COMMENTARY ON FIRST PETER
" 5:1 The elders who are among you I exhort, I who am a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, and also a partaker of the glory that will be revealed: 2 Shepherd the flock of God which is among you, serving as overseers, not by compulsion but willingly, not for dishonest gain but eagerly; 3 nor as being lords over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock; 4 and when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that does not fade away." (1 Peter 5:1-4 NKJV)
As is apparent throughout the New Covenant writings, the body of Christ does not run on automatic pilot. There are intricate involvements throughout the body that must be urged along by exhortations and admonitions. Nothing is taken for granted, particularly the responsibilities of the various gifts and ministries put in place by God. The different functions assigned by God are to be fulfilled with an acute awareness of the Lord Himself, and our ultimate accountability to Him. The people of God themselves are to be the focus of the ministries, with a strict regard to their nourishment and strengthening. If you have been in Christ for any length of time, you know this is not the popular view of ministry. It has actually become fashionable for the leaders of the church to ignore the saints in favor of recruitment or some form of religious entertainment. All of this has left the saints weak and malnourished. Our text will present the Divine resolution to that circumstance.
ELDERS ARE EXHORTED
" 5:1 The elders who are among you I exhort, I who am a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, and also a partaker of the glory that will be revealed." NKJV The word "elders" is not to be equated with "elderly," or the aged. The word used here is translated "presytery" in 1 Timothy 4:14, and refers to the OFFICE of a bishop, or elder (1 Tim 3:1). Terms used for this office are "elders" (Tit 1:5) "bishop" (Tit 1:7), "overseers" (Acts 20:28), "presbytery" (1 Tim 4:14), and "pastor [shepherd]/teacher" (Eph 4:11). Each term presents a unique aspect of this "office." "Elder" emphasizes spiritual maturity. "Bishop" places the stress on spiritual leadership. "Overseer" is another form of "bishop." "Presbytery" is another form of "elder." "Pastor" places the accent on shepherding, or feeding and caring for the flock. "Teacher" points up the means of feeding, which is opening up the Word of God.
The eldership represents an "office," or function, placed within the church by Christ. It is governed by certain requirements, as specified in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1, along with other texts. This is not a mere formal office, where men hold titles, yet ignore the appointed work-a practice altogether too common in many churches. Elders are "made overseers" by the Holy Spirit, and are to "feed the church of God" (Acts 20:28). They are fulfilling a Divinely appointed role, set in place to give spiritual advantages to the saints.
God has always placed "elders," or mature leaders, among His people. Under the Old Covenant, Israel also had "elders"-leaders that functioned under the primary leader, Moses. One of the first assignments given to Moses was to "gather the elders of Israel together" (Ex 3:15). This was not simply the older Israelites, but the leading men among them. On the evening of the Passover and exodus from Egypt, "the elders of Israel" were to select lambs for their families (Ex 12:21). When the Ten commands were given by God, Moses first placed them before "the elders of the people" (Ex 19:7). Among each of the twelve tribes, there were "elders and officers" (Deut 31:28).
In Jesus' day, this office had been corrupted. "Elders" were still among the people, but they were usurpers of the office. On one occasion, Jesus' disciples were criticized for not adhering to "the tradition of the elders." Jesus countered, their traditions "transgressed the commandment of God" (Matt 15:2). The "elders" were among the group from which Christ suffered "many things" (Matt 16:21). "The elders" joined a conspiracy with the chief priests and scribes on how they might take Jesus captive subtlety (Matt 26:3). They also "took counsel against Jesus to put Him to death" (Matt 27:1). They had corrupted the office!
The early church also had elders. When the brethren determined to send relief to certain poorer saints, they sent it "to the elders by the hands of Barnabas and Saul" (Acts 11:30). Paul and Barnabas "ordained elders in every church" when they revisited them (Acts 14:23). When the early church considered the question of the acceptance of the gentiles, the "apostles and elders" were called together to do so (Acts 15:2). Certain decrees were made by "the apostles and elders which were at Jerusalem," which were to be kept by the new churches (Acts 16:4). When Paul left the productive region of Ephesus, he "called for the elders of the church" there, to give them instruction (Acts 20:17).
Now Peter addresses "the elders" who were "among" the brethren to whom he wrote. These were not regional authorities, but lived "among" the ones they shepherded. Peter writes as an elder himself, engaged in feeding the flock of God. Although an Apostle, like Paul, he was also an elder or teacher (2 Tim 1:11). Among other things, this shows the lofty nature of this office.
The Apostle then sites his credentials. He certainly was not voted into the office he held. Rather, he was a witness to the "sufferings of Christ" - i.e., an eye witness. He not only knew that Jesus suffered unto death, but knew WHY He did, and the benefits that accrued from those sufferings. He also was participating in "the glory" that followed those sufferings, being himself transformed and made a partaker of the Divine nature (1 Pet 1:11; 2 Pet 1:4). He was partaking of the same glory that will be fully unveiled at the coming of the Lord. These qualifications required that he nourish the people of God. Furthermore, Peter's thankful acceptance of them also compelled him to feed the saints. He asks elders to do nothing he himself does not first do. An excellent example, indeed!
SHEPHERDING THE FLOCK OF GOD
" 5:2 Shepherd the flock of God which is among you, serving as overseers, not by compulsion but willingly, not for dishonest gain but eagerly; 3 nor as being lords over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock." NKJV And what are "the elders" to do? We will find they are not elders emeritus, with an honorary title, but having no responsibilities. They are not business administrators, or the deciders of corporate policies and procedures. Elders are not church bosses. All of that has been borrowed from the Roman Catholic heresy, and has no part whatsoever in the Kingdom of God.
"Shepherd the flock of God." Emphasizing what the shepherd does, the KJV reads, "FEED the flock of God." The RSV reads, "TEND the flock of God." The Basic Bible English version reads, "Keep watch over the flock of God," and the NLT reads "Care for the flock of God." Caring for God's flock involves both nourishing them and protecting them from the wolves who would devour them. The people of God have been placed into their care, and "elders" are to take the matter seriously. They are to see to it that the people are not overtaken with spiritual illness and malnutrition, or ravaged by the false doctrines of pretentious ministers. Notice that the people are not the elders' flock, but "the flock of God." Although they are individual sheep, they are a collective flock. There is a group aspect of life in Christ. There are things that can only be received from God in a group setting. One has only to review the teaching of Jesus and the writings of the Apostles to confirm this is the case. Your own heart will also attest to the truth of this observation.
Because of the nature of true shepherding, it is not to be done "by compulsion," or "constraint."KJV It is to be accomplished "willingly," or with the heart-voluntarily. Those who have no heart for feeding God's flock will do it miserably. If there is no driving desire to nourish and build up the saints of God, that very condition disqualifies the individual from being an "elder." One might as well think of an unwilling Savior, as an unwilling elder. We might as well think of coming to an unwilling heavenly Father, as being advantaged by an unwilling elder. All of this presumes real elders are godly and mature.
The "flock of God" cannot be cared for by one who seeks financial gain from that work. The elders who rule well, devoting themselves to the Word and the doctrine, are to be counted "worthy of double honor," or pay (1 Tim 5:17-18). However, that cannot be the motivation for the elder. Rather, he is to approach feeding the flock of God "eagerly," or with a "ready mind,"KJV or "eager to serve."NIV When they are with the saints of God, elders should have some food for them: some spiritual nourishment, some keen kingdom insight, some heavenly perspective. It will not do to frantically put something together on Saturday night, or speak spontaneously to them with little or no personal involvement. However gifted a person may appear to be, willingness and eagerness involve pouring ones self into the feeding of the flock of God. This means walking in the Spirit and living by faith. It also requires sensitivity to the sheep, and a perception of their needs. It should be glaringly apparent to you that this type of leader is exceedingly rare among the churches.
Elders are not to dominate, or lord over, the people of God. They are not kings over them, but servants to them. Like Paul, they do not have "dominion over your faith, but are helpers of your joy" (2 Cor 1:24). They are not to seek to control the conscience of God's flock by dictating what they are to believe, or give them the official positions of the sect. They are to "feed the flock of God," taking the protective and considerate oversight of them with zeal, determined that none of them will be put at a spiritual disadvantage because of their neglect, or be found lacking at the appearance of Christ.
The "elders" are to be "examples to the flock." The flock should be able to safely and productively "follow their faith" (Heb 13:7). They are to be an "example" of a trusting one, a model of one who is growing in the grace and knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ (2 Pet 3:18). Elders are to be patterns of spiritual maturity, and a sample of those who are overcoming the world and being changed from glory unto glory. They are living out the life of God before the face of the flock, and doing so in a perceptible manner. Where these things are not found, the office of an elder is being usurped and disgraced. "Elders" who are not "examples to the flock" are a hindrance to them. Only those who "feed the flock of God" should be considered real "elders," made overseers by the Holy Spirit Himself.
AND WHEN THE CHIEF SHEPHERD APPEARS
" 5:4 And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that does not fade away." NKJV What a marvelous incentive is held out to "the elders." Such an motivation is necessary for the work into which God has called them. They are "among" the flock (v 1), and the flock is "among" them (v 2). Their responsibility is not a seasonal one-like a monthly board meeting. They are with "the flock" and "the flock" is with them. They need some encouragement to fulfill their role with zeal, faithfulness, and expectation. They are not to do their work out of a sense of compulsion. Nor, indeed, are they to shape their ministry for remuneration. What, then, will be their strong motivation. It is the appearance of the "Chief Shepherd!"
Why is Jesus called "the Chief Shepherd?" It is because He is the primary Shepherd, under Whom all other shepherd's operate, and to Whom they are accountable. His shepherding sets the tone for all valid shepherding. Elsewhere, Peter refers to Jesus as the "Shepherd and Bishop of your souls" (2 Pet 2:25). His is a ministry to the "inner man," bringing sustenance and care to the "inward man." The manner in which Jesus cares for the church sets the tone for the work of "the elders." He "nourishes and cherishes" the church, and so must they (Eph 5:29). If their activity is not related to Christ's present ministry, it is out of order, invalid, and to be abandoned with haste. The "Chief Shepherd" is the Standard, not the bylaws of the institution, or the preferences of the eldership.
And what is it about "the Chief Shepherd" that is so critical? He is going to APPEAR! God is going to unveil Him before an assembled universe (1 Tim 6:15). He is the One for whom the church is being prepared-"the bride, the Lamb's wife" (Rev 21:9). In keeping with the ministry of the Apostles, "the elders" are to aim at presenting the flock among them "as a chaste virgin to Christ" (2 Cor 11:2). A flock that is faithfully fed and cared for will be a source of joy to "the elders" in that day. In their measure, they will be able to say with Paul, "For what is our hope, or joy, or crown of rejoicing? Is it not even you in the presence of our Lord Jesus Christ at His coming? For you are our glory and joy" (1 Thess 2:19-20). The importance of our stewardship is seen in the glory of Christ's return! If "the elders" have conducted their ordained work with that day in mind, they will not be disappointed when the Son of Man appears! But if they have not, it will be a day marked by fear and dread. How solemnly this is accented by the words of the Spirit. The flock is reminded to "submit" to those who are "over" them, "for they watch out for your souls, as those who must give account." In deep consideration of this reality, the people of God are urged, "Let them do so with joy and not with grief, for that would be unprofitable for you" (Heb 13:17). Each of us is being led by someone more advanced than ourselves. We do well to assist them to have a joyful and productive ministry among us.
But it is not only the appearance of the "Chief Shepherd" that is to be considered by the under-shepherds. Of His return Jesus said, "And behold, I am coming quickly, and My reward is with Me, to give to every one according to his work" (Rev 22:12). This is of particular relevance to our text, for "the elders" are involved in a "work." As it is written, "This is a faithful saying: If a man desires the position of a bishop, he desires a good work" (1 Tim 3:1). Those who do "the work" well "feed the flock of God," zealously, taking responsibility for its care and nourishment. They are governed by the thrice-spoken words of Jesus to Peter, the writer of this Epistle: "Feed MY lambs . . . Feed MY sheep . . . Feed MY sheep" (John 20:15-17). If ever there was a "great commission," it is that one! Those "elders" who neglect that sacred work are standing on the precipice of eternal ruin!
And what will the Lord do for those sensitive and alert "elders"who cared for His Father's flock and His bride-to-be? He will give them "the crown of glory that does not fade away." It will be a unique crown, especially suited for "the elders" who took their ministry seriously, bringing spiritual advantage and blessing to the saints of God. There will be some form of recognition that is not afforded to everyone, just as there will be for Apostles and Prophets. Their reward will reflect the nature of their labors, and project out into eternity, never fading or diminishing in its glory and recognition. I do not doubt that the work of "the elders" is a preparation for an even grander ministry in the "ages to come," where a rich and satisfying area of responsibility will be given to them.