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Shepherds-Schmepherds; What’s The Big Deal?

A Shepherd’s Heart

imageAs a Christian I have always been enthralled by the heart of King David, a man describes as “A man after My heart” the Bible says in 1 Samuel 13:14 and Acts 13:22. So what made David “a man after God’s own heart”? I believe that the key to the heart of David lies in where God placed him to learn. David was ultimately a mighty warrior and King of Israel but he was first a lowly shepherd. The lowliest, dirtiest and most dangerous of jobs during the time.

So just what is the heart of a shepherd? Psalms 78:70-72 says “He also chose David His servant and took him from the sheepfolds; From the care of the ewes with suckling lambs He brought him to shepherd Jacob His people, and Israel His inheritance. So he shepherded them according to the integrity of his heart, and guided them with his skillful hands.”

But perhaps we can see the most vivid example of what a shepherd’s heart should be looking at how God says He would shepherd His people. Looking at Jeremiah 23:3-4 “Then I Myself will gather the remnant of My flock out of all the countries where I have driven them and bring them back to their pasture, and they will be fruitful and multiply. I will also raise up shepherds over them and they will tend them; and they will not be afraid any longer, nor be terrified, nor will any be missing,” declares the Lord.

God clearly states that He wants His flock pastured where they can be fruitful and multiply. He also says that He will raise up shepherds to tend them so that they will not be afraid or terrified and that none will be missing.

Is it any surprise that God chose David who cared for the ewes with suckling lambs, shepherded them with the integrity of his heart and guided them with his skillful hands?

The Shepherd

The responsibility of the shepherd is much more complex than one may think. Shepherds must not only care for the sheep but they must be expert planners, fearless warriors and shrewd leaders. Pasturing sheep is not simple particularly in the arid climates of the middle east. A shepherd has to plan how to insure that the flock has enough food and water to be fruitful and multiply. A shepherd also needs to have the vision of an expert planner so that the sheep are protected. In Jeremiah 23:4 is states 3 key things that are a result of good planning on the part of the shepherd.

First that they would not be afraid. This is an important characteristic to consider. The Hebrew word used here is yare’, which means to found in fear or more literally to live in fear. The connotation here is that the sheep should not be constantly nervous that something bad is going to happen. The connotation is one of not developing properly because of the constant interruption of things that unsettle the flock.

Second that they would not be terrified. This Hebrew word is chathath, which means to be broken down in confusion and fear. This form has more of a sudden ramification in that the sheep are brought down by something that terrifies them suddenly literally causing them to break down. I’m reminded of the famous fainting goats. When you startle the goat it simply goes stiff as board and keels over.

Third that there would be none missing. What a tremendous thing it is for a shepherd to be able to say none of my sheep are missing.

The parable of the lost sheep is one of the most significant stories Jesus told. Many scholars try to attach the parable in Matthew 18:12-14 to salvation. While there is some level of interpretation for that, the parable is stuck right in the middle of a chapter that teaches on discipline and forgiveness. I believe that Jesus was telling us how a shepherd thinks about the sheep for which he is responsible. In the case of the lost sheep the sheep that wandered astray was, in fact, part of the flock. The shepherd safely pastured the remainder of the flock and searched until he found the one that had wandered away. Jesus tells us the parable of the “Good Shepherd” in John 10:14 “I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd lays down His life for the sheep.”

Based on this the heart of a shepherd is rooted in his love for the sheep and I believe that is why Jesus compares the believers who comprise His church to a flock of sheep.

The Tools of a Shepherd

In order to properly care for a flock the shepherd need a set of tools. This consisted of articles of clothing, storage for food and drink and articles for protecting and correcting the flock. These tools are necessary for the shepherd to function in an effective manner and they are designed specifically for the task of tending sheep.

The first tool of a shepherd is the cloak or coat which was usually a sheepskin or wool coat that could be used as a blanket to keep the shepherd warm on cold evenings. This cloak also contained an inner pouch that allowed the shepherd to carry a lamb or kid that need help or was either sick or injured (Isaiah 40:11 “Like a shepherd He will tend His flock, In His arm He will gather the lambs And carry them in His bosom; He will gently lead the nursing ewes.”)

The next two tools are the pouch or yalquwt which is a traveling pouch that the shepherd hung at his side and the gourd which was used to store water or milk. The pouch was usually made of the tanned hide of a kid and was where the shepherd stored things such as bread, cheese, raisins, and perhaps dried figs. The gourd was typically the shape of drinking containers of the day and was relatively sturdy and water tight.

The next tool of a shepherd is the rod or shebet which the shepherd hung at his side or sheathed  in a pouch attached to his cloak. The rod was an oak club generally made of a small oak tree that was uproot to expose the root ball. Typically about a yard long with a ball about the size of an orange on the end. A hole would be cut in the end opposite the root ball and an leather strap added so that it could be hung from the belt or wrapped around the hand for stability. This was the close in weapon of the shepherd. The rod was used as a club to defend the sheep against predators. It was also used for counting the sheep and could be used as a means of correcting the sheep as well.

In addition to the rod is the staff or mish`enah, a support or walking stick, was a multipurpose tool. The staff was usually a longer stick and in some cases had a fork or a crook in one end. The staff was an implement that helped the shepherd get around rough terrain, clear brush and occasionally to take the weight of tired feet. However, one of the primary uses for the staff was for disciplining the sheep and fighting goats.

The final tool is the sling or qela`. This was the long range weapon of the shepherd. The sling was generally made of goat hair with a rounded, diamond shape which had a small slit cut in the center so that when the stone was pressed into the pouch it closed around the stone. Smooth stones were used because that provided a more accurate sling with a higher velocity. In Judges 20:16 it tells us of the tribe of Benjamin that “Out of all these people 700 choice men were left-handed; each one could sling a stone at a hair and not miss.”

The Shepherds Voice

There is a widespread story that in Jesus time that shepherds would break the leg of a sheep that constantly wandered away. The shepherd would then carry the sheep on his shoulders until it was healed at which point the sheep would never again leave the shepherd. After some research I am not sure whether this is really true but I do know that the shepherd did carry sheep when they were sick or injured. While this may be a myth, the fact that the sheep hear only the voice of their own shepherd is very much true.

The thing that is most striking about the shepherd and the flock is that the shepherd calls to the sheep and the sheep grow accustom to his voice and vocal calls. When someone comes in and tries to mimic the voice or the calls of the shepherd the sheep become unsettled and begin to scatter. Jesus said in John 10:4-5 “When he puts forth all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. A stranger they simply will not follow, but will flee from him, because they do not know the voice of strangers.”

The fact that the voice of a stranger unsettles the sheep is a tremendous testament to God’s sovereign design. Sheep hear and clearly distinguish the shepherd’s voice and it is familiar and comforting to them. Jesus used that analogy to describe His relationship to His flock as the good shepherd.

The Responsibility of the Shepherd

When all is said and done the shepherd has tremendous responsibility that requires not only love and concern for the sheep, but the ability plan how to care for the sheep and protect them from danger, even putting his own life in peril. Jesus made a startling statement in John 10:12-13 “He who is a hired hand, and not a shepherd, who is not the owner of the sheep, sees the wolf coming, and leaves the sheep and flees, and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. He flees because he is a hired hand and is not concerned about the sheep.” The genuine shepherd, on the other hand, is willing to lay down his life for the sheep as Jesus said in John 10:14 “I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd lays down His life for the sheep.”

Caring for the Sheep

So just how does a shepherd care for the sheep? The primary thing that a shepherd must do is in sure that the sheep are pastured and watered properly.

Pasturing and Watering the Flock

God provides a vivid picture of this in Psalm 23:2 “He makes me lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside quiet waters.”  The picture here is so dramatic it is difficult to picture completely. The first part of the verse describes the pasturing process. In this part the word rabats is used. This word means literally to recline or repose. The word naveh means completely at home, comfortable and deshe’ is tender green grass. The picture here is of a sheep comfortably couched (rabats), all four legs folded, completely at home (naveh) nibbling on plush green grass (deshe’). What a picture of how the Great Shepherd tends to His flock. It continues with a picture of the watering process which is just as meaningful. The word leads is nahal which means to sustain, guide or lead but also has the connotation of flowing or running with a sparkle.The word for quiet is mnuwchah which means peacefully. The impression here is that He brings the sheep to peaceful (mnuwchah) sparkling clear babbling brook of water to sustain them(nahal).

The pasturing and watering process is something that has to be planned, particularly in countries like the middle east. There are times of the year where the flock must be tended in the high country and times where they must be tended in the lower elevations. That being the case the shepherd has to know the geography of the area and where pasture and water sources exist in both places and along the way.

Protection of the Flock

Shepherds are not willy-nilly planners but are adept at long-term planning, general planning and crisis planning. Part of caring for the flock involves how to safely and efficiently move the flocks from one location to another. But there are also other things about which the shepherd must be concerned. Predators!

Predators are of great concern to the shepherd. Pasturing and watering also have to take into account the safety of the sheep from predators. Moving the flocks from one location to another would involve avoiding routes where predators could take advantage of the terrain to snatch sheep.

David gave accounts of predators to King Saul when he stepped up to deal with Goliath. 1 Samuel 17:34-36 “But David said to Saul, “Your servant was tending his father’s sheep. When a lion or a bear came and took a lamb from the flock, I went out after him and attacked him, and rescued it from his mouth; and when he rose up against me, I seized him by his beard and struck him and killed him. Your servant has killed both the lion and the bear;…” First, I would like to note the synonymous nature of this passage with that of John10:12 where Jesus spoke about the difference between the hireling and the owner of the sheep. Then notice that the protection of the sheep required direct contact with the predator. David said that in both cases he got up close and personal with both the lion and the bear. He went after them, rescued the lamb from the jaws of the beast and then he grabbed the beast by the beard and struck him and killed him. In both cases he probably used the shebet to, and I like word used in the King James here, smote him and killed him.

The depiction here is that a shepherd is not passively engaged with the sheep but directly, personally, at his own risk and peril, engaged in protecting them.

Disciplining the Sheep

When the flock grows and matures properly some interesting things happen. Sheep grow this thing called wool. They also secrete an oil called lanolin. As the wool grows out is also has lanolin on the wool which tend to collect dust and dust. This is called capping. At some point, if the sheep is not shorn, it can fall into heat exhaustion and disease. The heavy wool coat continues to grow, collecting more dirt and dust, and eventually the sheep will become unhealthy and potentially even die as a result.

That being the case, sheep need to be shorn regularly to insure that they are healthy and able to grow and mature properly. This is a difficult process for the sheep and the shearers. Sheep don’t like being shorn and shearers don’t like holding the sheep down to shear them. However, the process is beneficial to both. The sheep are freed from the weight and contaminates of the wool and the shearers can make use of the wool and the lanolin sheared from the sheep.

The sheep have to be taught the shepherd’s voice. Part of the discipline is simply training the sheep to hear the voice of the shepherd. Once trained the sheep will only listen the voice of the shepherd.

Disciplining sheep involves teaching them how to move from one place to another in an orderly way. The shepherd would use his staff to tap the sheep and guide them in the right direction.

There are also sheep that tend to wonder away. In this case the shepherd will use the staff more firmly to remind the sheep of the direction it is supposed to go or the pasture in which it is supposed to feed.

Then there are unruly sheep. The shepherd will correct these sheep more harshly in order to maintain order, safety and peace in the flock.

Growth of the Flock

When the sheep are cared for properly the flock begins to grow. This creates new challenges for the shepherd because the more sheep there are to tend, the more carefully the shepherd must plan caring for the sheep and the greater the chances that the shepherd with have to get up close and personal with predators.

Growth is both a blessing and a challenge. The really wonderful thing for a shepherd is to grow with the flock. As the flock grows the shepherd grows in experience and character and may need to add other shepherds thus becoming an over-shepherd as Abraham, Isaac and Jacob had to become.

The Church – Not Just Another Flock

When Jesus ascended into heaven he gave the command in Matthew 28:19-20 to “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”

Shepherding is a Gift

He then commissioned various gifts within the church to accomplish the great commission. Jesus made a clear analogy that the church was like a flock so it is no coincidence that one of the gifts to the church was that of a “Pastor”. In Ephesians 4:11 the term  Paul used for pastors is from the greek word poimen which literally means a shepherd, or one who pastures the flock. That being the case, the inference here is that, of the gifts given by the Holy Spirit that one gift, pastors, was clearly a function of caring for the believers in God’s church as a shepherd would care for a flock of sheep and thus causing them to grow, mature and produce results.

The results would be as stated in Ephesians 4:12 “the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ;”. A clear direction and a clear goal is provided for the pastors (and teachers) to follow in bringing the believers to maturity. This requires that pastors (from now on “shepherds”) carefully plan out how to feed, water, protect, discipline and move the flock from one location to another (spiritually of course).

Shepherds must consider people over programs, they must be convinced that believers are the ministers and that those believers must be equipped to minister. Shepherds must be able to evaluate the state of the flock of believers and bring in helpers to facilitate moving the flock to the proper spiritual locations while insuring that the flock is fed, watered, protected and disciplined along the way fully expecting that growth and maturity will occur.

Never make the mistake of believing that a formal education qualifies someone to be a shepherd. Institutions do not gift shepherds, God’s Holy Spirit does. Far too many churches have gone down in flames because of a senior pastor who, while he may have had a litany of acronyms from educational institutions behind his name, was not gifted by the Holy Spirit to shepherd the flock. Remember what Jesus said; John 10:14 “I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd lays down His life for the sheep.” In order for the shepherd to be willing to lay down his life for the sheep, he must have a deep and abiding love for them. The shepherd must love the believers more than any programs or visions that he may want to implement. In other words, he must love the believers in the flock enough to lay day his own life for them.

Shepherds Help Believers Find Their Place in the Flock

1 Corinthians 12:14-18 “For the body is not one member, but many. 15If the foot says, “Because I am not a hand, I am not a part of the body,” it is not for this reason any the less a part of the body. 16And if the ear says, “Because I am not an eye, I am not a part of the body,” it is not for this reason any the less a part of the body. 17If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? 18But now God has placed the members, each one of them, in the body, just as He desired.”

Shepherds must be adept at helping believers understand and embrace where they fit in the body of Christ. They certainly cannot arbitrarily decide what gifting a believer may have but must be able to guide the believer to understand what God has given them to do.

Many times, within the church, people view certain positions as desirable and prestigious while they view other positions as lowly and degrading. Shepherds must help believers understand that the need of a function is greater than the exaltation of the position.

It tells us in Ephesians 4:15-16 “…we are to grow up in all aspects into Him who is the head, even Christ, from whom the whole body, being fitted and held together by what every joint supplies, according to the proper working of each individual part, causes the growth of the body for the building up of itself in love.”

This is a beautiful picture of how the body should work. The expression here is that of joints. Where our bones are joined together there is a supply of strength and tension. Strength to lift and move and do useful work and tension to hold the joint together. When believers are functioning properly according to “that which each joint supplies” there is growth, building up and love.

Shepherds Must Tend not Thin the Flock

In Istambul, Turkey in 2005 an untended flock of sheep began wandering. One followed the other and the results were tragic. 1500 sheep followed one another right off of a cliff killing more than a third of the flock.

Shepherds simply cannot say, as Paul said in 1 Corinthians 12:21 (a bit of contextual freedom here), “And the eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you’; or again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’” Shepherds must recognize first and foremost that God HAS gifted ALL of the believers in the flock and that ALL of the believers have a place in the body and that ALL of the believers have a place in the ministry.

When God places a shepherd over a flock He intends for the shepherd to care for the flock that He gave the shepherd. If the shepherd properly pastures, waters, protects and disciplines the flock, it will grow and bear fruit. But if a shepherd does not have sacrificial love for the flock, the flock will not only stop growing, maturing and bearing fruit, it will begin to wander and scatter. God’s Word is clear about how He feels about shepherds that scatter the flock.

Jeremiah 23:1-4 ““Woe to the shepherds who are destroying and scattering the sheep of My pasture!” declares the Lord. 2Therefore thus says the Lord God of Israel concerning the shepherds who are tending My people: “You have scattered My flock and driven them away, and have not attended to them; behold, I am about to attend to you for the evil of your deeds,” declares the Lord. 3“Then I Myself will gather the remnant of My flock out of all the countries where I have driven them and bring them back to their pasture, and they will be fruitful and multiply. 4“I will also raise up shepherds over them and they will tend them; and they will not be afraid any longer, nor be terrified, nor will any be missing,” declares the Lord.””

Here are some key things that every shepherd must consider:

  • God does not want His sheep scattered!
  • God does not want His sheep driven away!
  • God does not want His sheep unattended!
  • God does not want His sheep living in fear!
  • God does not want His sheep coming under sudden terror!
  • God does not want any of His sheep missing!

As a matter of fact, should these things occur, God clearly tells us that He will replace the shepherd!

Shepherd Not King

A great shepherd leads the flock and a flock that is cared for will follow the shepherd. Too many times programmatical  tunnel vision causes shepherds to lose sight of their purpose. In an effort to architect their programs they begin to rule over the flock rather than leading the flock. Shepherds are told to be examples to the flock and not to “lord over them”. The implication is that “leading not lording” will result in a crown of glory but “lording not leading” will not result in a crown of glory.

1 Peter 5:1-4 “Therefore, I exhort the elders among you, as your fellow elder and witness of the sufferings of Christ, and a partaker also of the glory that is to be revealed, shepherd the flock of God among you, exercising oversight not under compulsion, but voluntarily, according to the will of God; and not for sordid gain, but with eagerness; nor yet as lording it over those allotted to your charge, but proving to be examples to the flock. And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory.”

One of the many pitfalls of higher education is that of the “you poor dumb sheep”, if you only had the training I have had you would know. Shepherds need to remember that their calling is from God, their gifting is from God and that the education of man may or may not prepare them properly to lead a flock of believers. 1 Corinthians 8:1 “… we know that we all have knowledge. Knowledge makes arrogant, but love edifies.”

Remember then the parable of the good shepherd. John 10:14 “I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd lays down His life for the sheep.”

Shepherds Discipline the Flock

Disciplining the flock is really comprised of several aspects.

First, training the sheep to hear the voice of the shepherd. This only come when the shepherd has demonstrated his love for the sheep in pasturing, watering and protecting them. As the shepherd does this the sheep will hear only his voice and they will follow him willingly.

Second, keeping the believers (sheep) on the right path is a form a discipline. Shepherds do this by tending the flock closely. The shepherd has to know where each member of the flock is on the path in order to keep all of the sheep moving in the right direction.

Third, there are sheep that get distracted and begin to wander. It is the responsibility of the shepherd to recognize when a sheep begins to wander from the flock and it is the shepherds responsibility to retrieve the one who has wandered away.

Forth, there are sometimes unruly sheep. In these cases the shepherd may need to use the staff (God’s Word in the power of the Holy Spirit) to bring the unruly sheep under control.

Through all of this, the shepherd must still properly pasture, water and protect the flock.

Shepherds Facilitate the Growth of the Flock

When shepherds obey God’s Word and tend the flock that God has given them there will be unity, harmony, peace, love and most importantly growth. A healthy flock always grows. God’s Word tells us in 1 Samuel 15:22 “…to obey is better than sacrifice…”. The key ingredient for a shepherd is obedience. Believe what God’s Word has told them and act upon it consistently with sacrificial love and the flock will flourish and grow accordingly.

Jesus gave the church a great commission commanding believers to go out and make disciples of all nations. He gave the church shepherds to tend the believers in such a way as they would ultimately be able to go out into the world and perform the work of the ministry. He gave believers the comfort and power of the Holy Spirit to enable them to go beyond themselves and their own weaknesses. He gave us a model of loving, tender care, maturity, discipline and growth.

Because, Jesus is the “Good Shepherd” who laid down His own precious life for the flock of sheep known as the body of Christ.


All of the aspects of shepherding facilitate believers becoming a part of the great commission. When a flock is properly pastured, watered, disciplined and protected it will spur the growth of healthy sheep which, in turn, will produce healthy offspring resulting in the growth of the flock. It is no coincidence that Jesus used the analogy of a shepherd and sheep to describe the church and it’s relationship to Him.

I have coined a phrase, at least I think I have, that goes like this; “As Christian Leadership, we are in the people business and people business is messy business!”

So, shepherds! Put on a heart of compassion, put on your big-boy pants and get out your staff because you have the toughest, lowliest and most dangerous job of all!


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