The Shepherd and the Flock
“And Jesus, when He came out, saw a great multitude and was moved with compassion for them, because they were like sheep not having a shepherd. So He began to teach them many things” (Mark 6:34).
Sheep without a Shepherd
The feeding of the five thousand is arguably one of Jesus’ most significant miracles. It is the only miracle recorded in all four Gospels. It took place around the time of the Passover (John 6:4). Christ and his disciples had boarded a boat and crossed the lake to a deserted place (Luke 9:10) to rest for a while. Many followed Him on foot (Matthew 14:13) and a large crowd gathered.
At the end of verse 34, we read that Christ had compassion on the crowds because they were like sheep without a shepherd. It can be very easy to miss the significance of these words. This is a dramatic picture. Living on an Island community where crofters have traditionally kept sheep, it may be easier to appreciate the implications. Sheep without a shepherd have no one to feed them. Sheep without a shepherd cannot protect themselves. Sheep without a shepherd will die.
The sheep without a Shepherd imagery was by no means limited to the New Testament. The Old Testament graphically pictures Israel as sheep without a Shepherd on a number of occasions (Numbers 27:17, 1 Kings 22:17). Ezekiel prophesied thus:
“My sheep wandered through all the mountains, and on every high hill; yes, My flock was scattered over the whole face of the earth, and no one was seeking or searching for them” (Ezekiel 34:5).
Christ, the Great Shepherd, realised that the people had no teacher, no one to care for them, and no one to feed them. He made provision for them on these three levels. Firstly, Christ “began to teach them many things” (verse 34). The people needed spiritual direction and guidance and Christ met this need and spoke to them about the Kingdom of God (Luke 9:11). Man’s spiritual needs concern Him.
Secondly, we read in Luke’s account that, “He healed those who had need of healing” (Luke 9:11). His compassion was such that He healed them from their physical ailments. Human suffering concerns Him.
Finally, Christ fed them. He had been teaching all day and the disciples approached Him and said, “This is a deserted place, and already the hour is late. Send them away, that they may go into the surrounding country and villages and buy themselves bread; for they have nothing to eat” (verses 35-36). The disciples were all set to send the crowd away to find their own food. However, Christ directed them, “you give them something to eat” (verse 39), and the famous feeding of the five thousand follows.
The crowd was huge, about five thousand men, besides women and children, and He miraculously fed them all. Some would suggest that the total number, including women and children was over twenty thousand. Man’s physical needs concern Him.
In the parable of the sheep and the goats, Jesus explained that on the Judgement Day, “all the nations will be gathered before Him, and He will separate them one from another, as a shepherd divides his sheep from the goats” (Matthew 25:32). Christ remains present in His church today and shepherds His flock through under-shepherds, ministers and elders, who are to Shepherd his flock until His return. The Apostle Paul, in writing to the Ephesian elders said, “take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood” (Acts 20:28).
The feeding of the five thousand pictures how Christ feeds His church in the New Testament age. He multiplies the bread of His Word and gives it directly to His minsters. Is there not something miraculous and supernatural in the manner finite minds are endowed with insight into mysteries and eternal truths? The people marvelled at Peter and John, as they perceived that they were unlearned and ignorant men (Acts 4:13). Ministers distribute the bread to the people. Ministers receive from the hand of Christ directly and we receive from Christ, through them, in the preaching of the Word.
In as much as the feeding of the five thousand evidenced Christ’s compassion for the people, it also served as the most practical example of ministry conceivable. The disciples were trained by the Chief Shepherd and were to put these lessons in to practice during their ministries. Similarly, that same example has remained to this day. Christ’s under-shepherd’s must teach, care for and feed the flock. Ministers, in particular, will be judged with greater strictness than other believers, due to the influence they can have for good or bad on their congregations (James 3:1).
In Matthew 7:15 Jesus warns us to “beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves.” The Lord contended with false shepherds in the Old Testament, “woe to the shepherds of Israel who feed themselves! Should not the shepherds feed the flocks?” (Ezekiel 34:2). During Jesus’ earthly ministry, the Pharisees were false Shepherds who led away Israel from faithfulness to God. False shepherds remain in the church today. They handle the word of God deceitfully (2 Corinthians 4:2) and misrepresent it’s teaching.
Scotland is full of false shepherds. Many pulpits are occupied but empty, and the congregation are functionally Shepherdless. There is no preaching of the whole counsel of God and there is no care for the flock. Such men and women are not entitled in any sense to the name of shepherd. We ought not to fear being accused of harshness or unkindness in making such a statement. We know them by their fruits (Matthew 7:16). Love for the Church requires us to speak fearlessly in such matters. One of the marks of a false teacher is that they will deny Jesus and bring in destructive heresies (2 Peter 2:1). The substitutionary atonement of Christ is denied as ghastly theology. Let him be accursed who preaches another Gospel (Galatians 1:8-9). Paul felt it necessary to repeat the imprecation in stressing its gravity.
The fact of the presence of false and faithless shepherds in the church is a frightening reality. However, we ought not to forget that the Lord has His own faithful Shepherds and is continually raising up those who would Shepherd His flock throughout this world. This ought to be a source of joy and encouragement to us.
Decline in the church has often come through the progression of unfaithful shepherds, so that spiritual life slowly dwindles away. However, God uses the preaching of the word through faithful shepherds to breathe life into dying congregations and dead souls. Those faithful shepherds may be met at times with disdain and persecution from within the Church. This was the case throughout Church history, where faithful ministers were expelled from their pulpits. However, when the Chief Shepherd appears, they will receive an unfading crown of glory (1 Peter 5:4). Some are called to be faithful through times of revival and reformation. Others are called to be faithful in troubled and declining times. Faithfulness to God, rather than humanistic measures of success, ought to be the measure of any ministry.
We ought to seek to support faithful ministries and to give ourselves to the prayer that “the Lord of the harvest would send out labourers into His harvest” (Luke 10:2), both here in Scotland and further afield.
A congregation will from time to time find themselves in a period of vacancy. The Minister may retire, accept a call to another charge, or sever ties with a congregation, leaving the flock without a minister.
Martin Bucer, a 16th century German reformer, wrote of the great care that ought to be taken in the appointment of under-shepherds. This is particularly apt to a vacant congregation, seeking to fill the pulpit with a godly minister. Amongst other things, Bucer mentions the following as important to the minds of congregations contemplating a call.
Firstly, “churches should faithfully call upon the Lord and pray to him, at all times, but with especial earnestness when ministers are to be chosen and appointed, that He would send skilful, faithful and powerful ministers into His harvest field.” Secondly, “churches must be most careful to pay attention to the directing of the Holy Spirit, in order to see who those are who are gifted with the fitness and ability really to build up the Church of Christ.” Finally, they ought to be ordained and inducted with “great seriousness and reverence.”
False shepherds have always existed in the church and will continue to operate from within the church. This ought not to surprise us, as the Scriptures have so plainly warned us to beware of them.
We ought to be thankful for the faithful and compassionate shepherds in our fellowships, and throughout the world, who follow Christ’s example and are guided by the Word. The reality is, however, that Christ’s under-shepherd’s will at times fail us. A minister may have failings but he must always be faithful. We have our own duty, to pray and not complain. We must trust Christ to work out His purposes in the lives of our congregations. The great reassurance is that Christ, the Good Shepherd, will never fail us. He calls His own sheep by name and leads them.
“My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me. And I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; neither shall anyone snatch them out of My hand” (John 10:27-28).
- Bucer, Martin; Concerning the Care of Souls (Banner of Truth, 2009), pp.60-63