The Kingdom released through a shepherd’s heart.
Shepherding was a time-honoured pursuit throughout Israel’s national history. This was a nation whose patriarchs were shepherds; their great deliverer Moses was a shepherd and the model king David was a shepherd. When the contemporary shepherds in Jesus’ day became the first to receive the good news that the Good Shepherd has been born, the occupation has fallen into disrepute. The Pharisees disliked shepherds whose occupation withheld them from making continuous contributions to the religious life of their communities[i]. In Rabbinical writings after the New Testamental period Rabbis discouraged their children from becoming reviled shepherds[ii]. In Roman society shepherds were viewed as the lowest of the peasant’s class[iii]. Though the aristocracy frowned upon shepherding, God chose to establish His kingdom through a Shepherd-King. Throughout Scripture a shepherd’s heart is intimately interwoven with just, prevailing and authorative rulership[iv]. Whenever the people of God separated the shepherding responsibility from rulership the full manifestation of God’s Kingdom was lost. The rulership model Jesus established is one of shepherding (John 10:11) and His model is expressly not modeled upon the worldly rulership (Mat. 20:25).
During the fifth century the church stepped away from the isolation of the catacombs towards the pomp and splendor of the Roman Empire’s enclaves of power and influence[v]. During the preceding centuries the image of the Good Shepherd was by a long way the most enduring image of Jesus used by a persecuted church. The Good Shepherd disappeared from Christian art during this time of influence and wealth until the late Middle Ages. Ramsey in an informative article suggests that for a church enamored by the trappings of regal wealth and authority the image of the humble Good Shepherd did not correspond to their mental representation of Jesus in more royal and majestic terms. The church felt that it no longer needed the loving and protective image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd. To a church that gained worldly authority and power, the image of Jesus as king completely replaced the image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd[vi]. The unbalanced monarchical leadership within the church, unhinged from the moderating impact of a shepherd’s heart, suffered through the corroding effect of power.
Today some church circles has become the home of the mega-meeting, with franchised sites, where mission orientated churches through a CEO strives for a power religion of influence. In this climate of affluence, power and perceived influence the humble shepherd has once again been removed from the lexicon of the influential and popular church growth models. In fact Andy Stanley who leads a mega church in Alpharetta, Georgia in America said in an interview on leadership he wishes that the word shepherd disappear from our church vocabulary. He states that “Jesus talked about shepherds because there was one over there in a pasture he could point to… It was culturally relevant in the time of Jesus, but it’s not culturally relevant any more. It’s the first-century word. If Jesus were here today, would he talk about shepherds? No… By the time of the Book of Acts, the shepherd model is gone. “[vii]
The former vice president of Promise Keepers, E.G. Warner, expresses concern that the church has moved from a shepherding community model towards a hierarchical corporate model, where managers and CEO’s have replaced shepherds[viii]. John Piper has bemoaned the loss of the prophet for the professional, who is grounded in business practices[ix]. Foreign business models are incorporated into the core values and missions of churches and lost sheep that don’t follow the CEO is tossed under the bus.
Mark Driscoll from Mars Hill has stated that: “There is a pile of dead bodies behind the Mars Hill bus and by God’s grace it’ll be a mountain by the time we’re done. You either get on the bus or you get run over by the bus.”[x] Some churches have created a power structure which values function and efficiency above having a shepherd’s heart. The Good Shepherd left the ninety-nine to search for the one (Mat. 18:12). In modern corporate culture such an action will be viewed as most inefficient, but in the Kingdom such actions releases powerfully effective transformations.
During the time of Jesus there were many rulership models present. There was the political influence, wealth, and military power of the Emperor. The Sadducees were an exclusive aristocratic religious class who controlled the temple and the prideful Pharisees who had a demanding religious life. Herod was a compliant subservient king. The Essenes consciously broke away from the perceived societal corruption while the Zealots wanted to change society through force[xi]. Yet in the midst of all of these movements, philosophies and control systems Jesus felt compassion. He saw the crowds as “harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Mat. 9:36). Jesus is the fulfilment of the messianic prophecy of Micah (Mic. 5:2-4) that foresaw a Davidic Shepherd-Ruler that would establish the kingdom of God in the midst of the failure, isolation and destruction of other kingdoms.
In Matthew 25:31-33, Jesus the all-powerful and majestic Commander of the hosts of heaven is also portrayed as a shepherd. In Ezekiel 34:16, God the Shepherd will bring restoration where earthly kings have failed by shepherding His people as flock towards health and strength. Grand public spectacles coupled with self-aggrandizing pursuits may in today’s world lead to great acclaim but will fall short of releasing the true impact of the Kingdom in our society. In both Matthew and Ezekiel the litmus test for access into the fullness of the Kingdom is not religious activity, religious knowledge or the display of religious power through ecclesiastical authority or miraculous marvels, but by reflecting the shepherd’s heart of the Shepherd-King. Only the gracious intervention of our Royal Good Shepherd can herd a fractious society into the reality of the Kingdom[xii].
In the Bible rulership and shepherding are inseparably linked (2 Sam. 7:7). God is described as a shepherd (Ps. 23; Gen. 48:15, 49:24; Ez. 43:23) which is an image of rulership whereby the Lord of Heaven is committed to the protection and care of His flock[xiii]. Jesus our ultimate role model is our Shepherd-King who has come to lead the flock without a shepherd (Mark 6:34) and is the Good Shepherd who is willing to lay down His life for the sheep (John 10:11; Heb. 13:20; 1 Pet. 2:25; Rev. 7:17). The Kingdom is inaugurated through a Shepherd. The Great Commission finds fruition by taking care of His sheep. A shepherd’s command is given to Peter to feed His sheep (John 21:16)[xiv]. Paul in extending the Kingdom admonishes the Ephesian elders to shepherd the church of God (Acts 20:28). When Peter discusses rulership He links it directly to shepherdship (1 Pet. 2:22-25). When Jesus was “declared with power to be the Son of God by his resurrection” (Rom. 1:4) wandering sheep were restored to the True Shepherd (1 Pet. 2:22-25). Upon His return the Good Shepherd will sit upon the judgement seat (Mat. 25:32)[xv]. The shepherd’s heart is to be a reflection of the inaugurated Kingdom until the Chief Shepherd appears to bring the fullness of the Kingdom by shepherding His flock (1 Pet. 5:4)[xvi]. Shepherding is the heartbeat of rulership in God’s Kingdom.
The Old Testament records how earthly rulers fail by not tending to the flock of God and leaving a scattered, injured, weak (Eze. 34:16), harassed, helpless and rudderless (Mat. 9:36) flock in their wake. The prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel record how the self-serving, pitiless and callous shepherds of Israel lost the kingdom through bad shepherding[xvii]. A scattered and beleaguered flock of Israel is directly blamed upon the lack of a shepherd’s heart by those who should have been shepherds to the flock[xviii] (Jer. 10:21; 50:6-7; Eze. 34:1-10). The lack of shepherds reflecting God’s shepherd’s heart was the direct cause of the collapse of the kingdom of Israel. Bad shepherds lacked empathy and sympathy towards the sheep they were herding. These shepherds would only see the sheep as a pathway for their own personal empowerment and material gain. The dreadful result of these ungodly shepherds would be the scattering of the sheep. The individual members of the flock are left open to the dangers of a harsh wilderness and hostile predators; starvation and dehydration a constant companion to the scattered flock[xix]. Jesus described the flock as “harassed and helpless” (Mat. 9:36).
In John 10, Jesus describes what malevolent shepherds with startlingly deceitful motives look like. He described them as “thieves and robbers” (John 10:1). In Jewish law there was a distinction between a thief and a robber. A robber would live outside human settlements and attack passers-by, while a thief would forcefully enter a dwelling in order to steal[xx]. These are leaders who are only motivated by their own interests and will harm the sheep in order to satisfy their own narcissistic needs. The Pharisees of Jesus’ day were only interested in their own endowment and security. They were greedy (Luke 16:14), abused widows (Mar. 12:40) and converted God’s dwelling into what Jesus called a “den of thieves” (Mat. 21:13). They conspired to kill the Good Shepherd in order to keep their Roman given privileges (Mat. 21:13). Compare this to the Good Shepherd that risks His own life in order to protect the flock.
The “stranger” (John 10:2-5) is also a form of inferior shepherding[xxi] that may lack the malevolence of the thief and the robber. The stranger is antithetical to the True Shepherd, who has an intimate and personal relationship with each and every individual sheep. Shepherds at the time had nick names for each individual animal, all the more so within a large herd[xxii]. Knowing personal characteristics of each sheep, means effective shepherding. The sheep will not follow the stranger’s voice thus other methods whether forceful, cunning, underhanded, manipulative or unbiblical will be used in place of the relational leading of the sheep. A true shepherd is known, heard and seen by his sheep.
The last example Jesus used of a mediocre shepherd is the “hired hand” (John 10:12-13) that is someone who is a manager and not an owner. The sheep is not his and he is not responsible for any loss (Ex. 22:13)[xxiii], thus his interest is not primarily the wellbeing of the sheep but the earning of wages. The behaviour of the hireling is not malicious as with the thieves and robbers, but he does not carry the concern for the welfare of the sheep as the True Shepherd does. The Shepherd’s concern is not mere sentimentality but is due to His ownership of the sheep and the actual loss He will suffer. The Shepherd paid for the sheep with His own life, thus the loss of even one sheep is tangible and real to Him[xxiv].
Jesus as the promised Davidic Shepherd-King pronounced in His Sermon on the Mount that He and the false shepherds of Israel don’t share the same kingdom values (Mat. 5:20). In John 10 Jesus describes them as thieves, robbers, hired hands and strangers that are fleecing, devouring, leaving the sheep unprotected and scattered. In Matthew 21:43 Jesus openly declared the fact that they failed in reflecting the care and concern of the Good Shepherd have caused them to lose the Kingdom (Matt 21:43)[xxv]. The balance of Scripture is a Shepherd-King. By not reflecting God’s shepherd’s heart and not diligently shepherding the flock the Kingdom was lost. The church in the past and present have sought to attain influence, affluence, power and authority in a manner the rejects the humble shepherd as the key to unlocking the infinite Kingdom of God.
On Facebook the other day, a fierce discussion erupted on a group regarding the perceived loss of what can only be described as Kingdom influence, power and authority. The question raised was: “Where was the church (like in Acts 17:6) that turned the world upside-down? “ Can we like Paul declare that our message is not just empty words, meaningless practices or brash posturing but a demonstration of the Kingdom with power, authority, impact accompanied with mighty signs and wonders (1 Cor. 2:4, 4:20; Rom. 14:17, 15:19; 2 Cor. 10:4-5; 1 Thess. 1:5)? Micah 2-5, Ezekiel 34-37 and Zechariah 9-14 paints a picture of the Davidic King where by the Kingdom will be restored through a Shepherd that seeks the lost, binds up the weak and heals the sick. Jesus powerfully displayed the kingdom of God through His behaviour, words and deeds. Where Jesus went 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. “(Mat. 11:5).
When Jesus “saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.”(Mat. 9:36). Compassion and a shepherd’s concern and care caused the powerful release of the Kingdom in power, might and influence. It is the shepherd like David that releases the fullness of the Kingdom by being an eternal King upon the throne of David[xxvi]. When we fail to demonstrate the fullness of the Kingdom as the church it can be that once again we spurn the humble shepherd. The fullness of the Kingdom is established through a Shepherd-King who gathers the sheep, protects the flock, care through self-sacrifice, and guides the flock to green pastures and fresh water[xxvii]. Church structures, leadership approaches and an insatiable striving for power and privilege that has absconded from the pasture of God’s shepherding lessens the powerful inauguration of the Kingdom in our communities. When the shepherd’s heart is lost the presence of the Kingdom in our lives will decline. Let us reflect the shepherd’s heart of our Good Shepherd and see the Kingdom of God established in power and might. We worship a wonderful Davidic Shepherd-King.
[i] (Keener, 1997)
[ii] (Beck, 2011)
[iii] (Keener, 1997)
[iv] (Adams, 2008)
[v] (Shelley, 2008)
[vi] (Ramsey, 1983)
[vii] (Stanley, 2006)
[viii] (Wagner, 1999)
[ix] (Piper, 2002)
[x] (Preaching Paul)
[xi] (Baker, 1984)
[xii] (Adams, 2008)
[xiii] (Keener, 1997)
[xiv] (Johnson, 1992)
[xv] (Adams, 2008)
[xvi] (Keener, 1997)
[xvii] (Laniak, 2004)
[xviii] (Keener, 1997)
[xix] (Beck, 2011)
[xx] (Keener C. , 1993)
[xxi] (Wiersbe, 2007)
[xxii] (Utley, 2014)
[xxiii] (Keener C. , 1993)
[xxiv] (Morris, 1995)
[xxv] (Elison, 1998)
[xxvi] (Chae, 2006)
[xxvii] (Johnson, 1992)
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