The Bishop of Our Souls
by R.C. Sproul
The titles that the New Testament writers use for Jesus make for a fascinating and enlightening study. One of the most obscure and perplexing of these titles is found in 1 Peter 2:25, where the Apostle writes, “For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.” In the classical language of the King James Version, this title is rendered as “Shepherd and Bishop of your souls.” Many evangelicals react negatively to the idea of Jesus as our Bishop. What did Peter have in mind when he spoke of Jesus in this way?
Although Peter’s letter is the only place in the New Testament where Christ is called our Bishop, the concept is deeply rooted in Scripture. We even find a hint of it in the song of Zechariah, father of John the Baptist. Zechariah said, “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has visited and redeemed his people” (Luke 1:68). In the Old Testament, the promises of redemption that God made to His people included a promise of a day of divine visitation. The Jews were taught to expect a visit from God. Zechariah, however, said God had visited and redeemed His people. He spoke this way because he understood that the appearance of the Messiah was at hand, and He would be heralded by Zechariah’s own son.
What does this have to do with the title of “bishop”? The Greek word translated as “visited” in Luke 1:68 is episkeptomai, which is a verb form of the noun episkopos, the Greek word that is translated as “bishop” or “overseer” in 1 Peter 2:25. That word, episkopos, is reflected in the name of the Episcopalian Church, which is governed by bishops.
The word episkopos is composed of a prefix and a root. The prefix is epi-, which serves to intensify the word with which it is combined. The root is skopos, which gives us the English word “scope.” We find this root in such words as telescope, periscope, and microscope, all of which are instruments that help us to see things. If we were to add the prefix epi- to the word scope, we would have an instrument for intensive observation. That is precisely what an episkopos was in ancient Greece, except that it was a person, not an instrument. The episkopos was a high-ranking military officer who inspected the troops to be sure they were ready for battle. With that background, we can see that a bishop is one who is given oversight in the church, with the responsibility to look closely into all matters under his supervision.
Jesus, then, is our Bishop, our Episkopos, who has oversight of us as our Lord. He is vested with the power to look into our lives, to gauge our readiness for combat with the forces of darkness.
The sad fact, however, is that we do not usually like to undergo His inspection. Do you remember how Adam and Eve reacted when God visited the garden of Eden after they had eaten from the forbidden tree? They hid themselves. They understood themselves to be naked in His presence, unable to conceal their sin from His close scrutiny (Gen. 3:8–10). Adam and Eve wanted nothing to do with an episkopos. It was much the same when Jesus came in His incarnation. The Scriptures tell us that “He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him” (John 1:11). Like Adam and Eve, the Jews wanted nothing to do with this heavenly Visitor. Indeed, all fallen human beings are terrified of exposure to God’s scrutiny.
The Jews in Old Testament times looked forward to the coming of the Messiah. But the prophets warned them that the day of His appearing might not be the wonderful experience they expected. They hoped to see God judge their enemies, but the prophets said that the Episkopos would judge His own people if they were not ready to receive Him, if they were faithless and disobedient.
But Zechariah sang his song from the perspective of a child of God, one who was glad to see the coming of the heavenly Visitor and who welcomed His scrutiny. For all who are ready, a visit from the Episkopos is a welcome thing, for they understand that His scrutiny is directed toward the care of the souls under His supervision.
The Bishop of our souls knows us better than we know ourselves. Although ministers and bishops are called to follow our Lord’s example, we will never have a pastor or elder who cares for our souls anywhere near the degree to which Christ, our Bishop, does.
Do you want God to know you? Do you pray as David did: “Search me, O God, and know my heart!” (Ps. 139:23a)? Those are the words of a person who knows the forgiving grace of God. Once we experience God’s grace and tender mercy, we want more. The Christian delights in being known by the Bishop of his soul.