Biblical Theology and Shepherding
How would you write a pastor’s job description? Where would you look for models? Maybe you’d ask a few other local churches for theirs and make a few tweaks to reflect your own church’s schedule and programs.
That assumes, of course, that everyone already knows what a pastor is supposed to be and do. But how do we know what a pastor’s fundamental role is?
Certainly we should look to Scripture to tell us what a pastor is. But where in Scripture? We could start with the work implied in elders’ qualifications (1 Tim. 3:1–7; Tit. 1:5–10), and carefully consider explicit commands given to church leaders. When we scratch beneath the surface of some of those commands, though, an interesting picture emerges. Consider Acts 20:28 and 1 Peter 5:1–3, both addressed to elders of local churches:
Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for [Gk. poimainein] the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood. (Acts 20:28)
So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: shepherd [Gk. poimanate] the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock. (1 Pet. 5:1–3)
In both of these passages, the main task of pastoring is summed up with the Greek verb poimaino, the basic meaning of which is “to shepherd,” as in, care for sheep (Luke 17:7; 1 Cor. 9:7). Both Paul in Acts and Peter in 1 Peter sum up the work of pastoring in one word: to shepherd.
In Ephesians 4:11, Paul refers to pastors as “shepherd-teachers,” again demonstrating that the idea of shepherding is basic to the pastoral office. In fact, the English word “pastor” itself comes from the Latin pastor, which means “shepherd.” So shepherding is basic to the word “pastor” and to biblical descriptions of pastoring.
But where do we learn what it means to shepherd? If you have a basic acquaintance with sheep and their needs, then you get the basic gist. Sheep need feeding and tending and guiding and protecting. Pastors do this for their people, transposed into a spiritual key.
SCRIPTURE’S STORY OF SHEPHERDING
But this metaphor takes on a whole new depth when we see how it unfolds throughout the story of Scripture. Ultimately, pastors learn what it means to be a pastor from how God himself shepherds his people.
The Divine Shepherd of the Exodus
Scripture’s story of shepherding begins in earnest when God brings his people up out of Egypt, guides them through the wilderness for forty years, and leads them safely into their own land. Describing the whole period of the exodus and the wilderness, Psalm 77:20 declares, “You led your people like a flock / by the hand of Moses and Aaron.”
Like a shepherd, God was personally present with his people (Ex. 33:15–16). Like a shepherd, God protected his people (Num. 14:7–9; Deut. 23:14). Like a shepherd, God provided for his people. He fed them (Ps. 78:19,105:40–41). He healed them (Ex. 15:26; Num. 21:8–9).
Like a shepherd, God guided his people to fertile pastures: “You have led in your steadfast love the people whom you have redeemed; you have guided them by your strength to your holy abode” (Ex. 15:13). Like a shepherd, God gently, tenderly drew his people along:
I led them with cords of kindness,
with the bands of love,
and I became to them as one who eases the yoke on their jaws,
and I bent down to them and fed them. (Hos. 11:4)
In all this, God shepherded his people through Moses, the human leader he appointed to shepherd them (Ps. 77:20). And Moses himself asked the Lord for a successor, in order that “the congregation of the Lord may not be as sheep that have no shepherd” (Num. 27:17).
So the Lord, the divine King of creation, is also the shepherd of his people. And he shepherded them through a human shepherd of his own appointing.
David the Shepherd-King
Hundreds of years later, this pattern continues in the reign of David and his dynasty. The Lord took David from shepherding sheep and made him shepherd of Israel (2 Sam. 5:1–3, 7:8). The psalmist declares,
He chose David his servant
and took him from the sheepfolds;
from following the nursing ewes he brought him
to shepherd Jacob his people,
Israel his inheritance.
With upright heart he shepherded them
and guided them with his skillful hand. (Ps. 78:70–72)
Just as David tenderly nurtured the sheep under his care, so, in the main, he led Israel responsibly and compassionately, shepherding them in integrity and wisdom.
Yet God himself remained the true shepherd of Israel. Israel confessed, “For he is our God, / and we are the people of his pasture, / and the sheep of his hand” (Ps. 95:7). And David, God’s appointed under-shepherd, proclaimed his trust in God’s provision, protection, and guidance in the sublime poetry of Psalm 23.
But not all of Israel’s shepherd-kings led Israel in the green pastures of obedience to the Lord’s Word. Instead, most of them led God’s people into the barren wastelands of idolatry and injustice. So God scattered his flock among the nations as a punishment for their sin (Lev. 26:33; Deut. 4:27, 28:64; 1 Kgs. 14:15).
New Shepherds in the New Exodus
But the same God who scattered his people promised to gather them again. In Jeremiah 23:1–2, the Lord pronounces judgment on Israel’s wicked kings, the shepherds who destroyed and scattered God’s sheep. These shepherds failed to attend to God’s people in care and protection, so God will attend to them in judgment. Not only that, in verses 3–4 God declares,
Then I will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the countries where I have driven them, and I will bring them back to their fold, and they shall be fruitful and multiply. I will set shepherds over them who will care for them, and they shall fear no more, nor be dismayed, neither shall any be missing, declares the Lord.
The Lord will restore the fortunes of his people, and they will have shepherds who care for them, provide for them, and protect them. How will these shepherds serve God’s people? The parallel passage in Jeremiah 3:15 tells us, “And I will give you shepherds after my own heart, who will feed you with knowledge and understanding.” The leaders of God’s re-gathered people will lead the people by feeding the people the knowledge and understanding of God’s ways and Word.
Not only that, but God will also raise up one supreme ruler, the heir of David, who will secure the salvation of all of God’s people:
Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In his days Judah will be saved, and Israel will dwell securely. And this is the name by which he will be called: “The LORD is our righteousness.” (Jer. 23:5–6)
This re-gathering of God’s people, this new exodus back into their land, will outshine even God’s mighty deliverance of his people from Egypt, and will be the deed by which God’s people name and remember him from this time on (vv. 7–8).
So God will gather his people as a faithful shepherd. And God will raise up many faithful shepherds to care for his people. Yet one shepherd-king in particular will save the people and ensure their secure flourishing in God’s place, under God’s rule.
Isaiah 40:11 provides another glimpse of God’s new-exodus act of gathering his sheep himself:
He will tend his flock like a shepherd;
he will gather the lambs in his arms;
he will carry them in his bosom,
and gently lead those that are with young.
Ezekiel 34 paints a more detailed portrait of God’s work as the shepherd who will save his people. The current shepherds of Israel have fed themselves rather than the sheep and failed to heal the sick and seek the straying, so now God’s sheep have been scattered (vv. 1–6). For all this God will judge these wicked shepherds, and will rescue his sheep himself (vv. 7–10). God himself will seek them out, rescue them, gather them into their own land, feed them, and lead them to lie down and rest (vv. 11–14). “I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I myself will make them lie down, declares the Lord God. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak…I will feed them in justice” (vv. 15–16).
Yet God also promises, “I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd” (v. 23). So God himself will be their shepherd, but so will his “servant David.” And when God again shepherds his people, they will have peace, blessing, security, abundance, freedom, honor, and the true knowledge of God (vv. 25–31).
Jesus the Good Shepherd
Who is this shepherd whom God sets over his people? Jesus, the good shepherd. Jesus had compassion on the crowds because they were harassed and helpless, sheep without a shepherd (Matt. 9:36). Jesus is the good shepherd who came to give abundant life to God’s sheep (John 10:10), who lays down his life for God’s sheep (v. 11, 15), who knows his own sheep (v. 14), who gathers all his sheep into one flock (v. 16).
The metaphor of God’s people as sheep first took shape to describe Israel in the wilderness: hungry, thirsty, scorched by the sun, not yet at their true home. Transposed into a spiritual key, all this is true of the church in the present age. Like Israel in the wilderness, we have not yet entered God’s rest (Heb. 4:11). We’re threatened not just by hunger and hardship, but opposition and persecution.
Now we are weak and wandering, pressed by hardship. But in Revelation, John catches a glimpse of our final destination:
They shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore;
the sun shall not strike them,
nor any scorching heat.
For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd,
and he will guide them to springs of living water,
and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes. (Rev. 7:16–17)
The Lord Jesus is our shepherd, and he is a good shepherd. One day soon, though, he will be our shepherd, and we will never again hunger or hurt.
SHEPHERDING LIKE THE CHIEF SHEPHERD
So what does this story say to the church’s shepherds? Jesus’ famous words to Peter point us in the right direction. Three times Jesus asked Peter if he loved him; three times Peter replied “yes”; three times Jesus charged Peter to care for his sheep (Jn. 21:15–17). John’s Gospel uses two different Greek words for “tend” or “feed” in this passage, but they mean the same thing. Both refer to the comprehensive care shepherds show sheep: feeding, tending, guiding, protecting. And that is exactly the kind of care pastors are to give their people.
Pastors are to feed their people with the Word, exhorting them in sound doctrine (Tit. 1:9–10), proclaiming to them the whole counsel of God (Acts 20:27). Pastors are to guard their people against false doctrine and those who would lead them astray (Acts 20:29–31). Pastors are to lead their people by providing a godly example (Heb. 13:7), equipping them for ministry (Eph. 4:12), and wisely directing the affairs of the church (1 Tim. 5:17). Pastors are to care for their people by tenderly providing whatever counsel, help, and encouragement they need.
In a word, pastors care. They don’t just care about their people, they care for them. They know them. They seek them out. They give their people what their souls need, even when the people themselves don’t know or want what they most need.
In all this, pastors image God the Father. Paul exhorts church leaders, “And we urge you, brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all” (1 Thess. 5:14). That kind of person-by-person care is exactly what God promises to do for his people when he pledges to seek the lost, bring back the strayed, bind up the injured, and feed them all in justice (Ezek. 34:16).
And pastors image our Lord Jesus Christ, who shepherd the people of God before any pastor, and shepherds them throughout the course of every pastor’s ministry, and will shepherd them after every pastor’s ministry ends. That’s why Peter calls Jesus the “chief Shepherd” (1 Pet. 5:4). Jesus is the heir God raised up for David; he is the one true Shepherd-King of God’s people. Yet Jesus’ shepherding ministry doesn’t rule out human shepherds—instead it equips and empowers them.
Pastor, have you ever considered that your own ministry to your local church participates in the fulfillment of prophecy? Remember that God promised to set many shepherds over his people when he set his supreme Shepherd over them (Jer. 23:4, 5). These shepherds would feed God’s people with knowledge and understanding (Jer. 3:15).
How well do your priorities in ministry match those of the divine shepherd? How well do you know your sheep’s spiritual needs? How much time and effort do you devote to meeting those needs one by one? Are you more concerned about how many new bodies enter the building or about how their souls are fainting or flourishing?
Are you vigilant against threats to your people’s soundness in the faith? Or do you leave your sheep easy prey for false teachers by failing to equip them with a deep grasp of biblical doctrine?
Do you know which of your sheep are flourishing and which are malnourished? Which are spiritually strong and which are sick? Which are safely in the fold and which are wandering into the wilderness?
If you want a refresher on your job description as a pastor, consider how God has shepherded his people throughout the story of Scripture. Marvel at his gentle care and powerful protection. Learn from his patient attention to his people’s diverse needs. Be amazed at the depths of God’s tender compassion, that the one who holds galaxies in his hand also stoops down and picks up those sheep who are too weak to walk. And pray that, by his grace and in the power of his Spirit, God would make you a shepherd after his own heart.
* * * * *
 Throughout this section I draw on the exegesis of Timothy S. Laniak, Shepherds after My Own Heart: Pastoral Traditions and Leadership in the Bible, New Studies in Biblical Theology 20 (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2006).