Abel’s shepherd ministry – in his times
Abel is the first of a number of Old Testament individuals who we are told were occupied with the care of sheep. The word used for ‘keeper’ in this case conveys the idea of someone who tends his flock. Cain used a quite different word in his petulant reply to God’s questioning. In asking, ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’ he is talking of someone acting in a restraining fashion, setting bounds to his charge’s freedom. That was precisely how Peter did not want his fellow elders to act, ‘not as being lords over God’s heritage, but being ensamples to the flock’, 1 Pet. 5. 3. So, Abel had the right attitude of heart towards his flock. He cared for them, which certainly involved protection but not in an unnecessarily restrictive fashion.
Apart from one sacrifice, we have very little information as to what Abel actually did, but in the New Testament we are given details of the sort of person he was. The Lord Jesus refers to him as a prophet, Luke 11. 50-51, and as ‘righteous Abel’, Matt. 23. 35. The writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews, in a list of those ‘who obtained a good report through faith’ says that, ‘By faith Abel offered unto God a more excellent sacrifice than Cain’, Heb. 11. 4, 39. So he was characterized by faith and righteousness, and he also functioned as a prophet.
But from whatever source Abel learned of the need of blood sacrifice, he both believed and acted upon it. Listening to someone else or even reading the Scriptures for ourselves, are only a means to an end. It is only when we put what we hear and read into practice that truth becomes meaningfully effective for us. In 2 Corinthians chapter 4 verses 1 to 2, and verse 13, Paul explains this principle. Quoting the understanding of the psalmist as evidence he says, ‘we having the same spirit of faith … we also believe and therefore speak’. They both having heard what God said, believed it and demonstrated this by sharing it with others. The only meaningful way in which to shepherd today’s flock is by those with the pastoral gift teaching the things they themselves have learned, believed and put into practice.
Abel’s shepherd ministry – a ‘righteous’ one
In Acts 10 verse 34 and Hebrews 4 verse 13 reference is made to Abel as being ‘righteous’. There are two aspects of righteousness spoken of in the Scriptures. The comment in Hebrews 11. 4 refers to the righteousness he obtained through the sacrifice he offered. ‘By faith Abel offered unto God a more excellent sacrifice than Cain, by which he obtained witness that he was righteous’, and that witness was totally unchallengeable because it was God testifying of his gifts. The righteousness spoken of here is imputed righteousness. Such righteousness is impeccable, so that Paul can ask. ‘Who shall lay anything to the charge of God’s elect? It is God that justifieth’, i.e., it is God Himself who acknowledges such persons as being righteous, Rom. 8. 33.
But what of the second aspect of righteousness and how should that apply for believers? Whilst clearly stating that total unsullied righteousness is only possible by grace through faith as the gift of God the Scriptures just as clearly show that God expects his people to exhibit personal righteousness too. Peter quotes God as saying, ‘Be ye holy; for I am holy’, 1 Pet. 1. 16. He later shows this as being very practical, urging his readers, even though in very uncongenial circumstances, to commit the keeping of their souls to God in well doing, and well doing certainly signifies righteous living, 1 Pet. 4. 19. A number of New Testament writers compare such practical righteousness to fruit. As such it is the outward evidence of a vibrant inner life. The writer of Hebrews refers to ‘the peaceable fruit of righteousness’, James talks of the ‘fruit of righteousness (being) sown in peace’, i.e., a continuation of the reproductive process. Paul looks for the Philippians to be filled with the fruit of righteousness, Phil. 1. 10-11.
Now, such practical righteousness is expected of all believers but those looking to fulfil a shepherding role must appreciate that it has special significance for them. The Ephesian elders were urged to take heed to themselves as well as to all the flock, Acts 20. 28, and Peter encourages his fellow elders to be ensamples to the flock, 1 Pet. 5. 3. So the overseer then must be irreproachable and not only in the church. It is necessary that he should have also a good report from those without, 1 Tim. 3. 2-7 JND. In view of his work the overseer must be free from all charge against him as God’s steward, and the passages referred to show how such irreproachability and freedom from charge may be achieved, Titus 1. 5-9.
Those guiding instructions apply to all overseeing pastorally. The person whom Paul saw as coming closest to what he wanted to see was Timothy. He says of him, ‘I have no man likeminded, who will naturally care for your state’, Phil. 2. 20. ‘Naturally’ in this context means a concern from the inner person, which, without external pressure or constraint, flows out to others, 1 Pet. 5. 2. What standard of righteousness is then being looked for from this younger fellow shepherd? ‘Follow after righteousness, godliness, faith, love, patience, meekness’, 1 Tim. 6. 11. But don’t, even in the sphere of righteous living, forget others, ‘be thou an example of the believers, in word, in conversation (mode of life), in charity (love), in spirit, in faith, in purity, 1 Tim. 4. 12. That was how Paul wanted Timothy to live out his life and that is how God wants His under-shepherds to be in their respective fellowships today.
Abel’s shepherd ministry – an exemplary one.
So, for all those currently functioning, or aspiring to function, as spiritual shepherds, and there is full support for such aspirations, 1 Tim. 3. 1 JND, Abel sets a good example. As a keeper of sheep he evidences a right attitude of heart. As a prophet, he not only heard what God said but showed by his response that he believed what he heard. Though he most certainly enjoyed an imputed righteousness as a result of his evidenced faith, there is every reason, based on the testimony of Scripture, see 1 John. 3. 12, to accept that he lived a practically righteous life too. By emulating him, those that shepherd God’s people will not only be a blessing to those for whose care they have accepted responsibility, but will have the privilege of knowing that they are sharing in the work which the Chief Shepherd continues unremittingly to undertake for His people, His sheep, 1 Pet. 5. 4.