The church today is in great need of true shepherds. As knowledge increases, teachers seem plentiful. As the world becomes more complex, church leaders are pressed into the role of decision makers. But where are the shepherds, the men whose first love is to care for God‘s sheep? Scripture is clear that the world is a dangerous place, that people are like sheep, and that sheep easily go astray. Shepherds seem in short supply.
Many churches hire a man, paying him to be their shepherd but often he is really just the chief administrator of the church that hired him. How is the need for shepherds to be met in an assembly that seeks to follow the New Testament teaching on church leadership? Where can one find genuine shepherds, with a heart like the Lord Jesus Himself?
First, shepherds should ideally come from within the fellowship and preparation is largely a matter of the heart. God works in ordinary believers to develop the heart of a shepherd, and these He gives to the church as elders and servants. Equipping through school or mentoring with an older brother can certainly have a part, but these are no substitute for the hidden work being wrought in the secret places of the heart over time, produced by the Spirit of God through life‘s trials and problems as one attempts to love and care for people.
What encouragement can we give to younger men who sense a growing desire to share in this great work? Probably the most helpful suggestion would be to consider the shepherd heart and ministry of the Lord Jesus Himself. He invites: “Come unto me…Take my yoke upon you and learn of me, for I am meek and lowly of heart…”(Matt. 11:28-30 KJV). What a privilege to take His yoke, and be taught by Him!
It has often been pointed out that there are three beautiful shepherd titles given to the Lord Jesus in the New Testament: the Good Shepherd, the Great Shepherd, and the Chief Shepherd. Meditating on these passages will provide helpful lessons for those who desire the Lord to produce within them the heart of a shepherd.
The Good Shepherd
John records the words of the Lord Jesus concerning the Good Shepherd in John 10: He is the One who is prepared to die for the sheep. The contrasting idea is a bad or evil shepherd–evidently, this refers to the heart motive of a bad shepherd whose first concern is for his own gain and personal safety.
Recently I heard of a group that fired their shepherd. Sad that they had only one, sad that he was hired and then fired but such was their report. He became angry and vindictive at the loss of his position and salary. Yet he might have said; “You can do as you see fit, but I must take care of the sheep and God will take care of me.”
Understandably, his reaction raised suspicions of a hireling among the people. So a good shepherd has a right motive: doing the will of the Owner of the flock, and willing to sacrifice for the sheep as needed. This is very practical. It challenges us to make a continual heart checkup on why we do what we do. Long nights, difficult visits or meetings, laboring in the Word and doctrine are not always appreciated by people. But the Lord sees the heart, and blesses His servant over time. Remember that the hireling does get the job done for awhile, too. But in time of crisis, he flees. He has the wrong motive, and this will never produce the shepherd heart.
The Great Shepherd
The writer of Hebrews speaks of the Great Shepherd in Hebrews 13:20-21. This is the Lord Jesus risen from the dead and living to perfect His people. The key word throughout Hebrews is “better” or “greater.” Again, the contrasting idea is lesser and inferior.
Immediately a question arises: Who receives the credit, the praise for all that is accomplished in caring for the flock? Even though there is much weakness and God‘s servants are compassed with infirmity, He is pleased to work through them to accomplish His will, and promises that His strength is being perfected in our weakness (II Cor. 12:9).
Here then is a second motive check for shepherds: who is the Great One in the thinking of the sheep? Is it the Lord, the Great Shepherd or is it a gifted brother? As we spend time with the Lord, being honest with Him about our weaknesses and failings, and as we see Him bless our labors, we are constantly reminded to praise the Lord for His wonderful works to the children of men as often stated in the Psalms.
The Chief Shepherd
Peter refers to the Chief Shepherd in I Peter 5:4. Since this passage is addressed directly to elders, it deserves special emphasis. It refers to a coming day when the Chief or Head Shepherd – the Lord Jesus Himself – rewards His servants. One of the qualities of their labor is described by Peter in the passage. They must refrain from being lords over God‘s heritage, i.e. His flock. That is, they do not compete with the Lord for power and authority. His word is kept clearly in mind: “…one is your Master, even Christ, and all ye are brethren.” (Matt 23.8).
Thus all those who would care for God‘s people must rise above the natural inclination for greed and power. Repeatedly, the Lord had warned about this: “Ye know that the princes of the Gentiles exercise dominion over them, and they that are great exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you…..whosoever will be chief among you, let him be your servant” (Matt. 20:27).
Even though the expression “under-shepherd” is not found in the Bible, it is a good reminder that true shepherds are not dictators or unaccountable men, but labor under the authority of the Chief Shepherd, and would never want it otherwise. Recently I heard of a man who told his fellow elders: “We are elders; we can do whatever we want in the church.” Wrong! The authority of elders is upheld by the Lord only as they promote and defend His Word and truly shepherd His people.
So here is a third important motive check for shepherds: What are my real thoughts about power and authority among the people of God? Do I desire to control people, or do I sincerely want Him to be “Lord over all?”
Shepherd work is not a profession that one takes up. It is a way of life that springs from deep within. It is really a love response to the Master who once said, “Lovest thou me? Feed (shepherd) my sheep” (John 21:16). Often the development of a shepherd‘s heart will require many years of hard work and trying experiences. But keeping a close watch on the motives of the heart to be sure that we are seeking His glory and the eternal benefit of His people will go far in keeping us on the right pathway.