The Scripture uses many images to help us understand the nature and ministry of the Church. It is a family, a household of children, brothers and sisters, and a heavenly Father. It is a building, a body, an army, and a temple. Agricultural imagery is also used to describe the Church; as a field, and a flock of sheep. These images and more, hold a rich treasury of instruction for the people of God and for the ministry of the Church.
Linked with these images there are particular descriptors for the work of the ministry that help us understand more particularly the duties of the pastor. For example, the pastor is a steward, a labourer, a vessel for honourable use, and an elder.
Two words especially, however, describe his work with penetrating accuracy and obligation. The pastor is a “shepherd” and a “sentinel,” or overseer. Paul links these two ideas in Acts 20:17.
Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood.
Here the apostle highlights two aspects of the minister’s work. First, he must provide positive direction and instruction (food) for his flock. Second, he must protect his flock from spiritual dangers, false teachers and from the attacks of the devil from within the congregation.
Shepherd (Acts 20:28)
One of the most developed images of the Church is the shepherd/sheep relationship. This biblical image of the Church stretches back into the Old Testament and contains a treasure of profitable lessons for the Church from key passages like Ezekiel 34, Psalm 23, and John 10.
The idea of the pastor as a shepherd is an extension of Christ as the Good Shepherd, the Great Shepherd, the Shepherd and Guardian of our souls, the Chief Shepherd, and the Lamb who is the Shepherd.
The pastor is to be a reflection of Christ, in gentleness and love. He is to keep the flock together, recover the strays, comfort the wounded and nurture the young. Those who do not reflect Christ, or distort the image of the divine Shepherd, are condemned, like those in Ezekiel’s day, who abused their privilege by using the flock for their own personal benefit rather than feeding them.
Sentinel (Ezek. 3:16)
Linked to the role of shepherd is the work of an overseer, translated in the KJV as “bishop.” This word as it is used today carries primarily the idea of hierarchy and a chain of command. But this word episkopos (epi-skopos), from which the word bishop comes, has more to do with vigilance or watchfulness. We get a clearer view of this when we see the connection between Ezekiel 3 and 33 and the New Testament description of overseer.
When the apostle Paul addressed the elders at Ephesus, it seems that he was using the same imagery as the prophet Ezekiel. The Hebrew צוֹפֶה (sop̄eh), translated “watchman” in Ezekiel 3:16, is rendered σκοπός (skopos) in the Greek translation of the Old Testament. The prophet, as a shepherd/sentinel, was held responsible for looking out for danger (to “scope out” danger) and to warn against it. Failure to do so incriminated the prophet and rendered him guilty of the blood of those he exposed to danger.
The clearest and most concentrated treatment of the reasonability of the pastor is found in Paul’s two epistles to Timothy. In these the apostle lays out very clearly the responsibility of the pastor; it is a heavy responsibility, a demanding and difficult calling. It is a personal and penetrating calling and, in many regards, restrictive.
So, why does the apostle demand such a high standard of young Timothy, and of every pastor?
Because pastoring is Christ-like. The greatest example for the pastor is Christ himself.
Because the pastor represents Christ. As an under-shepherd, the pastor is commissioned to carry on Christ’s work on earth.
Because of the love that the Lord has for his Church. Christ loves his Church and died for it, He knows every single congregation and he appoints leaders over his Church and holds them accountable.
Because failure to fulfill his role as a shepherd and sentinel, incurred guilt, as the watchman was guilty who failed to warn the city. Paul had maintained a faithful ministry and was, he said, “innocent of the blood of all men.” It is this same faithfulness that he demanded of Timothy.