Every Christmas season—or rather what I prefer to call the season of Advent (the new church year)—famously begins with Jesus’ birth narrative. My favorite part of the narrative comes from Luke 2:8-14:
And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with great fear. And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom He is pleased!”
Why is this my favorite portion of the birth narrative? Because of who shepherds were as a social caste—or rather social “outcastes” (see what I did there?). Shepherds were one of the lowest castes of Roman society. They were on the outskirts of society and people rejected, ignored, and even demoralized them. They were on the outskirts of not only inner society, but physically as well as they remained out in the fields to take care of their flocks. Yet an angel did not appear to princes, kings, or the CEOs of those days. Instead, they appeared to lowly shepherds—the janitors and garbage truck men of their society, if you will.
One of the many titles attributed to Jesus is Him as our Good Shepherd. He is our Good Shepherd not only as the One who seeks the lost (Luke 15:1-7), but also as the Good Shepherd whom society rejects, ignores, and demoralizes (John 7:7). The world continues to reject Him as the only means to salvation (John 14:6), they ignore His wisdom and Spirit, and they even demoralize Him in comics and cartoons like Family Guy. Jesus the Good Shepherd was rejected, ignored, and demoralized for our sake on the Cross.
Pastors as Shepherds
I would be remiss not to talk about the role of pastors because they help us to understand Jesus as our Good Shepherd. Pastors also act as shepherds as God’s instruments to guide others to the Greater Shepherd, Christ. Proverbs 27:23 puts it well, “Know well the condition of your flocks, and give attention to your herds.” This proverb more directly describes the pastor’s role of overseer, which I’ll get to momentarily. Our English word “pastor” comes from the Latin word with the same spelling, pastor, which means “shepherd.” This Latin word itself is a derivation from the Greek word for shepherd, ποιμήν (poimēn).
In Scripture, the words Bishop (Overseer), Elder (sometimes deacons by some translators), and Pastor are used interchangeably for the same pastoral office. These words are, respectively, επίσκοπος (episkopos), πρεσβύτερος (presbuteros), and ποιμήν (poimēn). We tend to think these three terms are different offices, but textual evidence shows otherwise. The textual evidence shows us this first in 1 Timothy 3 where Paul lists the qualifications of overseer and elders, and we see they are equally parallel (parallelism in Greek is highly significant, for it serves the purpose of showing equality in meaning). Paul again uses the term to refer to the same man in Titus 1:5, 7, “This is why I left you [Titus the pastor] in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders [presbuteros] in every town as I directed you… For an overseer [episkopos], as God’s steward, must be above reproach…”
Peter uses all three terms together in 1 Peter 5:1-2 to refer to these men of God when he addresses the pastoral office, “So I exhort the elders [presbuteros] among you, as a fellow elder and witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: shepherd [poimano, verb for “to shepherd”] the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight [episkopos].”
Before all these epistles, we actually see Paul use all three terms interchangeably. In Acts 20, Paul addresses the Ephesian Elders (v. 17, presbuteros) on their pastoral service, where he says specifically, “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers [episkopos], to shepherd [poimano] the church of God” (v. 28).
So why the three different terms? These are used to address the different roles of a pastor. If we want to stay true to the Greek, the more accurate term for “pastor” would be “elder,” which isn’t what we think of today. While the Greek word can certainly be used to mean “old man,” when used in the church context it was meant as an elected person over an assembly of Christian believers. It makes sense they used this word because it was ancient practice back then for the elder of one’s family to be the head of the family. So they used this term for what we call pastors today—heads of the church.
As elders, or pastors, they are to exercise “oversight” over the church—to be “overseers.” The DBL Greek defines an overseer as someone who watches over, directs, and cares for a church. We see such qualifications for the overseer in 1 Timothy 3:1-7. Lastly, when pastors “shepherd” over their flocks (congregations), it means to guide and help. As good shepherds, then, pastors exercise oversight over their congregations to be conscientious of heresy, unrepenting sinners, and many other things as well as shepherding their congregation—caring for the people within the church. As they fulfill their duty as our shepherds, they shepherd us—or guide us—to the true Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ. As our Good Shepherd, Christ watches over us and takes care of His flock through different means.
Christ Our Good Shepherd
How does Christ take care of His flock? There are many ways in which He cares for us, but I will address three primary things He does for us: Forgiving, clothing us in His righteousness, and comforting.
Christ promises us forgiveness in repentance. “Whatever you ask in My name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask Me anything in My name, I will do it” (John 14:13-14). It is foolish to presume He means literally anything in His name. If you ask Him for a pony, it’s unlikely He’s going to give you a pony. If you pray to be a billionaire, it’s unlikely He’s going to make you a billionaire. In the context of this saying, Christ made the bold statement He is the way, the truth, and the life—the only way to salvation (v. 6). In this same statement and the ones following, He reveals He is the only way to the Father.
So when He says, “whatever you ask in My name,” it’s in the context of salvation since salvation comes from the Father. Therefore, when we ask Him for His forgiveness, He gives it to us. As Paul describes it, “For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death” (2 Corinthians 7:10). Henry Jacobs comments godly sorrow—or contrition—brings about “repentance under influence of the Gospel… The final object for the sorrowing is salvation” (pg. 244). In other words, Jesus gives us forgiveness and salvation simply because we ask in response to the Gospel by faith. Jesus even uses physical means to forgive us in the Lord’s Supper, “for this is My blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matthew 26:28). Christ uses His Word in repentance and His body and blood in the Lord’s Supper to bring us forgiveness of sins.
When we are baptized, we are clothed in Christ’s righteousness. “For in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ” (Galatians 3:26-27). Paul goes into a lot detail of this clothing in Romans 6. He writes we are baptized into Christ’s death and raised into newness of life.
In baptism, he says, we die a death like His and will therefore be united with Him in a resurrection like His. Our “old self”—our sin, the old Adam—was crucified with Him in our baptism, no longer enslaved to sin. Having died with Him, therefore, we are raised with Him and live to God and no longer to sin. In a single word, this is justification. As the image to the right illustrates, our sins were placed on Christ on the Cross and His righteousness was placed onto us; and we experience all this in our baptism.
The last characteristic of Jesus as our Good Shepherd I want to focus on is His role as our Comforter. So far in repentance, the Lord’s Supper, and Baptism we have seen Christ as our Shepherd in how He guides us toward forgiveness and salvation. Now we will see how He cares for us as our Good Shepherd.
The passage that immediately comes to mind is Matthew 11:28-30, “Come to Me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you, and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy, and My burden is light.” In this life we are met with constant grief, fear, pain, and toiling. Jesus is aware of all this, and He makes a command to come to Him—to draw near to Him. It is hard to see the significance of the use of the imperative in English; it is much more easily seen in the Greek. Even in English we use the imperative mood as a sense of command, yet when we read it it’s hard to see it that way.
After Jesus makes the command, there’s a comma to separate it from the following clause that unfortunately takes away this sense of command in English. If we read it in Greek, we would read it as, “Come!” By making this imperative statement, Jesus is commanding, “Come to Me!” Every time we see “I,” “my,” or “me,” Jesus is actually using these personal pronouns emphatically. He is saying, “Take My yoke upon you, and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart… For My yoke is easy, and My burden is light.” In essence, He is saying, “I know you are toiling and you are heavy laden. If you desire rest, come to Me! For I alone will give you rest. You can find ultimate rest in Me alone.” I love how the following commentary describes this call for help, “It is the height of abnormality and irrationality to spurn the divine help when it is absolutely needed” (Lenski, 457).
Yet how does Jesus give us rest and comfort? There is no singular way in which He does this for us. I alone have experienced Jesus’ rest and comfort in numerous ways, and I’m sure all of you have as well. There is no singular way in which He may choose to comfort us. I’ve found comfort in receiving the Lord’s Supper for forgiveness, in remembering my Baptism, the reassurance and encouragement of a Christian friend or a family member, even simply “happening” to come across a passage in Scripture. Christ chooses many ways in which He comforts us.
Sometimes we may suffer for a little while. While we’re in the midst of this suffering, it may seem like God is absent and cares little about our suffering. Yet I have found when this happens, it’s not God who moved, but us. You are God’s child! He’s not leaving you anywhere! My own earthly father would’ve never left me alone to suffer as child. How much more, then, does my Heavenly Father desire to comfort me!
Often, as disobedient children, we are the ones who move. So when we suffer, whether it’s our fault or not, and we fail to see God, it’s because we’re either seeking comfort in other things or we refuse to see the comfort He desires to bring us. Regardless of the situation, we have a promise. “And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to His eternal glory in Christ, will Himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you” (1 Peter 5:10).
We may experience a thorn in the flesh like Paul did in order for God to teach us something (2 Corinthians 12:7). Our suffering may be necessary for a little while to test the genuineness of our faith in order it may result in the praise and honor of Christ at His revelation (1 Peter 1:6-7). Yet, as Peter ends his first epistle on suffering, we have the promise God Himself (a reflexive pronoun for emphatic use) will restore us, confirm us, strengthen us, and establish us.
So, every Christmas season—every Advent—whether I suffer for a time or not, I joyfully sing aloud: Gloria in excelsis Deo! That is, “Glory to God in the highest!” For Christ the Lord has come and has forgiven and baptized me, a miserable sinner, and gives me rest in all my afflictions.
Jacobs, Henry E, George Frederick Spieker, and Carl A. Swensson. Annotations on the Epistles of Paul to 1 Corinthians 7-16, 2 Corinthians and Galatians. New York: The Christian Literacture Co., 1897.
Lenski, R.C.H. The Interpretation of St. Matthew’s Gospel. Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1943.
Greek exegesis and both sources used from Logos 7 Software.
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