What is Shepherding and Why Must Elders Do It?

August 7, 2008

(This is a summary of the third sermon in the six-part series, “God Gave Pastors and Teachers,” preached on June 22, 2008. The audio is available here.)

What is shepherding and why must elders do it?

When you read in Acts 20:28 that the elders are to shepherd the church of God, what images come to your mind?

What tasks that pastors or elders do constitute shepherding?

Since this is a serious biblical command, we had better understand it well.

To understand it well, we need to look at how the Bible uses the term

What is shepherding, biblically?

Last week we considered: What are elders and why do we have them?

We saw that the purpose of the church can be summarized in three expressions: We are to:

  • Deepen joy in Christ: Edification
  • Express joy in Christ: Worship
  • Spread joy in Christ: Evangelism/Missions

God gave elders to assist the church to fulfill that threefold purpose.

  • We also surveyed the specific commands given to elders in the Bible, including: Profit/benefit
  • Keep watch
  • Pay careful attention to, guard,
  • Protect
  • Equip, build up
  • Shepherd
  • Pray
  • Teach/preach

We saw that shepherding encompasses all of these other tasks – that’s why the term pastor/shepherd is applied to elders.

Today: We’ll start with the image of the shepherd, and deepen our understanding of the role of elders through the way that picture is applied in the Bible.

So: What images does the Bible present of shepherds and sheep?

There are about 450 verses in the Bible that refer to sheep, shepherds, shepherding (sometimes translated “feed,” “tend,” or “care for”), or lambs. Over the last few weeks I have looked at all these verses. In the rest of the morning, I will summarize those parts of this study that help us answer the question: What is shepherding and why must elders do it?

Three  headings:

  • Observations about sheep and shepherds
  • Five prominent biblical images
  • Four key lessons for shepherding by elders

Observations About Sheep and Shepherds

Four observations about sheep:

1)      They are stupid. They even need to be led to food – they will not find food on their own.

2)      They are unable to defend themselves – they are slow, and have no significant teeth or claws.

3)      They are easily lost. If separated from the herd, they will not find their way home.

4)      Why do we keep sheep? Not because they are cuddly, cute, or warm. In fact, most are ugly. We keep them as a source of meat or wool and, in some cultures, for sacrifice.

Given these characteristics of sheep, what are the tasks of a shepherd?

The shepherd must watch out for and care for the sheep or they will starve, be killed by predators, or wander off. Shepherds must guard the sheep, lead them to pasture and water, keep the herd together, and bind up those who are injured, in order that the sheep might fulfill their purpose: providing wool, meat, and animals for sacrifice.

Five Prominent Biblical Images:

1) Images comparing leaders of God’s people to good shepherds

God Himself is often pictured as a shepherd of His people who brings delight to His sheep: Psalm 100.

Other prominent leaders are often called shepherds of Israel: Moses, Jeremiah, and most prominently, David.

The prophets promise that a future son of David will come and shepherd God’s people: For example, Ezekiel 34:22-23.

This prophecy is clearly fulfilled in Jesus. He is called the good shepherd, the chief shepherd, the shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep. He has sheep not of this fold who is gathering them all into one flock.

2) Images comparing leaders of God’s people to bad shepherds

When the leaders of Israel take advantage of the people for their own benefit, they are bad shepherds. Ezekiel 34 takes this image and extends it in powerful ways.

Ezekiel 34:2-6 Ah, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep?  3 You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fat ones, but you do not feed the sheep.  4 The weak you have not strengthened, the sick you have not healed, the injured you have not bound up, the strayed you have not brought back, the lost you have not sought, and with force and harshness you have ruled them.  5 So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd, and they became food for all the wild beasts.  6 My sheep were scattered; they wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill. My sheep were scattered over all the face of the earth, with none to search or seek for them.

3) Though Israelites ate meat and used wool, there are very few references to these uses in the Bible. The sacrificial image predominates.

Instead, there are many references in Scripture to the use of sheep or lambs as sacrifice.

4) We all are like sheep: Wandering, helpless, lost

This is far from a flattering image.

Psalm 119:176: I have gone astray like a lost sheep; seek your servant, for I do not forget your commandments.

Isaiah 53:6: All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned–every one–to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.

Thus we need the Gospel. We need to acknowledge that though we were created to give God glory, we instead have spurned Him. We thus deserve judgment.

5) Jesus is the Lamb of God

After all I’ve said, this has to be startling. We are sheeplike because we wander and are helpless and lost. Jesus is sheeplike because, like a lamb, he lives in order to die. He lives in order to offer Himself as a sacrifice. He takes on Himself the penalty we deserve for failing to live up to the purpose of our creation. The benefits of that sacrifice accrue to everyone who trusts in Him.

Key verses on this theme include, John 1:29, 1 Corinthians 5:7, and Revelation 5:12.

Four Key Lessons for Pastor/Elder Shepherding

1) The shepherds are sheep!

They too have gone astray! They too need to have their iniquity laid on another.        They too have all the problems of sheep – they are stupid, they tend to wander.

Think of this image: The Chief Shepherd takes two sheep out of a hundred, and says, “OK, you serve as shepherds in my absence: Guard the flock, lead them to pasture, keep the other sheep from wandering.”

Will that work? No. Those sheep will fail in the task. They can’t do it. They are sheep!

But that’s NOT the biblical image. Jesus does NOT leave the flock. He is present – working through sinful, inadequate shepherds, showing His power in our weakness to His glory.

2) A key component of shepherding is public teaching, warning, preaching, and exhorting, serving the flock as a whole.

Jeremiah is called a shepherd of Israel (Jer 17:16), and his ministry reported in the Bible was public, not private.

  • David and Moses are called shepherds of Israel, and their main actions served the  nation as a whole, not individuals.
  • Even most (though not all) of what a literal shepherd does serves the flock as a whole, rather than sheep as individuals.

Jeremiah 3:15 is a key verse in this regard. In the surrounding context, God is condemning the shepherds of Israel who were turning from God and taking advantage of the people: “And I will give you shepherds after my own heart, who will feed you with knowledge and understanding.”

Mark Dever, speaking to pastors in a recent interview, summarizes this biblical point:

Your main job in order to reach the world for Christ is to know God yourself, to know his word, to faithfully preach and teach that word to your people, and so be used by God to create a community that does far more than you could ever do.

Thus: Right now, I am shepherding you though preaching. When I am writing the devotion for the weekly email – I am shepherding you. When I am reading about winds of false doctrine affecting the church so that I can teach you, warn you, and protect you – I am shepherding you.

The teaching of the Word, including applying it to our specific cultural context, is a key part – indeed, biblically, probably the most prominent part – of shepherding.

Some other aspects of biblical shepherding also have to do with serving the flock as a whole: Designing worship services so that we might express joy in Christ corporately, praying for the flock as a whole.

So, biblically, the most prominent aspect of shepherding is serving the flock as a whole.

3) This care for the good of the entire flock is coupled with care for the sheep as individuals

Jesus is perfecting His bride as a whole, but each individual within the bride is loved by God, is special, is chosen.

Ezekiel 34 once again is helpful. This chapter condemns the bad shepherds for not caring for individual sheep: Binding up the injured, bringing back the strays, seeking out the lost. Jesus then speaks of the shepherd rejoicing after he seeks and rescues the one lost sheep.

Pastors and elders therefore must care about, love, and watch over individuals, as well as the entire flock.

How are they to do this?

Their responsibility is not necessarily to provide the individual care themselves. David could hardly do that for the nation. Delegation must play a large part in this care for individuals.

We see this in Acts 6. The Apostles acknowledge that the needs of Greek-speaking widows are not being met. They take responsibility to ensure that those women are served, but they don’t do the ministry themselves. Why not?

“It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables.  . . . 4 But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” (Acts 6:2,4)

4. The goal of shepherding is the goal of the creation of mankind: The Glory of God among the nations!

The goal is not happy sheep, healthy sheep, well-fed sheep, or comfortable sheep.

The good shepherd lays down His life for the sheep NOT so they can have what He doesn’t – but so they can have what he HAS – so they too can lay down their lives for the glory of God.

Note carefully: The shepherd is actually preparing the sheep for slaughter! The shepherd is raising sheep so they can die.

Romans 12:1  I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies [as a sheep on the altar,] as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.

The goal of all shepherding is to transform stupid, wandering sheep into the sheep likeness of Jesus: Sacrificial lambs.


  • My job is not to make you prosperous. My job is to protect you from prosperity
  • My job is not to help you have a good life. My job is to exhort you and to challenge you and to help you to lay down your good life for the glory of God and the joy of all peoples.

That’s why the Holy Spirit makes men overseers, elders, pastors:

  • To deepen joy in Christ: That is, to edify the church, so each can say, “Earth has nothing I desire besides You – YOU are the pearl of great price, worth selling all I have to gain, YOU are the treasure hidden in the field, that out of my joy I give up all else to obtain.”
  • To express that deepened joy in Christ publicly, corporately, as we say together in worship,

This world is empty pale and poor
Compared to knowing You, my Lord!
Lead me on and I will run after You!

  • And as a consequence of this deep joy in Christ, to spread that joy in Christ to those in our culture – that’s evangelism – and to those in other cultures – that’s missions – so that our great God might have all the glory

That’s why we exist as a church.

That’s why God called Fred and me as pastors, as elders.

That’s why God calls YOU as His sheep, His follower, His disciple.

So that you, a wandering, stupid sheep, might become like Jesus: A spotless lamb, laying down your life, for your greatest joy, for God’s glory throughout creation.

Do you hear the call?

Will you follow?


Got something to say?