Geometry students know that every square is a rhombus, but not every rhombus is a square. Similarly, every shepherd is a leader, but not every leader is a shepherd. Shepherds, or pastors, are leaders whether or not they have been given that official designation by a church or denomination because they possess a gift from the Holy Spirit. Spirit-empowered shepherds are drawn into relationships in which they care for others, offer guidance, and help protect people’s bodies and psyches. Any of us who’ve been involved in a Christian community for more than a short time can name people who are pastors but did not have the title. By contrast, we are also aware of people who have titles associated with leadership or who gain positions of authority but do not have the charism of shepherd.
While the noun “shepherd” or “pastor” (poimēn) is used only in Ephesians 4:11 to refer to spiritual leaders other than Jesus, the verb “to shepherd” (poimainō) is used a few times to indicate the work of spiritual leaders (Jn 21:16; Acts 20:28; 1 Pet 5:2). Despite Ephesians 4:11 being the only place in the New Testament that speaks of a pastor as a spiritual leader, the role of pastor has been a prominent, though not always popular, part of society for centuries. Paul’s mention of pastors and teachers in Ephesians 4:11 is connected to the shepherd thread that is woven throughout the Scriptures.
“The Lord is my shepherd,” the opening of Psalm 23, is familiar to many, including those who might not attend church regularly. The Old Testament frequently pictures God as a shepherd, an image that describes nurture, care, and protection, not weakness. For example, Isaiah 40:11 contains a tender image of God:
He will feed his flock like a shepherd;
he will gather the lambs in his arms,
and carry them in his bosom,
and gently lead the mother sheep.
Jesus Christ is the model for spiritual leaders, and pastor, or shepherd, describes his character and ministry. In John 10:11, 14, Jesus declares himself to be the good shepherd. The apostle Peter, along with the writer of Hebrews, refer to Jesus as a shepherd (1 Pet 2:25; Heb 13:20). Peter offers a connection between shepherding and humility, following from the example of Jesus. Near the end of 1 Peter, the apostle emphasizes the exemplary role that church leaders should have:
Now as an elder myself and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as one who shares in the glory to be revealed, I exhort the elders among you to tend the flock of God that is in your charge, exercising the oversight, not under compulsion but willingly, as God would have you do it—not for sordid gain but eagerly. Do not lord it over those in your charge, but be examples to the flock. And when the chief shepherd appears, you will win the crown of glory that never fades away. (1 Pet 5:1‑4)
Peter addresses the entire community in 1 Peter 5, but he starts out with a focus on leadership, with humility as a theme of this exhortation. Like Jesus, leaders should not use their authority to elevate themselves or “lord it over others” but to humbly demonstrate love. Peter begins by acknowledging that he witnessed Christ’s sufferings, as suffering is a theme throughout the entire letter of 1 Peter. Peter reminds his readers that their Savior shares in their reality of societal alienation, as he was abused, whipped, and executed. As an elder himself, Peter urges fellow elders to be good shepherds.
Because I grew up in New York City, and not on a farm, I have learned about sheep from other people, not from personal experience. I’ve often heard preachers and teachers assert that sheep are stupid animals, joking about how even dogs can lead sheep to food and safety. However, some experts reject the assertion that sheep are unintelligent. The critical issue for sheep appears to be their lack of defensive capabilities. In other words: sheep are vulnerable. The Bible’s frequent references to people as sheep is not a muted insult, stigmatizing us as foolish or hard-headed. The image of sheep is meant to evoke sympathy, not ridicule or even pity, because the metaphor indicates how we can become prone to all manner of attacks. We are all sheep who need the care and guidance of good shepherds because we are susceptible to abuse—physically, emotionally, and spiritually. The good shepherd, who has experienced suffering, feels and understands the needs of vulnerable sheep. Indeed, Jesus is the Lamb of God in John’s Gospel and Revelation (e.g., Jn 1:29, 36; Rev 5:6, 8, 13), whose suffering provides salvation for all who believe.
In 1 Peter 5, the apostle not only recollects Christ’s sufferings but also remembers his own call to ministry after the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, as the command in 1 Peter 5:2 recalls John 21:1‑19. The resurrected Jesus met one morning with some of his original twelve disciples after they had been fishing during the night. The disciples did not at first recognize Jesus on the lakeshore and were having no success catching any fish until after they took the apparent stranger’s advice to cast their nets over the starboard side of the boat. It was then Peter realized that it was Jesus who had called to them from the shore. The disciples hauled in 153 fish, an especially good catch.
After sharing a meal with his disciples, Jesus initiated a conversation with Peter, essentially asking him the same question three times: “Do you love me?” Three times Peter responded with, “Lord, you know that I love you.” With each of Peter’s answers, Jesus challenged him, “Feed my sheep.” John 21:17 points out that “Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, ‘Do you love me’?” (NIV). Peter’s pain was likely due to remembering his denial of the Lord three times as Jesus was being abused and about to be crucified (Jn 13:38). The Lord did not cast Peter aside but summoned him to shepherd God’s people. Peter took up that call from Jesus, and in 1 Peter 5:1‑4 he passes it on to the leaders of congregations in ancient Turkey.
In 1 Peter 5:2 Peter uses a form of the Greek word episkopeō (one who watches over, or guards), from which we get the word episcopal, to describe the oversight leaders are to have. He uses the same root in 1 Peter 2:25, along with “shepherd” (poimēn), to describe Jesus: “For ‘you were like sheep going astray,’ but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls” (NIV). Those who humbly shepherd the people of God, providing guidance, instruction, and care, lead in the same manner as Jesus.
Dennis R. Edwards (PhD, Catholic University of America) is associate professor of New Testament as well as vice president for church relations and dean of North Park Seminary, Chicago. He has worked in urban ministry for over three decades, including serving as a church planter in Brooklyn and Washington, DC. His books include Might from the Margins and the Story of God Bible Commentary on 1 Peter.