I generally eat every day. Some days more than others; some less. Some meals are more memorable than others. Some are more pleasurable than others. But all serve a vital purpose in my life. I eat because food is necessary for life. In the same way, spiritual food is necessary for our spiritual lives. This is the awesome privilege in preaching; when we preach, we deliver the meat of God’s Word that sustains people’s lives.
Some time ago, I was reading through Deuteronomy 5 and realized the remarkable truths it teaches about preachers and preaching. This chapter is significant for a number of reasons. It is the retelling of the Ten Commandments that Moses first recorded in Exodus 20. It is among Moses’ final words to Israel as he is just days away from handing off the shepherding responsibilities of Israel to Joshua.
In this chapter, Israel is near the end of a journey in which Moses (the shepherd) led Israel (God’s flock) through the wilderness to the Promised Land. Moses did not complete that journey with them, but his faithful leadership as a shepherd is a model for pastors today.
The chapter presents a picture of the responsibility of a preacher told from three different perspectives: Moses’s (5:1–5), Israel’s (5:23–27), and God’s (5:28–33). While each of those three perspectives contains uniqueness aspects, all three agree on several important things. First, they all agree on the significance of the shepherd’s responsibility to preach God’s Word to the people (5:1, 27, 31). Second, they all agree on the importance of the preacher’s proximity to God (5:5, 27, 31). Third, they all agree on the responsibility of the hearer of the message (5:1, 27, 32–33). Those three truths (the importance of preaching, the importance of proximity, and the importance of obedience) are central to the proclamation and reception of the message that we preach.
Then, building on those three truths, the Lord climaxes the chapter by emphasizing three integral aspects of the relationship between preaching and shepherding that highlight our call as ministers.
First, preaching is feeding people the Word of God. Shepherds feed the flock. That involves knowing what the sheep need and where to find it.
The significance of our proximity to God is most clearly seen in our responsibility to feed the sheep (vs. 31). But it is not just any Word that we preach; it is God’s Word. His Word is the nourishment that they need. The Lord said to Moses, when everyone else has gone home, you stand here close to Me. And in the intimacy of that proximity, God reveals to the preacher His Word—and we must teach them. It is, as Baxter said, the primary task of the shepherd.
As shepherds, we must follow the pattern of the Good Shepherd and feed the sheep. It is what God did for Jacob in Canaan (Gen. 48:15), for Israel in the wilderness (Deuteronomy 8:16), for Elijah by the brook (1 Kings 17:2–16), and for David in the field (Psalm 23:5). It is what Jesus did for the multitudes on the hillside (John 6:1–13; Mark 8:1–21) and for the Disciples by the sea (John 21:1–14).
The remarkable thing about feeding is the frequency of the need. No matter how miraculously God fed His people, they would still need to be fed again tomorrow. It is the regular, predictable need of God’s people.
Shepherds are responsible for feeding the sheep. Feed them from the richness of the table that has been set before you. Feed them from the over-flow of the abundance with which you’ve been fed. Feed them with the thoroughness of the Scripture which you’ve been taught. Feed them the nourishment from God’s good pasture (Ezekiel 34:13–14). It is the indispensable, indescribable, foundational responsibility of a preacher to feed the sheep. Jesus said to Peter, “if you love Me, feed My sheep!”
Second, preaching is leading. Shepherds lead the sheep on the right path. That involves knowing which path is right.
God instructed Moses to teach them “so that they may follow” (31). We must lead them to follow the Lord’s direction (33) and not turn to the right or to the left (32). So, the faithfulness of our own walk with the Lord establishes the authority to lead others where they need to go.
This is what Paul instructed the church to do in 1 Corinthians 11:1, when he said, “Be imitators of me, just as I also am of Christ.” Paul understood the responsibility he possessed. The magnitude of his example is inherent when he instructed them to “Follow me as I follow Christ.” Our preaching grows out of our own journey of faith.
Preaching is leading. We preach so that they may hear the message and persuade them so that they may follow it. It is the “so that” which becomes the focus of our message. We preach so that they may follow.
Third, preaching is caring. Shepherds care for the sheep. That involves providing all that is necessary that the sheep may be healthy.
Shepherds are concerned with the welfare of the sheep. We care about their care. Peter admonished us to “shepherd the flock of God among you” (1 Peter 5:2). God promised that faithful preaching followed by the people’s obedience leads to life, goodness, and “prolonged days.” So, preaching that leads to their care establishes the parameters for life, the prescription for health, and the provision for all the days God has for them in the land He has given to them.
It was this concern that led God to chastise the unfaithful shepherds in Ezekiel 34 because they did not strengthen the weak, heal the sick, bind up the broken, bring back the scattered, or seek after the lost. Preaching is caring for the sheep. It is what Seward Hiltner referred to as Pastoral Preaching. It’s preaching from a pastor to those in the pasture.
Preaching is more than shepherding and shepherding more than preaching. But neither is complete without the other. So, preacher, shepherd the sheep in your preaching. Feed them with the Word of God that you have learned from the intimacy of your walk with Him. Lead the sheep to the paths that God has for them from the regularity of walking that path yourself. And care for the sheep with the heart of an under-shepherd who himself has been cared for by the Good Shepherd.
Deron J. Biles is Professor of Preaching and Pastoral Ministry and Director of Professional Doctoral Studies at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas.