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The Biblical Theology and Applications of Pastors as Shepherds, Priests, Kings, Prophets, and Sages

Introduction

The Old Testament depicts God calling five kinds of ministers to lead His covenanted people. They are the shepherds, the priests, the prophets, the kings, and the sages. And the New Testament depicts that all these five roles can be found in the Lord Jesus Christ as the ultimate Minister of God. The Lord is the Chief Shepherd, the great High Priest, the King of Kings, the Living Word, and the source of wisdom.

Before the Lord ascended to heaven, He commissioned the apostle Peter to shepherd His flock (John 21:15-17). Later, Peter and the apostle Paul instructed other church leaders to do the same (1 Pet. 5:1-4; Acts 20:28-30). These church leaders are called elders, overseers, and pastors (Acts 20:17, 28; Eph. 4:11).[1]

Paul frequently asked Christians to imitate him and Christ (1 Cor. 4:16; 11:1; 1 Thess. 1:6). He also instructed Christians to imitate God (Eph 5:1). Therefore, all Christians should imitate Christ, including pastors. Thenceforth, pastors should model their ministry after the five ministry roles of their Lord.[2] This paper aims to survey the biblical theology and ministry application of the roles of pastors as shepherds, priests, kings, prophets, and sages. 

Pastors as Shepherds

A Biblical Theology of Pastors as Shepherds

Shepherd is a prominent metaphor for God in the Old Testament (Gen. 48:15; Ps. 23; Ezek. 34). God is portrayed as the ultimate Shepherd of His flock (Ps. 23:1). He called Moses as His undershepherd to lead His flock out of Egypt and through the wilderness (Ps. 77:20)[3]. Later in the exile period, God promised through Jeremiah that He would give to His people shepherds after His own heart (Jer. 3:15). 

Then in the New Testament, the Lord Jesus was revealed as the Good Shepherd (John 10:11), the Chief Shepherd (1 Peter 5:4), and the Great Shepherd (Heb 13:20). He called some of His disciples as pastors to shepherd His flock. These pastors are His gift to His church (Eph. 4:11). Most commentators think the pastors and teachers are referring to the same office. The Greek word for pastors is ποιμένας (piomenas). It means shepherds. Most English translated it as pastors (NASB, NIV, NET, KJV), and a few translated it as shepherds (ESV). The English word for the term pastor was an anglicized form of the Latin/French term for shepherd[4].

God as the Shepherd care of the Israelites should provide pastors with principles on shepherding God’s flock in the New Testament.[5] The role of a shepherd is to lead the flock of God as a servant leader[6]. A pastor is to feed the sheep of God (John 21:15-17), to shepherd the flock of God by being examples to the flock (1 Pet. 5:1-3), to equip the flocks for ministry by speaking the truth in love (Eph. 4:11-15), and to shepherd the flock of God by teaching the whole counsel of God to defend against false teachers (Acts 20:26-30; Tit. 1:9).

Practical Applications of Pastors as Shepherds

The most important duty of the pastor as a shepherd is to feed the flock by teaching and preaching the word of God to help the flock understand God’s word and how to apply God’s words in their life. This is accomplished primarily on the pulpit and complemented by other teaching ministries like Sunday school, special conferences, and retreats.

The pastor should lead the flock by example. That means pastors are called to live with the people. The pastor must know the flocks, and the flocks must know their shepherds. Only by doing life together, the pastor can model life for the flocks. This means pastors should allocate time outside of Sunday to spend time with God’s people. “The most important asset of spiritual leadership is the power of an exemplary life.”[7]

Pastoral care ministry is part of being a good shepherd. Therefore, a pastor should include visitation in his schedule. For example, he could visit the flocks at their home and workplace to get to know their work. Hospital visitation is at the heart of a pastoral care ministry.[8] A pastor should allocate time to visit the sick and the dying in the hospital. These are special moments to shepherd the patients and their families. We can offer a word of comfort from the scriptures and pray for them. Often, simply being there will bring comfort to people because they know we care for them.

Pastoral counseling is different from pastoral care because pastoral counseling is done within a specific time arrangement to address specific issues of a sheep of God. “Pastoral counseling is individual sheep-tending, fulfilling our calling as undershepherds in the care of one (or a couple) of sheep in need of specific attention, and doing so after the example of the Good Shepherd.”[9]

Pastors as Priests

A Biblical Theology of Pastors as Priests

In Old Testament, priests are men descendants of Aaron, who God chooses as spiritual leaders for His people. Priests are anointed leaders who bring the sacrifice of the people to God, teach God’s word (Lev. 10:11), inquire about the will of God (Ex. 28:30; Ez. 2:63), and pronounce blessings to God’s people (Num. 6:22-27). The prophets and the priests complement each other, “as the prophet stood to represent God, the priest entered God’s presence to represent man.”[10]

The leader of the priests were the high priests, who were a shadow of our Lord (Heb. 8:1). Christ is the Great High Priest, after the order of Melchizedek (Ps. 110:4; Heb. 5:10, 6:20). He offered Himself as the blameless sacrifice to redeem our sins. Christ is currently serving the church as the Great High Priest in the heavenly by making intercession for believers (Heb. 7:25).

In the New Testament, all believers are priests (1 Pet. 2:4, 9; Rev. 1:6). Therefore pastors should be careful not to replace the priesthood of all believers. We should not return to the error of the Roman Catholics, where the priests became a mediator between men and God. 

How should a New Testament pastor think about his role as a priest? Paul wrote he was a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles in the priestly service of the gospel of God. He further wrote, “I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me to bring the Gentiles to obedience… and thus I make it my ambition to preach the gospel…” (Rom. 15:16-20). The priestly ministry of a pastor is to preach the gospel. And be a model to believers on how to live as a priest in New Testament. So, a pastor should not think of himself as a priest above regular believers but as a priest with the other believers, proclaiming the gospel. Therefore, a pastor does not stand between the believers and Christ but helps connect believers to Christ. We are ambassadors of Christ; our role is to reconcile people to God on behalf of Christ (2 Cor. 5:20).

Besides preaching the gospel, the pastor’s priestly service should include intercession ministry. One of the primary roles of a pastor is to be a prayer warrior (Acts 6:4). Paul exemplifies that with his prayers in his letters (Eph. 1:15-23; Phil. 1:3-11).

Practical Applications of Pastors as Priests

A pastor is a ministry of the gospel. It means our preaching should not only be pastoral to edify the church but should also be evangelistic to convert unbelievers. 

When a pastor precedes a communion service, he displays the gospel to the congregation. First, the separation of the beard and the wine represent the death of Christ. Then, when the pastor breaks the unleavened bread, he reminds the congregation that Christ, the one without sins, died on the cross for us. 

Similarly, when a pastor performs baptism on believers, he proclaims the gospel to the congregation. The full baptism immersion symbolizes the believer’s dead, buried, and resurrection with Christ.

A pastor should make intercession prayer a priority of his ministry. We are to pray for the flocks of God in prayer meetings, during sermon preparations, in worship services, in our private prayer time, during pastoral care visits, and at weddings and funerals. The High Priest is praying for the church. We, as His ministers, should imitate Him.

Pastors as Kings

A Biblical Theology of Pastors as Kings

God’s will to have kings to lead His people in the Old Testament. The kings of Israelites were anointed as a sign of being commissioned by God to lead His people (1 Sam. 10:10; 16:13; 24:6). The kings were supposed to fear God and lead God’s people by keeping the laws (Deut. 17:14-20). King David was the model of a God-fearing king. The significance of King David’s childhood as a shepherd is that he became a King with a shepherd’s heart. It matches the image of God in the Old Testament as the Shepherd and King of His people. “The divine Shepherd metaphor is often combined with the Lord’s royal reign.”[11] The kings led the people of God in offering sacrifices to worship the Lord (2 Sam. 24:25; 2 Sam. 6:17), blessed the people of God (2 Sam 6:18), administered justice, appointed leaders, stewarded the nation’s resources, and protect the nation by leading the nation in battles against the enemies. The propensity of the nation of Israelites is directed related to the king’s faithfulness to God.

God made a covenant with David that one of his descendants would be king forever (2 Sam. 7:13). Later, the prophets frequently portrayed David as the Messiah in shepherd and king imageries (Ezek. 34:23-24). The Lord Jesus is the fulfillment of these prophecies. He is the King of Kings and Lord of Lords (Rev. 17:14). 

Pastors should be king in the sense that pastors are called to lead the church of Christ (1 Tim. 5:17). They are to provide oversight to the church. However, pastors are warned not to dominate the church but to be an example to the flock (1 Pet. 5:2-4). The title of overseer speaks of the leadership responsibility of the pastors (Acts 20:28). Pastors are called to manage God’s household as a steward (Tit. 1:7) and mobilize the saints for ministry (Eph. 4:11-12). The pastors are chief warriors of God (2 Tim. 2:3). They are to lead the church in battles against the spiritual forces of evil (Eph. 6:12).

Practical Applications of Pastor as King

A pastor needs to be a good leader. He is to lead by example, preaching God’s word, mobilizing the saints for ministry, identifying leaders, delegating resources, and being a good steward of the resources God has entrusted to Him.

The most senior pastor needs to lead the elders in humility and vision. He is the first among the equals. He is to lead with a vision but, at the same time, be humble in listening and collaborating with other pastors to create a unified team of leaders to lead the church.

Pastors need to keep their eyes open for gifted men who have a passion for serving the Lord in the congregation. Pastors should be willing to invest in younger men to train them as future pastors for the church. We also need to identify, encourage, and train the women in the congregation who are gifted and called to be leaders among the women.

Pastors need to lead by example. Like King David, our topmost priority is to fear the Lord and obey His words as an example for the flock. We are not to lead coercively but with humility as servant leaders.

We need to learn the art of delegation. Our role as leaders is to identify the saints’ gifts and mobilize them for ministry. Therefore, we ought to regularly ask the Lord who can we delegate various ministries to create opportunities for God’s people to serve in the church using their God-given gifts.

As leaders of the church, we need to watch out for attacks from the enemy. We must watch out for divisive issues and people in the church, attacks from cults, and temptations from the world that could affect the church’s spiritual condition. Once we identify a potential or existing danger, we ought to lead the church in combating the issue with the armors of God.

Pastors as Prophets

A Biblical Theology of Pastors as Prophets

An Old Testament prophet is a witness for God, a pleader, a comforter, and a herald. [12] The prophet’s life was first transformed by the word of God before the prophets could proclaim the word of God to His people. When the prophets faithfully proclaim the word of God, it has the effect of fire and hammer to people’s hearts (Jer. 23:29). The true prophets of God were called to expose false prophets. Most prophets paid a high price to expose the people’s sins (Hos. 1-3; Heb. 11:36-38). Prophets are also called men of God (Deut. 33:1; 1 Sam. 9:6; 1 Kgs. 13:1). They are to live a holy life dedicated to God.

The Lord Jesus was the Prophet of God who preached God’s message during His earthly ministry (Luke 2:47; 24:44). Not only that, but He is also the Logos (John 1:1), the Living. The Lord Jesus spoke what He heard from God the Father (John 8:28). He preached creatively with metaphors, parables, and stories. He quoted Old Testament in His messages and spoke with authority (John 14:10) and conviction. The Lord Jesus is God’s ultimate prophet and preacher (Heb. 1:2).

Pastors have a similar role as Old Testament prophets because God called them both for a special ministry of the word, as massagers of God (Isa. 6:9, Jer. 1:5; 1 Tim. 2:7). Pastors are called to preach the word of God that cuts to the heart of men and women (Acts 2:37) by exposing the sins of men. Our aim is not to please men but to please God who tests our hearts (1 Thess. 2:4). We should preach with authority to convict sinners and bring people into repentance to reconcile sinners to God (2 Cor. 5:19). Like the prophets who paid the price to expose the sins of the Israelites and gentiles, pastors should be willing to pay the price to expose the sins of the church and the world.

Like the prophets, pastors should also be men of God (1 Tim. 6:11, 3:1-7; Tit. 1:5-9). Pastors should live a godly life as an example to the flock (1 Pet. 5:3).[13]

Practical Applications of Pastors as Prophets

The primary application of pastors as prophets is at the pulpit, for the prophet is primarily the messenger of God. The prophets need to know what God wants in His people and proclaim the message to the people. For example, a prophet called sinners into repentance and established a relationship with God. A prophet should also know the condition of the people’s hearts, speak God’s word into their lives, and properly apply the scriptures to their lives.

A pastor should be prepared to pay the price when he exposes sins in the church and the world. It means we may face criticism from people, lose future speaking opportunities, lose the pastorate, or at times face prison or death in certain parts of the world. 

As preachers, we should be godly men. Therefore, we are not only concerned about our exposition of the Scripture and our passion for preaching, but we should be even more concerned about our characters. A pastor must be above reproach in character. He is not perfect, but he should be an example to the flock of God. That means a pastor should make his spiritual formation a priority.

Pastors as Sages

A Biblical Theology of Pastor as Sages

In the Old Testament, the function of priests, kings, and prophets as leaders in the people of God is evident. However, one role in Old Testament that is not mentioned much is the role of a sage. Israelites considered the status of sages to be equivalent to the prophets and priests (Jer. 18:13). Commenting on this verse, Waltke wrote: “For wisdom, man needs both the priest with his תּוֹרָה, the prophet with his דָּבָר, and the sage with his עֵצָה.” The sages are the authors of the book of proverbs and Ecclesiastes. King Solomon was the most famous sage. They were others, but we know almost nothing about them (1 Kings 4:31; Prov 30:1; 31:1). Bruce Waltke wrote a paper to show that “the sages and the prophets were true spiritual yokefellows sharing the same Lord, cultus, faith, hope, anthropology, and epistemology, speaking with the same authority, and making similar religious and ethical demands on their hearers.”[14] “Working in a context previously established and defined by the priest and prophet, the sages pointed their hearers to the ethical demands of the law.”[15] They taught people how to live with wisdom by the fear of the Lord (Prov 1:7).

Christ is presented as the One greater than Solomon (Matt 12:42) in the New Testament. Furthermore, Paul wrote that all the treasures of wisdom and understanding are hidden in Christ (Col 2:3). Therefore, it is not surprising that the Jews in Nazareth were amazed by the Lord’s wisdom in his teaching (Matt 13:54). 

The sages functioned very much as Christian pastors in our ministry between Sundays.[16] Therefore, it is wise for pastors to search the Old Testament wisdom books for principles and insights on how to minister as sages. Pastors need to regularly ask God for wisdom in ministry (James 1:5). We need to make our relationship with Christ our top priority because all treasures of wisdom and knowledge are hidden in Christ (Col 2:3).

Practical Applications of Pastors as Sages

As sages, pastors need to have the wisdom to take care of their personal life. Before the pastor care for the flocks of God, he should care for themselves and their family. It takes a lot of wisdom to know when to rest, how to protect the time with our spouses and children, who we should look for to shepherd our soul[17], when to say no to a ministry opportunity, and many other challenges that could deplete our energy.

As preachers, we need a lot of wisdom to know how to apply the Scriptures to people’s life. First, we need to know the flock enough to understand their struggles, doubts, and needs and then ask God to give us the wisdom to apply the Scripture in sermons.

Second, we need to depend on God constantly for pastoral care and counseling wisdom. Life is complicated, and ministry is messy. Applying the Scriptures in difficult life situations requires heavenly wisdom from God. We also need the wisdom to know when God stopped speaking in the Scriptures. Sometimes the Scriptures just do not have the answers for a life situation, and we need to have the wisdom to tell others we do not know the answers. Still, we know the One who does, our job is to direct them to seek comfort in trusting the sovereign and loving God even without knowing why they had to suffer in life.

Lastly, there are times the church needs changes to conform more to the biblical patterns. Once we have identified an area that needs improvement, we will need wisdom from God to know when and how to make these changes.

Conclusion

God has called five kinds of ministers in the Old Testament to lead His people: the shepherds, the priests, the kings, the prophets, and the sages. These five ministers culminated in our Lord Jesus Christ in the New Testament. He is the Chief Shepherd, the Great High Priest, the King of Kings, the Living Word, and the source of wisdom. Since all Christians are called to imitate Christ, the pastors of the flock should also imitate Christ. Therefore, all pastors should model their ministries after the Chief Shepherd. In the paper, we have provided a brief biblical theology of each of the roles, tracing the biblical development from Old Testament to Christ, the Chief Shepherd, and the pastors, His undershepherd in the New Testament. We have also provided practical ministry applications following the biblical theology section for each role. I benefited tremendously in my understanding of pastoral theology and ministry applications because of this study. I hope the same for you.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Akin, Daniel L., and R. Scott Pace. Pastoral Theology: Theological Foundations for Who a Pastor Is and What He Does. Nashville, Tennessee: B&H Academic, 2017.

Allison, Gregg R. Sojourners and Strangers: The Doctrine of the Church. Foundations of Evangelical Theology Series. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012.

Hughes, R. Kent, and Douglas Sean O’Donnell. The Pastor’s Book: A Comprehensive and Practical Guide to Pastoral Ministry. Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2015.

Johnson, John. “The Old Testament Offices as Paradigm for Pastoral Identity.” Bibliotheca Sacra 152 (1995).

Laniak, Timothy S. Shepherds after My Own Heart: Pastoral Traditions and Leadership in the Bible. New Studies in Biblical Theology 20. Leicester, England : Downers Grove, Ill: Apollos ; InterVarsity Press, 2006.

MacArthur, John, Richard Mayhue, Robert Thomas, and James Stitzinger. Pastoral Ministry: How to Shepherd Biblically. The John MacArthur Pastor’s Library. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, Inc, 2005.

Newton, Phil A. 40 Questions about Pastoral Ministry. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Academic, 2021.

Oden, Thomas C. Pastoral Theology: Essentials of Ministry. 1st ed. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1982.

Peterson, Eugene H. Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work. Grand Rapids, Mich. : Leominster, Eng: WB Eerdmans ; Gracewing, 1992.

Senkbeil, Harold L. The Care of Souls: Cultivating a Pastor’s Heart. Lexham Press, 2019.

Senkbeil, Harold L., and Lucas V. Woodford. Pastoral Leadership: For the Care of Souls. Lexham Ministry Guides. Bellingham: Lexham Press, 2021.

Thomas, Griffith. The Work of The Ministry. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1911.

Waltke, Bruce. “The Book of Proverbs and Old Testament Theology.” Bibliotheca Sacra 136 (1979).


[1] Gregg R. Allison, Sojourners and Strangers: The Doctrine of the Church, Foundations of Evangelical Theology Series (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), 212.

[2] Thomas C. Oden, Pastoral Theology: Essentials of Ministry, 1st ed (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1982), 60.

[3] Timothy S. Laniak, Shepherds after My Own Heart: Pastoral Traditions and Leadership in the Bible, New Studies in Biblical Theology 20 (Leicester, England : Downers Grove, Ill: Apollos ; InterVarsity Press, 2006), chap. YHWH, Moses and the “flock” of God in the wilderness.

[4] Laniak, Shepherds after My Own Heart, Introduction.

[5] Phil A Newton, 40 Questions about Pastoral Ministry (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Academic, 2021), 21.

[6] Daniel L. Akin and R. Scott Pace, Pastoral Theology: Theological Foundations for Who a Pastor Is and What He Does (Nashville, Tennessee: B&H Academic, 2017), 224.

[7] John MacArthur et al., Pastoral Ministry: How to Shepherd Biblically, The John MacArthur Pastor’s Library (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, Inc, 2005), 23.

[8] Hughes and O’Donnell, The Pastor’s Book, 523.

[9] R. Kent Hughes and Douglas Sean O’Donnell, The Pastor’s Book: A Comprehensive and Practical Guide to Pastoral Ministry (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2015), 470.

[10] John Johnson, “The Old Testament Offices as Paradigm for Pastoral Identity,” Bibliotheca Sacra 152 (1995): 187.

[11] Akin and Pace, Pastoral Theology, 211.

[12] Griffith Thomas, The Work of The Ministry (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1911), 7.

[13] Thomas, The Work of The Ministry, 23.

[14] Waltke, “The Book of Proverbs and Old Testament Theology,” 304.

[15] Johnson, “The Old Testament Offices as Paradigm for Pastoral Identity,” 188.

[16] Eugene H. Peterson, Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work (Grand Rapids, Mich. : Leominster, Eng: W.B. Eerdmans ; Gracewing, 1992), 166.

[17] Harold L. Senkbeil, The Care of Souls: Cultivating a Pastor’s Heart (Lexham Press, 2019), 238.

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