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The Heart of a Shepherd

The Bible often refers to God’s people as sheep. There are many reasons for that analogy. This is seen clearly in the 23rd Psalm where David, as a sheep, looked to the Lord as his shepherd.  But there are other scriptures. We are called sheep in Isaiah 53:6, which says, “All we, like sheep, have gone astray.”

Jesus, of course, is the good shepherd and the chief shepherd. John 10:1-16 is a lengthy passage, but it tells us much about the heart of a true shepherd and contrasts it with a mere “hireling.” Because that is so significant to this chapter, we will quote it in its entirety:

“Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that entereth not by the door into the sheepfold, but climbeth up some other way, the same is a thief and a robber. But he that entereth in by the door is the shepherd of the sheep.  To him the porter openeth; and the sheep hear his voice: and he calleth his own sheep by name, and leadeth them out. 

“And when he putteth forth his own sheep, he goeth before them, and the sheep follow him: for they know his voice. And a stranger will they not follow, but will flee from him: for they know not the voice of strangers. 

“This parable spake Jesus unto them: but they understood not what things they were which he spake unto them. Then said Jesus unto them again, Verily, verily, I say unto you, I am the door of the sheep. All that ever came before me are thieves and robbers: but the sheep did not hear them. I am the door: by me if any man enter in, he shall be saved, and shall go in and out, and find pasture. 

“The thief cometh not, but for to steal, and to kill, and to destroy: I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly. I am the good shepherd: the good shepherd giveth his life for the sheep. But he that is an hireling, and not the shepherd, whose own the sheep are not, seeth the wolf coming, and leaveth the sheep, and fleeth: and the wolf catcheth them, and scattereth the sheep. The hireling fleeth, because he is an hireling, and careth not for the sheep. I am the good shepherd, and know my sheep, and am known of mine. As the Father knoweth me, even so know I the Father: and I lay down my life for the sheep. And other sheep I have, which are not of this fold: them also I must bring, and they shall hear my voice; and there shall be one fold, and one shepherd.”

The other lengthy passage that needs to be set out in its entirety is the 23rd Psalm:

“The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever.”

We will refer back to these passages several times. But for now, we take them to mean that we, as saints of God, are referred to as sheep. In fact, the Bible makes reference to sheep some 220 times. Why use that analogy? Why not something powerful and majestic, like a horse; or strong like a lion; or graceful like a leopard? Perhaps the answer is because the Lord knew some things about the nature of sheep.

In some sense, every leader in the work of the Lord is a shepherd. Certainly a pastor is a shepherd, and Jesus Christ is the Chief Shepherd. The Hebrew word that is translated as “pastor” in the Old Testament, “ra’ah,” means “shepherd.” The Greek word for “pastor” in the New Testament is “poimen,” which also means “shepherd.” But every person in a leadership position at times “shepherds” his followers. Therefore, every leader needs the heart of a shepherd. Since God compares His people to sheep, and leaders of His people to shepherds, we should also understand some things about the nature of sheep. To understand the heart of a shepherd, you must understand something about sheep.

The Nature of Sheep

1. Sheep Aren’t Intelligent

Sheep are relatively-unintelligent animals. They aren’t cunning, and they ignorantly wander into danger. They aren’t aware of their own safety. Maybe that isn’t a bad thing in an analogy for disciples of the Lord. We aren’t going to be saved by our own intelligence. We aren’t smart enough to figure out God, or salvation. Paul wrote in I Corinthians 3:19 that the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God. The smartest disciple of the Lord can ignorantly wander into the snares of sin.

No leader in the body of Christ is smart enough to know how to lead the flock. When Solomon became king, he told the Lord he needed wisdom to lead the flock of Israel, and God granted his request. See II Chronicles 1:8-12. Yet the shepherd has to know more than the sheep – about dangers, about where there is still water and green pastures, and how to get where they want to go. Leaders need the wisdom from above, which James said was pure and peaceable and gentle and easily entreated. James 3:17.

To be able to feed the flock with knowledge and understanding, shepherds have to have knowledge and understanding. They must study to show themselves approved unto God. II Timothy 2:15. They must know the important things of God – knowledge of salvation, of God’s plan, of the vision of the body of Christ, of the snares of the devil, and such things. Pray, study, meditate, and listen to the preaching and teaching of anointed ministers. Be sure you, as shepherd, have the wisdom and knowledge you need to lead God’s sheep where they need to go.

2. Sheep Respond to the Shepherd’s Voice (only their own shepherd)

Jesus said in John 10:3 that His sheep hear His voice. Because it is the voice of the shepherd, “the sheep follow him; for they know his voice.” Verse 4. Then Jesus said, “And a stranger they will not follow, but will flee from him, for they know not the voice of strangers.” Verse 5. 

In Israel, shepherds sometimes brought their flocks to a sheepfold for the evening. This was often a cave that had only one entrance. The sheep were safe in the enclosure, and the shepherd (the porter) would lie down and sleep in the entrance. He became the “door” to the sheepfold. Predators could not then get to the sheep without first going over the porter. Sometimes many flocks would gather overnight. But in the morning, when the sheep were all mixed together, a shepherd would begin to sing. His flock, and only his flock, responded to his voice and would leave the sheepfold following the voice of their shepherd. 

In a fellowship meeting of the body of Christ, the sheep should mix together, and function as one flock. But when the meeting is over, they hear the voice of their pastor, and follow him back to their home assembly. But more on point: there are a lot of voices in Babylon, but they aren’t the voice the sheep should hear. And sin sings a siren song, calling out to God’s sheep. Like the lewd woman in Proverbs, “With her much fair speech she caused him to yield, with the flattering of her lips she forced him.” Proverbs 7:21. But the sheep are not to listen to that voice, because it isn’t the voice of their shepherd.

3. Sheep are Directionless

Sheep wander with no real sense of direction. They may drift too close to the cliff, they may wander far from safety, and they don’t know how to get back. The shepherd has to go to find a lost sheep. Jesus said that in Matthew 18:12, where he said a shepherd will leave the ninety and nine sheep, and seek the one gone astray.

Unless the shepherd leads them to tableland, and green pastures, the sheep will overgraze where they are, or will wander into grassless rocks and dangerous cliffs. The work of a shepherd includes leading the sheep where they need to go.

4. Sheep are Weak and Need a Shepherd

Sheep are helpless against predators. In Biblical times, predators such as lions, wolves, panthers, leopards, bears and hyenas were common in the countryside of Israel. Before he became King David, the shepherd boy David defended his sheep from lions and bears. The problem is that if some kind of predator finds a flock of sheep, the sheep don’t fight back. They don’t try to defend themselves. Sometimes they don’t even try to spread out or run or get away. Instead, they huddle together – giving the predator a nice, big, easy target.

Other times, predators drive into the flock, scattering them in multiple directions. Alone and defenseless, the sheep then become easy to devour. There is a reference in Jeremiah 50:17 which says that the lions have driven away the sheep. That was a common occurrence in those days. Ezekiel 34:16 says the Great Shepherd will seek the lost, and those driven away. The entire 34th chapter of Ezekiel is important to this topic. To preserve space, we won’t quote it at length. But everyone should be familiar with the contrast between false shepherds in the first six verses, and the Lord as a good shepherd in the rest of that chapter.

Leaders in the body of Christ have to be there for the sheep, to protect them, to lead them, to feed them, to point out the dangers and care for the flock.

5. Sheep Become Restless

Sheep eat grass all day. If not lead to new pastures, they will eat everything in sight, and then starve. But sheep can’t digest all the grass they’ve eaten until they lie down – but they don’t always lie down on their own. So the shepherd sometimes has to make them lie down for their own good. “He maketh me to lie down in green pastures.” Psalms 23:2.

When they do lie down, sheep cannot get up very quickly. This means they are afraid to lie down whenever they sense danger is near. An important role of a leader is to inspire confidence in his followers. They need to know that they are safe, that their shepherd cares for them, and that the Lord will shelter them from danger. 

6. Sheep Need Plenty of Food and Water

Sheep require a lot of water, just like saints of God need a lot of God’s Spirit. And they essentially eat all the time. So they need green pastures, just like we need to eat a daily portion of God’s Word.

The water must be still. Sheep fear running water. They will not drink from a raging torrent. If sheep fall into moving water, they can drown. Their coats are already heavy, and their wool rapidly absorbs water. And they can’t swim. The end result is that sheep actually fear moving water and are reluctant to drink from a lake or stream unless the water is still.

A pastor or elder who cannot feed the flock, and lead them to where the Spirit of the Lord is like still water, will have a malnourished flock of sheep. Some may die of spiritual starvation or thirst.

7. Sheep Cannot Get Up if They are “Cast Down”

Under certain circumstances, a sheep can get turned over on its back and is not able to get back up. This can actually be fatal! Many of a sheep’s vital bodily functions depend on gravity. When a sheep is turned over on its back, the blood drains out of the legs, the stomach can’t digest food, and breathing is blocked. If the shepherd doesn’t act quickly, the sheep will die.

The Bible calls this being “cast down.” Many verses use that phrase to refer to being unable to rise again. Revelation 12:10 foretells a day when the accuser of the brethren is “cast down.” Paul said in II Corinthians 4:9 that he was “cast down, but not destroyed.” We are to be “casting down” iimaginations, and every high things that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God.” II Corinthians 10:5.

If a sheep is cast down, it will be destroyed unless the shepherd comes and stands it up again. David wrote in Psalms 37:24 that a good man falls, but isn’t utterly cast down, because the Lord (like a shepherd) lifts him up again. It is God “that comforteth those that are cast down.” II Corinthians 7:6.

The Lord is the only one who can lift up a sheep who is cast down, but He often uses shepherds to do it. They lift up the hands that hang down, and strengthen the feeble knees, and extend a helping hand to those who are downcast. But Ecclesiastes 4:10 warns: “woe to him that is alone when he falleth; for he hath not another to help him up.”

8. Sheep are a Personal, Prized and Precious Possession

Nathan’s parable establishes that sheep are not treated like most farm animals. They can become a personal, prized and precious possession. The Prophet Nathan gave a parable about one ewe lamb to David after the king had sinned with Bathsheba. He spoke in II Samuel 12:3 of a poor man who “had nothing, save one little ewe lamb, which he had bought and nourished up: and it grew up together with him, and with his children; it did eat of his own meat, and drank of his own cup, and lay in his bosom, and was unto him as a daughter.” 

Sheep learn the shepherd’s voice and learn to trust his care. They come running when he calls or sings. Cows and pigs don’t do that. There is a special relationship of trust that develops between a sheep and a caring shepherd.

In presenting these eight points about sheep, we have also seen the need for a shepherd. But be sure you have the heart of a shepherd; a big heart, a loving heart.

The Shepherd’s Heart

A pastor in the body of Christ is not a CEO of a business. Department leaders in the church are not sergeants over the privates. Every leader is called of God to care for and love and lead a flock of sheep. Every leader is to pattern his or her leadership in the mode of a shepherd.

In Mark 6:34, Jesus bewailed the fact that His flock was like sheep without a shepherd. Sheep need shepherds. They need good shepherds who will naturally care for the flock. Sadly, there are people all over the world who were once members of churches in the body of Christ. But now they sit at home, and feel like they are okay because they live a relatively-moral life, and remember the doctrinal teachings they learned years ago. But they don’t have a church, and they don’t have a shepherd. They aren’t being led to green pastures, but overgraze where they once were. They aren’t drinking from still waters, and they have no protection in the valley of the shadow of death.

In I Peter 5:1, the ministry was told to “fed the flock of God which is among you.” Paul wrote in Philippians 2:20 that Timothy had the heart of a shepherd: “For I have no man likeminded, who will naturally care for your state.” 

The 23rd chapter of Jeremiah contrasts wicked shepherds and good shepherds In verses 1-2, we read about wicked shepherds: “Woe be unto the pastors that destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture! saith the LORD. Therefore thus saith the LORD God of Israel against the pastors that feed my people; Ye have scattered my flock, and driven them away, and have not visited them: behold, I will visit upon you the evil of your doings, saith the LORD.” In verse 4 we are told about the blessing of having good shepherds: “And I will set up shepherds over them which shall feed them: and they shall fear no more, nor be dismayed, neither shall they be lacking, saith the LORD.”

Phillip Keller wrote a book called A Shepherd Looks at Psalms 23. It should be required reading for every leader in the body of Christ. That book goes deeper into the 23rd Psalm. But we can consider it briefly again here. It was quoted above. This Psalm tells us about the Lord as our Shepherd. But it also reveals much about what is in the heart of every good shepherd, and how we are to feel and act as shepherds. It is written from the perspective of a sheep.

Psalms 23:1 The Lord condescends to assume the lowly office of shepherd. When He is my shepherd, I will never want.

Verse 2 He leads me to green pastures: lush, life-sustaining promises of salvation and hope. I can drink from still water: not swift, dangerous currents, but still, refreshing drinks from His Spirit.

Verse 3 He revives my flagging spirit and leads me away from danger.

Verse 4 No fear! Even in the shadowy valleys, where I cannot see the dangerous predators hiding: His rod is there to protect and discipline; and His staff is there to draw and comfort me.

Verse 5 He prepares the tableland – spreading minerals to promote lush vegetation, pulling poisonous weeds before I even arrive. He watches for enemies – wolves and snakes. He anoints my head with healing oil, which keeps the flies away and lessens friction when I “butt heads” with other sheep. My cup is more than full.

Verse 6 This is an indisputable fact: goodness and mercy will follow me all my life, and then the I’ll inherit the joy of forever in a glorious new heaven and new earth.

The Lord is the perfect example of a shepherd. He has the heart of a shepherd. But every leader in the body of Christ must follow that great example and develop a shepherd’s heart.

Let’s make five important points about fulfilling the role of a shepherd.

1. Shepherds must be Focused on the Flock

Sheep require constant attention. They cannot be left unattended. They can get their wool stuck in branches, and will die if the shepherd doesn’t free them. They will eat poisonous weeds if the shepherd doesn’t pull up those weeds or lead the sheep away from them. They will wander too close to the cliff, and follow one another off that cliff to their death if the shepherd doesn’t pay close attention to what they are doing.

Sheep have very limited endurance. If they are driven too far or too fast, they become sick and die. Jacob said to Esau in Genesis 33:13, if men should overdrive the sheep even one day, all the flock will die. We mentioned above that Jesus said if a sheep wanders off, the shepherd will seek and find that lost sheep. Ezekiel 34:12 is a biblical reference to seeking the lost sheep: “As a shepherd seeketh out his flock in the day that he is among his sheep that are scattered; so will I seek out my sheep, and will deliver them out of all places where they have been scattered in the cloudy and dark day.”

2. Shepherds Sacrifice for the Flock

The shepherd takes car e of the sheep; the sheep don’t take care of the shepherd. The shepherd receives his reward from the owner of the flock – based upon how well the flock prospers under his care. This requires sacrifices on the part of the shepherd. A good shepherd gives his life for the sheep. John 10:11.

Shepherds sit up on cold nights, watching over the flock. They are in the fields in the rain, and the wind, and the hot sun. Israel didn’t have fences, where you could leave the sheep in an enclosed area. If the shepherd didn’t pay attention, the sheep could wander off into danger. If he wasn’t alert, there might be poisonous snakes, or wolves or even lions that would stealthily approach and attack the flock. A shepherd had to face dangers or else lose his flock.

3. Shepherds Feed the Flock

Sheep must be fed and watered. Else, they won’t prosper and multiply. Shepherds feed and care for the flock: “He shall feed his flock like a shepherd: he shall gather the lambs with his arm, and carry them in his bosom, and shall gently lead those that are with young.” Isaiah 40:11.

A good shepherd will feed the flock. Ezekiel 34:23. This means he leads them where they can eat in safety. If not fed and watered, the sheep will faint and scatter. Matthew 9:36.

4. Shepherds Protect the Flock

Predators love to attack sheep. They have no natural defenses. They cannot outrun most predators, they have no scales, no effective goring horns, almost no ability to defend themselves. They depend upon their shepherds to recognize and drive away all predators.

Sheep scatter without a shepherd. II Chronicles 18:16 says, “Then he said, I did see all Israel scattered upon the mountains, as sheep that have no shepherd.” 

When scattered, they are destroyed by predators. “And they were scattered, because there is no shepherd: and they became meat to all the beasts of the field, when they were scattered. My sheep wandered through all the mountains, and upon every high hill: yea, my flock was scattered upon all the face of the earth, and none did search or seek after them.” Ezekiel 34:5-6. See also verse 8: “My flock became a prey, and my flock became meat to every beast of the field, because there was no shepherd.”

Sheep are not a wild animal. They will not survive alone in the wilderness. The beasts destroy the sheep. Sometimes the shepherd gets there too late to save the sheep. Amos 3:12 makes that point: “Thus saith the LORD; As the shepherd taketh out of the mouth of the lion two legs, or a piece of an ear; so shall the children of Israel be taken out that dwell in Samaria in the corner of a bed, and in Damascus in a couch.” Remember, like a roaring lion, the devil seeks sheep to devour. I Peter 5:8.

5. Shepherds are Close to the Flock

There are no absentee-shepherds. A shepherd does not work an 8 hour day, or a 40 hour week. Shepherding is a 24/7 occupation. Sheep cannot be left alone. They have no defense if left alone; they wander into danger if left alone. Jesus said in John 10:12-13 that the hireling leaves the sheep in danger. That’s because a hireling only seeks wages, he doesn’t love the sheep. Job 7:2.

Zechariah 11:17 pronounces woe to the shepherd who leaves the flock. But in John 10:11, Jesus said the good shepherd gives his life for the sheep. Asaph said in Psalms 80:1 that God, as a good shepherd, leads Israel like a flock. Every leader in the body of Christ must develop the heart of a shepherd, to lead, protect, feed, and care for the flock of God.