A Shepherd’s Heart by Tony Cooke

A Shepherd’s Heart
Tony Cooke

Shepherd's Heart“A Shepherd’s Heart” is a term you’ll hear used from time to time, and what a beautiful expression it is. One of the most frequently used images in the early church was that of a shepherd with a lamb. I took the above picture at an exhibit that was set up in the Flavian Amphitheater (the Colosseum) while visiting Rome.

It is true that not everyone who has the title of pastor has a shepherd’s heart (Ezekiel 34 painfully and graphically reveals this), but one of the great privileges in my life is to have known so many wonderful spiritual leaders who truly do have and exhibit a shepherd’s heart. They have served God and His people relentlessly, lovingly, and effectively.

I might also add that there are some who don’t necessarily have the title of pastor, and yet they beautifully express and convey a shepherd’s heart through many different avenues (such as prison ministry, hospital visitation, nursing home ministry, or simply by caring for and ministering compassionately one-on-one to people).

Years ago, I compiled a list of some of the traits of a pastor’s heart…traits that I wanted to see developed in my own life. This list included:

  • having the same attitude and the same tender mercies toward people and the church that Jesus does
  • seeing people from God’s perspective and through Jesus’ eyes
  • loving with an absolute and determined love
  • seeking the welfare of people and putting the well-being of others before myself

Moses clearly exhibited a shepherd’s heart toward the people of Israel even when they had gotten into gross disobedience.

Exodus 32:31-32 (MSG)
31 Moses went back to GOD and said, “This is terrible. This people has sinned—it’s an enormous sin! They made gods of gold for themselves. 32 And now, if you will only forgive their sin. . . . But if not, erase me out of the book you’ve written.”

What Moses said reminds me of Paul’s statement concerning the Jewish people in Romans 9:2-3 (NLT): “My heart is filled with bitter sorrow and unending grief for my people, my Jewish brothers and sisters. I would be willing to be forever cursed—cut off from Christ! —if that would save them.”

Loved for centuries, the 23rd Psalm vividly portrays what is released into our lives when we follow the Lord. Because He is our Shepherd, we have…

  • Provision – We shall not want.
  • Rest – He makes us to lie down in green pastures.
  • Peace – He leads us beside the still waters.
  • Restoration – He restores our souls.
  • Guidance – He leads us in the paths of righteousness.
  • Protection – We will fear no evil because He is with us.
  • Comfort – His rod and His staff comfort us.
  • Satisfaction – He prepares a table for us in the presence of our enemies.
  • Anointing – He anoints our heads with oil.
  • Abundance – Our cups run over.
  • Confidence – Surely goodness and mercy will follow us all the days of my lives.
  • Union – We will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

All of these flow from the heart of Jesus, the Great Shepherd. When we allow Him to live through us, He can release and minister a sense of these virtues through us toward others.

The Prophet Isaiah (40:11, NLT) said, “He will feed his flock like a shepherd. He will carry the lambs in his arms, holding them close to his heart. He will gently lead the mother sheep with their young.”

Jeremiah had seen some bad examples of shepherding, but he envisioned a day when godly shepherds would be established (23:1-6). What did the prophet see happening through these leaders?

  • The flock will be gathered and returned to their folds.
  • The flock will be fruitful and increase.
  • The flock will be fed.
  • The flock will no longer be in fear, nor shall they be dismayed.
  • The flock will have no more lack.

It’s been sadly noted in modern times that some preachers, “…love crowds, but hate people.” That is not a shepherd’s heart! Jesus made it clear that real shepherds don’t just love the sheep (plural), but they love sheep (singular). In Matthew 18:12-13 (NLT), Jesus said, “If a man has a hundred sheep and one of them wanders away, what will he do? Won’t he leave the ninety-nine others on the hills and go out to search for the one that is lost? And if he finds it, I tell you the truth, he will rejoice over it more than over the ninety-nine that didn’t wander away!”

Also, consider the amazing insights from what Jesus taught about His own role as as the Good Shepherd.

John 10:10-14
10 The thief does not come except to steal, and to kill, and to destroy. I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly. 11 “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd gives His life for the sheep. 12 But a hireling, he who is not the shepherd, one who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees; and the wolf catches the sheep and scatters them. 13 The hireling flees because he is a hireling and does not care about the sheep. 14 I am the good shepherd; and I know My sheep, and am known by My own.

The lessons here are powerful!

  • The good shepherd has the flock’s best interests at heart. He came that they might have life and have it more abundantly.
  • He gives his life for the sheep.
  • He has a sense of responsibility toward the flock. It is said of the hireling, “…whose own the sheep are not…”
  • He continues with the flock. He doesn’t flee like the hireling when he sees the wolf coming.
  • He cares for the sheep.
  • He knows his sheep.
  • He is known by his sheep. Verses 4-5 in the NLT read, “…they follow him because they know his voice. They won’t follow a stranger; they will run from him because they don’t know his voice.”

Paul expresses a shepherd’s heart in many statements throughout his epistles, but perhaps none more striking than what he said to the Corinthians. “Now I am coming to you for the third time, and I will not be a burden to you. I don’t want what you have—I want you. After all, children don’t provide for their parents. Rather, parents provide for their children. I will gladly spend myself and all I have for you, even though it seems that the more I love you, the less you love me” (2 Corinthians 12:14-15, NLT).

In his first epistle (5:1-3, AMP), Peter calls Jesus “the Great Shepherd” and urges the under-shepherds to care well for the flock. In the Amplified, he refers to the “elders… the pastors and spiritual guides of the church,” and tells them to: “Tend (nurture, guard, guide, and fold) the flock of God that is [your responsibility], not by coercion or constraint, but willingly; not dishonorably motivated by the advantages and profits [belonging to the office], but eagerly and cheerfully; Not domineering [as arrogant, dictatorial, and overbearing persons] over those in your charge, but being examples (patterns and models of Christian living) to the flock (the congregation).” In short, those serving as spiritual leaders are to pattern themselves after the Great Shepherd!

If you are a pastor reading all of this, you may find these descriptions daunting. Keep in mind this simple truth: You are God’s servant and heaven’s ambassador, but you are not the Messiah and you are not the Holy Spirit. Lynn Anderson said, “Good spiritual leaders know full well that they are only shepherds, not saviors; they know they are leaders, but not lords; they understand that they may be skillful guides, but they are not gods.”

Warren Wiersbe observed, “…we can adopt the ‘CEO approach’ to pastoral leadership and distance ourselves from our people without ever paying the price of compassion, but that approach is very unlike Jesus Christ. Compassion is costly, but a hard heart costs even more. God help the church whose shepherd has no love for the sheep.”

This is not to bash good leadership and administrative skills, nor is it to imply that a lone pastor must single-handedly tend to every need amongst the congregation. In a healthy congregation, many people are releasing the love of God to one another. Hence, all of the “one another” scriptures (encourage one another, comfort one another, pray for one another, etc.).

Good management, structure, and delegation are great things in a church, but a good “business head” never takes the place of a loving shepherd’s heart. Even when several help and assist in ministering to the needs of God’s people, those laborers need to have at least a touch of a shepherd’s heart as well, so they can work together effectively, representing Jesus and the pastor—His under-shepherd—well.

Perhaps in the course of your ministry you have been discouraged or wounded, and perhaps you’ve even become angry, cynical, or jaded. If you have found yourself ministering more from hurt or frustration than from the Presence of God, that’s an indication that you need to spend some serious time with the Great Shepherd and reclaim the joy, the passion, and the purpose that God put in your heart in earlier days. Isaiah 42:3 (MSG) says, “He won’t brush aside the bruised and the hurt and he won’t disregard the small and insignificant, but he’ll steadily and firmly set things right.”

If you are a non-pastor who is reading this, please don’t be critical of your pastor for not “measuring up” to these ideal standards. Pray for your pastor, and realize that he or she may be dealing with pressures and challenges you know nothing about. Keep in mind that there is no such thing as a perfect pastor, and likewise, there is no such thing as a perfect congregation. We could also write about “the perfect church member,” and we’d find that not too many would measure up to that either. Both imperfect pastors and imperfect church members need to pray for each other, and as Ephesians 4:2 (NLT) says, “Be patient with each other, making allowance for each other’s faults because of your love.”

Let me close with words from Hebrews 13:20-21 (NLT):

“Now may the God of peace—who brought up from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great Shepherd of the sheep, and ratified an eternal covenant with his blood—may he equip you with all you need for doing his will. May he produce in you, through the power of Jesus Christ, every good thing that is pleasing to him. All glory to him forever and ever! Amen.”