Now, if we ignore the context of Eze 34, it’s easy to conclude that elders ought to be shepherds (true) and that their primary job is to heal the weak and injured, that is, care for their social and emotional needs (not remotely the point of Eze 34).
I’m not saying that elders shouldn’t undertake pastoral duties. They should. I just protest our abuse of Eze 34 — which is far more about social justice and the impact of Jesus’ reign on the poor than about counseling and comforting.
Now, obviously, the weak and needy of Eze 34 are not merely the poor. It’s everyone who is being exploited and abused by those in power. And this has very little to do with visiting the sick in the hospital or comforting the mourning at the funeral home. Nor does it involve counseling our members on having stronger marriages and being better parents. Elders should do that, too — but God wasn’t angry with the king of Judah because of his poor marriage counseling skills.
And when we misapply Eze 34, we don’t see the lessons that really are there — lessons important enough that Jesus repeatedly refers to this passage in his ministry, not just in John 10.
Ezekiel 34 Interpreted by Jesus in Matthew
I’ve already mentioned Luke 19 (Zacchaeus). There’s also —
(Matt. 9:36-38 ESV) 36 When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. 37 Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; 38 therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”
This passage is speaking of evangelism — the need to preach the gospel.
(Matt. 10:5-7 ESV) 5 These twelve Jesus sent out, instructing them, “Go nowhere among the Gentiles and enter no town of the Samaritans, 6 but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. 7 And proclaim as you go, saying, ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand.’
Again, this passage refers not to the damned, but the scattering of the Jews at the hands of their leaders described in Eze 34. The solution? Preach the kingdom!
(Matt. 15:24-28 ESV) 24 He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” 25 But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” 26 And he answered, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” 27 She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” 28 Then Jesus answered her, “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed instantly.
Jesus refers to all Jews as “lost sheep” in need of a shepherd — claiming to be God and David per Eze 34, but also looking ahead to the expansion of the Kingdom to include the Gentiles.
(Matt. 25:32 ESV) 32 Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.
It’s hard not to hear echoes of Eze 34 in Jesus’ famous Judgment Day scene. God said he’d judge among the sheep and the goats. And just as is true in Matt 25, the judging is based on caring for the physical needs of the poor.
So when Jesus interprets Eze 34 in Matthew, he is thinking in Kingdom terms, about the gospel, and about the exploitation of the poor. Which is, I believe, very good exegesis indeed.
He is not thinking about marriage counseling or personal mentoring or being a life coach. And I do not belittle these things. But they are just not what Eze 34 is about.
So this brings us to —
Ezekiel 34 as Interpreted by Jesus in John 10
In John 9, Jesus heals a blind man and is confronted by the Jewish leaders for his “blasphemy.” In a cruel stroke, the Jewish leaders cast the formerly blind man out of the synagogue (disfellowshiped him) because he had faith in Jesus. The poor man had literally never seen his friends and relatives, and doubtlessly was thrilled not only to have his sight but to get to see the people he loved and to finally — finally! — see the Torah scrolls and to get to participate in reading the text in the synagogue — and they threw him out.
He may well have lost his ability to earn a living as a result — because the Jews would not deal with a man excommunicated for blasphemy. So he was finally healed of his blindness, no longer needed to beg, and yet he was excluded from the dignity of working to support himself by the truly blind: the leaders of the Jews.
Nonetheless, the formerly blind man worships Jesus despite the cost, while the scholars of the day treat Jesus as a blasphemer and plot to have him killed. Jesus responds,
(Jn. 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. 3 To 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.
The blind man followed Jesus. He recognized the voice of his Shepherd, even if the leaders of the people did not.
Jesus says, in effect, that the Jewish leaders are thieves and robbers, as shown by the fact that the people would not follow them. The people were ready to follow Jesus — the Good Shepherd.
(Jn. 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.”
“I am the door of the sheep” is hardly obvious. Ancient shepherds slept in the gate of the sheepfold, acting as a human door, to keep the sheep in (and safe) and to know if a wolf or thief tries to sneak in at night.
The Jewish leaders — the “shepherds of Israel” — set about to destroy the life of the blind man healed by Jesus. They were cruel and heartless. They muddied the water so that others could not drink. But Jesus proves that he is the giver of life abundant. He healed the man!! And the rabbis taught that only God could heal the blind.
(Jn. 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.”
To claim to be the “good shepherd” is to claim the place of God in Eze 34. But Jesus adds the irony that, because he is God, he will die for his people. A good shepherd protects the sheep — even at the cost of his own life.
(Jn. 10:14-15 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.”
Jesus is again contrasting his popularity with the people with the cruel, inhuman treatment they receive at the hands of the Jewish leadership. “My own know me” is true not only of Jesus but of shepherds in general. The sheep know their shepherd’s call. If you want to know whether you are a shepherd, look behind you to see if any sheep are following you.
(Jn. 10:16-18 ESV) 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.”
Jesus then predicts the entry of the Gentiles into the Kingdom, and reiterates that he will die for his sheep.
Now, Jesus brilliantly uses his knowledge of sheep and shepherds to illustrate what a Good Shepherd is. First, a good shepherd has sheep who follow him. Second, a good shepherd’s sheep recognize him by the sound of his voice. They instinctively know who loves them and cares for them. Third, a good shepherd protects the sheep — even to the point of dying for them.
And this says quite a lot about being an elder/shepherd/overseer. But it doesn’t say that the elder’s primary job is marriage counseling, mentoring, and consoling. In fact, the point Jesus is making is that the shepherd’s primary job is to protect the flock. Indeed, the one point that Jesus repeatedly makes is his willingness to die for his flock to protect them from wolves and robbers.
And this no doubt reveals the heart of a good shepherd.