(Tit 1:9 ESV) 9 He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.
(1Ti 3:2-3 ESV) 2 Therefore an overseer must be … able to teach … .
The idea isn’t so much about the ability to teach Sunday school as it is about the ability to speak to the members of the congregation about the gospel. You can teach a lot of great Sunday school classes and yet not really grasp the gospel.
An elder doesn’t have to know the gospel at the depths sometimes presented here, but surely an elder should know that we are saved by faith and not works. Surely, an elder should know something of grace. Men who don’t know why the gospel destroys legalism are not qualified to be elders.
But, as we’ve seen, the leadership that elders are to exert is about much more than teaching grace. The gospel points to Jesus, and we miss the point if we don’t follow its direction. Jesus is the word of God — the word behind the word.
Thus, it’s ultimately about teaching Jesus and what it means to follow him — by example, by classroom instruction, in private conversations, in mentoring — all sorts of ways. The classroom is just one of many methods.
You see, following Jesus is gospel, too — indeed, it’s delves more deeply into the gospel than mere opposition to legalism.
But there’s more. As always, we have to see what Jesus says on the subject.
(Luk 19:8-10 ESV) 8 And Zacchaeus stood and said to the Lord, “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor. And if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold.”
9 And Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham. 10 For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”
Ray Vander Laan points out that Jesus is alluding to —
(Eze 34:15-16 ESV) 15 I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I myself will make them lie down, declares the Lord GOD. 16 I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, and the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them in justice.
Jesus was implicitly claiming to be God, because it is God who promised to come to Israel as its Shepherd and to seek the lost sheep of Israel.
We apply this verse to personal evangelism, which is not so much wrong (we should certainly seek and save the lost!) as out of context. Jesus was speaking of Jews who, like Zacchaeus, were unnecessarily separated from God by their own sins or by the prejudices of a religious elite who looked down on “sinners.” You see, because Zacchaeus collected taxes for the hated Romans, he was treated as nearly an infidel by a culture and a religious leadership that was more concerned with politics than loving individuals as children of God.
Therefore, Jesus chose to eat with Zacchaeus and so symbolically grant him acceptance and even the protection of the Messiah — indeed, God himself. In so doing, Jesus condemned the hypocrisy of those who treated the publican as less than fully Jewish — even less than fully human (Luke 18:11).
What does it mean to seek the lost sheep of Israel? Well, not just to preach the gospel, but to offer acceptance and communion to those who, like Zacchaeus, are rejected by society, to recognize strays as sheep who ought be included in the flock. It’s not so much about door-to-door evangelism as showing the heart of Jesus to the rejects of society.
And that’s what shepherds are called by Jesus to do. In the context of church, it includes all the above as well as making sure the uncool, the introvert, the socially awkward, and the lonely feel loved and accepted.
You see, this is gospel, too. Mary says in the Magnificat —
(Luk 1:51-53 ESV) 51 He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; 52 he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate; 53 he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty.
Jesus also refers to Ezekiel 34 in John 10 —
(John 10:1-6 ESV) “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who does not enter the sheepfold by the door but climbs in by another way, that man is a thief and a robber. 2 But he who enters by the door is the shepherd of the sheep. 3To him the gatekeeper opens. The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.” 4 When he has brought out all his own, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice. 5 A stranger they will not follow, but they will flee from him, for they do not know the voice of strangers.” 6 This figure of speech Jesus used with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.
Now, Jesus is speaking of the Jews as God’s sheep and himself as their Shepherd. We must first interpret in light of historical context. We can’t jump straight to church. We must first ask what he was saying about the Jews.
Jesus’ words follow a confrontation with Pharisees, in which they reject Jesus despite his healing a blind man. (But the blind man sees well enough to know to follow Jesus!) And so Jesus is condemning those who presume to be leaders — the Sadducees, the Pharisees, the scribes, the priests.
One criticism he launches is that he is certainly the true Shepherd, as evidenced by the fact the people hear and respond to his voice (as is true of literal shepherds; real sheep only respond to the call of their own shepherd).
Therefore, when selecting elders, ask whether they have followers. If you have no followers, you aren’t leading. You’re just walking. You can be a false leader and have followers, of course, but you can’t be a leader if no one’s following you.
(John 10:7-10 ESV) 7 So Jesus again said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep. 8 All who came before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them. 9 I am the door. If anyone enters by me, he will be saved and will go in and out and find pasture. 10 The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.”
In the ancient world, the sheep were corralled in a sheepfold — a stone enclosure with walls just high enough to keep the sheep in. There was no gate or door. Rather, the shepherd would sleep in the opening, knowing that no thief could enter except through him and no sheep could stray except over him.
Jesus builds on this comparison to declare that his predecessors — leaders of the people — had been thieves and so had no real followers. Likely he was especially referring to the political leadership — Herod and the priests — but there was no real distinction between political and religious leadership in that world.
The Temple had become notoriously corrupt. Herod Antipas was a contemptible ruler.
In contrast to the thieving of the powerful, Jesus promises “pasture” and abundant life. “Abundant” (perissos) means “much more than enough” or “extraordinary.” Either way, he sure seems to be speaking of the blessings of the gospel — a life filled with grace, undeserved acceptance, forgiveness, joy in the Spirit …
Therefore, he’s accusing the leaders of depriving the Jews of a right relationship with God. The leaders not only steal money, but they steal the joy of a right relationship with God — by destroying moral standards and by imposing a false understanding of how to please and enjoy God.
You see, Jesus could hardly condemn the leaders for failing to properly teach the people if their failure was to share the new covenant, which had not yet come into being. No, he was saying that the leaders stood between the people and God under the terms of the covenant as then in effect.
But, of course, this makes sense when we realize that the idea of becoming like God and his image — and his justice and righteousness — didn’t begin at Pentecost but in Genesis 1. Because the leaders weren’t living in God’s image — through service, submission, sacrifice, and even suffering for others — they prevented the ordinary citizens from seeing who God really is — leading to a severely eroded, unhealthy society.