Gospel Hope for Faithful Shepherding

The landscape of pastoral ministry is laden with pitfalls, and none of them is more insidious or subtle than a pride that wants to achieve greatness and accomplish great things. Sometimes this is even more common for pastors in small places, where pride can rear its ugly head and we can wonder if all of our hard work is worth it because of how insignificant our impact can seem. Of course we should want to be used of God, but vain ambition and pride can be easily cloaked by a flurry of ministerial activity. It is easy (and far too common) to seek to build our own kingdoms in the name of seeking to advance the kingdom of God. To profess dependence on the Spirit of God while ministering in our own prayerless strength. To care more about people’s obedience to the Great Commission for the growth of the numbers of the church than for the growth of the church’s obedience to King Jesus. To want the masses to listen to and like our preaching and our writing more than we want our small congregations to be transformed by them.

 Brothers, the enemy wants us to labor tirelessly in our own strength. If he can keep our eyes on the work and off Jesus and our motives, we may find at some point down the road we stopped shepherding Jesus’ flock for him and started using his flock for our own gain.

Faithless Shepherds and Self-Justification

In Ezekiel 34, God commissioned his prophet to address shepherds who fleece his sheep for their own gain, saying:

“Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel; prophesy, and say to them, even to the shepherds, Thus says the Lord GOD: Ah, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fat ones, but you do not feed the sheep. The weak you have not strengthened, the sick you have not healed, the injured you have not bound up, the strayed you have not brought back, the lost you have not sought, and with force and harshness you have ruled them” (Ezekiel 34:1–4).

By contrast to Israel’s faithless shepherds, we should be feeding Jesus’ sheep, strengthening the weak, healing the sick, binding up the injured, bringing back the strayed, seeking the lost, and leading the flock with gentleness.

The legalist in us wants to try harder at these pastoral tasks, so that we can be justified before God on the basis of our improved shepherding. “We will make sure this does not describe us, and so escape God’s anger.” 

The antinomian wants to throw out God’s description of faithful shepherds, rejoicing that Jesus has set us free from such a burden. “There’s no condemnation for those who are in Jesus. Praise God I don’t need to feel guilty about the way I’m failing as a shepherd.”

We must be on guard against seeking to improve ourselves without the Spirit of God’s gracious aid and against ignoring him in the name of grace. There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, but there is conviction, and we desperately need him to give us his heart for his people.

The answer to our inadequacies as pastors and our tendency to make ministry about ourselves is not our self-improvement, our self-justification, or our abandonment of his call on our lives. Our only hope is to repent of our pride and to look to Jesus.

 Jesus, the Chief and Good Shepherd

God’s solution to the faithless shepherding of Israel’s leaders wasn’t to improve upon their shepherding, but to send his Good Shepherd to replace them, and to shepherd his flock himself.

“For thus says the Lord GOD: Behold, I, I myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out…I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I myself will make them lie down, declares the Lord GOD. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, and the fat and the strong I will destroy…And I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd” (Ezekiel 34:11,15–16, 23).

Note the repetition of “I will.” In Jesus, God shepherded his people in all of the ways Israel’s faithless shepherds didn’t. From Bethlehem came God’s Ruler who would shepherd his people (Matt. 2:6). The Shepherd David sang of in Psalm 23 became one of his descendants and dwelt with his people.

Jesus found his people like sheep without a shepherd, weighed down and harassed by the hired hands who used the Law to beat the sheep rather than as a guardian to show them their need for the Shepherd’s rescue (Matt. 9:36; Gal. 3:24).

As in everything else, Jesus shepherded perfectly. He never shepherded for his own gain. Instead of using the sheep with prideful ambition, he humbled himself to the point of death on a cross for them (Phil. 2:8). Having loved and served his sheep to the end, He demonstrated the highest love in laying down his life for them (John 10:11; Rom. 5:8). And by the power of his indestructible life and righteousness, God raised the Great Shepherd of the sheep up from the grave, and now he ever lives as the Shepherd and Overseer of our souls (Heb. 13:20; 1 Pet. 2:25).

Praise God we didn’t stop being his sheep when he called us to shepherd. When we fail as shepherds, we can know that Christ has overcome everywhere that we fail. We can repent and look to him to produce his heart in us. Our hope for faithful shepherding lies not in our efforts nor in absolving ourselves of the responsibility he’s given us but in union with and conformity to the only perfect Shepherd. May we decrease as Jesus increases in us, for his glory and his people’s joy in him.

“Now may the God of peace who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant, equip you with everything good that you may do his will, working in us that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen” (Heb 13:20–21).

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Ben Whittinghill is the lead pastor of Rivertown Church in Brattleboro, VT. He’s a graduate of the University of Georgia and New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, and serves on the leadership team of Vermont Church Planting. He and his wife Kayla have five sons and one daughter.