Confessions of a “Would-Be” Shepherd

Maybe my father was bored.

Mark WebbI am still not sure what prompted my father to do it. Maybe he was bored. Maybe he wanted to be different. Maybe he just got tired of staring at a pasture overgrown with cockleburs and Johnson grass. Whatever it was, I’ll never forget the day when I came home from school—I was eleven or so at the time—to learn that my father had purchased about twenty- five head of sheep. My excitement at the time prevented me from fully appreciating the recklessness of my father’s action. For, you see, none of us knew the first thing about raising sheep. After all, this was Texas—Cattle country. Except of a few old ewes here and there, we had the only flock of consequence for miles around. But, for better or for worse, I was now in the sheep business. Those sheep would become my major source of income over the next few years. I made plenty of mistakes, especially that first winter. But the lessons I learned in caring for those sheep have proven absolutely invaluable to me in succeeding years. For, as I now know, there is a very close relationship existing between what I was doing then and what I am doing now.

Pastors and Pastures

Our word “pastor” comes from an agricultural setting. It refers to one who tends, feeds, or, in general, cares for a flock of sheep. As a verb it refers to the act of such tending. It is a “pastoral” term, referring to the kind of work performed out in the pasture. In my case, my “pastoral” training came straight from the pasture, not from the seminary. I’ve often thought that seminaries would be wise to have a pasture out back, complete with a flock of sheep, to be used as one’s “lab” work in conjunction with a course in “Pastoral Theology”. Too often the ministry is viewed by those who aspire to it as a road to a lofty position or a “cushy” job. A stint out in the pasture would tend to sober one up to the realities of the work that lies ahead. It would provide an ideal testing ground to determine whether or not the Lord has indeed equipped the person in question with the character needed for such work. The work of a shepherd, as well as the work of a pastor, requires constant diligence and faithfulness to the task at hand, a readiness to stoop to menial, distasteful, servile tasks, and an incredible amount of patience to deal with the peculiarities, vagaries, and stubbornness of the sheep they serve. Should one prove unfitted for such “ministry” to a flock of sheep out in the pasture, they most likely will prove unsuited for the work of the ministry in the church. Many of the same gifts and character traits are required in both areas.

A stint in the pasture will not only prove one’s character, but will improve one’s theology at the same time! Our Lord borrowed many of His illustrations from the realm of agriculture, and often these related to sheep. I find that my early experience raising sheep has given me an understanding of and an appreciation for these passages. So, if you’ll pardon the personal references, I would like to share with you some of my experiences with sheep.

He Calleth His Own Sheep by Name

To me at that age, sheep were more like pets than livestock. Rather than thinking about how to make money with them, I was far more concerned with such things as trying to get them to eat out of my hand and come when I called them. But how can you expect sheep to come if they don’t have names? So one of my first self-assigned tasks was to name each of my sheep. Usually I would pick names based on some obvious physical characteristic, such as “White-face”, “Black-face”, “Brownie” or “Horns” (Ok, so I wasn’t too original!). Then there was “Half-horns”, with horns that were quite visible, just not very long. Then there was “Skittish”, who never ever learned to trust me or let me get near her (She kept having twins or triplets every year, however, so I couldn’t bear to get rid of her). Before long these names became part of our household vocabulary. My mom could greet me at the door saying “Horns jumped over the fence again today”, and I would know immediately to which ewe she was referring. Even today, some thirty-five years later, I can still picture “Horns” in my mind! Should you have smuggled an extra sheep into my flock, attempting to pass it off as one of mine, I would have known instantly that it didn’t belong to me. You might as well try to pass off someone else’s child as mine—for I knew my sheep and their names back then as well as I know my own children and their names today.

It is with special relish that I read John 10. There Christ speaks of Himself under the figure of a shepherd and of His people as His sheep. Of special interest is verse 3: “To Him the porter openeth, and the sheep hear his voice; and he calleth his own sheep by name, and leadeth them out.” A flock, in our eyes, may appear as a faceless, nameless mass of sheep. But, to the shepherd, each sheep is an individual personality and bears an assigned name. Christ would have us know that He has a deep, personal acquaintance with and an intimate knowledge of each one of His elect sheep. A shepherd may like sheep in general, but it is those sheep that are “his own” who enjoy the special care, provision, and presence of the shepherd. So it is in the case of Christ and His people. It is these who are “his own” that He loves unto the end and for whom He lays down His life.

Christ knows His sheep long before they know Him. One day, as Christ was passing through Jericho, He pauses under a sycamore tree, looks up, and calls a man by name that He apparently has never seen before: “Zacchaeus, make haste, and come down; for today I must abide at thy house.” Indeed, just a short while afterwards, Zacchaeus proves to be one of Christ’s sheep! Paul, in Gal. 4:9, refers to the conversion of the Galatian saints by these words: “But now, after ye have known God.” Truly, eternal life is found in coming to a saving knowledge of God through His Son, Jesus Christ (See John 17:3). However, Paul seems to pause here for a moment. For stating it in that manner might imply to some that we come to such a knowledge of our initiative and volition. So, lest there be any ambiguity at this point, Paul hurriedly adds, “or rather are known by God”. That’s the key! Yes, the sheep, in time, will each be brought to the knowledge of their Shepherd (See John 10:14). Yet His knowledge precedes theirs. We love Him because He first loved us, and we know Him because He first knew us!

Many seem to think that judgment day will require an involved amount of intense scrutiny by Christ in determining who belongs to Him. I’m convinced that this will hardly be the case. As quickly as Christ declares to some, in spite of their protests, “I know you not”,

He will instantly recognize His beloved sheep and call them by name. Friend, are you one of His? What evidence do you have that He will claim you as His own in that day? Have you heard His voice, and are you following Him? That’s what His sheep do. If not, no matter how zealous and active you may be in religious activity, take heed lest you be excluded in that day. But to you sheep out there, living in the midst of wolves, struggling onward in the steps of your Shepherd, take heart! For the voice of your Shepherd calls: “Fear not, little flock; for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”

Fainting Sheep

A Fainting Goat“But when he saw the multitudes, he was moved with compassion on them, because they fainted, and were scattered abroad, as sheep having no shepherd”—Matt. 9:36.

Here we have the words of our Lord as He beholds the multitudes who have followed Him out of the cities and villages of Galilee. He has been sent into this world as the Good Shepherd, and has been given a flock of sheep by His Father (John 10:27-29). His sheep, however, are lost sheep. They are scattered, as if by a marauding wolf. They must be brought together into one fold and placed under the care of the shepherd to whom they belong (John 10:16). But there is a problem: According to the text, they have “fainted”. I have often smiled to myself while reading what the commentators have to say about this rather strange statement. They may know Greek, but they don’t know sheep!

The Wolf Dog

Our little flock of sheep soon became quite a curiosity piece in our neck of the woods. Most folks thereabouts had little or no acquaintance with sheep. One day I looked down the gravel road leading to our farm, and there came Steve Caldwell. Steve lived a couple of miles away on another farm. He was about my age and we often visited back and forth. But what caught my attention that day was that Steve had brought along his dog, “Wolf ”! Well, he wasn’t really a wolf, but that’s what we called him. Steve said he was part German Shepherd and part wolf, and just one look at him would convince you it was true! Just about the time I looked up and saw them coming, that wolf/dog caught sight of my sheep, and the race was on!

What happened next can best be described as our version of a Chinese fire drill! The sheep quickly banded together as tightly as possible and were running as fast as they could go. The dog was chasing them round and round the pasture, barking and snipping at their hind ends. Steve was chasing his dog and screaming at the top of his lungs. I was running in about ten directions at once, trying to figure out how to save my sheep, on the one hand, and how to tell my dad that Wolf had killed and eaten them all, on the other. To my horror, I saw one of the sheep in front of Wolf suddenly just fall over. And then another one did the same. And another. “He’s going to kill them all”, I thought to myself, while pondering the fact that some of the sheep that had fallen weren’t even anywhere close to the dog!

Finally we hit upon a scheme that saved the day. I ran to the barn, opened the door, and the next time the flock came round the pasture, Steve and I managed to guide them into the barn and slam the door. Wolf was still running around the barn, looking for a way to get in, but Steve finally caught him and, mercifully, it was over. Over, except for the fact that about five or six of my ewes were still lying motionless on the ground, scattered about the pasture.

I walked over to where the first ewe was lying, consoling myself that losing only five or six sheep really wasn’t all that bad under the circumstances, when I noticed that the ewe wasn’t dead at all! There was no blood, no wound, not even a scratch on her. Her eyes were wide with fear, her legs were seemingly paralyzed, but she was still breathing. Steve came over and gave me a hand in rolling her back over on her stomach. After a few minutes, she began to move around, stood up, and was back to her ol’ self. One by one, we went to each of those ewes, and after a little work, they each recovered. I could hardly believe it—I hadn’t lost a single ewe to the “wolf ” attack!

Calling the Sheep

That was my first experience with a quality that is characteristic of sheep. When all seems lost and hopeless, they simply give up, surrender, and keel over. Now before you berate them too heavily for being such “wimpy” animals, remember that if it weren’t for that quality sheep would be nearly impossible to shear! Yet it can be a deadly quality as well. I’ve known sheep to roll over on their backs in a shallow depression, and simply lie there and die, because they assume they can’t get up!

I suggest that this was what Christ saw as He surveyed the multitudes that day. As happened on several occasions in Christ’s life, the immediate scene before Him, surveyed with the physical eye, reminded Him of spiritual realities existing on a far greater scale. The “harvest” to which He alludes in the following verse is surely greater in extent than just the multitude accompanying Him on that particular day. This is seen by what follows. The need, says Jesus, is for laborers to go and gather the harvest. To that end, Christ sends out His disciples throughout all the land of Israel in the next chapter. It’s significant, in light of His previous statement concerning the multitude being like scattered, fainting sheep, that they are directed to the “lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matt. 10:6). That’s the point—His sheep are out there, but they are scattered and they have fainted. They will not come to Him in that condition. They must be sought out, found, and brought.

This is the work for which Christ commissioned His disciples, and the work to which all who are in the Gospel ministry today are called. We seek out those lost, fallen, fainting sheep. To all appearances, they are dead, even as others. But lo and behold, as we begin to proclaim the glad tidings of salvation, they hear a voice—the voice of their Shepherd (Cp. Eph. 2:17; 4:20-21). And they begin to stir, to sit up, and to stand. They arise and go to their Shepherd as if drawn by a magnet. And He, as I that day long ago, will not lose a single one of them (John 6:39)!

Leading Sheep

The first few weeks with my new sheep were very disappointing. As a boy, I thought of them more as pets than as livestock—but what good is a pet if it won’t let you come near it? My sheep were as wild as the wind! Apparently they had originated from one of the large sheep-ranch operations out in West Texas where human contact was minimal. Whatever the case, it was clear that they were terribly frightened by my presence. I had the romantic, Biblical image of a shepherd leading his flock over the hills from pasture to pasture, but the reality I was facing was quite otherwise. Whenever I entered the pasture, the sheep would invariably take off for the opposite end.

The obvious course of action was to try to attract them with feed. As fall progressed, the grass supply began to dwindle, so we stocked up on grain to use as feed during the coming winter. This afforded me with the “bait” to use in winning over their confidence. Yet after failing miserably at this for several weeks, I was about ready to give up when a breakthrough occurred. As I held out a handful of grain to a group of sheep for the umpteenth time, out of the blue, one of them walked over and starting eating right out of my hand. I was elated! Finally I had won over at least one of my sheep. Well, to be honest, I must inform you that this particular ewe had wool, not only all over her body, but all over her face as well. As her wool grew, her sight dwindled, and by winter she was as blind as a bat! So I’m not sure if it was my charismatic presence, or simply the scent of the grain, that finally won her over. At any rate, it was all downhill from there. Sheep, like humans, are intensely jealous of each other. They’re obsessed with the notion that another of the flock might get one extra blade of grass or mouthful of grain before they do. So as soon as this one ewe began to receive grain from my hand, others soon followed.

As winter approached, my daily chores included giving my sheep a five-gallon bucket full of grain every morning and evening. Any remaining hesitancy towards me soon disappeared when they realized that I was going to provide their sole food supply through the winter months ahead. My problem now was not their recalcitrance in coming to me, but avoiding being trampled as they stampeded me at the feed trough!

After that first winter, my relationship with my sheep was forever altered. Whenever I entered the pasture, they would come running from all directions and follow me wherever I went. My mother still recalls my sheep waiting for me down at the far end of the pasture where I exited the school bus in the afternoons. They would then follow along just inside the fence line as I walked down the road leading to our home. Finally, my dream of being a shepherd leading his flock was realized!

In the second and last part of this article we will consider spiritual shepherds, lost sheep, seeking the Lost and giving God the glory.

~ Mark


About Mark Webb
Mark is Pastor and Senior Elder at Grace Bible Church.  In addition, he has traveled to speak at conferences throughout theUnited States, as well as, Mexico, Canada and Europe. In Dallas, TX, on the family cotton farm, he learned to shepherd at a young age. He received a B.A. from Rice University in Houston and went on to pastor churches in Wyoming, Tennessee and currently in Mississippi. He and his wife, Linda, have been married for forty-two years and have three adult children, and eight grandchildren. Visit Grace Bible Church’s Grace Messenger.