The role of shepherds and sheep is a recurring one in Scripture. Many of God’s people were shepherds (Moses, Jacob, David), and the relationship between the two is often used metaphorically to describe God and His people (see Ps 100:3, Ps 23, John 10.) The prophets use this metaphor to describe the relationship between Israel and its leaders (see Ezekiel 34) and in the New Testament, we see the word ‘shepherd’ (or ‘pastor’) being used to describe a leader in the church (Eph 4:11, Acts 20:28).
So familiar are we with this metaphor that we often fail to pause and reflect on it. Many of us have little idea what being a shepherd is really like these days and have a very idealised view of it based on cartoons and cuddly toys sold in North Yorkshire. John Stott reminds us that ‘sheep are not at all the clean and cuddly creatures they may appear. In fact, they are dirty, subject to unpleasant pests, and regularly need to be dipped in strong chemicals to rid them of lice, ticks and worms. They are also unintelligent, wayward and obstinate.’ (John Stott, ‘Acts’, P 329) Paul reminded the Ephesians elders also of the dangers facing sheep (namely, wolves), which provided an added hazard to the shepherd’s tasks.
People are rather like sheep (including having a tendency to go their own way, as Is 53:6 reminds us), and we have an enemy who seeks to lead us astray by all manner of means, including (as Jesus reminded us in Matt 7:15) dressing as sheep. Paul warns the Ephesian elders about this, saying, ‘Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood.’ (Acts 20:28) It is interesting to note that the call to leaders to both feed the flock and protect them from error comes in the context of a reminder that the church belongs to God. He has bought it by the blood of Christ and the Holy Spirit is the one who is overseeing its daily life. This puts things into perspective, keeps leaders humble (it’s God’s church, not ours!) and inspires us to faithfulness, for however wayward and obstinate the sheep may seem at times, they are ‘the flock of God the Father, purchased by the precious blood of God the Son, and supervised by overseers appointed by God the Holy Spirit.’ (ibid.) Paul’s reminder to the elders rings out to all church leaders today. We have a ‘double duty: to feed the sheep (by teaching the truth) and to protect them from wolves (by warning of error.)’ (ibid., P 328)