This Shepherd Doesn’t Run

Shepherd with lamb in Negev riverbed, tb q010303Photo credit:

I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd gives His life for the sheep. But a hireling, he who is not the shepherd, one who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees; and the wolf catches the sheep and scatters them.” John 10:11-12

Then Jesus said to them, “All of you will be made to stumble because of Me this night, for it is written: ‘I will strike the Shepherd, And the sheep will be scattered.’” Mark 14:27[1]

There are two kinds of shepherds: the unfaithful and the faithful. In the former category, the “hireling” is time-serving and only tends the sheep out of mercenary motives.[2] By contrast, the “good shepherd” faithfully gives His life to save the sheep from mortal danger – and in Christ’s case, died to save His sheep from eternal perdition. Despite their completely different behaviors, in the above verses both experience the scattering of the sheep under their charge. When and why their flocks are dispersed is the important question to answer.

The Long History Of Fleecing The Sheep

The Old Testament frequently uses the metaphor of shepherds to describe leaders like prophets, priests, and kings. For example, the wicked King Ahab’s demise was foretold in pastoral terms (1 Kings 22:17.) Unlike a true shepherd, he specialized in enriching himself as his flock’s expense (e.g. 1 Kings 18:3-6; 21:1-16.) By the end of the monarchical period Jeremiah lamented: “My people have been lost sheep. Their shepherds have led them astray; They have turned them away on the mountains. They have gone from mountain to hill; They have forgotten their resting place” (Jer. 50:6.) His contemporary Ezekiel also denounced the leaders in these words: “Thus says the Lord God to the shepherds: ‘Woe to the shepherds of Israel who feed themselves! Should not the shepherds feed the flocks?’” Even after the discipline of the 70 year Babylonian captivity, Zechariah reiterated God’s displeasure against the wayward pseudo-shepherds of Israel (Zech. 10:2-3.)

Wolves Of Differing Shapes & Sizes

   In the New Testament era things were arguably worse with Sadducean priests turning the Temple into a commercial venture (Matt. 21:13) and materialistic Pharisees overburdening the people (Lk. 16:14; Matt. 23:1-36.) Likewise, modern charlatans peddle empty religion and novel psychobabble in order to gain a following, thereby making fortunes at the expense of the gullible and the weak. The godly young preacher Robert Murray M’Cheyne knew the type, saying: “‘…For all seek their own, not the things which are Jesus Christ’s.’—Phil. 2:20. Ah! this is the black mark of every unfaithful minister. He is an hireling—he seeks his own—his own ease—his own profit—his own honor.”[3] He further explains that the hireling “does not defend the flock from heresy by sound teaching; nor does he stand between the flock and the arrows of a God-hating world.”[4]

Prosperity preachers, gurus, and Oprah’s spiritual flavor of the week are all too visible reminders of the contemporary ubiquity of the hireling. Such false shepherds scatter those who follow them, because when life’s seas become rough or when true danger encroaches, they flee leaving their adherents vulnerable to temporal and eternal destruction. Unlike these self-seeking false pastors the Lord Jesus genuinely cared for the nation, seeing them “like sheep having no shepherd” (Matt. 9:36.)

The Right Man, The Man Of God’s Own Choosing Is On Our Side

The scattering of Christ’s sheep was the exception to the rule. The Lord specializes in gathering His sheep. They hear His voice and instinctively flock to Him for protection, guidance, and nurture. Zechariah’s prophecy refers to the time when He was betrayed and arrested. Even then the Lord Jesus was in complete control of the circumstances: He instructed His “captors” to let His disciples go (Jn. 18:8-9.) Since when do arrestees dictate to the police whom they should free and whom they should detain? Yet the Lord was in sovereign command of the situation. The Good Shepherd would only lay down His life voluntarily, at His Father’s command (Jn. 10:17-18.)

At Christ’s arrest, the disciples all fled, demonstrating again the truthfulness of prophetic scripture.[5] Their scattering was temporary, however, and His being smitten was actually His unselfish defense of their souls. As the nineteenth century’s “prince of preachers” points out: “The shepherd in the East has also to be the defender of the flock, for wolves yet prowl in those regions. All sorts of wild beasts attack the flock, and he must be to the front. Thus is it with our Shepherd. No wolf can attack us without finding our Lord in arms against him. No lion can roar upon the flock without arousing a greater than David. ‘He that keepeth Israel shall neither slumber nor sleep.’”[6] He only left the flock in order to lay His life down as a sacrifice for them – one which forever defeated their foes!

The Shepherd Gathers His Sheep

After His resurrection, the Lord Jesus reassembled His fearful and demoralized sheep (e.g. Lk. 24:13-32; Jn. 20:19-29; Jn. 21:1-23.) He commissioned them to carry on His work, as He builds His church. At times His people have again been scattered by persecution, but two factors are different from the occasion of His crucifixion: 1. Now He is ever with His people (Mt. 28:20; Heb. 13:5) and 2. He providentially employs this scattering to disperse His people like seed with His gospel throughout the world; in this way producing new crops of saints and churches (Compare Acts 8:1-8 with Acts 11:19-26.)

Marching Orders For The Under-Shepherds

Modern day elders of the church have been appointed by the Holy Spirit “…to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood” (Acts 20:28.) They must emulate the Good Shepherd in selflessly caring for the sheep – even to the point of daily pouring out their lives that Christ may be formed in their charges (Phil. 2:17; Gal. 4:19.) As Henry Cowles writes: “Nothing less than a heart-felt interest in the flock will make the shepherd brave in peril, and…self-sacrificing for their good. The good shepherd puts himself in strong contrast with the hireling; and more than suggests that his under-shepherds should be like himself—true and even fearlessly brave to protect the sheep.”[7] May the Lord help His overseers to protect the flock and lead them to Himself in every situation.

[1] Boldface mine; unless otherwise noted, all quotations are from The New King James Version of the Bible (abbrev. NKJV.)

[2] Mr. Grant defines them thus: “The hireling cares but for his wages: the sheep are not his own, and he is not personally concerned about them: when the wolf appears, he leaves the sheep and flees; alas, no supposititious case, but what has been abundantly seen in history. The wolf in consequence, the open adversary, catches them and scatters them. The hireling acts in character: nothing better could be expected of him.” F. W. Grant, The Numerical Bible: Being a Revised Translation of the Holy Scriptures with Expository Notes: The Gospels (Study Text) (Neptune, NJ: Loizeaux Brothers, 1897), 548. [emphasis mine.]

[3] Robert Murray M’Cheyne,  “The Good Shepherd,” in The Works of the Late Rev. Robert Murray McCheyne, Vol. 1. (New York: Robert Carter, 1848), 450.

[4] M’Cheyne, 451.

[5] Zechariah prophesied five centuries before the time of Christ.

[6] C. H. Spurgeon, “Our own dear Shepherd,” in The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit Sermons, Vol. 32. Originally preached on November 26, 1885. (London: Passmore & Alabaster, 1886), 5. [Italics original.]

[7] Henry Cowles, The Gospel and Epistles of John: With Notes Critical, Explanatory, and Practical (New York: D. Appleton & Co., 1876), 160.