Shepherds After God’s Own Heart

It is the rightness of his relationships that marks out a true shepherd

The key to helping others grow as Christians is what in the nursing profession they used to call TLC – tender loving care. Such is the vision all through Scripture.

But today because there is so much uncertainty within the church’s own ranks as to what should be believed and what should be done, many of those whom God has called into leadership have fallen into one or the other of two pitfalls.

Pitfall number one is institutionalism, whereby we exchange the shepherd’s loving care for management and “looking after the business,” simply treating persons as units to be moved around as part of the administrative task.

The second pitfall is professionalism, whereby the leader seeks only to be efficient in the task to which he is committed.

If we want to avoid these lapses, we will find much for our instruction in the second letter of Paul to Timothy. It is the very personal words of an experienced shepherd to a beloved young apprentice shepherd about a shepherd’s role and responsibilities.

If we put to the second letter of Paul to Timothy the question, what are the marks of shepherds after God’s own heart? the answer we discover is simple and profound. It is the rightness of his relationships that marks out a true shepherd of God’s people: the rightness of his relationship to Christ and the Gospel, to himself and his own temperament, and to his people and their follies.

What is said about these matters in the second letter of Paul to Timothy?

Relationship to Christ

First of all, and basically, Paul says many things in the letter to remind Timothy that his relationship to the master shepherd must be right. He tells Timothy:

  • “Don’t be ashamed of testifying to our Lord” (1:8);
  • “Be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus” (2:1);
  • “Share in suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus” (2:3);
  • “Remember Jesus Christ risen from the dead” (2:8);
  • “All who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (3:12).

Paul is confident that Timothy does desire to Live a godly life in Christ Jesus; therefore –

  • “I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, do the work to which he commissioned you” (4:1);
  • Finally, “The Lord Jesus be with your spirit” (4:22).

By all these phrases Paul is reminding Timothy that his relationship with Jesus the savior and master must be right.

We belong to Jesus to do anything, to go anywhere, to undertake any task for him and not to complain. Slaves have no right to complain.

And to the Gospel

Note that the shepherd must be in right relationship to Christ and the Gospel.

Christ nowadays is almost an x, an unknown quantity, in the theology and preaching of many leaders in the churches. So much uncertainty has infected their minds about the portrait of Jesus in the gospels and the account of his work given in the epistles that they really are not sure at all who or what he is. Some of them will say outright that he should be seen as a symbol for the highest and best that God gives us to envisage and attempt. They view Jesus as merely a man full of the Spirit, the memory of whom remains enormously potent since his death two millennia ago.

But that is not the Christ of the gospel. That is not God incarnate, who died for our sins and rose again. We must confess Jesus as the living Lord, reigning and saving in the power of his own endless life. That is the Christ of the New Testament.

It is precisely because we are savingly linked to that Christ that “the saying is sure, ‘If we have died with him, we shall live with him’” (2:11). That is the Christ whom we know and love, to whom Timothy must always be loyal and in whom Timothy must always trust -that Christ, and nothing less than that Christ.

Note how Paul links Christ and the Gospel: “Do not be ashamed of testifying to our Lord. But share in suffering for the Gospel in the power of God” (1:8). It is the Christ of the apostolic gospel whom we serve in our pastoral work. That has to be said over and over these days. There is so much confusion. Please God, we shall always be enabled to see him clearly, and to spell out the gospel accurately, and to lead the way in trusting and loving the Lord whom we thus confess.

Do not settle for yourself as you are, as if you could never be better. God knows you could, and the Spirit is given to make you so. 

Showing Our Love for Him 

So I ask you straight out: How about your relationship with Jesus Christ? Do you love him?

Are you showing that you love him?

Words are cheap, and anyone can say that he or she loves Jesus. Anyone can sing it cheerfully. In worshipful churches and renewal communities we often find ourselves telling God and each other that we Jove Jesus greatly. Our feelings are aroused, and we are sure in our hearts that we really do.

But Jesus says to us that we have to prove it by loving others for his sake. That is what he told Peter. “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Jesus asked Peter three times. Three times Peter said, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” Each time that he said it, Jesus replied, “Feed my sheep. Feed my lambs. Look after my flock. Be a good and faithful shepherd” (see John 21:15-17).

Peter had said before that he loved Jesus, but then he denied Jesus disastrously. Jesus was now saying to Peter, “Look, Peter, I still want you for a shepherd.  I wanted you for a shepherd right from the very beginning.  I told you that you were going to catch men. I told you that this was the calling I had in mind for you. Now, Peter, go out and be a shepherd, and by loving others for my sake you will prove that you love me. Prove your love by deeds.” 

So, I ask you, how is your love for Jesus? Are you showing your love for him by doing the things that he says? “Why do you call me Lord, Lord, and do not do the things that 1say?” (Luke 6:46). How about your own commitment? your holiness? your forgiveness of others? your bearing of the cross in serving them?

Relationship with Self

It also appears very clearly from 2Timothy that the shepherd’s relationship to himself and his temperament must also be right. We recognize nowadays more clearly perhaps than earlier generations did the importance of what the counselors call self-image. That is, we know that the way a person sees himself “programs” him a certain way, and this leads inevitably to certain results in his life. If a person sees himself as a loser, he will cast himself for a loser, and then he will, as a matter of fact, lose. Clearly Timid Tim was in danger here.

Paul, although he does not use this latter-day counselor’s language, is anxious that Timothy should have a strong sense of his own identity in the Lord. He wants him to hold a clear and vivid self-image, so that he will “program” himself right, to live in terms of what he really is.

Paul taught Timothy key truths about himself:

  • Remember, Paul says, that you are a son of God. Paul makes that point by his greeting: “Grace, mercy, and peace, Timothy, my beloved child, from God the Father”’ (1:2). As if to say: rejoice, Timothy, not so much in being my spiritual child as in being God’s child, a child in the royal family, the heir of an infinitely rich father. You are loved as children of a good father are loved, indeed better, for no human father loves as your heavenly father does. Know yourself, then, as a son of God.
  • Know yourself, second, as a servant of Christ. Remember that you are “the Lord’s bondslave,” his doulos, his personal servant-absolutely at his beck and call (2:24). That is your identity as Christ’s saved one. That is the relationship you must maintain.
  • Third, you are a steward. “Guard the truth that has been entrusted to you by the Holy Spirit who dwells within us” (1:14). You are a steward of the truth of the Gospel. It is precious. Keep it safe. Whatever errors may surround you, do not let the truth of that gospel be corrupted. Challenge those who are corrupting it. Hold the banner of God’s truth high for all to see. They may hear; they may not hear. They may care; they may disregard it. But do you be faithful, Timothy, in maintaining that truth through thick and thin. Guard the gospel that has been entrusted to you. Keep safe that of which you have been made steward.
  • Finally, you are a soldier. “No soldier on service gets entangled in civilian pursuits. He aims to satisfy his commanding officer’” (2:4). You are a soldier, Timothy. Be a good one! Learn discipline and self-control, as good soldiers must. Train yourself that way.

How We See Ourselves

I ask you now, Is this your self-image? As children of God, knowing ourselves to be his heirs, you and I should be rejoicing. Nothing can touch us to impoverish us. We are rich. All things are ours. We are sons of the king.

As servants of Christ, you and I are absolutely committed.  We cannot call ourselves our own. We cannot call anything we have our own. Slaves in the ancient world had no rights at all. They were their masters’ possession, whole and entire. So we must see ourselves to be in relation to Jesus, for that is how it is. We are his to do anything, to go anywhere, to undertake any task for him – and not to complain. Slaves have no right to complain.

As stewards, you and I are charged to keep safe the gospel committed to our trust and to make a stand, even when it involves trouble for us, for the pure word of the Gospel.

We, too, are the Lord’s soldiers, having to fight for him in a world which is ganged up against him. There is no other way of being a faithful Christian in this world than to fight. Do be realistic about that!

I hope we have internalized this fourfold self­image, and have programmed ourselves accordingly. I hope that every morning in your own prayers you go through your God-given identity as son of God (alleluia!), servant of Christ (what are today’s jobs, Lord?), steward of the mysteries of God (here’s a heavy task), and the Lord’s soldier (I must expect to have to fight today; please, Lord, make me strong for it). Pastoral leaders face constant opposition from the world, the flesh, and the devil. But if in our morning prayers we program ourselves in these ways, brothers and sisters, we will find that already we are on the victory side before we leave our room to mingle with those we are sent to serve.

The Leader’s Temperament

What about our natural temperament? What is set before us here is a model instance of how God deals with temperamental shortcomings. Let us be sure that we appreciate that! Paul, as we saw, recognizes what the chronic temptation of Timid Tim is going to be, and he is very anxious lest Timothy’s natural reticence and lack of forthcomingness, his diffident non-up-front sort of personality, betray him into worldly and unleaderlike compromise and weakness. So right at the outset, Paul says, “Remember, Timothy, God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power, of love, and of self-discipline” (1:7). God has given you his Spirit to sustain you in the new life of loving, steady service to which you and I are called. “You, then, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus” (2:1). Thus, day by day, your temperamental weakness will be overcome.

How will it happen? Just as has been described already. If Timothy’s relationship with Christ and his identity in Christ become clear to him, Timothy will be enabled to rise above that timid, compromising, peace-at-any-price temperament. His natural instincts will be corrected, indeed superseded, by the power of his Spirit-wrought self-image, that is, by the recognition of what the Lord has called him and now equips him to be and do.

The thought that we are shepherds of sheep entails the recognition that the job is going to try our patience. The sheep will do all sorts of foolish things, and often we are going to be very disappointed as a result.

Human Limits, Divine Grace

As we think of the specifics that gospel ministry requires according to the New Testament, we may find our hearts saying, “I could never do that. Lord, don’t ever ask me to do that.” The Lord may ask us to do any of the things which, according to the New Testament, the first servants of Christ had to do. But when he asks us to do hard things, he promises to equip us to do them. He is the great enabler.

So, when your temperamental limitations are inhibiting you. from faithful ministry in some department or other, ask the Lord to enable you to overcome those weaknesses by the grace of the Spirit. Do not settle for yourself as you are, as if you could never be better. God knows you could, and the Spirit is given to make you so. Get your self-image clear, and prove the Spirit’s power to enable you to rise to its fulfillment.

Relationship to Flock

Finally, the shepherd must be in right relationship to the flock to which the Lord gives him, and to their follies. I use the word follies compassionately. Christians are sheep, and sheep are silly. The way of sheep is constantly to be getting themselves into scrapes through foolishness. The thought that we are shepherds of sheep entails the recognition that our job is going to try our patience. The sheep will do all sorts of foolish things, and often we are going to be very disappointed as a result.

One of the marvelous things about Paul is that he was prepared to invest so much of himself in ministry to other people, to love them so much and care for them so uninhibitedly, that if they went wrong it was going to hurt him a great deal. Many leaders today do not take that risk. They do not invest so much of themselves that it will distress them if the investment proves fruitless.

This, of course, is commercial wisdom. Spread your investments; do not invest too much in anything. Then, if this or that does not go well, you have not lost very much. It won’t hurt you. But that is a very defective approach to Christian service – not at all the one we see exemplified in the Scriptures!

Jesus in love invested a great deal of himself in ministering to the folk in Jerusalem, and when they did not accept him, he wept over them. Paul, in 2 Corinthians, shows that he is hurt because he has been given the brush off by a stupid, immature, conceited, unstable church. But what does he do? Second Corinthians is an amazing letter at this point, for there he opens his heart wider than he has ever opened it before and spends six chapters sharing himself and his own ministry more fully than he does anywhere else. The less I am loved, says Paul, the more I am going to love you. And he does.

Again, Paul tells the Thessalonians, “I live if you stand fast in the Lord” (1 Thessalonians 3:8). That is to say, “Much of my life is in you. If you are well, your well­ being brings me joy. If you should fall, it would break my heart.”

Pastoral leaders must be willing to love and be hurt.

Steady in Failure

But some will fall, and there will be problems, and Paul grimly tells Timothy to expect them. 

Timothy is to catch the spirit of the loving shepherd. “The Lord’s servant must not quarrel; he must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. Those who oppose him he must gently instruct, in the hope that God will grant them repentance and lead ‘them to a knowledge of the truth, so that they can escape from the snare of the devil” (2:24-26). That is the spirit Timothy has got to show in all he does. At the same time he must be ready to find that for the moment things are getting worse rather than better. Be realistic about that, says Paul (see 3:1-9). Expect trouble. Be prepared for it. Ask the Lord to keep you steady (see the opening verses of chapter 4).

Holy Realism

I ask, then, are we realists at this point, facing the fact that there are bound to be setbacks and disappointments because Satan, the roaring lion, is out there, going about seeking whom he may devour? There are going to be casualties. People are going to let us down. There will be pain and grief for the shepherds.

Are we budgeting realistically for that fact, or are we pollyannas who suppose that if we are right with God it will be glory, glory all the way, and no troubles for anyone at all while we are around? It was not like that for Paul. It was not like that for Timothy. It will not be like that for us.

To be sure, he who has prepared himself for trouble may find that in the goodness of God there are times when trouble does not come, and that brings joy and rejoicing. But those who are unprepared for difficulty and discouragement will find themselves terribly shaken when things do go wrong and get harder, as for all of us, sooner or later, they surely will.

The Law of the Harvest

So do not expect that your life of ministry to others is going to be easy or pain free. I can 

promise you that if it is going to be fruitful it will be neither. Do not expect that it will lead 

to personal kudos in this world. Please God, one day the Lord whose servant you are will say to you, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” May it be so. But men may not use that language about us at all.

Let us quietly settle for the fact that if those whom we serve are going to end up standing firm in the Lord, there will be hurt and pain and distress and what feels like death for us again and again at points along the line.

We should not be sentimental about this.  It is simply one facet of the law of the harvest as the New Testament reveals it, the law that if there is to be blessing, there must be suffering somewhere.  We see that in Jesus; we see it in Paul. Paul suffered. Paul was suffering even at the time of writing to Timothy. He was held in Rome, confined to the city, and was expecting a legal process which, he thought, was going to be the end of his life. So, he says, the time has come for me to be offered. I am going to have to crown my ministry by laying down my life, as my final act of service of those to whom I have preached the gospel (see 4:6-8, with Philippians 2:17).

One way or another, all leaders suffer – all who are shepherds after God’s heart.

May God make us such by the power of Christ, by the ministry of his Spirit, by the opening of our eyes to see what is involved in being shepherds of God’s people. May we commit ourselves with understanding to the role and the road, accepting the calling with all that it involves, and becoming, by God’s grace, shepherds after his own heart.


This article by J. I. Packer was published by Pastoral Renewal and Servant Books, November/December 1990, Volume 15, Number 3, Ann Arbor, Michigan, USA. 

Top photo credit: shepherd with sheep, from Bigstock.com, © by ollirg, stock photo ID: 26625518

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