Removing The Mask From The Thief: Stealing The Sheep

Uncategorized Feb 22, 2024

Last week, I pointed out that the often quoted Scripture “the thief comes to steal, kill, and destroy” is commonly used in the context of the devil being the “thief” even though when Jesus made this statement, he was referring to the religious leaders of his day (John 10:10). I’d like to stay with the context and talk about leaders, particularly church leaders, who steal, kill, and destroy the flock. What did Jesus mean by this statement?

First, let me share some important background facts to help us understand the picture more clearly.

When Jesus used the metaphor of shepherds and thieves, he was not exactly creating the illustration on his own. There is an Old Testament passage from Ezekiel where God uses the same metaphor about the leaders of Israel.

Ezekiel 34:1–6 (NLT): Then this message came to me from the Lord: “Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds, the leaders of Israel. Give them this message from the Sovereign Lord: What sorrow awaits you, shepherds who feed yourselves instead of your flocks. Shouldn’t shepherds feed their sheep? You drink the milk, wear the wool, and butcher the best animals, but you let your flocks starve. You have not taken care of the weak. You have not tended the sick or bound up the injured. You have not gone looking for those who have wandered away and are lost. Instead, you have ruled them with harshness and cruelty. So my sheep have been scattered without a shepherd, and they are easy prey for any wild animal. They have wandered through all the mountains.”

It’s not just Ezekiel’s use of the same metaphor that catches my attention. It’s the fact that the actions of Israel’s leaders were identical to the religious leaders of Jesus’ day hundreds of years before he used the illustration. The shepherds “feed themselves” and “drink the milk, wear the wool, and butcher the best animals.” The prophet declared that the sick and injured sheep were not cared for, and the sheep were wandering, scattering, and becoming prey for wild animals. Even back then, the sheep were being stolen, killed, and destroyed.

Many scholars believe Jesus was expanding on this particular prophecy when talking to the group in John 10. What Jesus does is brilliant. He does not directly rebuke the shepherds (the religious leaders, Pharisees) but expands on Ezekiel’s prophecy by showing that those abusive leaders in Ezekiel’s time were thieves instead of shepherds. I tend to agree with the scholars when I read Ezekiel's prophecy. These were thieves disguised as shepherds. And Jesus compared himself to the Pharisees; He is the Good Shepherd, and they are the thieves.

A second important piece of background information is to understand how sheep were tended back in the days of Christ. In a village, there was typically one central sheep pen. When the shepherds brought the sheep back from a grazing tour, they would put all the sheep in that one pen and hire a shepherd to watch them and keep the gate secure through the night. The sheep could easily be separated again the next day because they were so familiar with the voice of their shepherd that when their shepherd came to the pen and called for them, only those sheep that belonged to that shepherd would follow him out of the pen. 

If thieves broke in during the night, they would typically try to steal sheep from the back of the pen rather than coming through the guarded door. And if wild animals attacked the sheep pen in the middle of the night, the hired shepherd had to be willing to put himself between the wolves and the sheep. If he ran away to save himself, the sheep were doomed.

Reread John 10 with these simple facts in mind, and you will be able to understand Jesus’ metaphor much more clearly. And it is this picture that led me to the observation of what Jesus meant by leaders who steal, kill, and destroy. 

So, what does it mean when religious leaders steal the flock? Borrowing from Ezekiel’s prophecy, shepherds who steal the flock are those who “feed themselves” instead of the sheep. That is, since thieves steal for personal profit and personal gain, the motive of the religious leaders is not the welfare of the sheep but how much milk, wool, and meat they can get from the flock for themselves. Leaders who steal sheep have “self” as their motive for shepherding.

Leaders must keep the welfare and good of their people as a priority over their own. I must be consistently self-aware of my deepest motivations to keep my priorities in place. Lee Ellis wrote a book called Leading with Honor, in which he challenges leaders to discover their primary sources of drive to succeed. Leaders must ask themselves if they are motivated by a desire for personal profit, a desire for money, a desire for recognition, or a desire to please others. Are we seeking to honor God and improve the health of the teams we lead and the spiritual condition of the people we pastor? And the bigger challenge is to seek out ways of discovering how we are indeed affecting the people we lead. How do we affect the motivation and confidence of others, and what are we going to do about it?

Unfortunately, even as you’ve read this article, chances are that the names of some leaders you believe are only leading for personal gain, popularity, personal success, or compensation have come to your mind. I am not writing to condemn others. I am writing to say leaders, especially church leaders, must be more interested in how the sheep are faring than they are in what the shepherd is wearing. They must be more concerned with how fat the sheep are rather than how fat their wallets are. Shepherds must profit the flock rather than merely profiting from the flock.

And leaders are human. We have flaws and faults just like others do. Only one Good Shepherd was flawless and wholly laid down his life for the sheep. Good leaders point to the Good Shepherd and ask the sheep to follow us only as we follow Christ because that’s the only way the sheep will truly be cared for and protected.

God has trusted leaders and pastors with the tremendous privilege of shepherding his people. The true reflection of a great leader is not in how well he is doing but in how well his people are doing.

If you are a leader, I challenge you to examine your motives for leadership. If you have been wearing a thief’s mask and have been interested only in your personal gain, repent of that and take immediate action to become a shepherd who tends the flock as Christ did.

If you are following any Christian leader, pray for us. Pray that we would be leaders who lead like Christ and put the good of the sheep above our own profit.

It is a thief who leads only for personal profit. Real shepherds care more about the condition of the sheep. Thieves come to steal, kill, and destroy.


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