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 (Manna 76: Commission)
The Thief, the Hired Hand and the Good Shepherd
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Adapted from lectures by Jason Hu—Phoenix, Arizona, U.S.

Before Jesus ascended to heaven, He commissioned His apostles to take up the ministry of salvation, to “make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you” (Mt 28:19–20).

As the church of God, our mission is to preach the gospel of salvation to the ends of the earth. But Jesus’ commission was two-fold: once a believer has been baptized into the flock, our duty is to “[teach] them to observe all things that [Jesus] commanded.” We should continue to care for their spiritual needs. Therefore, pastoral ministry is as important as preaching. This was further elaborated in Jesus’ final instructions to Peter: to feed His lambs, and to tend and feed His sheep (Jn 21:15–17).

Pastoral work does not only rest with the ministers of the church—the preachers, deacons and elders—but also to church council members, religious education teachers, parents, and others who hold a leadership role. In fact, most of us will be a pastor at some point.

The parable of the good shepherd (Jn 10:1–16) teaches us how to be a good pastor. This passage records three types of workers, each with a different attitude. To be a worker pleasing to God, we should approach our pastoral duties with the correct attitude.

THE THIEF

Most assuredly, I say to you, he who does not enter the sheepfold by the door, but climbs up some other way, the same is a thief and a robber...The thief does not come except to steal, and to kill, and to destroy.” (Jn 10:1, 10a)

The first type of worker is the thief. A thief is a person who takes what does not belong to him. But to God, withholding what should have been given to the rightful owner is also theft. For instance, the Israelites were seen to have robbed God because they did not offer to the Master what was rightfully His (Mal 3:8–9).

In the pastoral context today, what have we withheld from the Master and wrongfully treated as our own?

One example is our children. They are a heritage entrusted to us by God (Ps 127:3). God wants us to raise them to be godly offspring (Mal 2:15). And specifically, He reminds us to diligently teach them about His love, and His commands, statutes and judgments (Deut 6:1–7). Yet, we often raise them as though they belong to us alone. Although we may have baptized them as infants and taken them to church, once there is a conflict between church and their studies, we teach them that God and faith can wait. We tell them that success waits for no man, so it is acceptable to focus on building their careers first—“God will understand” that they are too busy for divine work. 

The Lord’s command is for us to feed these lambs and train them up in the right way (Prov 22:6). We must be vigilant not to fall into the trap of defining the right way in secular terms only, and end up feeding the bodies and minds of our children, but not their souls. We should not forget they belong to God.

Another example is our brethren in church. If we treat them as our own, rather than God’s, we end up suffering from “professional jealousy” and competing with co-workers. This is not without precedent. On one occasion, the disciples of John the Baptist came to tell him indignantly that Jesus Christ, the One whom he had baptized, was Himself baptizing even more people. Instead of being upset that his younger relative appeared to be encroaching on his territory, John corrected his disciples with the analogy of the bridal party (Jn 3:27–30). Recognizing that Jesus was the Christ (and the awaited bridegroom), John honestly declared that he was only the bridegroom’s friend, who was to do the preparatory work of priming the hearts of the people (the bride). When Christ appeared, he (John) rejoiced, and prepared to fade into the background. John clearly understood that his commission was to pastor and to lead others to God, not himself.

A thief lures sheep to himself not because he wants to care for them, but for other ulterior motives. Jesus once spoke a parable depicting such religious leaders and workers who blatantly withheld the fruits of the vineyard from the owner (Mk 12:1–12). This man had leased his vineyard to vinedressers. However, come harvest, the tenants refused to give the fruit to the owner. They even shamelessly beat the servants who were sent by the master to collect the harvest; and eventually killed the son of the owner so that they could lay hold of the inheritance (Mk 12:7).

The Pharisees immediately understood that the parable was about them, and were so angry that they sought to arrest Jesus. The inheritance in Jesus’ parable referred to the people of God. These Pharisees were the vinedressers. They knew that Jesus was alluding to the fact that they had not been faithful pastors. Their focus was on ritual and rigid adherence to the letter of the Law (Mt 23:1–36) rather than turning people towards God’s righteousness (Mt 23:24). In addition, when the Son of Man came, the priests and Pharisees were unwilling to give up their authority and honor, so they plotted to murder Him.

As pastors of the Lord’s sheep today, we must ensure we do not fall into this trap (Ezek 34:2–4)—ostensibly serving God, but actually working for our own benefit.

Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves.” (Mt 7:15)

In these last days, another type of thief will appear. He is not interested in feeding the sheep, but just wants to feed on the sheep! In order to steal the sheep from the True Shepherd, these thieves infiltrate the sheep pen, appearing to be part of the community. When they have successfully lulled the sheep to complacency through their apparent sincerity, they then show their true nature and lead the trusting sheep to destruction. Paul spoke of a time when false teachers would rise from among the believers to lead them astray (Acts 20:29–31).  As we strive to fulfill our pastoral commission, we must always guard our hearts and spirituality in order not to be used by Satan to lead our brethren to destruction.

THE HIRED HAND

But a hireling, he who is not the shepherd, one who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees; and the wolf catches the sheep and scatters them. The hireling flees because he is a hireling and does not care about the sheep.” (Jn 10:12–13)

The second type of pastor is the hired hand. They are the direct opposite of the thief who wants to wrongfully keep the sheep for himself. The hireling feels no sense of ownership or responsibility towards the sheep. It is just a means of livelihood for him.  He is unlikely to exert himself too much for the sheep, so those under his charge will suffer from neglect. Such a hireling may not personally prey on the sheep but because he cares more for himself than for the sheep, the sheep are not safe from other predators.

We sometimes find hired hands among the workers. These are those who only serve at their convenience. They will fulfill their duties but they put in minimal effort. They do not mind joining the different ministries as long as they do not have to sacrifice (too much) time or energy. They believe that initiative and going beyond the call of duty should be someone else’s job. If this attitude is prevalent, it will be hard to find a good shepherd. The sheep will suffer—there is no one to fight off the ferocious beasts determined to consume them; there is no one to seek the sheep who have wandered astray (cf. Lk 15:4). 

God harshly rebukes such unfaithful shepherds and vows punishment (Ezek 34:7–10). This was also the fate of the irresponsible servant who thought he could get away with just “safeguarding” his master’s money (Mt 25:14–30). Therefore, pastoral work does not only rest with the ministers of the church. In fact, most of us will be a pastor at some point. We must rise above the natural human tendency to care only for ourselves and our immediate family.

The apostle Paul typifies the right mindset:

[B]esides the other things, what comes upon me daily: my deep concern for all the churches. Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to stumble, and I do not burn with indignation? (2 Cor 11:28–29)

Though we are all busy with our lives and work in the wider world, we must constantly remind ourselves that our secular activities are God’s way of providing us the means to support our spiritual growth; and the latter is inextricably linked to the spiritual wellbeing of the larger family in Christ (1 Cor 12:12–26). In addition, if we are lazy and unfaithful pastors, our families too will eventually suffer. The example of Eli the priest and the downfall of his priestly household is a frightening reminder. And if we do not protect the flock well, when the wolves come for the sheep, our families will be among the sheep in danger of being devoured.

THE GOOD SHEPHERD

The third type of worker is the good shepherd. How can we become a good shepherd? John chapter 10 outlines several characteristics of the good shepherd:

Walks ahead

And when he brings out his own sheep, he goes before them; and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice.” (Jn 10:4)

The Bible does not use the goatherd as an illustration of a good pastor, because they hit their charges to make them walk in a straight line. Instead, the scriptural analogy is a good shepherd who walks ahead of the sheep. By walking in front, the shepherd is a good example for the sheep, and is the first line of defense when danger comes. Such a shepherd takes responsibility and is willing to suffer.

There was a time when it was snowing, the  roof of our local church was damaged. As no one was willing to go up to fix it, the minister decided to do it himself. When two brothers saw his example, they immediately joined him; the three of them then climbed up together and fixed the roof.

If we are a church council member or a leader, the direction in which we take the sheep is very important. We need to be good examples. If we encourage members to attend various seminars organized by the church, but do not attend ourselves, then the members will follow suit.

Similarly, what are we teaching our children if we drop them off at church, then leave to go to work ourselves? If parents truly believe that going to church is good for their children, then why do they themselves not attend? The children will learn that church attendance is a burden and a superficial act, and eventually stop going to church.

Our actions can influence our children and those around us either positively or negatively. There are workers who truly love the Lord and lead by example. Through them, the church becomes more prosperous, as many will follow their lead. But the hypocritical leader will spawn a superficial community.

Make sacrifices

I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd gives His life for the sheep…As the Father knows Me, even so I know the Father; and I lay down My life for the sheep.” (Jn 10:11, 15)

A good shepherd is one who is willing to sacrifice himself, to deny his own will for that of our heavenly Father, and for the good of the sheep. This is the principle we must live by and hold fast to. We must have the mind—the values and the direction—of the Lord Jesus. And a key attribute of the Lord Jesus was His consistent willingness to put the   will of the Father far above His own. Throughout His life on earth, the Lord was always focused on doing the work of His Father (Lk 2:49; Jn 4:34); He was always concerned about the wellbeing of the multitudes and the disciples (Mt 14:14–19; Jn 21:12–13).

Therefore, to be a true and faithful shepherd, we must deny ourselves and wholly follow the Lord (Lk 9:57–62). This is not an easy task that can be achieved overnight as humans are wont to seek their own interests first. But this is not impossible if we rely on the Holy Spirit to overcome our selfish will. The Lord Jesus does not expect us to jump into martyrdom immediately. There are many other ways of giving up our lives for others, e.g., putting aside personal matters and praying for others before ourselves; sacrificing that annual holiday to help in church events; or spending time and money to help brethren in need. The key is to give priority to the Father’s will and work.

BIBLICAL EXAMPLES OF GOOD SHEPHERDS

Joshua—Strong and Courageous

Joshua succeeded Moses as leader of the Israelites. Today, we may only need to lead a small household of two, three or four. Joshua had to lead 2 million! But, apart from the Battle of Ai, Joshua successfully led the people to eventually conquer Canaan. What was the secret of his success? God taught him how to be a good shepherd (Josh 1:5–8).

Firstly, he should be strong and courageous, willing to sacrifice his own life, for God would be with him (Josh 1:5–6). Each of us likes a peaceful and comfortable life. But if we know God is with us, and God has something better in store for us, we will be unafraid to give up physical comfort, material possessions, and even our lives.

Secondly, God commanded Joshua to abide by the Book of the Law and meditate on it daily (Josh 1:7–8). Joshua did so and, before he died, he ensured that he conveyed God’s word to the people (Josh 24:26). As leaders and pastors, we may sometimes have to make very difficult decisions or deal with intractable issues. If we consistently meditate on the word of God, God will inspire us and open a way for us; He will guide us to the right decisions in all circumstances.

Some claim that their duties in church are so pressing that they hardly have time to read the Bible, let alone meditate on it. But it is impossible to go without and still be a good shepherd. If our children or brethren have problems, how will we counsel them without a good foundation in God’s principles? If we spend more time reading self-help books or Bible commentaries because they are easier to understand than the Bible itself, we may apply our own or secular logic to come up with solutions, or experiment with different approaches to deal with matters. These may end up exacerbating the original problem or cause even more problems. Since God’s way is the best way, we must be familiar with the word of God in order to lead the sheep.

Ezra—Devoted to the Law

For Ezra had prepared his heart to seek the Law of the Lord, and to do it, and to teach statutes and ordinances in Israel.” (Ezra 7:10)

There were three things that made Ezra a good shepherd of God: he devoted himself to studying the word, practiced its teachings, and then taught them to Israel.

Some may feel they are too advanced in age to learn the word of God, but age is no obstacle if one is willing and dedicated. To equip oneself with the word of God is to be armed with the sword of the Spirit (Eph 6:17), which we need in order to edify others and fight false prophets. We should thus seek a deeper understanding of the word of God, and not be content with a superficial one. This can only be achieved through applying and practicing the word. As the saying goes: “If I hear, I will forget; if I see, I will remember; if I do, I will understand.”

After the children of God returned from exile in Babylon, Ezra did many things to revive the faith of the people. One issue then was the Israelites’ intermarriage with the Gentiles who had settled in the land (Ezra 9:1–4). This was against the commandments of God, and the children from these marriages were not being brought up in the Lord. Ezra responded to this terrible situation in the household of God by tearing his clothes and pulling out his hair. Ezra could foresee the pain and bondage of sin to come if this practice was allowed to continue. However, Ezra did not speak or rebuke, he only prayed and confessed before the Lord, as though the sin were his own. Those who were God-fearing gathered to weep with him (Ezra 10:1–2). Ezra’s actions revealed his sincere love for the people. Inspired by his example, the people also prayed, acknowledged their sin and repented.

Later, Ezra read the Law before the people and explained its meaning (Neh 8:5–12). Deeply touched by the word of God, the people repented. Their fear towards God and desire to hear His word were revived, so God allowed them to understand. If we are to bring about a similar revival of faith amongst the flock, we need to have the same sincere love for them and lead by example.

Nehemiah—a Heart with God’s People

Nehemiah was Artaxerxes’ cupbearer, a privileged position in the palace of the Persian king. When he heard about the plight of Jerusalem—that the city was destitute and the walls broken—he wept (Neh 1:1–4). His heart was with God’s people; their suffering was his suffering. So he dedicated himself to returning and leading the rebuilding of the wall.

Nehemiah was distraught at the thought of the broken wall because it not only reflected the lack of physical security of the people, but also their sorry spiritual state. The wall represents our faith and spiritual defense. Today, we should be building the wall of the church to be like that of the New Jerusalem in Revelation 21. This vision describes the beauty and perfection of the latter church, which embodies the glory, truth and holiness of God. The wall of the city was very high (Rev 21:12), to prevent those who are unholy from entering, and to act as a spiritual defense against the trends of the world.

Today the walls protecting some of our believers are badly damaged; this has allowed the Lord’s sheep to be taken captive by worldly things, such as video games, fame and wealth, sex and gambling. A good shepherd would have the heart of Nehemiah. Our hearts should ache at the bad news regarding the state of the community of faith; and our zeal would be stirred anew, motivating us to arise to return and help rebuild the damaged walls.

CONCLUSION

The Lord Jesus’ commission to shepherd the flock is a calling that we must all answer, whether the flock in our care consists of our young family, the children we teach in religious education, various fellowship groups, or the whole church, either on a local or a national level. If we are to be a good shepherd, then we must deny ourselves and lay down our lives for the sheep, making an effort not to steal what belongs to God. We must walk before the sheep as a good example, to take responsibility and defend them, in the same way that Christ did. Just like Joshua, Ezra and Nehemiah, let us practice fearless self-denial, dedication to the word of God—to understand, practice and teach it—and cultivate a loving heart to help the sheep rebuild their faith. In this way, the spiritual needs of the flock will be well tended, and the church of God will flourish.

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Author: Jason Hu
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