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