Our Lord uses the imagery of sheep to refer to His people, a reference that is used throughout Scripture. In turn, He as our Great Shepherd leads us into green pastures and beside still waters. The picture of a sheep is not a flattering one. Largely ignorant, defenseless, and prone to wander, these adjectives often combine to leave the sheep exposed to predators, such as lions and bears who sought out the sheep of the young shepherd David or wolves, whom Paul promised would soon inhabit the Church at Ephesus from within. Even with the natural imagery of David and the spiritual ascription by Paul, a more striking, sinister description is given in Ezekiel 34, that of unfaithful shepherds. Why do I say this is worse? Because sheep can spot a lion or bear and while a wolf in sheep’s clothing, spiritually speaking, could certainly wreak havoc on a flock, it would seem to pale in comparison to a flock that followed an unfaithful, uncaring, inattentive shepherd. Each of those predators listed above can harm the sheep, but an unfaithful shepherd can harm the flock and leave the gate open for those predators to enter in. Note the passage from Ezekiel below:
“The word of the Lord came to me: 2 “Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel; prophesy, and say to them, even to the shepherds, Thus says the Lord God: Ah, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? 3 You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fat ones, but you do not feed the sheep. 4 The weak you have not strengthened, the sick you have not healed, the injured you have not bound up, the strayed you have not brought back, the lost you have not sought, and with force and harshness you have ruled them. 5 So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd, and they became food for all the wild beasts. 6 My sheep were scattered; they wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill. My sheep were scattered over all the face of the earth, with none to search or seek for them.
7 “Therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: 8 As I live, declares the Lord God, surely because my sheep have become a prey, and my sheep have become food for all the wild beasts, since there was no shepherd, and because my shepherds have not searched for my sheep, but the shepherds have fed themselves, and have not fed my sheep, 9 therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: 10 Thus says the Lord God, Behold, I am against the shepherds, and I will require my sheep at their hand and put a stop to their feeding the sheep. No longer shall the shepherds feed themselves. I will rescue my sheep from their mouths, that they may not be food for them.”
- Unfaithful shepherds do not feed the flock of God (vs. 2)
- Unfaithful shepherds use the flock of God for their own benefit (vs. 3)
- Unfaithful shepherds butcher the flock of God (vs. 3)
- Unfaithful shepherds fail to care for the flock of God (vs. 4)
- Unfaithful shepherds fail to protect the flock of God (vs. 5)
- Unfaithful shepherds fail to shepherd the flock of God (vs. 5)
- Unfaithful shepherds beat the flock of God (vs. 4-5)
With this brief synopsis of the indictments levied by God against the unfaithful shepherds of Israel, there is one particular phrase that caught my attention, “with force and harshness you have ruled them.” Ezekiel 34:4 The summation of all that God has to say with regard to unfaithful shepherds culminates with this indictment, “You have ruled my sheep forcefully and harshly” resulting in a scattering of the flock and causing them to be open prey for the predators. Instead of shepherds, God finds sheep beaters.
Though in context, this passage deals specifically with Israel and her unfaithful leaders, is there an application that can be drawn from it for today regarding 1. The presence of unfaithful shepherds today and 2. God’s attitude towards those who unfaithfully shepherd His sheep? The answer to the question of modern application would seem to be a resounding yes on both points. In Acts 20:28 the Apostle Paul instructs the leaders of the Church at Ephesus to “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood.” While the ESV translates the phrase above “to care for the church of God” the NASB, more appropriately translates it, “to shepherd the church of God.” This is to be preferred because of the imagery Paul uses earlier in the verse as he refers to God’s church as His “flock.” Likewise in 1 Peter 5:1-5 we read,
“So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: 2 shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight,not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you;not for shameful gain, but eagerly; 3 not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock. 4 And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory. 5 Likewise, you who are younger, be subject to the elders. Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.”
In Peter’s language you can nearly hear the OT background of Ezekiel’s record of God’s indictment against unfaithful shepherds. Finally, Jude refers to ungodly people who have crept in unnoticed as “shepherds feeding themselves” (Jude 1:12) again likely drawing on the imagery of Ezekiel 34.
The application to be drawn from these passages is that unfaithful shepherds have been in the Church (of Israel – QAHAL Israel) and unfaithful shepherds are currently in the Church (Christ’s NT Church) and God’s warning, objection, and accusation against these unfaithful leaders remains a constant.
What then are we to conclude about unfaithful shepherds in Christ’s Church today that are guilty of one or all of those indictments mentioned above?
- They exist and operate today much like they have done throughout the history of the Church.
- They have always operated out of selfish motivation and personal ambition to suit the desires of their own flesh.
- They operate under the title of “shepherd” which they wrongly assume grants them authority to treat the sheep however they see fit. It is difficult therefore, to imagine any scenario where this title is one granted by the Holy Spirit and not assumed by the will or plans of man.
- They fail to follow the pattern of the Great Shepherd, who not only cares for His sheep, but has laid down His life for them.
- They have been marked out long ago for condemnation.
Jesus instructs us in John 10:1-5 of how His sheep are to respond to unfaithful, false, shepherds,
“Truly, truly, I say to you, he who does not enter the sheepfold by the door but climbs in by another way, that man is a thief and a robber. 2 But he who enters by the door is the shepherd of the sheep. 3 To him the gatekeeper opens. The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. 4 When he has brought out all his own, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice. 5 A stranger they will not follow, but they will flee from him, for they do not know the voice of strangers.”
“7 So Jesus again said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep. 8 All who came before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them. 9 I am the door. If anyone enters by me, he will be saved and will go in and out and find pasture. 10 The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly. 11 I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12 He who is a hired hand and not a shepherd, who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees, and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. 13 He flees because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep. 14 I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep.”
Christ’s sheep will not follow the voice of an unfaithful shepherd, a voice that is as a stranger to them. In fact, not only will they choose not to follow, but they will flee from him (John 10:5). The motivation of the hireling or unfaithful shepherd is clear, self-centered and self-seeking, leaving the sheep as prey for the predator. Just because someone has assumed the title or role of pastor/shepherd does not automatically mean they are faithful. Consequently, sheep are not obligated in any way to follow him.
For more on the relationship of Ezekiel 34 and John 10 see here: http://voiceoftruthblog.com/shepherds-feed-the-sheep