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Introduction: The Ministry of a Shepherd
Deron J. Biles
God, in His grace, called me to be a pastor. It is a calling from which I have never recovered. I remember when God first called me as a 12-year-old boy. I recall walking down the aisle and taking the hand of my pastor, who was also my father, and sharing with him that God had called me to full-time ministry.
Not until a few years later as a 19-year-old pastor of a small church in central Texas did I begin to realize that, despite having been reared in the home of a pastor, I did not really know what a pastor was supposed to do. Three decades later, I am still learning. During that time, I have had the privilege of serving as a pastor, working with pastors at a state convention, and now training pastors at a seminary.
Being a pastor is an audacious calling. It is at once a remarkable privilege and an unaccomplishable task. Imagine the grace of God to call men to be His servants. What a wonderful privilege we have been given! Yet, the task is so great, who can be worthy? Just as the Lamb alone is worthy to loose the seals of the scroll (Rev 5:1–5), ultimately He alone is qualified to shepherd His people. Nevertheless, the ministries of the men God calls to be His shepherds must be consumed by His purpose for their lives. God's Word supplies clarity for this high calling.
The Shepherd God
In general, the Bible talks more about who a shepherd is than what a shepherd does. Yet, both are vital in ministry. They are combined in Asaph's tribute to David, "So he shepherded them according to the integrity of his heart, / And guided them by the skillfulness of his hands" (Ps 78:72). This verse expresses the faithful integration of being and doing that completes the ideal shepherd.
Passages that are typically used to describe the role of the pastor (i.e., 1 Tim 3:1–7; Titus 1:5–9) address more of the character attributes required of pastors than they do actual functions. However, a few passages in Scripture speak to the tasks of pastoral ministry; among these are Jer 23:1–4; Ezek 34:1–10; Acts 20:17–36; Eph 4:11–12; and 1 Pet 5:1–4.
In Scripture the clearest picture of the functions of a shepherd is found in Ezekiel 34. In this chapter God outlines the responsibilities of shepherds, the accountability of the shepherds, the consequences of a lack of shepherds, and the anticipation of the good Shepherd. The responsibilities of a shepherd become clear as we examine those areas for which God holds His shepherd servants accountable. Thus, we understand what shepherds should do by paying attention to what God indicts them for not doing.
The potency of Ezekiel 34 is the clarity of God's instructions (i.e., what God expects of His servants) — not someone's idea of what God wants. God says what He demands — the "oughtness" of tending sheep. So, we should huddle in close and sit up straight at the anticipation of His instruction and, in sincere faith, say, "Speak, for your servant is listening."
What Shepherds Do
Being a pastor is hard work. The responsibilities seem endless. Some time ago, I put together a list of all the things that a pastor is expected to do. The list is still growing, but here is what I have so far. A pastor is expected to
But that is not all. In addition to what pastors are expected to do, there is also an unwritten list of expectations regarding what they should know. They are expected to be knowledgeable (maybe even an expert) in
To be fair, some of the expectations under which pastors operate are self-imposed; others are prescribed by the congregation. These tasks may be necessary or even good. But, they must not be the highest priorities. The church may employ you, but God is the One who called you. So, you must focus first on His instructions and filter all other expectations through the template of His Word.
Ezekiel 34 is God's message to pastors: "This is what I expect from you." He delivers these expectations in the context of His performance review of some shepherds who scored very low on their evaluations.
The indictment of the shepherds in Ezekiel 34 recalls God's search for a faithful leader in Ezek 22:30, "So I sought for a man among them who would make a wall and stand in the gap before Me on behalf of the land, that I should not destroy it; but I found no one." It also highlights the fact that God will not leave His sheep unattended simply because His shepherds have not proven worthy of their calling.
Imagery of Shepherds and Sheep
Imagery of shepherd and sheep is common in Scripture and rich in significance. The frequency of its use in the Pentateuch, in the history of the monarchy, in the book of Psalms, and in the Prophets demands careful exegetical attention.
The Bible uses shepherds and sheep as metaphors. Metaphors do not define; they compare. They explain what is unknown by comparing it to something that is known. Thus, when Jesus used metaphors to explain what "the kingdom of heaven is like," His intention was not to give us full comprehension of the kingdom. Instead, by comparison, we learn something about one aspect of His kingdom.
We must be careful not to press the image too far. There are obvious limitations to the images of sheep and shepherd. The portrayal of sheep as weak, sickly, and ignorant is not necessarily indicative of all church members. In addition, that sheep are often bred to be eaten might not sit well in a new members class.
Yet, the comforting assurance of a shepherd who leads his sheep to lush pastures and streams of refreshing water, protects them from impending dangers, cares for their needs, knows them individually, and seeks to find them when they are lost resonates in the church as much as in the pasture. That is the picture in Scripture of a God-honoring shepherd.
Who Were the Shepherds of Israel?
The term "shepherd" can mean a number of things in Scripture. It is used as both a noun and a verb. In addition to actual keepers of sheep, the term is used for kings and leaders in the Old Testament. This is consistent with how the term was used in ancient Near Eastern literature. In Ezekiel 34, given the context and the obvious connection with Jeremiah 23, the term clearly references the kings of Judah and other leaders entrusted with special care of God's people. Moreover, the terms used to describe the intended functions of the shepherds convey the personal care expected of them by God.
In the Old Testament, David is portrayed as the ultimate shepherd, even as Christ is portrayed as the true Shepherd in the New Testament. David served two shepherding functions in the Old Testament. He was an actual shepherd (1 Sam 16:11); and, as king, he was the shepherd-leader of his people (Ps 78:70–72). Thus, as David's early role as a shepherd of his father's sheep foreshadowed his later role as shepherd of Israel, so his life became a type of the true Shepherd of God's people ultimately fulfilled in Christ.
God as Shepherd
The imagery of a shepherd is not limited to mankind. In Scripture, God is both called and portrayed as a shepherd. Moreover, the Bible frequently refers to God's people as His sheep. So, if God is the true Shepherd, then the role of His under-shepherd must find its meaning in Him. Thus, the essential question of Ezekiel 34 is: What does it mean to be a shepherd?
Jesus as the Good Shepherd
The conscious expectation of the Shepherd-Messiah in the Old Testament finds its fulfillment in Christ. He is also described as "the good shepherd" (John 10:11, 14); the "one shepherd" (John 10:16), the "great Shepherd" (Heb 13:20), and "the Chief Shepherd" (1 Pet 5:4). In the New Testament, Jesus completes the Messianic promise of Ezekiel 34. Jesus stands in antithetical relationship to the false shepherds (John 10:1, 5, 8, 10, 12–13):
He knows the sheep, and the sheep know Him (John 10:3, 14, 27).
He leads the sheep (John 10:4).
He protects the sheep (John 10:10).
He is a good shepherd (John 10:11, 14).
He sacrifices Himself for the sheep (John 10:11, 15).
He feeds the sheep (Isa 40:11; John 21:15–17).
He holds the shepherds accountable (1 Pet 5:4).
He is "the Chief Shepherd" (Heb 13:20).
Ironically, He is both Lamb and Shepherd.
Pastors as Shepherds
The New Testament applies the image of the shepherd to the role of pastor. In contrast to the faithless shepherds of the Old Testament, shepherds in the New Testament are never pictured as unfaithful. Although the term "shepherd" is applied to pastors only once in the New Testament (Eph 4:11), the functions of a shepherd are frequently apparent in descriptions of their responsibilities. Pastors should care for the congregation (Acts 20:28; 1 Pet 5:2–4), seek the lost (Matt 18:12–14), protect the flock (Acts 20:29), feed the flock (John 21:15–17), and oversee the flock (1 Pet 5:2). Moreover, the word "shepherd" occurs in verbal form to describe the work of a pastor (Matt 2:6; John 21:16; Acts 20:28; 1 Pet 5:2) even as the word "sheep" is used to describe God's people (John 10:14–16, 26–27).
One can preach to the sheep, but one can only pastor among the sheep. Being a pastor requires proximity to the sheep. "Preacher" is a title earned by excellence in education and eloquence, but "Pastor" is a title earned by hands-on ministry. Correspondingly, Jefferson notes that the affection of church members for their pastor is more intimate than their affection for leaders serving in other ministry positions. Eloquent preachers may be admired, but faithful pastors are loved. Serving as pastor involves more intimate connection with the sheep. Nathan's fictional allegory of a man with one little lamb describes the affection of a true shepherd for the individual members of his flock (2 Sam 12:1–4). Such is the calling of a biblical shepherd.
A Message of Woe
Ezekiel 34 begins with a charge from the Lord to the prophet to "prophesy against" the shepherds of Israel. In verses 2–3, the text's perspective changes from third person to second person as the message shifts from God's instructions for Ezekiel to Ezekiel's message for the shepherds.
However, the origin of the message is not in question. It is God's indictment of His shepherds. Five times the expression "Thus says the Lord GOD" (vv. 2, 10–11, 17, 20) is found; four times, the phrase "says the Lord GOD" (vv. 8, 15, 30–31); and twice, the admonition to "hear the word of the LORD" (vv. 7, 9). Ezekiel is simply delivering God's message, and His shepherds are expected to pay attention.
I find it curious that God does not speak to the shepherds. Perhaps these were not shepherds at all. Instead, the picture reveals that they were more akin to Jesus's description of "the hireling" (John 10:12–13), whose concern for his own safety overshadowed the needs of the sheep. Thus, the contrast between the shepherding work of God in Ezek 34:11–16 and the failure of the anti-shepherds in 34:1–10 parallels that of the good Shepherd, who is the antithesis of "the hireling" (John 10:11).
The shepherds of Israel were not the first group against whom the Lord directed Ezekiel to prophesy. Of the 17 times the Lord instructed His prophets to "prophesy against" someone, 15 of those were entrusted to Ezekiel. Ezekiel was instructed to prophesy against Jerusalem (4:7), the mountains of Israel (6:2), the wicked counselors in Israel (11:4), the false prophets of Israel (13:2), the false female prophets (13:17), the forest in the south of Israel (20:46), the land of Israel (21:2), the Ammonites (25:2), Sidon (28:21), "Pharaoh king of Egypt" (29:2), the shepherds of Israel (34:2), Mount Seir (35:2), and Gog (38:2; 39:1). Ezekiel functions as the prophet "against."
The force of this message is that it was not addressed to other nations or even to the sinful people of Israel, but to their intended spiritual leaders. In a declaration of woe first uttered by Jeremiah (Jer 23:1) and later echoed by Zechariah (Zech 11:17), God through Ezekiel pronounced a message of woe against the shepherds.
Football fans will remember the 2012 National Football League Referees Association labor dispute, which resulted in a referee lockout. Throughout the preseason and the first part of the regular season, regular referees were replaced by less skilled substitutes. As the drama of these referees began to unfold, stories emerged about the background of the men assuming those roles. Some came to the NFL from six-man football, some had been fired from previous referee positions for incompetence, and at least one had been fired from his previous referee job with the Lingerie Football League.
The outcome of this experiment led to more than just blown calls and the slowing down of the games. It resulted in a lack of respect for the role of the official, situations where the refs appeared to have been intimidated by coaches and players with strong personalities, outrage in the media, and general disgust and distrust from the fans.
Despite all the apologizing, overanalyzing, and fining of players and coaches, I do not know anyone who believed that these men intended to do a poor job. However, what became clear is that they were immersed in a challenge over their heads. It was as if they were unprepared for the job. Each substitute was wearing someone else's jersey.
With all the questions related to inconsistencies, the missed calls, delays in the game, and the breakdowns in communication, I began to see a parallel to the role of a pastor today. We live in a time when every decision pastors make is analyzed, scrutinized, and criticized. Some churches have even initiated a sort of "review process" for the decisions of the pastor that do much more than simply slow down the pace of the game. Further, I have also witnessed pastors intimidated by strong personalities in the church, and others all too often have been fired from their positions. The result has been that pastors no longer enjoy the level of respect formerly common to that position.
To be fair, some of the problems evidenced by the replacement referees have at times been reflected in pastors. Failures in communication, missed "calls," and underqualified leaders have yielded the self-inflicted wounds that sting so many churches today. Then, as the media continues to accentuate these evident failures, church members — like disenchanted fans — eventually lose confidence in the position and sometimes even in the game itself. And, like the NFL stadiums, churches feel the effects in declines in attendance and giving.
But, there is one key difference between a backup referee and a pastor. Unlike the replacement officials, who were on the field against the wishes of the "real" refs, undershepherds serve in the authority, power, and calling of the true Shepherd. Just as "sheep are not independent travelers," so shepherds are not independent contractors. They report to the Chief Shepherd.
The shepherds under indictment in Ezekiel 34 were more than just mistaken; they were not just shepherds who had fallen out of line. They were counterfeits, anti-shepherds, "predatory misrulers." As such, God castigated them for their callous self-indulgence, exploiting the sheep for their own benefit (v. 2); for their failure to meet the needs of the flock (v. 3); for their lack of concern for the flock (v. 4); and for their ruling the flock with force and cruelty (v. 4).
Excerpted from "Pastoral Ministry"
Copyright © 2017 Deron J. Biles.
Excerpted by permission of B&H Publishing Group.
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Table of Contents
A Treasury of Baptist Theology,
1. Introduction: The Ministry of a Shepherd Deron J. Biles,
2. Feed the Flock David Allen,
3. Strengthen the Weak Deron J. Biles,
4. Healing: The Forgotten Art of the Church Paige Patterson,
5. Shepherds Must Bind Up the Broken Dale Johnson,
6. The Shepherd Who Protects the Sheep Malcolm Yarnell,
7. Bring Back Those Driven Away Tommy Kiker,
8. Seeking the Lost and Perishing Matt Queen,
9. Leading the Flock Fred Luter,
10. Trusting the True Shepherd Stephen Rummage,