Feed my sheep
It was the third occasion on which Jesus showed himself alive to his disciples after his resurrection. After a meal of fish, which he had wonderfully provided for his tired and weary followers, Jesus began to speak with Peter.
The details of this conversation are well known (John 21:15-19). In the course of ascertaining that Peter loved him, Jesus gave a threefold commission to the disciple who had denied him – ‘Feed my lambs’; ‘Care for my sheep’; ‘Feed my sheep’.
In doing so, Jesus was appointing Peter as the first Christian shepherd, making him the example for all who would later help to care for the flock of Jesus Christ.
That Peter was deeply aware of his responsibility is seen in his first letter. Writing as a fellow elder to other elders, he said: ‘Shepherd the flock of God which is among you, serving as overseers, not by constraint but willingly, not for dishonest gain but eagerly, nor as being lords over God’s heritage, but being examples to the flock; and when the chief shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that does not fade away’ (1 Peter 5:2-4).
The picture of the shepherd and the sheep, as applied to those who watch over the people of God, is one found in both the Old and New Testaments. There is, however, something especially significant in the words ‘Feed my sheep’.
Not only is John the only evangelist who records this phrase, he is the only one who records how Jesus describes himself as the good shepherd (John 10:1-29).
It is astonishing grace and an awesome responsibility for any human being to be called to step into the shoes of the Lord Jesus and care for his sheep. But Jesus was going away; he would return to heaven to his Father’s right hand, so to Peter first of all he said, ‘Look after my sheep for me’.
But all called into the pastoral ministry are to fulfil this three-fold commission – ‘Feed my lambs’; ‘Care for my sheep’; ‘Feed my sheep’. Jesus puts first the feeding of his lambs. Lambs are weak, dependent and vulnerable. They sometimes need hand-rearing and hand-feeding.
If they cannot receive milk from the mothers who bore them, unless the shepherd steps in and provides, they will die. It is just like Jesus to put first among his followers those who are the most vulnerable and needy; those who need the greatest care and attention, and the right diet.
Secondly, there comes, ‘Care for my sheep’. A shepherd’s occupation is not a stay-at-home one. He has to be out with the sheep, and at times this will mean long hours, bad weather and considerable exertion.
Sometimes it is easy and pleasant in the sunshine, but sheep are messy, smelly, awkward animals once we get beyond the postcard picture of little lambs gambolling in the springtime.
Of course, the terms ‘shepherd’ and ‘sheep’ are only used analogously; it is the spiritual realities that are important. But it is true that caring for ‘the flock of God among you’ is hard work and needs real dedication to the task.
Peter, like Jesus, lays emphasis on the flock belonging not to the shepherds, but to God. They are God’s people, chosen by him and called by sovereign grace. The responsibility is enormous and there is a chief shepherd to whom all under-shepherds are answerable.
Four things need to be remembered by under-shepherds. First, true sheep, while all having faith in Jesus Christ, vary in many ways. Jesus’ commission has alerted us to the difference between lambs and sheep, but there are many other distinctions as well.
Some grew up in believing homes; others have been converted from unpromising backgrounds. Some are naturally gifted, intelligent, capable and of attractive personality; others are slow to learn, unsure of themselves and unprepossessing in appearance and behaviour.
Some are strong and healthy, others beset by illness. The man of God has to learn how to minister graciously and faithfully to them all. He has to get to know them all, win their confidence, understand their personalities, background, home life, strengths and weaknesses.
It may take years to get to know some people as he would like, and for them to be able to open up the secrets of their hearts and lives to him.
Secondly, just as the eastern shepherd had wild animals and robbers to contend with, so the minister of God has to contend with their spiritual counterparts, who are constantly threatening the flock in a variety of ways.
Most of the sheep need a great deal of loving correction, guidance and assistance. They have enemies within – indwelling sin, wrong attitudes and habits, perhaps ingrained over many years. They are threatened from without – the world around, and even within their own homes.
There are a thousand and one temptations and there is an exceedingly subtle tempter, whose great interest is to spoil the work of God. There will also be threats from other sheep. None of the people of God are perfect; none have reached the peak of sanctification. All have their weaknesses and are capable of upsetting and damaging their brothers and sisters.
Thirdly, such responsibilities mean the shepherd must give himself entirely to the work to which he has been called (1 Timothy 4:15). This can mean that he will earn his living by being supported financially within his ministry (though he may earn considerably less by this than by other employment).
However, some ministers need additional employment to earn sufficient income to support themselves and their family. In such cases, it must be recognised on all sides that their primary calling is still to care for the flock; their paid employment is simply a means to enable them to do so.
A Christian minister will find opportunities for Christian service beyond his own church while remaining as its minister, but such other occasions should be kept in balance.
He has responsibilities to his wife and family; he needs to give attention to his own health and freshness of mind. It is all too easy to take on too much, to respond to interesting and rewarding invitations, but neglect his own flock. The sphere of Jesus’ ministry was actually a small one and the bulk of it appears to have been in Galilee. He gave himself to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.
Fourthly, another feature of the Lord’s ministry was that he only lost one of his flock, and that one was a devil and not a true sheep (John 6:70; 17:12).
It is almost inevitable in these days that some church members will transfer to nearby churches for reasons that may seem right to them but are regretted by their (first) pastor and church. However, every true shepherd will do all he can to care faithfully for all his sheep, and try his utmost to keep together those committed to his care, including those enticed by ‘greener grass on the other side of the fence’.
The Christian minister must aim not only to retain his flock but see it enlarged – though not at the expense of the church down the road. He must beware of a scolding ministry; the parameters of his influence are to be set by faithful and balanced ministry of the Word of God in a spirit of earnest love.
In every church there are those slow to learn, or weak and easily influenced. There are those who come under external pressure from friends or relatives. The pastor should be acquainted with their circumstances and pray and act accordingly.
Caring for members of the church includes what Jesus described as ‘feeding the sheep’. This help and guidance is given through the Word of God – the truth of the Bible expounded and applied. This includes public preaching, pastoral visitation, and personal conversation from the Word of God.
It is not just that the pastor has more training and experience, but he is to know how to bring the Bible to bear on those needs and questions shared with him. He is only an under-shepherd; it is the will and ways of the chief shepherd that he is concerned to make known to the flock.
He has no authority of his own to guide the lives of Christ’s sheep. He can and must only point to the authority and will of him who is his Lord and Shepherd as well as the Lord and Shepherd of those he seeks to help.