Before thinking then about how individuals should be exercised about such service, we should first look briefly at the ways in which the scriptures portray the Lord Jesus in this role. He is spoken of as ‘the good shepherd’, John 10. 11-14, ‘the chief shepherd’, 1 Pet. 5. 4, and ‘that great shepherd’, Heb. 13. 20. All these three aspects of His work, past, present and future, are interlocked in bringing fullness of blessing to His people, His sheep.
Of the three aspects, we perhaps think most often of Him as ‘the good shepherd’ and understandably so, because it is only as a result of what He accomplished in that role that the other two became meaningful. He says of Himself that ‘the good shepherd giveth his life for the sheep’, John 10. 11, and if He had not first done that there would have been no sheep and no flock needing His continuing care. Such care, carried out by Him as ‘the chief shepherd’ is a natural consequence of that once-for-all sacrifice which is encapsulated in His assurance that ‘I lay down my life for the sheep’, John 10. 15. The words, ‘for the sheep’ may be understood in two ways. When David was grieving over the death of his son, he exclaimed, ‘Would God I had died for thee O Absalom, my son’, 2 Sam. 18. 33. What he was saying was that I wish I could have died in your place, i.e., instead of you. But when God was talking about His relationship with His people Israel He says, ‘I have redeemed thee, thou art mine, I gave Egypt for thy ransom, Ethiopia and Seba for thee’, see Isa. 43. 1-4. i.e. to make you My personal purchased possession. Both of those ways of understanding the phrase ‘for the sheep’ are very clearly shown in scripture to apply to the work carried out by the Lord Jesus for us. He ‘bore our sins in his own body on the tree’, 1 Pet. 2. 24, i.e, He was there in our place, instead of us. As to the second, Paul could point Titus to ‘the great God and our Saviour Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us, that he might redeem us from all iniquity, and purify unto himself a peculiar people’, Titus 2. 13-14, i.e. a people specially His, made so by the giving of Himself for us.
It was Peter who, being given the instructions, ‘Feed my sheep … feed my lambs’, John 21. 15-17, and recognizing that it was His own sheep that the Lord Jesus was entrusting to him, introduced the term, ‘the chief shepherd’, see 1 Pet. 5. 1-4. The One who had accepted responsibility for the well being of the sheep was graciously allowing, and expecting, others to have a part in the work too. This ongoing shepherd care had been clearly referred to in the context of Him speaking of Himself as ‘the good shepherd’, the One who, ‘when he putteth forth his own sheep, he goeth before them’, John 10. 4. Of the laying down of His life for the sheep He says, ‘I lay down my life that I may take it again’, v. 17. It is in light of that resurrection life that He is able now, as ‘the chief shepherd’, to concern Himself with the ongoing welfare of the sheep for which He had died. But didn’t the Lord Jesus speak of just ‘the lost sheep of the house of Israel’? – once to tell His disciples to restrict their gospel preaching to this group only, see Matt. 10. 5-6, and later to point out to a woman that being a Canaanite she had no claim on Him, Matt.15. 22-28. Yet, the woman was blessed in spite of her lack of actual rights in the matter. So are all those who had been ‘strangers from the covenants of promise’, but now thank God are ‘in Christ Jesus’, and, though once we were ‘afar off’, we are ‘made nigh by the blood of Christ’, Eph. 2. 11- 13. It was certainly true, that the gospel message was ‘to the Jew first’, but afterwards ‘also to the Greek’, Rom. 1. 16. It is in the light of this that the Lord Jesus says, ‘Other sheep I have which are not of this fold’, i.e, not of the Jewish nation, ‘them also I must bring and they shall hear my voice, and there shall be one fold, and one shepherd’, John 10. 16.
The concept of one flock and one Shepherd brings us to the third of our descriptions, that of ‘that great shepherd of the sheep’. This title was given by the writer to the Hebrews, who had marshalled a great deal of carefully arranged scriptural support to show that the Person who was the centre of all that he had written was, ‘so much better than the angels’, Heb. 1. 4. He was also, ‘worthy of more glory than Moses’, 3. 3; ‘Surety of a better testament’; 7. 22, ‘the mediator of a better covenant established on better promises’, 8. 6; and ‘the author (originator) and finisher of our faith’, 12. 2. He could do, and be, all of those things because He is ‘the mediator of the new covenant’, 12. 24. – of which the Lord Jesus could speak to His disciples as, ‘the new covenant in my blood which is poured out for you’, Luke 22. 20 JND. So it was ‘my blood’ poured out for ‘my sheep’, all of them. Paul speaks of God’s purpose as being ‘that in the dispensation of the fullness of times, he might gather together into one, all things in Christ, both which are in heaven and which are on earth’, Eph. 1. 10. That includes all those believers ‘which sleep in Jesus’ and ‘we which are alive and remain unto the coming of the Lord’, 1 Thess. 4. 13-18.
To summarize then, we see in the Lord Jesus, ‘the good shepherd’ who cared enough for us to give Himself as the means of securing us for His own. To demonstrate that possession as being eternally irrevocable He has promised, metaphorically, to carry us home on His shoulders, Luke 15. 3-7. This is the measure of care and concern which, as ‘the chief shepherd’, He has for us now. In a time yet to come, the full measure of His saving and keeping power will be displayed when as ‘that great shepherd’, He will appear publicly with His flock and ‘be glorified in his saints and … be admired in all them that believe’, 2 Thess. 1. 10. That, in a threefold vista, really is shepherding, and what a privilege it is for all believers to be able to say of such a Person that He ‘is my shepherd’, Ps. 23. 1.
The fact that Peter spoke of the Lord Jesus as ‘the chief shepherd’ indicates that others too are to have subordinate roles in this work. Such individuals must bear in mind though that it is ‘the flock of God … God’s heritage’, 1 Pet. 5. 2-3, in which ‘the Holy Spirit has set you as overseers, to shepherd the assembly of God’, Acts 20. 28 JND. The appointment then is by God, the responsibility is to God, and any reward must be looked for from God; see 1 Pet. 5. 4. One way of considering and assessing such a task is to see how individuals in the Old Testament acted in the role of shepherds and then to apply any lessons so learned to shepherding or pastoring in local churches today. Such shepherds are desperately needed.