Feed My lambs... Tend My sheep... Feed My sheep...
These were the instructions of Jesus when Peter assured the Lord three times of his love for Him (Jn 21:15-17). These same words still have special significance today for those of us who love the Lord, especially those who are involved in pastoral work. Church leaders, sermon speakers, religious education teachers, and Bible study leaders who they relay the message of God to the sheep fall into the category of shepherds.
Having received the commission to feed the sheep, their immediate considerations should be:
What is to be fed to the sheep?
What has the sheep been feeding on all this while?
Have the sheep been led to green pastures where they may be nourished and grow?
Or have they been roaming in the barren wilderness where wild beasts lurk and seek their prey?
In considering what to set before the sheep, shepherds face an inevitable dilemma because the church is made up of a complex mix of believers. If solid food for the more mature were to be served, the spiritual babes would find it difficult to swallow. Conversely, if milk were to be served, the spiritual babes would appreciate it while others would be malnourished. This dilemma is often aggravated by some believers who seem to have matured and should be able to take solid food, but choose to choke on it deliberately to demand food that panders to their individual tastes.
What to Feed the Sheep
In the face of these difficulties, shepherds preparing spiritual food for the sheep must first recognize that their fundamental responsibility is to cater to the needs of the sheep rather than pander to the individual tastes of some. So while preparation involves making food palatable, this should never be allowed to overshadow the indispensable criterion, which is the actual need of the sheep. In other words, if certain messages are crucial for the spiritual lives and growth of the sheep, shepherds must faithfully deliver them even if they may not suit the tastes of some in the flock. Christ Himself; our chief shepherd, left us an excellent example. When His disciples were troubled that He was about to depart from them, He comforted them, saying that He was going to prepare a place for them (Jn 14:1-3). When He knew that Peter would deny Him in a moment of weakness, He encouraged Peter with the assurance that He had prayed for him (Lk 22:31-32) and also further encouraged him to pray, so as not to fall into temptation (Lk 22:40). When Peter tried to hinder Jesus from fulfilling His ministry of dying on the cross, Jesus rebuked Him (Mt 16:21-23).
Piecing these incidents together with others in the Bible, it is evident that the consistent principle Christ Himself, the prophets, and the disciples applied is to deliver messages that are necessary, crucial, and timely. The ignorant were taught, the grieved were comforted, the weak were encouraged, the unrepentant and wayward were rebuked. There is no evidence in the Bible that suggests more of tender encouragement and comfort and less of harsh rebuke, or vice versa. Rather, the use of teaching, comfort, encouragement, rebuke, and so on should be according to necessity in given situations (2 Tim 3:16; 2 Tim 4:2).
Applying this principle, the dilemma faced by shepherds in the choice between serving solid food and milk can be resolved. For a newly established congregation whose members are mostly newly baptized and for younger members in the Religious Education classes, it is more appropriate and needful for milk to be served whereas the reverse is true for a congregation with a considerably long history. However, even for the newly baptized who are able to consume only milk, the shepherds must help them to grow quickly, so that ultimately everyone is able to consume solid food. Overgrown babies or juvenile adults, whatever one chooses to call them, bring no glory to God.
How a Shepherd Cooks
Are meals properly prepared so that the sheep may grow healthily, or are they fixed haphazardly as mere fillers of no nutritional value? In other words, are the messages really edifying to the congregation, or are they spoken simply for the sake of speaking? Has concern for the congregation driven the shepherds to be faithful in service attendance, prayer, and Bible-reading, that they may know the deficiencies of the sheep and be able to provide much-needed nutrition?
Shepherds also have the burden of ensuring that no contaminated food gets to the sheep. Unless they have strayed from the truth, it is unlikely that they would knowingly feed sheep with poison. Caution must be exercised, however, for one careless remark may cause disproportionate harm to undiscerning ones in the flock. The contents of the messages may not be fundamentally heretical, yet sometimes they send confusing signals to the hearers if the shepherds take a softer stand on the Truth and make compromises in their effort to please men rather than God. That could amount to unconsciously contaminating the food which may have toxic effects.
How the Sheep Feed
Firstly, we as sheep must recognize that the consumption of milk is not the ultimate goal. Hence, we should seek to grow up spiritually as soon as possible and to learn to take solid food (Heb 5:12-6:1), especially if we have been baptized for some time. Though solid food may be difficult to swallow, we must recognize our need for it. There is no real case for the fear of choking. If we opt for a milk-only diet, however, we risk dying of malnutrition.
Secondly, we must learn to discern the food that is set before us. Physical taste buds discern taste, but spiritual taste buds discern between truth and error. We must reject all heresies. We ought to constantly nourish ourselves through prayer and Scripture reading so that we may better discern and guard against contamination even in the subtlest forms.
Just as physical food contributes to physical health and growth, spiritual food contributes to the spiritual health and growth of the church. If our church fails to grow spiritually and healthily and if the progress of our church is below God's expectation, it is indeed time for us to sincerely consider ourselves. Have the shepherds have fed the sheep appropriately, or have the sheep rejected solid food and opted for food that suits their own tastes? Perhaps we may then realize that we need to change our recipes, our tastes, or both.