The Shepherd and Overseer

In the second chapter of Peter’s opening epistle, we are introduced to two titles given to our Lord Jesus Christ, The Shepherd and Overseer, “of our souls.” These two terms should be familiar to anyone who has grown up going to church because of their relevance in the establishment of church offices. More familiar are their synonyms, at least according to some, pastor and bishop respectively. Frequently, interpreters have concluded that pastor, bishop or overseers, and a third term, elder – which we looked at briefly in an earlier post, are simply used interchangeably in Scripture. Here we have two of the three (Jesus is never called an elder) used in the same passage and we must ask, are they simply redundant terms meaning the same thing or is there perhaps overlap, perhaps even a relationship, yet nevertheless maintaining a distinction?

For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.

1 Peter 2:25

The first title assigned to our Lord is a familiar distinction for Him, namely that He is a, or rather The, Shepherd. The Greek word being translated here as shepherd is poimen, a masculine noun that is not used that often in the New Testament. Below is a list of the passages in which it occurs in its various forms:

  • Matthew 9:36; 25:32; 26:31
  • Mark 6:34; 14:27
  • Luke 2:8; Luke 2:15; 2:18; 2:20
  • John 10:2; 10:11; 10:12; 10:14; 10:16
  • Ephesians 4:11
  • Hebrews 13:20
  • 1 Peter 2:25

In the above passages, poimen occurs 17 times in 18 verses and in the passages highlighted in bold it is used in reference, either directly or indirectly, to Jesus. When it refers to our Lord, or anyone other than an actual, literal shepherd (as in all of the passages from Luke), it is simply a metaphor. This is important. It isn’t used as a title or even a vocation, such as doctor or lawyer, it’s used as a metaphor, meaning it is supplying imagery that is applied to a particular situation or person, in the wide majority of the cases, to our Lord Jesus Christ. This leaves only one passage, Ephesians 4:11, in the entirety of the New Testament where shepherd refers metaphorically to anyone else. One.

We examined that singular passage in the series below:

Peter’s use in his letter from our passage above is simply recalling the broad use of shepherd in the ministry of our Lord and makes a more direct application of the metaphor to call Him the Shepherd…of our souls. Most likely, this title comes directly from our Lord’s mouth from John 10, cited in our list above, in which He declares Himself to be the Good Shepherd. Perhaps more than any other passage, John 10 provides us the rich imagery of the relationship between Shepherd and sheep. Twice in this chapter, Jesus calls Himself The Good Shepherd

I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.

I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep.

John 10:11; 10:14,15

The metaphoric concept of shepherd is not isolated to the New Testament, nor is it given a spiritual application for the first time in the New Testament. The first reference of shepherd in its metaphorical sense, and in reference to God, is found in Genesis 48:15 and then 49:24. The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament makes the following observation regarding the OT use of shepherd in reference to God,

“…the great number of passages which use the rich shepherd vocabulary for Yahweh and depict God in new and vivid developments of the metaphor as the Shepherd who goes before His flock, who guides it, who leads it to pastures and to places where it may rest by the waters, who protects it with His staff, who whistles to the dispersed and gathers them, who carries the lambs in His bosom and leads the mother-sheep (Is. 40:11).”

TDNT Vol. 6, pg 487

Perhaps the greater concentration of metaphorical uses of shepherd in reference to God may be found in the Psalms and in the Prophets related specifically to the Exile. The following passages are representative

  • Psalm 23:1-4; 28:9; 68:7; 74:1; 77:20; 78:52ff; 79:13; 80:1; 95:7; 100:3; 121:4
  • Jeremiah 23:3; 31:10; 50:19; Ezekiel 34:11-12; Isaiah 40:10ff; 49:9ff; Micah 4:6-8; 7:14

Following the development of this imagery into the exilic prophets we find it used in conjunction with overseer or bishop, as in our original passage cited from 1 Peter above. Specifically, this is seen in Jeremiah 23:1-4

“Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture!” declares the Lord. Therefore thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, concerning the shepherds who care for my people: “You have scattered my flock and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them. Behold, I will attend to you for your evil deeds, declares the Lord. Then I will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the countries where I have driven them, and I will bring them back to their fold, and they shall be fruitful and multiply. I will set shepherds over them who will care for them, and they shall fear no more, nor be dismayed, neither shall any be missing, declares the Lord.

Jeremiah 23:1-4

There are additional occasions in the OT where both shepherd and bishop/overseer are used in conjunction with each other. When this happens, the Greek Old Testament (Septuagint, LXX) uses the same word as in our passage from 1 Peter, episkopos, but not as a position or office and not translated as either bishop or overseer. Rather, it is translated as visitation or attended, as in the Jer. 23 passage. This brings up an interesting background point for understanding how episkopos is used in the New Testament, and then helps us understand the nature of 1 Peter 2 in reference to our Lord.

In our passage, overseer, episkopos, is a masculine noun which occurs as such in only 5 verses. Interestingly, the NASB translates it as Guardian, while the KJV retains the more ecclesiastical, Bishop. The other uses are cited below:

  • Acts 20:28
  • Phil. 1:1
  • 1 Tim. 3:2
  • Tit. 1:7
  • 1 Peter 2:25

In each of these it is either translated as bishop, which carries the baggage of an ecclesiastical office, or overseer, and despite the list of qualifications and mention of the ability to teach, few seem to be agreeable on what exactly the episkopos are to do. This is probably why there is such a willingness to equivocate shepherd and elder, as well as the use of their respective verbs. Overseer isn’t really a translation, rather it’s found from the etymological origin of episkopos = epi (over) + skopos (from a root denoting ‘to spy,’ ‘peer,’ ‘look into the distance’). BDAG defines this word as, “one who has the responsibility of safeguarding or seeing to it that something is done in the correct way, guardian.”

Similarly, the related feminine noun episkope, likewise has limited usage in the New Testament, occurring in:

  • Luke 19:44
  • Acts 1:20
  • 1 Timothy 3:1
  • 1 Peter 2:12

Twice it is translated in relation to the “office of bishop” and twice it is translated as visitation. Of particular interest is 1 Peter 2:12 and it’s reference to the “Day of visitation,” an eschatological phrase similar to the oft-used Day of the Lord. On the one hand, this Day of visitation brings judgment to those who have rejected Christ as Savior, yet on the other hand, it brings final salvation to all those who have embraced Him as Savior and Lord. It is this idea of visitation that is in view when the Old Testament speaks of the Lord’s episkope. In Luke 19:44, the other passage where visitation is the preferred translation, the eschatological Day of the Lord is again in view, though it may also include the preview of this final day in the destruction of the temple in 70 A.D.

Summarizing our study thus far, we must ask, why do we have such a range from visitation to an “office” of Bishop? While understanding Jesus’ role as Shepherd may be straightforward, we’re still at a loss for what exactly it means to be an episkopos, Bishop, Overseer, or Visitor? Or perhaps simply Guardian.

One clue for these two particular titles given to our Lord perhaps comes by way of their use in conjunction with each other. If we allow that episkopos simply means Guardian, then this use emphasizes the role as Shepherd rather than allowing for a distinguishing role, which is certainly a possibility. In this way, our Lord is the Shepherd, which implies gathering, leading, feeding, protecting, etc. of our souls, as well as the Guardian, emphasizing this particular protective aspect of shepherding. However, if we consider that episkopos, particularly in combination with poimen, often connotes the idea of visitation – whether unto judgment or salvation, then we have Christ as our Shepherd who gathers, leads, and protects His sheep, caring for them unto the day of visitation when He brings all His sheep, without losing any, into the fold of final salvation. Therefore, used in this way Shepherd and Overseer are unique to our Lord, for it is He alone who is the Good Shepherd and He alone who can care for our souls and secure them unto the final day of salvation.

As we have seen, Shepherd and Overseer have rather distinct meanings and both are distinct in meaning from presbuteros, translated most often as elder. These concepts are intertwined once again in the fifth chapter of Peter’s epistle, where their correlating verbs are brought into view, and the second coming – or we might say visitation, of our Lord the Chief Shepherd is the focus for those who perform the duties of shepherding and overseeing. In a future post, we’ll return to this chapter and examine these verbs that refer to the act of shepherding and overseeing used in conjunction with elder to further build upon our foundation laid down here and continue our understanding of ecclesiastical offices.

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