35. Local Leaders – Overseers

The Wonder of the Church:  Part 6 – Thinking about Leaders

35. Local Leaders – Overseers

Acts 20:17,28  Paul sent to Ephesus for the elders of the church…. 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.

Titus 1:6,7 An elder must be blameless, faithful to his wife, a man whose children believe and are not open to the charge of being wild and disobedient. Since an overseer manages God’s household…

Phil 1:1  To all God’s holy people in Christ Jesus at Philippi, together with the overseers and deacons:

1 Tim 3:1  Whoever aspires to be an overseer desires a noble task. Now the overseer is to be above reproach

1 Pet 2:25 For “you were like sheep going astray,” but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.

A New Start: Starting from scratch we have tried to imagine what would happen if a new group of believers came into being and we suggested that it was likely that some among them would stand out as leaders. Now we want to start again but now look at what the New Testament says about leaders. I am going to distinguish between local leaders and gifted ministries (e.g. those found in Eph 4:12,13). We’ll go on to the gifted ministries in later studies but for the moment I want to stick with those whose role was specifically to watch over the local church, the local flock.

Overseers? The word ‘overseer’ comes in this context in the New Testament only a limited number of  times. Some translations use the old English word ‘bishop’ but as that term has taken on a new ecclesiastical meaning in later centuries we will stick with the term ‘overseer’ which describes the role more accurately. Also in the New Testament there are not tiers of ecclesiastical government. The ministry of the apostle, as we shall see later, was a role that enabled ‘elders’ to be formally recognized and brought into public affirmation. But as our verses above indicate, the terms ‘elder’ and ‘overseer’ and ‘shepherd’ (the other term for the old English ‘pastor’) are expressions of one and the same person. But each term has a specific meaning. But we would do well to face some of the difficulties for this expression of leadership.

A Difficulty – Work: I am dealing with ‘overseer’ first simply because it occurs fewer times than ‘elder’ who we will come to a little later on. The trouble with dictionary definitions is that they usually refer to a job or work context, of a person overseeing other workers and although that actually IS how it is supposed to be in church, the connotation with secular work is so often not such a good one. As we have noted previously, all ‘work’ in the church context is to be that inspired by and for God, an expression of grace. The sad thing about Christian ‘ministry’, Christian ‘workers’, and Christian ‘leaders’,  is that we so often see these roles as ‘work’ and see the leader as ‘employed’ by the flock which is a dramatic change of view from what it was originally, and one which so often causes such hindrances in the modern church.

A Difficulty – Superiority:  The term that is here used, ‘overseer’ is a functional role and not a role of superiority. Yes, it is a role that Paul referred to as being one called by the Holy Spirit (Acts 20:28 see above).  Having watched the growth of what might have been referred to as the ‘Restoration Movement’ at the end of the last century, where there is a (wrong) exaltation of ministries, instead of humility and servant-heartedness, we see there can arise a disguised superiority attitude in leaders and wrong submissive attitudes within the flock that take away personal responsibility.  It is little surprise that many of those ‘ministries’ no longer exist.

A Difficulty – Exaltation: Yet, if we are honest, it is incredibly difficult not to exalt an individual, male or female, who God anoints mightily in His service, but it is not what should happen, and it opens the way for a variety of both misunderstandings and misuses. Where a person is anointed for leadership by God, especially in this overseeing role, it is especially difficult for that leader (who indeed may appear spiritually head and shoulders above those around him) to maintain a right perspective and recognize that they, just as much as anyone else, need a mentor or someone to hold them accountable. They are still human beings and are still vulnerable to feeling inadequate and in need of encouragement and counsel, if not in their ministry, so often in their family circumstances.

A Difficulty – Hierarchy: Similarly the ‘managerial hierarchy’ (for it is nothing less than that) which is witnessed in most denominations, has no place in the ones Jesus calls into being as his Church. We perpetuate such structures with all that is wrong with them, because we have built up organisations who have large finances, own many buildings and generally exhibit the functions of a secular business organisation even, in the case of some, being involved in property investment to maintain their structures in a manner that is so different from that shown in the New Testament, which we will look at in more detail in a later study.

The protective meaning: The meaning of an overseer should that be simply one who watches over and guards the flock, who protects the flock. In this it overlaps the idea of shepherd, although shepherd encapsulates, caring for, and providing for, as well as protecting. Indeed in his famous ‘on the beach’ elders’ briefing Paul goes on to warn them, “I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them. So be on your guard!” (Acts 20:29-31) and he said it so they would be alert, watching out for these workers of the enemy and resist them on behalf of the flock, to protect it.

The corrective meaning: Rather like the secular overseer there is, to use the dictionary definition, the sense of, “to make certain that an activity is being done correctly.”  The big difference between the church (spiritual) and the business (secular)  is that the church overseer is answerable to Jesus to demonstrate and express Jesus’ love and humility in all he does. The goal of the overseer is to equip, enable, empower each member of the body of Christ to function in the way that God enables and gifts them, in ways that will build up and bless the body (see 1 Cor 14:12), while humility remains a primary characteristic as we considered back in Study no.17.

Keeping to the plumb line: Thus we might summarize the role of an ‘overseer’ to be twofold. First to protect and second, to enable the flock to remain on track in the light of the New Testament  teaching. The picture of Jesus acting as a cornerstone (e.g. Acts 4:11) means we do all we can to keep people as close to Jesus as possible, for him to act as a plumb-line if you like, against which all we do is checked. It is to ensure that each person is enabled to see themselves as a valuable member of the body, no greater than and not less than, anyone else, needing and needed, for the blessing of the body. Such a task requires grace, humility and wisdom. Where there is an absence of those three things, there becomes a ‘mechanical process’ approach that is more familiar in secular training courses, but which is not that which should be observed in the church. So, protection, equipping, enabling, empowering, guiding, these are the activities of the ‘overseer’. In the next study we will consider the ‘shepherding’ aspect in more detail, and then finally the meaning and role of the elder which will provide the greater context and role of these local leaders.

12. The Powerful Shepherd

Meditations on Isaiah 40: No.12. The Powerful Shepherd

Isa 40:10      See, the Sovereign Lord comes with power, and he rules with a mighty arm. See, his reward is with him, and his recompense accompanies him.

We have just seen the call to shout the good news that God is coming. Now we have two pictures describing the coming Lord.  First it is the picture of an all-powerful God but then it is of God who comes as the Shepherd of Israel, so let’s look, first of all, at the picture of the all-powerful God. “See, the Sovereign Lord comes with power, and he rules with a mighty arm. See, his reward is with him, and his recompense accompanies him.” (v.10) Perhaps we should split that up so as to note exactly what it is saying.

“See”. Twice there is a call to observe. It is thus a call to really take note of what the prophet is saying. How we are often so casual when a prophetic word comes! If you have ever received a personal prophetic word, could you say exactly what it was a month later? Look and watch carefully, is the instruction.

“the Sovereign Lord comes”.  Many versions just put, “the Lord God” but the emphasis, we should see, is the same. It is God who is Lord of all, God who is sovereign. From verse 12 on the prophet is going to bring a word that emphasizes this, and we need to believe it and take it on board. God IS Lord of all things, Jesus IS ruling at his Father’s right hand. We may not understand why He gives such freedom to sinful mankind to do such awful things as history reveals, but I believe when we get to heaven, if He allows us to see every detail of history with His eyes, we will never be able to criticize Him for anything He did or didn’t do.

“with power”.  This God we are considering here is the Creator of the whole world, as we shall shortly be reminded and any Being who has that power is indeed mighty. When Jesus Christ, the Son of God, exercised his ministry we see in the gospels, example after example of him exercising the power of the Godhead as he deals with sickness, makes provision, walks on water, casts out demons and raises the dead. This is power!

“and he rules with a mighty arm”. This power is used for one end: to rule. To rule or reign means to be supreme over all peoples and circumstances so that His will is brought about. That is what God does and that is what He is coming to do. When Jesus comes back we see he will exercise this rule over all things (see Rev 19) We saw it in the previous study.

“See, his reward is with him”. Some versions use the word ‘recompense’ which really means a payment with a purpose.  The Bible is quite clear, the Lord rewards the righteous, e.g. Gen 15:1, 1 Sam 26:23,  1 Kings 8:32, Psa 58:11, Prov 11:18, 13:21, 22:4. When God comes He will judge between men and the righteous will be blessed or rewarded. In the New Testament we read, “a man reaps what he sows,” (Gal 6:7) for that is how God has made it to be.

“and his recompense accompanies him.” The two things go together – God and His reward. God’s character is to do good and so wherever He can He blesses His people. He will not bless evil, but He will bless His righteous people.

So here is the comfort for the downtrodden people of God: your God is coming, and His desire is to bless you. He will come to deal with evil (and he has the power to do that) and will reward and bless righteousness. Hallelujah!

But there is further reassurance, for this could be really scary and so we find this second picture in verse 11: “He tends his flock like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those that have young.” (v.11) Verse 10 could leave us feeling somewhat awed with talk of the Lord’s sovereignty and His power and His mighty arm and His acts of judgment, but now the prophet speaks to the faithful, to believers whose consciences may be over-sensitive. Hey, he says, for you who are His flock, He will come like a shepherd and a shepherd is known for caring for His flock – see Psa 23, and the following verses here: “He gathers the lambs in his arms, and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those that have young.”  (v.11b) What words of tender care!

If you are a young believer, have no fear, don’t be over-awed by Him, for His desire is to lift you in those strong arms that can be used for war, but instead He will use them to protect you and give you a sense of loving security, He will hold you close to His heart. And those of you teachers and evangelists who feel responsible for the young ones in the faith, be reassured the He will so gently be there for you in your caring role and He will so gently guide you and lead you in it.

This last verse in this part helps balance the strength of the first part. Yes, God is coming, and He is coming in power and will deal with the ungodly, but those who are faithful, those whose hearts are turned towards Him, know He is coming with love and care and compassion. He is for you!  Hallelujah!

Application for further thought and prayer: Lord, I recognise that your heart is to come more fully into my heart, my life, my circumstances and I bow before you who are the Lord of all.

56. Shepherd and Sheep

Analogies & Parables in Matthew: 56.  Shepherd and Sheep

Mt 26:31   Then Jesus told them, “This very night you will all fall away on account of me, for it is written: ” `I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered

And so we come to the last of these analogies and parables and it is a very appropriate one with which to finish. Time is running out; the disciples have met in the upper room and the Last Supper has finished: When they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives.” (v.30) It is then that we come to our verse above, where Jesus quotes from Zech 13:7 which was a strange verse.

It was a strange verse because it started, “Awake, O sword, against my shepherd, against the man who is close to me!” declares the LORD Almighty.” i.e. the shepherd that God speak of is the Good Shepherd, one close to the Father, it is this one who is going to be struck so that his flock will be scattered. Now that was strange because earlier in Zechariah it was the worthless shepherd who would be struck in disciplinary judgment but now it is the Good Shepherd, the one close to God. Whatever did that mean? Perhaps the emphasis was on the sheep being scattered because that was the fulfillment of the curses for covenant disobedience (see Deut 28:64; 29:24-25). Now maybe, it is the disciples who would be scattered temporarily, perhaps as a picture of the dispersion that would come to the Jews before the century was out.

Thus Jesus is the shepherd and his disciples, his followers, are the sheep. It is a very simple analogy and yet the more we think about it, a very poignant one. Indeed before the quote, Jesus had plainly declared, “This very night you will all fall away on account of me,” (v.31) and then showed how it is prophetic fulfillment within the plan of God by quoting from Zechariah. But he doesn’t leave it there for he adds, “But after I have risen, I will go ahead of you into Galilee. (v.32) In other words, he is quite explicitly explaining that everything is under control, his control, and the control of His Father in heaven; his death will not be the end.

Yes, the immediate future is going to look chaotically out of control, especially when you consider all the wonderful things that this amazing Son of God had been doing for three years, completely in control in every situation, whether confronted by demoniacs or threatened by a terrible storm in the middle of the sea of Galilee. Oh yes, Jesus had been in utter control throughout that period and even when hostile religious leaders had come after him, he had shown a wisdom that undermined all of the scheming and challenging words. Whatever else, Jesus was in control.

And then comes Gethsemane and Jesus tries to prepare the disciples in a small way for what he knows is about to happen. Remember what Peter preached on the Day of Pentecost: “This man was handed over to you by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross.” (Acts 2:23) I find that one of the greatest verses of revelation in the New Testament. He ‘saw’ that what had taken place in those terrible hours, and then incredible hours, of what we today call Easter, was all part of God’s plan. God knew it would happen, He knew how it would come about and it was part of the plan of the Godhead to bring about the possibility of our salvation as the Son of God stood in our place and took the punishment for our sins. So the disciples falling away and fleeing in the face of soldiers arresting their master in the middle of the night, was all part of this plan and Jesus had just told them that.

The only problem is that so often we struggle to accept the will of God because we don’t understand it!!! Jesus warns them that they will all fall away BUT, “Peter replied, “Even if all fall away on account of you, I never will.” (v.33) Oh, how unknowing we so often are! Peter, if the Son of God says you will fall away, you will and, actually, in your case it is going to be quite spectacular for Jesus has already warned you that you will deny him and that before the early morning is out and a cockerel will have crowed three times. Oh yes, that is how specific that warning had been, but Peter in his self-confidence could not believe it.

Have you ever been given a prophetic word? How did you receive it? I watch responses. Who me, you must be joking! God gracious, surely that can’t be!  At such times, we take on the Peter-spirit. It may be for us it is low self-esteem that shrugs off a word of love. It may be hardness of heart. It may just be lack of understanding.  Mary’s response was the best recorded to this sort of thing: “May it be to me as you have said.” (Lk 1:38)

But there are bigger issues here to be taken hold of. There is the issue of the big picture. Our difficulty is that we struggle to see the big picture, where this present history is going. Yes, we can hear sermons on Jesus, the Lamb of God, in Revelation 5 unrolling the scroll of the end times, but actually seeing how yesterday, today and tomorrow fit in, that isn’t so easy. It is especially ‘not easy’ when it appears to be going badly, when church seems mundane, things seem to be going wrong and nobody seems to have a handle on it all. Well God does!

When Jesus says, “I will never leave you nor forsake you,” (Heb 13:5), he means it. He could change it all like he stilled the storm with just three words: “Peace, be still!” but he wants you to have that peace in you first, the peace that comes from knowing that he IS in control and he does know what he is doing and he is there for you in the midst of it. When we come to that place, then often he gives us the faith so that we declare those three words, and it all changes. When children have constant nightmares, when someone seems to constantly have poor health, when finances seem to be a struggle despite whatever you do, we have to come to the place of knowing

  • that he is in control
  • he does know what he is doing and
  • he is there for you

because only then does faith rise up and, under his prompting, we can speak the words of authority that bring the change that is needed. Perhaps it means we have to make some personal changes, perhaps we have to step out in faith in some way, but we get connected to him when we realise the truth of these things above. He is the shepherd and we are the sheep. We may appear somewhat ‘scattered’ at the moment by the circumstances but these truths remain unchanged. As we come to the end of this particular series, hold on to them, grasp them firmly, declare them and live in the light of them. Resurrection is just round the corner! Hallelujah”

15. Sheep and Shepherd

Analogies & Parables in Matthew: 15.  Sheep and Shepherd

Mt 9:35,36   Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.

The analogy of us as sheep and Jesus as shepherd arises a number of times in the New Testament. This comment from Matthew about Jesus’ compassion and the harassed and helpless sheep is only seen elsewhere in Mark’s Gospel (Mk 6:34) so it is probable that that is where Matthews gets it, but he sees its application in what is happening. This may not actually be an analogy that Jesus uses here but it clearly fits with his wider teaching which we will see as we go on.

The picture of a shepherd is a fairly obvious one: one who looks after the sheep, cares for them, protects them, guards them, binds up their wounds, and leads them to places where they can eat and drink. The shepherd feels for his sheep and so it should be no surprise that it is compassion that moves him to act on behalf of the sheep and heal them.

We also see his compassion when faced with a crowd in Mt 14:14 which provokes him to heal them. He also had compassion on the hungry crowd before feeding them in Mt 15:32 as well as in respect of two blind men on the roadside (Mt 20:34). Mark also shows his compassion in respect of a leper who he cleansed (Mk 1:41). Luke tells the story of the Prodigal Son and compassion made the father run to greet the son (Lk 15:20). Compassion is a primary characteristic of this shepherd and it was that which so often stirred him into action to bring healing, cleansing and deliverance. It was Jesus heart going out to the widow of Nain that appeared to provoke him to act and raise up her dead son (Lk 7:13-15) and it was Jesus’ ‘pity’ that the father of a young demoniac appealed to (Mk 9:22) and was also key in the parable of the Good Samaritan (Lk 10:33).

Jesus spoke out his heart when he taught, Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” (Mt 11:28,29). These are the words of the gentle and compassionate shepherd, offering help to all are worn by the ways of life.

Speaking into the religious life of Israel at that time, Jesus recognized the loads that were imposed on ordinary people by the religion imposed by the Pharisees and he came to the ‘weary sheep’  to lift off such loads: “But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. They tie up heavy loads and put them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.” (Mt 23:3,4) He, by comparison, came to make the loads that we carry appear light as he pulls alongside us and shares the weight.

We will leave many of the references to Jesus being the shepherd to later studies but simply note it was a key analogy. At the end Jesus, warning the disciples what would happen, did it by referring to the prophetic scriptures: “Then Jesus told them, “This very night you will all fall away on account of me, for it is written: ” `I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.’ But after I have risen, I will go ahead of you into Galilee.” (Mt 26:31,33 quoting Zech 13:7) a clear reference to what would happen when he was arrested and taken away, tried, and crucified.

When Moses, aware he had not much time left, appealed to the Lord to provide another to follow him, he prayed, “May the LORD, the God of the spirits of all mankind, appoint a man over this community to go out and come in before them, one who will lead them out and bring them in, so the LORD’s people will not be like sheep without a shepherd.” (Num 27:16,17) The Lord immediately appointed Joshua who we tend to think of more of a general leading the army, and yet it is the picture of a shepherd that Moses uses, perhaps having come to the understanding that that was what his role had been for the last eighty years – first as a shepherd of literal sheep in Midian, and then as the shepherd of Israel. Yet the picture of a shepherd was mostly attributed to the Lord Himself (see Psa 23:1, 28:9, 80:1) and the picture of shepherds in the life of Israel was a familiar one in the books of the prophets.

Now in the New Testament, it will come up again and again. For the people of a land with many sheep and many shepherds it was an easily understood analogy and one we will see again and again. It was left to John, writing many years later after much reflection, to remember Jesus specifically teaching: “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep,” (Jn 10:11) summarizing his position and his activity on behalf of his ‘sheep’.

In the previous study we noted Jesus’ words to John’s disciples. See in them the heart of a shepherd: “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor.” (11:4,5) In Luke’s Gospel a summary of Jesus’ coming ministry is revealed through the prophet Isaiah, “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed,  to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Lk 4:18,19 citing Isa 61:1,2) These are the words for the shepherd who had come from heaven to reach out to those who were “harassed and helpless”, telling them that the time had arrived for their lives to be changed by the power of God, and confirming the truth of those words by the power he brought.

How are we today? Harassed and helpless? Harassed simply means stressed and hassled and under pressure from the burdens of life. The outworking of these things means a weariness, often a heaviness, and these things are not uncommon in the pressures and concerns of life in the twenty-first century. The answer: Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” (Mt 11:28,29). Amen.

5. Why Elders

Meditations in Titus: 5:  Why Elders

Titus 1:5  The reason I left you in Crete was that you might straighten out what was left unfinished and appoint elders in every town, as I directed you.

We have commented  that wherever Paul established churches he also established elders for that church (e.g. Acts 14:23) but before we move on to examine the qualifications of an elder that we find in the following verses, we might do well to examine the meaning of the world elder, other names given to the role and what the role included. A good starting place is the teaching from the apostle Peter: To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder, a witness of Christ’s sufferings and one who also will share in the glory to be revealed: Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, serving as overseers.” (1 Pet 5:1,2)

The term ‘elder’ speaks of the spiritual maturity of a leader called by God to look after His people. The term ‘shepherd’ (or its alternative ‘pastor’) refers to his caring and providing role, and the term ‘overseer’ refers to his protective and administrative role. As we noted previously almost invariably reference is to elders – plural. It would be helpful to examine in more detail the activity of an elder seen either by teaching or by example in the New Testament.

An elder first of all leads (remember a shepherd goes ahead of his flock). This reference to leading thus suggests the maturity that we have already spoken about, a spiritual maturity than comes with time and experience and which brings wisdom with it. Part of this entails him being fully aware of the Gospel and sound teaching of the New Testament so that he a) can impart it to the flock and b) use it to refute false teaching, hence Paul’s words to Titus: “He must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it.” (Titus 1:9) In his letter to Timothy Paul says the elder must be “able to teach” (1 Tim 3:2)

To the elders of Ephesus Paul charged, “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.” (Act 20:28) and went on to warn them against false teachers who would come in. This reference implies, ‘Care for them, guard and protect the flock from the enemy, because they are very precious to Jesus because he died of each of them.’ The example of James in Acts suggests there are times when the elders have to judge doctrinal issues (see Acts 15:13-19). They are clearly to be men of the word. Maintaining and holding to the truth and rejecting falsehood is to be a key role of the church elder.

In their role as a overseer we might fall into the trap of thinking that this is purely administrative which requires experience and wisdom – “The elders who direct the affairs of the church.” (1 Tim 5:17)  However there are two examples in the New Testament that show us that the elder is to also be a person who conveys spiritual power and authority. When Paul said to Timothy, “Do not neglect your gift, which was given you through a prophetic message when the body of elders laid their hands on you,” (1 Tim 4:14) we see that the elders who had prayed (and probably prophesied) over Timothy had imparted a spiritual gift.  James wrote, “Is any one of you sick? He should call the elders of the church to pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him up.” (Jas 5:14,15) The elder is clearly to be a man of faith, power and authority.

So to recap, elders are to be men (we’ll come to this in the next meditation and there is a reason for this I believe) of maturity, not only in life but especially in spirituality. When they lead the flock, it means they go ahead by example and they will be able to do that because they have learnt through time and experience and they have accumulated knowledge, insight and wisdom.  They will care for the flock, teach the flock, admonish and challenge the flock (to grow into maturity – see Eph 4:11,12) and will be able to speak on doctrinal matters and refute wrong teaching. They will also have spiritual authority to stand against false teachers or prophets who might come to disturb the flock. They will also have spiritual power as well as authority to minister life, healing and gifting to the people of God. They are therefore, conduits of God’s blessing to His people – not the only conduit (for there are other ministries) but the primary home in the home situation.

While it is possible for one man to fulfil all these things, the New Testament reference to elders indicates a team leadership of men who mutually support one another and stand together for the flock and against the enemy. To perhaps see how far we have so often strayed from the New Testament pattern, read through that recap paragraph above again and once you have done that you will be better equipped to see why the ‘qualifications’ in the following verses in Titus 1 are so important and that we will go on to see in the next study.

17. Gate and Shepherd (2)

Meditating on Great Themes in John:   17. Gate & Shepherd (2)

John 10:7,9,11     Therefore Jesus said again, “I tell you the truth, I am the gate for the sheep…..  I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. He will come in and go out, and find pasture….I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.

We said in the previous study that there is a complexity in these verses of chapter 10, a mixing together of the analogies of the door (or gate) and the shepherd. Initially the greater emphasis is on the door or gate and we concluded with: “I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. He will come in and go out, and find pasture.”  At the beginning of this chapter Jesus had started this idea with, “I tell you the truth, the man who does not enter the sheep pen by the gate, but climbs in by some other way, is a thief and a robber. The man who enters by the gate is the shepherd of his sheep,” (Jn 10:1,2)

He had then spoken about being the one who enters the fold and leads the sheep out (v.3), and goes ahead of them and they follow him because they know his voice (v.4) but will not follow a stranger (v.5). Up until that point most of that had been about a figure who is surely the shepherd. Then he had twice declared he was the gate (v.7,9). In verse 8 he reiterated what he had said earlier that those who came masquerading as him previously had been thieves and robbers. Now in verse 10 he expands on the warning, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy.” Three times in these verses he has warned about thieves, robbers and now murderers.

A word about these robbers and thieves. The Jewish historian Josephus, in his ‘Antiquities of the Jews’ wrote of this time, “Now at this time there were ten thousand other disorders in Judea, which were like tumults, because a great number put themselves in a warlike posture, either out of hopes to gain to themselves or out of enmity for the Jews.” Chapter 10 of Book 18 of those ‘Antiquities’ is worth a read, listing various men who sought to lead insurrections. All of these would-be ‘saviours’, Jesus said, are thieves and robbers who do not come from God. These men come to destroy but by contrast Jesus goes on, “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” (Jn 10:10)

Having outlined something of the behaviour (access and speech) of a genuine shepherd and not a robber (as a well as possibly as an aside saying he is the Gate), he now declares, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” and maybe the emphasis being on his sacrificial role.

However his identification with “the good shepherd” could not have been missed by the Jews because throughout the Old Testament the picture was conveyed of God being the shepherd of Israel. There is David’s famous psalm, The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want”.  (Psa 23:1) There was also,You led your people like a flock by the hand of Moses and Aaron.” (Psa 77:20) and “Hear us, O Shepherd of Israel, you who lead Joseph like a flock.” (Psa 80:10) It was a common and well-known idea.

Ezekiel also had a long passage about God being their shepherd: “For this is what the Sovereign LORD says: I myself will search for my sheep and look after them. As a shepherd looks after his scattered flock when he is with them, so will I look after my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places where they were scattered on a day of clouds and darkness. I will bring them out from the nations and gather them from the countries, and I will bring them into their own land. I will pasture them on the mountains of Israel, in the ravines and in all the settlements in the land. I will tend them in a good pasture, and the mountain heights of Israel will be their grazing land. There they will lie down in good grazing land, and there they will feed in a rich pasture on the mountains of Israel. I myself will tend my sheep and have them lie down, declares the Sovereign LORD. I will search for the lost and bring back the strays. I will bind up the injured and strengthen the weak, but the sleek and the strong I will destroy. I will shepherd the flock with justice.” (Ezek 34:11-16) I have emphasised the ten things He had said He would do as their shepherd.

In verses 14 & 15 Jesus reiterates this: “I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me– just as the Father knows me and I know the Father–and I lay down my life for the sheep,” but parallels the ‘knowing’ of and by his sheep with the way he knows and is known by the Father. It is a picture of intimacy.  But again he has declared his sacrificial role, willing to give up his life for the sheep.

In the intervening verses he declares, “The hired hand is not the shepherd who owns the sheep. So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away. Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it. The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep.” (Jn 10:12,13) He compares himself now, not with the thieves and robbers he previously spoke about, but with those who might appear to look after Israel as ‘hired hands’. The contrast he is surely making is that he is not hired but is in fact the owner of the sheep. This strengthens even more his claim to divinity in this picture in the light of all the Old Testament said about God’s sheep.

Later at the Feast of Dedication (v.22),  Jesus is there in the temple area again (v.23) and the Jews again demand that he tell them who he was (v.24). He speaks again of the miracles he did but said, “but you do not believe because you are not my sheep.” (v.26) It is as if he picks up the previous analogy and wants to push it on. He says various things about his sheep (v.28):

  • My sheep listen to my voice;
  • I know them,
  • and they follow me.
  • I give them eternal life, and
  • they shall never perish;
  • no one can snatch them out of my hand,

and then speaks of their origin: “My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand. I and the Father are one.” (Jn 10:29,30)

This incites increased hostility so Jesus asks, “I have shown you many great miracles from the Father. For which of these do you stone me?” (v.32) to which they reply, “We are not stoning you for any of these, but for blasphemy, because you, a mere man, claim to be God.” (v.33) The gloves are off. The previous teaching may have been with oblique references but now Jesus is quite specific.

To summarise: Jesus claims to be both the way into God’s kingdom (the sheepfold) and the one who looks after his sheep, even to the extent of laying down his life for them. That latter point surely points to the Cross.

16. Gate and Shepherd (1)

Meditating on Great Themes in John:   16. Gate & Shepherd

John 10:7,9,11     Therefore Jesus said again, “I tell you the truth, I am the gate for the sheep…..  I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. He will come in and go out, and find pasture….I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.

We said in the previous study that we discern two major themes running through John’s Gospel – the transforming power of Jesus and the identity of Jesus. These verses above speak more to the second theme but reveal how the first one comes about. What is intriguing about them is that, unlike so much else that we have seen where there are links with many earlier verses, the thoughts about a door and the good shepherd appear to come from nowhere, with no earlier links. So why does John introduce them here or, perhaps, in the chronological flow of history, why does Jesus say these things now?

Well, what has just gone before? The blind man has just been healed and there has been much discussion about Jesus’ authority to heal like this, and Jesus has spoken about being the light of the world who reveals the blindness of the Pharisees. The picture Jesus has just been painting by word and deed has been of the one who comes to open the eyes of the blind to let them see and enter God’s kingdom. Now in the Old Testament, the Jews were familiar with the concept of a doorway or gateway into heaven. The patriarch who would give them their name, Jacob (to become Israel), had a dream and we see, “He was afraid and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven.” (Gen 28:17). We just referred to people ‘entering the kingdom of God’ which in Jewish eyes was virtually tantamount to being given entry to heaven, so Jesus applies the idea of a gate to himself: “I tell you the truth, I am the gate for the sheep.” (v.7) The implication is, “I am the doorway to heaven”

But he links this idea with sheep and refers to Israel as sheep, which was a very familiar concept for them in Psalms and in the prophetic books (use a concordance to look up the many references). Jeremiah introduced the concept of lost sheep (Jer 50:6) and Ezekiel also added to it (Ezek 34:4) and Jesus himself referred to the “lost sheep of Israel” (Mt 10:6), the ones to whom the apostles should go to be brought into God’s fold. The imagery here is unmistakable: “I am the way for the lost sheep of Israel to return to their Lord. in heaven.”

We need to retrace our steps and see the earlier verses in this chapter: Remember we just said he had called the Pharisees blind and now he says, “I tell you the truth, the man who does not enter the sheep pen by the gate, but climbs in by some other way, is a thief and a robber.” (v.1) The sheep pen appears at first sight to be the land of Israel, God’s covenant people, but Jesus when he speaks about the kingdom of God means the covenant people who obey and respond to their Lord so He can exercise His rule in and through them.   The sheep fold might, therefore, be better associated with the ideas of the kingdom of God or place where God’s rule is experienced. But there is only one way in to this ‘fold’ and this  implies Jesus is God’s appointed ‘gate’ and anyone who tries to gatecrash (an interesting word!) the sheepfold has obviously tried to appear to get in some other way but they are not there to benefit the sheep but to steal them, and take them off somewhere else (lead them into error). Strong condemnation!

So now he extends the analogy and says the only person to get in through the gate is the shepherd: “The man who enters by the gate is the shepherd of his sheep.” (v.2) he then says something intriguing: “The watchman opens the gate for him.” (v.3a) The ‘watchman’ must be angelic beings or the work of the Holy Spirit. (In Ezekiel’s ‘wheels within wheels’ prophecy in Ezek 1, the rims of the wheels were full of eyes. In John’s vision of the throne room of heaven in Rev 4, the four living creatures are covered with eyes. Whatever the meaning we have a picture of ones who see all things – watchmen if you like.)

What then follows is a picture of intimacy between shepherd and sheep: “the sheep listen to his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice.” (v.3,4) The sheep recognize his voice, he knows them individually and calls them each by name, he leads them out in the world and they follow him  In fact, “they will never follow a stranger; in fact, they will run away from him because they do not recognize a stranger’s voice.” (v.5) The work of the Pharisees and all the other religious groups is doomed to failure because the sheep – those of God’s real people – deep down know His voice and no other voice will comfort and make them secure.

Now it makes sense when Jesus says, “All who ever came before me were thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them.” (v.8) Of course the sheep wouldn’t follow anyone else because there is only one voice that will touch something deep within them and bring them peace and comfort. Anyone who came before Jesus in that four hundred year period of silence between Nehemiah/Ezra and the Gospels was just a pretender and so it was no surprise that the people collectively did not follow them. There is a complexity in these verses of chapter 10, a mixing together of the analogies of the door (or gate) and the shepherd. For the moment, we’ve noted the emphasis  on the door or gate: “I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. He will come in and go out, and find pasture.” (v.9) The entry into God’s kingdom comes through Jesus alone; accept no substitutes. We will go on to consider more the picture of the shepherd in the next study.