Who is Your Head Pastor?

And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.” When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.” (Luke 2:8-15)

There has been much written over the centuries speculating as to why these shepherds around Bethlehem were the first to hear about the birth of the Messiah on that first Christmas evening. Historical documents seem to suggest that shepherds were among the lower cast of society during those days, being considered dishonest “shady characters” along with the Jewish tax collectors of the day. But one thing we can see from the text in Luke, is that they responded to the message of the angelic host in faith, and went to Bethlehem to see the baby that was born in the line of the great Old Testament shepherd, King David, and that would one day fulfill all the prophecies and become the great Shepherd of the flock of born-again believers.

In our English translations of the Bible, we have two words that mean the same thing and are translated from the same word in the original Greek language. Those words are “shepherd” and “pastor.” The term can refer to someone who is occupied tending livestock such as we see in the Christmas story in Luke, or it can refer figuratively to rulers and leaders. In secular classical Greek, for example, Homer, Plato, Socrates and others used the term metaphorically to refer to leaders, rulers, commanders, and others. In other ancient texts among the Sumerians and Babylonians the concept of pastor is used figuratively of both rulers and divinities, with the people under their rule being their “flock.”

In the Old Testament portion of the Bible the LORD God is often referred to as pastor, although the English word almost always used is “shepherd,” such as Psalm 23, one of the most well-known passages in the Bible. Likewise in the New Testament, the only person to be referred to as “pastor” by name is Jesus, the Messiah and heir to the Davidic throne. The term is used 18 times in the New Testament, and most of the time it refers to Jesus or God. In Hebrews 13 Jesus is referred to as the “great” (Greek word “megas”) Shepherd:

Now the God of peace, who brought up from the dead the great Shepherd of the sheep through the blood of the eternal covenant, even Jesus our Lord, equip you in every good thing to do His will, working in us that which is pleasing in His sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen. (Hebrews 13:20-21)

The exceptions where the term “shepherd” does not refer to Jesus are Luke 2, the shepherds in the fields at the time of Christ’s birth (see above), and Ephesians 4:11. In our English translations of the Bible, only in Ephesians 4:11 is the word “pastor” used:

And He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ… (Ephesians 4:11-12)

In all the other references “shepherd” is chosen. In our modern day English, the term “pastor” is usually associated with a religious leader in a church organization. But as we have already seen, in the Bible the term was used almost exclusively for Jesus. The use in Ephesians 4:11 does not specify an office or official position in the church. It is linked together with “teacher.” The leaders described in the New Testament churches were described by different words: elders (also translated “overseer” or “bishop”) and deacons. Specifications are given for the offices of elders and deacons (see 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1,) but never for “pastors.” Pastor is never attached to anyone’s name outside of Christ, leading one to believe that it was more of a function than a title.

I think we can learn a lot about the term shepherd/pastor in Jesus’ great discourse in John chapter 10:

“I tell you the truth, the man who does not enter the sheep pen by the gate, but climbs in by some other way, is a thief and a robber. The man who enters by the gate is the shepherd of his sheep. The watchman opens the gate for him, and the sheep listen to his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice. But they will never follow a stranger; in fact, they will run away from him because they do not recognize a stranger’s voice.” Jesus used this figure of speech, but they did not understand what he was telling them. Therefore Jesus said again, “I tell you the truth, I am the gate for the sheep. All who ever came before me were thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. He will come in and go out, and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full. I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand is not the shepherd who owns the sheep. So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away. Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it. The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep. I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me— just as the Father knows me and I know the Father—and I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd.” (John 10:1-16)

It seems to me that Jesus is very clear here: there is one flock and there is one shepherd. So what about the reference in Ephesians 4:11? Maybe we can get a clue from Jesus’ words to Peter just before he left the earth and ascended to heaven: Jesus said, “Simon son of John, do you truly love me?” He answered, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Take care of my sheep.” (John 21:16)

Who do the sheep belong to? Jesus said “Take care of my sheep.” We belong to Jesus. He is our head Pastor. There is only one flock, and only one shepherd/pastor. In John chapter 10 Jesus refers to the others who tend the sheep as either thieves and robbers, or “hired hands.” The thieves and robbers in Jesus’ day were the religious leaders who opposed Jesus because he threatened their power base. “Hired hands” or employees don’t usually look after affairs with the same care that the owner does.

But when we are reborn into Jesus’ Kingdom, we become co-heirs with him. (See Galatians 4:1-7 and Romans 8:14-17) We are no longer employees or slaves in God’s Kingdom, but adopted sons. We have a new motivation to serve Christ, our head Pastor. We represent him in our service to the flock. It is true that the verb form of “shepherding” or “pastoring” was used of the church leaders: the elders and deacons. (See Acts 20:28 for an example.) But the job of shepherding is not limited to only leaders in the church. There is only one Pastor, and all shepherding is done under his leadership.

So why did the angels first appear to these Jewish shepherds around Bethlehem that first Christmas night when Christ was born? We probably cannot fully know the answer to that question, but who else would recognize and understand the significance of the birth of the “mega-Shepherd” than those who were shepherds by profession and responsible for the food of the people? They may have been outcasts in their society, but they heard the angelic message and responded in faith – the first ones to do so that Christmas night so long ago.

Today, we are in dire need of true leaders who will shepherd Jesus’ flock. As elders in the church are called to shepherd just as Peter was, one of the things we see they are responsible for is caring for the sick. According to James, the brother of Jesus and one of the elders serving in the church at Jerusalem, elders are to pray and care for the sick:

Is any one of you sick? He should call the elders of the church to pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him up. If he has sinned, he will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective. (James 5:14-16)

Who will accept the call of Jesus, the head Pastor over the one true flock, and tend to his sheep? Who will pray in faith with the power and authority that Jesus offers to affect true healing for the multitudes that are suffering in the 21st century? Who will deal with the disease and effects of sin and receive the forgiveness from Jesus that cleanses and heals? The great Shepherd, our one and only “head Pastor,” came into the world on Christmas, and the world has never been the same. The power that created the world humbled himself and entered the flow of human history as a helpless baby, but he was only recognized by a few humble shepherds, while he lay in a simple shepherd’s manager. Who will recognize the head Pastor today? Will you?