Reading through the Old Testament Books of Jeremiah and Ezekiel recently, I was surprised by the amount of times the Lord mentions ‘shepherds’. Apparently, ‘shepherding’ is something that is near and dear to God’s heart. If you think about it, Jesus referred to Himself as ‘the Good Shepherd’, used the imagery of sheep and shepherds often, and even reinstated Peter (in John 21) by asking him to ‘feed My sheep’… something a shepherd would do.
But look how serious God views someone who carries the mantel of ‘shepherd‘:
“Woe to the shepherds who are destroying and scattering the sheep of my pasture!” declares the Lord. Therefore this is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says to the shepherds who tend My people: “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,” declares the Lord. (Jeremiah 23:1-2)
Earlier, in Jeremiah 12:10-11, we read:
“Many shepherds will ruin My vineyard and trample down My field; they will turn My pleasant field into a desolate wasteland. It will be made a wasteland, parched and desolate before Me; the whole land will be laid waste because there is no one who cares.”
Notice how the shepherds take central stage in these passages? Jeremiah is prophesying that they “ruin God’s vineyard” and “trample down God’s field” and “turn the green pasture into a desolate wasteland… parched and laid waste“. Sounds pretty horrible! But how did it get that way? What caused this desolation, this awful devastation? What did the shepherds do to bring about such a catastrophe? Simple, explains Jeremiah… they just didn’t care.
Crazy, right? They didn’t care? That’s it? What about greed? What about lust for power? What about the desire for comfort? What about the hankering for prestige, for acclaim, for influence or riches or special favors? What about any of those things or a thousand like them? Nope, says Jeremiah. None of those things came first. The core problem with Judah’s shepherds is that they simply did not care about their sheep. Maybe they were great leaders, had great personalities, had good senses of humor, even knew how to preach. But in the end none of that mattered. What mattered is that they didn’t care… and Judah died.
I can’t help but wonder if this is why we are seeing many churches decline in the number of those who attend. Maybe our beautiful buildings, neat programs, rockin’ music, artsy influences, up-to-date websites, and cool marketings don’t matter as much as we thought they did? What if people are leaving our churches because they’re like sheep… without a shepherd?
Jeremiah 50:6 declares; “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.” The word translated “led astray” here is the Hebrew term ta<ah, which means “to err” or “to cause to wander about. The most familiar biblical passage in which this term is uses is in Isaiah 53:6, where it states, “All we like sheep have gone astray…”.
So, sheep wander… they get ‘led astray’. By who? By shepherds. Why? Because they do not care for them. They don’t authentically love their sheep, their leadership reflects this lack of love, and as a result people wander over mountain and hill and forget their own resting place… maybe we could say ‘they church hop’.
I have many friends who have written me to express how they feel that they no longer have a ‘home’, because the church they were a part of no longer feels ‘right’. They mention words like, ‘click’ and ‘in-crowd’ and how they feel like ‘outcasts’ when they are at church because they’re not part of the ‘cool group’… so, they left. Churches can talk all day about small groups and service projects and being a part of ‘the ministry’… but if the shepherds don’t show genuine love for the sheep, then the sheep will leave. In 1 Corinthians 13 Paul warns us that it is possible to “give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames” – certainly awesome things to do – and yet in the end “gain nothing“. How is that possible? Because no one can do all that and still ‘have not love.”
People are crying out for true shepherds whose hearts overflow with loving care for the sheep. Sermons should be prepared, visits to the hospital should happen, and counseling should occur out of that overflow of authentic love. The heart of a man is like the heart of sheep, it beats at the sight of a shepherd. We live in a universe created by a Shepherd God. The Lord is our Shepherd. Our world is redeemed by a Shepherd Savior. Our Elder Brother is a shepherd. The Man whom humanity most needs is a shepherd. Every messenger of Christ is sent to do a shepherd’s work. We are to stand at last before a shepherd Judge. God is going to separate the good shepherds from the shepherds who are bad. The questions which every pastor/shepherd must meet and answer are three: “Did you feed my lambs? Did you tend my sheep? Did you feed my sheep?”
Are you called to be a leader? Has God placed people in your life that you influence? As hard as Jeremiah was on the shepherds of his day, he also looked forward to a happier time when God promised; “I will give you shepherds after my own heart, who will lead you with knowledge and understanding” (Jeremiah 3:15). Could it be that you are such a person? Is it possible that your own pastor could become such a shepherd, if only he received some warm encouragement from his sheep? I hope so, because that’s truly the key… the hope… for the Church to make it.
I pray this ministered to you. Much love!
A good perspective on an exceptionally important point. I wonder how your solution actually works out within congregations of 100’s or even 1000’s. Jesus shepherded 12! Could be He was setting an example???
Michael Craft says
Absolutely one could make the case of how Jesus preached to thousands, discipled 12, and really poured Himself into 3 (Peter, James, John). But we also see Him ‘loving’ the woman at the well, Zacchaeus, blind Bartimaeus, etc. Over and over we read that Jesus “had compassion”… or “looked upon…with compassion”. This was because He was a Shepherd who loved. We shouldn’t think that His example for us had to do with numbers, but rather we should imitate the heart He showed towards those He shepherded.
“As a shepherd cares for his herd in the day when he is among his scattered sheep, so I will care for My sheep and will deliver them…” Ezekiel 34:12
The picture of the shepherd was often used in the Bible for kings and leaders, in particular about God as shepherd of His people, as in Psalm 23. Interestingly, many passages in the Old Testament use images of shepherds to refer to the coming Messiah. One of the most important passages about the “Good Shepherd” is in Ezekiel 34:
For thus says the Lord GOD, “Behold, I Myself will search for My sheep and seek them out. As a shepherd cares for his herd in the day when he is among his scattered sheep, so I will care for My sheep and will deliver them from all the places to which they were scattered on a cloudy and gloomy day.” “I will feed My flock and I will lead them to rest,” declares the Lord GOD. “I will seek the lost, bring back the scattered, bind up the broken and strengthen the sick;…“As for you, My flock, thus says the Lord GOD, ‘Behold, I will judge between one sheep and another, between the rams and the male goats. …“ (Ezekiel 34:11-12, 15 -17)
This passage contains several rich things that are in the background of Jesus’ statements about Himself. We can hear the background of Jesus’ parable about the shepherd who leaves the ninety-nine to look for the one lost sheep (Luke 15:4-7). We also hear Jesus words about how when He comes again, He will judge between the sheep and the goats (Matthew 25:31 – 34). Jesus was also probably referring to this passage in His words to Zacchaeus: “…the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost.” (Luke 19:9-10).
What is most interesting is that the Ezekiel passage clearly says that it would be God Himself who would come to seek out His lost sheep, and Jesus repeatedly says that He is the fulfillment of these words. Through this, His listeners would have heard His very bold claim that not only is He the Messiah, He is God incarnate, coming to earth to rescue His people.
This is the example for us, to take on the attitude of Christ (Phil 2) and lay our lives down, so that we can truly love those God has called us to serve. Thanks for reading!
Max Altinger says
Regarding the question of numbers in a congregation, it’s not the numbers, it’s the ministering. If the senior pastor has a heart for people, that will (should) be reflected in the associate pastors and staff members who serve under him and who, in turn, serve the members of the church body. On an individual level, we should spend time with people outside of the church, getting to know them and show genuine care for them. People will usually come back to a church if they have a real friend or friends there that they spend time with outside of the church.
On another point, when Jesus sent out the seventy, it may be assumed that these seventy, while not a part of Jesus’ inner circle, were nonetheless influenced by the 12 disciples. In any event, I cannot imagine them being successful in their ministries unless they had the same love for people that we find in the Chief Shepherd, Jesus, who modeled for them what ministry-with-impact looked like.
Michael Craft says
Excellent insight brother.
The ministry of a shepherd is quite different than say putting in time at Marian House or any other part-time outside the church activity. It involves actually discipling prospective shepherds, a 24/7/365 endeavor and one which Jesus took 3 years to accomplish.. Training an effective disciple is definitely a numbers dependent activity. It is difficult to appreciate that a congregation of substantial numbers can be discipled by a staff of 10’s.