This is short lesson, and I have more thoughts on it than we’ll have time to cover in class. But I like to be over-prepared, maybe because I so enjoy the preparation.
Who is a shepherd?
Shepherds are often very young, often children, especially girls. But the father will be watching them work, often at a distance. There was no presumption that shepherds are boys.
Who are goats?
Goats wander away from the herd first and then the sheep will follow the goats. Therefore, a shepherd will not allow many goats in his herd. This surely is part of the reason in Matthew 25 Jesus refers to the damned as goats and the saved as sheep. The goats wander away, leading others to go with them.
Who is the shepherd?
We start in Isaiah.
(Ezek 34:1-24) The word of the LORD came to me:
2 “Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel; prophesy and say to them: ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says: Woe to the shepherds of Israel who only take care of themselves! Should not shepherds take care of the flock? 3 You eat the curds, clothe yourselves with the wool and slaughter the choice animals, but you do not take care of the flock. 4 You have not strengthened the weak or healed the sick or bound up the injured. You have not brought back the strays or searched for the lost. You have ruled them harshly and brutally. 5 So they were scattered because there was no shepherd, and when they were scattered they became food for all the wild animals. 6 My sheep wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill. They were scattered over the whole earth, and no one searched or looked for them.
Who are the “shepherds of Israel”?
Who are the modern equivalents?
[As Israel was a theocracy, the image applies both to our civil leaders and religious leaders. It certainly includes elders – whom the NT refers to as shepherds – but it’s broader in intent. The term includes anyone who lives off the sheep or who has power over them. Hence, it includes the entire institutional structure of the church – the universities, the publishers, the authors, the ministers, and any other thought leader or person of influence in the church.
[And the lesson is that people of influence within the Christian community are charged to strengthen the weak, heal the wick, bind up the wounded, and search for the lost sheep – and not to take care of yourself – or your part of the Christian community – at the expense of the sheep as a whole.
[All of us with influence are shepherds (not in the formal title sense) because all with influence have the power to live off the sheep or to serve the sheep.]
7 “‘Therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the LORD: 8 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, 9 therefore, O shepherds, hear the word of the LORD: 10 This is what the Sovereign LORD says: 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.
How do modern-day leaders within the church shirk their duties and so allow the flock to be scattered and eaten by wild animals?
[Those who teach a doctrine that divides, rather than unites, are sheep scatterers and hence not shepherds at all. Those who take money from the church (or its members) while neglecting their duty to care for the flock will be judged severely.
[Now, this is true at the denominational level, congregational level, and church-universal level. If we are the cause of separation where God wants unity, expect the worst at the end.]
11 “‘For this is what the Sovereign LORD says: I myself will search for my sheep and look after them. 12 As a shepherd looks after his scattered flock when he is with them, so will I look after my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places where they were scattered on a day of clouds and darkness. 13 I will bring them out from the nations and gather them from the countries, and I will bring them into their own land. I will pasture them on the mountains of Israel, in the ravines and in all the settlements in the land. 14 I will tend them in a good pasture, and the mountain heights of Israel will be their grazing land. There they will lie down in good grazing land, and there they will feed in a rich pasture on the mountains of Israel. 15 I myself will tend my sheep and have them lie down, declares the Sovereign LORD. 16 I will search for the lost and bring back the strays. I will bind up the injured and strengthen the weak, but the sleek and the strong I will destroy. I will shepherd the flock with justice.
Who were the sleek and the strong? What kind of justice is God speaking of? Remember, Ezekiel was speaking to government officials as well as religious leaders.
[The sleek and strong are the well-fed within a flock of poorly fed sheep. Therefore, they are the kings and officials who live well off taxes while the people suffer. ]
Who are the modern-day equivalents?
[Anyone in leadership who cares for himself before he cares for those he leads. It’s elders who worry about pride and image before their members. It’s preachers who preach to keep a salary while refusing to preach what they know to be true — for the sake of their jobs.]
17 “‘As for you, my flock, this is what the Sovereign LORD says: I will judge between one sheep and another, and between rams and goats. 18 Is it not enough for you to feed on the good pasture? Must you also trample the rest of your pasture with your feet? Is it not enough for you to drink clear water? Must you also muddy the rest with your feet? 19 Must my flock feed on what you have trampled and drink what you have muddied with your feet?
To me, this is one of the most poignant images in scripture. Ezekiel turns from the leaders and takes on the flock.
What kind of behavior is he condemning?
[The image is of sheep at a waterhole or stream. They should be thankful for the water. But some aren’t content merely to have. They feel the need to make sure others don’t have — and so they foul the water so no one else can enjoy it.
[God speaks to “my flock” in v 17 ff and then speaks of them interfering with “my flock” in v 19. In other words, those who foul the water for others are fouling the waters for God’s flock — they aren’t all his flock although they may well think that they are!
[I’m sometimes astonished at how hatefully Christians can treat those outside the church, treating them as beneath contempt. This is precisely the attitude that God condemns. Worse yet, we sometimes treat fellow Christians with contempt, claiming superiority in the most arrogant ways. We refuse to fellowship them or even listen to them serious. Rather than drinking side by side, we drink and then do our best to foul their water.]
20 “‘Therefore this is what the Sovereign LORD says to them: See, I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep. 21 Because you shove with flank and shoulder, butting all the weak sheep with your horns until you have driven them away, 22 I will save my flock, and they will no longer be plundered. I will judge between one sheep and another.
What is the image of butting about?
[It’s concern for the weak and poor. The strong can easily push them out of the way, getting to the water first and leaving them to starve, but there’s enough for all.
[V. 22 teaches that merely being in Israel (old or new) is not enough. If you are selfish and hurt those in need, being in the flock won’t spare you from God’s anger.]
23 I will place over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he will tend them; he will tend them and be their shepherd. 24 I the LORD will be their God, and my servant David will be prince among them. I the LORD have spoken.
David had been dead for centuries. Who is Ezekiel speaking about?
[It’s Jesus – the King, the Messiah.]
What role does God expect him to fulfill – not just king, but what is he going to do as king?
[The Messiah will be the “one shepherd” who will “tend them.”
[“One” implies a single kingdom, unity, under one king. He’ll unite them and all leaders will serve a single king.
[“Tend” means he’ll bind up their wounds, etc. He’ll be the shepherd they were supposed to have. And he’ll deal with the bad shepherds. He’ll be a good shepherd.]
The Good Shepherd
Jesus describes himself as the “good shepherd” in John 10. This seems to be clear reference back to Eze 34, and would have been heard as a claim to be heir of David and a harsh criticism of the leaders of the day.
(John 10:1-16) “I tell you the truth, the man who does not enter the sheep pen by the gate, but climbs in by some other way, is a thief and a robber. 2 The man who enters by the gate is the shepherd of his sheep. 3 The watchman opens the gate for him, and the sheep listen to his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. 4 When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice. 5 But they will never follow a stranger; in fact, they will run away from him because they do not recognize a stranger’s voice.”
The reference to “gate” appears to be a double metaphor. He speaking of entering the place where the sheep live [the church, the Kingdom] but he’s also speaking of Ps. 118, I think —
(Psa 118:19-23) Open for me the gates of righteousness; I will enter and give thanks to the LORD. 20 This is the gate of the LORD through which the righteous may enter. 21 I will give you thanks, for you answered me; you have become my salvation. 22 The stone the builders rejected has become the capstone; 23 the LORD has done this, and it is marvelous in our eyes.
This passage certainly has Messianic implications. And here “gate” refers to righteousness – that is, the gate only opens for the righteous.
6 Jesus used this figure of speech, but they did not understand what he was telling them. 7 Therefore Jesus said again, “I tell you the truth, I am the gate for the sheep. 8 All who ever came before me were thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them. 9 I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. He will come in and go out, and find pasture. 10 The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.
It’s less than obvious who the thieves and robbers are (and my commentaries are still boxed up). Perhaps he’s speaking of the many false messiahs who’d appeared. Or perhaps he means the false rulers — Herod, etc. — who pretended to sit on David’s throne. Either way, one test of the true king is whether the sheep — the righteous — hear his voice and respond to it. They certainly didn’t respond to the secular leaders of the day.
11 “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12 The hired hand is not the shepherd who owns the sheep. So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away. Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it. 13 The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep.
Again, there are undertones of secular rulers and false messiahs who sacrificed nothing for the people.
14 “I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me– 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father–and I lay down my life for the sheep. 16 I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd.
Jesus, of course, predicts his crucifixion, motivated out of a desire to protect the sheep from wolves.
We rarely think of God’s salvation as protection from evil men, but this is plainly part of the metaphor. And the early church was certainly not safe from evil men. Persecution was common and horrific. So what does Jesus mean? How does his laying down his life salvation from evil?
Jesus then refers to the Gentiles, who are also a part of his flock. The “other sheep” reference surely offended many of his listeners!
Finally, Jesus says he’ll be “one shepherd,” referring back to Ezekiel. He’ll make the Jews and Gentiles “one flock” that will listen to his voice.
Now, there are certainly implications in this for modern-day elders, although the reference is more about how to be a Messiah than an elder. But I’m sure the image of “shepherd” is intentionally used of elders with Ezekiel 34 and the words of Jesus in mind.
What does this tell us about the work of an elder/shepherd?
[Not for the money. Flock should hear his voice. If they don’t, he’s not a shepherd. Willing to die for his flock.]