Tenderly Shepherding Jehovah’s Precious Sheep
THE elders listened with rapt attention. They had traveled about 30 miles [50 km] from Ephesus to Miletus to receive instructions from the apostle Paul. Now they were saddened to hear that this would be the last time they would see him. So they knew that the words to follow would be of the utmost importance: “Pay attention to yourselves and to all the flock, among which the holy spirit has appointed you overseers, to shepherd the congregation of God, which he purchased with the blood of his own Son.”—Acts 20:25, 28, 38.
Paul’s brief reference to shepherds surely conveyed a wealth of information to those Ephesian elders. They were acquainted with the work of herding sheep in the surrounding countryside. They were also familiar with the many references to shepherds in the Hebrew Scriptures. And they knew that Jehovah likened himself to a Shepherd of his people.—Isaiah 40:10, 11.
Paul spoke of them as “overseers” among “the flock,” and as “shepherds” of “the congregation.” Whereas the term “overseers” indicates what their assignment is, the word “shepherd” describes how they are to carry out that oversight. Yes, overseers were to tend to each member of the congregation in the same loving manner that a shepherd would look after his flock of sheep.
Today, few elders have firsthand experience in herding literal sheep. But the Bible makes so many references to both sheep and shepherds, especially in a figurative sense, that Paul’s words have a timeless impact. And much can be learned from the accounts of shepherds whom God favored in ancient times. Their noteworthy examples can help present-day elders to see what qualities they need to develop in order to shepherd the congregation of God.
The Fearless Shepherd David
When we think of shepherds of Bible times, most likely we will remember David, for he started off as a herder of sheep. One of the first lessons we learn from David’s life is that being a shepherd is not a position of prominence. In fact, when the prophet Samuel arrived to anoint a son of Jesse as the future king of Israel, youthful David was at first overlooked entirely. It was only after Jehovah had rejected his seven older brothers that mention was made of David, who was out in the field “pasturing the sheep.” (1 Samuel 16:10, 11) Nevertheless, David’s years spent as a shepherd prepared him for the demanding work of shepherding the nation of Israel. “[Jehovah] chose David his servant and took him from the pens of the flock . . . to be a shepherd over Jacob his people,” says Psalm 78:70, 71. Fittingly, David wrote the beautiful and well-known 23rd Psalm, starting with the words: “Jehovah is my Shepherd.”
Like David, elders in the Christian congregation should serve as humble undershepherds and not seek undue prominence. As the apostle Paul wrote to Timothy, those reaching out for this shepherding responsibility are “desirous of a fine work,” not prominence.—1 Timothy 3:1.
Although David’s work as a literal shepherd was lowly, at times it called for great courage. For example, when sheep from his father’s flock were carried off on one occasion by a lion and on another by a bear, David fearlessly confronted and killed the predators. (1 Samuel 17:34-36) This was a remarkable display of courage when one considers that a lion can kill animals much larger than itself. And the Syrian brown bear that used to inhabit Palestine, weighing as much as 310 pounds [140 kg], can kill a deer with a single blow of its powerful paw.
David’s courageous concern for his father’s sheep is a fine example for shepherds in the Christian congregation. The apostle Paul warned the Ephesian elders of “oppressive wolves” who would “not treat the flock with tenderness.” (Acts 20:29) In modern times too, occasions will arise when Christian shepherds have to show courage in order to guard the spiritual well-being of Jehovah’s sheep.
While the sheep are to be boldly protected, they should also be treated with the utmost tenderness, in imitation of the loving shepherd David and the Fine Shepherd, Jesus Christ. (John 10:11) Knowing that the flock belongs to Jehovah, elders should never be heavy-handed with the sheep, “lording it over those who are God’s inheritance.”—1 Peter 5:2, 3; Matthew 11:28-30; 20:25-27.
Rendering an Account
The patriarch Jacob was another well-known shepherd. He considered himself personally responsible for each individual sheep entrusted to his care. So faithfully had he cared for the flocks of his father-in-law, Laban, that after 20 years in his service, Jacob could say: “Your female sheep and your she-goats did not suffer abortions, and the rams of your flock I never ate. Any animal torn to pieces I did not bring to you. I myself would stand the loss of it. Whether one was stolen by day or was stolen by night, you would put in a claim for it from my hand.”—Genesis 31:38, 39.
Christian overseers display an even greater concern for the sheep that the Shepherd of our souls, Jehovah God, “purchased with the blood of his own Son.” (Acts 20:28; 1 Peter 2:25; 5:4) Paul emphasized this weighty responsibility when he reminded the Hebrew Christians that men taking the lead in the congregation “are keeping watch over your souls as those who will render an account.”—Hebrews 13:17.
Jacob’s example also shows that the work of a shepherd has no time limit. It is a day-and-night affair and often requires self-sacrifice. He told Laban: “It has been my experience that by day the heat consumed me and the cold by night, and my sleep would flee from my eyes.”—Genesis 31:40.
This is certainly true of many loving Christian elders today, as the following experience illustrates. A brother was admitted to the intensive care unit of a hospital after a brain-tumor biopsy had resulted in complications. His family arranged to be near him in the hospital day and night. To provide needed moral support and encouragement, one of the local elders adjusted his busy schedule so that he could visit the sick man and his family every day. Because of the hospital’s intensive treatment routine, though, it was not always possible for him to visit during the day. This meant that the elder often had to be at the hospital very late at night. But he gladly went there night after night. “I realized that I would have to visit at a time suitable for the patient, not at a time convenient for me,” said the elder. When the brother had recovered sufficiently to be moved to another area of the hospital, the elder continued with his encouraging daily visits.
What Moses Learned as a Shepherd
The Bible describes Moses as “by far the meekest of all the men who were upon the surface of the ground.” (Numbers 12:3) However, the record shows that this had not always been the case. As a young man, he had killed an Egyptian for striking a fellow Israelite. (Exodus 2:11, 12) Hardly the action of a meek person! Yet, God would later use Moses to lead a nation of millions through the wilderness to the Promised Land. Clearly, then, Moses was in need of further training.
While Moses had already received secular training “in all the wisdom of the Egyptians,” more was needed for him to shepherd Jehovah’s flock. (Acts 7:22) What form could this additional training possibly take? Well, for 40 years God allowed Moses to serve as a lowly shepherd in the land of Midian. As he tended the flocks of his father-in-law, Jethro, Moses developed such fine qualities as patience, meekness, humility, long-suffering, mildness of temper, and self-control. He also learned to wait on Jehovah. Yes, tending literal sheep qualified Moses to be a capable shepherd of the nation of Israel.—Exodus 2:15–3:1; Acts 7:29, 30.
Are these not the very qualities that an elder needs in order to care for God’s people today? Yes, for Paul reminded Timothy that “a slave of the Lord . . . needs to be gentle toward all, qualified to teach, keeping himself restrained under evil, instructing with mildness those not favorably disposed.”—2 Timothy 2:24, 25.
There may be times when an elder feels disappointed with himself because he has difficulty in developing these qualities to the full. Nevertheless, he should not give up. As with Moses, it may take a long time to develop fully the qualities needed for one to be a good shepherd. In time, however, such earnest effort will be rewarded.—Compare 1 Peter 5:10.
As an elder, perhaps you are not being used as fully as others. Could it be that, as with Moses, Jehovah is allowing you to develop certain important qualities more fully? Never forget that Jehovah “cares for you.” However, we should also keep in mind the need to ‘gird ourselves with lowliness of mind toward one another, because God opposes the haughty ones but gives undeserved kindness to the humble ones.’ (1 Peter 5:5-7) If you apply yourself and accept the training that Jehovah permits, you can be more useful to him, just as Moses was.
All of Jehovah’s Sheep Are Precious
Dependable, loving shepherds of Bible times had a sense of responsibility toward each individual sheep. The same should be true of spiritual shepherds. This is clear from Paul’s words: “Pay attention to . . . all the flock.” (Acts 20:28) Who would be included in “all the flock”?
Jesus gave an illustration about a man who had a hundred sheep but promptly searched for one that had strayed in order to bring it back to the flock. (Matthew 18:12-14; Luke 15:3-7) In like manner an overseer should have concern for each member of the congregation. Inactivity in the ministry or in attending Christian meetings does not mean that the sheep is no longer part of the flock. He remains part of “all the flock” for whom the elders must “render an account” to Jehovah.
One body of elders became quite concerned that some who had been associated with the congregation had drifted into inactivity. A list of these individuals was prepared, and special effort was made to visit them and assist them to return to Jehovah’s sheepfold. How thankful to God these elders were that over a period of two and a half years, they were able to help more than 30 persons to become active in Jehovah’s service once again. One of those thus helped had been inactive for some 17 years!
The weight of this responsibility is further impressed on overseers by the fact that the sheep were “purchased with the blood of [God’s] own Son.” (Acts 20:28) No higher price could have been paid for these precious sheep. And think of all the time and effort that is spent in the ministry to locate and assist each sheeplike person! Should not a similar effort be made to keep all of them within God’s sheepfold? Certainly, every sheep in the congregation is precious.
Even when a member of the flock becomes involved in serious wrongdoing, the elders’ responsibility does not change. They continue to be concerned shepherds, tenderly and mildly endeavoring to save the wrongdoer if at all possible. (Galatians 6:1, 2) Regrettably, in certain instances it becomes evident that a member of the congregation lacks godly sorrow for serious sins that he has committed. Loving shepherds then have a Scriptural responsibility to protect the rest of the flock against this contaminating influence.—1 Corinthians 5:3-7, 11-13.
Even so, Jehovah God sets the perfect example of extending mercy to straying sheep. Our compassionate Shepherd says: “The lost one I shall search for, and the dispersed one I shall bring back, and the broken one I shall bandage and the ailing one I shall strengthen.” (Ezekiel 34:15, 16; Jeremiah 31:10) In imitation of this superb example, a loving arrangement has been made for modern-day spiritual shepherds to visit disfellowshipped persons, who may now respond to their help. These merciful efforts to recover such lost sheep have yielded fine fruitage. One reinstated sister said: “When the elders called, it was the encouragement that I needed to come back.”
Without a doubt Paul’s words to the Ephesian elders at Miletus were packed with meaning—for them and for overseers today. His reference to shepherds was a reminder of the appealing qualities that should be evident in overseers—qualities such as humility and courage, as exemplified by the shepherd-king David; a personal sense of responsibility and protective care, evident in Jacob’s day-and-night service; and a willingness to accept further training patiently, as shown by Moses. Indeed, these Biblical examples will help congregation elders to develop and display the qualities needed so that they may tenderly “shepherd the congregation of God, which he purchased with the blood of his own Son.”