top of page
  • Writer's pictureTim Hemingway

Sheep Should Be Safe With Their Shepherds

What's the collective noun for fish? You might have played this game. There are two actually, 'School' and 'Shoal'. What's the collective term for sharks? It's a 'Shiver' (I had to look that up). For wolves it's 'Pack'. For sheep it's 'Flock' of course. And for Christians it's 'Flock' too, because one of the ways Christians are referred to in the New Testament is as 'sheep'.

Jesus is the first to talk this way. In John 10, Jesus identifies himself as the Good Shepherd. And he tells the Pharisees that all his sheep are those who listen to his voice and follow him. The Pharisees set themselves up as shepherds of the people but they were false shepherds - they climbed into the pen rather than entering through the gate. They were the kind who ran away when trouble came, but the Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. By this manner of shepherding there will be one flock and one shepherd who leads them - Jesus.

Then there's the way Jesus uses the idea of flock in Luke 12:31-33. There, Jesus is telling his disciples to sell their possessions and give to the poor, which is a radical and scary prospect. But his word to them is 'do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom'. He speaks to them as their Shepherd and he speaks to allay their fears - 'as part of this sheep fold you may lose everything of earthly value, but you cannot lose your heavenly treasure as long as you belong to this flock'.

The cost of following their shepherd - Jesus - is brought into sharp relief when Jesus is about to be arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane. He tells his disciples, 'This very night you will all fall away on account of me, for it is written: "I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered"'. So, Jesus regards the disciples as his flock and he repeatedly tells them that, as a flock, they will have to suffer.

The Shepherd-Flock motif is a prominent one in the mouth of Jesus, but after Jesus has ascended we find the Apostles picking it up and applying it to a different group. Jesus applied it consistently to the disciples as a collective, but the Apostles apply it consistently to a different group - to the church. And specifically to the local church.

In Acts 20, the Apostle Paul arrives at Miletus and sends to Ephesus for the elders of the church to come to him. He knows that he will never see them again and that this may be his last opportunity to tell them what they must do. With that in mind, it is interesting to see what he decides to communicate to them. 'Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood'.

These Ephesian men who are part of the local church in Ephesus are receiving from the Apostle of Christ instructions about the people who are under their care. And now, the flock are the people in the local church setting and the shepherds are the elders of the local church. So the image of shepherd and flock which Jesus introduced in the gospels, and which had Jesus as the shepherd and the disciples as the flock, has now, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit and through the mouth of Jesus' chosen spokes-person, been transposed into a different key. Now the shepherd is not one but multiple, is not perfect Jesus but imperfect men (not even Apostles), and is over a flock that transcend the little group of disciples Jesus addressed in his own day.

And Paul is not done, he warns these shepherds about wolves. 'I know that after I leave savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock'. Shepherds protect sheep from wolves and so here, the elders are to look after the spiritual welfare of the people in the local church at Ephesus so that they don't fall foul of spiritual predators.

The Apostle Peter, who heard first-hand Jesus speaking in these terms, also transposes the key in his first letter. In chapter 5 he encourages the elders to 'be shepherds of God's flock that is under [their] care...not lording it over those entrusted to [them] but being examples to the flock'. Again, the emphasis is on the elders to be spiritual leaders and carers and protectors of the group of people who are under their jurisdiction. Significantly, they are to do this by example, not by coercion. The flock has been entrusted into the care of these shepherds, and the implication is that Jesus has entrusted them into their care. There is then a passing on of the Shepherd baton from Jesus to the apostles, to the first church leaders, and then through a set of qualifications to church leaders down through the generations.

All of this is telling us that the responsibility for the spiritual welfare of the average Christian falls to the shepherd-elders of the local church as they remain faithful to their shepherd calling and in line with the instructions of the chief shepherd. These sheep were bought with the precious blood of Jesus and the responsibility for their care is a weighty and significant one - not to be taken lightly or to be abused.

However, the shepherds can only care for sheep they know belong to their flock. Some sheep wander around. Some sheep drift from flock to flock. Some sheep opt out of the flock altogether. But Jesus' will for his sheep is that they place themselves clearly under the care of shepherds within a local flock. If a sheep moves, they should attach themselves to a new flock in the new local setting they find themselves in. If they don't do this then they are like sheep without a shepherd and are liable to the attack of the wolf. The shepherds can't care for the sheep that opts out of the flock.

Therefore, local church membership is absolutely implicit in the application of the shepherd-flock motif as the Apostles take it from Jesus and apply it to the local church. That means that Christians need to accept Jesus' plan for their spiritual welfare and submit themselves to the accountability, oversight and care of local church leaders who exercise their shepherd authority with care and concern for the blood-bought members. Opting out of membership in the local church is simply an opting out of the will of Jesus for the spiritual health of his people. Your new Christian life was purchased at great cost to Jesus and to take it out of Jesus' will for your care and nurturing is to be cavalier with that which cost Jesus so dearly.

My plea to every Christian is, don't treat lightly your spiritual life by placing it at the mercy of spiritual wolves, when Jesus has made provision for you to be protected from that fate by the care of shepherds who want to look after you and bless you. Even though it will mean that at the last day they will have to give a more exacting account!

Rather, grow in grace and in the knowledge of the Lord Jesus in the context of a local church with Godly elder-shepherds who can lead by example and care for your spiritual welfare in accordance with Jesus' will for your lives here below.


bottom of page