God uses images of sheep and shepherds in the Bible; sheep are often used to illustrate people and shepherds to illustrate leaders, such as God and kings. The imagery of a shepherd and his flock provided a picture of the way God cared for His people, and also serves as a model for human leaders. In this article we look at shepherds in the New Testament.
I recently visited my brother on his sheep farm. During lambing season he visits each flock on a daily basis. So we drove around the fields and sighted each sheep. As new lambs are small and can be hidden in the grass, you need to drive near each ewe. Life isn’t easy for a sheep and there were a few carcasses of sheep that had died and flocks of ravens were in the trees to feed on any that were dead or dying. We saw a sheep upside down in the adjacent field and looked to see if it was dead. But a leg moved, so we drove over. He rolled her over and sat her up for a while. She was large and may have been expecting twins. He eventually got her to stand up, but she wouldn’t walk. He thought she may have lambing sickness, so we lifted her up onto the back of the small truck and drove her to sheep yards where he gave her two injections and a dose of medicine with the mouth drench. We left her with some water and wheat. That’s an example of the work of a modern shepherd.
When Jesus was about to be crucified, three times the apostle Peter publicly denied knowing Him. Then after Christ rose from the dead Peter repented and was restored to fellowship with the Lord. This is illustrated by the following incident when Peter was restored publicly. On three occasions the Lord asked Peter, “Do you love me”? When Peter said that he loved the Lord, he was told to: “Feed my lambs”; “Shepherd my sheep”; and“Feed my sheep” (Jn. 21:15-17NIV). God’s sheep are His people, those who follow Him (Lk. 12:32). So Peter was to demonstrate his love for Christ by caring for the people of God like a shepherd cares for his sheep. “Feeding” implies teaching, while “shepherding” implies pastoral care, and the “lambs” are those who are young in the Christian faith.
Soon afterwards, the Holy Spirit indwelt the believers on the day of Pentecost and Peter spoke to the people. We see that Peter and the other apostles were leaders of the early church. The history of the early church is given in the book of Acts. When Cornelius received the Holy Spirit, Peter baptised Gentiles into the church. Paul was the special apostle to the gentiles and he preached to many people and planted many churches.
So the apostles were shepherds in the early church; they were leaders who cared for the welfare of fellow believers. Peter fed the sheep of God’s people when he spoke as recorded in the book of Acts and when he wrote his letters of 1&2 Peter. We now look at the passages that specifically mention shepherds in the early church.
Elders in Turkey
In the letter of 1 Peter, Peter wrote to believers scattered across what is now the country of Turkey. It was written about 30 years after the day of Pentecost (1 Pt. 1:1). After dealing with their suffering under the Emperor Nero, he wrote: “To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder, a witness of Christ’s sufferings and one who also will share in the glory to be revealed: Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, serving as overseers—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not greedy for money, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock. And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away” (1 Pt. 5:1-4).
He used the image of shepherds and sheep. The elders in the local church are the shepherds and the congregation are the sheep. Although they were apostles, Peter and John both identified themselves as church elders (1 Pt. 5:1; 2 Jn. 1; 3 Jn. 1). The Greek word translated “elder” is “presbuteros”, which describes a position of responsibility. Firstly, the elders are to shepherd God’s flock. This means caring for the believers in the local church. It is God’s flock and the elders work for Him; they shepherd under the Chief Shepherd. Secondly, they were to be willing and eager to serve and not reluctant. Thirdly, they were to be good examples; not selfish or bossy and not a dictator like Diotrophes (3 Jn. 9-10). So the elders were shepherds in the early churches in Turkey; they were leaders who cared for the welfare of follow believers.
Elders at Ephesus
Paul spread the gospel to countries like Turkey, Greece and Italy. On his third missionary journey his boat was going to Miletus, which was about 55 km from Ephesus. “From Miletus, Paul sent to Ephesus for the elders of the church” (Acts 20:17). They had a close relationship with Paul because he had spent over two years with them in daily discussions (Acts 19:10). When they arrived, Paul gave them his farewell message. He knew that prison and hardship was ahead for him. “Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood. I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them. So be on your guard! Remember that for three years I never stopped warning each of you night and day with tears” (Acts 20:28-31).
In this passage, the elders are also described as “overseers” (v.28). The Greek word is “episkopos” or “bishop” (English), which means to look or watch over. So in the early church the terms “elders”, “overseers” and “bishops” were equivalent descriptions of the leaders in the local church (Tit. 1:5,7). Here we see that the elders were chosen by the Holy Spirit and recognised by the congregation (1 Th. 5:12-13). In this case they travelled as a group to a town 55 km (35 miles) away to see Paul.
The elders were to: keep watch over each other (v.28); keep watch over the congregation; and protect the congregation from external attack (wolves) and internal attack (false teachers drawing people after themselves). So the elders were shepherds in the church at Ephesus; they cared for and protected follow believers.
A special gift
When Paul wrote to the church at Ephesus he mentioned some special gifts that Christ had given to the local church: “It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors (shepherds) and teachers, to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up” (Eph. 4:11-12). These gifts were people, not abilities. The people given to the church were: apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherds and teachers. The apostles and prophets established the early church and wrote the New Testament (Eph. 2:20). The apostles had been taught by the Lord and seen His resurrection body and had the power to do miracles (Acts 1:21-22; 2 Cor. 12:12). The prophets spoke the word of God before the New Testament was available. The evangelists preached the good news of salvation through the Lord’s death and resurrection. The word translated “pastors” is the Greek word for “shepherds”. “Pastor” is the Latin word for shepherd. The teachers interpret the scriptures and apply it to the congregation. This is the food provided by the shepherds.
The “shepherds and teachers” (Eph. 4:11) are the elders. We have already seen how the elders are to shepherd the congregation. An elder must be “able to teach” (1 Tim. 3:2). This passage shows that a major objective of the work of the elders is “to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ” (Eph. 4:12-14). So elders should ensure that the congregation is trained towards spiritual growth and maturity.
The other abilities that are useful for eldership are leadership skills (Rom. 12:8) and administrative skills (1 Cor. 12:28). Also, elders must be able to manage their household well (1 Tim. 3:4,5).
Note that it was plural leadership, not singular leadership – “elders”, not “elder” and “overseers”, not “overseer” (Acts 14:23; 20:17; Phil. 1:1; 1 Tim. 5:17; Tit. 1:5). It was a leadership group, not a single leader. The singular sense is only used when describing the qualifications of an elder (1 Tim. 3:2; Tit. 1:6-7) or an accusation against an elder (1 Tim. 5:19) or themselves as individuals(1 Pt. 5:1; 2 Jn. 1; 3 Jn. 1).
Was James the senior elder at Jerusalem? He spoke at a meeting of the apostles and elders and made a judgment which was accepted by the others in the church (Acts 15:13-30). Also, when he visited Jerusalem, Paul “went to see James and all the elders were present” (Acts 21:18). It is clear from the context that James was an elder at Jerusalem, but there is no other evidence that he was senior to the other elders. He may have been a spokesman for the elders. These verses are not sufficient to indicate a hierarchy within the eldership.
Collective leadership provides collective abilities, experience and wisdom. It guards against domination by individuals, which has caused divisions within churches (1 Cor. 1:11-13; 3:1-9; 3 Jn. 9-10). This means shared responsibility and accountability amongst the elders. Elders need to work together as peers. This structure encourages humility and servanthood and discourages pride, ego and dictatorial power.
In some respects the elders of a local church are to function like a Board of Directors of a membership based organisation. All decisions are to be made collectively and all elders share equal responsibility for those decisions. Likewise, elders need to be able to work as part of a group, be genuinely interested in the congregation and act with honesty and integrity.
Paul told the elders at Ephesus “I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock” (Acts 20:29). As predators such as wolves kill sheep, the shepherd needs to protect the sheep against the predators. We know that David killed a lion and a bear while he was protecting his flock. In John 10 the sheep were put in the sheep pen for the night for their protection.
Jesus said, “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves” (Mt. 7:15). Peter wrote “There were false prophets among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you” (2 Pt. 2:1). Elders are to protect the congregation against false teachers.
Sometimes the attacks can be deceptive. Satan is described as the one “who leads the whole world astray” (Rev. 12:9) and John wrote “Dear children, do not let anyone lead you astray (or deceive you)” (1 Jn. 3:7). Elders also “keep watch over you as men who must give an account” (Heb. 13:17). The elders are responsible for the spiritual welfare of the church and will give an account of this work to God.
We know that the elders are to be shepherds of the congregation who are God’s flock. What are the responsibilities of the congregation?
Realize that the elders have been established by God: “Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers” (Acts 20:28). Respect them: “Respect those who work hard among you, who are over you in the Lord and who admonish you. Hold them in the highest regard in love because of their work” (1 Th. 5:12-13). Honor and support them where appropriate (1 Tim. 5:17-18). Imitate their faith (Heb. 13:7) and obey them (Heb. 13:17). As elders will be attacked, the congregation should protect them from false accusations by rejecting allegations that are not supported by two or three witnesses (1 Tim. 5:19). So Christians should recognise and obey those who have the qualifications and who do the work of elders.
Lessons for us
A church needs active elders. If my brother didn’t go around the sheep every day, more sheep would die from sickness, disease, harsh weather or predators. The congregation should be under the care of active elders as sheep should be under the care of a shepherd (1 Pt. 5:2). Otherwise, it would be “like sheep without a shepherd” (Mt. 9:36; Mk. 6:34). When there are no active elders to give guidance and direction, people wander from the path they should be taking in life and there is tragedy. This happened to Israel in the Old Testament and the same principle applies in the church today.
What have we learnt for elders?
Good leadership begins with God as our shepherd. All elders should follow the example of the Good and Chief Shepherd, as they shepherd God’s flock: teach the young in the Christian faith; care for, protect and teach the congregation; be a team worker, part of a collective leadership; be accountable to each other; be willing and eager to serve; train the congregation for works of service; be good examples; be responsible for the spiritual welfare of the congregation and ready to give an account of this work to God.
What is our responsibility to elders?
Our attitude towards elders should be similar to our attitude the Lord who is the Good Shepherd and the Chief Shepherd: remember, honor and respect them; hold them in the highest regard in love; obey them; submit to their authority; and imitate their faith.
Written, November 2005
In this Series on 1 Thessalonians we have seen that Paul visited and preached in Thessalonica and a church was established. Because he couldn’t visit them for some time, he wrote a letter of encouragement. From 4:1 to 5:11 Paul reminded them how to please God – avoid sexual immorality and excel in holiness and brotherly love. Instead of grieving for those who had died, they were to look forward to being reunited with them and to be awake and sober as they looked forward to the Lord’s return. Paul ended his letter with practical guidelines on Christian living. He addressed godly attitudes and behavior in relationships with the elders, other believers and God.
Living With Church Leaders
“Now we ask you, brothers, to respect those who work hard among you, who are over you in the Lord and who admonish you. Hold them in the highest regard in love because of their work. Live in peace with each other.” 1 Thessalonians 5:12-13 NIV
These verses address leadership in the local church. The Bible teaches that each church is to be led by a group of qualified elders who share this responsibility. Several characteristics of elders are mentioned here. They are to “work hard” at caring for people. They are to be “over” the congregation, meaning that they are to maintain or rule. In other letters Paul said that they “direct the affairs of the church” and “lead” (1 Tim. 5:17; Rom. 12:8). Both Paul and Peter likened their care to spiritual parents caring for a family (1 Tim. 3:4,5,12; 1 Pet. 5:2-3). Elders are also to “admonish” or gently reprove the congregation. Paul used the same word when he told them to warn anyone who didn’t obey his instructions (2 Th. 3:15). Elders are to remind the church of God’s truths and the dangers of living a self-centered life.
In this passage, the congregation was given two responsibilities with respect to the elders. It was to “respect” them. This Greek word is translated as “acknowledge” (TNIV), “know” (KJV), “recognize” (NKJV), “appreciate” (NASB) and “honor” (NLT). The congregation needs to know the elders if they are going to trust and follow them. They are also to “hold them in the highest regard in love because of their work.” This means to value them because of their important work, not because of their personality, spiritual gifts, wealth or anything else.
In this context Paul encouraged Thessalonians to “live in peace with each other.” Harmony should be characteristic of all Christian relationships, as peace is a fruit of the Spirit and we follow the God of peace (1 Th. 5:23; Gal. 5:22). There is a need to value all the elders, as favoring one divides the congregation. Also, elders should serve the whole congregation, not just part of it. Paul wrote elsewhere that we should “make every effort to do what leads to peace” and “as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone” (Rom. 14:19; 12:18).
Living With Believers
“And we urge you, brothers, warn those who are idle, encourage the timid, help the weak, be patient with everyone. Make sure that nobody pays back wrong for wrong, but always try to be kind to each other and to everyone else.” 1 Thessalonians 5:14-15
Here Paul shows us how we are to live with three types of people. We are to “warn those who are idle.” Apparently, some Thessalonians had stopped working in order to prepare for the second coming of the Lord (2 Th. 3:10-11). They lived off others, were disorderly and became busybodies disrupting the local church. Paul’s solution was that they get back to work to support themselves and their families. He warned that “anyone who is unwilling to work shall not eat.” Paul said don’t help them by feeding them; instead let them experience the consequences of their behavior (2 Th. 3:10-13). This admonition is followed by two examples of caring.
“Encourage the disheartened.” Those who are disappointed with life are to be encouraged by individuals coming alongside and empathizing with them. Circumstances can cause people to think they don’t belong and have nothing to contribute. But we all have God-given gifts. We need to help such people find their place in the church and encourage them in their work.
“Help the weak” refers to those who may not be sure of their salvation because of their past, or who may doubt God’s power. Paul also taught that we shouldn’t stumble those who are weak in the faith (Rom. 14:1-15; 1 Cor. 8:13). They need our encouragement, friendship and help.
Paul then mentioned three attitudes required when warning, encouraging and helping others: First, “Be patient with everyone.” This means trying again and again even though there may be no response from those you are warning, encouraging and helping. Second, “Make sure that nobody pays back wrong for wrong.” Christians are called to forgive, not retaliate (Mt. 18:21-22; Rom. 12:17). When someone hurts us, we should not get angry and retaliate, but rather seek reconciliation (Mt. 18:15-17). Be patient and continue to show Christian kindness and love. Third, “Always strive to do what is good for each other and for everyone else.” The goal of warning, encouraging and helping others should be to achieve what is best for them in the Lord.
Living Before God In All Circumstances
“Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18
It is God’s will that believers be characterized by joy, prayer and thanksgiving. Paul began with “Be joyful always” to encourage us not to let things get us down. In Philippians 4:4 he added that our rejoicing should be “in the Lord.” This joy is to be shown in all circumstances including suffering and persecution (Jas. 1:2-4; 1 Pet. 4:13). The Thessalonians were persecuted (1 Th. 1:6; 2:14; 3:3-4). Paul sang while in prison (Acts 16:22-25). How can this be? Their joy was an internal attitude that was not overtaken by external circumstances; it is a fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22), with Christ as its source and subject. He controls our circumstances and through Him we have victory. We develop joy by focusing on God’s promises and spending time with joyful believers. Joy is contagious.
Then Paul urged them to “pray continually” – at regular times and as needed. When trials come we need to pray our way through them. For example, when Peter was in prison, the believers prayed and he was released (Acts 12:1-19). We should “pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests … and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people” (Eph. 6:18).
Paul also told believers to “give thanks in all circumstances.” Believers should be “overflowing with thankfulness” (Col. 2:7) even in the trials and difficulties which mature us. We don’t have to give thanks for everything that happens to us; it says “in” our circumstances, not “for” them. But we shouldn’t complain or grumble. Thanking God is not a feeling, it’s a choice. Daniel prayed three times a day, “giving thanks to his God” even though his life was in danger (Dan. 6:10-12). We can develop an attitude of praising God in all circumstances.
Living Before God As He Guides
“Do not put out the Spirit’s fire; do not treat prophecies with contempt. Test everything. Hold on to the good. Avoid every kind of evil.” 1 Thessalonians 5:19-22
“Do not put out the Spirit’s fire” is a metaphor for hindering or extinguishing the operation of the Holy Spirit in an individual or the church. This may be caused by sin, disunity or suppression of the Spirit’s gifts. Instead, we are to keep the Spirit’s fire burning by following Paul’s instructions to be joyful, prayerful and thankful, and by following the Spirit when He prompts us to do what is right or stop doing what is wrong.
“Do not treat prophecies with contempt. Test everything.” The early Church did not have a completed Bible so the gift of prophecy was God’s way of getting His message to His people. Now that the canon of Scripture is set, this takes place as His Word is taught and preached. Instead of despising prophecies, the Thessalonians were to evaluate them. Paul also said that those listening to prophets should discern or “weigh carefully” what they say (1 Cor. 14:29). They were to test them against the apostles’ teachings. Then they could accept what was good and reject what was bad. In Acts, Luke told the Jews in Thessalonica to learn from the Bereans who “examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true” (Acts 17:11).
“May God Himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The One who calls you is faithful and He will do it.” 1 Thessalonians 5:23-24
The Thessalonians couldn’t live like this in their own strength, so Paul prayed for them as only God could make their efforts successful. There are different aspects to sanctification (holiness), and here he addressed progressive sanctification. Paul prayed that their sanctification would extend to their whole being – spirit, soul and body. The spirit is our link to God, the soul is our mind, emotions and will, and the body is the physical part housing the spirit and soul.
It is God who makes us holy, and Paul was confident that He would complete what He began (Phil. 1:6). He is faithful to keep His promises. The end of this progression is the coming of our Lord, at the judgment seat of Christ, when each Christian’s life will be reviewed as he/she stands before Him.
“Brothers, pray for us. Greet all the brothers with a holy kiss. I charge you before the Lord to have this letter read to all the brothers. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you.” 1 Thessalonians 5:25-28
After he prayed for them, Paul asked the Thessalonians to pray for him. The kiss was a normal greeting of that day, similar to a handshake in western countries. It expressed friendship with fellow believers. Paul wanted “to have this letter read to all” brothers and sisters, a statement not found in any of his other letters (5:27); he thought it was that important. We should read it with this in mind.
Three keys to living together as Christians alluded to here are prayer, fellowship and Bible reading. Paul ended this letter with a benediction of grace for the Thessalonians – God’s unmerited favor through the saving work of Christ.
Lessons For Us
Let’s develop godly attitudes and behaviors in our relationships with church elders, with other believers and with God. Get to know the elders of your church, and value them because of their work. Obey them and encourage them in their work. The same principle applies to ministry leaders within the church. Believers should serve one another through encouragement, practical help, patience, peaceable living, and by treating everyone as equals in Christ. Our attitude toward God should be one of joy, prayer and thanksgiving in all circumstances. We should not stifle the work of the Holy Spirit in an individual or in the church. The standard by which we should test all preaching and teaching is the Word.
May we use the resources God has provided to live for Him until the Rapture when Christ returns to take us to be with Him forever.
Published, June 2009
See the next article in this series: Encouragement during trials and suffering (2 Thessalonians 1)