AN UNLIKELY CANDIDATE?
Of all people seemingly unlikely to be a real shepherd, Jacob would come high on any list. A basic requirement of all shepherds is that they set the needs and welfare of their sheep above their own. The shepherds at Bethlehem saw things that way. They were ‘abiding in the field’, a long-term commitment, ‘keeping watch over their flock by night’, the potentially most dangerous time; see Luke 2. 8. Jacob, in his earlier days, showed exactly opposite tendencies. Jacob means ‘supplanter’ and he certainly lived up to it, taking all steps necessary to promote his own interests. It might be argued that the deceiving of his father was initiated by his own mother, Gen. 27. 6-17, but that is not a valid excuse. Later in Israel’s history, Asa had problems with his mother’s activities and he responded swiftly and decisively, 1 Kgs. 15. 13. So pressures, even from close and personal sources, need to be faced up to and dealt with if a man is to have a true shepherd’s heart.
But if Jacob had no excuse for the deceitful way he acted towards Isaac, and for which Esau castigated him, Gen. 27. 36, it is the latter on whom the Scriptures put the blame saying that ‘Esau despised his birthright’. He obviously set little value on God’s promises to both his father Isaac and his grandfather Abraham. Jacob, on the other hand, apparently clearly understood the benefits accruing to the first-born as worth striving after. That does show him in a somewhat better light, enabling him to be included in the list of those ‘having a good report through faith’, Heb.11. 21-39.
But even that improved view of Jacob hardly amounts to a ringing endorsement of him. So, what lessons, if any, can be learned from him about shepherding?
On more than one occasion he had very real experiences of God’s presence. On the first, he was so moved that he entered into a personal commitment to his God, even if this had limitations; see Gen. 28. 20-22. The second occasion was infinitely more profound, occurring just when it seemed that his past was about to catch up with him. Before the feared meeting with Esau took place he was confronted by God and as a result, his name was changed from Jacob, ‘the supplanter’, to Israel, ‘a prince with God’, Gen. 32. 24-30.
So we see that even the most unlikely characters can be changed and anyone aspiring to shepherd God’s people may hold back because of past shortcomings, but can be encouraged that a radical change is possible for them too. When Paul wrote to Timothy about elders, those responsible for shepherding the church of God, he details not what they must have been in the past, for that would exclude everyone, but what they must be now; see 1 Tim. 3. 1- 7; Titus 3. 3.
A MATTER OF WHAT?
The requirements are certainly onerous and it can be understood why those most fitted are often the most concerned about their capability and calling. Paul spoke of himself as being ‘not meet to be called an apostle because I persecuted the church of God’. Now that surely excluded him from exercising pastoral care didn’t it? But no, he continues, ‘But by the grace of God I am what I am’, 1 Cor. 15. 9-10. Jacob, from his experiences at Bethel and Peniel, gained at least some perception of God’s purposes and wanted to be part of them. This is what is looked for from pastors today. Put simply it is an appreciation of just what God’s people mean to Him and what He has been prepared to do to make them His own, Titus 2. 13-14.
But a right attitude of heart towards the flock is essential too. Paul says of his gentle handling of the somewhat fractious Corinthians, ‘Not for that we have dominion over your faith, but are helpers of your joy’, 2 Cor. 2. 24. He later said to them that, ‘we preach not ourselves but Christ Jesus the Lord’, and we ask, ‘But where do you fit in then Paul?’ He says, ‘ourselves your servants for Jesus’ sake’, 2 Cor. 4. 5. Shepherding, then, whilst indeed it is being a servant of the Lord is, in practical terms, being a servant of His people for His sake, i.e., with His interests fully in mind.
ANY AGE CONCERN?
We are given little detail of Jacob’s early life. He is spoken of as ‘a plain man, dwelling in tents’, Gen. 25. 27; but as the word translated here as ‘plain’ is elsewhere given as ‘upright’, (see Prov. 29. 10), it must be assumed that his life was, outwardly at least, largely beyond reproach. As far as ‘dwelling in tents’ is concerned, that was very much a family trait, so his was a fairly normal existence in his own environment. We get hints though that at some stage he must have picked up the rudiments of shepherding. On his arrival at Haran, he quickly realized that the assembled flocks were not being properly attended to, so he watered Rachel’s sheep himself. It took the awareness of a need that was not being met by others to spark off the putting into practice of what he had learned.
Men do not become shepherds in their local churches at some pre-ordained age or time cycle. Timothy was warned, ‘Lay hands suddenly on no man’, 1 Tim. 5. 22; and some have suffered bitter experiences when succumbing to outside pressures to ‘go on the oversight’ when in fact showing little evidence of the necessary spiritual qualifications. Such a situation may not only be disastrous to the individual, but, even more importantly, to the local church concerned.
AN EASY RIDE?
Jacob, however, did not find that being a shepherd, even though working for his uncle, was a bed of roses. Apart from an intolerable wage system, of which he complained bitterly to Laban, his working conditions were near unbearable too. ‘Thus I was; in the day the drought consumed me, and the frost by night; and my sleep departed from mine eyes’, Gen. 31. 40-1. No, shepherding was not then, nor is it today among believers, likely to seem an outwardly rewarding task. Peter wanted elders to appreciate that. He not only urged them to ‘feed the flock of God’ but to accept the responsibility willingly, ‘not for filthy lucre, but of a ready mind’, 1 Pet. 5. 2.
WHAT‘S IN IT FOR ME?
Does that mean that there is no recompense at all for such work well done? No, it just means that you have to look for tokens of appreciation from the right source, for, ‘when the chief Shepherd shall appear, ye shall receive a crown of glory that fadeth not away’, 1 Pet. 5. 4, and that is infinitely more precious than even the most sincere, let alone the sometimes empty, praise of men.
That crown though is not promised to all those who are merely nominal overseeing pastors. As Paul says of crowns generally, and there are a number referred to in Scripture, ‘If a man also strive for masteries, yet is he not crowned, except he strive lawfully’, 2 Tim. 2. 5. Requirements as set out in, for example, 1 Timothy 3. 1-7 and Titus 1. 6-9, need to be met in spirit and in practice, not just in the letter. And this is before anyone can be recognized as being a true shepherding elder. So you would be wise not to aspire after the work without first making sure that you know what it actually entails. But if, after such consideration you still feel an exercise, be encouraged by the assurance that what you are willing to commit yourself to is ‘a good work’.
But if Jacob’s work with the sheep was so unremittingly hard and offered so little tangible reward, he must have had some pretty good sheep to make things worthwhile. Not at all! The sheep that he had been given in lieu of wages were, all the speckled and spotted … and all the brown lambs, Gen. 30. 32. In the same vein, although God said to Paul about Corinth that ‘I have much people in this city’, the apostle reminds believers there later that ‘not many wise men after the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called’. What sorts of people were called then? ‘God hath chosen the foolish things … the weak things … base things … things which are despised’. But why choose people like that? So that no one could say that they got there by their own merits or efforts, ‘That no flesh should glory in his presence’, 1 Cor. 1. 26-29.
The good Shepherd said of Himself that ‘I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance’, Mark 2. 17; and it was of such repentant sinners that He was speaking when He commissioned Peter to ‘feed my lambs … feed my sheep’, John 21. 15-17. Believers are no different today, coming from a whole range of backgrounds and, just like sheep, still prone to wander. That is precisely why it was necessary that shepherding elders, and please note the plurality, be appointed in every city, see Titus 1. 5, and why they must be willing to ‘bear (bear with) the infirmities of the weak’, Rom 15. 1. That is why the qualities required of a spiritual shepherd are set so high.
LEARNING ON THE JOB?
It is essential to grasp the fact that even with such sheep, Jacob was still able, by the time he met up with Esau some seven years later, to have built up a large enough flock to offer his brother ‘two hundred ewes, and twenty rams’, Gen. 32. 14. He also had remaining enough livestock to make it necessary for him when he later reached Succoth, to have ‘made booths for his cattle’, Gen. 33. 17.
So Jacob continued to care well for his sheep even in unpromising circumstances. When Esau urged a faster speed for the united groups, Jacob countered by emphasizing that ‘the flocks and herds with young are with me: and if men shall overdrive them one day, all the flock will die’. The pace needed to be ‘according as the cattle that goeth before me and the children are able to endure’, Gen. 33. 13-14. True shepherds will always be aware of the diversity of need represented by those under their care. We are sometimes told that just as sheep and lambs feed together in the same pasture, so in local churches, old and young, both in years and spiritual development, should be fed together on the word of God. That has much to recommend it, but those responsible for such spiritual feeding must appreciate that food must be made available which is suitable and appropriate for the needs of all levels present. The writer to the Hebrews sets us a good example in this context. Whilst acknowledging that, ‘ye ought to be teachers’, he accepts that some at least of his readers, ‘are become such as have need of milk, and not of strong meat’, Heb. 5. 12.
THE END IS SURE!
So, although the journey was long and arduous, Jacob saw to the wellbeing of his flock all the way home to Bethel, the house of God, Gen. 28. 17, 19. Shepherding of believers today requires not only such evident abilities as being, ‘apt to teach’, but also patience and perseverance. Be encouraged by what we might learn from the experiences of such as Jacob. At one time he seemed to be totally unsuited to shepherding work, but his life was changed and moulded by successive meetings with God. To these, most importantly, he responded with a tenacious devotion. All of that may seem a long while ago and a long way away, but remember the old chorus which many since Jacob’s time have proved to be true; ‘What He’s done for others, He’ll do for you’. God’s flock still needs true shepherds!