Jesus made a very important, yet simple statement to Peter after his resurrection. In effort to restore Peter after his failure to fully obey him in the midst of the heat of controversy—Jesus said, “Feed my sheep.”1John 21:15-17 What a simple little phrase that is filled with such heavy responsibility.
All throughout the Scripture, we find references to sheep and shepherds. “For he is our God and we are the people of his pasture, the flock under his care” (Psalm 95:7). Jesus is the Good Shepherd (John 10:11) who lays down his life for the sheep. Jesus is also referenced as the Door of the sheepfold (John 10:9) which provides another shepherding analogy. When Jesus references his people as lambs, he is spotlighting their nature as immature and vulnerable and in need of tending and care.
As we consider these words of Jesus to Peter and the many references to sheep farming in the Scripture, we must be reminded of the responsibilities of a pastor in the work of shepherding the sheep.
One of the key principles of pastoral ministry is leadership. Sheep cannot lead themselves. God has designed the church to be led by pastors are literally shepherd-leaders. The elders of the local church are men who must take their leadership responsibility seriously. An elder (ἐπισκοπή) is one who is given responsibility of overseeing the church.
Such oversight is to be carefully measured through the pages of Scripture. There is no room for error when it comes to the spiritual wellbeing of God’s church. If sheep are not led properly, they will wander off and get entangled in all sorts of theological controversies and become vulnerable prey for false teachers who function as wolves.
Leadership is necessary in the church, and God has designed the church to be led by faithful shepherds. This leadership responsibility is not to be solo-shepherding, or as is often the case within evangelicalism—CEO-shepherding. God has designed his church to be led by a plurality of elders in each church which means biblical leadership in the life of the local church is shared leadership. Tom Schreiner observes, “Every piece of evidence we have shows that elders were widespread in the early church. They are mentioned by different authors: Luke, Paul, Peter, and James. They stretch over a wide region of the Greco-Roman world: from Jerusalem, Palestine, the whole of Asia Minor, and Crete. It is also likely that elders functioned as a plurality in the churches since the term is always plural, and Acts 14:23 says elders were appointed ‘for them in each church.’”2 Thomas R. Schreiner, 1, 2 Peter, Jude, vol. 37, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2003), 231.
When a faithful group of shepherd-leaders work together to care for God’s church, it spreads out responsibility, provides internal accountability (shepherding), and creates a healthy church culture where God’s people grow strong and pastors are able to maintain a healthy spiritual life and work-life balance. Regarding pastoral ministry—this is the way.
The pastor must be able to teach the Scripture (1 Tim 3:1-7). In other words, the pastor is not an entertainer or comedian. The pastor is a shepherd of sheep not an entertainer for goats. The word for doctrine is “διδασκαλία” which means, teaching. The pastor must have healthy teaching. Just because a man stands before a congregation and talks doesn’t mean it’s necessarily healthy. The goal here is for the building up of the faith of the local church so that they will grow in their knowledge of God and become faithful contributing church members for the glory of God. This is how the pastor equips the church for the work of ministry—by teaching sound doctrine.
Beyond teaching, the pastor is to engage in preaching which is distinct from teaching. Preaching (κηρύσσω) literally means to herald or announce or proclaim a message. It depicts the official ambassador who would be dispatched by the emperor to a message to the city on his behalf. The message would be delivered with a measure of authority. When pastors stand and preach the Word, they are announcing the very message of the King and the church must receive it.
There is a place for conversations, dialogues, debates, and Q&A sessions, but the pulpit is to be reserved for preaching and teaching the very truths of Scripture. It was J.I. Packer who described preaching as “letting texts talk.” The purpose of preaching is to feed the flock of God and move them to action. That’s what faithful preaching does. It goes beyond teaching to exhortation and application in such a way that it calls for action and faithful obedience of God’s people in light of what God commands.
Sheep are defenseless animals who truly have no means of protecting themselves. Add to that, they have poor sense of direction and need to be led constantly.
- Sheep are born with a constant need for a shepherd.
- Sheep walk into the mouth of predators.
- Sheep wander off a few hundred yards and are completely lost.
- Sheep will often walk in the opposite direction of food and water.
- Sheep are innate followers – easy to lead astray!
In 2015 a large herd of sheep were grazing on the side of a cliff in a meadow near a village in Turkey. The shepherds turned their attention away from the herd for a brief moment as they ate breakfast. To their horror, they watched one of their sheep jump off of the cliff to its death. Suddenly, before they could reach the flock and lead them to safety, 1,500 more followed. In total, 450 sheep died that afternoon. The only reason that all 1,500 didn’t die is because some landed on top of the large pile of sheep at the bottom of the cliff and it prevented instant death.
This is why Paul charges Timothy with the responsibility of “reproving” and “rebuking” the people in the local church (2 Tim 4:1-5). Sheep need to be corrected when they wander off into error and subject themselves to danger. In like manner, we find these words in 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.
Pastors are not evangelical commentators. Pastors are more than religious communicators. Pastors are responsible for shepherding sheep which means that pastors must properly guard the flock. In Acts 20 as Paul was preparing to depart from the elders at Ephesus, he gathered the brother-pastors together where he warned them about the attacks that would come their way. He charged his fellow elders with the responsibility of protecting the flock of God. What Paul says in Acts 20:28 is a sobering reminder of the charge to faithfully protect God’s sheep.
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 (Acts 20:28).
Jesus described false teachers are “ravenous wolves” which means they’re dangerous and should be treated as such (Matt 7:15). Pastors can never afford to play games with false teachers. A wolf was the number one predator of the sheep in ancient Palestine. Therefore, to see the picture of what Jesus is saying in this text you must imagine a flock of defenseless sheep who are under constant attack by wolves that would snatch them away and devour them.
The shepherd would often wear a long wool coat. The sheep’s clothing referenced by Jesus is a direct link to the wool coat worn by the shepherd. Jesus is describing a predator who came into the sheep looking like a shepherd but was really an imposter. It was John Calvin who once said, “A pastor needs two voices, one for gathering the sheep and the other for driving away wolves and thieves.”3 John Calvin, 1, 2 Timothy and Titus, Crossway Classic Commentaries (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1998), 184.
As we consider the responsibility entrusted to the hands of shepherds, for those of us who are pastors we must approach our post seriously. As a Christian take time to consider the work of pastors in the life of the church and pray earnestly for the men who are called to shepherd you and your family. Pray that they will be able to engage in the work of ministry with joy and that they will remain steadfast without wavering for the glory of God.