David sang of the Lord as his Shepherd. While looking after his father’s sheep, David no doubt showed a proper care for them – bringing them to green pastures where they would find good grass, and protecting them from their natural enemies such as the lion and the bear. So when he wrote the words: “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want” (Ps 23:1), he would have thought of the care that a perfect shepherd would give his sheep – bringing them into pastures where they need never be hungry, and giving them total protection from their enemies. And it was only because the Lord was David’s shepherd that he had such confidence for his future: “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever”.
Many another sinner since then has enjoyed the same benefits, both in this life and the next, and only because they have come under the care of this Shepherd. He, the Son of God in our nature, has done what no other shepherd could do – or had a right to do – He gave His life for the sheep. If these sheep were to be fed, and cared for in every other way, if they were even to have the smallest blessing possible, they needed a Redeemer. And so great are the blessings He purchased for them that the sheep have been given the promise: “My God shall supply all your need according to His riches in glory by Christ Jesus” (Phil 4:19).
It has pleased this Shepherd to appoint under-shepherds to take care of His flock while they are in this world. Peter, himself one of these shepherds, directs his fellow-shepherds of every generation: “Feed the flock of God which is among you” (1 Pet 5:2). For the “newborn babes”, these shepherds were to provide “the sincere milk of the Word, that [they] may grow thereby” (1 Pet 2:2). Others, more mature in the faith, need “strong meat” (Heb 5:12), and that food also is to be found in the Scriptures. The whole Word of God is suitable food for the sheep. But Christ especially is what the sheep must feed on, for He Himself said, “I am the bread of life: he that cometh to Me shall never hunger; and he that believeth on Me shall never thirst” (Jn 6:35). The good news of Christ and Him crucified is not only to be presented to the unconverted as the means of salvation; it is also to be set before those who are already among the sheep, so that their spiritual life might be sustained and, further, so that they might grow in grace.
In this work, the shepherds must expect opposition. They are, after all, seeking to rescue sinners from the kingdom of Satan. And Satan will do all in his power to prevent that taking place. They are warned that their “adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour” (1 Pet 5:8). He is seeking to devour the shepherds, as well as the other sheep and those who are still in his kingdom. How are the shepherds in particular to react to this danger? Peter gives directions: “Whom resist steadfast in the faith”, and, “Be sober, be vigilant”. They must be temperate in all things, not given to excess of any kind, and they must be watchful lest they be overcome by temptation.
Each of Christ’s shepherds is a bishop – an overseer, not of other shepherds, but of the flock of Christ in his own congregation. So Peter, himself an elder – in other words, a bishop – directed his fellow elders to take “the oversight [of the flock], not by constraint, but willingly; not for filthy lucre, but of a ready mind; neither as being lords over God’s heritage, but being ensamples to the flock” (1 Pet 5:2f). Not only are they to watch over their own hearts; they must also do what they can to care for the flock.
Yet by no means all of those who act as ministers in the Church of Christ are true shepherds – called to their work by the Chief Shepherd Himself. Many have taken positions of responsibility in the professing Church whom Christ never chose to be shepherds. No doubt there are degrees of culpability in the matter. Some may go out under the mistaken impression that they have indeed been called to become shepherds of the flock of Christ; others may wilfully disregard the need for any such call. But there are solemn warnings in the Scriptures against those men who undertake this work without a call from Christ – and against women too, for the office of the ministry is absolutely forbidden to them by such words: “I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man” (1 Tim 2:12).
“Woe be to the shepherds of Israel that do feed themselves!” declared Ezekiel at the mouth of the Lord. “Should not the shepherds feed the flocks?” (Ezek 34:2). And wherever anyone is earning his living as a minister while he does not feed the flock over which he has been set, he comes under this solemn woe. The unconverted are not warned about the dangerous road they are taking; they are encouraged to go on in the way of sin, which leads to a lost eternity. And the flock of Christ under the care of such a minister are left to starve, for the Saviour is not being set before them as their Prophet, their Priest and their King, by whom they will be taken safely through this world of sin and temptation, on to their eternal home. So the Lord further accused the false shepherds: “The diseased have ye not strengthened, neither have ye healed that which was sick, neither have ye bound up that which was broken, neither have ye brought again that which was driven away, neither have ye sought that which was lost”. Such shepherds are not doing the work which they ought to be doing, and they cannot have a reward. The flock are being allowed to wander on towards heaven without the help of a true-hearted shepherd.
Good for the genuine sheep in these circumstances that the Chief Shepherd will never forsake them! He will care for them constantly and bring them to their destination in heaven at last, although they may not have a God-called under-shepherd to feed them, at least not for a particular stage in their journey through time.
But Christ has His faithful shepherds – truly faithful, though imperfectly so. And every one of these shepherds is promised a reward: “When the chief Shepherd shall appear, ye shall receive a crown of glory that fadeth not away” (1 Pet 5:4). Whatever their difficulties here, however great their labours, the Chief Shepherd does not forget them, and He never will. He does not forget the efforts which they make in trying to spread the gospel, in seeking to strengthen the weak of the flock, in attempting to oppose the errors of the wicked one. And it is for their encouragement that He has left such promises as this in the Word of God.
John Calvin enlarges on this point in his Commentary on 1 Peter: “Unless pastors keep this end in view, it can never come about that they will proceed in the course of that calling in earnest, but on the contrary they will often fail because there are innumerable hindrances which can discourage the most prudent. They often have to do with ungrateful men, from whom they receive an unworthy reward; long and great labours are often in vain; Satan sometimes prevails with his wicked devices. So then, to prevent the faithful servant of Christ from being cast down, there is this one and only remedy, to turn his eyes to the coming of Christ. By this it will come about that he, who seems to derive no encouragement from men, will faithfully go on with his labours, knowing that a great reward is prepared for him by the Lord. Moreover, in case delayed expectation produces weariness, he sets forth at the same time the greatness of the reward, which is sufficient to compensate for all delay.”
At the end of his days, with the prospect of a violent death looming ever closer, Paul was no doubt very much encouraged by the reward which he so confidently expected to receive from the Chief Shepherd at the end of time. “Henceforth”, he said, “there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, shall give me at that day”. Yet this reward was not for Paul alone: “Not to me only, but unto all them also that love His appearing” (2 Tim 4:8). This was a reward for all the children of God. So we might ask, What is unique about the shepherd’s reward? John Brown (of Edinburgh) confesses in his Commentary on 1 Peter that “we can form but inadequate and indistinct ideas” on this matter. But he goes on: “There is much, however, to lead us to believe that a portion, and probably no small portion of it, is to consist in witnessing the holy happiness of those to whose spiritual interests he ministered on earth; and to know most certainly that to his labours and instrumentality their happiness has been owing. Such is the view which the Apostle’s words naturally lead us to take when he calls the Philippian Christians his ‘joy and crown’, and when to the Thessalonians he says, ‘What is our hope, or joy, or crown of rejoicing? Are not even ye in the presence of our Lord Jesus Christ at His coming? For ye are our glory and joy.'” “What a holy satisfaction to know”, Brown adds, “that we have been the means of saving souls from death, of covering multitudes of sins, and increasing the joys of angels!”
Thus, if a shepherd sees that his flock is small, if he feels that few are being added to the flock of the great Shepherd by his instrumentality, let him take comfort from the fact that the reward is not proportioned to the success of his work, but to the faithfulness he shows in it. It is a general principle: “Them that honour Me I will honour”. The principle applies to the ministry; God is honoured by the faithfulness of His under-shepherds. This is so, not only when their preaching is a means of drawing sinners to the Saviour, but when the gospel is resisted, “for we are unto God a sweet savour of Christ, in them that are saved, and in them that perish” (2 Cor 2:15). The shepherd’s reward is sure, whatever the results of his work. To apply the gospel to the hearts of sinners is beyond the shepherd’s power. But even when the Lord is not pleased so to apply the Word, the shepherd will not lose his reward.
Let the servants of Christ then go on, remembering the words of Paul, that great and faithful under-shepherd: “Therefore, my beloved brethren, be ye steadfast, unmoveable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, forasmuch as ye know that your labour is not in vain in the Lord” (1 Cor 15:58). And let him remember also that these words come to him with the authority of the Chief Shepherd, who would not have him to be without consolation even now, in the midst of his labours, when the final reward often seems so very far away. The words: “Casting all your care upon Him; for He careth for you” (1 Pet 5:7), are no doubt given for the encouragement of all believers but, given the context, can we doubt that they are specially intended as an exhortation for the shepherds of the flock?