God promises in Ezekiel 34 that He will provide a shepherd for His sheep. This is ultimately pointing to the Son of God who is the Savior of God’s people, the Church. The picture of the Savior as the shepherd and the Church as the sheep is an important concept throughout the Scriptures. There is no greater demonstration of this than in Psalm 23. Psalm 23 presents a picture of what it means to be the people of God and to have Him as our God. The people of God are compared to sheep, and the Savior is the shepherd. The implication is that God’s people benefit by having the Lord as a shepherd in the same manner as sheep do. It also implies that God does care for His people and provides for their needs.
Another classic passage which presents the idea of a shepherd caring for and feeding the sheep is in the good shepherd passage of John 10. Here again Jesus is the shepherd who calls and gathers His sheep and who cares for them. The ultimate benefit of having this care is that all of the sheep will be gathered and not one of them will be lost. Again we see the reality and the importance of the pastoral nature of the relationship between God and His people. The concept is repeated in John 21, where Jesus tells Peter three times to feed His sheep.
The concepts embedded in the words “shepherd,” “sheep,” “care” and “feeding” demonstrate the notion that God’s people are a people who need care, and that God provides that care. This nourishment is generally spoken of as pastoral ministry. The word “ministry” implies service and the word “pastoral” defines the type of service.
There is a great description of the care that Christ, the Great Shepherd, gives to the Church in Ephesians 5:25-27, “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to Himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish”.
It is Covenantal
This is what God has promised in His covenant. It is fulfilled through His Son, our Lord. It is this service to God which ministers of the gospel are called to. Covenant theology understands that the believer does have a personal relationship with Christ, and that relationship is understood in the context of the covenant community. The covenant community is made up of those called out by God for the purpose of being His special people. The relationship within this covenant community is formalized by means of believers uniting themselves together as a congregation under the spiritual oversight of elders and pastor. The individuals who make up this community are in need of ongoing care and maintenance as the people of God. This care is provided through the Church both by mutual fellowship with and encouragement of fellow members, and by means of the offices of pastor, elder, and deacon. It seems evident that the purpose of the Church is implied in the covenantal structure which is the means by which God seeks to establish His people.
It is this covenantal structure which serves as the basis for establishing an approach to pastoral ministry. This approach to ministry is also rooted in one of the great creeds of the Church, the Heidelberg Catechism. In my estimation there is no better, succinct statement of the biblical faith than that contained in Question and Answer #1 of the Heidelberg Catechism:
“What is your only comfort in life and in death? That I, with body and soul, both in life and in death, am not my own, but belong to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ, who with His precious blood has fully satisfied for all my sins, and redeemed me from all the power of the devil; and so preserves me that without the will of my Father in heaven not a hair can call from my head; indeed, that all things must work together for my salvation. Wherefore, by His Holy Spirit He also assures me of eternal life, and makes me heartily willing and ready from now on to live unto Him.”
The emphasis here is on the idea of belonging to God by means of the accomplished work of Christ. This is again a covenantal notion. There are a number of important implications here. Not only is the comfort of the believer based on God’s initiative and His provision of the Savior, it is also based on the established relationship with Christ which is expressed by public confession and membership in the Church. There are a number of implications here for understanding ministry.
First, there is the concept of belonging to Jesus Christ. The pastor, who is called to provide care for the believer, is providing care for someone who is the possession of the Lord Jesus Christ. This is an established relationship. It is established by Christ. It is not held out as a possibility for those confessing Christ, it is a reality. The work of ministry then must be focused on being the caretakers of those who are the possession of Christ.
A Finished Work
Second, there is the importance of looking at the finished work of Christ. There is an important emphasis upon the effectual nature of the priestly work of Christ. Again the comfort of the believer is based solidly on what has been accomplished for him. To understand this work of Christ and to grasp the implication of the effect of His work, is to have comfort. The answer which must be provided for the child of God concerning his sin is assurance that the problem of sin has been taken care of.
Third, there is the understanding of responding to this accomplished relationship. The life of the believer is one of responding to God’s work of grace. The believer comes to understand that, based on implications one and two above, he is ready to serve His Savior. What a comforting thought, the life we live is not one of seeking to measure up, but one of belonging and now enjoying that relationship. Again this informs and guides the pastor to a great extent in his approach to ministry.
What the authors of the Heidelberg Catechism captured here is covenantal theology and they have applied it in a very personal and meaningful way to the concept of what the Church of Christ is all about. In the Heidelberg Catechism, as a confession, the believer is assured that he can trust God. His trust is not only that God is true, but that God will guide and lead him in every step of his life.
Knowing that this is what the covenant relationship between God and His people is all about only serves to underscore the need to understand the role of the minister. As the members of the Church go through life, and the various struggles of life, God has provided the minister as a means to keep them in His care.
The basis for this concept is clearly established in Scripture. Much of the same language is used by the Apostle Paul as he addresses the Ephesian elders in Acts 20:28: “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.” The Church belongs to God; He has purchased it. The means by which the purchase has been made is by the blood of Christ. Having purchased the Church with His blood indicates that the Church is very precious to Christ. He has great concern that this precious possession is provided for, and He establishes the means for this provision in the office of pastor/elder.
This statement in Acts 20:28 is made in the context of instructing the overseers, pastors/elders, concerning their task of caring for the Church. The fact is that the Church which they are to care for is God’s possession. It has been purchased and it fully belongs to Him. Christ is the Shepherd and Head of His Church. The one who carries out pastoral ministry is to be a steward. They have been entrusted with the care of the sheep which are the possession of God, paid for by the blood of Christ.
God and His Church
There is a close connection with the covenantal relationship of God and His Church. It is also the case that, in being this special possession, the foundation is established for the Church to carry out its purpose and function. In the context of describing the Church and its function we read this in I Peter 2:9: “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for His own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light.” Notice the reference to God’s own possession for the purpose of proclaiming His excellencies. Thus believers belong to God in terms of their very identity. They also then carry out the function of serving Him by making known who He is. There is again an important direction here in terms of ministry. Ministry is to assist the people in comprehending who they are and how they can make known who God is as they live their lives.
The teaching that the people of God are portrayed in Scripture as His flock or His sheep, is equally important. We learn a great deal about the people of God in comparing them to sheep. Jesus Himself speaks in John 10 of being the Good Shepherd and knowing His flock. The means by which the shepherd provides for the sheep is pictured in a wonderful way in Psalm 23. This picture of sheep and their shepherd provides two important implications for ministry. First of all, sheep are very stubborn animals. They get into trouble very easily. Secondly, they need constant care as they cannot care for themselves.
God has gathered unto Himself a people who are far from perfect. They are His special possession. This possession is precious and important to Him. That does not mean that there are no problems or shortcomings with God’s people. They stand before God based on what Christ has done for them, while they are still weak and covered with blemishes. Ministry must not be seen as preparing people to be without blemish so that they can be the people of God. Rather, it is to recognize that they, the people of God, have blemishes and require pastoral ministry to assist them in dealing with these blemishes. It is Christ as the head and groom of the Church who provides for the bride that she might be “without spot and wrinkle” (Eph. 5:27). Then it is through the pastoral ministry of the Church that the implications of having been cleansed by the blood of Christ are experienced.
We have thus far noted the implications for ministry from the perspective of understanding what the Church is. It now remains to see the implications for ministry based on this concept of the Church. In the quote given above from the Heidelberg Catechism, the implications for the believer based on the covenantal relationship are clearly stated: “makes me heartily willing and ready from now on to live unto Him.” The people of God are called out of darkness into the marvelous light of Christ so that they might give their lives as a thanksgiving in service to God (Rom. 12:1). Such a life of obedience before God is only possible by the enabling strength of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit works through the Word.