I don’t always eat right. There, I said it. I should eat more vegetables and less Hot Tamales candy. In fact, I’m sure if I put my mind to it, I could come up with a much longer list of things that I should do … and maybe I should do that.
Over the years, I’ve had similar conversations with shepherds about ministry. Every shepherd possesses a “barometer of oughtness.” They have their own ideas of what ought to be done and how it should be accomplished. In addition, churches usually have no lack of members with their own opinions of what the shepherds ought to do. But the responsibilities become more imperative when the LORD weighs in on the issue.
As the LORD unveiled his most extended message on the responsibilities of a shepherd, he began with an indictment against overweight and nutritionally ignorant shepherds.
We often hear the phrase, “First things first.” That phrase expresses the idea that whatever is most essential should be addressed before anything else. When the Lord began to outline the responsibilities of a shepherd, the first item on the agenda was nourishment. Shepherds feed the sheep. This responsibility is outlined five times in this chapter (34:2, 3, 8, 10, 19), and another four times, the Lord promised His personal involvement in the feeding process (13, 14, 15, 23).
It seems unconscionable that someone would make their living by being a shepherd but fail to feed the sheep. Yet that’s exactly the accusation the Lord made regarding the shepherds of Judah (34:2). The force of His rhetorical question assumes the obviousness of the response–of course, shepherds should feed the sheep! It is, as Baxter said, the primary task of the shepherd.
But the task of feeding implies two very real issues of the ministry of a shepherd. One relates to the nutritional needs of the shepherd and the other to those of the sheep. Shepherds both need to eat and must know where the best eating-places are located. It is here that the LORD revealed that there are two inclinations that tend to incapacitate shepherds and enfeeble the sheep.
The first tendency relates to shepherds who have become so preoccupied in feeding themselves that they fail to feed the sheep. To be sure, spiritual leaders can’t give away what they do not possess. For example, in Ezra 7:10, Ezra modeled the importance of personal study that preceded his teaching efforts. But, we must always remember spiritual food isn’t only for the shepherd.
It’s such an enticing temptation to become so enamored with the meat of God’s Word that we find ourselves stingy with the sheep.
It’s such an enticing temptation to become so enamored with the meat of God’s Word that we find ourselves stingy with the sheep. Maybe it’s the unearthing of a hapax legomenon or the rich nuances of a lemma that sequesters us in our study. Perhaps it’s the diversion of the newest study resource that arrests our attention and subjugates our time. These are good things, to be sure, but when they become the focus and not the lens, rather than resources to nourish the sheep, they become excuses for avoiding them.
It may be something like the pre-flight instructions to parents regarding oxygen masks. We’re told that in the event of an emergency, oxygen masks will drop from the ceiling. Then, almost counter-intuitively, parents are instructed to put on their own masks first, and THEN take care of their children. Because oxygen-deprived parents can’t effectively administer oxygen to their children, even as underfed shepherds can’t feed sheep. But, shepherds must never allow the sheep to starve while they alone enjoy the green of the pasture.
The subtle and significant danger is this: because we deal with excellent words, thoughts, and ideas, it is so easy to gorge ourselves with the meaty truths of God’s Word (like Eli at the dinner table) and leave the sheep to scavenge only on our leftovers. It is the obviousness of the obvious that strikes us—the LORD expects the shepherds to feed the sheep.
But, one’s good intentions are not enough. Our LORD also instructed shepherds to be nutrition specialists. That means that they must know where the good food is (vss. 13-15) and provide the sheep with a healthy diet. In the work of the church, a healthy diet begins with solid, biblical preaching, but it doesn’t end there. Solid feeding practices must be the focus of every area of the church’s ministry.
Every good shepherd knows that adequate nutrition requires unique and changing dietary needs and multiple delivery methods that may be unique to each lamb. That implies that the shepherd must know the needs and condition of the flock as well as the appropriate pasture to satisfy them. Often when sheep nibble themselves away from the fold, it is because the pasture to which the shepherd has led them cannot satisfy their hunger, or it has been sufficiently deforaged and the good shepherd must lead them to a lusher field. Could it be that the people we serve often subsist on a diet of milk because we have failed to feed them meat?
Oxygen-deprived parents can’t effectively administer oxygen to their children, even as underfed shepherds can’t feed sheep.
Ultimately, our feeding is a reflection of the ministry of feeding that the Good Shepherd has given to us. We affirm with the Psalmist that He has set a table before us (Ps. 23:5) and with Jacob, who affirmed that the LORD “has fed me all my life long to this day” (Gen. 48:15).
So, we as shepherds must follow the pattern of the Good Shepherd and feed the sheep. Feed them from the richness of the table that has been set before you. Feed them from the overflow of the abundance with which you’ve been fed. Feed them with the thoroughness of the Scripture with which you’ve been taught. Feed them in the mountains and the valleys through which you’ve been led. Yes, feed your lamb. Feed it!