Pauline Metaphors – Part 10: Shepherding

The sight of sheep dotted over a rolling green English countryside may evoke a sense of a restful, gentle, and idyllic way of life. However, those responsible for the care of those sheep, even in such apparently ideal conditions, know the hard work and vigilance required for the flock to remain healthy, or even alive. As MalcolM Radcliffe put it, ‘sheep seem to have a will to die’!1

Come, then, to the life of the shepherd as described in the Bible and, whatever benefits and blessing may result, we find that it is a hard life. Responsibilities included: leading to appropriate feeding grounds; watching over the sheep by day; seeking for and recovering any that had gone astray; seeking out or providing water - not always an easy job in the dry conditions of those lands; protecting from wild animals and thieves; and ensuring that all were safely gathered in at night where they may have to continue to watch over the flock. They would be exposed to heat and cold, a precarious food supply, wild beasts, and attack from robbers.2 To be a shepherd, therefore, was difficult and dangerous, and only likely to be wholly committed to when the flock was of personal value to the shepherd, John 10. 12, 13.

In Acts chapter 20 verses 17 to 38, the Apostle Paul calls together a group of men from Ephesus that are described as elders, v. 17, and overseers, v. 28. That they are told in verse 28 to ‘take heed … to all the flock’, and to ‘feed the church of God’ demonstrates that essential to the role of elder and overseer is that of shepherding. By exhortation and example, Paul impresses upon these men what is involved in the work of the spiritual shepherd.

Their position

The word ‘elders’ indicates spiritual maturity; ‘overseers’ their spiritual activity of watching over the Lord’s people. They were clearly identifiable so that when the message came to Ephesus, there was no doubt as to who to send, v. 17. This was not a job that they had applied for, but a work for which the Holy Spirit had fitted them and marked them out as doing, v. 28. The flock was to be of infinite value to them, having been purchased ‘with his own blood’. Paul thus agrees with Peter’s reminder that elders are shepherds under ‘the chief Shepherd’, 1 Pet. 5. 4, and that the flock are ‘God’s heritage’, v. 3.

In all things, the Lord Jesus is the greatest example. John chapter 10 reminds us that He is ‘the good shepherd’, v. 11. He was willing to give His life for the sheep, and He takes care to ‘know my sheep’, v. 14. The people of God are of inestimable value to Him, and under-shepherds should treat them as such.

Their priorities

Paul says, ‘Take heed’, Acts 20. 28. What he says next is vital for them to pay attention to if they are to fulfil the work God has called them to.


It is obvious that for the sheep to be well cared for, the shepherd needs to be in good health and condition. Obvious perhaps in a farming context, but how much of a concern is it within the assembly that the elders are in good spiritual condition? The qualifications for elders set the expectation of character and conduct very high, 1 Tim. 3. 1-7; Titus 1. 6-9. An overseer who seeks to do the work well has potential to make an impact in the lives of others, 1 Tim. 4. 6-16, and will therefore become a target for persecution, as Paul had experienced, Acts 20. 19, 23. The nature of the work will demand involvement in supporting others, including where others may fall into sin. Such work requires a consideration of self because of the temptations that may come, Gal. 6. 1.

Then there is the warning that Paul gives regarding those that seek ‘to draw away disciples after them’, v. 30. Peter warns against being ‘lords over God’s heritage’, 1 Pet. 5. 3, and John writes of ‘Diotrephes, who loveth to have the preeminence among them’, 3 John 9. How shepherds need to ‘take heed’ that a legitimate leading does not become the wrong kind of authority. The shepherds of Ezekiel chapter 34 were charged with taking from the sheep, from feeding on them rather than feeding them, vv. 2, 10. Here was an abuse of position. How different was Paul, ‘I have coveted no man’s silver, or gold, or apparel’, Acts 20. 33.

To all the flock

The shepherd watching his sheep during the day or counting them in at night is interested in each individual, Luke 15. 4. To him, the erring sheep is of just as much importance as the ones safely gathered in. Here is the heart of the One who said that He had come ‘to seek and to save that which was lost’, Luke 19. 10. Part of the rebuke to those who should have shepherded God’s people in Ezekiel chapter 34 was that they had not ‘brought again that which was driven away, neither have ye sought that which was lost’, v. 4. Paul reminded these shepherds that he had testified ‘both to the Jews, and also to the Greeks’, Acts 20. 21. His activity was such that he could boldly say that he was ‘pure from the blood of all men’, v. 26. If anything, it was the weak that held a special place in the heart of the apostle as he encouraged these men that they ‘ought to support the weak’, v. 35. All the flock is important to God and should be to those whom God has charged with the oversight of the assembly.

Another priority for the shepherd is to ‘feed the church of God’, v. 28.

The word ‘feed’ means ‘to act as a shepherd’, and is the same word that the Lord used to Peter in His first injunction to ‘Feed my sheep’, John 21. 16.3 Paul is the example for them to follow:

In attitude: ‘Serving the Lord with all humility of mind’, Acts 20. 19. The work of the shepherd is that of serving the flock, but Paul reminds them that in doing so, the Lord Himself is being served. That same Lord who said, ‘the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many’, Mark 10. 45, and who knelt and washed His disciples’ feet, John 13. 3-17.

In faithfulness: the apostle speaks of the breadth and depth, Acts 20. 20, 27, consistency, v. 20, and equality, vv. 21, 26, of his teaching. The elder needs to be ‘apt to teach’, 1 Tim. 3. 2, willing to teach ‘all the counsel of God’ but also faithful in teaching both ‘publickly, and from house to house’.

In trust of, and devotion to, God: to lead the flock of God will require complete trust in Him, and devotion to Him. In verses 22 to 24, Paul tells them of his desire to ‘finish … [his] course with joy’, even though he knew this would involve ‘bonds and afflictions’. Paul was willing to suffer in the service of God and God’s flock, following the example of the Good Shepherd who was willing to lay down His life for the sheep, John 10. 11. It is interesting to note that, when Peter refers to the Lord as the ‘Shepherd and Bishop [overseer] of your souls’, 1 Pet. 2. 25, it is in the context of both His exemplary and expiatory sufferings.

In care: twice over in this section, the apostle speaks of his tears, Acts 20. 19, 31, evidence that the people of God were deeply in this shepherd’s heart. He was concerned for: their diet, v. 27; their protection, vv. 28-30; building up and blessing, v. 32; and their support, v. 34. He sums up his attitude in verse 35, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive’. The true shepherd is concerned for the whole of the sheep, Ps. 23, and is willing to give everything for its good. They are to ‘rule’ in such a way as those that we are exhorted to ‘remember’ and ‘whose faith follow’, Heb. 13. 7.

Potential problems

As Paul draws his exhortation to a close, he focuses on a vital element of the shepherd’s work: the need for vigilance. He has already warned them to ‘Take heed’, and, in verse 31, he exhorts them to ‘watch’, to be alert to the dangers to, and needs of, the sheep. The shepherds in Luke chapter 2 verse 8 were described as ‘keeping watch over their flock by night’, and the word here means to guard, watchfulness being a necessary part of that process. The instruction to ‘obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves’, Heb. 13. 17, comes in the context of the understanding that such men ‘watch for your souls’ in such a way that they are sleepless. They are intent on watching, because they understand that they ‘must give account’.

David had to defend his father’s flocks against the literal lion and bear, 1 Sam. 17. 34-36. These shepherds will have to deal with false teachers described as ‘grievous wolves … not sparing the flock’, Acts 20. 29. The attacks will be fierce, the attitude of the attacker unrelenting. Added to this, there needs to be vigilance from within their own number for those who will arise speaking ‘perverse things, to draw away disciples after them’, v. 30.

Recognizing the challenges that will come along, Paul commends them ‘to God, and to the word of his grace’, v. 32. The shepherd will need resources to fulfil his role well, and there is no better resource than the great God who has a shepherd heart, Ezek. 34. 11-16; Ps. 23. 1. In Him, strength will be found; His word the resource to meet every need.

The life of the shepherds found in the eastern lands was hard. As society changed from the nomadic to settled, the shepherds’ work became less valued. Through the earnest address of Paul to the Ephesian elders may we be powerfully reminded that those who seek to shepherd the companies of God’s people deserve our sympathy, support, and prayers that they may be able to ‘give account … with joy’, Heb. 13. 17, and ‘receive a crown of glory that fadeth not away’, 1 Pet. 5. 4.



M. Sweetnam and W. Boyd (eds.), Shepherding the Sheep, Scripture Truth Library, 2020, pg. 17.


Summary from: Smith’s Bible Dictionary and Easton’s Bible Dictionary, e-Sword resource.


W. E. Vine, Vine’s Expository Dictionary, e-Sword resource.


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