Shepherds and Sheep
We were on vacation and glad to be in a Reformed church, but the guest minister at the church we were visiting was raising questions for our childrenhard questions. About halfway through the alleged sermon, our three-year-old son asked his mom why the man was not preaching. We were wondering the same.
When Jesus pulled Peter from the rubble of his threefold denial and thrust him back into kingdom service, he thrice commanded him to feed his sheep (John 21:15-17). Surely no little boys were asking at Pentecost why Peter was not preaching. Peter fed sheep.
In Jesus' restoration of Peter, we see something of the men God uses, as well as the use God makes of them. Having sinned grossly and wept bitterly, Peter was restored to the work of God. This display of compassion holds out hope to all kinds of grieved failures. From pulpit to pew, hope for future usefulness is offered to the repentant. But forgiveness is a call to service, and, for the pastor, that service always requires the feeding of Christ's sheep. God is pleased to mend the broken and then employ them in his service.
It is also clear from our text that love of God always accompanies the will to serve. God's work of restoration makes men both fit to serve and willing to serve. Jesus might have asked Peter whether he was repentant, grieved, or ready to get back to work, but it was enough to summarize the whole of Peter's return with this question of love. The question "Do you love me?" required Peter to ask himself whether he had turned away from the idolatry of self-love and self-preservation. He was probed to the marrow of his soul as to whether he loved the Savior with all his heart, soul, strength, and mind. A humbler Peter affirmed his love and received his commission to feed Christ's sheep.
Having been graced into being usable, Peter then was pressed into usefulness. John Calvin describes his calling as one that entails all kinds of ecclesiastical oversight, the total care of the sheep. Peter was to teach, train, and guide God's people. Simply put, he was to take care of them. He interprets and passes on this charge in 1 Peter 5, where he exhorts other elders to shepherd God's flock, serving as overseers, selflessly leading as examples.
Paul's similar exhortation to the elders of Ephesus (Acts 20:28) to shepherd the church of God is accompanied by the testimony of his own preaching of the whole counsel of God and his warning that savage wolves will come to draw disciples after themselves. To prevent any such defections, lambs must be fed. The Word must be preached in and out of season, that the people of God may be admonished, corrected, reproved, and instructed (2 Tim. 3:14-4:2).
The role of those called to shepherd is to equip the saints toward maturity, that they might not be carried off by every new trick and gimmick of the enemy. The mantle that Peter has passed on to all the faithful elders who have followed is the calling to teach and lead Christ's sheep. The pastor is called to feed sheep in an age when a Christian witness is a W.W.J.D. bracelet, a prayer life is using the Jabez mantra, a thirty-minute sermon is considered long, and the average church member reads little of his Bible and less of anything else that is theologically sound. The pastor is called by Christ to give the lambs of God an appetite for good theology, to help the sheep with the tough questions of the faith, and to provide such ministerial direction and discipline as the Scriptures require. This is what pastors do when they love Jesus. The whole of the ministry of the pastor is to press God's people to reach maturity.
But what about the sheep? Do our Lord's words to Peter require something of them? It seems that Peter's commission contains an implicit demand that the sheep receive shepherding. If the church is to be pastored by a public and private ministry of God's Word, the sheep must eat. Sheep are required to avail themselves of the gifts of God that come through the pastoral ministry of the church, taking care that the church to which they submit is biblical and Bible-centered. The modern passion for program-heavy churches with little sound teaching is an indictment against both pastors and church members. Sheep that choose anything over the sound teaching of the Bible choose it over Christ himself.
Those who excuse shallow, weak, or poor preaching by foolish assertions that other abilities or services compensate for their minister's deficiencies only display their ignorance of the pastoral ministry and affirm that their minister is not fit for the task. The shepherds that God sends are such that feed his people with knowledge and understanding (Jer. 3:15). Sheep should beware when the focus of the ministry is not sound teaching and its application. You can be sure that the ministry that is not about feeding sheep has a lot to do with wool sweaters and mutton stew.
Finally, church life is not a democracy. If Peter was called to shepherd, then God's sheep were called to be shepherded, and this is the pattern that Peter (1 Pet. 5) and Paul (Acts 20) passed on through the elders of the church. In our "count every vote" egalitarianism, it is hard to swallow that God requires distinctions in our roles. Sheep are required to obey and be submissive to those who watch over their souls, for not doing so would be unprofitable (see Heb. 13:17). This is not a blind obedience without reason, but hearing the voice of the Great Shepherd through those he has called to his work.
Shepherds who love Jesus will feed the sheep. Sheep who know Jesus will seek and follow the faithful preaching of God's Word. Anything less is less than love and is a dinner invitation to wolves.
The author is pastor of Immanuel Fellowship Church in Portage, Mich. Reprinted (slightly edited) with permission from Tabletalk, March 2002. Reprinted from New Horizons, May 2002.