Alfred Place Baptist Church

Shepherding God’s Flock

[Given at the Banner of Truth Borders’ Conference, November 6, 2009]

When I was a student fifty years ago I came under the influence of a group of Welsh ministers. I was greatly impressed with them, considering them to be great gifts to the church of Jesus Christ and peerless pastors. My feelings about that have increased with the passage of time. Some of them taught pastoral studies at the South Wales Bible College in Barry and I would love to have attended all their lectures. They were likable, kindly, humble men approachable and affectionate. I had fine teachers at Westminster Seminary. Like today’s generation of Presbyterian lecturers, in their splendid conservative seminaries, well trained, qualified, scholarly, confessional, competent, learned and efficient men. I profited from a course in pastoring, but still looked back to those Welshmen who had been influenced by Dr. Lloyd-Jones. I guess we were culturally akin; they also had a lively devotion to the Lord Jesus Christ, and an evangelistic gift which I admired and needed. I wish they had in turn been invited to every ministers’ conference to give papers on the work of pasturing, but what the outsider would think would be a stable part of preachers’ gatherings – papers on pastoring – in fact has been a rare occurrence. Yet not every excellent pastor can articulate the work of the pastor.

I do not only look back. There are a group of men today whom I judge to be wise and caring pastors and when I travel to preach for them and stay in their homes they don’t realise what I learn from them as they talk of their work and how they are handling issues. There is scarcely a question I am asked more frequently than if I know of a man I can recommend to a church searching for a minister. What I want to be able to do is commend a sensible and humble man, unflashy and approachable, whose life will be spent in serving a group of people who become his best friends whom he desires to take to heaven with him. He will bring all the word of God to them and apply it to their lives (but first of all his own), teaching, exhorting, rebuking, correcting and instructing them in righteousness, thoroughly equipping them for every good work.

The biblical setting for the work of the pastor is found in Ephesians 4 where we are told the exalted reigning Jesus Christ is building his church by giving gifts of grace which spiritually enable each one of his congregations. The chief of these gifts is apostle and prophets. This is the foundational gifts on which every church is to be erected. This is the challenge, and privilege, and demand confronting each church throughout its entire existence and in every relationship and in all that it does – to make sure that it establishes itself on what the apostles have written. The gift of the apostles and prophets is a miraculous supernatural gift which is there as the foundation and the pulsing heart of every gospel congregation. Whenever these churches gather they meet around a miracle; there at their heart is the supernatural word of God, which is Spirit and which is life. By the word of God the miracle of regeneration takes place. Sinners are made the children of God. Ungodly men are sanctified. The immature grow. The hungry are fed. Hope is renewed. The wander is restored. The prodigal comes home. Jesus Christ is magnified. God is glorified. The Spirit of God fills a people. The gift of the apostles and prophets is an utterly indispensable gift. There could be no greater blow struck at the church than to diminish, dilute, or marginalize the word of God. It is the hub of the church. He spokes all fall apart without it. The climactic aspect of every Lord’s Day service is preaching of the Bible. We have sung and prayed to God, and now he speaks to us. That is the dialogue characterizing the gospel congregation each Sunday. The pulpit is the power-house of the church, not the prayer meeting. Spurgeon was being overly modest when he made that familiar claim. The preaching of the Word is the means of blessing Christians, saving the lost, growing congregations and glorifying and most of all enjoying God.

So Christ the head and builder of the church first gave the apostles and prophets as the ground zero gift to each of his churches. You cannot build on anything other than that. Then the next gift he gave in order of priority, the gift which connects the apostles of the church to every church today is ‘pastors and teachers.’ The relationship is one of foundation to structure; the cement lorry has come in and through those long tubes from its circulating drum the foundation has been laid and set hard. Now the brick layers begin their work on that foundation. It is wonderfully solid. It can support the highest edifices in the world; buildings of breath-taking beauty can be built only if there is a foundation. There had to be this prior foundation. It contains all the instruction of the prophets of the Old Testament and the teaching of Christ and his apostles of the New Testament. A man who builds on that is like the wise man who builds his house on a rock. Our Lord was absolutely confident that whatever the storms that would blow on such buildings – higher criticism, scientific pretension and humanistic unbelief – every life that was built on this foundation would survive. He was looking forward to this 21st century and the threat of militant Islam and the chill of the Enlightenment in Europe and yet our Lord was absolutely confident that the church lacked nothing that would not assist it to walk tall and stand straight under the storms, so surviving so that the gates of hell could not prevail against it.

The gift Christ gives to build on the foundation of the apostles and prophets is ‘pastors and teachers.’ One gift. The structure of the Greek insists on that, “some pastors and teachers,” not some pastors and some teachers. In other words you pastor by teaching and you teach by pastoring. All true teaching is infused with pastoral relevance. It is impossible to teach without pastoring those you teach. The office that the head of the church gives to each congregation is that of the shepherd/teacher. It is impossible to be good at pastoring if you are not faithful in teaching all that is in the Bible. It is impossible to good at teaching unless you are a faithful pastor.

The question before us now is how do we pastor? What is the work of the pastor? I want to go through the familiar words of Psalm 23 and pick out some of the basic guidelines it gives us.

1. You are concerned for each individual sheep in your flock. The Lord is my shepherd. People talk to you and say, “Now my pastor is . . .” There is a sense of affection and attachment. You do not hear that when they talk of the elder assigned to them, or if their minister insists that he is not a pastor but a ‘teaching elder.’ The people I hear are thinking of their shepherd, a single overall leader who shepherds them by his presence and preaching and praying each Sunday. A flock of sheep does not have a multiplicity of shepherds. The sheep of the flock will relate best to one shepherd rather than to a committee of shepherds. Of course the shepherd will be assisted by elders and he will bless God continually for them. I think I have the three best elders in the world, but nowhere in the Scriptures do we have leadership exercised by a committee with one man merely acting as a kind of chairman.

So this great privilege is given to the minister of being the pastor of the congregation, and he responds to it with some seriousness. Let us comment at a simple level; he knows the names of his flock. He knows the names of the lambs in the flock. He knows that the names of David and Kirsty’s children are Abigail, Elizabeth, Rebecca, Daniel and William. It gets harder to remember their names when you are two generations above them but he tries. He remembers details about them. Brian Edwards and Barbara were a wonderful pastoral couple and Barbara kept a church diary in which she wrote down details of special events in the lives of the congregation, the marriages, births and especially the deaths of family members. There would be a painful anniversary coming up and the pastor would know because it was recorded in the consulted volume. He could make an effort to visit, or phone, or send a card on those occasions, as you do when you are conscious that this is the family of faith and the household of God. I think that it is never too late to begin such a diary. I think it is fatal to think that you have been in a church ten years and it is too late to start such a diary now. Why not?

2. You are concerned to make each sheep lie down. This is an extraordinary ambition for a pastor to have. It goes against so many of our intentions for our congregations. We are going to motivate them, and move them, and fire them, and drive them to abound in the work of the Lord, and so we must, but we must also encourage them to lie down and rest in the Lord, in the certain warmth of his love for them, in the fulfillment of his gospel invitation, “you shall find rest for your souls.” There is nowhere else in the world where they can lie down and rest safely but in the shadow of the Almighty. We have a good guess at how much they can take. We know what pressures their children put them under. We know what pressures their unconverted family and parents and husbands put upon them, unwilling that they are in church on a Sunday morning. We know what pressures they are under through their bad health and depression. We know where the doubts are in the congregation, where people are close to giving up and going away from the Lord. We want them to enjoy the blessedness of being a mere believer in the Lord Jesus.

We are so afraid of the pattern we see in some pulpits, in his first year of bringing all his best sermons out. The second year, exhorting them to bring more people along to church and scolding them for not doing that, while in the third year he is looking for another church in which to repeat the cycle. So we say to the congregation each Sunday in some part of the service, “Now here are some green pastures and some still waters. Please lie down and enjoy this.” Then you bring them the exceeding great and precious promises of the gospel. You calm their fears; you remind them that God knows all about them, that he has seen the file on them, but he loves them still with an everlasting love. You remind them that though their sins are as scarlet they shall be as white as snow. You tell them that those promises are the possession of each believer even if his faith is as thin as a spider’s thread, if it is lodged in the Lord Jesus then mercy and pardon are his. Come and rest in the Lord’s grace. Satan doesn’t want them to rest; he wants them to be tossed about and guilty feeling they are failures, but you bring the flock to the shadow of a mighty rock within a weary land. You give them hope so that they begin to lie down, and the foundation of it is the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. That resurrection took place in the same world of space and time that they have to live in day by day. You remind them of the experience of God that they have enjoyed until now, that it has not been a vicarious experience lived through you the preacher, or through Lloyd-Jones, or through Spurgeon, but lived by their own experience of the goodness of God. Hasn’t he been a good God to you? Then lie down and rest in that goodness.

3. You lead them to green pastures and still waters. The flock love to be there where there is delicious grass and sparkling water. Hugh Miller said that the first essential of a book was that it was interesting enough to read, and the essential for judging a preacher was that his sermons were sufficiently engaging that people would attentively listen to him. Without that all the merit of his evangelicalism and righteousness is of little avail. In the public square today there are plenty of fascinating ideas being offered to men and women. We have the grandest and most stupendous message to tell people, that this world came from an omnipotent personal God whom we can know, the God who speaks and is not silent. In times past he spoke through the prophets and in these last days he has spoken to us through his Son. What wonderful truths he speaks to us: “Now when he saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him,

2 and he began to teach them, saying:

3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

4 Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

5 Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

6 Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

7 Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.

8 Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

9 Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God” (Matt. 5:1-10). Isn’t that green pastures and still waters?

Again “28 Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.

29 Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matt. 11:28-30). Again, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me.

2 In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. 3 And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am” (Jn 14:1-3).

What green pastures and still waters, and our ministry must aim for this. We are the chefs and dieticians of the church. We have the best food for the people of God, well-balanced with a mixture of OT and NT, gospel and epistle, promise and fulfilment, warning and entreaty, illustrations and didactic teaching, personal incident and historical anecdote, and all we say is flavoured with the taste of our Lord and Saviour, the living food from heaven, pervaded with the scent of the rose of Sharon. At its heart is the blood of Jesus Christ that cleanses sinners from all our sin. What green pastures and still waters. The people go away washed, refreshed and satisfied. We have given them fine food, and we have made sure that the plates were heated and that the meal was attractively set out. We didn’t dump half a dozen raw potatoes and some uncooked beef and a few cubes of oxo on the table and behave as if we were shocked when they turned their noses up at it. We did not protest, “It is good nourishing stuff!” Yes it might have been, but it has to be prepared and served to those who are hungry, and to those who have little appetites, and for the little ones who need it to be pulped and sieved so that they can swallow and digest it.

4. You restore their souls. You have had this experience in your lives, those times when your minister lifted you up to a higher plane, or when you went to a conference and heard an inspirational address, or when Dr. Lloyd-Jones came to visit your city and you went to hear him. Your faith was restored. Your sanity was restored. Your sense that life had a purpose was restored. Your love for the gospel was restored. Your soul was restored. In other words, such days exist which are better than good days. There are sermons better than fine sermons. There are times of refreshing from the presence of the Lord. There are times of renewal. We are told at one juncture in the Acts of the Apostles that the disciples were full of joy and the Holy Spirit. Now that is not Luke merely telling us that they were regenerate. That is Luke telling us that their souls were restored, that the disciples were revived, that they felt that they could go on, they could cope, they could bear any burden, they could carry any load, the could climb any mountain, they could overcome any temptation, they could endure any loss for Christ.

One Sunday night I was in Westminster Chapel and Dr. Lloyd-Jones was preaching on times of refreshing from the presence of the Lord (Authentic Christianity Volume 1 Acts 1-3, Banner of Truth, pp. 300-314). He was soon on his familiar subject of man, and man’s helplessness to improve his life. He said

“Do you know what civilization is? Have you ever been in the conditions that I am describing to you? Have you ever been in some of those cities in America where there is terrible humidity? In America they not only measure the heat, they measure the humidity, and they are quite right. Have you ever been in the city of Boston, say, on a hot August Sunday afternoon when it is not only very hot, but very humid as well? No sun to be seen, but it is there above the clouds. The whole universe seems to be pressing down upon you, hot and humid. And you are tired, and you sit in a room and what can be done? Before they had air conditioning, people used to put on electric fans. The electric fan causes the air to circulate and while you are sitting somewhere near this fan you feel a little cooler. You are quite convinced that the fan is cooling the atmosphere. But you are wrong. It is actually increasing the temperature because the energy of the electricity is adding to the temperature. You have the impression that it is cooling the air, because there is a move­ment, but the fan does not bring in any fresh air at all. It makes the same air go round and round. You merely get the illusion that the position is being dealt with.

“Then there are the ‘times of refreshing’ – the breath of hope that comes from God. Think of the Black Hole of Calcutta. There those people were shut in, and the longer they were there, the more poisoned the atmosphere became, and the weaker they got. No effort was of any value at all. They were simply shut in, in this fetid, putrid polluted atmosphere. They were dying, and there was no hope. The coming of the Lord Jesus Christ into this world has brought a breath of hope. That is why the introductions to the Gospels are so lyrical. ‘The people which sat in darkness saw great light.’ (Matt. 4:16). The people who were shut in the confined space in that awful room suddenly felt a slight breeze. It came from the outside and it always does. It comes from heaven, from eternity. This is a supernatural gospel, this is a miraculous message. Because God is concerned, there is an eternal hope for us, the breath of hope. But then, think of the breath of relief: seasons of refreshing. Just imagine what people feel like under the conditions I have been describing. They have lost all their energy. There is no oxygen and the humidity and the heat are terrible. But suddenly they are conscious of something new – a freshness, a coolness, a balm, something that makes them feel that they will be able to breathe after all, that they are not irretrievably doomed to death. What is it? Peter gives us the answer: ‘Repent ye therefore, and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out.’” I have quoted to you an example of preaching that refreshes, but I am also saying that it is our calling to refresh our fellow believers by restoring their souls.

5. You lead the people. In other words you are called to be examples to the flock. You are not merely another sheep. You are the shepherd and the shepherd leads the sheep, not visa versa. You are the one to go first; maybe first in heartache, and first in illness, and first in loneliness. You are to be first in prayerfulness, because the church says that they want to take you away from the factory and office and staff room and driving cab so that you can give yourself to prayer and the ministry of the word. You are first in mortification, beating your body and bringing it into subjection lest in preaching to others you yourself become a castaway. You are first in stewardship, and first in evangelistic concern. You lead them in grace; you lead them in likeness to Christ; you lead them in love. “4Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. 5 It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. 6 Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 7 It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. 8 Love never fails.” (I Cor. 13:4-8). You lead the flock not as a bully, not as always having your own way, but in graciousness.

6. You constantly exalt the great Name. You do everything, all this leading, “for his name’s sake.” He is the good Shepherd. He is the great Shepherd and you are an under shepherd. He is your example. You want his name to be loved and remembered, not yours. What a name it is! What a good Shepherd is the Lord Jesus Christ. He not only makes time for the perfect prize-winning sheep but for those who are weak and hobbling along. Not only for women and children and disabled people but also for people who are downright stupidly bad. He sits down for supper with crooks and prostitutes and riffraff of every kind. He accepts invitations from almost anybody, and he even invites himself to their place if they feel unworthy to invite him. Sometimes it hurts his reputation among the more upstanding, religious members of society. They think he’s got no standards. But Jesus calmly tells them that the reason he came is to help sinners – and it seems to be working. Eating with crooks doesn’t make Jesus go crooked; it helps crooks go straight. Talking kindly to prostitutes or to a woman who has gone through five divorces and now is living with number six doesn’t make Jesus sexually immoral; it helps prostitutes become sexually pure and it transforms the much married woman and she starts to put God in her life.

At times it almost seems Jesus prefers lowly people to important people and rotten sinners to decent citizens. But he tells every one of them that one day he’ll come again, and this time not to a stable to sleep in an animal feeding trough for a crib and to be surrounded by gawking shepherds, the smell of sheep heavy on them, but he is coming with glory, his own, and his Father’s glory and the glory of the angels. He tells this to them all, to the low life and to the big shots. He is not embarrassed to talk about coming again. He tells the smartest people with the highest I.Q. that he is coming again. He warns and welcomes them all.

The Jesus who said these words about coming again in glory doesn’t push anyone away but he also doesn’t pull any punches, either. He’s willing to meet people on their terms, but they can stay with him and follow him only on his terms. He won’t exclude anyone because of their past, but he won’t include anyone who refuses to leave their past and entrust their future to him. Nobody is so bad they can’t have him, but nobody is so good they don’t need him and his mercy and his love. He’s willing to meet you where you are, but then you must be willing to follow wherever he leads.

Let me emphasize this, that in meeting Jesus, you meet a combination of humility and authority you won’t meet anywhere else, an astonishing union of tenderness and toughness. One moment he’s cuddling babies; the next moment he’s confronting rulers. One moment he is lying exhausted and asleep in a boat that’s being rocked by a storm; the next moment he’s ordering the storm around. One moment he’s weeping at the grave of his dead friend Lazarus; the next he’s ordering death itself to release his friend. One moment he’s on his knees like a slave, washing other people’s dirty feet; the next he says he’s their Lord and Master. Jesus feels the weakness, pain and poverty of humanity, and at the same time he unleashes the power, healing, and abundance of God. He has come in humility, but he claims he will come again as the judge of all the world in power and glory. He doesn’t have even a small hut for a home, yet he strides through God’s temple with a whip in his hand reforming it as though he owns the place. He doesn’t have a penny to his name, yet he talks as though the whole world were his. Could even the least human be humbler and more vulnerable? Could even almighty God be greater and more powerful? What else can you think except that Jesus must be completely human and at the some time fully divine? His name alone is to be exalted high. That is your calling.

7. You lead them in paths of righteousness. You don’t lead them in paths of self-worth. You don’t lead them in paths of ‘feel-good’, but you lead them in paths of holiness. You deliver them from hearing the counsels of the ungodly, standing in the way of sinners and sitting in the seat of the scornful, but you make it their delight to be walking in paths of righteousness. You set before them the beauty of holiness so that they desire it for themselves. They increasingly hunger and thirst for righteousness. What is it that they are seeking first—the prizes, the prestige, and the treasures that this world can offer? Are they seeking economic security, pleasure, prosperity, the education of their children? Do you see what it is that they are seeking first? What is the priority? Not those things. ‘Paths of righteousness,’ says David I am taking the path of righteousness. I am seeking the things above. I am going to be with Christ who is above.

“Like as the hart for water brooks, in thirst doth pant and bray;

So pants my longing soul, O God, that come to Thee I may.” (Psalm 42. 1, metrical)

Christ I have, Christ I enjoy, in the privileges of Christian faith and sonship, but I want the same Christ more! I want him all! I am pressing on for the prize, the high calling of God in Christ Jesus. What is it at the right hand on high? Spiritual blessings in heavenly places. And is that now my ambition and the ambition of my flock? Not temporal, tangible, present blessings, but is my chief concentration on the spiritual blessings which are in the heavenly places? Can I really say it? We have the whole thing reduced to glorious simplicity for us in Matthew 5, “Blessed are they that do hunger and thirst after righteous­ness.” You see the state of mind of this flock. They are hungering and thirsting, they are parched, they are famished, absolutely starving, a desperate flock. They are in a state of destitution and they know that there is something they need for their survival, something they must have at all costs. And what is it? The flock is hungering and thirsting after righteousness. You have created the hunger by showing them the beauties of holiness and that is also where you are leading them. Is that what your affections are set upon? Not the possession of gifts, not the experience of blessedness, but you are absolutely desperate for the righteousness of conformity to the image of the Son of God because you’ve been made new, because you are risen, because you are with Christ, and you want . . . above all, you want absolutely desperately . . . the one thing you need for survival, conformity to the image of the Son of God. Paul says it, “This one thing I do; one thing, be a righteous man.” That is the absolute dominant longing in the Christian soul with his affections on the Christ of the throne, on the spiritual blessings above, on the righteousness which is heavenly, and that is where the pastor leads them.

8. You protect the flock. You have all the armour of God to protect you as you fight the cause of God and truth. David was content with his rod and staff. One smooth stone was enough to dispatch Goliath and the weapons of our warfare are spiritual and mighty through God to the pulling down of strongholds. So you protect the flock from the enemy within because “from your own selves,” Paul warns the Ephesian elders, would wolves emerge. Will you recognize them? Will you say, “That’s a sheep” and be right every time in something as basic as that? In fact you are wrong; that is a wolf and he is dressed in sheep’s clothing, and you have been deceived – the pastor! When false prophets threaten it is time to use your rod and staff, and they are the Word of God, and your own God-given authority to apply it, to really lay the word in its warnings on those wolves so that it stings. Think of the Reformers, Knox and Luther; think of Spurgeon; think of Machen, and how they all used the Word to deal with false prophets. “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.” For the flock’s sake deal with the wolves. Think of Jesus warning of false teachers, of his dealing with the Pharisees, or his cleansing the temple – all for the flock’s sake. What sort of shepherd fails to protect the sheep? A hireling. The true shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.

9. You are with the flock. It is so easy to seize on a ministry in the heart of a great city like London and say that that pastor can never visit his scattered flock. Maybe that is the case in London, but most of us are not there. In fact none of us is there. We have small congregations and the people have needs. One hears to one’s grief of needy people not being visited for a decade. If you want to be loved by the people then you are present when their hearts are breaking or when they are in hospital. You are there with your affection and love. You are there with a Scripture and with your prayers. Should the Roman Catholic priest go round the beds talking to people and not you? Thou art with me.

10. You are taking them home with you. We are strangers and sojourners in this world. It is not our home. We are looking forward to dwelling in the house of the Lord for ever. We are going home. Your flock will have no perspective from which to handle the groans of their lives unless you make much of the heaven that awaits them. I often feel convicted that I do not preach on heaven as much as I should. There is no other way to consider the sufferings of this present time than by setting them in the light of the glory that lies before us. We’ll soon be home. You’ll accompany the flock a day’s march nearer their home.

Geoff Thomas