This brief quote is likely a summation of several hours of conversation, a condensation of one of Paul's most important statements on pastoral theology: the practice of caring for and discipling people.
Note the key words: watch, flock, shepherds, blood, wolves. All sheep-business lingo. Reflect on them for a moment. They shouldn't be blown off or dismissed as archaic.
Watch. The word described the vigilance of a shepherd toward any potential threat to his sheep: dangerous terrain, poisonous plants, hungry predators, adverse weather, diseases and injuries. For Paul that alertness paralleled the idea of guarding people against threats to their faith.
Flock. The "community of sheep." But here, of course, Paul speaks of people: people who may be or may not be intelligent, successful, socially connected, but who are, spiritually speaking, highly vulnerable. Interesting! Paul did not liken the Ephesian congregation to a pride of lions. Rather, he compared them to animals who are virtually defenseless.
Shepherds. Not very classy people as a rule. Usually a shepherd was the youngest son in the family line, or he was a man perceived as a social outcast. Religious art notwithstanding, there was absolutely no glamour in being a shepherd. Why couldn't Paul have likened pastors to Olympic athletes or physicians?
Blood. In ancient times, the supreme currency. To say that something was bought with one's blood conveyed the notion of ultimate value. Thus, in Paul's view, the Ephesian "flock" was priceless. Bottom line: these pastoral leaders could ill afford to be cavalier about their responsibility for this group that God paid so much for.
Wolves. One of several kinds of predators that preyed upon sheep. In this context wolves are the bad guys—false teachers, persecutors, creators of congregational confusion. And the shepherds were charged with preventing them getting close to the flock.
Let me stick my neck out. These final words spoken to the Ephesians were not about evangelism, not about organizational vision, not even about a style of worship. These words were about pastoral responsibility: assuring the soundness and safety of the people already in the flock. "Guard the flock." That is the core of a pastor's job.
In the mid-1500s, the Flemmish artist Peter Brueghel produced a painting called "Unfaithful Shepherd." It is sometimes exhibited at the Philadelphia Art Museum. In the foreground, a well dressed, rather portly shepherd flees the pasture. Behind him a flock of sheep scatters in panic. Here and there on the canvas are wolves plundering the flock.
One is reminded of Ezekiel's words: "You have not strengthened the weak or healed the sick or bound up the injured. You have not brought back the strays or searched for the lost … so they were scattered because there was no shepherd, and when they were scattered they became food for all the wild animals" (Ezek. 34).
What protecting means now
While writing this article, I re-read the 13 letters attributed to Paul (plus Acts) and looked for any fresh insight into his view of pastoral guardianship. I was impressed with his consistent sensitivity toward three kinds of danger that faced ancient congregations—and ours.
• He was ever-aware that new followers of Jesus might slip back under the influence of the larger world culture that they had renounced at the time of their conversions. "Put to death whatever belongs to your earthly nature" he said to the Colossians. That's pastoral guardianship.