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Shepherds of God's Flock

From Series: What Is the Church?

“To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder, a witness of Christ’s sufferings and one who also will share in the glory to be revealed: Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, serving as overseers—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not greedy for money, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock. And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away.”[1]

Our God and our Father, we pray that in these precious moments when we anticipate hearing from you that you will draw near to us, and beyond the voice of a mere man, albeit in it and through it, that we might hear your voice, and that we might realize that it is your Word that goes. And so bring your Word to bear upon our lives and upon our church we pray; we so desperately need this, and we believe that we desire it. So fulfill your purposes we pray. For Christ’s sake. Amen.          

I want, this morning, to come to the brief study that we have engaged in in the church for a final time. We have looked at a variety of aspects of it. There are many angles that we may take. We have asked the questions “Who or what is the church?” “Who is in charge of the church?” reminding ourselves that the babe in Bethlehem came to be Lord of his people and head of the church. “What does it mean to belong to the church?” Is it simply a loose affiliation of individuals who enjoy singing similar songs and held together by a sense of self-interest or is it something far more significant than that? Far deeper than that? We addressed that matter. We asked the question, “What does it mean for us to engage in the ordinances of the church in a way that is true to the Bible?” And so we spent time thinking about the nature of communion and thinking about the Lord’s Supper and baptism. There are many angles, as I say, that we may come to this from, and on another occasion we may do a more comprehensive study in the church; but for now, I want us to draw it to a close by considering the priority which the New Testament gives to the establishing of effective leadership in the church—the priority that the New Testament gives to the establishing of effective leadership in the church. How are we going to determine this?

Well, the answer is, of course, by reading the Bible, and looking into the Bible to see whether there is actually this priority. And where we would look would be not to the Gospels, which finish with the ascension of the Lord Jesus, but first of all to the Acts of the Apostles—which is, if you like, the minute book of the early church—and then into the epistles themselves to see what the emphasis is that is brought to bear by those who wrote the epistles. And when you do this—and I hope that you might consider it as part of your homework assignment—you need only a concordance and look up the word “elder” or “bishop,” depending on the kind of translation of the Bible that you’re using, then you will discover that what I am suggesting to you this morning is actually the case. So, for example, in Acts chapter 14, we’re told by Luke that after the apostles had gone on their initial evangelistic campaigns and had seen men and women come to trust in Christ, they then returned to many of these towns and cities in order that they might establish elders, effective leadership within each of these churches.

And so, for example, in Acts chapter 14, if you were looking for one, in verse 23, it says, “Paul and Barnabas appointed elders for them in each church and, with prayer and fasting, committed them to the Lord in whom they had put their trust.” When in Acts chapter 20, you have one of the most moving records of a parting in all of Holy Scripture, you discover that when Paul takes his leave of the elders who’d been established for the church in Ephesus, he urges them to keep watch over themselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit had made them overseers. He says, “I want you to be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood.”[2] And the reason for this emphasis and for the priority is because he says, “I know that after my departure there will arise from among you fierce wolves, who will seek to actually eat the flock and draw people away after them.”[3] So, the big problem would arise, not as a result of people coming in from the outside, but as a result of people emerging from within, who begin to take the flock off in all kinds of directions.

How is that to be handled? Well, it’s to be handled as a result of leadership that submits to the leadership of Jesus, and submits to the instruction of the Bible, and is prepared to bring the Bible to bear upon the flock that is under their care. It’s for that reason that he urges Titus in Titus 1 to make sure that having been left in Crete, he will straighten things out and appoint elders in every town.[4] When he writes to Timothy, who was essentially his understudy in the faith, he provides him with significant instruction in 1 Timothy chapter 3, and then again in chapter 5. And when you read these portions of Scripture, as I hope you will, then you will discover that in each instance, the task of leadership is a shared task, that the burden does not fall upon any one individual, but it rather is granted to a group of individuals. If you are open at 1 Peter 5, you will notice that it is in the plural, “to the elders”—plural—“among you, I appeal as one who is a fellow elder.”

Now, you don’t have to start in the New Testament to see this pattern emerge; you can go way back into the Old Testament, and you will discover that God grants in his wisdom and grace the kind of security that is represented in shared leadership. You need look no further than the story of Moses, which is a wonderful story. In Exodus chapter 3, you remember God speaks to Moses out of the burning bush, and he gives to him the amazing privilege and prerogative of going to Pharaoh, the Pharaoh of Egypt, and saying, “Hey, let my people go. God says we’re supposed to leave.”[5] And you may remember the story of all of the plagues that then ensued, until finally it came to the plague, whereby the firstborn was to be killed in the home, unless there was the painting of the blood on the lintels and doorframes of each of those homes. And the people of God, led out by Moses, flee out from Egypt. They cross the Red Sea, and they begin their journey towards the Promised Land.

Whenever God is about to do something significant amongst his people, he always raises up leadership.

Whenever God is about to do something significant amongst his people, he always raises up leadership—always raises up leadership. You can find it in the Bible. You can find it in the history of the church. You can find it in the history of this church. There is nothing happens without God raising up leadership, and the Old Testament pattern is very clear: Moses, I want you to take initiative; Moses, I want you to be an inspiration to these people; Moses, I want you to influence these people; Moses, I want you to instruct them. What a task. What a responsibility! Surely, no one man would be capable of that? And the answer is, no, of course they would not, and so by the time you get to Numbers chapter 11, and it would be helpful for you just to turn to this so that you can see that what I’m telling you is actually there, in Numbers chapter 11—Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, the fourth book—Numbers chapter 11, the people of God are now in difficulty. They’ve been complaining about the hardships that they’ve been experiencing. The anger of God has been roused, and the fire of the Lord has begun to burn among them and has consumed some of the outskirts of the camp. Don’t mess with God. That’s the story. That’s the message. Don’t complain. Don’t argue against God, who has done such a wonderful thing in bringing you here. The fire of God smolders against them, and Moses cries out to God, and as a result of his prayers, the fire of the Lord, we’re told, dies down, and they name the place Taberah because the fire from the Lord came and burned among them. Then out of the crowd—indeed, it is referred to here in verse 4 as “the rabble”— “The rabble with them began to crave other food …” “We don’t like this food. We want other food!” And, again, the Israelites started wailing. It’s quite interesting, the wailing and complaining that goes on, “If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we ate in Egypt at no cost …”[6] You remember what they were saying in Egypt? “We’ve got to get out of this place. If it’s the last thing we ever do.”[7] They were compelled to get out of the place. Their backs were being broken. They were imprisoned. They were forced to make bricks without straw. “Oh God, will you please help us? Will you please get us out of here? If you get us out of here, we will thank you for the rest of our lives. There’s nothing we will ever say against you again. We will just follow you and love you and serve you and praise you.”

And out they come and across the Red Sea, and here they are. “We remember the fish we ate in Egypt at no cost. Oh, there were wonderful restaurants in Egypt. Oh, the fish restaurants in Egypt. They were unparalleled, and the cucumbers we had there, and the melons and the leeks and the onions, and oh, the garlic, but now we’ve lost our appetite. We’ve never seen anything but this manna.”[8] Now, when I read this again this week and my mind went immediately to the opening scene in the musical Oliver, where you remember, they’re all coming in to the table to that opening song, you know, “Every day is all the same and all we get is gruel … all we get is gruel.”[9] Remember that? (Rent the movie for goodness sake, and you’ll find that my rendition was very close—not on key, but very close.) And that’s exactly what these characters are doing: “Hey Moses, are we supposed to eat this manna stuff forever? I mean, what do you think you’re doing with us, Moses?”

Now, let’s just pause for a moment and ask the question, “How did Moses get in this predicament?” Was he a volunteer? Sent a resume? “Dear God, if you’re looking for anybody to liberate your people from Egypt, I suggest that my background is remarkably strong. I’ve been in a number of places, and of course I know the Pharaoh personally. I’ve had a number of dealings with him in the past, and his daughter was a great fan of mine in my early years,” and so on. “And if you think you could use me at any time, do get in touch with me directly. My email address is as follows, and you can get contact with me in a number of ways.” No, because the story of Moses’ preparation for leadership is quite remarkable. For forty years, his training was to become a somebody in Egypt, right? So, for forty years as a result, he’s hidden in the basket in the bulrushes. The princess comes. She says that she’s the baby. His sister says, “Hey, I’ve got a nursemaid for you.” Goes, get the mother. Moses’ mother looks after him in the court of Pharaoh. He grows up with all of this tremendous prestige and opportunity, and for the first forty years of his life, he is being trained to be a somebody in Egypt. Then the fight, and the murder, and the departure to the desert. So, the first forty years, he’s trained to be a somebody in Egypt. The second forty years, he is trained how to be a nobody in the desert, and it is after that he has learned to be a nobody that God then determines to use him.

God is not looking for those who are able to present their resume.

Now, do not miss this in passing—for within the framework of the church of God, God is not looking for those who are able to present their resume. “You see, God, I think I am in remarkable strong position for this. After all, I am a somebody. Let me tell you what I’m able to bring to the table,” and so on. God says, “Sorry, sit on the sidelines. I’m looking for a nobody. I’m going to show the world what I can do with a nobody.” And if you look at the history of God’s dealings with people, you will find that at least in the secret place of the lives of those most greatly used, they didn’t think they were somebody. They knew they were nobody, and they were small enough for God to use. One of the reasons that some of us will never be particularly useful in the service of God is because we’re too big. We’re too big for our own boots. We’re too big for our own outfits, and we wonder why it is that we are constantly set aside in the reckoning. God prepared him for forty years as a somebody, for forty years as a nobody, and then once he had understood that—and not until—God said, “Okay, Moses, let’s go.”

And so he finds himself in leadership, and he hears the people, verse 10, “of every family wailing, each at the entrance to his tent.” [10] He was presiding over a bunch of whiners—wailers, whiners, similar—and “The Lord became exceedingly angry, and Moses was troubled. He asked the Lord, ‘Why have you brought this trouble on your servant? What have I done to displease you that you put the burden of all these people on me? Did I conceive all these people? Did I give them birth? Why do you tell me to carry them in my arms, as a nurse carries an infant, to the land you promised on oath to their forefathers? Where can I get meat for all these people? They keep wailing to me, ‘Give us meat to eat!’ I cannot carry all these people by myself; the burden is too heavy for me. If this is how you are going to treat me, put me to death right now—if I have found favor in your eyes—and do not let me face my own ruin.’”[11] Now, what’s the answer of God? Look at verse 16. “The Lord said to Moses: ‘Bring me seventy of Israel’s elders who are known to you as leaders and officials among the people. Make them come to the Tent of Meeting, that they may stand there with you. [And] I will come down and speak with you there, and I will take of the Spirit that is on you and put the Spirit on them. [And] they will help you carry the burden of the people so that you will not have to carry it alone.”[12] And the picture there, which you actually find earlier in the book of Exodus, of the discovery of leadership amongst the company of God’s people, so being put together under the plan of God, that the people of God may be led with effectiveness, is nothing other than the foundation upon which this New Testament pattern is built.

Now, I make much of that, but I do so purposefully because the church is plagued by all kinds of individualism, both within its ranks and within its leadership. And that’s why it is important for us to pay attention to the fact that not only in our passage, but in each of the passages, the word which is used to designate the leadership that is a priority in the church, is a word which you’ll find there in the plural. Presbuteru is the word there in 1 Peter 5:1. That gives us incidentally as you would imagine, our English word “presbyter.” A number of words are used interchangeably for these individuals. Back in Acts 20, to which I referred in verse 17, the word again that is used there is presbuteros. When in verse 28 he mentions the elders again, he uses the word episcopoi, which gives us our English word “episcopal,” that is sometimes translated “overseer,” as in the NIV. It is translated “bishop” on a number of occasions in the King James Version—incidentally, a poor translation, which has led to all manner of confusion; I wish that the early translators had chosen not to interpret it as bishop, because it has allowed people to get off on all kinds of tangents in relationship to who the bishop is and everything else. And when you read the New Testament, you discover there is no hierarchical structure whatsoever within the framework of eldership. It’s all on a level plane except for one, who is the Chief Shepherd in verse 4, who is Christ, the head of the church; but everything else is on a plane. You can search the Scriptures in vain to try and find some bishop, archbishop, hierarchical framework, which has been developed through the years. And ,again, the burden of proof lies with those who want to tell us that that’s the way it ought to be done, and they’ve got to come and take the Bible and show us exactly how it is that from the Bible they’re able to create that structure. Unable to do so, then we simply set it aside.

So, you have these individuals who are both episcopoi, which addresses the issue of their authority, and they are presbuteroi, which speaks to the issue of their maturity, and they are those who are to be exercising the responsibility of shepherd, the Greek verb is poiménpoimén. Those three words are very important. Men of authority, men of maturity, and men of responsibility. Now, when you begin to put this together and compare Scripture with Scripture, you discover this: that God has ordained that the church is not an autocracy. The church is not to be ruled by an individual. The papacy is wrong, in its most garish form in the Vatican and in its lesser forms as you find domination within local congregations. And one of the reasons for plurality amongst the eldership is to prevent the proclivity to autocracy, which is endemic in the hearts and minds of many of us. The church is not an autocracy, nor is the church a democracy. I think everybody would understand that it’s not an autocracy, but many would say, “Oh, I thought it was a democracy. I thought that the church was one man, one vote. I thought it was really that everybody ran everything in the church.” Well, that’s true in a number of local churches and that’s why it runs the way it runs. When something is everybody’s responsibility, then it’s nobody’s responsibility. When a church establishes its direction on the basis of the man who jumped on his horse and galloped off in all directions, then you can find the church going in every direction. So, unless there is cohesion in leadership, it’s impossible to go forward.

That’s why what you have is not autocracy or democracy, but you have theocracy. Theos is the Greek word for God, and God rules. How does God rule? Well, he carries out his rule through godly leadership. The godly leadership discovers how they are to lead by studying the Bible. The Bible is then brought to bear upon the hearts and minds of the congregation, who since they are sensible men and women, are then able to look into the Bible and see whether the leadership is in concurrence with what the Bible teaches. And that’s why the Bible and a knowledge of the Bible is the great safeguard against tyranny and heresy, because the easiest people to lead up the creek are those who don’t know the Bible. That’s why you should always be careful of places where you go and they don’t teach you the Bible, because the Bible is our sole authority, and the Bible is the safeguard, so you should always feel safe in a place where people are saying, “Now, look at the Bible and see what it says.” Where people are saying to you, “Now, you’re sensible people. You must examine the Scriptures and see if these things are so.” And when you look, you discover this to be the case, that some are to be responsible for the leadership of others, while all will be responsible to the leadership of Jesus through his Word.

In the church of Jesus Christ, it is not the will of God that everybody should run everything. Those of you who’ve come out of a certain kind of background, whose church government structure has been one of church meetings happening with a relative frequency, where everything that is about to take place in the church comes before a meeting of the congregation. And the congregation sits down to try and decide where it’s going and how it’s going and when it’s going, and you deal with everything from the color of the front door of the minister’s house, to the color of the utensils in the bathrooms, to the establishing of the missionary budget, and so on. You know what that’s like, and you know how that functions. And it is virtually impossible on a practical level to get anything done with effectiveness. “Well,” people say, “but you’re setting aside then the priesthood of all believers. I mean, don’t we believe in the priesthood of all believers? Don’t we believe that we are all equal before Christ?” Absolutely! In the same way that Christian parents who have Christian children, the Christian parents and the Christian children are all equal before Christ. They all came to Christ as individuals. They all met Christ at the same place. They are actually brothers and sisters in Christ, but does that mean that there’s no mother and father? No, because the priesthood of all believers does not set aside the structure of family life. Nor does the priesthood of all believers set aside the structure that is given to us in the New Testament as to how the church is supposed to function. The priesthood of all believers is in the Bible to encourage our personal devotion. It is not in the Bible to establish corporate democracy. That’s why in Hebrews 13, if you turn back a couple of pages, you discover that the writer is saying, “Listen folks, I want you to obey those who are your leaders. I want you to submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account, and I want you to obey them.” Why? Because they’re perfect? “No.” I want you to obey them because they know everything? “No. I want you to obey them so that their work will be a joy and not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you.”[13]

Now, it’s the exact same thing that happens in the house. Do what your mother says, would you? Don’t always be rebelling and questioning and shouting and argy-bargying about the thing. That’s no help to you at all. That doesn’t help you. It doesn’t help your siblings. It certainly doesn’t help your parents. Obey them so that their work will be a joy and not a burden. After all, they didn’t sign up for this by volunteering. God put them in this position. They don’t give an account to you; they give an account to God, which is a far more awesome thought. Therefore, in light of the fact that they are heading towards this great ultimate accountability meeting, then unless they’re teaching you heresy, or unless they’re trying to press upon you in some coercive manner, then just do what they ask you, so that their work will be a joy and not a burden. There is a pragmatism to this. This is, of course, extremely helpful.

Why is it, then, that if you can go to the structure of the New Testament and find that it is as straightforward as this, why is it that this matter is such a battleground in many a local church? Well, I can’t tell you every reason why, I don’t have time, but I can tell you one reason—I believe it to be the fundamental reason—and that is that it is an indication of spiritual warfare. Ever since Satan rebelled from heaven and was cast out, he has sought to smuggle in the sins of independence and rebellion and disobedience. The evil one thrives when God’s people are apprehensive of leadership and authority, because he knows that no army can be effective in real warfare absent clear leadership and absent distinguishable commitment on the part of the followers. So then he, who makes war against our souls, says, “If this group is going to go forward effectively, there will need to be clear, godly, effective leadership that is true to the framework of the Bible and that is followed by a distinguishable commitment on the part of the people. So, what I will do is I will go amongst these people, and I will seek to sow chords of discord and doubt and discouragement and confusion, thereby calling them to question the very authenticity of leadership, and so fail in the task to which they have been called.”

Because to be a shepherd demands tenderness, but it also demands firmness. It calls for a doggedness in the face of trials. It recognizes that if this task is to be completed, then it is going to take everything in the person.

Now, I wonder as you go back to 1 Peter 5, do you find it as striking as I have found it, that of all the designations that might be given to these individuals, it is this one of “shepherd” that’s provided? “Be shepherds of God’s flock.” In other words, the model for leadership in the New Testament church did not come out of the realm of business or commerce. He doesn’t say, “Be executives of God’s church.” He doesn’t say, “Be vice presidents of God’s church.” He doesn’t say, “Be middle managers of God’s church.” Nor does the picture come out of the world of athletics. Nor does the picture come out of the world of the academy or the university, but the picture actually comes out of the fields of Judea. Now think about that for a moment. Of all the things and all the pictures and models that God may lay hold of to say, “Now, let me give you a picture in your mind’s eye of what it will be to be a leader of the people of God,” here is what it is: not a fellow in a pin-striped suit walking with a briefcase and a tight-rolled umbrella; not even a fellow running around like a fiend with a whistle round his neck and wearing Adidas track suits; certainly not somebody walking around with gigantic big books and a big egghead and disbursing information. But note this: effective shepherding involves the ability to plan, which is actually a part of a business model; it involves the ability to coach, which is part of an athletic model; and it involves the ability to research and to teach, which is part of an academic model. But having said that, all of that is subsumed under this picture of a weather-beaten face with hands that know what it is to be amongst the sheep, and with a fragrance—which is the nicest word I can use—that lets the people know upon the return of the shepherd, just exactly where he’s been. Because to be a shepherd demands tenderness, but it also demands firmness. It calls for a doggedness in the face of trials. It recognizes that if this task is to be completed, then it is going to take everything in the person.

So, I say to you again, the issue in leadership in the New Testament is not about age. That’s why young men may lead, and old men may not. That’s why the idea of older women teaching younger women is not actually about age, ’cause there are old women you wouldn’t want to teach anybody anything, and there are young women that you can learn from tremendously. Who wants to learn from an old-aged gossip, who has never read her Bible and doesn’t love anything? It’s not age. It’s not ability. It’s not even availability. It is attitude of heart, and it is an attitude of heart, which is first of all—and most significantly—known to God alone, because “who knows the thoughts of a man’s heart, except the spirit of the man that is in him?”[14] And when we look at leadership, be it bold or be it directive, or whatever else it may be, we may be tempted to say, “Aha! Well then the attitude must be all wrong.” But listen: the attitude is what happens in the secret place, when the man goes before God and says, “I’m not fit to be a shepherd of these people. I didn’t ask to be put here. Lord, if you have anybody else for this job, bring him forward, would you please?”

I sometimes think that the only reason I still do what I do is because I’m unemployable, but at the age of forty-eight, there’s nowhere else I can go. There’s no point in me reading the classifieds; there’s nothing in the classifieds I can do. I am completely unemployable. Maybe the only reason I’m still here is because I got nowhere I can go. There is no job I can do. I’m stuck. And for those of you who say, “Well, you know what, I’m going to be one of those leaders, because frankly you leaders need yourselves sorted out. You’re just waiting for me to show up.” Let me tell you this: if you find yourself desiring leadership in that way, you don’t even understand what you’re thinking about. And if you find it easy to discredit leadership, even where it exists with integrity and with godliness, you have never begun to grapple with the magnitude of what’s involved in leadership. Now, that is true in any position of leadership, as all of us know, in whatever realm we serve, whether it’s a mother in providing meals, or whether it is a teacher in governing her children, or whatever it might be, but let me tell you, in the church of Jesus Christ, it’s even different. Why? Because we are at the very apex of spiritual warfare.

My pastor, when I was a theological student, said this: “We are prone only to observe the observable and to be unaware of the hidden battles of the soul, the conflict, which is incessant with the powers of darkness, the unspectacular and yet enormously demanding unseen demands of leadership.”[15] And when you finish it up, remember “Let not many of you become teachers, for he who teaches will be judged with a greater strictness.”[16] So I say to you again, if you have got some rising egotistical desire for leadership, you don’t understand what it is you are aspiring to, and if you find it easy to criticize the elders of the church, this one or any other, then you do not understand what is involved in the secret night of their souls. And I’m not for one instance addressing this to my own personal being. I’m thinking about the very plurality of what’s involved and the men in this church, who serve as under Christ, while at the same time seeking to fulfil the other responsibilities that they have been given. Called to provide, called to protect, called to supervise, called to discipline, called to direct, called to instruct—and all of it taking place with a clear awareness that this is God’s flock, that Jesus is the chief Shepherd, verse 4, and the elders are the undershepherds.

Of all the things I cherish—and I don’t have a lot of stuff that I really cherish—most of it I understand is garage sale material, but one of the things that I really like is the shepherd’s crook that I have in my house, because it was my grandfather’s on my father’s side, a grandfather that I never met. He died before I was born, but he was a shepherd. And up on the east coast of Scotland, right up at the very top, in between Wick and John o’Groats, and there he used this crook. And every so often, I take it and—usually when I’m in the house by myself—and I turn it upside down and use it as a golf club and hit things around my study. And then other times, I turn it around and pretend that I’m a pipe major, and I march up and down my study, holding it the way they hold that thing and throw it up in the air. Why I would tell you this, I don’t know; you’ll think I’m in need of hospitalization. But other times I just sit with it and look and it, and I look at the handle in particular, and it’s all nicked and cracked and down … a couple of times I thought I’d have my wife, who’s technical, in charge of technical challenges, to buff it all down for me and make it a lovely nice shiny crook, with a new lacquer and everything on it, and then I said, “Oh no, I wouldn’t do that.” Because it was this little thing here that took lambs into protective custody. And it was this end here that gave them one on the nose to prevent them from going off into the North Sea. And it was this, upon which he presumably leant, as he looked out at the vastness of the hillside and said, “Can I ever, ever find all of these sheep, let alone look after them?” And as I was thinking like that, I came across this quote. “On some high moor, across which at night hyenas howl, when you meet him, sleepless, far-sighted, weather-beaten, armed, leaning on his staff, and looking out over his scattered sheep, every one [of them] on his heart, you understand why the shepherd of Judea sprang to the [fore]front in his people’s history; why they gave his name to their king, and made him the symbol of Providence; why Christ took him as the [symbol] of self-sacrifice.”[17]

And that’s what we’re to do. We’re to feed the flock. Not to lead the sheep where the majority fancy going, but to lead them where there is rich pasture, the kind of food necessary in order that they might grow and be established, and that’s why shepherding takes place by the crook of the Word of God.

Now, if you have a King James Version, you’ve been looking in vain for, “Be shepherds of God’s flock,” because in verse 2 it actually says, “Feed the flock of God.” Why then does it say, “feed” if the verb is poimnenan, which is to shepherd? Well, clearly because the shepherd’s ultimate responsibility is to feed the sheep, not to tickle the sheep, not to stroke the sheep. You stroke dogs and things, I mean, lambs a wee bit, but by and large, sheep, uh uh. We won’t go any further than that. Certainly not to entertain the sheep. “Hey, hello sheep. Nice to have you here. Good to see you, glad you came. Hello, sheep, here we are again.” You know, that kind of stuff? No. The real test ultimately is to feed the sheep. Entertainment’s relatively easy. Tickling can be done without any sincerity at all, and stroking people’s backs may be the worst form of manipulation you ever saw, but let me tell you what makes its greatest demand upon the shepherd: finding the right food and making sure that the sheep are where they can be developed, so they can learn, because when they learn, then they grow, and as they grow, then they’re stabilized. And that’s what we’re to do. We’re to feed the flock. Not to lead the sheep where the majority fancy going, but to lead them where there is rich pasture, the kind of food necessary in order that they might grow and be established, and that’s why shepherding takes place by the crook of the Word of God. It is God’s Word that goes and not man’s word. That’s why when he writes to Titus he says, “I want you to appoint elders who are apt to teach, who hold firmly to the truth, so that they can encourage others by sound doctrine and so that they can refute those who don’t know what they’re talking about.”[18] The real test of an eldership is whether these men are able in the Scriptures, and whether they can feed the flock.

You know, it takes your kids to grow up and be university students and go away, to come back and realize how fantastic their mother’s cooking really is. Not that they ever disdained it when they were there, but they just didn’t realize how fantastic it was. Once they’ve had fifteen trips to the pizza parlor, once they’ve eaten the gruel that has been provided for them under the disguise of oatmeal, once they’ve drunk seventeen gallons of watery orange juice, and once they’ve swapped their way down through as much lemonade as a person can handle, and they come home and have a refrigerator. Oh, it’s like nirvana, you know. It’s like heaven. It’s like, “Oh, give me all of this. Oh, I never realized how fantastic this was. Feed me, feed me, feed me! I love this!”

Now, some of you come this morning and already you have said to yourself, “Well, we’re sure, this is one week before Christmas. What are we doing the doctrine of the church for? We should have a good story about the shepherds in Bethlehem, and that’s the flock we should be talking about, not the flock. What’s he doing with this stuff, for goodness sake?” Shame on you. Let me tell you, you’re so silly, you think that now, but when I’m long gone, then you’ll say, “Oh, I’m glad he led us to the food,” you see. Because for 350 years, they never celebrated Christmas in the development of the church. None of the guys who wrote the epistles or the gospels, it would ever occur to them to have a Christmas service, or to start talking about the shepherds and the angels and the people that were hanging around Bethlehem. They never did it. Why did they not do it? Because it wasn’t the priority. What was the priority? The priority was that he was the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, that he came to bear his people’s sins, that he came to establish a people that were his own, that he came to be head of the church, that he came to be Lord of Glory, and that was the emphasis. That’s what you need to know. That’s what you need to know, so that you can stand strong. Now, I don’t think the preaching’s always that good. Certainly I listen to it, and it doesn’t always impress me, but I’ll tell you this: go ahead and take a vacation and go where you choose, and I guarantee you’ll come running back to the refrigerator. “Oh, feed me, feed me, feed me.” You want tickling? Sorry. You want entertainment? Sorry. You want stroked? Sorry. You want fed? We’re here for you!

Now, the manner in which that is to be exercised is summarized, and I point this to you, and we’re through. Look at what he says. How is this to be exercised? First of all, it needs to be done for the right reason. Done for the right reason. How do you get that? The end of verse 2, “Now you want to serve as overseers—not because you must, but because you are willing.” You see, the real question is, why are you doing what you’re doing? It’s a question about motivation. Why do you preach? Why do you listen? Why do you serve? Why do you study? “Make sure,” he says, “if you’re going to be a shepherd of the church of God that the reason for doing it is not constraint, but a willing heart.” For God looks for a willing spirit in his servants. Secondly, not only should the work be done for the right reason, but the task should be fulfilled for the right motive. That’s the significance of the statement, “not greedy for money, but eager to serve.” The King James Version is quite graphic. It says, “not for filthy lucre, but of a ready mind.” There’s something about filthy lucre, isn’t there? That’s L-U-C-R-E. It’s apparently this stuff here. Some of it filthier than the rest. Are you doing this for the money? Are you finding satisfaction in the privilege of service, or do you only find satisfaction in the rewards for service? Do you find satisfaction in the role itself, rather than what you might get out of the role? Of course, that’s a question to be addressed to those of us who’ve been set apart to this unique privilege. And we will give an account.

Let us pray to this end: that God in his wisdom and in his mercy will grant to us undershepherds that are after the heart of the Chief Shepherd; that these undershepherds will so live and teach and live and die so as to introduce us to Christ.

So, it’s to be done then, for the right reason. It’s to be done with the right motive, and finally, it’s to done in the right manner. “Not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock.” Not driving the people, but leading the people. Not by the power of coercion, but by the influence of example. I tell you, those are six, no, three very challenging couplets—for the right reason, for the right motive, and in the right manner—and all in light of the fact, as verse 4 says, that the Shepherd will appear, the account will be given, the crown will be received. And in it all, the great example is Jesus himself. Isn’t it small wonder that the sky lit up then? Not over the commercial centers? It didn’t come to the business park, you know. The angels came zooming down, “Hey, where’s the corporate headquarters here? We’re looking for the corporate headquarters of Bethlehem. We were looking for the man there.” Uh uh. They didn’t come zooming down over the intelligentsia of the day, over the academics, over the university. What a strange place to come. Down over the fields, with the weather-beaten faces of these guys going about their business. Shepherds that could not even testify in a court of law because they were regarded ipso facto as beyond the power of testimony. That’s how disregarded they were, and God says to his angels, “Okay, go, get singing, and go to my boys.” And where does he go? He goes to the shepherds. “But you, Bethlehem, though you be the least of all the rulers in Judah, out of you will come forth one who is to be the ruler of my people Israel.”[19] It’s kind of upside down, isn’t it? “And he will stand as a shepherd of his flock in the strength of the Lord and in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God, and they will live securely, for then his greatness will reach to the ends of the earth, and he will be their peace.”[20] Well then, let us pray to this end: that God in his wisdom and in his mercy will grant to us undershepherds that are after the heart of the Chief Shepherd; that these undershepherds will so live and teach and live and die so as to introduce us to Christ. Many of you have been apprenticed. Some of you are here in Cleveland because you are apprentices. You’re not called apprentices in a medical world. You’re called interns, I guess. You’re on a rotation, and you’re here, and you want to learn as much as you can. And I see you every so often with big books in coffee shops and struggling. And I wish you well. The brightest of you will do this: you will learn very, very quickly that the best thing you can possibly do is get yourself under the shadow of somebody who is effective in what it is that you aspire to be. And as you live in his or her shadow, then all of the book knowledge and all of the hands-on will be fleshed out as a result of the influence of the one under whose shadow you live. That’s where effectiveness lies is being an elder in the church. It’s living under the shadow of Jesus. I am at my most ineffective, not when I’ve forgotten what it says, not when I have ceased to believe what it says, but when I have stepped out from underneath the shadow of the Shepherd of Judea. For with my fellow elders, our responsibility is so to nurture you, that you may live and die saying, “The Lord is my Shepherd.” Let us pray together.

Our gracious God and Father, we thank you that your word is not some kind of compendium into which we dip and try and stick pieces end to end in the hope that we can make sense of it, but actually, it has been put together with order and with thought. Not every part of it is as easy to understand as the other, but there are certain places that we really cannot hide behind a sense of confusion, and one of them is in this matter of leadership. So look upon us in your mercy, we pray. Thank you for your grace to us to this point along the journey of our church’s life, and we pray that you will give to us, then, undershepherds who are after Christ’s heart, that we might live in his shadow and that we might have no greater joy than leading people to he who is the Great Shepherd of the sheep. May the love of the Lord Jesus draw us to him. May the joy of the Lord Jesus fill our lives. May the peace of the Lord Jesus guard and keep our hearts, today and until Christ comes or calls us to himself, and then forevermore. Amen.

 


[1] 1 Peter 5:1-4 (NIV 1984).

[2] Acts 20:28 (paraphrased).

[3] Acts 20:29 (paraphrased).

[4] Titus 1:5 (paraphrased).

[5] Exodus 3 (paraphrased).

[6] Numbers 11:5 (NIV 1984).

[7] Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, “We Gotta Get Out of this Place” (1965).

[8] Numbers 11:5–6 (paraphrased).

[9] Lionel Bart, “Food Glorious Food” (1960; paraphrased).

[10] Numbers 11:10a (NIV 1984).

[11] Numbers 11:10b–15 ( paraphrased).

[12] Numbers 11:16–17 (NIV 1984).

[13] Hebrews 13:17 (paraphrased).

[14] 1 Corinthians 2:11 (paraphrased).

[15] Source unavailable.

[16] James 3:1 (paraphrased).

[17] William Barclay, The Gospel of Luke (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1975), 207.

[18] Titus 1:5–9 (paraphrased).

[19] Micah 5:2 (paraphrased).

[20] Micah 5:4, 5 (paraphrased).

Thankfulness: A Mark of Grace
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