There are, of course, many other passages that speak to the role of elders/overseers/shepherds. I want to focus here on the “shepherd” passages, but I want to approach them from a somewhat unconventional direction.
We begin with —
(Deu 8:2-3 ESV) 2 And you shall remember the whole way that the LORD your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, that he might humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep his commandments or not. 3 And he humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD.
We’re very familiar with the highlighted text, because Jesus used this to rebuke Satan’s temptation that Jesus turn the stones into bread, that is, to use his miraculous powers for his own, human benefit.
In Deuteronomy, God’s point seems to be that God let the Israelites go hungry — suffer — so that they’d learn to count on God’s word for everything, even food. God’s word is more important than our comfort, and God will take our comfort away, if need be, to make the point.
The passage is all about reliance on God’s instruction, even in the face of hunger and suffering, because God’s word is more valuable and more important than even food.
As a result, “food” and “eat” became powerful metaphors for God’s word in Jewish thought. For example,
(John 4:34-35 ESV) 34 Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work. 35 Do you not say, ‘There are yet four months, then comes the harvest’? Look, I tell you, lift up your eyes, and see that the fields are white for harvest.”
Jesus says that obedience to God is his “food.”
(John 6:26-29 ESV) 26 Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you are seeking me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. 27 Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you. For on him God the Father has set his seal.” 28 Then they said to him, “What must we do, to be doing the works of God?” 29 Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.”
(John 6:32-35 ESV) 32 Jesus then said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but my Father gives you the true bread from heaven. 33 For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” 34 They said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.” 35 Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.”
(John 6:40 ESV) 40 “For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.”
(John 6:51 ESV) 51 “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”
Two chapters later, Jesus explains he himself is true food, to be served in the form of crucifixion. Faith in Jesus is how we eat this food. Jesus is God’s word!
The Hebrews writer declares —
(Heb 5:12-14 ESV) 12 For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food, 13 for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child. 14 But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.
— that teaching the gospel, especially the deeper doctrines contained within the gospel — is “solid food.”
God said to Ezekiel —
(Eze 2:8 ESV) 8 “But you, son of man, hear what I say to you. Be not rebellious like that rebellious house; open your mouth and eat what I give you.”
(Jer 15:16 ESV) 16 Your words were found, and I ate them, and your words became to me a joy and the delight of my heart, for I am called by your name, O LORD, God of hosts.
Of course, “bread” and “eat” don’t always refer to the word of God, but it’s a standard metaphor, used in some of the most gospel-centric passages in scripture.
A similar analysis could be done on “drink,” as in John 6.
With that in mind, re-read —
(John 21:17 ESV) 17 He said to him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter was grieved because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” and he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep.”
What does it mean for Jesus to say to Peter, and God to say to the leaders of Israel, “Feed my sheep?
Obviously, literal food is not in mind. Indeed, surely Jesus meant for Peter to teach his sheep — by example, by admonishment, in the classroom, as a mentor — any way that serves Jesus’ purposes. And we see exactly this in —
(Act 2:42 ESV) 42 And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.
When the Kingdom came and the church was founded, the most explicit role we see of the apostles was to teach the new converts. When we read of Peter’s career in the early chapters of Acts, we find him — over and over — preaching gospel sermons to unbelieving Jews — the lost sheep of Israel.
Peter fed the lost sheep of Israel with gospel — and lots of it. It wasn’t an incidental part of a job mainly focused on other things. It’s what he was called to do. That’s why he calls himself “shepherd.” He fed sheep.
The meaning is deeper and covers more duties than teaching and preaching, as we’ll get to, but you have to start with the foundational metaphor, and Jesus’ primary emphasis is surely that Peter teach the gospel to the lost sheep of Israel — and then to teach more deeply those he converts. After all, that’s what the scriptures record Peter doing.
And this brings us back to —
(Psa 23:1-2 ESV) The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.
2 He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters.
The job of a shepherd is to lead the sheep to food and water. The job of the sheep is to follow the shepherd and to eat and drink the food and water provided.
What’s “food”? What’s “water”? If you’d asked David what his food and water were while he wandered in the wilderness, I’m confident he’d say, “Every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.”
(Psa 119:167-1 ESV) 167 My soul keeps your testimonies; I love them exceedingly.
168 I keep your precepts and testimonies, for all my ways are before you.
169 Let my cry come before you, O LORD; give me understanding according to your word!
170 Let my plea come before you; deliver me according to your word.
171 My lips will pour forth praise, for you teach me your statutes. 172 My tongue will sing of your word, for all your commandments are right.
173 Let your hand be ready to help me, for I have chosen your precepts.
174 I long for your salvation, O LORD, and your law is my delight.
175 Let my soul live and praise you, and let your rules help me.
176 I have gone astray like a lost sheep; seek your servant, for I do not forget your commandments.
In David’s heart, the solution for being a “lost sheep” (v. 176) is the word of God.
You’ll recall, that while fleeing Saul in the wilderness, David repeatedly went to the priest traveling with him to inquire for guidance from the word of God.
(Psa 27:3-4 ESV) 3 Though an army encamp against me, my heart shall not fear; though war arise against me, yet I will be confident. 4 One thing have I asked of the LORD, that will I seek after: that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the LORD and to inquire in his temple.
Sadly, we’ve heard so much bad teaching that this seems like woefully inadequate food to many of us, but the fault is not the doctrine. The gospel feeds very well indeed. We just don’t teach it often enough or well enough.
Finally, we need to remember that the “word of God” is not restricted to the words of the Bible. The words found in the Bible are indeed the very words of God! Amen! But Jesus himself was the word of God, not the least because his character, his actions, and his words communicated the true heart and nature of God himself. His very being spoke the character of God.
Just so, when David speaks of the “word of God,” he refers not only to the Torah, but to the communications received from God via the priest or by inspiration.
And while I wouldn’t for a minute equate today’s work of the Spirit in the church and individual Christians with the revelation found in Scripture, the Spirit is still alive, well, and working among us — and those with Spiritual eyes can see it.
Therefore, true food and true water is Jesus — Jesus as found in the Bible but also Jesus who lives in heaven today and who sends the Spirit to us. He is alive and active, and the pastures and streams that feed the best flow from above.
The teaching that elders are called to do, therefore, is about far more than mere instruction — although instruction is an essential and important element. It’s ultimately about forming a right relationship with Jesus.