If the Old Testament looks forward to a faithful shepherd of God’s people, pastors must remember that this shepherd imagery is ultimately fulfilled in Jesus the Chief Shepherd. While the shepherd imagery of the New Testament can be used to refer to pastors, the shepherd imagery of the Old Testament most clearly finds its fulfillment in Jesus. So before we see how pastors today shepherd God’s people, we must first consider the true Davidic shepherd over God’s people, the model for pastoral ministry.

Peter, in his exhortation to the elders of the church, urged them to shepherd the flock that God had entrusted to them in light of the fact that they would be rewarded when the “chief shepherd” appeared. Joseph Hellerman has argued that the word Peter used for “chief shepherd” is the closest parallel in the New Testament to the term “senior pastor.” The term is not used to refer to a senior pastor of a local church, but the word is used to refer to Jesus, the chief shepherd.[1] The point to be made is that Jesus is the ultimate shepherd of his people. Any pastoral role fulfilled by a human being is in the role of an under-shepherd, under the authority of the Chief Shepherd.

Even in the birth narrative of Jesus, Matthew alluded to 2 Samuel 5:2 to show that Jesus is the ultimate fulfillment of God’s promise to David. He is the ultimate shepherd and ruler over the people of God. God had promised a shepherd for His people who would come from David, and that shepherd is Jesus. In Matthew 9:36, when Jesus looked out over the crowds who came to him, he had compassion on them because they were like sheep without a shepherd. Upon his return, Jesus will gather all the nations together, and like a shepherd, he will separate the sheep from the goats (Matthew 25:32-33). And in Matthew 26:31, Matthew applied Zechariah 13:7 to Jesus, so that when Jesus was struck, his sheep were scattered.

In John 10:10, Jesus called himself the good shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep. Jesus is not like a hired hand who abandons the sheep when a wolf comes (10:12-13), but he knows his own sheep by name (10:14). Jesus’ love for his sheep is seen most clearly in that he willingly gave up his life for his sheep (10:17-18). Jesus calls his own sheep by name, and he leads his sheep (10:3). Jesus’ sheep recognize his voice, and they follow him (10:4).

So if we want to define the term pastor biblically, we must first recognize that the ultimate pastor of God’s people is Jesus, the great shepherd-king. He is the promised shepherd and ruler from the line of David, and he is the main overseer and ruler of the church. He is the head of the church to whom the church must submit (Ephesians 5:23). So any human shepherd serves under the authority of Christ the chief shepherd, and any human pastor shepherds a church so precious to Jesus that Jesus purchased that church with his own blood (Acts 20:28).

None of this lessens the importance of pastoral ministry, but it puts the role of the pastor in its proper perspective. Peter made clear that the pastor must lead in light of the Chief Shepherd’s coming. So anyone who desires to serve in the role of pastor must recognize two things. First, the church is not ultimately the pastor’s church. The church does not belong to the pastor, but the church belongs to Jesus, who shed his blood for the church. Second, any authority vested in the office of pastor is a derived authority. The authority derives from the Chief Shepherd, and under-shepherds must recognize that they will one day have to give an account to this Chief Shepherd.


[1] Joseph H. Hellerman, When the Church Was a Family: Recapturing Jesus’ Vision for Authentic Christian Community (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2009), 190.