Sunday, May 21, 2006

Loving Christ’s Sheep
Reflections of a Failed Shepherd

John T. Sneed
North Hill Baptist Church
Minot , North Dakota




Introduction

Jesus Christ is the Great Shepherd. As such, he is the pattern for every under-shepherd of his people. We need to look to Jesus to see how he loved his people if we are going to learn how to properly love the people he has entrusted to us. The love of an under-shepherd, or pastor, for Christ’s sheep is derived from Christ Himself. The call of a pastor to service in a particular congregation is given by Christ Himself. God matches a pastor for service within a congregation for a certain time in a certain place. God determines the place of service and the length of that service, whether it is a short time or a long time. Most important however is the fact that God brings the pastor and congregation together. It is a divine appointment. The congregation becomes tender to the leading of the pastor and the pastor’s heart is knit to the people he leads. Both these things are God’s doing. If the pastor is going to love the people in his church, as he ought, he must look to Christ as his example. Loving a congregation the way we ought requires two things. The first step is to know and experience the love of Jesus for us personally. The second is to develop a vision of God, loving the people of the church the same way he loves us. Finally, we need to become aware of how God has knitted our hearts with a deeper love for those sheep he has called us to serve.

Knowing and Experiencing the Love of Jesus

The beginning of the knowledge and experience of the love of God is found in the sacrificial death of Christ for us. Romans 5:8 says, But God proves His own love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.[1] God has shown us how much He loves us by sending His own Son, Jesus Christ, to die in our place, providing our ransom from sin. This is the beginning point of any relationship with God. Though it sounds basic, this is often taken for granted by many Christians. The inspired apostle reminds us that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. In order to comprehend the depth of God’s love He demonstrated for us on the cross, we need to comprehend the depth of our own sin.

Jonathan Edwards, in his famous sermon, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, paints for us a powerful picture of how God views us in our sin. He says, “Your wickedness makes you as it were heavy as lead, and to tend downwards with great weight and pressure towards hell; and if God should let you go, you would immediately sink and swiftly descend and plunge into the bottomless gulf …”[2] Another preacher, keying on the text “All our righteousness are as filthy rags” opines that we are “as putrid as vomit” in our sins, in the eyes of God. Yet, in spite of our sin condition, God loves us and sent His only begotten Jesus to die for us. When we get a full picture of the love of God for us in our hearts, we will begin to understand the Lord’s heart for His people.

Once we have grasped the love of God personally, then we can look on the people of God with that same idea, that God also loved them with the same love with which He loved us. I think this is a critical juncture. Christians can be, and have been, ugly in their treatment of other Christians. Several books and articles have been written dealing with the topic of abuse within churches and between Christians. But when we get a true picture of how much God loved them (other Christians), we can find it within ourselves to love them too. Pastor, look into your heart, where we say that Jesus lives, and let the eyes of Christ look out from you and look upon your fellowship Christians. When you look at other Christians this way it is not hard to “love them at first sight” as John Newton would say.[3] I think this is exactly the mindset Jesus had in mind in John 13:35 when he said, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” Notice here that the kind or quality of love that Christians have for one another will be of such that even the world takes notice of it and marks us as disciples of Jesus. Newton learned this, I think we should too.


Pastoral Application

I think this thinking has profound applications for those of us who are pastors of the people of God. Consider for a moment, the implications of the vast love God has for the people in your church. Then add to that the realization that these sheep who God loves have been entrusted by Him into your care. The call of the pastor is the call to serve a particular congregation. If we ought to have such a love for our brothers and sisters in Jesus that the world marks us as His followers, how much more ought we (pastors) to have such a love for those God has called us to shepherd? Just as a Christian husband loves his wife above other Christian women, I believe we are called to a deeper love for those we shepherd than for the church at large. I believe the call of God to shepherd a certain congregation includes an enlarging of our hearts towards those sheep. All that holds true for the way we view the church universal holds true even more for those we shepherd.

Consider again the words of John Newton, “Whoever … has tasted of the love Christ, and has known, by his own experience, the need and the worth of redemption, is enabled, Yea, he is constrained, to love his fellow creatures. He loves them at first sight; and, if the providence of God commits a dispensation of the gospel, and care of souls to him, he will feel the warmest emotions of friendship and tenderness, while he beseeches them by the tender mercies of God, and even while he warns them by his terrors.”[4]

I think Newton gets directly to the point. It is the point I want to make. A pastor friend of mine once quipped that he would love pastoring “if it weren’t for the people.” I can find some sympathy with his remark on a certain level. But on another level I think he misses the mark entirely. If we are a pastor, and if God has divinely paired us with the people we shepherd, and if He has enlarged our hearts towards them according to His loving will, then we cannot be truly fulfilled as a person apart from loving the sheep as Christ did. I believe this is a radical change in thinking.

Too many pastors see their congregations as a job, or as a hindrance to their self fulfillment. The relationship between a pastor and his church is oftentimes one of antagonists rather than a loving shepherd and his sheep. But if we can learn to see our congregations with the same eyes with which Christ sees them, we could very much change the paradigms of our personal ministries. We are told today that people are looking for something real. They want more than the hypocritical Christianity they saw 20 or 30 years ago.[5] What could be more real in the life of the church than a pastor filled with the love of Christ shepherding the people of Christ with the same love with which Christ loves?

I have not always done this. I confess that I have often seen my congregants as opponents instead of seeing them through Christ’s eyes. I did not understand the implications of the very things I was teaching. Now I see. Seeing this has brought new energy and zeal to my ministry. I see the city I serve in with the eyes of Jesus who had compassion on the multitudes and prayed for workers to be sent to the harvest. I see my congregation in new ways that has led me to deeper prayer for them and a greater heart to be with them and minister to them to bring them all closer to Jesus. Learning to look with Jesus’ eyes brings me closer to the ideal, which is to be like Him. He is the Great Shepherd and the model for every shepherd under Him. If there were ever an area where we needed to take our cues from Jesus, it is in how He loves people, most especially, His own people. The implications are revolutionary.


Bibliography

Edwards, J. (1834). The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Volume 2. Hendrickson: Peabody .

Piper, J. (2001). John Newton: The Tough Roots of his Habitual Tenderness. Desiring God Ministries. http://www.desiringgod.org/library/biographies/01newton.html

Reid, A. (2002). Raising the Bar: Ministry to Students in the New Millenium. Wake Forest : Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.


[1] Unless otherwise indicated, all scripture references are from the Holman Christian Standard Bible (2004). Nashville : Broadman and Holman.

[2] Edwards Vol. 2, pg 9.

[3] John Newton quoted in John Piper, “John Newton: The Tough Roots of His Habitual Tenderness”, pg 6.

[4] John Newton, quoted in John Piper “John Newton: The Tough Roots of His Habitual Tenderness”, pg 6.

[5] Reid, pg 8.

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