Like many of our people, I often watch online videos of the Covenant Christian High School choirs. I am always struck by the beauty of the songs, but as Mr. Kleyn’s camera steadily pans across the singing faces, something else often jumps out at me as well. As I look, I am startled by the number of faces representing homes that I know are affected by pain and unrest. The number includes only cases that I know about; the flock of Christ contains many homes touched by God in especially painful ways. Watch the videos. Read the bulletins. Glance around the sanctuary pews. You will see many injured sheep in special need of their Shepherd’s tender care.
Christ, our good Shepherd, gives that care through various means. One of those means is the pastor of a congregation. When injured members of the flock need to be strengthened, the command of John 21:16–17 comes to the pastor: “Feed my sheep.” When some in the flock are faint-hearted, infirm, or stumbling, 1 Thessalonians 5:14 commands the pastor: “comfort the feebleminded, support the weak, be patient toward all men.” A pastor must be able to do this; it is essential. By God’s grace it is also possible.
As we examine how a pastor mercifully feeds and tends to injured sheep, we will first consider the content of the care he must bring. Second, we will examine the manner in which he must bring it. We will see that a faithful pastor, using the word, extracts the sheep from harmful places, carries them toward the safety and comfort of the good pastures, and does so repeatedly and patiently.
For an undershepherd to nourish God’s sheep effectively, he must give them the proper food. What is this food? Put simply, it is the word of Christ. He is “the bread which cometh down from heaven, that a man may eat thereof, and not die” (John 6:50). His word is the “sincere milk” whereby we grow (1 Pet. 2:2). “Hearken[ing] diligently” to him, our soul “eat[s]…that which is good, and…delight[s] itself in fatness” (Isa. 55:2). The Belgic Confession and Heidelberg Catechism set forth Christ as our spiritual meat and drink in their treatments of the Lord’s Supper. Heads 3–4.17 of the Canons of Dordt explicitly identifies the preaching of the word as the “means…ordained to be the…food of the soul,” just as physical food and drink are the means ordained to “prolong and support this our natural life.” Through time, Reformed fathers have concurred: to feed the sheep, the undershepherd must bring the word.
A pastor must not feed the sheep with anything other than that word. As he sits in his office creating “meal plans,” a pastor must bear in mind the truth that “office bearers are nothing more, yet also nothing less than undershepherds under Christ. They are His servants, who are mandated by Him to feed the flock and to be overseers over God’s heritage in His Name.” The pastor does not own the flock. Christ owns the flock, and Christ will choose what to feed the flock.
This is especially important for a pastor to remember when he is visiting injured sheep. Seeing the spiritual cuts and bruises, the pastor may be tempted to abandon the solid food of the word and instead experiment with all kinds of strange remedies. The theological snake-oils advertised to pastors are endless in our day: “Try a little bit of uplifting philosophy on your ailing sheep,” one expert says. “For best results, mix in a compelling story,” adds a salesman. “Maybe what’s needed is some all-natural community service,” speculates another. Substituting such “food” for God’s word is folly. At best, the sheep will starve. At worst, the already suffering sheep will be poisoned.
Christ is the only one who can feed his sheep. Therefore, his word alone will nourish.
When a pastor visits a sheep and faithfully expounds the word, Christ is speaking. If we may speak this way, when a pastor cracks open his Bible, he might as well have opened up the clouds of heaven themselves. The word sounds; the voice of Christ rings out. There is a visitation from on high. The sheep beholds Christ by faith, feeding upon him. This is a sobering thought to the undershepherd, who fervently pleads with God, “Don’t let my word get in the way of thine!”
Just as important as the content a shepherd brings is the manner in which he brings it. Injured sheep are sensitive. If an undershepherd is incompetent in his handling of the word or in his handling of the sheep, the sheep will quickly pick up on this. They will not trust him or the word he brings. If an undershepherd works haphazardly or roughly with the sheep, the sheep may be left with the impression that the Shepherd the undershepherd represents is similarly careless or harsh. Conversely, when an undershepherd handles the word effectively and in kindness and mercy, the sheep are given a clearer view of the Good Shepherd, who “healeth the broken in heart, and bindeth up their wounds,” pitying them “as a father pitieth his children” (Ps. 147:3; 103:13).
A pastor should have the humility to seek wise guidance when applying God’s word to specific hurting homes. When he does this, he will be shown a general manner of shepherding injured sheep that consists, first, of using the word to carefully expose and address whatever danger is threatening the sheep in their particular circumstances; second, of using the word to lead the sheep back to a place of spiritual safety; and third, of using the word to patiently repeat these two steps as often as needed, knowing that sheep are prone to regress and wander.
This is the pastoral approach of the Heidelberg Catechism, which comes to us as sheep in need of comfort. First, the Catechism addresses the danger that we are in. Knowing that we are prone to minimize our sins, the Catechism addresses the source of our misery: life apart from Christ. Second, the Catechism shows us the remedy to that misery: deliverance from sin and the resulting thankful life with God that follows. Third, the Catechism (by design) repeats itself annually, knowing that the congregation needs constant reminding. A faithful pastor does well to follow the lead of the Catechism, showing firmness, warmth, and consistency.
Gisbertus Voetius, a Reformed church father who served as a delegate to the Synod of Dordt, also exhibits this three-part pattern of shepherding in a pastoral work entitled Spiritual Desertion. He presents steps in restoring spiritually depressed saints that are “part purgative [meaning they address the dangers and underlying problems that may stalk the saint] and part restorative [meaning they re-establish the saint, leading him back to spiritual health]. Voetius urges perseverance when tending to a spiritually depressed saint, prescribing prayer and patience for those who relapse. Voetius’ meticulous care and extensive scriptural applications when bringing pastoral care are instructive to pastors seeking to diligently diagnose and treat their own sheep who have lost the sense of God’s favor.
This pastoral approach is also seen in some of Martin Luther’s writings. In a sermon on preparing to die, Luther begins each of his points by addressing a specific inner turmoil that a saint on his deathbed may struggle with. After exposing the devil’s hand behind the turmoil, Luther presents the spiritual remedy, along with pertinent scriptural quotations. Within his sermon, Luther often repeats and reminds his congregation of the fountainhead of their comfort: the knowledge of one’s justification in Christ.
Likewise, in a text addressing women whose pregnancies have not gone well, Luther begins by first addressing the fears of bereaved mothers: “It is not their fault…God is not angry with them or with others who are involved.” He follows this by directing their attention to the hope they have in loss: “Whatever Christians sincerely pray, especially in the unexpressed yearnings of their hearts, becomes a great, unbearable cry in God’s ears. God must listen.” Luther ends by enumerating saints in the Old and New Testaments who suffered similar sorrows and were heard by God. He repeatedly shows that God hears the sobs of mothers. A pastor seeking to bind up the wounds of his own dying sheep and crying ewes would do well to imitate Luther’s empathy, kindness, and conviction.
When a pastor looks over his congregation and sees families that are touched by grief or turmoil, God gives him a heart of empathy for his hurting sheep. God works it in the pastor to feed his sheep from the word and the word alone. God gives the pastor a spirit of kindness toward the sheep that seeks to warn and extract them from danger and point them to the path of life. An attitude of mercy is worked in the pastor, which persists in ministering to injured sheep though difficulty and setback. The pastor works as an instrument in the Shepherd’s hand, the hand that holds bruised and battered sheep within its tender care.
John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, vol. 2, trans. Henry Beveridge (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1972), 316–318.
The Confessions and Church Order of the Protestant Reformed Churches (Grandville, MI: Protestant Reformed Churches in America, 2005).
Cornelius Hanko, “The Office in the Church,” Standard Bearer 25, no.12 (March 15, 1949): 284.
Herman Hoeksema, Reformed Dogmatics (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformed Free Publishing Association, 1985), 631–634.
Martin Luther, A Sermon on Preparing to Die in The Annotated Luther, Pastoral Writings, vol. 4, ed. Mary Jane Haeming (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2016), 290–305.
Martin Luther, Consolation for Women Whose Pregnancies Have Not Gone Well in The Annotated Luther, Pastoral Writings, vol. 4, ed. Mary Jane Haeming (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2016), 422–424.
Gisbertus Voetius and Johannes Hoornbeeck, Spiritual Desertion, ed. M. Eugene Osterhaven, trans. John Vriend and Harry Boonstra (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2013), 46–49.
Originally published December 2020, Vol 79 No 12
 Belgic Confession 35 and Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 28, in The Confessions and Church Order of the Protestant Reformed Churches (Grandville, MI: Protestant Reformed Churches in America, 2005).
 Canons of Dordt 3–4.17, in The Confessions and Church Order of the Protestant Reformed Churches.
 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, vol. 2, trans. Henry Beveridge (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1972), 316–318.
Hoeksema, Herman, Reformed Dogmatics (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformed Free Publishing Association, 1985), 631–635.
 Cornelius Hanko, “The Office in the Church,” Standard Bearer 25, no. 12 (March 15, 1949): 284.
 Gisbertus Voetius and Johannes Hoornbeeck, Spiritual Desertion, ed. M. Eugene Osterhaven, trans. John Vriend and Harry Boonstra (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2013), 46–49.
 Martin Luther, A Sermon on Preparing to Die in The Annotated Luther, Pastoral Writings, vol. 4, ed. Mary Jane Haeming (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2016), 290–305.
 Martin Luther, Consolation for Women Whose Pregnancies Have Not Gone Well in The Annotated Luther, Pastoral Writings, vol. 4, ed. Mary Jane Haeming (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2016), 422–423.
 Consolation for Women, 424.