Perhaps there is no more tender or affecting figure of the Lord Jesus than that of Him as the Shepherd caring for the needs of His sheep. We see Him as a shepherd in at least three different characters in the Bible. He spoke of Himself as the Good Shepherd in the Gospel of John, chapter 10 — the One who would lay down His life for the sheep His Father gave Him, in order to meet their need of life and salvation. Hebrews 13:20 presents Jesus as “that Great Shepherd of the sheep”, caring for the needs of His own from beyond the grave and seated in heaven. And Peter calls Him the Chief Shepherd, to whom all the undershepherds are accountable, by whom their needs are supplied, and of whom they will receive reward. Peter was perhaps especially conscious of his responsibility as a shepherd, for the Lord Jesus at Peter’s restoration before his brethren commissioned him to “feed My lambs . . . shepherd My sheep . . . [and] feed My sheep” (John 21:15-17 Darby translation).
The spiritual gift of a shepherd or pastor is one of the many gifts given to the body of Christ by its ascended Head, each gift being distributed by the resident Holy Spirit as He wills, for the growth and building up of the body, the church of God.¹ In a normal, orderly assembly, the shepherding gift is exercised by elders who have a desire to see the saints go on in a healthy spiritual state, pleasing God as individuals and in fellowship together.² But neither the shepherd gift nor the desire to use it for the blessing of others ought to be limited in practice to men of a certain age, for women and younger saints may just as well be used by the Spirit to discern and meet the spiritual needs of their brothers and sisters in Christ, in the appropriate setting.
The terms “pastor” and “shepherd” are synonymous in the scriptures, and are translated both ways into some English versions from the same Greek word. The tendency during most of post-apostolic Christianity has been to institutionalize of the role of the pastor. The person in that official role might be called a priest, a bishop, a minister, or a pastor. The general effect of this officialdom, often called the clergy, has been to inhibit the normal spiritual exercise of gift by those outside of that class, and to discourage members of the body of Christ from using the gift that God (not man) has given and is able to develop in them. The people of God suffer a lack, whether a significant lack or an imperceptible one, under any system that seeks to improve upon the simplicity of the scriptural pattern of shepherding in the house of God, the assembly.
An official pastor or hierarchy of leaders usually serve and are compensated at the pleasure of a congregation or under the authority of a board. There is no warrant nor precedent for such an arrangement in the New Testament. A faithful and selfless shepherd of the flock of God takes his direction from the Chief Shepherd alone, while being “clothed with humility” as regards his brethren (I Peter 5:1-6).
Here are a few practical observations that may be a help and encouragement to those being led by the Spirit to provide shepherd-care for the flock. Many more could be added to these.
When working with a soul, a shepherd ought to be less concerned about formulating a response or providing a wise answer than about listening to and discerning the needs of the sheep and the lambs around him. Words of grace and exhortation, or even of careful warning, will come at the right time for the benefit of the sheep, if the shepherd is in communion with his Lord.
A godly shepherd may not be able to expound the scriptures eloquently and attract crowds of people by his charisma or his delivery, but he has a heart of love for the sheep, resulting from his love for their Great Shepherd.
A genuine shepherd is not as concerned about “losing sheep” to other pastors as he is about whether the needs of those sheep are met according to God’s estimation, and in His way. The shepherd’s prayer is that those whom the Lord Jesus has entrusted to his care, for whatever period of time, would “walk worthily of the Lord unto all well-pleasing, bearing fruit in every good work, and growing by the true knowledge of God” (Colossians 1:10).
Dear pastors among the flock, undershepherds of Christ, continue to carry on your valuable work for the Lord in faithfulness to Him. You may not know until you receive your “unfading crown of glory” how many sorrows and difficulties among the saints were avoided or averted because of your care, nor how many hearts were encouraged and pointed away from self and to Christ.³ Commendation from Him, and glory with Him, will be all the reward your shepherd’s heart could desire.
¹ Eph. 4:7-15; I Cor. 12:4-11 ² Acts 20:17-28; I Peter 5:1-4 ³ I Peter 1:4; II Cor. 4:5