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
God used 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. In a previous article we saw that Jesus Christ is the good shepherd, the best example of a leader. Now we will look at how this imagery is applied to leaders during Old Testament times.
In biblical times, the imagery of a shepherd and his flock provided a picture of the way God cared for His people, and also served as a model for human leaders who were to rule over people as a shepherd tended his flock.
The shepherd is the dominant leadership metaphor in the Old Testament. The role of the shepherd was a cornerstone of the Hebrew economy as sheep provided key staples of wool, meat and other commodities. God’s choice of the shepherd as a leadership metaphor made sense for a nomadic society dependent on sheep, goats and cattle.
In Old Testament times God chose a nation of people, the Israelites, to follow and obey Him. The picture that’s used is of God being their shepherd; “Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel, you who lead Joseph like a flock” (Ps. 80:1NIV). He would lead them and care for them and they were to follow where He led.
As the nation grew, God appointed leaders to stand in His place, shepherds to act on His behalf. Moses was called “the shepherd of His flock” (Is. 63:11). He led the Israelites out of Egypt across the desert to Canaan. God was always near and He was represented by the pillar of smoke during the day and the pillar of fire at night. When Joshua was chosen to succeed him, Moses said “May the LORD, the God of the spirits of all mankind, appoint a man over this community to go out and come in before them, one who will lead them out and bring them in, so the Lord’s people will not be like sheep without a shepherd” (Num 27:16-17). So Joshua was their next leader, their next shepherd.
God told David, “You will shepherd my people Israel, and you will become their ruler” (2 Sam.5:2) and God “chose David His servant and took him from the sheep pens; from tending the sheep He brought him to be the shepherd of His people Jacob, of Israel His inheritance” (Ps 78:70-71). So David changed from shepherding sheep to shepherding people.
When evil king Ahab asked the prophet Micaiah whether he should attack the Syrians, Micaiah predicted that Ahab would be killed and his army dispersed: “I saw all Israel scattered on the hills like sheep without a shepherd, and the LORD said, ‘These people have no master. Let each one go home in peace’” (1 Ki. 22:17). Other leaders and rulers in these times, such as Cyrus king of Persia, were also called shepherds (Is. 44: 28).
So the nation of Israel was shepherded by Moses and Aaron, Joshua, the judges, and then the kings. Their prophets and priests were also referred to as shepherds. Jeremiah called himself a shepherd (Jer.17:16). We will see that like all human leaders, they failed. And the people also failed to accept the leadership of their leaders. Let’s look at four examples; three are bad shepherds and one is a good shepherd.
Evil shepherds (Jer. 23:1-4)
This passage follows two chapters where Jeremiah gives prophecies against the last four kings of Judah before they were taken into captivity by the Babylonians. The prophecies involve God’s judgement of the evil kings. It is followed by prophecies against false prophets who were giving the people false hopes of peace, while Jeremiah was telling them that God was using Babylon as a form of divine punishment for their sins (Jer. 23:16-17). In fact, the prophets and priests at that time were godless (Jer. 23:11). There are three characters in this passage: God, the shepherds who were the rulers (prophets, priests and kings), and the sheep who were God’s people the Jews of Judah.
God declared “Woe to the shepherds who are destroying and scattering the sheep of my pasture!” (v.1) and “Because you have scattered my flock and driven them away and have not bestowed care on them, I will bestow punishment on you for the evil you have done” (v.2). The rulers were condemned to a terrible judgement for destroying the people instead of caring for them and for dispersing the people, instead of leading and guiding them.
Then God said, “I myself will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the countries where I have driven them and will bring them back to their pasture, where they will be fruitful and increase in number. I will place shepherds over them who will tend them, and they will no longer be afraid or terrified, nor will any be missing” (v.3-4). As punishment for their sinful ways under the evil shepherds, the people were captured by the Babylonians. But God promised to step in and rescue some of them and bring them back from exile and establish new leaders who cared for them so they thrived, protected them so they were not afraid, and led them so they did not wander away. So, the evil shepherds destroyed the nation and the nation was captured by the Babylonians.
Selfish shepherds (Ezek 34:1-10)
This message was given to the Jews in exile in Babylon. Before the passage, Ezekiel explained that the fall of Jerusalem was because of the sins of the people who lived there. Afterwards, he says that God will care for the Jews. There are three characters once again in this passage: God, the shepherds and the sheep. The shepherds were the leaders, their prophets, priests and kings. After Josiah all the kings of Judah were corrupt. These are the subject of Ezekiel’s criticism in this passage.
God declared, “Woe to the shepherds of Israel who only take care of themselves! Should not shepherds take care of the flock? You eat the curds, clothe yourselves with the wool and slaughter the choice animals, but you do not take care of the flock. You have not strengthened the weak or healed the sick or bound up the injured. You have not brought back the strays or searched for the lost. You have ruled them harshly and brutally” (v.2-4). They were selfish and greedy; they fed themselves, but not the flock. Although the leaders were entitled to food and clothing, they didn’t care for the people. They neglected the flock of people: they didn’t help the needy, the strays or the lost. They didn’t provide for them. They were dictators who ruled harshly acting as though they had no concept of serving the people like a shepherd cared for his flock of sheep.
The consequence for the people was, “So they were scattered because there was no shepherd, and when they were scattered they became food for all the wild animals. My sheep wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill. They were scattered over the whole earth, and no one searched or looked for them” (v.5-6). Lack of guidance caused the people to be dispersed in the nations around Israel, lost and vulnerable. The leaders didn’t protect them but left them to the mercy of their enemies (wild animals are the enemies of sheep). “No shepherd”means no true shepherd. The term “like sheep without a shepherd” occurssix times in the bible (Num. 27:17; 1 Ki. 22:17; 2 Chron. 18:16; Is. 13:14; Mt. 9:36; Mk. 6:34). When there is no true shepherd to give guidance and direction, people wander from the path they should be taking in life and there is tragedy. In Israel’s case they were invaded, killed and taken captive in foreign lands. They were refugees fleeing a place of destruction. As pagan gods were worshipped on “mountain” and “hill”, these words could indicate that the people also left God for idolatry.
Because the leaders were selfish (v.7-8), God stated that, “I am against the shepherds and will hold them accountable for my flock. I will remove them from tending the flock so that the shepherds can no longer feed themselves. I will rescue my flock from their mouths, and it will no longer be food for them” (v.9-10).God promises to step in and judge the leaders and rescue and protect the people. Here we see that the leaders are accountable to God. In this case they lost their positions and their livelihood.
God then promised to seek the scattered flock and bring them back to Israel (v.12-14). This included “I will search for the lost and bring back the strays. I will bind up the injured and strengthen the weak” (v.16). So, the selfish shepherds looked after themselves, but neglected the needs of the flock. Instead they fleeced the people.
Rich shepherds (Zech. 11:4-9)
This is written to the Jews back in their land after the captivity. The context is God’s care of the Jews. Before the passage He promises to restore them (10:6) and afterwards they reject the Messiah and are given a worthless shepherd instead (v.15-17). Here we see an incident that happened repeatedly in the Old Testament. It is presented as a drama, where Zechariah acts as God the good shepherd, who is contrasted with the rich shepherds. The other character is the Jews as sheep.
The country of Israel was devastated when they rejected the good shepherd (v.1-3). Then God declared, “Pasture the flock marked for slaughter. Their buyers slaughter them and go unpunished. Those who sell them say, ‘Praise the LORD, I am rich!’ Their own shepherds do not spare them” (v.4-5). Zechariah is to lead the people who are marked for judgement for their rejection of God. Of course, after they rejected the Messiah, the Jews were punished when the Romans destroyed the city of Jerusalem in AD 70. Here we see people sold into slavery. The leaders got rich by exploiting the people. They even thanked God for their riches!
Zechariah responded “So I pastured the flock marked for slaughter, particularly the oppressed of the flock … In one month I got rid of the three shepherds. The flock detested me, and I grew weary of them and said, ‘I will not be your shepherd. Let the dying die, and the perishing perish …’” (v.7-9). Zechariah led the people like a good shepherd. Although he removed three of the bad leaders, he was rejected by the people. This illustrated how the Messiah was to be rejected in about 500 years time.
Because they rejected the good shepherd, they are given the foolish shepherd instead. He is described: “For I am going to raise up a shepherd over the land who will not care for the lost, or seek the young, or heal the injured, or feed the healthy, but will eat the meat of the choice sheep, tearing off their hoofs. ‘Woe to the worthless shepherd, who deserts the flock!” (v.16-17a). He is a greedy and corrupt leader who doesn’t care for the needy or nourish the flock. He abandons the sheep like the hired hand of Jn.10:12. He is like the antichrist who will exploit the people (2 Th. 2:1-12). So, the rich shepherds benefited while they exploited the flock.
A good shepherd
Now we have a better example. If Israel would repent of their wickedness, God promised to give them “shepherds after my own heart, who will lead you with knowledge and understanding” (Jer. 3:14-15). Although this passage anticipates the Millennium when Jerusalem will be the capital of the world, David was a man after God’s own heart; he had a godly heart (1 Sam. 13:14). He led Israel with integrity and skill (Ps 78:72). When David faced trouble he prayed; he was humble; he acknowledged God’s help; he praised God; and this caused others to trust God (Ps. 40: 1-3, 12).
After David was prompted by Satan to count his military in an act of pride and reliance on human power, God’s judgement was that 70,000 of the people died in a plague. “When David saw the angel who was striking down the people, he said to the LORD, “I am the one who has sinned and done wrong. These are but sheep. What have they done? Let your hand fall upon me and my family” (2 Sam. 24:17). David took full blame for his act and acknowledged his responsibility for the well-being of the people. The bible records David’s faults as well as his faith. He sought God’s will, was concerned for the well-being of God’s people and repented of his sin; although he failed in his personal and family life.
David knew God very well; he could say “The Lord is my shepherd” (Ps. 23:1). Similarly, Jesus Christ said, “I know the Father” (Jn. 10:15). Their relationship with God was what made the difference. They didn’t have their ear to the ground, but heavenward. David is included in the list of those who demonstrated great faith in Old Testament times; he “administered justice” as king of Israel (Heb. 11:32-34).
We will now look at the imagery of the “sheep”. Firstly, as sheep need a shepherd, people need leaders. God established human government after the flood as capital punishment presupposes a governmental authority (Gen. 9:6). In Old Testament times God exercised His authority through the authority he gave to the king, priest and prophet. “In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as they saw fit” (Jud. 17:6; 21:25). There was no king in Israel in the times of the judges (who were military leaders) and people departed from the laws and practices given by Moses. So, lack of godly leadership leads to sin and idolatry. Of course, people can also reject godly leadership (Zech 11:8).
Secondly, the sheep can also be selfish: “Is it not enough for you to feed on the good pasture? Must you also trample the rest of your pasture with your feet? Is it not enough for you to drink clear water? Must you also muddy the rest with your feet? Must my flock feed on what you have trampled and drink what you have muddied with your feet?” (Ezek. 34:18-19). They didn’t care about anyone else. As they grazed, they trampled down the good grass for others. As they drank from clear water, they muddied it for others.
Thirdly, the bible also teaches that “We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Is. 53:6). Our sin is like a sheep straying from the path and the pasture. This happens to all of us. Have you confessed your sin to receive the eternal life that is offered through Christ’s death and resurrection? Then you too can know God as your shepherd.
Besides shepherds and sheep there is the image of the “pasture”. Pasture is food for the sheep. David wrote, “Trust in the LORD and do good; dwell in the land and enjoy safe pasture” (Ps. 37:3). The land of Canaan was their pasture. It was their homeland where they received sustenance and could be fruitful for God.
However, they spoilt it and were driven from it. “Many shepherds will ruin my vineyard and trample down my field; they will turn my pleasant field into a desolate wasteland” and “I myself will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the countries where I have driven them and will bring them back to their pasture”(Jer. 12:10; 23:3). So, the land of Israel was devastated by the Babylonians and God promised to bring some back after the captivity in Babylon.
Sheep feed on their pasture. “My people have been lost sheep; their shepherds have led them astray and caused them to roam on the mountains. They wandered over mountain and hill and forgot their own resting place. Whoever found them devoured them; their enemies said, ‘We are not guilty, for they sinned against the LORD, their true pasture, the LORD, the hope of their fathers’” (Jer 50:6-7). Here we see that God was to be their true pasture. They should have been occupied on Him. Elsewhere the Bible teaches that obeying God’s word is as important as eating food “man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD” (Deut. 8:3).
Lessons for us
We have looked at the illustration of shepherds and sheep in the Old Testament. Some leaders were good and others were evil, selfish and rich. In most areas of life we are either a shepherd or a sheep—we either leader others or have a leader above us.
As sheep need a shepherd, people need leaders. We have been reminded of the danger of sheep being without a shepherd. Such a lack of true leadership is like: a person without God as a Father; a nation without a government; a child without a parent; a worker without a supervisor or employer; a church without elders; or any activity without a coordinator.
What have we learnt for leaders?
Good leadership begins with God as our shepherd. David learnt this; in Ps 23 he said this brings contentment, security, guidance and intimacy. All leaders should follow the example of the Good Shepherd, the “Son of David” (Mt. 9:27), as they shepherd their flock: care for people, not just yourself; nourish the people; be benevolent, not a harsh dictator (Eph. 6:4,9); strengthen the weak and depressed; heal the sick and injured; search for the lost; restore the strays; use knowledge and understanding; have integrity and skill; be fair and impartial; be humble; confess and repent of sin; pray; acknowledge God’s help and praise Him. If you live like this others will come to trust God as well.
Beware of bad examples of leadership: thief/wolf – exploits; hired hand – flees when there is trouble; stranger – lacks relationships with others; harsh dictator – ignores the weak; silent – avoids conflict; power-hungry – seeks recognition; professional – seeks the benefits.
What is our responsibility to leaders?
Our attitude towards leaders should be similar to our attitude to the Lord who is the Good Shepherd: respect leadership, don’t detest it (Eph. 6:2); if you have a choice, follow good leaders, not selfish ones; don’t be selfish; make obedience to God’s word a top priority; submit to all forms and levels of human government (Rom. 13:1-7; Tit. 3:1; 1 Pt. 2:13-14); pray for those in authority (1 Tim. 2:1-2); employees should “serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not men” (Eph. 6:7; Col. 3:23-24).
Written, November 2005
Sheep And Shepherds In Scripture
As sheep were important in the economy of the Middle East in biblical times, it is the animal mentioned most often in Scripture. In fact, a man’s wealth was judged by the number of livestock he owned – such as sheep, goats, cattle, donkeys, camels and oxen. Job had 14,000 sheep, and the plunder taken from the Midianites included 675,000 sheep (Job 42:12; Num. 31:32).
Shepherds were employed to care for the sheep to see that they had water, pasture for food, and a safe place to sleep. They protected the sheep from predators such as wolves, lions and bears. Old Testament shepherds included Abel, Abraham, Lot, Isaac, Jacob, Rachel, Moses, Achan, David, Nabal and Amos. Raising sheep was an important occupation, as thousands of them were killed for sacrificial offerings to God. One of Jerusalem’s ten gates was called the Sheep Gate, near the temple where sheep were sacrificed (Neh. 3:1). Interestingly, shepherds were the first ones told of the birth of the Savior (Lk. 2:8-20).
It’s not surprising that God uses images of sheep and shepherds in the Bible. Sheep illustrate people, and shepherds illustrate leaders, such as kings and God Himself. Let’s look at what the Bible teaches in John 10:1-30 about our Divine Shepherd.
The Good Shepherd And The Sheep
Jesus said, “I am the Good Shepherd. The Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” He likened Himself to a shepherd and people to sheep (Jn. 10:11 NIV). He also said, “My sheep listen to My voice; I know them, and they follow Me” (10:27). Throughout the Bible, God’s people are seen as sheep (Ps. 79:13; 100:3). Jesus called His disciples a “little flock” (Lk. 12:32).
How are people like sheep? Sheep mindlessly follow others, without thinking of the consequences. While they are trusting, they can also be stubborn. They are dependent on others for protection, food, water and care. They also need special attention when it’s cold, when there’s danger and when they are giving birth.
How is Jesus like a shepherd? In biblical times sheep herding was hard work. The sheep needed constant care and attention, as they were not kept in fenced fields. They could wander anywhere. Every day the shepherd needed to lead the flock to suitable pasture and water, and care for the sick or injured. When they travelled, the shepherd led and the sheep followed behind.
When Jesus saw crowds of people “He had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Mt. 9:36; Mk. 6:34). He saw their spiritual needs. He told a parable of a shepherd who searched for a lost sheep. When the sheep was found he carried it home and celebrated (Mt. 18:12-14; Lk. 15:3-7). The shepherd put great value on the lost sheep. The lesson is that Jesus, the Good Shepherd, puts great value on those who don’t know Him or have strayed, and there is great joy in heaven when one is found by Him.
Isaiah wrote, “We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all” (Isa. 53:6). Because of our sin and selfishness we strayed like lost sheep away from the God who made humanity in the beginning (Ps. 119:176). But Jesus Christ suffered the punishment we deserved. If we confess our sins and trust God’s offer of forgiveness through Christ’s death and resurrection, our relationship with God is restored. Peter wrote, “You were like sheep going astray, but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls” (1 Pet. 2:25). So conversion is like a lost sheep returning to the care of the shepherd.
In John 10 we see that Jesus, the Good Shepherd, is contrasted to three bad shepherds: the “thief and a robber” who came to steal and kill and destroy the sheep (10:1,8,10); the “stranger” – like the Pharisee – who was only interested in the sheep for personal gain (10:5); and the “hired hand” who abandoned the sheep when the wolf came and scattered the flock (10:12-13). Bad shepherds had no relationship with the sheep and didn’t care for them.
The Pharisees didn’t understand this illustration and didn’t believe what Jesus said because they were not His (10:6,26). If they had accepted God’s offer of salvation, they would have recognized the Good Shepherd’s voice and followed Him. They didn’t realize that Jesus was the Messiah, the gate to eternal life. He said “I am the gate for the sheep … whoever enters through Me will be saved” (10:7-9). Jesus Christ is the only way to salvation from the penalty of sin. Salvation can only be received though Christ. Those who follow the Savior receive eternal life; they “have life, and have it to the full” (10:10).
The Good Shepherd Cares For His Sheep
A good shepherd owned, lived with and cared for the sheep. The relatively small flocks in biblical times enabled the shepherd to know and call each sheep by name. A flock of 100 was large (Mt. 18:12). The shepherd knew when one of his sheep was missing. Jesus Christ “calls His own sheep by name” (10:3). He called His disciples by name, and knew them (Jn. 1:43,48). He still calls those who receive Him: “Faith comes from hearing the message … through the word of Christ” (Rom. 10:17). The Lord knows His followers personally. He knows all about them.
When He calls, “the sheep listen to His voice” (10:3,16,27). They know their shepherd and respond to His voice (10:4). When Jesus was on earth many Jews recognized that He was the Messiah and followed Him. Today His sheep listen when the gospel is preached and they respond by following Him.
Palestinian shepherds led and their sheep followed because they knew their shepherd’s voice: “He goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him” (10:3-4, 27). The sheep didn’t follow thieves, robbers and strangers because they didn’t recognize their voices (10:5,8). Instead they ran away. David wrote of the good shepherd: “He guides me in paths of righteousness” (Ps. 23:3). Likewise, Jesus’ followers desire to go where He leads them.
Where did the shepherds lead their sheep? To pasture for eating and to water for drinking. David wrote, “The Lord is my Shepherd, I have everything I need. He makes me lie down in green pastures, He leads me beside quiet waters, He refreshes my soul” (Ps. 23:1-2). This image is one of God’s providing all our needs. In a drought or famine there are no green pastures and there is little water. Those who follow the Good Shepherd are said to “find pasture”; “I am the gate; whoever enters through Me will be saved. They will come in and go out, and find pasture” (10:9). The Christian’s sustenance is the Bible which provides spiritual food to grow to spiritual maturity (1 Cor. 3:2; Heb. 5:12-14; 1 Pet. 2:2).
A good shepherd would risk his life to protect his sheep, as did David (1 Sam. 17:34-37). Jesus said, “I am the Good Shepherd. The Good Shepherd lays down His life for the sheep” (Jn. 10:11). The word “good” means “worthy, honorable, excellent.” He’s the best example of a shepherd: “I lay down My life for the sheep” (10:15). In the Old Testament sheep were sacrificed for sins; here we see the Shepherd sacrificed for His sheep. But that was not the end; Jesus said that He had authority to lay down His life and take it up again (10:17-18). This means He’s a living Shepherd who died to pay the penalty we deserved (1 Cor. 15:3-4). Have you accepted Jesus’ sacrifice for you? Do you thank Him for it?
Because they spent a lot of time together, the shepherd knew the distinctive characteristics and needs of each sheep he cared for. Jesus said, “I know My sheep and My sheep know Me – just as the Father knows Me and I know the Father” (10:14-15,27). This shows the close relationship between the Lord and His followers. It’s like His relationship with God the Father. Jesus said “I and the Father are one” (10:30). He also told His disciples, “I am in My Father, and you are in Me, and I am in you” (Jn. 14:20). The Holy Spirit lives in each believer and each believer is in Christ, accepted by God on the basis of Christ’s work of salvation. Jesus knows us very well (Lk. 19:5; Jn. 1:47-50; 2:24-25).
The Good Shepherd And His Global Flock
Jesus said, “I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to My voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd” (10:16). What does He mean by “other sheep” combining with the sheep He has been talking about to form “one flock”? Christ came as the Messiah of the Jews, but they did not receive Him (Jn. 1:11). In the Old Testament God is described as caring for the Jews like a shepherd cares for his flock (Is. 40:11; Jer. 31:10; Ezek. 34:11-16; Mic. 2:12; Mt. 2:6). The “other sheep” mentioned in John 10:16 are Gentile followers, who, in Acts, began to listen to the Shepherd’s voice after Pentecost.
Paul was the missionary God sent out to the Gentiles around the Mediterranean Sea. Today the “one flock” is known as the Church and is comprised of Jews and Gentiles. Paul described the Church as “one body” comprised of many nationalities: “We were all baptized by one Spirit into one body – whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free – and we were all given the one Spirit to drink” (1 Cor. 12:13). So the one flock is now global, comprised of those who say, “We are His people, the sheep of His pasture,” (Ps 79:13; 95:7; 100:3). Do we recognize all the “other sheep” that are in the Church?
Shepherds protect their sheep. David killed lions and bears that attacked his sheep (1 Sam. 17:34-37). Jesus said about His sheep, “I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of My hand” (Jn. 10:28). Eternal life is fellowship with God now and forever. This relationship cannot be broken as God’s power is stronger than any other. The Lord promises that none of His sheep will be lost because He provides safe pastures for them (Ps. 79:13). God protects the weak: “He gathers the lambs in His arms and carries them close to His heart; He gently leads those that have young” (Isa. 40:11).
For example, David could say, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me” (Ps. 23:4). God’s people do not need to fear death because God is always with them to help in all circumstances. He promised, “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you” (Heb. 13:5).
God sent Jesus to earth on a mission and He has a mission for His people. He prayed to the Father, “As you sent Me into the world, I have sent them into the world” (Jn. 17:18). This was not an easy task; He told His disciples, “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves” (Mt. 10:16). They were to preach the kingdom to the “lost sheep of Israel” (Mt. 10:6). Sheep among wolves is a dangerous situation. But sheep are safe as long as they are in the shepherd’s care. Likewise, Christians are safe from the dangers of this world as long as they remain in touch with the Good Shepherd. The inward strength provided by the Shepherd overcomes the outward threat of the wolves. Jesus came to earth as a baby and as a Lamb amongst wolves. His divine strength was triumphant in the end over the wolves.
What Should We Do?
John 10:1-30 is a powerful passage that describes how God has chosen to work in our world. Jesus, the Good Shepherd, was motivated by love, not selfish gain. He is our Shepherd and we are His sheep. Are we thriving under His care with an abundant and fruitful life? Is there evidence of eternal life, spiritual light and divine love in our lives? Are we enjoying a close relationship with our Shepherd? Are we regularly feeding on His Word? Do we ruminate over His Word or are we starving spiritually like sheep in a drought? Do we seek His guidance and follow His example or do we follow the Pharisees of our age – legalism and materialism? Do we experience His presence and protection? Are we becoming compassionate shepherds seeking to help lost sheep find the Shepherd?
The Church is Christ’s global flock. His pastoral care is to be consistently expressed within the local church. The word “pastor” is Latin for “shepherd.” As a church flock, we should experience meaningful pastoral care, guidance, and security. The church is also to have compassion and take the message of the Good Shepherd to the lost sheep.
As Christ is no longer on earth physically, He provides shepherd care through the Holy Spirit, the Bible, prayer, pastors and fellowship. The Good Shepherd who gave His life for the sheep is also the “Great Shepherd” who rose from the dead and the “Chief Shepherd” who’s coming again (Heb. 13:20; 1 Pet. 5:4).