How to Recognize a False Shepherd
Neil Girrard

Scriptures Referenced in This Article:
          (Follow the Scripture links if you want to study the Scriptures for yourself.)
Ezek. 34:2-6 π Mt. 5:9 π Mt. 7:1 π Mt. 7:15 π Mt. 7:15-20 π Mt. 10:16 π Mt. 10:34-36 π Mt. 18:12-13 π Mt. 22:29 π Mt. 24:4-5 π Mt. 24:11 π Mt. 24:24 π Mk. 12:24 π Mk. 12:27 π Mk. 13:5-6 π Lk. 21:8 π Jn. 3:6 π Jn. 6:29 π Jn. 10:1; 2nd π Jn. 10:1-13 π Jn. 10:2 π Jn. 10:2-4 π Jn. 10:5 π Jn. 10:8 π Jn. 10:10; 2nd π Jn. 10:12; 2nd π Jn. 10:12-13 π Jn. 10:26-28 π Jn. 14:6 π Jn. 16:13 π 1 Cor. 5:9-13 π 1 Cor. 6:9 π 1 Cor. 13:4-8 π 1 Cor. 15:45 π 2 Cor. 6:14-7:1 π Gal. 5:22-23 π Gal. 6:7 π Col. 3:6-17 π 1 Tim. 3:2-13 π 2 Tim. 3:13 π Jas. 1:16 π Jas. 1:22 π Jas. 3:13-18 π Jas. 4:4 π Jas. 5:19-20 π 1 Pet. 2:25 π 1 Pet. 5:1-4 π 1 Pet. 5:8-9 π 2 Pet. 2:15 π 1 Jn. 1:8 π 1 Jn. 2:26 π 1 Jn. 3:7

The Good Shepherd and the Hireling

Gary Larson’s “Far Side” comic strip is known for its sarcastic and sardonic wit. One such frame is worthy of note and displays a knowledge of average “church” attendance that I’m not sure was intended by the cartoonist. In this frame there is a flock of sheep milling about the foreground. Well, at first glance they look like sheep. In the middle of the picture however, are two wolves, each wearing sheepskin costumes and holding sheep masks, one talking to the other. There is a third “sheep” in the process of removing his sheep mask and, upon closer examination, you can see the seams around the neck where all the “sheep” are wearing masks and there are places where the sheep skins are patched and wolf skins show through. The first wolf angrily says to the second one, “Wait a minute! Isn’t anyone here a real sheep?” [1]

It is a sad commentary on the average so-called Christian “church” that this is a too-accurate portrayal. In looking at what makes a wolf, I want to first start by looking at what makes a true shepherd. Jesus said:

“Most assuredly, I say to you, he who does not enter the sheepfold by the door, but climbs up some other way, the same is a thief and a robber. But he who enters by the door is the shepherd of the sheep. To him the doorkeeper opens, and the sheep hear his voice; and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. And when he brings out his own sheep, he goes before them; and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice. Yet they will by no means follow a stranger, but will flee from him, for they do not know the voice of strangers.”

Jesus used this illustration, but they did not understand the things which He spoke to them.

Then Jesus said to them again, “Most assuredly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep. All who ever came before Me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not hear them. I am the door. If anyone enters by Me, he will be saved, and will go in and out and find pasture. The thief does not come except to steal, and to kill, and to destroy. I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly. I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd gives His life for the sheep. But he who is a hireling and not the shepherd, one who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees; and the wolf catches the sheep and scatters them. The hireling flees because he is a hireling and does not care about the sheep.” ( Jn. 10:1-13; top )

These are very familiar verses to most of us - and a source of great comfort in many stages of our walk with Jesus. But in re-reading this passage, I was struck with how often some of these verses are taken out of context or how we ignore the real implication of what Jesus is saying.

To fully get the gist of what I am saying - and to see how complex this parable really is - let me make a list of the different persons identified in this parable. And let me list them in reverse order of their mention:

Now that’s quite a cast of characters for so short a parable! As much as is possible, setting aside the many teachings we’ve heard from so many teachers, let us take a fresh look at what Jesus really is saying here.

The wolf is not, as some would say, the false teachers who lead the flock astray. Though Jesus does use this picture of false prophets who would inwardly be ferocious wolves elsewhere ( Mt. 7:15; top ), the wolf represents something different here. Here he represents the world and Satan - those enemies which can render a sheep dead so far as spiritual life in Christ is concerned. How do we know this? Because the wolf cannot get at the flock until the hireling flees - which is what every hireling does. If the wolf represented a false teacher, he can get at the sheep anytime - because it is the hireling who represents the false teacher or false shepherd in this parable.

To understand who the hireling really is, we must look back at Jesus’ descriptions of all the bad guys. At first glance, there seems to be a whole host of characters in this parable. But the spiritually discerning eye is going to be able to narrow it down to only two classes of people.

Look again at Jesus’ descriptions of the bad guys:

“...he who does not enter the sheepfold by the door, but climbs up some other way, the same is a thief and a robber...

“...[the sheep] will by no means follow a stranger, but will flee from him, for they do not know the voice of strangers...

“All who ever came before Me are thieves and robbers...

“The thief does not come except to steal, and to kill, and to destroy.

“...he who is a hireling and not the shepherd, one who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees...

“The hireling flees because he is a hireling and does not care about the sheep.” ( Jn. 10:1 , 5 , 8 , 10 , 12-13; top )

Where does the hireling come from? Who “hired” him? Did he come through the door? No, for Jesus said that “he who enters by the door is the shepherd of the sheep” (v. 2 ) and that “he who is a hireling and not the shepherd...sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees.” (v. 12 ) So what we have here is someone in a protective role over the sheep who did not come through the door to the sheepfold. But Jesus said that everyone who comes in by any other means is only a thief and a robber. (v. 1; top ) The hireling is nothing but a thief and a robber who snuck into the sheepfold by some other means than the door! Mark this well!

The verse in this passage that gets taken out of context the most would be verse 10; top : “The thief does not come except to steal, and to kill, and to destroy.” This verse is most often applied to Satan - and there is indeed truth in seeing Satan as the biggest rip-off artist yet. But the real application in this parable is to the hireling - he is only a thief who comes to steal and kill and destroy - even though in all outward appearances he is coming to work, to earn his living by watching and guarding the sheep. This is why he is called a hireling - he is paid professional staff. Mark it well for this view will come even more strikingly into view as we proceed to examine what Jesus is really saying in this parable.

Now we must turn to see what Jesus means when He says that He is the door by which anyone who would be a true shepherd of His sheep must enter. We are probably all familiar with Jesus’ statement: “I am the way, the truth and the life; no one comes to the Father but by Me.” ( Jn. 14:6; top ) And this teaching about the good shepherd is another instance where Jesus is saying the same type of exclusive statement. “If you didn’t come in by way of the door (Me), you are only a thief, a robber and a murderer” is what He is in effect saying in this parable.

We take great comfort in Jesus saying that He is the way, the truth and the life, but we give very little thought to what that actually means. Often we have come to know a “Sunday school” Jesus and we think that is all there is to know. We know all the stories about Him but for some reason we seem to miss some key elements.

There are those who claim to be in the Body of Christ - and indeed their claim may be accurate, I could not possibly know - who exhibit an almost irrational distrust of anything “spiritual.” Anything that deviates from their “Sunday school” understanding of Jesus and the Bible, anything that would cause their control over their own lives to slip into God’s hands even just a little, anything that smacks of commitment or zeal, all these things get branded with the label of “spiritualism” and “radicalism” which everyone knows, without ever examining or questioning it, that this is a bad thing.

But in the New Testament, this is just not so. Paul wrote that “...it is written, ‘The first man Adam became a living being.’ The last Adam became a life-giving spirit.” ( 1 Cor. 15:45; top ) The last Adam, that is Christ Jesus, in His very nature - in His very role as Redeemer and Savior - is a life- giving spirit! And He is the door that we must go through to legitimately enter the sheepfold!

Jesus Himself gives testimony of this either/or nature when He says, “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” ( Jn. 3:6; top ) And yet we pay so little attention to the fact that as believers we must be Christ-centered - that is to say, spiritually-oriented on the spiritual Person Christ Jesus. That which is born of the flesh cannot be that which enters through the door for the flesh is that which is opposed to God!

Look at this parable again! All those who climb into the sheepfold by some other way are those who refuse to enter in through the life-giving spirit of Christ Jesus. And yet these are often the very same hirelings who take on paid professional staff positions, bringing nothing but pain and misery to the sheep.

Look carefully at who the real shepherd is in this parable:

“...he who enters by the door is the shepherd of the sheep. To him the doorkeeper opens, and the sheep hear his voice; and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. And when he brings out his own sheep, he goes before them; and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice.” ( Jn. 10:2-4; top )

The real shepherd is he who looks upon the sheep as his own - just as a father or grandfather look on his children as his own - even though he knows they also belong to God. The real shepherd will lay down his own life to protect the sheep - just as a father or grandfather will for his own children. No one can pay a father to love his children - and no one can pay the real shepherd to watch over the sheep. It is simultaneously an inescapable duty and a much-longed-for pleasure. It can never be reduced to punching in and out on the timeclock or receiving a weekly paycheck. The real shepherd is the one who has spiritually entered into the new life of Christ and who is walking in the Spirit.

There is one more aspect of this that we must notice: a human being is made up of three parts - body, soul and spirit. The body is that vehicle which carries out the orders of the soul and spirit. The soul is the mind, will and emotions. The spirit is that aspect of our existence which is most like God and which defies explanation in material terms because it is made of things from the realm of the eternal.

In our crazy, mixed up “church” of today, even where there are real sheep in the congregation and even, rarity of rarities, a real shepherd over the flock, the wolf population is too large for comfort. This is because many, having received something spiritually from the Lord, are subsequently trained by hirelings and thieves to live in their souls! Thus many within the “church” today are some sort of hybrid - spiritually born again but soulishly trained to know, feel and do all that “God” requires. It is no wonder that there is a shortage of real sheep.

The Real Questions

This brings us to some exceedingly important questions and for simplicity’s sake, we will begin with the metaphor already begun. How can we tell who the real sheep are? How can we spot a wolf or a hireling? How can we tell if there is a genuine shepherd over the local part of the flock? How can we spot a fake? In answering these questions, we will have to look at some underlying notions, our preconceived paradigm, and see how these false notions cause us to take the instructions of the New Testament and distort them to fit in with our preconceived ideas of what church (Greek ekklesia) is supposed to be like. Let us remember that the Holy Spirit is here to lead us into all truth ( Jn. 16:13; top ) - to do so, He must lead us out of all error and deception, even that error and deception we call “church.”

We must take these questions one at a time. Let us begin with some characteristics of real sheep. In doing so, we will see that wolves, using this word now to refer to false prophets and teachers who are inwardly wolves, are merely counterfeits and will come up short in one area or another of the characteristics of real sheep.

The Real Sheep

“But you do not believe, because you are not of My sheep, as I said to you. My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me. And I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; neither shall anyone snatch them out of My hand.” ( Jn. 10:26-28; top )

Jesus spoke this shortly after He had taught on the parable we have already spent so much time on. True sheep, that is true followers of Jesus Christ, believe. (see Jn. 6:29; top ) They know Him, they follow Him, they trust Him, they obey Him, they spiritually abide with Him. They possess eternal life and they live in such a way that shows they know they possess it. But all of that is somewhat vague and subjective, even mystical or perhaps metaphysical to our rational minds. What we need are specific traits, not put together by any man but lifted straight from the Word of God, that we can look at and differentiate sheep from all other species.

Fortunately, God knew we would need such a list of characteristics and has provided several.

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Against such there is no law. ( Gal. 5:22-23; top )

And because love is always such a misunderstood word, God saw to it that there was a full description of that as well.

Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up; does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil; does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails. ( 1 Cor. 13:4-8; top )

In addition, there will be a moral code that true sheep will exhibit as the Spirit within enables them to live out the commands of God that, dependent upon the age and maturity of the individual sheep, will resemble the morality of all true sheep. Paul wrote:

But now you must also put off all these: anger, wrath, malice, blasphemy, filthy language out of your mouth. Do not lie to one another, since you have put off the old man with his deeds, and have put on the new man who is renewed in knowledge according to the image of Him who created Him, where there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcised nor uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave nor free, but Christ is all and in all. Therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, put on tender mercies, kindness, humbleness of mind, meekness, longsuffering; bearing with one another, and forgiving one another, if anyone has a complaint against another; even as Christ forgave you, so you also must do. But above all these things put on love, which is the bond of perfection. And let the peace of God rule in your hearts, to which also you were called in one body; and be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom, teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord. And whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him. ( Col. 3:6-17; top )

And one must indeed be careful not to separate the morality of a sheep from the love the sheep has for the other sheep and the obedience the sheep has to his Shepherd for it is all derived from one source - the Holy Spirit within. It is easy to imitate the external morality of a sheep and yet not have the life of Christ living within you. So while the sheep will be moral creatures, the morality of the sheep is the easiest part to emulate and portray - and the least satisfying and fulfilling and, quite possibly, the most deceitful.

And it is here that all who would truly differentiate between true sheep and all other species must turn to the Shepherd of hearts. Unless we have specific discernment from His Spirit who dwells within us, we may not always know who the real sheep are. In fact, we are commanded not to even make such an effort. ( Mt. 7:1; top ) But we can rest assured that, if we are in any danger of being deceived - which Jesus specifically warned that those who live in the end times would be (see Mt. 24:4-5 , 11 , 24 ; Mk. 13:5-6 ; Lk. 21:8; top ) - He will warn us of the danger if we will but listen.

The New Testament repeatedly uses the phrase, “he who has an ear, let him hear” because Jesus never forces anyone to listen to Him. If a sheep wants to be stubborn and go running off a cliff or lodge itself in a barbed-wire fence, He will take even extreme steps to dissuade it. But in the end, if the sheep is persistent enough, it will learn the hard way why the Shepherd tried to steer it away from the cliff and the barbed wire fences.

So, if the true sheep live like this, what are the wolves like?

The Real Wolves

Unfortunately, this is not as easy a category to define. For while some wolves are easy to spot because they spout false doctrine and blatant heresies, some wolves truly believe themselves to be genuine sheep and shepherds and they think they are doing a great service to God. Jesus gave the best method of spotting a wolf when He said,

“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes from thornbushes or figs from thistles? Even so, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Therefore by their fruits you will know them.” ( Mt. 7:15-20; top )

In the days when this was written, one who would come in sheep’s clothing would not be dressed like a sheep as in Gary Larson’s cartoon at the beginning of this essay. Rather he would be wearing processed wool and he would look like a shepherd. In applying this verse, a wolf will spout off Bible verses and will seem to have his spiritual life together, but he is not interested in the welfare of the sheep. He has another motivation. He has an inner hunger that needs fed and he will bleed the flock dry to satisfy his appetite.

The role of false shepherd has been around since the time of Ezekial. God spoke to Ezekiel and said:

“Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel, prophesy and say to them, ‘Thus says the Lord God to the shepherds: “Woe to the shepherds of Israel who feed themselves! Should not the shepherds feed the flocks? You eat the fat and clothe yourselves with the wool; you slaughter the fatlings, but you do not feed the flock. The weak you have not strengthened, nor have you healed those who were sick, nor bound up the broken, nor brought back what was driven away, nor sought what was lost; but with force and cruelty you have ruled them. So they were scattered because there was no shepherd; and they became food for all the beasts of the field when they were scattered. My sheep wandered through all the mountains, and on every high hill; yes, My flock was scattered over the whole face of the earth, and no one was searching for them.” ( Ezek. 34:2-6; top )

One of the most obvious signs that show a shepherd is false is that he will have his own “church” where he insists on being the one who “feeds” the sheep. This is because he will be the one who eats - both of the spiritual food and, if his marketing skills are good and his personal charisma attractive, of material wealth. It is a maxim that the one who teaches the Word of God is the one who absorbs the most (provided it is accompanied with obedience to God - Jas. 1:22; top ). The one who passively listens and checks nothing out for himself is the lamb meekly led to slaughter.

It is absolutely right, even imperative and essential, that this standard be applied to everyone who claims to be a leader in what is calling itself the body of Christ today. Ask these questions about everyone who claims to be a godly leader:

If you find you must truthfully answer “yes” to any of these questions in regards to someone claiming to be something, you have a wolf on your hands.

If you find you must truthfully answer “yes,” you have a wolf on your hands.

“The fruit of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace,” James says. This eliminates anger, contentiousness, dissension, strife, clamoring, complaining, murmuring, gossipping, manipulation and any other sin-filled method of sowing seeds as being possible methods of producing fruits of righteousness. A wolf will not be too particular how seeds are sown. Nor will a wolf be a peace maker though he will insist that everyone around him agrees with his ideas.

A peace maker is one who seeks to enforce the peace of Christ between God and men, not one who seeks to maintain the order of the status quo at any price. Jesus warned of His own divisive nature ( Mt. 10:34-36 ) and also said, “Blessed are the peace makers, for they shall be called sons of God.” ( Mt. 5:9 ) There can be no peace between a Christian and the world. ( Jas. 4:4 ) There can be no peace between a Christian and the enemy of our souls. ( 1 Pet. 5:8-9 ) And there can be no peace between a Christian and a false brother. ( 1 Cor. 5:9-13 ; 2 Cor. 6:14-7:1; top ) There can only be true peace when true sheep huddle next to true sheep in the care of their true Shepherd and His true undershepherds.

So, who are the true undershepherds of God’s flock?

The Real Shepherds

The elders who are among you I exhort, I who am a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, and also a partaker of the glory that will be revealed: Shepherd the flock of God which is among you, serving as overseers, not by constraint but willingly, not for dishonest gain but eagerly; nor as being lords over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock; and when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that does not fade away. ( 1 Pet. 5:1-4; top )

The real shepherds guard the flock of God with whole-hearted and sincere devotion. No sacrifice seems too much to ask if there is the likelihood that the sheep will truly benefit and be strengthened in their walk with the Shepherd. And there is no thought of being compensated in this world for their struggles because they know their Shepherd also takes care of them.

Jesus said, “The hired hand is not the shepherd who owns the sheep. So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away. Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it.” ( Jn. 10:12; top ) Those who are true shepherds do not run when the flock is attacked by circumstances of life or by wolves. When members of the flock are hurting or in need, the true shepherd will be right in the middle of the action - the first to be willing to gather in prayer, to confront false doctrine and practice, and to serve in any way possible to meet the need and answer the crisis. The false shepherds will be hard to find in the midst of disaster and enemy attack and they will only be known by their false, pat answers and impersonal solutions spoken from “on high” - that is, from behind the pulpit where intellectuality is an easy aura to create and where one does not have to soil one’s hands on the sheep.

In addition to these considerations, Paul writes to Timothy that:

“A bishop then must be blameless, the husband of one wife, temperate, sober-minded, of good behavior, hospitable, able to teach; not given to wine, not violent, not greedy for money, but gentle, not quarrelsome, not covetous; one who rules his own house well, having his children in submission with all reverence (for if a man does not know how to rule his own house, how will he take care of the church of God?); not a novice, lest being puffed up with pride he fall into the same condemnation as the devil. Moreover he must have a good testimony among those who are outside, lest he fall into reproach and the snare of the devil.

Likewise deacons must be reverent, not double-tongued, not given to much wine, not greedy for money, holding the mystery of the faith with a pure conscience. But let these also first be proved; then let them serve as deacons, being found blameless. Likewise their wives must be reverent, not slanderers, temperate, faithful in all things. Let deacons be the husbands of one wife, ruling their children and their own houses well. For those who have served well as deacons obtain for themselves a good standing and great boldness in the faith which is in Christ Jesus. ( 1 Tim. 3:2-13; top )

Anyone who fails to meet all of these requirements is not qualified to be in any leadership role in the body of Christ. Period. If someone who is not qualified persists in maintaining some leadership title or role, he is to be ignored or dealt with as if he were only a wolf in sheep’s clothing. It is that simple and we will be wise to not let our feelings for those acting in these leadership roles to cause us to neglect our God-given responsibilities to help these mistaken leaders get in line with God’s Word. After all, these men who exercise leadership, whether legitimately or illegitimately, are only human and as such are subject to failure just as we are. We cannot, however, allow blatant disregard for God’s Word and His precepts to be excused as mere human failure.

Changing the Metaphor

In closing, I would like to describe another “Far Side” cartoon in which the author again displays an unwitting insight into the reactions of too many “churches” in our land. In this cartoon the analogy is changed as, a group of penguins stand huddled on a floe of ice. Sitting with wide eyes staring at the reader in the center of this flock of penguins, towering high over them and nearly filling up the entire ice floe, sits a huge white polar bear with a tiny penguin mask tied onto the end of his nose. Two penguins at the right of the floe are talking to each other and one says to the other, “And now Edgar’s gone... Something’s going on around here.” [2]

How often this is true of our “churches” today! The huddled sheep have no desire to confront sin and every inclination to tolerate false doctrine and heresy for the sake of unity and acceptance and then have the temerity to wonder that others around them have become casualties of the spiritual warfare! People become burnt out in “serving God” - that is, in coming and sitting passively in the pew while being lectured to from “on high” - because they are not taught how to personally appropriate and rely on God’s grace to empower them for real, active service. People become disillusioned with the “church” when it is only populated by gossips, backstabbers, and social climbers - just like every other system in the world - and they forsake the living and true gospel because they are disgusted with the manmade counterfeits that surround them. Others become casualties because the Christian life is not the joy, happiness and prosperity that was promised to them by slick promoters out to separate the sheep from the contents of his wallet.

Let us remember Jesus’ admonition to His disciples: “Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves. Therefore be wise as serpents and harmless as doves.” ( Mt. 10:16; top ) Let us not sit idly by while wolves devour and divide the flock of God around us. The hide and carcass we save may belong to our own friends and family - or even to ourselves.

[1] Gary Larson, The Far Side Gallery 2, 1986, p. 123. back

[2] Gary Larson, The Far Side Gallery 2, 1986, p. 107. back

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