There’s a “gotcha” in the Bible’s term for the person your church calls to do the preaching, run day-to-day operations, and superintend the church’s ministry to its members and its mission field.


The New Testament uses four words for the church’s spiritual leaders: “elder,”1 “overseer,”2 “shepherd,”3 and “teacher”.4 They all refer to the same person. We see this in Peter’s admonition that his “fellow elders” must “shepherd” (verb form) and “exercise oversight” (verb form of “overseer”).5 When Paul summoned elders,6 calling them overseers7 he told them to “shepherd”8 the church, which he referred to as “the flock.”9

That’s the “gotcha.”

When the modern English reader – separated from the New Testament world by several thousand years, by language, and by a very foreign culture – reads these terms we immediately and unthinkingly associate the term “pastor” with someone who tends livestock.

In contexts about leading and governing the church, that is not the first thing that would have occurred to people in Bible times. The word “shepherd” has a rich history that includes a much larger and more important meaning than one who takes care of sheep.

Lexical history of “Shepherd”

“Shepherd” is an ancient leadership term. It had already been in widespread use for more than two thousand years by the time the New Testament was written. Across the Ancient Near East it was a common term for gods and kings. Throughout history it has borne two broad, often overlapping meanings, authority and care. The Old Testament carries the term’s rich history into the historical and prophetic books. The New Testament uses both meanings in the Gospels, the Epistles and the Book of Revelation.


The ancient kings of Mesopotamia use shepherd terminology as a metaphor for their sovereign authority. Lugi-zaggissi (ca. 2500 B.C.) described himself as being “born for shepherding.”10 Shushin (ca. 2030 B.C.) was “the king whom the god Enlil, in his heart, has elected to be the shepherd of the country and of the four corners of the world.”11 Hammurabi (1792-1750 B.C.) called himself a shepherd.12

Orientalists have documented images of Pharaoh and of the god Osiris holding a shepherd’s crook,13 the Ancient Near Eastern king’s visible symbol of power and authority.14 So too in Egypt, the shepherd’s crook symbolized Pharaoh’s divine authority.15 The motif’s appearance in the Egyptian pantheon suggests a powerful metaphor that transcended cultural and social barriers in the ANE.16


David, the shepherd, was summoned from his flocks and anointed king.17 A humble shepherd, he was known to be “a man of valor, a man of war, prudent in speech, and a man of good presence, and the Lord is with him.”18 When Israel’s twelve tribes formed one kingdom the shepherd king motif was invoked to solemnize their covenant with David.19

“You shall be shepherd of my people Israel, and you shall be prince over Israel.” So all the elders of Israel came to the king at Hebron, and King David made a covenant with them at Hebron before the Lord, and they anointed David king over Israel.

To be king was to be the shepherd. Calling David “the shepherd of God’s people” was tantamount to calling him Israel’s king.The prophets used the shepherd motif to castigate kings, princes and governing officials.20 The promise that God would regather his scattered flock and re-establish the kingdom, with David as king, draws upon this ancient metaphor.21

And I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd. And I, the Lord, will be their God, and my servant David shall be prince among them. I am the Lord; I have spoken.

In that day “they will walk in my rules and be careful to obey my statues.” They will enjoy everlasting peace for the LORD “will make a covenant of peace with them.” They live in peace because “David shall be king over them, and they shall all have one shepherd.”22

Many of the prophetic passages that use the shepherd king motif were promises about the messiah. Some of these prophecies referred to his identity, some to his service, and many to the nature of his kingdom. The tight prophetic link between the shepherd king and the messiah become gloriously clear in Jesus Christ.


The shepherd motif predates the New Testament by several thousand years. It has a rich association with the governing power and authority of kings. This is widely attested throughout the Middle East and in the Greek city states.

When we approach the New Testament, especially from our vantage point almost 2,000 years after the final chapter was penned, we must take care not to automatically associate the term “pastor” with images related to animal husbandry.


In the next post in this series we’ll examine the shepherd motif as it is applied to God in the Old and New Testaments, with special attention to how it is applied to Jesus.


  1. Acts 15:6, 1 Timothy 5:17, James 5:14, 1 Peter 5:1-4 â†©
  2. Acts 20:28, Philippians 1:1, 1 Timothy 3:2-5, Titus 1:7 â†©
  3. Ephesians 4:11 c.f. Acts 20:28-31.  â†©
  4. Ephesians 4:11. We take it that the Greek grammar in Ephesians 4:11 refers to the single office by both terms “shepherd” and “teacher.” â†©
  5. 1 Peter 5:1-2 â†©
  6. Acts 20:17 â†©
  7. Acts 20:28 â†©
  8. The infinitive poimainein in Acts 20:28 is translated as “to care” (ESV), “to shepherd” (NASB, NKJV), “be shepherds” (NIV), “to feed” (ASV, KJV) â†©
  9. “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock” (28), “not sparing the flock” (29) â†©
  10. Carlo Zaccagnini, “Sacred and Human Components in Ancient Near Eastern Law.” History of Religions 33 (1994): 265-286.), 271. Young Sam Chae, “Mission of Compassion: Jesus as the Eschatological Davidic Shepherd in Matthew’s Gospel.” Ph.D. Diss., Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, 2007., 27 â†©
  11. Zaccagnini, 271 â†©
  12. Davis, John J. The Perfect Shepherd; Studies in the 23rd Psalm. (Baker Book House; Grand Rapids Michigan, 1979), 51 â†©
  13. Ernest A. W. Budge. An Egyptian Hieroglyphic Dictionary, Vol. 2. (New York, NY.: Courier Dover, 1978), 87. He notes that one of Osiris’ names (asar-sa) means “Osiris the Shepherd.” This shepherd imagery in ancient Egypt is surprising. Recall that, according to Genesis 46:34, shepherds were an abomination to the Egyptians â†©
  14. “From earliest times, the shepherd’s crook is a badge of princely, and later of royal, leadership; it is preeminently the symbol of the power of leadership.” Chae, 31 â†©
  15. Chae, 51 â†©
  16. Nor was it confined to Mesopotamia and Egypt. In The Iliad Homer identifies twelve Greek kings (Dryas, Atreus, Bias, Astynous, Agamemnon, Nestor, Machaon, Hypsenor ,Hyperenor, Hector, Apisaon, Aeneas) were all identified as “shepherds of their people.” â†©
  17. 1Samuel 16:11 â†©
  18. 1 Samuel 16:18. Emphasis added. This shepherd’s martial virtues were in full display when he went into battle against Goliath, 1 Samuel 17:32-36 â†©
  19. 2 Samuel 5:1-3. David was Israel’s “shepherd” (Psalm 78:70″“72) and the Lord employed the shepherd motif in calling David the shepherd king (2 Samuel 7:7 cf. 1 Chronicles 17:6) â†©
  20. E.g., Jeremiah 2:8, 3:15, 10:21, 12:10-12, Zechariah 11:1-4. The last two are notable references to foreign invaders who would suffer God’s retributive justice â†©
  21. Ezekiel 34:23-24 â†©
  22. Ezekiel 37:24-28 â†©