The Shepherds of the Old and New Testament


The concepts of shepherd and elder were not novel to the New Testament. The Old Testament had men who served in those ways, though we are told little about how they were inducted or recognized.

The first mention of "shepherd" in the Old Testament was when Joshua was appointed shepherd by God Himself in Num 27:17-20-- "who may go out before them, and who may come in before them, and who may lead them out, and who may bring them in; that the congregation of Jehovah be not as sheep which have no shepherd. And Jehovah said unto Moses, Take thee Joshua the son of Nun, a man in whom is the Spirit, and lay thy hand upon him; and set him before Eleazar the priest, and before all the congregation; and give him a charge in their sight. And thou shalt put of thine honor upon him, that all the congregation of the children of Israel may obey." Thus the pattern was begun: Shepherds were to be spiritual people, pleasing in the sight of God; willing to stand up for what is right; leaders; confirmed by priests or preachers; to be followed and obeyed in matters of opinion by the congregation. The Hebrew for this office, written as nearly as possible in English, was eesh, having to do with a man or a mighty man or a great man, a champion or steward (Strong's Hebrew Dictionary).

The elders (shepherds) of the Old Testament had a checkered past. Indeed, one of the saddest lines was "and the elders were led to sin." In both the Old and New Testament, the flocks (people) expected their shepherds to "get it right" even when no one else was reaching the mark. When the elders "were led to sin" or "fell into sin" it was a sad day for all of Israel.

When Israel was deep in sin, God's promise to them in Jeremiah was that " . . . and I will give you shepherds according to my heart, who shall feed you with knowledge and understanding." (Jeremiah 3: 15). "Shepherd" was a picture of compassion and of correction that was not impossible to bear. Compare to the 23rd Psalm.

In the New Testament, much more is said and said explicitly about the characteristics (qualifications) of shepherds. Three Greek words are used to describe the office and the work: πρεσβύτερος , presbuteros ( pres-boo'-ter-os). Comparative of πρέσβυς presbus (elderly); older; as noun, a senior; specifically an Israelite Sanhedrist (also figuratively, member of the celestial council) or Christian “presbyter”: - elder (-est), old." (from Strong's Greek Dictionary). This word which is usually translated "elder" has to do with the capacity of the person as a spiritually more mature person, a person who knows God's word well and can "rightly divide" it (II Timothy 2: 15). The second Greek term is επισκοπή , episkope, ep-is-kop-ay' , inspection (for relief); by implication superintendence; specifically the Christian “episcopate”: - the office of a “bishop”, bishoprick, visitation. Episkope' is the word translated as "bishop" in I Timothy 3: 1 (Strong's). A close word to episkope' was the episkopos , ep-is'-kop-os, a superintendent, that is, Christian officer in general charge of a (or the) church (literally or figuratively): - bishop, overseer. The third word for this office is the one translated as shepherd (poimen) in Acts 20: 28. ποιμαίνω , poimaino, poy-mah'ee-no; to tend as a shepherd (or figuratively superviser): - feed (cattle), rule (Strong's). The work the shepherd, bishop, or elder does is also described as that of a steward of God in Titus 1: 7 in the Greek οικονόμος oikonomos, oy-kon-om'-os, a house distributor (that is, manager), or overseer, that is, an employee in that capacity; by extension a fiscal agent (treasurer); figuratively a preacher (of the Gospel): - chamberlain, governor, steward. "Preacher" in this Greek reference further develops the idea of I Timothy 3: 2 (an apt teacher, ASV). The office of evangelist is a different Greek word ευαγγελιστής , euaggelistes , pronounced yoo-ang-ghel-is-tace' , a preacher of the gospel: - evangelist." The preacher is a herald of the word. Nowhere in the New Testament is euaggelelistes used to describe the work of an elder, nor presbuteros, episkope, or poimen used to describe the evangelist. The denominational concept of a preacher superintending the work of an entire congregation is foreign to the New Testament pattern.

Let us pose a mostly rhetorical question: given the possibilities of elder, bishop, or shepherd, which of these three facets of the eldership do most people seek most of the time? Easy answer: the shepherd. Yes, the shepherds have the authority and rule of the congregation as along as we are talking about matters of opinion (Hegbrews 13: 17). But clout (the rod) is not usually what members are looking for when they seek an elder. They seek the shepherd side.

Is that surprising? When we seek Jesus, are we looking primarily for the ruler, administrator, or shepherd? We are so fond of the shepherd in Jesus Christ. We love the words "Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light." (Matthew 11: 28-30).

In the brotherhood today, when preachers and congregations talk about elders, they seem to spend a lot of time with the qualifications of elders as given in I Timothy 3, Titus 1, Acts 20: 28, and I Peter 5. The amount of time and attention given to these discussions suggests that there are congregations who are not happy with the choices of men that they have made for that office. Lacking a look inside the eldership--and given the veil of secrecy that seems to pervade the eldership, once the men are in office--preachers and members go over and over the qualifications, wondering what there was that they might have missed. Should a man with one believing child be allowed to serve? Does this explain the lack of poimen (shepherding) they are receiving? Sometimes, but not always. How about being an apt teacher? This may be closer to the mark, but effective elders sometimes teach in ways that are not large-group presentations. Maybe we are not looking hard enough at the shepherding aspect of the office. Most of the books listed below seem to lean in that direction.

Books that have been useful in preparing these lessons include:

Anderson, L. (1993). They smell like sheep. West Monroe, Louisiana: Howard Publishing.

Gangel, K. O. (1984). So you want to be a leader! Camp Hill, Pennsylvania: Christian Publications.

Grimsley, R. W. (1964). The Church and its elders. Abilene, Texas: Quality Printing Company.

Lewis, J. P. (1985). Leadership questions confronting the church. Nashville, TN: Gospel Advocate.

Lewis, J. P. (2008). The question of instrumental music in worship. Searcy, AR: Truth for Today World Mission School.

Sanders, J. O. (1989). Spiritual leadership. Chicago, Ill: Moody Press.

Strauch, A. (1991). A study guide to biblical eldership: An urgent call to restore Biblical church leadership. Littleton, CO: Lewis and Roth Publishers.

White, J., & Blue, K. (1985). Church discipline that heals: Putting costly love into action. Downers Grove, Illinois: Intervarsity Press.

Yeakley, F. R. jr. (1980). Church leadership and organization. Arvada, CO: Christian Communications.


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