Recently, we as a congregation, had the privilege to corporately appoint a fourth man, Edwin Steytler, to the eldership of Brackenhurst Baptist Church. Having observed his life, home and ministry over his years as a church member, and particularly over the period of a year during which his candidacy was announced to the church, the church proved happy to submit to his leadership.
But before we formally affirmed this, it was important for us to understand the role, responsibility and requirement that an elder undertakes in a church. We did so by examining 1 Peter 5.
When Peter wrote, God’s people were undergoing difficult times—harsh and persecutorial times. There were believing wives with unbelieving husbands and believing bondservants with harsh masters. Christians were mistreated by a godless government. Christians were mistreated by an unbelieving society. In addition to these, no doubt much other suffering was taking place. These sheep needed encouragement, guidance, and care. They needed to be taught how to respond. They needed to know what to do. They needed exhortation and examples. In a word, they needed shepherds. They needed faithful elders. Peter knew this, and so he penned these words.
The needs of the church have not changed over the centuries. Church members still experience difficulties and still need to grow in Christlikeness as we carry out the work of the Great Commission. Therefore, the church still needs elders. But what is an elder, and what is he to do? The passage before us instructs us. It serves as an exhortation, as an instruction to both elders and the congregation. Let’s listen and learn.
An Exhortation to Shepherd
Our text begins with an exhortation to the shepherds to actually shepherd: “So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: Shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight” (vv. 1–2).
Shepherd, Shepherd Constructively
What’s an elder to do? Simply, elders must maturely minister and manage the flock towards maturity. “Elders” must “shepherd” while “exercising oversight.” These three terms describe the one office which to which elders are appointed. Three terms describe three characteristics of the same position. They describe the comprehensive responsibility that elders or pastors or overseers embrace.
“Elder” speaks to the maturity of the man, while “shepherd” (pastor) speaks to the ministry of the man. Peter would have remembered Jesus as the shepherd who seeks the lost sheep (Matthew 18:12–14), as the shepherd sending out his undershepherds to gather the lost sheep of the house of Israel (Matthew 10:6), as the shepherd concerned for harassed sheep (Matthew 9:36), and as the shepherd who laid down his life for his sheep (Matthew 10:1–18).
“Oversight” (bishop) speaks of managing. An overseer or bishop is a man charged with the duty of seeing that things to be done by others are done rightly. He is a curator, guardian or superintendent. This term, as used both by Peter and Paul (cf. Acts 20:28; Philippians 1:1) refers to the elder as a manager. At the end of the day, the elder is called to maturely minister to and to manage members with the goal of maturity.
Maturity is measured by ability to reproduce. The elder’s ministry is one of guiding, providing, and protecting. He manages in the sense of helping members to fulfil their responsibility. In other words, elders are to do their job of equipping members to do their job. Elders are to reproduce so that the members will reproduce. Healthy sheep reproduce sheep. This usually requires faithful shepherds. But it is the job of the congregation, not only the elders, to do the work of ministry. The biblical model of church government is elder-led congregationalism.
Shepherd, Shepherd Corporately
Peter addresses, not the pastor of the church, but “the elders” (plural) (v. 1).
No elder should shepherd alone. The elder carries this responsibility alongside others who share the same responsibility. And eldership, not individual elders, will give an account to God for how they led the church. Elders should therefore seek to produce more elders.
Shepherd, Shepherd Contextually
Shepherds are to shepherd “the flock … that is among you” (v. 2).
The church among us faces struggles and sins and challenging situations. We must know the troubles that are among us and respond pastorally. We must know the church’s context—as this epistle explains, exhorts and expects. Pastors must shepherd the flock they have, not the flock they want. To apply a phrase from CSNY, “love the one you’re with.”
BBC is not a perfect church. One proof is her elders! We are the church we are, and this is the church we are to pastor. Though we appreciate other local churches, BBC is our focus. If we want a “different” church, we must labour to produce such a church. Every member matters, though you won’t have same relationship with each member.
Shepherd, Shepherd Conscientiously
We must remember that the flock we shepherd is “the flock of God” (v. 2; see Acts 20:28).
Shepherds, the flock is not ours; it is God’s. Let this motivate you in your ministry to her, in your management of her, and in your commitment to mature her. Pay heed to her. Pray for her. Plead with her. In short, you are responsible for provision and protection; supervision and discipline; instruction and direction.
An Exhortation to Suffer
Even as he exhorts the shepherds to shepherd, Peter exhorts the shepherds with regards to suffering: “So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed” (v. 1).
The passage opens with the word “so,” which is equivalent to “therefore.” It is a word of connection. That is, the experiences of God’s people make all the more urgent the need for faithfulness in pastoral care. Be prepared and do your job.
Elders are not exempt from the very things that Peter has just addressed to the recipients of this letter. In fact, the elders were among the recipients.
Being an elder puts you squarely in the face of suffering—sometimes your own suffering, often in the suffering of others. Shepherding, being an elder, is not for the faint of heart.
Sheep are Pain-full
Sheep are full of pain, and therefore shepherding is painful. It’s the price of loving the flock. Loving the sheep means exposure to the hardships of life, death, sinful failures, broken relationships, broken dreams, and various forms of loss. It hurts to see the hurt of those whom you love. It is painful to see sheep wander, stumble and fall—to sometimes fall away completely.
It hurts when you see pain in the life of a faithful Christian as she is opposed by an ungodly husband. It hurts when you hear of a brother who has been vilified at work because of his commitment to Christ It is painful to be involved in church discipline. It is painful to see the crushed spirit of the church member who has sinned deeply and who thinks that there is no hope of recovery. It is painful to come alongside a beloved church member as they grieve the sudden an unexpected death of a loved one.
Shepherding is Personally Painful
The suffering of those in the church will at times be a burden that you must shoulder. But there will also be your own suffering. Perhaps Peter had this in mind when he wrote that he was “a witness of the sufferings of Christ.”
Peter witnessed much of the sufferings of Jesus Christ. He saw and hear Christ being slandered, misunderstood, maligned, and plotted against. He witnessed Jesus’ suffering in Gethsemane and his ultimate betrayal, even if he was not an actual eyewitness of the crucifixion.
But perhaps the suffering that Peter has in mind is the suffering that he himself had caused the Lord. After all, Peter had fled when Jesus was betrayed. Yes, he had come to the high priest’s yard when Jesus was being incarcerated, but he did not witness the beating. And he was not there when they crucified Jesus.
This may have been on Peter’s mind as he wrote about being a witness of the sufferings of Christ. We read about this in Luke 22:61–62. The look that Jesus gave him would have been a look no doubt of pain—not a look of castigating condemnation but a look of deep hurt. William Barclay comments, “In that look of Christ, Peter saw the suffering of the heart of a leader whose follower had failed him in the hour of his bitterest need.”
Perhaps Peter was hinting to elders to expect a similar pain. In the course of their ministry, if they take their ministry seriously, they will sometimes experience personal suffering, personal heartache. But they must do what they are called to do: that is, to shepherd the flock of God.
Shepherding is Promising
At the same time, the elders is “also a partaker of the glory that will be revealed” (v. 1). Peter remembered the suffering experienced by the Lord, but he also remembered the glory experienced by him. Probably, Peter had in mind the experience of the Lord’s transfiguration on the Mount. You might remember that Peter, along with the brothers, James and John, were privileged to see this (Matthew 17). Jesus was seen in his manifested glory, a preview of what he would experience upon his resurrection and ascension. Why did he mention this?
Elders need the reminder that, although they will experience suffering, they, like Jesus, will also experience glory. It will not be personal glory, but the glory of mission accomplished. There is coming a day when the suffering will be replaced with success. The sheep will be finally and fully gathered in. The flock will be fully glorified like their Chief Shepherd, and it will prove to be worth it.
Elders share in the sufferings of the Chief Shepherd, and they also share in his glory. So, keep at it.
Elder, expect some grief, but keep your eyes on the glory. Expect people who reject Christ and people who accept him. Expect people to break your heart and people to bless your heart.
An Exhortation to Serve
Next, in vv. 2–3, we see an exhortation to serve: “Shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock” (1 Peter 5:2–3).
The gist of the passage is the elders’ duty and disposition with which they are to serve—the disposition of servanthood.
Of course, every member of the Body of Christ is called to a life of service to one another (see John 13). But elders are called to serve the body in a particularly focused way. Elders serve the Body by leading church members. Peter describes such service in these verses and does so by first stating a negative followed by a positive statement. In these contrasting statements, Peter reveals three requirements for faithful, servant-hearted shepherding.
Shepherding Requires the Right Mindset
We see the required mindset in the exhortation, “not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you.” This speaks of mindset—the heart-set—of the God-called elder.
Elder, maintain a right mindset about your eldership. Have a right devotion as you fulfil your ministry. This will empower you to serve the flock energetically.
“Not under compulsion” makes it clear that no one should force a man to be an elder. You should not become an elder because of a guilt trip. Rather, you are to become an elder willingly. You become an elder today because you rightly desire (1 Timothy 3:1) to serve the Body by leading it. Such an ambition is a godly one. Peter makes this clear with the words, “willingly, as God would have you.” Concerning this phrase, Blum comments, “God will work in men’s lives and make them willing to do his will. The motivation of elders will be divine, not human.”
There may (and probably will) be a godly hesitancy, but God’s grace will overcome this. In other words, rather than a guilt trip driving you to shepherd the flock, your ambition will be the result of a “grace trip.” This was clearly the case when Jesus commissioned Peter: “Peter, I love you. You love me. Now, love my flock and do so practically by serving them.”
Elder, may the grace of God energise you to shepherd the flock of God, as it energised Paul (2 Corinthians 5:14; 1 Corinthians 9:25–26). As Clowney reminds us, “Love for the Lord will motivate elders to imitate the care of the Good Shepherd.” Keep loving the Lord.
I recently saw a film in which a family house burned down, and the father managed to get the whole family to safety. When he daughter lamented that the family dog was still trapped inside, the father charged back into the flames. As the tension mounted, the windows of the house eventually exploded, suggesting that the father and dog might be killed. But just as the tension peaks, father and dog escape the house unharmed.
Later, a medic comments to the father, “You must love that dog.” The father replies, “No, I love my daughter, who loves that dog.” It is our love for Christ that must drive us in our commission.
Shepherding Requires the Right Motive
Shepherding must be done, “not for shameful gain, but eagerly” (v. 2): a sense of personal worth, an opportunity to prove oneself to others, self-promotion, etc. Among them is an unhealthy desire for material gain.
Sadly, such unscrupulous individuals have wrought great damage to churches and have brought disrepute to the name of Christ. Though this is hardly a serious temptation for elders of a church like BBC, we deliberately focus on the contrasting motive: desiring the best for the body of Christ and the glory of God. For these, the elder must be eager.
The word translated “eagerly” implies enthusiasm (see Romans 1:15). Peter expects elders to have a zeal—an enthusiasm—to serve God by serving his people. Whether they materially benefit or not is irrelevant.
Shepherds must minister enthusiastically not grumpily, eagerly, not miserly, zealously, not half-heartedly. Let me put it this way: It should bother you when members of the church are apologetic about asking for your assistance. Church members should not feel that they are bothering you when you minister to them, when you counsel them, and when they need your assistance. You should be eager to do each member good. And the ultimate good is their spiritual welfare.
Be enthusiastic for God’s glory and therefore not for sale. Be eager to pray for and with the flock. Be eager to spend and to be spent for the flock (2 Corinthians 12:15). Be enthusiastic to teach the flock the word of God. Be enthusiastic to disciple church members. Be enthusiastic to teach faithful men to teach others also.
This enthusiasm is created and maintained by a growing love for the Lord. Love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and the overflow will make you eager to do good to the flock.
Elder, walk with God. Prioritise keeping your heart “hot” for God—not only for your sake, but for sake of the family that God has called you to lead.
Shepherding Requires the Right Manner
Elders must shepherd in this manner: “not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock” (v. 3).
Shepherds can at times become frustrated with the sheep they have been entrusted to lead. This is true in the realm of shepherding actual sheep (I’ve seen this different parts of the world), but, more importantly, it can be true when it comes to elders and the flock God has called them to lead. Be careful how you treat the flock of God. As Edmund Clowney helpfully comments, “The elder-shepherd is not a cowboy, driving his flock like cattle. He leads them as a shepherd would, walking ahead.”
Elder, don’t be a cowboy. Don’t take your cue from the Donald Trumps of this world. Don’t take your cue from some well-known business leaders in the world. And don’t take your cue, sadly, from some pastors. All of us who serve as elders need to heed this word, including myself.
The word translated “domineering” means “to bring under one’s power, to subject oneself, to subdue or master.” The phrase “to lord over” someone carries the meaning well—painfully well.
Shepherds are to persuade, not coerce, the flock. And how does one do that? By persistently, passionately, patiently, even painstakingly instructing the flock both by exhortation and example (see 1 Timothy 4:6–16). As one well-known pastor used to say, our people watch us six days a week to know whether they should listen to us on the seventh.
How Jesus was persistent, passionate, and painstakingly patient with Peter and the other disciples! Elder, don’t just tell us, rather also show us. All of us elders need this reminder.
Personally, our recent elders’ planning get-away has reminded me, and has, I believe, reminded us as an eldership, of our need to improve in this (and several other) areas. We want our message to be excellent and our manner to be exemplary. Much depends upon this, for we are called not to lord over the faith of the flock but rather to be helpers of their joy (2 Corinthians 1:24).
A Helpful Motivation
The words “those in your charge” give a helpful motivation in this regard. The word “charge” could be translated “portion” or “allotment.” This hearkens back to v. 2, where we are reminded that the church belongs to God. The elders have been entrusted with a “portion” of God’s flock, not by chance, but rather by God’s choice. We need to think about that for a moment.
We are not members of our church by coincidence but rather by providence. This means that we should be especially careful how we interact with one another. Elders must be cognisant and careful how we care for the flock, how we treat the Bride of Christ. Elder, you may have already demonstrated this commendably. Don’t let up. We need your ongoing example.
An Exhortation to Success
Next, in v. 4, we read an exhortation to success: “And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory” (v. 4). William Barclay reminds us that, when it comes to being appointed as an elder, “it is no small honour, it is no small responsibility.” Verse 4 makes this clear.
Jesus is the Chief Shepherd to whom undershepherds will give an account. And just as we are to be examples to the flock, so Jesus is the example whom the undershepherds are to emulate. And when we do, we will be forever grateful. This is the point of this verse.
This verse serves to encourage faithful elders. Yes, there are times of pain—sometimes deep pain—that accompanies the task of shepherding. But at such times, we are to remember that the Chief Shepherd will one day return and his undershepherds will give an account.
From the way that Peter writes these words, he clearly expects that these shepherds will respond faithfully to his exhortation, and therefore they can have this fruitful expectation. They will be rewarded!
What will this look like? I don’t know. I don’t know what the crown consists of. I don’t know if it is a literal crown (though I doubt it). If it is, then elders will probably bow and lay them at the feet of our Saviour. After all, any good that we have done comes ultimately from him.
But perhaps “the crown of glory” is the same kind of crown of which Paul speaks in 1 Thessalonians 2:19–20: “For what is our hope or joy or crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus at his coming? Is it not you? For you are our glory and joy.” In other words, the reward for faithful elders will be the spiritual success of those they shepherded—who persevered to the end. Those whom the elders can point to and say, “What a joy it is to see that these are true sheep!”
Perhaps, on the other hand, it is the crown of the Saviour’s commendation: “Well done, good and faithful servant.” Whatever it is, the point is plain: Those who fulfil their shepherding mandate from King Jesus will be rewarded for such success. And the reward will be such that its joy will never tarnish; it will never fade away.
I have received lots of trophies in my lifetime. (I was once a reasonably gifted athlete.) But the joy that I experienced upon receiving them faded a long time ago. In fact, I have no idea where those trophies are. No big deal; they were temporal. But the reward that Jesus will give to elders will never fade. I take this to mean that the joy of pleasing the Saviour, our Chief Shepherd, will never fade.
When the elders see the flock gathered around the Saviour, forever praising and worshipping and serving him, they will have a profound sense of joy. When the elders see their fellow church members, those for whom they had exercised spiritual oversight, now in their sinless glorified bodies, they will experience a joy that will last forever. The elders will thank God with profuse joy and will sing, “It was worth it all!”
Elder, consider two important takeaways.
First, as an elder, remember that you, along with the rest of the eldership, will collectively give an account for the flock of God entrusted to you. So, with your fellow elders at your side, do your duty, devotedly.
Second, be encouraged that your labour is not in vain in the Lord. Faithfulness is what you have been called to. Some sheep will break your heart, regardless of your shepherding. But be faithful. You are not responsible for the results; you are responsible for obedience.
Congregation, please help your elders’ task to be crowned with joy (Hebrews 13:17).
An Exhortation to Submit
Finally, in v. 5, we see an exhortation to submit: “Likewise, you who are younger, be subject to the elders. Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for ‘God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble’” (v. 5).
This verse is typically interpreted being the start of a new section. It may very well be. But certainly, there is an important connection with the first four verses. Here, Peter makes a special appeal to younger church members in general (see 2 Timothy 2:22–26).
The command to “submit” is a repetitive theme in this epistle. We normally struggle with being submissive at the best of times. But this is often especially the case when we are suffering. As here. Nevertheless, Peter makes the apostolic appeal for them to be submissive. But from what follows, it is clear that this submission is church-wide. Let me explain and apply.
Peter exhorts younger sheep to submit and then broadens it to “all of you.” The word translated “submit” means “to rank under.” Only when we recognise God’s rules of order are we able to have harmony. Someone must lead in the church, and God has made it clear who that is to be: the elders. But as they do their job, with the respectful support of the congregation, each member is better equipped to do their God-appointed job (Ephesians 4:11–16).
Elder, lead in such a way that it is easier for the flock to follow. To myself and to my fellow elders, let us keep this before us. Let us lovingly lead so that the flock can confidently and lovingly follow.
The second part of the verse reads, “Clothe yourselves all of you, with humility toward one another.” I believe Peter includes the elders in this exhortation. In other words, sheep are to submit to the shepherds and, in a very real sense, the shepherds are to submit to the sheep. After all, shepherds are also sheep! So, in the words of Ephesians 5:21, “Submit yourselves one to another in the fear of Christ.”
The word for “clothe yourselves” speaks of tying a knot around the piece of clothing. Most scholars believe this pictures a servant’s apron. Perhaps Peter was thinking of the night in the upper room when Jesus did just this: knelt down and washed the feet of the disciples.
This is what the local church should expect of its elders. We are called to wash feet. This does not mean that we are not to, at times, do the hard thing and say the hard thing and make the hard decision. It does mean that, even when doing such, we do so with a servant’s heart, humbling ourselves in order to please God by doing whatever is best for the welfare of the congregation.
The Lord Jesus Christ “loved them to the end” (John 13:1). What a marvellous Chief Shepherd! This “end” was the cross (see 1 Peter 2:23–25). Jesus died for his sheep and rose again for them. They, we, are his crown of unending joy. And he has served as the example, the template, for shepherds of his flock ever since.
Elder, like Jesus, love, and shepherd us “to the end” (John 13:1).