A Fitting Title
A few years ago, our church's men’s groups studied 1 Timothy and Titus, using a great study-guide by John Stott. Stott’s commentary on the same two epistles is entitled, Guard the Truth. It’s no mystery why the commentary is named that. Here are a few texts from Paul's two letters that support the choice of that title.
1 Timothy 1:3-4 - As I urged you when I went into Macedonia, stay there in Ephesus so that you may command certain men not to teach false doctrines any longer  nor to devote themselves to myths and endless genealogies. These promote controversies rather than God’s work–which is by faith.
1 Timothy 3:14-15 - Although I hope to come to you soon, I am writing you these instructions so that,  if I am delayed, you will know how people ought to conduct themselves in God’s household, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of the truth.
1 Timothy 4:1-2 - The Spirit clearly says that in later times some will abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons.  Such teachings come through hypocritical liars, whose consciences have been seared as with a hot iron.
1 Timothy 6:3-5 - If anyone teaches false doctrines and does not agree to the sound instruction of our Lord Jesus Christ and to godly teaching,  he is conceited and understands nothing. He has an unhealthy interest in controversies and quarrels about words that result in envy, strife, malicious talk, evil suspicions  and constant friction between men of corrupt mind, who have been robbed of the truth and who think that godliness is a means to financial gain.
1 Timothy 6:20-21 - Timothy, guard what has been entrusted to your care. Turn away from godless chatter and the opposing ideas of what is falsely called knowledge,  which some have professed and in so doing have wandered from the faith. Grace be with you.
Titus 1:9 - He must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it.
These are just a few of the more obvious texts on the need (indeed, the command) for Christians to guard the truth.
Of Majors and Minors
Throughout the study the discussion kept coming around to the oft-cited observation that, like the culture, there doesn’t seem to be a high premium on truth in the Church today. While this may be a given outside the Church, it should not be so within her walls.
This isn’t to say we ought to appoint “thought police” within to start arresting folks who don’t “think like us.” Nor does it mean every issue is worth fighting and dividing over. There are some things, secondary things, that godly people can disagree over and still not reject the authority of God’s Word, the central doctrines of the faith, and the unity God desires for his Church.
I’ve often shared with folks that when I graduated from seminary, I wanted to debate every last detail of every last doctrine. As I have gotten older, and hopefully matured some, I have found the list of things I care to debate has become shorter. However, the things I do hold dear are not only worth debating, but worth dying for.
United Methodist Ordination
The ordination service in my denomination declares and asks,
“Remember that you are called to serve rather than to be served, to proclaim the faith of the church and no other, to look after the concerns of God above all.
“Do you believe in the Triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and confess Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior?
“Are you persuaded that the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments contain all things necessary for salvation through faith in Jesus Christ and are the unique and authoritative standard for the church’s faith and life?
“Will you be loyal to the United Methodist Church, accepting its order, liturgy, doctrine, and discipline, defending it against all doctrines contrary to God’s Holy Word, and committing yourself to be accountable with those serving with you, and to the bishop and those who are appointed to supervise your ministry.”
I’m proud to say that, at least on paper, my denomination cares about the truth of God’s Word, so much so, that ordained clergy are tasked with preaching, teaching, defending, and living it.
One of the best parts about attending the ordination service each year at my denomination’s Annual Conference is that God reminds me of my own calling. He reminds me that we in our day, as Jude pointed out in his day, are still heralds and guardians of the faith once delivered to the saints (Jude 1:3).
What’s true of me as an ordained pastor is true of every Christian. May we all faithfully guard and share the truth our Lord has entrusted to our care, not as arrogant fools, but as humble stewards of the God who so loved the world that he sent the Truth himself.
Ezra 7:6 – this Ezra came up from Babylon. He was a teacher well versed in the Law of Moses, which the Lord, the God of Israel, had given. The king had granted him everything he asked, for the hand of the Lord his God was on him.
Ezra, A Model Shepherd of Souls
You may not know much about Ezra, though you’ve probably heard of him. He has a book in the Old Testament named after him. He exemplifies much of what I believe my own purpose is as a pastor. Yet more important than that, he is a model for all Christians.
Ezra was a descendent of Moses’ brother, Aaron, the chief priest. Ezra was a teacher, we’re told, who was well versed in the Law of Moses (Ezra 7:6). The end of verse 9 tells us the hand of God was on Ezra. Why? Because, according to verse 10, Ezra “devoted himself to the study and observance of the Law of the Lord as well as to teaching its decrees and laws in Israel.”
In other words, Ezra passionately studied God’s Word, lived God’s Word, and taught God’s Word to others.
Study, Live, Teach
Every Christian must first study God’s Word. This is obvious. This is where the pump is primed, and fresh water is poured into the soul. This is also where the mind is renewed so it will become fertile ground for transformation later.
This leads to the next point – living God’s Word. If you don’t believe the teachings of God’s Word, nor trust in the God of those teachings, nor practice them each day, then one might ask why you are studying Scripture in the first place. The Word of God makes us wise for salvation, teaches us, rebukes us, corrects us, trains us in righteousness so that we may become thoroughly equipped for every good work (2 Timothy 3:15-17). We don’t study it to win Bible trivia contests or to impress our congregations. We study it so we may become more and more like Christ.
But Ezra did more than study it and live it – he taught it to others. He passed along his knowledge to those entrusted to his care. He taught them about their covenant God, how they could be rightly related to that God, and how they should live in light of that covenantal relationship. And it’s the fact that he faithfully studied and lived it that brought credibility and integrity to his teaching. You see, the goal of any disciple of Jesus Christ is to reproduce the life of Christ in the lives of others. This is accomplished through learning what it means to be a disciple of Christ, faithfully living that calling out each day, and then passing it along to others. It is sometimes described as, “pouring your life into another person.” Jesus put it this way in the gospel of John,
I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. (John 12:24)
For the Sake of Others
In a sense, we die to ourselves as we diligently study God’s Word, conform ourselves to its standards, trust in its promises, and then pass it along to others, even at personal cost. But any sacrifice offered is more than worth it because, as Jesus put it, it produces many seeds.
How do we pass along God’s Word to others? This can be done in a variety of ways. It can be shared with others from the pulpit, in a classroom, in a hospital room, in a counseling session, over lunch with a friend, around the family table at breakfast or dinner, or written correspondence. The list could go on and on.
Finally, I love the spirit in which Ezra did all of this. The text says he devoted himself to it. He gave his life to it. He was committed to God’s Word in all its life-transforming fullness. And because he was so devoted, we learn that God’s hand was on him. God has appointed his Word as a primary means of grace (as it works with his Spirit) whereby we are enabled to intimately know God and his Son Jesus Christ, know about the character, attributes, and works of God, learn how to love and serve God and others, discover how to become more Christlike in our daily lives, as well as the path that leads us to an eternity with him.
God’s Word: Study It – Live It – Teach It to Others. Not a bad purpose statement for all of us. I want to be more like Ezra. How about you?
Memorizing Psalm 23
The summer between my 10th and 11th grade year of high school, I took a 3-week trip out west with eight friends and three teachers. For three weeks we hiked up and down mountains, camped in tents, and fished for food. It was great.
Only one night during those three weeks, on the way from one site to another, did we stay in a motel. One of the reasons why I’ll never forget that night is because it was that night a friend helped me memorize the 23rd Psalm. I had a Sunday School teacher who had memorized it and I had always admired him for that. It inspired me to do the same.
So, with our motel Gideon’s Bible, over the course of a couple of hours, my friend helped me memorize Psalm 23. I’ve remembered it ever since.
The Comforting Power of Psalm 23
Psalm 23 is one of the most widely recognized Scriptures in all the Bible, right up there with John 3:16.
I’ve read it to the older members of my church who are homebound. I’ve read it to our folks who’ve been in the hospital or in hospice care. And, of course, we often read it together at funeral services.
It’s very familiar to many of us and can be a great source of comfort when we need it most. In fact, I would encourage you to take the time to memorize Psalm 23. It’s such a blessing to place God’s Word deep in our hearts and minds so we can recall it during tough times.
Written By a Shepherd
Psalm 23 was written by a shepherd, a shepherd who was also the son of a shepherd. King David was often called the “Shepherd of Israel.” He certainly knew what he was talking about as he referred to shepherds and sheep.
I think it’s important to remember that shepherds were the lowest of the low in the social circles of their day. That fact ought to amaze us because it was to shepherds that the angels came to announce the birth of Jesus. And it was a lowly shepherd boy who was chosen by God to be King over Israel. God doesn’t look at people the way we often do.
It’s also fascinating that God chose the metaphor of “shepherd” to describe himself in his relationship with us.
So, what was the job description of a shepherd?
A shepherd would actually live with his sheep 24 hours a day with unwavering devotion, day and night, both in fair weather and bad, to nurture, guide, and protect his sheep. The shepherd would assume full responsibility for the needs and safety of his flock, even risking his own life for their protection. (Holman OT Commentary)
Isn’t it awesome that the King of the universe, the Creator of all there is, chose to call himself a shepherd? But David points out that the Lord isn’t just a shepherd, or even the shepherd, but he is my shepherd. He’s your shepherd. He’s our shepherd.
How precious and comforting those words must have been for the people of Israel, generations later, as those appointed to “shepherd” them, often betrayed them.
Take in these words from Ezekiel 34:7-10,
7 “‘Therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: 8 As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign Lord, because my flock lacks a shepherd and so has been plundered and has become food for all the wild animals, and because my shepherds did not search for my flock but cared for themselves rather than for my flock, 9 therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: 10 This is what the Sovereign Lord says: I am against the shepherds and will hold them accountable for my flock. I will remove them from tending the flock so that the shepherds can no longer feed themselves. (Emphasis mine)
God takes this very seriously. That’s why Jesus picked up this theme about bad shepherds when he said in John 10:8, 10,
All [shepherds] who ever came before me were thieves and robbers…
The thief [false shepherd] comes only to steal and kill and destroy;
Our Good Shepherd
Therefore, in light of those bad, untrustworthy, and false shepherds who were stealing from God’s people and leading them astray, here’s what God said in Ezekiel 34:11-12, 14-16a,
1 “‘For this is what the Sovereign Lord says: I myself will search for my sheep and look after them. 12 As a shepherd looks after his scattered flock when he is with them, so will I look after my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places where they were scattered on a day of clouds and darkness.
14 I will tend them in a good pasture, and the mountain heights of Israel will be their grazing land. There they will lie down in good grazing land, and there they will feed in a rich pasture on the mountains of Israel. 15 I myself will tend my sheep and have them lie down, declares the Sovereign Lord. 16 I will search for the lost and bring back the strays. I will bind up the injured and strengthen the weak, (Emphases mine)
That sounds like Psalm 23 in action, doesn’t it? That sounds like the ministry of Jesus in action, doesn’t it?
Jesus emphasized this role of a good shepherd when he said he came so the sheep “could have life, and have it to the full.” Jesus said he was the good shepherd and that he lays down his life for the sheep.
Isn’t that the kind of shepherd you want watching over you, leading and guiding you, protecting you, and caring for you?
The Shepherd We Need and Want
The good shepherd leaves 99 of his sheep that are safe and secure so he can go out and find the one sheep that’s lost and in danger. And then he celebrates once he’s finds it. Don’t you want that kind of shepherd?
Our Good Shepherd meets our physical needs. Verse 1 says, we will lack nothing. Our Good Shepherd meets our emotional needs – Verse 2 says, “he leads me beside quiet waters.” Our Good Shepherd meets our spiritual needs – Verse 3 says, “he refreshes my soul.” Our Good Shepherd meets all our needs, our needs for living each day, our deepest needs. Verse 3 says, he guides us along right paths (v. 3). Even when we walk through the darkest valleys of our lives, we don’t need to fear because he has promised to be with us during those times (v. 4).
And best of all, God promises his sheep that our relationship with our Good Shepherd is not temporary, but eternal.
Verse 6 says,
Surely your goodness and love will follow me
all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord
Isn’t that the kind of Shepherd you want guiding you, feeding you, protecting you, seeking you, sacrificing for you, knowing you, and healing you as you travel through this life? Isn’t that the Shepherd you want to call upon when you’re too scared and too panicked to lie down and rest in green pastures?
Isn’t that the Shepherd you want leading you down the right paths of life, giving you his living water when you’re thirsty? Isn’t that the Shepherd you want protecting you as you travel, as Amazing Grace puts it, “through the many dangers, toils, and snares” of this world? And isn’t that the Shepherd you want at the end of your life, as you prepare to cross the waters of death?
David reminds us that that Shepherd is not just a shepherd, or just the shepherd, but he’s your Shepherd. And Jesus reminds us that he is that Shepherd, the Good Shepherd.
Hebrews 13:20-21 puts it this way,
20 Now may the God of peace, who through the blood of the eternal covenant brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great Shepherd of the sheep, 21 equip you with everything good for doing his will, and may he work in us what is pleasing to him, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen. (emphasis mine)
This very same Good Shepherd (great Shepherd) can be your Good Shepherd if you’ll answer the call of his voice to trust and follow him, wherever he leads you.
Part 1: A Shepherd’s Purpose
Now I am ready to visit you for the third time, and I will not be a burden to you, because what I want is not your possessions but you. After all, children should not have to save up for their parents, but parents for their children.  So I will very gladly spend for you everything I have and expend myself as well. If I love you more, will you love me less? …  Have you been thinking all along that we have been defending ourselves to you? We have been speaking in the sight of God as those in Christ; and everything we do, dear friends, is for your strengthening. (2 Corinthians 12:14–15, 19)
A Question of Motives
There are many examples of bad shepherds in the Bible, those with misguided motives and self-centered behavior. However, the Apostle Paul is by no means counted among them. Like anyone placed in leadership, he was occasionally under criticism or suspicion. And yet his life was a continual witness to the purity and goodness of his motives and obedience to his Lord.
Paul made it clear to the Corinthians that he did not want their possessions – their money and material goods, their power or influence – he wanted them. He had labored alongside them for the sake of their church. He told them not only would he spend his own money on them and give them what he had, but he would spend even himself – his very being – for their sake. That’s how much he wanted to see them grow in grace. That’s how much he loved them.
Paul told them that all he had done for them, and continued doing, was for their strengthening, for building them up in their faith. His great desire was to equip and edify them to know and follow Christ Jesus the Lord. There is no greater purpose. There is no greater responsibility. There is no greater privilege.
This should be at the heart of every shepherd of Jesus Christ. And that list of who is included under the heading, “every shepherd,” is a long list indeed. For it is not merely those who have been ordained by the church who are shepherds, but also those who are mothers and fathers, Bible study teachers and small group leaders, youth counselors and Vacation Bible School volunteers, and Christian friends, just to name a few.
I wonder how many shepherds today are “spending and being spent” (as the KJV puts it) on behalf of their flock – those entrusted by God to their care. I wonder how many would look more like those chastised shepherds of the Old Testament who worked from unworthy motives.
To help you discern where your heart is on this, take some time to reflect by asking God to search your heart and weed out any impure and ungodly motives. Ask God for a fresh filling of his Spirit to renew you and give you the same heart that animated the faith and ministry of the Apostle Paul found in our Scripture above. And as you read the next two parts of “A Shepherd’s Calling,” consider the examples of what godly shepherding looks like and how you might emulate them in your own life and ministry.
Part 2: True Shepherds Are Few
Matthew 9:35-38 - Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness.  When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.  Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few.  Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.”
I used to read this passage exclusively through the lens of evangelism. And to be sure, there are important implications for evangelism in these verses. However, it occurred to me that what led our Lord to make a plea for “workers” was the noticeable need for faithful shepherds over the harassed and helpless flock of God. The text says the flock was in such poor condition, that it was as though it didn’t have a shepherd at all.
Therefore, Jesus made the point that the need is great, and the workers – those who would be faithful shepherds – are few. He then declared to his hearers that they (we) should ask the Lord to send such workers into these very fields that are in such desperate condition.
In Search of Shepherds
God’s flock needs faithful shepherds today as well. There are many families without a faithful shepherd in the home. Churches have greater needs than the one “professional shepherd” on staff can possibly respond to. A wayward and helpless flock of God is in dire need of faithful shepherds who will lead and guide them, nurture and feed them, defend and guard them, admonish and instruct them – love them to the point of pouring out his or her own life into them – even to the point of losing theirs.
And so, if the need for faithful shepherds is so clear, why aren’t there shepherds standing in line to care for God’s flock?
Reason One for Missing Shepherds
One reason can be found in these words of Gideon,
“How can I save Israel? My clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my family” (Judges 6:15).
Whether from false humility (cowardice) or genuine, many flee responsibility before God because they do not feel they are “up to it.” But since when has God been counting on unaided men and women to do his bidding? His answer to us is the same as it was to Gideon, “I will be with you” (Judges 6:16).
This reminds us of Paul’s words to the church at Corinth regarding God’s use of the weak and foolish things of this world to confound and humble the “strong and wise.” God uses us, but he isn’t dependent upon us. That’s an important distinction. And misunderstanding it is one reason the shepherds are few.
Reason Two for Missing Shepherds
Another reason for the lack of shepherds is the sacrificial nature that is required to be a shepherd. It’s not a romantic or glamorous post in God’s Kingdom. Or, at least, it shouldn’t be. For the sad truth is that for those who have sought their own glory, shepherding has often been pursued.
To such a view of shepherding, Peter says,
1 Peter 5:2-3 – Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, serving as overseers–not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not greedy for money, but eager to serve;  not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock.
For those who would use their position of shepherd as a stepping-stone to their own power, fame, and wealth, Peter’s words must come as quite a shock. He reminds us that shepherds have been entrusted, by God, to care for his tender lambs. And their watch over them must come from the heart – from a genuine willingness to serve them. It shouldn’t be a means to personal fortune. It ought not be drudgery. It absolutely must not be a means by which power and control are sought. As was the ministry of Jesus, our ministry should also be sacrificial – my life for yours – your life for theirs.
To be an example to the flock is to be always “on duty.” It is to be intentional in your thoughts, words, deeds, and desires. As it is for all Christians, it is a call to think, speak, and do rightly – Christianly – and then care for the flock accordingly. This isn’t easy. In fact, I have fallen under conviction even writing these words, for this has reminded me of how far short of this mark I have fallen. And yet it remains the standard to pursue. It is a sacrificial standard. It is a dying to self. Jesus put it this way, “unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it cannot produce many seeds” (John 12:24-26).
For the Sake of Others
And that’s what we’re shooting for – many seeds – fruit that is good, lasting, and abundant (John 15). Our Lord told us the need is great. We needn’t look any further than our own family, church, friends – all our spheres of influence. The harvest is plentiful, but the shepherds are few.
Brothers and sisters, the reality is this: whether you pastor a church, serve on the mission field, parent a child, teach a Bible study, lead a ministry of serving others, or are the resident “Christian in your workplace,” you are a shepherd (or can become one) – to those in your personal mission field. The question is: What kind of shepherd are you?
Part 3: St. Paul the Shepherd
I love Acts 20! As a shepherd entrusted with the care of a local church, I get a lot of mileage out of these farewell words of the Apostle Paul to the church leaders in Ephesus. Paul spent three years shepherding and building the church in Ephesus – longer than he spent with any other church. He poured out his life as he invested in theirs.
As he prepared to depart from them, Paul left the elders with important words for all who would shepherd God’s people. We find these words in Acts 20:17-38.
Paul’s Shepherding Curriculum
Paul reminded the Ephesian elders that he had never hesitated to preach or teach anything that would be helpful to them. I get the sense here that Paul did not focus on their felt needs, but instead, ministered to their actual needs.
What sorts of things would be included in a list of actual needs? Well, the “10,000 mile high” answer would be, “the whole counsel of God.” Here are a few particulars: The character and will of God. The person and work of Jesus Christ. Our sin and need for Christ’s Gospel. The person and work of the Holy Spirit who comforts, ministers, and guides us – who molds and shapes us into the likeness of Jesus Christ. How to live godly lives in a fallen world. How to bear witness for Christ. The blessings of Christian fellowship. “The whole counsel of God” covers a great deal of territory. All we must do is read Paul’s epistles and the Book of Acts and we get a pretty good idea of what Paul covered in his preaching and teaching.
Furthermore, Paul didn’t preach only from a pulpit to the masses. Like the pastoral giant, Richard Baxter, who would use Acts 20 as one of the foundations of his ministry some 1,600 years later, Paul went from house to house – teaching both Jews and Greeks alike that they must turn to God in repentance as well as place their faith in the Lord Jesus Christ if they would be saved.
His work of building up and strengthening believers by communicating this message was the cornerstone of his ministry in Ephesus as well as throughout his missionary journeys. He said in verse 24,
However, I consider my life worth nothing to me, if only I may finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me–the task of testifying to the gospel of God’s grace.
The sacrificial nature of a shepherding ministry emerges in Scripture yet again.
Paul’s faithfulness to this blessed task was what enabled him to say in verse 26 that he was, “innocent of the blood of all men.” For he did not hesitate “to proclaim to [the church at Ephesus] the whole will (counsel) of God.” In other words, there were no essential doctrines of the Christian faith omitted. Paul covered everything needed to build them up in their faith and bring glory to God. Paul faithfully preached and taught this when his words were popular and even when they were not (2 Timothy 4:1-3).
I’ve always admired Paul, and any pastor, who ministers so faithfully. Preaching and teaching the whole counsel of God can be hard, especially when it’s what a person would rather not hear. Yet it’s part of a shepherd’s call – whether that shepherd watches over and leads a congregation, a family, a small group, a Sunday school class, or a Christian friend.
I’ve heard it put this way before: If you knew you only had five years to minister to someone, what would you want to make sure they heard, understood, and began to put into practice before they left your influence? Paul had only three years. And we don’t have to guess what he spent every minute preaching and teaching. We need only read the Book of Acts and his epistles to know the heart of Paul’s focus.
The Question for Us
That leaves us with this question: How are we spending our time? Or, put another way: What are we teaching the people entrusted to our care during the time we’ve been given? That is a question not only for pastors, but also for parents, Sunday school teachers, small group leaders, Christian friends, and mentors, just to name a few. A ministry of the word does not have to be formal and official. Indeed, most such ministries are not.
We could and should apply that question to anyone who has Christian influence in the lives of others. In that sense, we are all shepherds who need to ask ourselves that penetrating question. We are all called to communicate the whole counsel of God to this generation of followers and would-be followers of Christ, as well as relay that same message to the next generation. It’s what Christ meant in his Great Commission when he told us to make disciples by teaching others to obey everything he commanded. He also said in John 8:32, that if we would hold to his teaching, then we are really his disciples.
God’s Word, the “whole counsel of God” to which Paul referred, will soothe the wearied soul. It will be a balm to the hurting. For others it will encourage, build up, lead, guide, correct and convict. For the rebellious and hopeless it can present inexpressibly good news. For others it will prick the conscience and even stir up anger. Yet we can be assured it will accomplish exactly what God desires in the lives of those whom God has entrusted to our care, in our spheres of influence. And that, along with the joy of obeying God in such things, should be all the motive and affirmation we need. Thanks be to God.
Be on your guard; stand firm in the faith; be courageous; be strong. Do everything in love.