Although Jesus Christ is the Good Shepherd and the Chief Shepherd, as we saw in Part One, He is not the church's only shepherd. From the days of ancient Israel up through the New Covenant church era, He has also appointed under-shepherds to watch over His physical or spiritual flock—and this will continue into the Millennium (Numbers 27:15-17; II Samuel 5:2; 7:7; I Chronicles 11:2; 17:6; Psalm 78:70-72; Isaiah 44:28; Ezekiel 34:23; 37:24; John 21:15-17; Acts 20:28; I Peter 5:2-4). The Chief Shepherd provides the pattern for His under-shepherds, and thus He gifts them to carry out their responsibilities in a way that reflects His own shepherding. Notice some of the attributes of a godly shepherd:
On the other hand, false shepherds also exist, those whom God has not appointed. Jesus describes a person who tries to access the sheep without going through Him as "a thief and a robber" (John 10:1, 8). The thief comes "to steal, to kill, and to destroy" (John 10:10), though these actions may not be apparent on the surface. He also describes "hirelings," whose care is not for the sheep but for their own safety and security (John 10:12-13). Rather than laying down their lives for them, such hirelings abandon the sheep at the very time they need help the most.
God also calls attention to His appointed shepherds who have become derelict in their duties. In Jeremiah 23:1, the One who became Jesus Christ pronounces a "woe" on "shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of My pasture," who have "scattered My flock, driven them away, and not attended to them" (verse 2). He says in Jeremiah 50:6, "My people have been lost sheep. Their shepherds have led them astray. . . ." Jeremiah 10:21 speaks of shepherds who "have become dull-hearted, and have not sought the LORD," and the result is that "they shall not prosper, and all their flocks shall be scattered."
Likewise, Ezekiel mentions shepherds who feed themselves rather than the flock (Ezekiel 34:2-3); who rule with "cruelty and force" rather than strengthening, healing, binding what is broken, bringing back what was driven away, and seeking what was lost (verse 4). Though the most immediate application in these verses is to the physical leaders of the nations of Israel, it also applies in antitype to the shepherds of God's spiritual flock.
Even though under-shepherds do not always perfectly emulate the Good Shepherd, He has nevertheless established their roles and offices, and He has specifically gifted them to serve in this way. This is the order that Jesus Christ has ordained, yet our carnal tendency may be to either abuse or rebel against this order—either to become too dependent on an under-shepherd or to reject human shepherds altogether, believing that we are better off on our own, finding our own food, and determining our own paths.
In his book, Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis describes the problem of being preoccupied with focusing on the extremes, and the relationship between shepherds and sheep is a ready application:
[The devil] always sends error into the world in pairs—pairs of opposites. And he always encourages us to spend a lot of time thinking which is the worse. You see why, of course? He relies on your extra dislike of the one error to draw you gradually into the opposite one. But do not let us be fooled. We have to keep our eyes on the goal and go straight through between both errors. We have no other concern than that with either of them.
On the one hand, there is a grave danger when sheep relinquish all of their responsibility to an under-shepherd and become comfortable being carried around and bottle-fed. A sheep in such a position is consigned to spiritual immaturity by virtue of not "test[ing] all things; [and] hold[ing] fast what is good (I Thessalonians 5:21), not "hav[ing] their senses exercised to discern both good and evil" (Hebrews 5:14), and not "work[ing] out [their] own salvation with fear and trembling" (Philippians 2:12).
If a sheep believes that his standing before God is improved owing to who his under-shepherd is; that he should only eat what comes directly from the shepherd's hand; or that he will enter the Kingdom only by being with a particular group of sheep, he will be unprepared to fill a role in the coming Kingdom of God. A sheep will be spiritually hobbled if he is focused on an under-shepherd more than the Chief Shepherd.
But, as Lewis points out, the opposite extreme is not the answer either. The condition of "sheep without a shepherd" is a consistently negative and deleterious image throughout Scripture (Numbers 27:15-17; I Kings 22:17; II Chronicles 18:16; Ezekiel 34:5-8; Zechariah 10:2; Matthew 9:36; I Peter 2:25). There are times when this happens to the sheep—rather than the sheep choosing it—because they are driven away or scattered by abuse and/or neglect. In such a case, all the sheep can do is beseech the Good Shepherd to gather them to the under-shepherd of His choosing.
Part Three will investigate the post-scattering attitude of sheep deliberately choosing to forsake all under-shepherds, as well as the general unsettled nature of the flock at this time.
- David C. Grabbe
If you would like to subscribe to the C.G.G. Weekly newsletter, please visit our Email Subscriptions page.