For a time, the Good Shepherd lived with us. For a time, Jesus walked among us and led us. “I am the good shepherd,” he told us. “I know my own, and my own know me” (John 10:14 NAS).
But despite the fact that Jesus lived among us, remember that he also told us this: “I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd lays down His life for the sheep” (John 10:11 NAS). That is exactly what Jesus did; he laid down his life for us.
His death was not to be permanent, however. Jesus went on to say, “No one has taken [My life] away from Me, but I lay it down on My own initiative. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This commandment I received from My Father” (John 10:18 NAS).
Our Good Shepherd gave his life for us, but true to his word, Jesus took his life up again. Jesus rose from the dead and came out of the grave. After his resurrection, Jesus again was with his small flock of followers, but also once again, it was only for a time. As before, he did not stay. In fact, this time, after a mere forty days and much to the amazement of his flock, as the disciples looked on, their Good Shepherd suddenly ascended into the skies and disappeared into a cloud (Acts 1:9).
Since that day, Jesus has not yet returned to his flock. To this day, he still is not among us. But before he ascended into heaven, he again promised that he would return, just as he had promised to the disciples before he died.
Jesus said to the first disciples and to us, “I will not leave you as orphans. I will come to you” (John 14:18 NAS).
Those of us who are of the true flock of the Good Shepherd believe him when he tells us this, because we know his voice. That is another of the things that Jesus taught us about the relationship that the Good Shepherd has with his sheep:
The sheep listen to his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice. (John 10:4 NIV)
In one sense, Jesus already did fulfill this promise to not leave us as orphans. Although the Good Shepherd is presently absent from us in a physical sense, he is with us in his Spirit. Jesus has sent the Holy Spirit to minister and to tend the flock.
Jesus told his disciples, “I have spoken to you while I am still with you. But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have told you” (John 14:25-26).
In addition to this, Jesus has appointed some among us to take over some of the responsibilities of watching over his flock here on earth. To those who have accepted this obligation, he has entrusted the important duty of tending his flock. These are the pastors of the flock of the Good Shepherd.
It is a great responsibility. How are we, as mere men and women, to shoulder such a great commitment, and to do it faithfully?
That period of a few years when Jesus walked among men was the only time in which God directly shepherded his flock. In that brief moment of history, Jesus demonstrated for us the true function of a shepherd. In all other points in history, both before Jesus was on earth and then again after he ascended into heaven, even right to this present day, God has entrusted this most important task to men.
Until Jesus modeled for us the true role of a Good Shepherd, we had only imperfect examples of what it was to be a shepherd of the people of God. It is the same for us today. Apart from the example of the Good Shepherd himself, we unfortunately must learn as much in a negative way from bad examples from those who are given the responsibility as pastor, as we do positively from the good ones.
The flock of God has had to endure many faithless shepherds. In the Old Testament we see numerous examples of faithless shepherds. The prophet Ezekiel was sent to some of those shepherds with a message:
Woe, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding themselves! Should not the shepherds feed the flock? You eat the fat and clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fat sheep without feeding the flock. (Ezekiel 34:2-3 NAS)
Some of the shepherds of Ezekiel’s day were not only faithless in that they did not defend the flock against the enemies, but they went even beyond faithlessness. The shepherds themselves had become the predators. The faithless shepherds fed upon the very sheep that they were supposed to be protecting.
It is to our shame that we still see the same characteristic in some shepherds today. Having the title or the position of pastor does not necessarily mean that one has a shepherd’s heart. The shepherds of Ezekiel’s day did not have the good of the flock as the desire of their hearts. These faithless shepherds had only self-fulfillment as their main goal.
Contrast that attitude with the words of Jesus concerning his own role as a shepherd:
I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. He who is a hired hand, and not a shepherd, who is not the owner of the sheep, sees the wolf coming, and leaves the sheep and flees, and the wolf snatches them, and scatters them. He flees because he is a hired hand and is not concerned about the sheep. I am the good shepherd; and I know My own, and My own know Me. (John 10:11-14 NAS)
We see by the words of Jesus that a good shepherd is not a hired hand who flees at the threat of danger, but one who will put the life of the flock above his own. As for what Ezekiel tells us, he does not end his harsh words in the passage we earlier considered concerning faithless shepherds, but he goes on to further describe these hired hands:
Those who are sickly you have not strengthened, the diseased you have not healed, the broken you have not bound up, the scattered you have not brought back, nor have you sought for the lost; but with force and with severity you have dominated them. (Ezekiel 34:4 NAS)
This is not a good shepherd. The good shepherd, upon discovering that one of his lambs is missing, leaves the ninety-nine who have not wandered from the flock and searches until he finds the one who has strayed. The faithless shepherd, quite to the contrary, has no such compassion.
What are we to say to such shepherds as this? Ezekiel’s words continue.
Therefore you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord! “As surely as I live,” declares the Sovereign Lord, “because My flock lacks a shepherd and so has been plundered and has become food for all the wild animals, and because My shepherds did not search for My flock but cared for themselves rather than for my flock…. I am against the shepherds and will hold them accountable for My flock. I will remove them from tending the flock so that the shepherds can no longer feed themselves. I will rescue my flock from their mouths, and it will no longer be food for them.” (Ezekiel 34:8, 10 NIV)
Throughout the history of God’s people, many sheep have been abandoned by faithless shepherds. Many of the flock who needed strengthening and healing have not received the care that they required.
In the end, God cannot and will not leave his flock abandoned. The Lord has promised that he will be there to rescue his flock. He is the Good Shepherd who will intercede to remove the faithless shepherds whose concern is not for the flock, but only to fulfill their own appetites and their own agendas. In the end, the flock of God will be rescued.
We have all heard these horror stories of faithless shepherds in our present day, usually describing in great detail how a pastor has failed and how the congregation has suffered. There have been scandalous instances. It is sometimes true and it is grievous.
However, before we next speak of a failure in leadership, perhaps it would be instructive to read more of the message that Ezekiel was sent to deliver. It is not only faithless shepherds who bring suffering to the church.
And as for you, My flock, thus says the Lord God, “Behold, I will judge between one sheep and another, between the rams and the male goats.
Is it too slight a thing for you that you should feed in the good pasture that you must tread down with your feet the rest of your pastures? Or that you should drink of the clear waters, that you must foul the rest with your feet?
And as for My flock, they must eat what you tread down with your feet, and they must drink what you foul with your feet!”
Therefore, thus says the Lord GOD to them, “Behold, I, even I, will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep. Because you push with side and with shoulder, and thrust at all the weak with your horns, until you have scattered them abroad, therefore, I will deliver My flock, and they will no longer be a prey; and I will judge between one sheep and another.” (Ezekiel 34:17-22 NAS)
In speaking about pushing with their sides and shoulders in order to get the best food, Ezekiel is not talking about church potluck dinners. Anyone who has ever watched animals feed knows well the concept of the “pecking order.” The strong feed first and eat the best of the food, then foul much of what they do not eat and tramp it down with their feet. Lamentably, this kind of behavior also takes place among the people of God.
We may be slightly more refined than to do this at mealtime, but in principle, our nature apart from Christ has not changed. We will always look to have positions of advantage over others.
When James and John requested that Jesus would grant them positions of privilege in the Kingdom of God, Jesus’ answer to them was direct: “It shall not be this way among you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be the slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve” (Mark 10:43-45).
Jesus himself demonstrated this to his disciples at the last supper that he ate with them. At one point during the evening, Jesus arose from the table, tied a towel around his waist, poured water into a basin, and proceeded to wash the feet of the disciples and to dry them with the towel.
Then he said to them, “Do you know what I have done for you? You call Me Teacher and Lord, and rightly so, because I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example so that you should do as I have done for you” (John 13:12-15 BSB).
Faithless shepherds must face severe judgment because of the importance of their responsibility, but there is also a judgment to be faced by faithless and greedy sheep. “I will judge between one sheep and another,” God says.
We dare not think that our actions here have no consequence. We should not take the words of Jesus lightly when he gave us the illustration of the sheep and the goats:
Then He will say to those [goats] on His left, “Depart from Me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave Me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave Me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not take Me in, I was naked and you did not clothe Me, I was sick and in prison and you did not visit Me.”
And they will reply, “Lord, when did we see You hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to You?”
Then the King will answer, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for Me.” (Matthew 25:41-45 BSB)
The Condition of the Flock
Whether we are speaking of the faithlessness of the shepherds or the greediness of the sheep, the cause seems to be the same. Of the shepherds, the Sovereign Lord says that they “did not search for My flock, but rather these faithless ones fed themselves and did not feed My flock.”
In the avaricious sheep, we see exactly the same attitude. Their concern is for themselves and for what they can get. “Why must My flock feed on what your feet have trampled, and drink what your feet have muddied?” God asks (Ezekiel 34:19). They do not care if the flock of God is left hungry and thirsty.
This is the state in which much of the flock of God is today. There is no doubt that it is discouraging to see these things happen.
The Flock is Rescued and Restored
However, despite this upsetting present condition of the church, I am far from discouraged. As a matter of fact, the illustration of the shepherd and the flock is one of the most encouraging things that I read in the Bible. It is encouraging because God does not simply show the deplorable state of his flock and preach to us that we should act better. He always leaves us with a vision for what he is doing in his flock and with the promise of what our state will be in the future.
Again, Ezekiel says it well:
For thus says the Lord GOD, “Behold, I Myself will search for My sheep and seek them out.
As a shepherd cares for his herd in the day when he is among his scattered sheep, so I will care for My sheep and will deliver them from all the places to which they were scattered on a cloudy and gloomy day…
I will feed them in a good pasture, and their grazing ground will be on the mountain heights of Israel. There they will lie down in good grazing ground, and they will feed in rich pasture on the mountains of Israel.
I will feed My flock and I will lead them to rest, declares the Lord God.
I will seek the lost, bring back the scattered, bind up the broken and strengthen the sick…
I will make a covenant of peace with them and eliminate harmful beasts from the land, so that they may live securely in the wilderness and sleep in the woods.
I will make them and the places around My hill a blessing. And I will cause showers to come down in their season; they will be showers of blessing.
Also, the tree of the field will yield its fruit, and the earth will yield its increase, and they will be secure on their land. Then they will know that I am the LORD, when I have broken the bars of their yoke and have delivered them from the hand of those who enslaved them.
They will no longer be a prey to the nations, and the beasts of the earth will not devour them; but they will live securely, and no one will make them afraid.
I will establish for them a renowned planting place, and they will not again be victims of famine in the land, and they will not endure the insults of the nations anymore.
Then they will know that I, the LORD their God, am with them, and that they, the house of Israel, are My people,” declares the Lord GOD.
“As for you, My sheep, the sheep of My pasture, you are men, and I am your God,” declares the Lord GOD. (Ezekiel 34:11-16, 25-31 NAS)
There is promise and there is assurance that our Good Shepherd will again directly lead his people. We need only to listen for his voice. Once his call becomes clear, we follow,
My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow me,” Jesus told His flock, “and I give eternal life to them, and they shall never perish; and no one shall snatch them out of My hand” (John 10:27-28 NAS).
“And He will arise and shepherd His flock in the strength of the LORD, in the majesty of the name of the LORD His God. And they will remain, because at that time He will be great to the ends of the earth” (Micah 5:4 NAS).
The Shepherd and His Sheep (In Verse, Part 2)
Oh, that every shepherd of every flock be faithful and true.
Oh that the faithful were many, but sadly, the faithful are few.
Many are hirelings who have no love for sheep, and are merely strangers.
They care not to protect, but will instead themselves flee from dangers.
These are the faithless; these are the robbers and the thieves.
Having no purpose in life, abandoned in death, and by no one bereaved.
On these, judgment will fall; for their faithless deeds they will pay,
These who fled from peril, leaving their flocks to be hunted as prey.
And woe to the wolf who would scatter the sheep; woe to the lion and the bear.
Woe to all that would snatch a lamb to keep him from his shepherd’s care.
But a greater woe to the faithless one, who does not care if the sheep are scattered.
Woe to that hireling who flees, thinking that only his own safety mattered.
But it is not only faithless shepherds. The sheep also might treat each other with scorn.
Some care only for themselves; they shove; they thrust with their horn.
To these, who tread down the clover, and with their feet foul the river,
Judgment will also come, though the good and meek will be delivered.
For in the end, the Good Shepherd will return for the flock that was taken.
He will search for them in the wilderness where they were left forsaken.
In the end the Good Shepherd will come. He knows and cares for his sheep,
The flock will again feed in green pastures, and by quiet waters they will sleep.