The crucial event marking the visible start of the Reformation in Zurich can be traced to the First Zurich Disputation on January 29, 1523, where the mayor and members of the city council decreed “that Master Ulrich Zwingli (may) continue to preach the Holy Gospel and the true divine Scripture as he has done until now for as long a time and to such an extent until he be instructed differently.”

At the Second Zurich Disputation, held October 26–28, 1523, practical reforms of the church had already been discussed which arose out of Zwingli’s biblical preaching which had been officially approved in January. Some of the reforms were adopted, notably the abolition of the images and of the Mass.

During this Second Disputation, Zwingli gave special emphasis to two themes: The absolutely central importance and primary authority of the Scriptures as the Word of God, and the nature of the ministry, which may be understood as our human answer to this Word.

On the third day of the Second Disputation, Zwingli delivered his lengthy message, “The Shepherd,” which actually carried the full title, “How one can recognize true Christian shepherds and also the false, and moreover how one should behave in regard to them.” This sermon was delivered to a large and mixed audience of council members and clergy from town and country, a company of probably about 900 people.

Before looking at the thoughts expressed, we must remind ourselves that his hearers were most acutely aware of this bewildering historical context in which they lived. Vast changes, spiritual and material, were pressing on all sides in almost apocalyptic proportions. In such a world, Zwingli posed the question of how can one recognize the good shepherds as distinct from the counterfeit? And of what does their ministry consist?

His exposition on the good shepherds deals sequentially with the three ministries of revelation, reconciliation, and revolution, and at the same time with the three primary Christian virtues of faith, hope and love.


The first ministry, which the good shepherd Jesus Christ was the first to perform, but which also the Church, the pastors and all of us are called to perform, consists in the ministry of revelation, that is in the ministry of the proclamation of the gospel. What that means, Zwingli explains himself in his sermon in the following way: “Based on it [i.e. the Word of God] the shepherd is to bring his charges to an understanding of their infirmity. If they understand that and perceive that they cannot be saved out of their own power, then he should point them to the grace of God so that they let themselves trust fully in it. For God has given us for a certain assurance of his grace his only begotten son, Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we have forever a certain entry to God.” [Cf. Rom. 5:2]

Recognition of misery and sin, grace and trust, and thankful discipleship, these three parts of Evangelical-Reformed proclamation are not only found as a summary of the Christian faith in the most well-known book of faith of the Reformed Church, in Question Two of the Heidelberg Catechism, but already forty years earlier in Zwingli’s description of the good shepherds given at the Second Zurich Disputation!

This ministry, he says, demands self- denial, and should the need arise, one is even forced, as in marriage, to leave mother and father. This ministry demands courageous confession and steadfastness. It demands opposition against all external and inner temptations. In this ministry exemplary discipleship of Christ is at stake; it is a question of the cross, struggle and death.

This ministry does not only demand nice words but a total congruity of words and action, it demands discipleship to Christ, and identity with Christ. Zwingli says: “Just as Christ also, having risen from the dead dies no more, so also they, having laid aside the old being, should put on a new being [Eph. 4:22, 24] which is like God, that is, the Lord Jesus Christ. Putting on this new being is nothing other than living as he lived.”

“The shepherd should especially avoid: Putting on a hypocritical dress instead of a genuine one; further, decking himself out with cowls and hooded mantles while he is inwardly full of avarice (as for the most part do the monks and theologians of this time); bowing low but having an arrogant disposition; wearing a white shirt but being more unchaste than the wild boar; wearing high shoes and hat but being full of envy and hatred; murmuring many psalms but leaving the clear Word of God, etc.” That means he may not be a hypocrite, no wolf in sheep’s clothing, but he must know “that [a] living example teaches more than a hundred thousand words.”

Despite the demands put upon the shepherd, Zwingli emphasizes consolation and the confidence which the shepherd may certainly find in the proclamation of the gospel, namely that God assists in the never-ending struggle, supplying all that the shepherd needs: temporal nourishment, but above all, strength, courage, joy, patience and perseverance, and all these by the Holy Spirit.


Secondly, reconciliation, the miracle of the cross of Christ. It is primarily his “behavior in regards to the other external things” by which a good shepherd is recognized. In principle, the shepherd, or as Zwingli almost prefers to say in this context, the prophet, is to hold on to that commission which God had given to the prophet Jeremiah: “Then the Lord put forth his hand and touched my mouth; and the Lord said to me, ‘Behold I have put my words in your mouth. See, I have set you this day over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to break down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant’ ” (Jer. 1:9–10).

Basically, the ministry of reconciliation consists in the revelation and proclamation of the gospel, in the pardon of sin, and in devotion to all those in this world who are miserable, sick, imprisoned and persecuted, burdened and suffering. For that reason Zwingli mentions immediately the works of the prophet of the New Testament: that Christ had great sympathy with the misled people, and that Christ for the most part taught in a friendly way. That if he ever had to upbraid them, he did not censure them as severely as he did the misleading priests.

Part of the ministry of reconciliation, of the prophetic task, is the fight against violence and vices, an inexorable and merciless opposition against self-interest, avarice, envy, pride, and especially against any form of hypocrisy and idolatry. It is only in this struggle that it becomes evident who really is a follower of Christ. This is shown by the examples which Zwingli uses as illustrations, for the purpose of the issues involved. He uses the following illustrations: Moses before Pharoah (the issue of tyranny and oppression), Samuel before Saul (“obedience is better than sacrifice”), Nathan before David (adultery and murder), Elijah against the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel and before King Ahab (the murder of Naboth), John the Baptist before Herod (Herodias) and the example of Christ himself. These prophets show by their lives that the ministry of revelation, proclamation and reconciliation might involve death.

On the other hand, it is precisely this ministry which proves that in reality the foolishness of the cross has power. The reconciling death of Christ, that is faith in the risen Christ, takes away all fear. To die for and with Christ is the greatest honor possible. It is precisely at this place in The Shepherd that one finds the most famous of all words of Zwingli: “Not to fear is the armour.”

We would completely misunderstand Zwingli’s preaching on reconciliation, if we did not take into account that it is not only the pastors who are the shepherds. In principle every Christian stands in the ministry of God, in the ministry of reconciliation. Everybody is his brother’s keeper; the pastors and the civil authorities incomparably more so by virtue of their prominent and responsible position.

At that time there was no need for Zwingli to tell this to his audience. The members of the Small and the Great Councils of Zurich who listened to his sermon on the shepherd convened regularly in the city hall to watch over and to debate the concerns of their town, their citizens and their subjects, to make decisions and to pass laws as “God’s servant for your good”, but also as “servant of God to execute his wrath on the wrongdoer,” if necessary by the sword (cf. Rom. 13:4). It had been precisely this government which had also convened the two disputations for the honor of God and for the benefit of the city.

In the following years it was always the council and the citizens of this city of Zurich who supported Zwingli in the implementation of his plans for the reform of church and society. They were the ones who carried the real responsibility. Only they had the necessary competence to abolish the images, celibacy, the monasteries and the Mass. With the income from the secularization of the monasteries they also financed care for the poor and the schools. They also gave the Reformed Church its rule of order, even the order of worship. They gave the city of Zurich a marriage law which would still be exemplary today. Finally, these council members and citizens went to war together with Zwingli for the sake of their faith, and many of them died on the field together with him. But let us be clear: For Zwingli part of the ministry of reconciliation is also military service. He was not a pacifist, even less a militarist, but as a Christian he believed that he must be at the same time a good citizen, and as such also subject to military service.

We must be aware that Zwingli’s Zurich of the Sixteenth Century understood itself as a corpus permixtum, as a republica christiana, where the free citizens were Christians at the same time. In Zurich the population of the town was identical with the visible church. In this organism, divine and human justice belonged together.


Revolution is the third point. Revolution and change belong necessarily to the ministry of the good shepherd, of the Church, and of all Christians and citizens, complementing and implementing revelation and reconciliation.

Revolution and change begin in our own hearts through love. Zwingli begins and finishes his exposition on love with two perceptions. At the beginning stands a well-known word: “Love is therefore necessary so that all things be judged and measured by it. For the carpenter is not so certain with his eye; for him, a ruler is also necessary. All courage, skill and faith are nothing, if they are not judged according to love.”

As 1 Corinthians 13:4–8 points out: “Love is patient and friendly. Love does not hate. Love is not irksome. It does not exalt itself nor is it rude or improper. It does not seek its own needs. It is not short tempered. It does not keep an account of evil. It does not rejoice over unrighteousness; however it rejoices with the truth. It bears all things, trusts all things, hopes all things. Love never falls away nor commits mistakes. Here you see the type of love that is necessary for the shepherd before all other godly virtues.”

And at the end, Zwingli writes: “It follows that a true shepherd cannot look for a reward. For if he trusts that the recompense is certain, then the faith is already certainly there. If faith is there then along with it follows love. Now if love and faith are already there, then it is out of these that work is done and not with a view of payment. The servants look only at the payment, but the sons look not at the payment but work with loyalty in the house of their father, letting the fact and means of the payment be determined at the discretion of the father. Now we are the children of God [Gal. 4:7] and co-heirs with Christ” [Rom. 8:17].

Lest we be misunderstood, we should mention that here, of course, Zwingli does not speak about payment in hard cash. When he speaks about the work, about love practiced in deeds, then he is thinking of that ministry that truly merges out of love. For Zwingli “out of love” always means out of God, driven by the Spirit of God, but also encouraged and strengthened by the Spirit of God. That the call for justice is part of this love is self-understood. Good shepherds should, however, never forget that to the ministry of revolution belongs first of all the two other ministries, the ministry of revelation and of proclamation of the gospel, and the ministry of reconciliation.

Dr. Fritz Büsser is Professor of Church History and Director of the Institute of Reformation Studies at the University of Zurich in Switzerland. This article is adapted from an address given by Dr. Büsser in commemoration of the 500th anniversary of the birth of Zwingli