1, 2. (a) What can happen if a flock of sheep is not protected? (b) The work of a shepherd in Bible times consisted of what?
HIROYASU was a small boy in Japan when his mother bought a ram and a ewe. He looked after them, and the ewe produced two lambs a year, so the flock began to grow. By the time he was 12, there were 12 or 13 sheep. “Early one morning while I was still in bed,” he recalls, “I heard them bleating. I didn’t go out at once. When I finally did, I saw a pack of wild dogs running away from my lambs, which had their bellies ripped open. Frantically, I searched for the mother sheep. I found her, still breathing, in a pool of blood. Only the ram survived. I was heartbroken. I should have gone to check on the flock when I first heard them. They were defenseless against the dogs.”
2 In Bible times, almost everyone was familiar with the work of a shepherd. His job was to lead his flock to pastures and ensure that the animals in his care were well-fed. He also protected them against predators and searched for strays. (1 Sam. 17:34-36) The shepherd had his flock lie down to rest, undisturbed. He also assisted in the birth of lambs and then looked after these. Many Bible writers, including Jeremiah, used the figure of a shepherd as a metaphor for a man charged with the care of people, either as their ruler or as their spiritual overseer.
3. To what was Jeremiah referring when he used the terms “shepherd” and “shepherding”?
3 Some in the Christian congregation may think of the elders as shepherds only when these men visit their brothers to help and encourage them. However, from the way Jeremiah used the terms “shepherd” and “shepherding,” we can see that he applied them to all aspects of the relationship between Judah’s overseers and the people. God often condemned the princes, prophets, and priests in Judah as bad shepherds because they were not seeking the best interests of the common people. (Jer. 2:8) They mistreated, misled, and neglected their “sheep” while selfishly pursuing their own interests. God’s people were left in a shocking state of spiritual neglect. Jehovah pronounced “woe” on those false shepherds, and he assured his people that he would give them caring, attentive shepherds who would really protect the flock.—Read Jeremiah 3:15; 23:1-4.
4. Who is caring for God’s flock today, and with what spirit?
4 God’s promise had a major fulfillment in the Chief Shepherd of Jehovah’s sheep, Jesus, who became the Head of the Christian congregation. He called himself “the fine shepherd,” one who showed real compassion for those whom he led. (John 10:11-15) Today, Jehovah is using undershepherds to care for his earthly flock, both anointed brothers of the faithful and discreet slave class as well as conscientious elders of the “great crowd.” (Rev. 7:9) These shepherds strive to reflect Jesus’ self-sacrificing spirit. They want to feed and cherish the congregation, in imitation of Christ. Woe to any who neglect or lord it over their brothers or who adopt a harsh or arrogant attitude toward them! (Matt. 20:25-27; 1 Pet. 5:2, 3) What is Jehovah looking for in Christian shepherds today? What can we learn from Jeremiah’s writings about appropriate attitudes and motives for elders to have as they care for their responsibilities? Let us examine their roles as providers of help and protective care, as teachers inside and outside the congregation, and as judges.
PROVIDING PROTECTIVE CARE
5-7. (a) Jehovah expects his sheep to be cared for in what way, and why? (b) How can elders show real love for their brothers, including those who have strayed?
5 The apostle Peter called Jehovah “the shepherd and overseer of [our] souls.” (1 Pet. 2:25) What attitude does God display toward his “sheep”? We find an answer by looking back to Jeremiah’s day. After criticizing the bad shepherds, who scattered and neglected the flock, Jehovah said that he would “collect” his sheep, bringing them back to their pasture ground. He promised to appoint over them good shepherds, ‘who would actually shepherd them’ and see to it that his people were protected from rapacious enemies. (Jer. 23:3, 4) Yes, Jehovah’s sheep were precious to him. His sheep today are precious too. He has paid a high price in behalf of their everlasting welfare.—1 Pet. 1:18, 19.
6 Like literal shepherds, Christian overseers should not be negligent in caring for the congregation. If you serve as an elder, are you striving to be alert to any sign of suffering on the part of your brothers, and are you willing to assist them promptly? Wise King Solomon wrote: “You ought to know positively the appearance of your flock. Set your heart to your droves.” (Prov. 27:23) That verse extols the industriousness of literal shepherds; yet, in principle it may be applied to the care provided by spiritual shepherds in the congregation. If you serve as an elder, are you consciously fighting against any tendency to dominate others? The very fact that Peter mentioned “lording it over those who are God’s inheritance” proves that it is distinctly possible for an elder to do so. How can you help to accomplish what is described at Jeremiah 33:12? (Read.) Single parents, widows, stepfamilies, the elderly, and youngsters may have special need of attention and help.
7 As a shepherd may do with literal sheep, a congregation shepherd sometimes needs to search out and help individuals who, for one reason or another, have strayed from the flock. His doing so will call for self-sacrifice and humility. He patiently spends time caring for the needs of those entrusted to his oversight. Congregation elders would do well to ask themselves frankly: ‘To what extent am I striving to encourage and upbuild rather than condemn or criticize? Do I honestly want to do better?’ Repeated efforts may sometimes be required to help one see things from God’s perspective. If a brother or a sister hesitates to accept Scriptural counsel (not just a personal opinion), remember the Supreme Shepherd and Overseer, Jehovah. He patiently “kept speaking” to and striving to help his wayward people. (Jer. 25:3-6) Most of God’s people today do not practice bad things, but when counsel is required, an elder must offer it as did Jehovah.
8. How may spiritual shepherds imitate Jeremiah’s example?
8 While there was still hope that fellow Jews might return to Jehovah, Jeremiah prayed for them. He said to God: “Remember my standing before you to speak good even concerning them, to turn back your rage from them.” (Jer. 18:20) You can see from these words that Jeremiah was looking for the good in his brothers, not thinking ill of them. Today, Christian overseers should imitate Jeremiah’s attitude until there is clear evidence that a person has unrepentantly set his heart to do what is bad. A positive step is to commend others for the good they are doing and to pray for them and with them.—Matt. 25:21.
What promise did God make through Jeremiah regarding spiritual shepherds? How can Christian overseers provide protective care?
“THEY WILL CERTAINLY FEED YOU”
9, 10. Why does being a good shepherd (congregation elder) mean being a teacher?
9 In harmony with what we read at Jeremiah 3:15, Christian shepherds are to “feed [others] with knowledge and insight,” that is, to serve as teachers. (1 Tim. 3:2; 5:17) Jehovah promised his people that the good shepherds would do that. And he encouraged the Jews to accept the corrective teaching from his prophet Jeremiah. (Read Jeremiah 6:8.) To be healthy, sheep need nourishment. Comparably, to remain spiritually healthy, God’s people need Scriptural feeding and direction.
10 When it comes to teaching, elders have a twofold role—that of helping those who are already in the congregation and that of helping those who are not yet true Christians. As to the latter, remember: One of the chief reasons that the Christian congregation exists is to preach the good news of God’s Kingdom. Accordingly, elders must be zealous evangelizers. (Jer. 1:7-10) As such, they both fulfill their own responsibility toward God and set a fine example for their brothers. If you are an elder, do you not find that regularly preaching side by side with various brothers and sisters gives you the opportunity to help them refine their teaching abilities and to refine your own? And when you zealously take the lead in evangelizing, you are giving vital encouragement, which can help the whole congregation to progress.
11, 12. An elder who wants to be a good shepherd must give attention to what?
11 What elders share in dispensing to the congregation must be based on the Bible; thus, it will be wholesome spiritual food. You can appreciate, then, that in order to be effective teachers, congregation shepherds must be zealous students of God’s Word. Contrast this with what Jeremiah pointed out as to why the leaders of his people were ineffective: “The shepherds have behaved unreasoningly, and they have not looked even for Jehovah. That is why they have not acted with insight, and all their pastured animals have been scattered.” (Jer. 10:21) Those who should have been teachers were not following Scriptural principles and were not searching for God. Hence, they could not act with true wisdom. Jeremiah proclaimed an even stronger denunciation of the so-called prophets.—Read Jeremiah 14:14, 15.
12 Unlike those false shepherds, Christian overseers study and imitate Jesus’ example. Thus, they can serve as wise shepherds of the flock. It can be a challenge for them to schedule such study regularly, given the diverse demands on their time and attention. But if you serve as an elder, are you firmly convinced that your instruction can be beneficial and true, reflecting knowledge and insight, only when you base it on God’s Word and direction from the faithful and discreet slave class? If you sense that you are not as involved in a personal study program as you were previously, what will you do so that you can continue to be different from the false shepherds of Jeremiah’s day?
13. What helped Jeremiah to be a good teacher, and what can Christian shepherds today learn from him?
13 Something that made Jeremiah particularly effective as a teacher was his use of illustrations. Of course, he was instructed by Jehovah. How memorable it would have been to see him dash an earthenware pot to the ground and proclaim that in the same way, Jerusalem and its people would be smashed! (Jer. 19:1, 10, 11) Another example is that Jeremiah made and wore a wooden yoke to denote his people’s suffering the severe bondage of submission to Babylon. (Jer., chaps. 27-28) The elders in your congregation have not been directed by God to carry out such dramatic actions to illustrate points. Yet, do you not appreciate it when they weave appropriate illustrations and experiences into their teaching? Truly well-thought-out and appropriate word pictures and examples can be both powerful and motivating.
14. (a) Jeremiah’s reference to “balsam in Gilead” was based on what? (b) How can Christian elders promote the spiritual health of their brothers?
14 How thankful we can be for the teaching done by Christian shepherds! In his day, Jeremiah saw the need for the spiritual healing of his people. He asked: “Is there no balsam in Gilead? Or is there no healer there?” (Jer. 8:22) There was literal balsam in Gilead, the part of Israel east of the Jordan. This aromatic plant oil was renowned for its medicinal properties, often being applied to soothe and cure wounds. However, there was no spiritual healing. Why? Jeremiah observed: “The prophets themselves actually prophesy in falsehood; and as for the priests, they go subduing according to their powers. And my own people have loved it that way.” (Jer. 5:31) What about today? Can you not agree that there definitely is “balsam in Gilead”—yes, in your congregation? We can liken soothing balsam to the comfort that caring Christian shepherds provide by lovingly directing brothers to Scriptural principles, being upbuilding, and praying for them and with them.—Jas. 5:14, 15.
What aspects of the teaching by elders in your congregation do you especially appreciate? What makes their teaching effective?
“THIS IS WHAT JEHOVAH HAS SAID”
15, 16. Why do both literal and spiritual flocks need attention?
15 Imagine the joy of a literal shepherd whose hard work and long hours are rewarded by the birth of healthy lambs! He knows, though, that to thrive, those lambs will need attention. The shepherd has to ensure that they get proper nourishment. Lambs are born with long tails that may drag in manure and dirt. The shepherd wants his animals to remain clean and healthy, so he may shorten their tails, doing so skillfully to avoid causing unnecessary pain. Spiritual shepherds too give loving attention to the sheep, the members of their congregation. (John 21:16, 17) The elders are also overjoyed to see interested ones taking steps to become true Christians. Christian overseers want all the sheep, young and old, to be healthy and properly fed, so they do not let up in giving them attention, intervening when needed. This work certainly includes reminding their brothers of “what Jehovah has said,” that is, what the Scriptures teach.—Jer. 2:2, 5; 7:5-7; 10:2; Titus 1:9.
16 Jeremiah needed boldness to announce God’s message. So do congregation overseers, particularly in cases where they must speak up to protect their brothers. It may be, for example, that a spiritual shepherd sees the need to intervene to prevent a ‘newborn lamb’ or even an older “sheep” from getting befouled by the dirt of Satan’s world. The one in danger may not even be seeking counsel. Still, could a conscientious shepherd just stand by observing as a member of his flock walks into trouble? Of course not! Nor would he treat such a situation lightly, pretending that all is well when obviously it is not and could result in a fellow servant’s losing his or her peace with Jehovah.—Jer. 8:11.
17. When and how might a shepherd have to give special attention to individual sheep?
17 If an unwary sheep were to be induced to wander away from the flock, an alert shepherd would be quick to direct it back to safety. (Read Jeremiah 50:6, 7.) Similarly, on occasion an overseer might have to reason firmly but lovingly with ones who are wandering into dangerous situations. For instance, he might note that an engaged couple are spending time together without a chaperone in places where their passions might overwhelm them. A kind and understanding elder could help the couple to avoid such compromising circumstances. While being careful to avoid accusing them, he might highlight possibilities that could lead to conduct that Jehovah hates. As Jeremiah did, faithful elders condemn what God condemns. In this they imitate Jehovah, who, though not harsh, pleaded with his people through his prophet: “Do not do, please, this detestable sort of thing that I have hated.” (Jer. 5:7; 25:4, 5; 35:15; 44:4) Do you truly appreciate the concern that loving shepherds show for the flock?
18. What encouraging results are obtained by the efforts of spiritual shepherds?
18 Of course, not all those whom Jeremiah counseled listened to him. But some did. For example, when Baruch, Jeremiah’s companion and secretary, needed vigorous counsel, Jeremiah willingly gave it. (Jer. 45:5) With what result? Baruch enjoyed God’s favor and survived Jerusalem’s destruction. Likewise today, positive results in helping fellow believers can encourage congregation elders to ‘continue applying themselves’ to lifesaving ‘exhortation and teaching.’—1 Tim. 4:13, 16.
DISCIPLINE “TO THE PROPER DEGREE”
19, 20. Elders have what responsibility in dealing with wrongdoers?
19 Another role of overseers today is that of spiritual judges. On rare occasions, elders may have to deal with those who are willful sinners, wanting to lead them to repentance. Jehovah kindly but straightforwardly encouraged wrongdoers to leave their bad ways. (Jer. 4:14) If a person in the congregation will not abandon a sinful course, however, overseers must act to protect the flock from a potentially corrupting influence. As the Scriptures direct, they may have to expel the wrongdoer. Jehovah expects elders to uphold divine justice in such circumstances. Good King Josiah was exemplary in doing so. “He pleaded the legal claim of the afflicted one and the poor one.” He was imitating God’s love of justice. Thus, Jehovah could ask regarding Josiah’s actions: “Was not that a case of knowing me?” Because Josiah executed justice and righteousness, “it went well with him.” Do you not feel more secure when the elders in your congregation strive to imitate Josiah’s example?—Jer. 22:11, 15, 16.
20 Be confident that Jehovah disciplines wrongdoers “to the proper degree.” (Jer. 46:28) Accordingly, depending on the circumstances and the attitude manifested, the elders may have to counsel, exhort, or reprove fellow believers. And it may even be necessary to disfellowship an unrepentant wrongdoer. In that case, elders do not pray publicly for one who is expelled and is pursuing a sinful course; it would be pointless to do so.* (Jer. 7:9, 16) They will, however, imitate God by showing the disfellowshipped person how he can return to God’s favor. (Read Jeremiah 33:6-8.) Although disfellowshipping may be painful, we can be sure that God’s standards are righteous and just and the best for all.—Lam. 1:18.
21. What should be the condition of God’s flock, and how can you contribute to such?
21 When congregation shepherds identify and apply the inspired divine standards, the flock will be nourished, healthy, and well-protected. (Ps. 23:1-6) What Jeremiah tells us about attitudes and motives, both those that are appropriate and those that are not, can be useful to Christian overseers as they fulfill the serious responsibility of caring for God’s sheep. Hence, each of us can ask, ‘Will I continue to show appreciation for Jehovah’s arrangement to teach, guide, and protect his people by supporting shepherds who “actually shepherd” the flock “with knowledge and insight”?’—Jer. 3:15; 23:4.
In what circumstances do overseers have to act boldly? What does Jehovah expect of Christian elders when they act as judges?