“He who is a hired hand and not a shepherd, who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees, and the wolf snatches and scatters them. He flees because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep.” John 10:12, 13
[The elder] is to have oversight of the life of everyone, to admonish amicably those whom they see to be erring or to be living a disordered life, and where it is required, to enjoin fraternal corrections themselves and along with others. John Calvin, Draft Ecclesiastical Ordinances
The Lord Jesus warned that His followers would have trouble and trials in this world (Jn. 16:33). However, He did not leave His sheep alone. The Spirit of God is in them to comfort, embolden, and sustain; and the shepherds of God’s flock are assigned the task of defending the sheep against threats and troubles rising from various quarters.
In this installment, I want to explore a bit the idea of “guarding” and how that fits in with the Lord’s good purposes for His flock. Then we will consider three primary threats against the wellbeing of the flock which the shepherds of the Lord must prepare to meet.
The Biblical idea of “guarding”
The idea of “guarding” God’s possession against threats is not a New Testament idea. Indeed, from the very beginning human beings were charged with the responsibility of protecting what had been entrusted to them from anything that threatened the good plan and purposes of the Lord.
The first mention of this idea is in Genesis 2:15, where Adam is given two instructions concerning his calling to fill the earth and exercise dominion over the creatures. First, he is instructed to “cultivate” the garden of Eden, working with his mind and hands to enable maximum fruitfulness on the part of all the creatures.
Second, Adam was commanded to “keep” the garden. This is the Hebrew verb, shamar, and means literally, “to guard.” It is the verb used in Genesis 2:24 to describe the work of the angel as he protected the entrance of the garden against Adam and Eve returning there. Adam was charged to “guard” the garden against anything that might get in the way of God’s plan for fruitfulness and dominion unto goodness extending to all the earth.
God knew what Adam did not, and what he failed to recognize when the tempter arrived in Genesis 3. Had he been more vigilant and obedient, he might have rescued Eve from her temptation and kept her, himself, and the garden of the Lord from falling into corruption.
In a similar way, shepherds are called to guard the flocks of the Lord. God is doing a good work in His churches, making disciples, building His Church, and advancing His Kingdom, so that the knowledge of the glory of the Lord will cover the earth as the waters cover the seas. But there are three strong dangers which are able to impede, divert, and derail the progress of God’s good work. The shepherds of God’s flock must be alert to these, and they must take measures to defend the Lord’s sheep against their destructive powers.
The three primary threats against the wellbeing of God’s flocks are the false teachings of ignorant or unbelieving teachers; the temptations of the world, the flesh, and the devil; and the ravages of the devil against the persons of God’s people. Let’s consider each of these in turn.
False teachers will always be present in the Church. Unhappily, they do not typically announce themselves as such; indeed, false teachers frequently use the language of faith and the Gospel in ways that depart from orthodox teaching and lead the saints to drift from the salvation of the Lord. The shepherds of God’s flock are charged with being able to recognize false teaching and deal with it accordingly.
We see this, for example, in Paul’s instructions to Timothy and Titus. Timothy was to take the lead in opposing those who were misleading the people of God in Ephesus by false teachings respecting the Law of God (1 Tim. 1:4-6). These were perhaps the same people who had bedeviled the Galatians, insisting that true believers, even among the Gentiles, should submit to circumcision.
He instructed Timothy to make sure he was sound in the Word of God and alert to the “irreverent babble” of those whose smooth talking would spread spiritual gangrene among the flocks of the Lord (2 Tim. 2:14-16). He was to be diligent in preaching and teaching the Word, laying a strong foundation of orthodox faith and feeding the flocks on the good Word of the Lord, and not giving in to their “felt needs” or personal whims and passions (1 Tim. 4:1-5).
Paul charged Titus with enlisting the elders of the cities of Cyprus to expose and silence those who were using sophisticated mind games and clever tricks of language to sow confusion into the house churches there (Tit. 1:5-13). False teachers must be exposed, confronted, and corrected, or their teaching will lead the flocks of the Lord astray, causing them to become “detestable, disobedient, unfit for any good work” (Tit. 1:16).
Peter also was urgent that the churches to which he wrote should be vigilant against false teachers (2 Pet. 2:1-3, 17-19). False teachers promise big things, but they make those who follow them slaves to their teachings and manipulation (v. 19). God’s shepherds must stand in the gap against such teaching and protect the flocks entrusted to their care.
False teachers can arise from within the Church, but they also impinge on the Church from without. In our day, for example, the mindset of materialism as well as that of postmodernism have caused many church leaders to incline away from the clear teaching of Scripture to seek accommodation with the spirit of the age. The power of the Gospel and the presence of the Kingdom slip away from congregations where the ways of the world are the order of the day in everything from how we organize our churches, the way we worship, what we mean by discipleship, and what we teach as the true and orthodox faith of Christ.
Church leaders must prepare themselves through study and discipline to defend their flocks against all false teaching, lest the sheep entrusted to their care become ravaged and weakened by the alluring but false words of the enemies of the faith. Samuel Miller wrote, “The truth is, the Ruling Elder who is active, zealous and faithful, will have occasion, almost every day, to discriminate between truth and error; to act as a guardian of the Church’s orthodoxy; to pass his judgment, either privately or judicially, on real or supposed departures from it; and to instruct the inexperienced and the doubting in the great doctrines of our holy religion.”
All believers are confronted with temptation (1 Cor. 10:13). As Martin Luther is alleged to have put it, “You can’t stop the birds from flying over your head, but you can keep them from making a nest in your hair.” The shepherds of God’s flock must equip the people in their charge to recognize and resist temptation, whether it comes from their own fleshly desires, the surrounding culture and world, or the devil himself.
Temptation, as Helmut Thielicke put it, means finding ourselves at the point of wanting to be disloyal to God. The prophet Asaph dealt with just such a situation in Psalm 73. Tempted by the ease and prosperity of the wicked, especially as he considered his own poverty, although he was a servant of the Lord, Asaph recognized covetousness rising in his soul, and he took immediate steps to arrest it before it could blossom into sin. It’s worth noting Asaph’s regimen of resistance.
First, he understood that no one ever sins alone. Every time we sin we bring harm to the community of God, because we introduce corruption and disobedience into the Body of Christ (v. 15). We can resist temptation to the extent that neighbor-love is a commanding principle in our lives. The shepherds of God’s flock must nurture the sheep in such love, so that they might apply themselves to it whenever temptation rises.
Second, Asaph was led to consider the consequences of falling through temptation into sin: Sin, he considered, is a slippery slope. Sin is what sinners do, and sinners stand before the judgment of the Lord (vv. 16-20). Should he give in to this sin, Asaph would be little better than a beast (vv. 21, 22). Thus, the fear of God and loathing of sin enabled Asaph to resist temptation. God’s shepherds must teach His sheep to bring holiness to completion in the fear of God (2 Cor. 7:1) and to hate sin as the enemy of all that is good (Ps. 97:10).
Next, Asaph fled to the Lord – to His Word and prayer (vv. 16, 17, 23-26). In prayer and meditation he was able to refocus on the beauty and sufficiency of the Lord, so that any thought of coveting created things simply faded away. Unless the people of God are grounded by their shepherds in the disciplines of prayer and Scripture, they will be prey to every temptation which confronts them day by day.
Finally, Asaph set himself apart from those who practice sin and rededicated himself to the service of the Lord (vv. 27, 28). This was a conscious effort and an overt activity, which included, in this case, the writing of this beautiful psalm. It is good for God’s people to admit their struggles with one another, to seek help in dealing with temptation, and to share the Lord’s victories as He gives them. But the shepherds of God’s flock must create and sustain such an environment for sharing spiritual struggles and seeking and proclaiming renewal in the Lord.
It is the duty of shepherds to understand the various ways that temptation confronts the sheep, and to equip and encourage them to resist the devil, seek the way of escape when temptation arises, and grow through temptation unto greater glory and obedience rather than fall through it into sin and guilt and shame. And if the shepherds have been diligent about developing relationships with their sheep – through visits and hospitality – and leading them in the ways of the Lord, they should have little difficulty sustaining an environment in which conversation about spiritual matters will feature prominently.
The ravages of the devil
It pleases the Lord, from time to time, to allow His people to fall into situations of distress, despair, suffering, or persecution. We cannot always understand the Lord’s purposes in this, and such situations do not always come upon us because of some sin in our lives. Rather, the Lord knows how to discipline and shape each of His sheep so that we might rest more completely in Him and bring forth the righteousness He seeks (Heb. 12:3-11).
Job, Peter, and Paul all knew the direct effects of Satan’s ravages (Job 1, 2; 2 Cor. 12:7-9; Matt. 16:21-23). Satan can be very active in seeking to “devour” (1 Pet. 5:8) the flock of the Lord. His attacks can take various forms, especially suffering in an emotional, spiritual, relational, or physical manner. The challenge to the shepherds of God’s flock is to recognize when one of the sheep has come under such an attack and to be able to come alongside until health is restored. What does this involve?
First, the shepherds of God’s flock need to recognize, and to be able to show the flock, that suffering is a gift of God intended to bring forth maturity in the believer and glory to the Lord (Phil. 1:29; Jms. 1:2, 3; Rom. 5:3-5). God can bring good out of all suffering (Rom. 8:28). But we must learn to receive our trials as from the Lord and to greet them with thanksgiving and praise, anticipating God’s work in using them for our benefit (1 Thess. 5:18; Phil. 4:6, 7). Such a response is easier to muster when one is being guided through it by a faithful and caring shepherd.
Shepherds also must help those who are suffering understand the various ways God can use their trial for good. Trials can lead to greater love for the Lord and more consistent worship and joy (1 Pet. 1:6-8). They are useful to guide us in the way of righteousness (Heb. 12:3-11). They can strengthen our resolve to be faithful to the Lord and diligent in the work of the Gospel (2 Cor. 4:1-4). And by trials and suffering the Lord prepares us, by learning to rely on Him, to comfort and encourage others who fall into the ravages of the devil (2 Cor. 1:3-11). A wise shepherd will lead a sufferer to consider such purposes in order to help them focus beyond their immediate trial to the joy and blessing God intends through it (Heb. 12:1, 2).
Finally, shepherds must bear the burden of the suffering sheep by being with them in prayer and waiting on the Lord for relief and renewal. Jesus has promised never to fail nor forsake us, and He fulfills this work by giving shepherds to watch over the wellbeing of His sheep, and to do so with joy (Heb. 13:5, 17).
Church leaders must not refuse the duty of defending the flock of God against false teachings, temptations of various kinds, and the ravages of the devil. The wellbeing of the flock under their care requires that they prepare themselves thoroughly and work faithfully in each aspect of this “guarding” responsibility.
Next steps: Talk with some of the leaders – the shepherds – of your church. Are they actively involved in this work of defending the flock? In what ways? What can you do to encourage or assist them in this labor of love?
For more insight to this important topic, get the book, The Shepherd Leader: Achieving Effective Shepherding in Your Church, by Timothy Witmer, from our online store. You might also read the article, “To Shepherd or to Manage?” by T. M. Moore.