“Therefore, I exhort the elders among you, as your fellow elder and witness of the sufferings of Christ, and a partaker also of the glory that is to be revealed, shepherd the flock of God among you, exercising oversight not under compulsion, but voluntarily, according to the will of God; and not for sordid gain, but with eagerness; nor yet as lording it over those allotted to your charge, but proving to be examples to the flock. And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory.” (1 Peter 5:1–4, NASB95)
Peter’s letter was written to encourage believers to live right before God with great hope regardless of the pressure to do otherwise. This was to apply to them personally and together as a church. As he wraps up his letter he turns his attention to the leaders of the church, and focuses specifically on their responsibility to shepherd the flock in these difficult times. Peter wrote to them elder to elders. This term “elders” (Presbyterous, Strong #4245) can be used to speak of an older person as we see in 1 Timothy 5:1-2: “Do not sharply rebuke an older man [Presbyterō], but rather appeal to him as a father, to the younger men as brothers, the older women [presbyteras] as mothers, and the younger women as sisters, in all purity.” (1 Timothy 5:1–2, NASB95) Here you can see the same root with different masculine and feminine endings to specify which was which. At the root of both is the word “presbus” which means elderly. But this passage is not written to people of age alone. From the verses that follow we see that Peter is specifically writing to the leadership in the churches. These were men who were specifically set aside for the role, one which Peter was personally given Himself by our Lord Jesus Christ when Jesus charged him to shepherd His sheep (John 21:15-19).
It was this task of appointing elders that Paul gave to Titus when Paul left him in Crete, and from the context we see that this was not a general appointing of selected people but a plurality of specific men. We read, “For this reason I left you in Crete, that you would set in order what remains and appoint elders in every city as I directed you, namely, if any man is above reproach, the husband of one wife, having children who believe, not accused of dissipation or rebellion. For the overseer must be above reproach as God’s steward, not self-willed, not quick-tempered, not addicted to wine, not pugnacious, not fond of sordid gain, but hospitable, loving what is good, sensible, just, devout, self-controlled, holding fast the faithful word which is in accordance with the teaching, so that he will be able both to exhort in sound doctrine and to refute those who contradict.” (Titus 1:5–9, NASB95)
It is to men such as this that Peter is writing here, as he gives them instruction on how to continue in their calling in the difficult days their people were facing. Peter wrote to them not only as one who had suffered personally, but as one who had been with Christ and was witness to His suffering. Peter wrote to them as one who had denied Jesus three times on the night in which He was betrayed, but also as one who was personally tasked to shepherd His sheep as Peter was personally restored and set apart for this ministry to His church. It was Peter who gave the powerful message on Pentecost where we read that about three thousand souls were added that day. Peter understood the challenges before them, and he wrote to them of the great importance of continuing the call given to them as fellow partakers of the glory which was set before them all.
These men were to “shepherd the flock of God” that was among them. They were to stay there and be faithful to their task. This word “shepherd” is the action form of the Greek word “poimainō.” It is the same word given to Peter by Jesus, and it was in this task that Peter exhorted them to faithfully continue. We see this word used of the elders (plural) in the church and we also see it used specifically in reference to those set apart as pastors and teachers in the church, where we see in Ephesians 4:11 the word translated “pastors” is the same Greek word translated elsewhere as “elders.”
One elder or pastor is not to stand in this task alone. The church is not intended to operate with one person in the task, but functions best when this burden is shared. When we read in the New Testament of the elders in the church as its overseers we always see it in plural form. These men were to do it together as a multiplicity of elders. They were to jointly shepherd the sheep. Looking at Jesus’ instruction to Peter we see that this task not only was to include feeding the sheep or teaching them, but it was also to include tending to them in all of the other necessary ways. The shepherd’s responsibility is to tend to the sheep for their welfare and the health of the flock. It is a broad task that includes not only great oversight, but wisdom, discernment, and compassion. It involves the blending of the grace of God with the truth of God in a way that honors God for the best of the sheep.
These men are charged to do this task, “not under compulsion, but voluntarily….” So often when we do something because we “have to” we lose the enthusiasm for the task and it becomes a drudgery that not only wears on us but it obvious to those we are around. An elder who serves because he feels that he must is an elder whose joy will fade and un-Christ-like behaviors will rise. Paul wrote to Timothy, “It is a trustworthy statement: if any man aspires to the office of overseer, it is a fine work he desires to do.” (1 Timothy 3:1, NASB95) In this we see that the overseer (and elder) responds to a desire and not a demand. Going back to Peter’s charge to shepherd Christ’s sheep, we read that three times Peter was asked if he loved Him. To each of these Peter affirmed that he indeed did. From this foundation, Jesus then charged Peter to serve. Similarly, the elders are to serve from a foundation of love where their actions are the proper voluntary outflow of what they know deep inside. Paul wrote in Romans 12:1 that this is our spiritual or reasonable response of service as we give ourselves back to God to do what He has given us to do in light of what Christ has done for us.
Peter went on to add, “according to the will of God….” Whether we serve as an elder or in some other role, we are to serve with the recognition that God is the One who has prepared these good works for us. “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them.” (Ephesians 2:10, NASB95) Our response is to walk in them and so do the will of God with the attitude of 1 Peter 4:10-11, “As each one has received a special gift, employ it in serving one another as good stewards of the manifold grace of God. Whoever speaks, is to do so as one who is speaking the utterances of God; whoever serves is to do so as one who is serving by the strength which God supplies; so that in all things God may be glorified through Jesus Christ, to whom belongs the glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.” (1 Peter 4:10–11, NASB95)
Furthermore, we read that the elder is “not [to serve] for sordid gain, but with eagerness….” It’s not to be about what’s in it for the elder, but out of his desire to serve God that he fulfills the role given to him. Sure, there are those who serve vocationally as pastors (shepherds) in the church, but even then, these men are not to serve with their remuneration as their motivation. Elders are to serve because of their love for God and their desire to do what He has given them to do, and then to do it with eagerness. Serving in the role given them as shepherds and overseers of the flock is to be the desire of their heart and they are to do it willingly and with anticipation. Sure, there will be difficult days and unwanted tasks, but the desire to serve God will strengthen them in those times just as He does all of us when we look to Him and not to the size of the circumstance.
Lastly, Peter wrote to them, “nor yet as lording it over those allotted to your charge, but proving to be examples to the flock.” I think we’ve probably all heard the phrase that someone rules “with an iron rod” or “fist.” This later form of leadership either drives people away or causes them to cower in fear, and it definitely does not reflect the character of our God. Several times in John chapter 1 we read that Jesus came in truth and grace. The two of these have to be held in balance. Truth without grace can lead to legalism and the hard hand of leadership making itself ever present. Grace without truth leads to extreme license and the absence of authority. The elders are to exercise leadership without lording or domineering. Thinking of this I am reminded of the example of Jesus during that last supper with His disciples when He wrapped Himself with a towel and washed His disciples’ feet. We read, “At the conclusion of this He said, “So when He had washed their feet, and taken His garments and reclined at the table again, He said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? “You call Me Teacher and Lord; and you are right, for so I am. “If I then, the Lord and the Teacher, washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. “For I gave you an example that you also should do as I did to you. “Truly, truly, I say to you, a slave is not greater than his master, nor is one who is sent greater than the one who sent him.”” (John 13:12–16, NASB95)
This is the attitude of Christ and the example set for not only all elders, but for all of us as well. And as the elders set this example they will powerfully influence their local church to the glory of God. Peter concludes this instruction to elders with, “And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory.” The recognition may or may not come now. That is not what is important. What is important is why and how we serve Who we serve knowing that He will take care of the rest. This is true for elders, and this is true for all of us who know Jesus Christ as our Savior and Lord. He is our Chief Shepherd. His elders are given to us to carry out the work of tending to His church, and we are to submit to them as His under-shepherds for His glory.