts 6:1-4 Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint by the Hellenists arose against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution. And the twelve summoned the full number of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.”
Prayer and the ministry of the word are the primary responsibilities of those charged with the spiritual watchcare of God’s people. These are the main tools at the side of the spiritual shepherd as he keeps watch over the flock.
Shepherding requires a recognition that there are many enemies seeking the spiritual life of the sheep. It also requires that we recognize the ultimate power behind these enemies is Satan himself (1 Pet 5:8; Eph 6:11-12). Since we are tasked with protecting our people from spiritual foes, our weapons are also spiritual. As Paul said, “we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places (Eph 6:12).” An elder’s watchful prayer life is his acknowledgement that “the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds (2 Cor 10:4).”
Since spiritual enemies are seeking to devour the sheep, it is incumbent upon the faithful elder to be vigilant in prayer. In protecting the sheep in this way, he is behaving just like Jesus who, “always lives to make intercession for [us]. (Heb 7:25”
When an elder prays for the people in his charge, he is acknowledging that Jesus is the Chief Shepherd and that without his church-building work, all is for naught. He is recognizing that pastoring is not a work to be done in one’s own power, but in utter dependence upon the power of God. When an elder prays, he is expressing humility, dependence and the conviction that genuine ministry success is only that which is produced by the Holy Spirit of God.
If an elder believes that the responsibility to solve everyone’s spiritual problems rests entirely upon his own wisdom and ability, he will suffer from continual anxiety and feelings of failure (or potentially, pride). It’s this type of thinking which leads to ministry burn-out. Instead, the watchful elder should recognize that spiritual problems are ultimately dealt with by the Spirit of God. Our responsibility is to simply help individuals apply the means of grace, which the Spirit will apply to their hearts. The elder’s stamina flows from his conviction that genuine believers all possess the Holy Spirit, and that the Spirit actually makes the means of grace effective.
Watchful prayer is especially important when dealing with individuals who have become somewhat hard or distant. In such situations the wandering sheep may be resistant to recovery efforts. When this happens, the elder can continue to pray, resting in the fact that if this one is a genuine believer, the Holy Spirit will bring conviction and change. In this way, vigilant watchfulness actually brings the elders rest.f
A faithful shepherd is a sentinel. He does the hard work of keeping watch over the flock, thus protecting it from both external and internal dangers. He knows the Word and is skillful in administering it to others. He remains on high alert against doctrinal error and is able to confront it when it appears. He knows his people well and is moved to action when he recognizes that they are struggling spiritually. He values the loving culture which Christ has designed for his church and leads his people to maintain it. Finally, the faithful shepherd, dependent upon the Holy Spirit for success, finds rest in watchful prayer.
The nature of church leadership is defined by Jesus. Therefore, an elder who looks to the business or political world for secrets to leadership success has himself strayed from the shepherd. To be an elder is to follow Jesus in his school of spiritual shepherding. It is to learn lessons of spiritual watchcare from his teaching and example, as well as from his chosen apostles.
When we sit at the feet of Jesus to learn how to lead his people, we learn first, that faithful under-shepherds are stewards. The church does not belong to the elders, nor is it meant to serve them. Instead, they are entrusted with God’s precious flock and are charged with loving and leading it, using God’s means and for his glory.
Next, we learn from Jesus that to lead his sheep, is to serve his sheep. Elders are not to dominate, or to be “lords of the flock.” Instead, they are to be humble examples, taking upon themselves the character of the Good Shepherd, who gave his life for the sheep.
Lastly, to lead and love like Jesus is to give ourselves to watchfulness. Unlike the apathetic, and self-indulgent shepherds in the Old Testament, Christ’s under-shepherds are jealous for the perseverance of his people and are therefore committed to guarding them against the enemies of their souls. This watchfulness includes a willingness to confront theological error, to give individual care to struggling members, to keep the peace between chafing believers, and to remain ever vigilant through intercessory prayer.
As you consider your aspiration and qualification for eldership, remember that under-shepherds stick close to the Chief Shepherd and are willing to be continually taught, and corrected by his words and example.