One of the great images that Jesus uses to describe himself is that of a shepherd as found in John 10. As an Australian my image of shepherds is rugged guys on dirtbikes named Barry with two-way radios and sheep dogs who keep the sheep under control by ensuring they’re totally petrified out of their brains.
I’m pretty sure that’s not quite the image Jesus is going for here.
It seems a much more intimate, close, caring relationship. Jesus is the good shepherd who knows his sheep and whose sheep know him (John 10:14). His sheep know his voice, he knows them by name and they listen to his voice and follow him (John 10:3-4, 27). And of course the greatest testament to the love and care of the shepherd, “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” (John 10:11)
Our words for “pastor” and for “pastoral care” come from the same Greek word as “shepherd”. A pastor is a shepherd. Which means here, in the person of Jesus, we find the one true Pastor. He is the one who ultimately provides Pastoral Care. He is the good pastor who all Christians have direct access to because of his work on the cross and through the Spirit.
One of the striking features of Jesus’ use of this shepherd/pastor image is that he didn’t just pull it out of nowhere. By itself the image is still one of deep care and intimacy and it would be beautiful in itself. But it’s an image that brings with it a ton of Old Testament freight. In particular from passages like Isaiah 40.
There we find a great eschatological promise of God bringing the end of exile (Is. 40:1-2), the day when Yahweh himself, sovereign and powerful, will visit His people (Is. 40:3-5, 9-10). And what is He like? Verse 11:
11 He tends his flock like a shepherd:
He gathers the lambs in his arms
and carries them close to his heart;
he gently leads those that have young.
When Yahweh comes he comes to pastor his people with great care and tenderness. He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart. What an awesome picture of God’s pastoral care for his people. And it’s not only a picture of gentle care and personal affection, but it’s also a picture of protection and security. And for good reason. The arms that carry the lambs close to the shepherd’s heart are the same arms, one verse earlier, with which he rules the universe (Is. 40:10). Yahweh himself is the great Shepherd/Pastor of His people.
This just makes it all the more striking when Jesus announces that he himself is the Good Shepherd who loves and cares for the sheep. In Jesus we have direct, unmediated access to the Pastoral Care of God himself. He is to be our Shepherd. He is our Pastor.
This isn’t to say that there is no need for human pastoral care; or that there’s no place for human pastor/shepherds. The Bible’s very clear about this too. 1 Peter 5:2 explicitly appeals to us to “Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care.” But even this is to be a role of undershepherding. Pastoral care is itself important and is an important component of the job of a pastor. But surely the heart of all pastoral care will be to focus the other toward the divine pastoral care of Jesus himself, the “Chief Shepherd” (a few verses later in 1 Peter 5:4). To ween the other off reliance on the pastor and onto relying on The Pastor. To squash overreliance on the undershepherds and point to the immediacy of divine pastoral care. And yes, there may be those sheep of such weakness and frailty who will always require this pastoral care mediated to them, but they would be the exception and not the rule.
In Donald Macleod’s article, ‘The Doctrine of God and Pastoral Care’ in Engaging the Doctrine of God by B. L. McCormack, he puts it like this, “…each of us must know that we can go straight to God, and we should train every member of his flock to do the same. In fact, where there is authentic pastoral care, all it does is convey and administer God’s own care.”
And the reason for this is found at the end of Isaiah 40. Pastoral Care is tiring, and hard work, and sometimes we have no clear advice to give. But “The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He will not grow tired or weary, and his understanding no one can fathom.” (Is. 40:28) He can carry me as long as necessary, he won’t run out of puff, he won’t get jack of me and my issues, he won’t forget about me, he won’t need to ‘spend time recharging his emotional batteries’, he won’t ‘need some space’, he won’t burn out, he won’t offer irrelevant advice, but he will always care, be concerned, be committed and be creative in respect to me and my issues.
This is the pastoral value of the doctrine of aseity. That is, God is life in and from himself; and from himself God gives himself. He is self-sufficient and inexhaustible. God, in his Triunity, is an eternal fountain of life that overflows from his own self-sufficiency. He can provide care for an infinite amount of people for an infinite amount of time.
True pastoral care will be care that seeks to help people focus on Jesus as the Good Shepherd who carries them close to His heart in direct and unmediated divine pastoral care.