(John 10:11-13 ESV) 11 “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12 He who is a hired hand and not a shepherd, who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees, and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. 13 He flees because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep.”
Jesus says he is the true Shepherd of Israel (“shepherd” is a metaphor for God but also for the king — 1 Chron 11:2) because he is willing to die for the people, as a shepherd will die to protect his own flock. Jesus sees the leaders of the people as mere hirelings who love their wages but not the sheep.
Notice, that Jesus is saying he is like God because he’s willing to die for the lost sheep of Israel! This is not how we normally think of God, but obviously makes perfect sense.
(John 10:14-18 ESV) 14 “I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep. 16 And I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. 17 For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life that I may take it up again. 18 No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This charge I have received from my Father.”
The price for bringing God’s covenant with Abraham to fulfillment would be the Shepherd’s own life. “I lay it down of my own accord.”
Why does this matter? Because it’s not God-like to sacrifice to avoid a penalty. It’s only God-like, true to God’s image, if you sacrifice when you don’t have to. Nothing else is truly love.
Notice the two closely intertwined themes — one flock, crucifixion. It’s seems an unlikely mix at first. What does crucifixion — and its voluntary nature — have to do with there being only one flock and one shepherd? Well, everything.
You see, the unity of Jews and Gentiles comes only by grace — not just God’s grace in forgiving those of both races, but the grace that the Jews and Gentiles had to show each other despite their differences.
And how we act depends on what we think is right. And what we think is right depends on who we worship — our image of God.
If we see God as hard, tough, strict, unyielding, and perfectionistic, then we’ll treat others that way, and unity will be impossible.
If we see God as gracious, loving, going the extra mile, turning the other cheek, loving his enemies, doing good for the evil and ungrateful, and bringing rain to the just and unjust alike, then we’ll do the same.
To understand God, we meditate on Jesus — as sacrificing himself voluntarily — purely out of love, with nothing in it for himself except the joy of service and submission — then perhaps we can become more like God. Then perhaps unity will happen. There is, you know, no plan B.
And so elders are called to strive for unity — not just within their congregations (which is plenty hard enough) but also with Christendom at large. Indeed, elders are called to lead their members to see that they just might not be the only sheepfold of God. In fact, just as the Jews despised and looked down on the Gentiles, refusing to even eat with them, there may be sheepfolds of God filled with people we look down on.
That does seem to be the application, doesn’t it?
Okay. Take a breath. I have to step back just a hair here. You see, the standard I’ve set for shepherds/elders/overseers is impossibly high, because it’s a standard built on becoming just like Jesus, the true Good Shepherd — and then leading the rest of the church to meet the same standard.
Jesus really is our ideal, and we see from the passages how to find in Jesus the model for the ideal shepherd. But if we aren’t careful, the congregation can quickly conclude that their shepherds are hopelessly inadequate because not a single one measures up to this standard. You see, we can forget grace.
After all, all Christians are supposed to be like Jesus. If the elders don’t measure up, well, neither does anyone else. So let’s not be too terribly judgmental. “Judge not that ye be not judged,” as Jesus said.
Rather, God created plural elderships. Why more than one elder? Just because it’s a rule? Just to test our exegetical expertise? No, for deeper reasons than that. (This is what legalism does. It finds a rule, applies it relentlessly, but doesn’t ask why — and so learns nothing from the rule other than the rule itself — a gross underestimation of the wisdom of God.)
Plural elders, first, parallel our plural God. “God in three persons.” When multiple elders get along in harmony and love, building up each other, they model God himself/themselves (pronouns are so confusing when dealing with a Triune God!)
Indeed, our marriages, our congregations, even all of Christendom should emulate the unity in plurality of the Trinity, but that will never happen unless the elders are both plural and united. That is, they cannot be dominated by a single personality but neither can they run off in multiple directions at once.
If we see elders as exemplars of the Trinity, then we should easily recognize that each elder is different, being gifted with distinct and valuable talents. In one setting — say, a funeral
— some elders may shine as extraordinary comforters, whereas others struggle to deal with the raw emotion. In other settings — say, a classroom — other elders may shine with the light of the gospel, whereas others struggle to speak in front of a crowd. Some elders may only shine in private conversation or the conference room. The members may never see some elders at their very best, at their most gifted.
Hence, the goal is not a perfect, complete elder. That would be graceless. The goal is an eldership — a united plurality — that together exemplifies Christ, imperfectly but well enough to lead the congregation closer to Jesus.
Indeed, that idea is common in the New Testament —
(Phi 3:17 ESV) 17 Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us.
(1Th 1:6-7 ESV) 6 And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you received the word in much affliction, with the joy of the Holy Spirit, 7 so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia.
(2Th 3:7-9 ESV) 7 For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us, because we were not idle when we were with you, 8 nor did we eat anyone’s bread without paying for it, but with toil and labor we worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you. 9 It was not because we do not have that right, but to give you in ourselves an example to imitate.
(1Ti 1:16 ESV) 16 But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life.
(1Ti 4:12 ESV) 12 Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity.
Most commonly, Paul uses himself as an example of how to follow Jesus. But, we might think, he had an extra helping of the Spirit as an apostle. Ordinary Christians can do no such thing. But he also says the same regarding Timothy and even to all the church members in Thessalonica.
Our roots run deep in legalism — regardless of our denominational heritage. It’s hard to imagine telling anyone to follow my example as I follow Jesus. We can’t even conceive of such a claim because it seems so arrogant, because we know we don’t really meet the rules.
But when we see the “rules” as service, submission, sacrifice, even suffering — we know we don’t meet the standard at the level of Jesus, but we know that we do in fact serve others, submit to others, etc. Most of us really do.
We could (and should) all do better, but it’s not like our lives are entirely devoid of Christ-like character. We’re on our way. We’re getting there.
And we can truthfully say to others, follow my example in these things, as I follow Jesus.
Indeed, we might even occasionally take stock and ask just how well we’re doing at these things compared to last year. We might even surprise ourselves at what God has been doing through us.
And most importantly, in so doing, we’ll become more aware of the service, submission, etc. in others, as we learn to observe these things in ourselves. We can therefore better follow their examples, when we focus on the most important things. And we then select leaders based on the very standards we impose on ourselves.
But one key is not to pick 7 men who are all just alike. Rather, the key is to build a team of men who each add essential talents to the mix but who have the humility to work within the team to take a bunch of 3-, 4-, and 5-talent men to create a 15-talent team, united in plurality.
Inevitably, some will lack gifts that the others have. That’s the nature of unity in plurality. And that’s how you get all the talents you need at the table. You add up gifts, recognizing that no individual is nearly good enough in himself, but the united group may just well be.