I was meditating on John 10:1-10 “I am the good shepherd.” Part of the passage goes like this,
“I am the door. If anyone enters by me, he will be saved and will go in and out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly. I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.“
I read it over several times; I wasn’t moved. When I read the Bible, I want to be moved by it, but I wasn’t moved! I felt that God was trying to say something to me, but that I didn’t hear it.
Then I realized the problem. I was looking in the wrong place. After forty years of being a minister, I instinctively identified myself with the shepherd. But I’m not the shepherd. Jesus is. I’m just the sheep, not a shepherd.
For forty years people have been calling me “pastor,” which means “shepherd.” But I wasn’t their pastor; at most I was an undershepherd, not a shepherd. But the shepherd metaphor to describe my role in life goes deep in me. It has been hammered into me for my whole career.
And not just in church. I was taught that, as a husband and a father, I was the shepherd of my family. In my view, my wife, children, and grandchildren were members of my little flock. Like the good shepherd of that passage, I was there to lead them. I had to guard the door to keep the wolves out. I used to tell my daughters that when boyfriends met them at the door, I would meet them in my pulpit robe and carrying a shotgun! Any impudent lad who wanted to get near girls was a thief and a robber. If anyone had hurt my wife, I wanted to hurt them. I was the guard of my family.
It came as a shock later to discover that this was no longer the case. When my daughters did date, I had nothing to say about it. Ultimately, I was not their shepherd. They didn’t belong to me. I was just their temporary shepherd, at best.
Still, I was a long way from realizing the truth about myself. In my deepest essence, I am not a shepherd or an undershepherd. I am a sheep. Jesus is the shepherd, not me.
The word appears twenty-four times in the New Testament. Sixteen of those references are in the Gospels where they all relate either to Jesus as the shepherd or the literal shepherds in the Christmas story. Of the eight remaining references, four refer to Jesus and one (Jude 1:12) refers to the false leaders, or shepherds of Israel. The word “shepherd” or “pastor” in reference to church leaders appears only three times in the New Testament, and only in two places. One is in Ephesians 4 where “pastor” is listed along with apostle, prophet, evangelist, and teacher as among the offices of a church leader. The other two references are both found in I Peter 5:1-4:
“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.”
This passage continues in verses 5-7:
“Likewise, you who are younger, be subject to the elders. Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for ‘God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.’ Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you.”
So let’s see – the New Testament uses “shepherd” in a positive way to refer to church leaders only twice out of twenty-four references, and the one time that it goes into depth it quickly shifts the subject to humility, not leadership. Furthermore, Peter makes it clear that we are only pastors when the chief Shepherd, Jesus, is not around. In the absence of Christ’s presence, are we anything but sheep?
Why is it that we put so much emphasis on us being shepherds, in and out of the church? Consider the differences between sheep and shepherd. The shepherd must be smarter than the sheep. He must stand high above them. In the Holy Land, there were even towers so that the shepherd could keep watch over sheep, scanning the horizon for potential invaders. The shepherd learns to read the pasture like a sailor reads the sea, looking for the best grass to eat. He makes long-range plans for every season of the year. When it comes time for the sheep to move, the shepherd plans the journey, calculating the distance between pastures and water courses. He considers the dangerous places and goes before the sheep ready to fight off wolves and robbers. He must know the sheep by name and take responsibility and care for their individual needs, keeping each one happy and healthy.
What are the responsibilities of the sheep? Just three: 1) eat and drink, 2) follow the shepherd, and 3) have a good time. That’s all.
Even so, we aren’t happy being sheep. We all want to be shepherds, though we are not qualified to run even our own lives. We are not content to be on the cruise; we want to be the captain. We cannot rest on the idea that Jesus is really in control, and all we do is follow Him.
For the last forty years, I have been part of a Presbyterian denomination. Presbyterian literally means “rule by elders,” or even more literally “rule by grey-bearded old guys.” The reason for that name is the same reason we call other churches Congregationalists and Episcopalians. These names came out of the bloody English civil war in the Seventeenth Century, which was mainly fought over who ran the church. Episcopalian means “rule by bishops;” Congregationalists believe in rule by the congregation as a whole; and Presbyterians thought elders should run things. The Catholics were called “Papists” for”rule by Pope,” though they never did like that name. For centuries, Christians in England were killing each other over who were the proper undershepherds of the church! Our ancestors had an obsession over who would run God’s kingdom, in the absence of God. All these denominations made the same mistake I did: they saw themselves first as shepherds and everyone else as sheep.
Even so, we say, “Yes, but someone has to run things around here. Someone has to be in charge.” This is right, someone does, and that someone is Jesus. He may be invisible, but He is still here.
“Yes,” we say, ignoring the actual presence of an invisible God, “but we don’t see Him or hear Him. In His absence, we must organize!” Then we add, “In his absence, I volunteer for the job!” Who says Jesus isn’t here? He may be invisible, but He hasn’t left.
In the one passage that explicitly talks about undershepherds (1 Peter 5) we read, “When the Chief Shepherd appears, we will receive a crown.” He doesn’t say, “When He returns.” He says, “When He appears.” Right now He is invisible, but He hasn’t gone anywhere. Matthew 28:20 says, “I am with you always.” He left us in the Body; He remains with us through the Holy Spirit. Our shepherd never left. He is still here and in control.
So why don’t we see Him? It takes some concentration and effort to follow an invisible Shepherd. We have to get still and listen for His voice. We have to set aside the distractions that cloud our visual field. But when we sit still and look, we discover that He has gone nowhere. He is still with us.
Given this understanding, we may draw a logical conclusion: The more intimately aware we are of Christ’s presence, the less we need to be shepherds ourselves. The less connected we are to Christ in the Spirit, the more we must shepherd each other. If Christ is in the room, all just have to listen to Him. The burden of making decisions is off our shoulders. But if He is absent, or (more correctly) if we do not perceive Him to be here, then we must run things ourselves. Some of us must take over the decision-making process, but only until we again recognize His voice and turn to Him.
So what does it look like practically to see ourselves as sheep and not shepherds? Imagine you are the young pastor of an old church, sitting down at a difficult board meeting. The board is divided over silly issues. For some reason, they think the problem is you. As the pastor, you should fix this. Everyone has their fingers pointed right in your face. What would you think at that moment? Most of us would be asking, “How can I be a good shepherd in this church?”
But this is the wrong question. You are not a shepherd, you are a sheep! Instead of asking, “God what do I do?” Ask “God, as the Shepherd, what are you doing?” Don’t defend yourself, run to the Shepherd! Trust that your Good Shepherd is still looking out for you. It is the Shepherd’s responsibility, not yours, to deal with this unruly flock.
Or imagine you are the mother of a grown son who is living a lifestyle you know will lead to trouble. Your mother’s heart is broken for him, and you feel a significant burden to see him change. So you ask yourself, “How can I fix this situation?” or maybe you ask, “Where did I go wrong?”
Both of these questions are wrong because they both assume that you have or had responsibility for being your child’s shepherd. When they were very young, they may have been your responsibility, but you were never their shepherd. God is. You are just a sheep like they are. Instead of becoming their shepherd, pray to your real Shepherd to intervene.
I do not suggest you should do nothing about the problems of the world; far from it! But before we act, we must understand that we are not in charge of the universe. When we operate as if the world can’t run without us and seek to mold it to our will, we deny the reality of the invisible Shepherd who is the true master of our lives.
We weren’t put on earth to rule, but to be sheep in God’s flock. One day, we will leave this earth, and it will somehow survive and thrive without us. On the ship of life, God is the captain. Instead of worrying about how to get our hands on the steering wheel, lighten up and enjoy the cruise. He doesn’t need your help to run the universe; He’s doing very well by Himself.