One of the metaphors that tends to be used over and over again in scripture is that of a shepherd and his sheep. From the words of the 23rd Psalm, which many Christians can quote from memory, to Jesus’ statement that he is the “Good Shepherd”, pastoral imagery is very common throughout the 66 books of the Bible. This makes sense, since ancient Israel was a society that raised a lot of sheep. Indeed, you can still find sheep being raised there today.
As described in the New Testament, Christ is the chief shepherd, the head of the Church, and all believers are sheep. This is not meant to be a particularly favorable comparison, as sheep are rather dumb animals. They need their shepherd to guide them everywhere and keep them out of trouble, providing them with food and protecting them from threats. This is the role that Christ plays for the Church.
In addition, scripture also refers to church leaders as shepherds: the root for the word “pastor” is the same as the words “pastoral” and “pasture”. Thus, shepherding is implied in the term. The most obvious church shepherds are those who are in positions of authority, but really anyone who is involved in teaching, discipling, or providing for the needs of the metaphorical flock can be thought of as a shepherd of sorts. Mentors provide shepherding for their mentees, and parents are shepherds for their children. All of these people have a God-given responsibility to care for the sheep, submitting to and seeking to emulate the chief shepherd, Jesus Christ.
What happens to sheep if the shepherd decides to wander off and take a break? They scatter far and wide. They cannot provide for themselves well, and predators can pick them off easily one by one. If you believe, as I do, that there is a very real source of evil, an enemy who sets himself up in opposition to all that is good (and most particularly the Church), then it should not come as a surprise that part of the goal of this force of evil would be to scatter the sheep, making them more vulnerable to attack.
The devil is no idiot. He knows that the best way to go after a group is to harm its leadership. Thus, he is constantly in the business of attacking shepherds. If you are in some kind of shepherding role, assume that you have a target on your back. Of course, the ones that the forces of evil would most love to take down are the shepherds who are actually having some success. Therefore, the better things are going, the more the devil desires to put an end to the operation.
The methods used in carrying out this mission are easy to recognize. The devil has two main tactics that he uses to try to bring someone down. First, he can tempt them to sin. Every person has their own individual weaknesses, and through keen observation it is possible to see just where to attack.
Satan would really prefer to take down a shepherd this way, because he knows it will ruin their testimony and turn other people off to the message of Christ. In addition, he is quite patient when it comes to tempting people. He is content to wait around for weeks, months, or even years, pushing the same temptation again and again in the hope that one day he will break through.
However, sometimes an individual is simply too strong in the Spirit to give in to temptation right away. While this makes the devil’s job more difficult, it is by no means the end. He can simply pull out the other chief weapon in his arsenal, which is the ability to cause trials, tribulations, and tumults in a person’s life.
As evidenced in the story of Job, such meddling does require consent from God, who has power over all of us, but that does not mean that God necessarily causes it. (This would be the age old debate between what are commonly referred to as God’s sovereign will and His permissive will.)
A shepherd who is unwilling to waver can be hit with one problem after another, one disaster after another, one tragedy after another. “They will cave eventually,” the devil thinks. He knows that the more difficult a person’s situation, the more difficult it is for them to resist temptation. While God does step in at times to deliver shepherds from trials, Job is the perfect example of someone who suffered substantially and was famously told by his own wife, “Curse God and die!” (Job 2:9b)
Sooner or later, many shepherds will fall into sin, despair, or irrelevance due to this sustained attack. The result is that the people are without an earthly shepherd, and they end up scattering. Satan loves to watch Christians scatter, must as a child delights in assaulting an ant hill and watching them run in all directions. Even if we have not been involved in such a situation personally (most of us will at some points in our lives), all of us can call to mind an example of this happening somewhere.
A prominent pastor falls into sexual sin – watch the sheep scatter. A church body gets caught up in an unrelenting cycle of division – watch the sheep scatter. The only person capable of leading a group of Christians is struck by a terrible tragedy that prevents them from continuing – watch the sheep scatter. The undue pride of a church leader leads them into all sorts of trouble – watch the sheep scatter. The list goes on and on.
Apart from truly unpreventable trials thrust upon us, the human beings in all of these situations cannot simply blame the devil for everything that has gone wrong. We ourselves are guilty of many of the things that cause a breakdown in shepherding. We are simply not perfect shepherds. Indeed, there is only one who has ever been perfect, and he was more than just a man.
No shepherd in history has received as much “special attention” from the devil as the Good Shepherd. Scripture records how the devil came to him early in his ministry and tempted him to act against the will of God. (Matthew 4:1-11) At other points in Jesus’ time on earth, we can see hints of the devil attempting to influence events, such as when Peter objects to the idea of Christ going to the cross (though he does not totally understand it), and Jesus replies, “Get behind me Satan!” (Matthew 16:21-23)
Even in the Garden of Gethsemane, though the devil is not explicitly mentioned, his influence seems to be there as Christ is tempted to avoid the suffering he is about to endure. (Luke 22:29-46) In each case, the one perfect man rejects temptation and submits Himself to God’s will.
Thus, in order to put an end to the Church before it started, Satan attempted to take the Good Shepherd out of the picture. Although the cross was in the long run a victory for Christ, it likely seemed in the short term to be a victory for the devil. With their leader killed, Christ’s disciples scattered and hid themselves out of fear that they might share his fate. Both Matthew and Mark point to an Old Testament text to describe this phenomenon: “Strike the Shepherd that the sheep may be scattered.” (Zechariah 13:7b)
Well, that strategy worked for about three days. After the resurrection of Christ, things started to change. The next time that we witness the sheep scattering is in the book of Acts. At this point, almost all of the early Christians were located in or near Jerusalem. Acts 6:7 tells us that everything was going swimmingly: “The word of God kept on spreading; and the number of disciples continued to increase greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests were becoming obedient to the faith.” That kind of success is sure to draw attention from all the wrong places.
Stephen, one of the deacons appointed to serve the Jerusalem church and a passionate advocate for Christ, was arrested and put to death. Then all hell broke loose. “And on that day a great persecution began against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles.” (Acts 8:1b) A church leader was taken down, and the members of the church scattered. It seemed that Christianity had been stopped in its infancy.
Thus, the poor Christians licked their wounds and went on with their lives, abandoning their ill-advised religious experiment and cursing the leaders who had brought persecution down upon them. Oh, wait…that’s not what happened. “Therefore, those who were scattered went about preaching the word.” (Acts 8:4) But weren’t they lost and helpless like sheep without a shepherd? Apparently not, as we see a few chapters later.
“So then those who were scattered because of the persecution that occurred in connection with Stephen made their way to Phoenicia and Cyprus and Antioch, speaking the word to no one except to Jews alone. But there were some of them, men of Cyprus and Cyrene, who came to Antioch and began speaking to the Greeks also, preaching the Lord Jesus.” – Acts 11:19-20
What accounts for this phenomenon? Rather than stamping out Christianity, the scattering seems to have spread it far and wide. One can only imagine how frustrated the devil must have been. His strategy had backfired spectacularly, kind of like when the United States gave all those weapons to the Afghan mujahideen and Sadaam Hussein, but I digress…
Yet, the reaction of the early Christians makes perfect sense if you take into account two things that Jesus Christ said during His time on earth. First, there was what He said to His disciples the night before His death.
“I will ask the Father, and He will give you another Helper, that He may be with you forever; that is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it does not see Him or know Him, but you know Him because He abides with you and will be in you. I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. After a little while the world will no longer see Me, but you will see Me; because I live, you will live also. In that day you will know that I am in My Father, and you in Me, and I in you.” – John 14:16-19
The early Christians did not act like sheep without a shepherd when they were separated from their leaders, because they were not sheep without a shepherd. The head of the Church, the chief shepherd, is Jesus Christ, and He lives in every believer through the Holy Spirit. Thus, when they were scattered, they did not act like chickens with their heads cut off. They acted like people taking their instructions from the Good Shepherd, the ultimate authority. While they may have been separated from their earthly shepherds, there was nothing the forces of evil could do to take them away from God.
The second clue can be found by returning to the beginning of the book of Acts, which tells of Christ’s Ascension and His last words to His disciples, who were set to become the chief leaders of the new church. “You shall be My witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth,” He told them. (Acts 1:8b)
From the very beginning, the message of the gospel was not meant to be contained – it was meant to go global. The problem did not come so much when the Christians were scattered as when they were all clumped together, because it was at that point that they were prevented from carrying out their full mission.
Ok, let’s bring this back to the present day now. For reasons that may seem either good or bad to us, Christians are getting scattered all the time. Unfortunately, the battle to take down shepherds is ongoing, and we should not expect it to ever stop. We tend to see this as tragic, and in one sense it is, but it can also present us with an opportunity.
What Satan intends for evil, God can use for good. Wherever a true believer goes, they bring their chief shepherd with them. Scattering can be used by God to take the gospel to new places, perhaps places that it should have gone in the first place. It can also be used to teach us things that we never could have learned by staying in the same place forever.
Please rest assured and know that the Good Shepherd has everything under control. His plans are far beyond what we can possibly imagine. Scattering is painful, but it is not the end. It may only be the beginning of what God has in store. The question is, are we willing to embrace the challenge? Are we willing to strive to hear the voice of the chief shepherd rather than simply relying on a single earthly shepherd? Are we prepared to be fed by Christ Himself rather than a particular organization in a particular place?
Do we accept responsibility for our own actions and acknowledge that we must seek out spiritual food where it may be found rather than complaining that a particular person or situation is “not feeding us properly”? Do we seek only to remain as dependent sheep or in some way to help with the business of shepherding once we become mature in our faith?
For those who are shepherds in God’s flock, do you live continually aware of the battle that is being waged for your soul, your mind, your testimony, your relationships, etc.? Do you judge yourself by how many of your disciples stay in one place, or by how many achieve godliness? Are you too relying on the Good Shepherd, the only one who is capable of giving you the strength to carry on the work on His behalf?
Your opportunities for reward are great, but so is the responsibility to be a shepherd in the model of Christ Himself. Are you trying to shepherd by your own strength, or do you rely on the Holy Spirit and the other shepherds placed alongside you to help carry the load?
As I learned from Some Like it Hot, nobody’s perfect. Luckily, the growth model put in place by Christ does not depend on perfection. It depends on a willingness to be changed, transformed, and sanctified by the Holy Spirit, wherever we may be. Do not lose heart! The devil has been trying to make an end of us for 2,000 years, and still he fails. I think history is trending in our favor.
All biblical quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, copyright The Lockman Foundation.