Every Christmas season famously begins with Jesus’ birth narrative. My favourite part of the narrative comes from Luke 2:8-14:
And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watching over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with great fear. And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom He is pleased!”
Why is this my favourite portion of the birth narrative? Because of who the recipients are in this particular pericope. The angel was speaking to shepherds here, and who they were as a social caste is significant. They were social outcasts—or rather, “outcastes” (see what I did there?). Shepherds were one of the lowest castes of Roman society. They were on the outskirts of society whom people rejected, ignored, and even demoralised.
Shepherds were not only on the outskirts of inner society, but physically as well as they remained out in the fields to care for their flocks. Who the angel appeared to here is significant. The angel did not appear to princes or kings or nobles. Instead, the angel appeared to the lowly shepherds. This would be like appearing to janitors and homeless people of our day rather than celebrities, which we would expect, but God never does as we expect.
One of the many titles attributed to Jesus is “Good Shepherd.” He is our Good Shepherd not only as the One who seeks the lost (Luke 15), but also as the Good Shepherd whom society rejects, ignores, and demoralises (John 7:7). The world continues to reject Him as the only means to salvation (John 14:6), they ignore His wisdom and Spirit, and they even demoralise Him in comics and cartoons like Family Guy.
Jesus the Good Shepherd was rejected, ignored, and demoralised for your sake on the cross. Although Christ has ascended, He has sent under-shepherds to care for His flocks in His Church, which remains on the outskirts of society even today.
Pastors as Shepherds
We call these under-shepherds pastors, who are God’s instruments and guide the flock to the Good Shepherd. Proverbs 27:23, “Know well the condition of your flocks, and give attention to your herds.” Whilst this proverb was more likely written for the practical use of actual shepherds, it is also helpful to apply this to the pastoral office today. Indeed, it speaks directly to the pastor’s role of overseer, which I’ll get to momentarily. First, a word study on the word “pastor.”
We don’t find a word for “pastor” in the Greek New Testament, at least not directly. Our English Word “pastor” comes from the Latin word with the same spelling, pastor, which means “shepherd.” This Latin word itself is a derivation from the Greek word for shepherd, ποιμήν (poimēn). In Scripture, the words Bishop (Overseer), Elder, and Shepherd (Pastor) are used interchangeably for the same pastoral office. These words are, respectively, επίσκοπος (episkopos, overseer), πρεσβύτερος (presbuteros, elder, sometimes deacons by some translators), and ποιμήν (poimēn, shepherd/pastor).
Common interpretation uses these three terms as different offices, but textual evidence shows otherwise. The textual evidence shows us this first in 1 Timothy 3 where Paul lists the qualifications of overseers and elders, and we see they are equally parallel (parallelism in Greek is highly significant, for it serves the purpose of showing equality in meaning).
Paul again uses the term to refer to the same man in Titus 1:5, 7, “This is why I left you [Titus the pastor] in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders [presbuteros] in every town I directed you… For an overseer [episkopos], as God’s steward, must be above reproach…” Paul isn’t talking of two different offices; the language he uses is qualifying them as the same exact office.
Peter uses all three terms together in 1 Peter 5:1-2 to refer to these men of God when he addresses the pastoral office: “So, I exhort the elders [presbuteros] among you, as a fellow elder and witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: shepherd [poimano, the verb for “to shepherd”] the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight [episkopos].”
Before all these epistles, we actually see Paul use all three terms interchangeably. In Acts 20 Paul addresses the Ephesian Elders (v. 17, presbuteros) on their pastoral service, where he says specifically, “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock [Proverbs 27:23], in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers [episkopos], to shepherd [poimano] the church of God” (v. 28). So, why the three different terms? Why not stick to just one word? They are used to illustrate the roles the pastor exercises in his office.
Textually, I believe there is a wide and narrow sense of “pastor.” In the narrow sense, the pastor is “elder.” Whilst the Greek word can be used to mean “old man,” when used in the church context it was meant as an elected person over an assembly of Christian believers. It makes sense that they used this word because it was ancient practice back then for the elder of one’s family to be the head of the family. So, they used this term for what we call pastors today as heads of the church. Thus, elder is their title. In other words, in the narrow sense, a pastor is the elder of the church in that he is the head of the church, in the sense that he represents Christ to the church and mediates for the church to Christ. This occurs in Word and Sacrament: the preaching of the Word and the administration of the Sacraments (both the public and private use of the sacraments).
In the wide sense, pastors are “overseers” and “shepherds.” As overseers, they exercise “oversight” over the church. The BDAG defines an overseer as “one who has the responsibility of safeguarding or seeing to it that something is done in the correct way” (379). Similar words we might use today would be “guardian” or “supervisor.” As an overseer, then, the pastor watches over and directs his church. These could be tasks such as administrative responsibilities, watching for false doctrine and heresy, overseeing various ministries in the congregation, etc.
As a shepherd, I argue this is the realm of pastoral care. The BDAG has two definitions for “shepherd”: one who herds sheep and “one who serves as a guardian or leader” (843). This is where the congregant develops a personal relationship with his or her pastor. The pastor as shepherd occurs in pastoral counseling, hospital visits, shut-in visits, Bible studies, and possibly other tasks.
So then, elder, overseer, and shepherd are not three different offices, but rather roles the pastor undertakes. As elder, the pastor is the head of the church and mediates between his flock and Christ through Word and Sacrament. As overseer, the pastor carries out administrative tasks as well as being on watch for false doctrine and heresy. As shepherd, the pastor cares for his people primarily through pastoral counseling in addition to other tasks. He performs all these tasks whilst guiding his flock to the Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ.
Christ Our Good Shepherd
How is Christ our Shepherd? In a study like this, I could cover numerous concepts, but I will focus only on three: forgiveness, Baptism, and comfort.
Christ promises you forgiveness. Whether you pray for forgiveness or receive His body and blood for the forgiveness of sins (Matthew 26:28), you are forgiven. He also delivers forgiveness to you in Confession & Absolution. When you confess your sins to your pastor, whether publicly or privately, the pastor speaks the words of absolution to you as if Christ Himself is speaking them (John 20:21-23).
When you were baptised, you were clothed in Christ’s righteousness. “For in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptised into Christ have put on Christ” (Galatians 3:26-27). Paul goes into extreme detail of what God does to you in Baptism in Romans 6. He says you are baptised into Christ’s death and raised into newness of life. In Baptism, he says, you die a death like Christ’s and will therefore be united with Him in a resurrection like His. Your “old self”—your sin, the old Adam—was crucified with Jesus in your Baptism, no longer enslaved to sin. Having died with Him, therefore, you are raised with Him and live to God and no longer to sin.
Lastly, Jesus is your Comforter. Matthew 11:28-30, “Come to Me, all who labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you, and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy, and My burden is light.” In this life, we are met with grief, fear, pain, and toiling. Jesus is aware of all this, and He invites you to come to Him. I love how Lenski comments on this gracious invitation, “It is the height of abnormality and irrationality to spurn the divine help when it is so absolutely needed” (457).
It is difficult to see the significance of the use of the imperative in English; it is much easier to see in Greek. Even in English we use the imperative mood as a sense of command, yet when we read it, it’s difficult to see it that way. After Jesus makes the command, there’s a comma that takes away from this sense of command in English.
If we read it in Greek, we would read it as, “Come!” as opposed to “Come, …” By making this imperative statement, Jesus is giving the invitation with a sense of urgency, “Come to Me!” Every time we see “I,” “my,” or “me,” Jesus is using these personal pronouns emphatically. Let’s read His statement emphatically, then, “Take My yoke upon you, and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart… For My yoke is easy, and My burden is light.” In essence, He is saying, “I know you are toiling and you are heavy laden. If you desire rest, come to Me! For I alone will give you rest. You can find ultimate rest in Me alone.”
Jesus doesn’t have only one way to provide rest and comfort. There are numerous ways in which He may choose to comfort you. He may comfort you through your pastor in a sermon or counseling, in hearing His Word, receiving His body and blood in the Lord’s Supper, remembering your Baptism, someone you love, and perhaps other ways. I have received comfort in all of those ways. My favourite is when I just “happen” to come across a Scripture passage that’s extremely comforting.
God’s Advent—God’s Coming to Us
At times, you may suffer for a little while. Whilst you’re in the midst of this suffering, it may seem like God is absent and cares little about your suffering. Yet I have found that when this happens, it is not God who moved, but us. You are God’s child! He’s not leaving you anywhere! Often, as disobedient children, we are the ones who move and we blame our Parent for it.
Regardless of the situation, you have a promise. “And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to His eternal glory in Christ, will Himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you” (1 Peter 5:10). You may experience a thorn in the flesh like Paul did in order for God to teach you something (2 Corinthians 12:7). Your suffering may be necessary for a little while to test the genuineness of your faith in order that it may result in the praise and honour of Christ’s revelation (1 Peter 1:6-7). Yet, as Peter ends his first epistle on suffering, you have the promise that God Himself (a reflexive pronoun for emphatic use) will restore you, confirm you, strengthen you, and establish you.
Christianity is not about finding God; He has already made Himself known. God has found you; He has found you in Jesus Christ. If you have heard God’s Word, God has found you. So, don’t run away from it. We don’t climb up to God; God climbs down to us. Jesus humbled Himself by stepping down from His heavenly throne, becoming a servant for you, and dying for you on the cross (Philippians 2:8). And Jesus still comes to you today in the Word, the Sacraments, your pastor, and your brothers and sisters in Christ who love you.
Thus, every Advent, whether you suffer for a time or not, let’s joyfully sing aloud: Gloria in excelsis Deo! “Glory to God in the highest!” For Christ the Lord has come and has forgiven and baptised you, a miserable sinner, and gives you rest in all your afflictions.
Arndt, W., Danker, F. W., Bauer, W., & Gingrich, F. W. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000).
Lenski, R. C. H. The Interpretation of St. Matthew’s Gospel (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg PublishingHouse, 1961).