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By Anthony D. Palma

This article is an overview of the New Testament concept of the spiritual shepherd as it relates to Jesus and leaders of the Church. Shepherds are common figures in Scripture, beginning with Abel (Genesis 4:2). It is not surprising, therefore, that the Old Testament often portrays God as a Shepherd (e.g., Psalms 23:1; 80:1; Isaiah 40:11; Jeremiah 31:10; Ezekiel 34:11–13) and the leaders of His people as shepherds (Ezekiel 34). It is axiomatic that the primary function of the shepherd is to look after the welfare of the flock and to lead it.

Jesus as the Consummate Shepherd

In New Testament times, shepherds were not highly regarded. Therefore, it is surprising that the angelic announcement of Jesus’ birth was made to lowly shepherds (Luke 2:8–11). But it was appropriate since the Messiah, the Son of David (the shepherd-king), was born in Bethlehem, the City of the David (see Ezekiel 34:23). Almost unnoticeable in the nativity accounts is a portrayal of Jesus as Shepherd. In Matthew’s quotation from Micah 5, Jesus is called the one "who will shepherd (poimain¯o) My people Israel" (2:6*).

At the first and second advent Jesus is portrayed as Shepherd. The same verb (poimain¯o) occurs three times in the Book of Revelation in relation to Him. Paradoxically, the Lamb "shall be their shepherd [literally, ‘shall shepherd them’], and shall guide them to springs of the water of life" (7:17). He will "rule [literally, ‘shepherd’] all the nations with a rod of iron" (12:5; 19:15). This last concept applies as well to overcomers (2:26,27).

Jesus portrayed himself as the Good Shepherd (ho poim¯en ho kalos—John 10:11,14) who gives His life for the sheep. In this connection He may also be called the Smitten Shepherd (Matthew 26:31; cf., Zechariah 13:7). In a unique sense, of course, only Jesus gave His life for the sheep. Yet in a broader sense it suggests that any spiritual shepherd ought to be willing to sacrifice himself for the sake of the flock.

Jesus is further called the Great (megas) Shepherd of the sheep (Hebrews 13:20) and the One Shepherd (John 10:16; cf., Ezekiel 34:23; 37:24). Peter called him the Chief Shepherd (archipoim¯en—1 Peter 5:4); one writer suggests the translation "Master-Shepherd."

An unusual combination of terms refers to Jesus as "the Shepherd and Guardian [ho poim¯en kai episkopos]" of our souls (1 Peter 2:25). The phrase could be translated Guardian-Shepherd. The word episkopos is often rendered bishop or overseer. J.N.D. Kelly, in his commentary on 1 Peter, suggests that the episkopos is "one who inspects, watches over, protects." This pair of terms has special significance when applied to leaders in the church. Both Paul and Peter emphasized the guarding/overseeing aspect of the ministry.

Paul and Shepherds

In the list of leadership gifts which the ascended Christ gave to the Church, Paul spoke of "pastors and teachers [tous poimenas kai didaskalous]" (Ephesians 4:11). Scholars will continue to debate whether Paul was speaking of two distinct callings or whether he meant something like "teacher-pastors." Certainly one of the chief duties of a pastor is to nurture and feed the flock by teaching or expounding the Word of God. This is why a distinguishing professional qualification of an elder is that he be "able to teach [didaktikos]" (1 Timothy 3:2; 2 Timothy 2:24). A number of authorities render the Greek word as "skillful in teaching," "a skilled teacher," "apt at teaching," and "competent to teach."

Ephesians 4:11 is the only New Testament passage where such a person is designated by the Greek word for shepherd (poim¯en), though it is generally agreed that this designation is interchangeable with bishop/overseer (episkopos) and elder (presbuteros).

All three concepts are brought together in the account of Paul’s address at Melitus to the Ephesian men. They are called elders (Acts 20:17). Paul told them that the Holy Spirit had made them overseers of the flock, which they were to shepherd (verse 28). It is also worth noting that in this verse Paul exhorted these men to "be on guard…for all the flock." This reminds us of Peter’s designation of Jesus as the Shepherd and Guardian/Bishop of our souls (1 Peter 2:25).

Peter and Shepherds

Jesus’ interchange with Peter (recorded in John 21:15–17) is worthy of considerable study. However, I will deal only with the elements related directly to the topic. Jesus commanded Peter both to feed/tend (bosk¯o—verses 15,17) and to shepherd (poimain¯o—verse 16) the flock. The objects of his care are called both the Lord’s lambs (arnia—verse 15) and His sheep (probata—verses 16,17). In my judgment the variations in the verbs and the nouns are stylistic; I do not think Jesus meant for Peter or for us to determine some profound differences in each pair of words. The thrust of the message is clear: Peter’s responsibility is to promote the welfare of all the Lord’s flock.

Peter surely had this incident in mind when he exhorted "the elders among you" to "shepherd [poimain¯o] the flock of God," calling upon them to do it voluntarily with eagerness, not for sordid gain and not "lording it over" the flock (1 Peter 5:1–3). Some of the best manuscripts include (in verse 2) the participle episkopountes, a verb form of episkopos, which may be translated "exercising the oversight" (NRSV), "serving as overseers" (NKJV, NIV). This may be contrasted with ungodly leaders who, according to Jude, are men "caring for [poimain¯o] themselves" (verse 12), who will come under divine judgment. In contrast, Peter pointed to the "Chief Shepherd" who will reward His faithful undershepherds (1 Peter 5:4).

*Scripture quotations are from the New American Standard Bible unless otherwise noted.

Anthony D. Palma, Th.D., a longtime Assemblies of God educator, lives in Phoenix, Arizona.