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The pastor as a shepherd

In his first letter, the apostle Peter wrote this command: “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 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. And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory.” (1 Peter 5:1-4, ESV)

Peter wrote as one church leader to others. He also wrote as one with special authority. He was an apostle. He had been an eyewitness of the Lord Jesus himself, and of his sufferings whilst on the earth. As he wrote, Peter described his fellow-elders as shepherds, whose work was to look after God’s flock. We will study this passage in four parts. First we will look at the work to be done. Then we will look at the way in which this work is to be done. Thirdly we will look at the motives (encouragements) to do this work, and then finally at the dangers we must beware of.

1. The work to be done

A shepherd cares for sheep. He is to find good places for them to feed, and lead them there. He must protect them from cold and rain. He must watch out to guard them from thieves and wild animals. He must do this for every one of them. He must train each one to hear the shepherd’s voice, and when any one of them wanders off he must go and rescue them.

This is what pastors are to do for their churches. The people are the sheep, the flock which belongs to God. Pastors are “under-shepherds”, working under the authority of the “chief Shepherd” (v4), the Lord Jesus Christ, who purchased the flock with his own blood (Acts 20:28).

Pastors feed their flock by giving them the Word of God. It must be given to them in a way that they can understand and respond to. If we try to feed a baby with nyama choma, then the baby cannot eat it! A pastor must know his people and their situations, so that he can bring them the teachings, the encouragements, the rebukes and the corrections that they need in them. He must be careful that he is not mixing any false teaching in with the food. In a cup of clean water, only one drop of poison is needed to make the whole cup deadly. Pastors must not be careless about what food they are giving their sheep. The sheep need to grow to be mature, so that they are not “blown this way and that by the waves and carried around by every wind of teaching” (Ephesians 4:14). They need to learn the difference between truth and error, so that they can follow truth and reject falsehood.

Peter describes all of this work and summarises it with the word “oversight” (v2). This word means to watch over, to take the care over. The shepherd’s ministry is a watching ministry. His concern should not be himself, but his people and their progress in knowing and serving Jesus. Are their spiritual diseases amongst the people – diseases of laziness, coldness and prayerlessness? Are their wolves circling around with their false teachings and selfish plans? No man can be a shepherd unless he has a deep love for people. Believers can be strange and difficult in their ways. Unless a man is ready to give himself for them, day and night, he cannot be a guardian of the flock.

2. How to do this work

Peter gives us two particular commands about how pastors must do this work. Firstly he says it must be done “not under compulsion, but willingly”. That is, nobody should do the work of God like a person who is forced to do it. Perhaps you can remember being at school, having to get up early, having to sit and listen quietly, having to do homework – when you did not want to! You did the work, but your heart was not in it. This kind of service is not acceptable to God. God looks at the heart (1 Samuel 16:7). He looks at and responds to how we serve (2 Corinthians 9:7).

Pastors can grow tired in their work, like anyone else. They will sometimes find it a struggle to continue. They will be tempted by thoughts that “the grass is greener on the other side of the fence”. Nevertheless, they must ask and test themselves. Do they see looking after the people that Jesus loves as a great privilege, or is it just a job – just a way to pay the rent, or to earn respect, or fill the time; or just the only job they know, the job that their father passed on to them? It is actually a terrible thing to be serving God in that position. The Bible says that God will judge teachers more strictly than others (James 3:1). If, after carefully judging himself, a man realises that he is not serving God out of a true heart, he should look for something else to do before God brings his own judgment.

Those who are serving God willingly must keep on doing so. Do not let it slip away! Take care of your heart every day; keep serving Christ because he is worth it, infinitely so. When troubles and tests come, make sure you look more at him than at anything else.

The second instruction is that pastors must serve as “examples to the flock”. The preacher of God’s word tells people to repent of their sins every day. He must do so himself. He tells them to love Jesus and be ready to make any sacrifice for him. He must do the same! Christianity is not just a list of beliefs. It is a living, glorious power. That life and glory must be seen in the preacher who preaches about them. Otherwise, he is a hypocrite. God is not a friend of hypocrites; he normally sends them to hell.

3. The motives to do this work

It is sad that too many pastors are competing with each other, to get glory in this life. The Bible never encourages us to seek such things. Its encouragements are much better than that.

Peter wants us to look at the glory that will be revealed and given to those who serve Jesus faithfully. In verse 4, he promises that faithful pastors “will receive the unfading crown of glory”. All the riches, power and fame of this present world will soon be gone forever. Everything will pass away, and a new world will come. Trustworthy servants will appear in that world crowned with the glory of the Son of God himself. Is that not worth serving for? I do not think that any shepherds are paid that well in Kenya, or anywhere else! Continuing to serve will bring us tiredness and trouble – but there is a reward that we can hardly imagine at the end of it.

Peter also reminds us that the flock is not ours. There is a “chief Shepherd”, whom it belongs to. If we ignore the people and their needs, then we are causing damage to something that belongs to someone else. That someone else is the Lord God Almighty! This is both a warning and a motivation. It motivates us, because to be a servant of the King is a high privilege, and his service must be the very best. It warns us, because God will not forget those who harm his blood-bought flock (2 Peter 2:1-3).

4. The dangers to beware of

Finally, we are now going to look at two particular dangers to be aware of. They are two traps that we may fall into, and which have hurt many.

The first trap is of greed. Peter calls it serving for “filthy lucre” (KJV) or “for shameful gain” (ESV). Paul warned about the same problem: “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving (unclean desire) that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs (sorrows)” (1 Timothy 6:10, ESV). Sadly, greed is one of the obvious sins of some Kenyan pastors. Not being content with Christ’s presence and Christ’s promises of future reward, such men try to use positions in the church to build their houses, educate their children and fill their pockets. They use God’s flock, to serve their own desires. This trap is easy to fall into, especially with so many bad examples around us. But it is very deep, and very few ever climb out of it again.

The second danger to avoid in leadership is “domineering” (v3), sometimes referred to (from the KJV) as “lording it over the flock”. This happens when the shepherd forgets that he is the flock’s servant, and thinks he is their master. It is when he confuses “leading” with “owning”. He forgets that Christian leadership is leadership by example – leadership by self-giving and by suffering. It is not to be the world’s leadership – leadership by showing power and authority. Jesus made that very clear to us, in passages like Mark 10:35-45.

In Kenya, many pastors have been taught the world’s view of leadership. However, in the Bible, a church leader’s authority is actually quite limited. It is authority to teach the Word of God and nothing else. If the Bible does not teach something, then the pastor has no authority to require it. He can make a recommendation or suggestion to the church – but unless Scripture actually commands something, he cannot command it either. Are you a pastor who “domineers”? Do you force people to follow your own ideas and choices, and make life hard for them if they do not? This is hateful to God. Jesus himself is a gentle, tender, patient leader. That is very good news for sinners like us, because we are slow, stubborn and foolish. How can we properly serve him unless we are seeking to be as kind and gracious as he is?

Remembering that pastors are shepherds will be a great help to our ministry. We are not film-stars; we are not politicians; we are not “big men”; we are servants, caring for the owner’s flock for him. The work to be done is humble, serving work. It must be done willingly, giving ourselves to it. We must be aware of the dangers, and avoid them. If we do, we shall receive a reward that we can hardly imagine. Jesus is worth serving. Are you being a true shepherd to his sheep?