An Exhortation to Elders

1 Peter 5:1-4
Dr. Steve Orr

Children are often encouraged to respect their elders, aren’t they? The thinking is that there is a certain dignity that is associated with old age and there is an expectation that that should be recognised. We’re going to make a start on looking at the final chapter of 1 Peter this morning by considering verses 1 to 4 in which Peter gives an exhortation to “elders”. If that meant that Peter is exhorting older people you might think that’s just what you need because you are quite an elderly congregation. However, the Greek word that has been translated here as “elder” is “presbyteroi”. It’s the word from which Presbyterian churches take their name. It is almost certainly a term that the early church borrowed from the Jewish tradition where leaders of villages or synagogues were referred to as “elders”. It doesn’t speak of age as such. Rather, it suggests leadership on the basis of maturity and wisdom and experience. That being the case, you might think that, rather than being just what you need, it’s of no relevance to you whatsoever. Well, I can’t help but be struck by the fact that Peter included this exhortation to elders in a letter to local churches. If it was only relevant to elders, he would have written a letter directly to elders. That he includes his exhortation to elders in a general letter suggests that the churches need to know and hear what he has to say to elders. Remember that “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness”.

Now, this term “elder” is consistently used throughout the New Testament as the title for local church leaders. So, in Acts 14v23 which is speaking of Paul and Barnabas during the first missionary journey, we read: “And when they had appointed elders for them in every church, with prayer and fasting they committed them to the Lord in whom they had believed”. So, Paul and Barnabas appointed elders. Notice that elders were appointed “in every church”. Not just churches that fancied having them. Not just churches that Paul thought particularly needed them. Being led by elders was the norm. So, in Acts 15 which speaks of Paul and Barnabas going to the Council at Jerusalem, we read, in verse 14: “When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and the elders, and they declared all that God had done with them”. So, it is clear that the church at Jerusalem had elders. The same was true of the church at Ephesus because we read in Acts 20v17: “Now from Miletus he sent to Ephesus and called the elders of the church to come to him”. For one last example look at Titus 1v5 where we read: “This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you”. So, Paul had left Titus in Crete in order to appoint elders in each of the local churches. Notice that in all of those examples the word “elders” is plural. It seems clear that the normal New Testament pattern and expectation was that local churches would have elders.

Here in 1 Peter 5v1-4, Peter is addressing the elders of the churches he was writing to. Those verses begin with an introduction, move on to an exhortation and end with an encouragement.

THE INTRODUCTION

Verse 1 is the introduction to the exhortation that is to follow. That introduction indicates the reason for the exhortation, identifies who is going to be exhorted and provides information about Peter as the one who is doing the exhorting. Peter begins the verse by saying: So I exhort”. The NIV omits the word “so” but it is in the Greek text. The Greek word means “so” or “therefore” or “then”. That indicates that there is a connection between what Peter has just been saying and the exhortation he’s going to give. What had Peter been saying? Well, at the end of chapter 4 he’d been talking about a “fiery trial” coming and about sharing in Christ’s sufferings and about being insulted for the name of Christ and about judgement beginning at the household of God. He was warning the churches that he was writing to of the hardships and difficulties they were to expect because of their allegiance to Christ. Such hardships and difficulties put a tremendous strain on everyone within the local church and it could easily lead to all sorts of internal problems and tensions. That is a challenging situation for the leaders of the church to face. It produces a need for wise and effective leadership so Peter said that he was going to “exhort the elders among you”. In view of the sufferings and hardships that could be expected he wanted the elders to know what their role was and to be sure to fulfil that role effectively for the good of the life and witness of the church.

We can note a couple of things about elders from the fact that he said he was going to “exhort the elders among you”. Firstly, note that he speaks of “elders”. It’s plural. Now, I know the letter was a circular that was addressed to several churches throughout Asia Minor so you might think that the use of the plural could simply mean that there was one elder per church and therefore several elders altogether. However, it is clear from elsewhere in the New Testament that the norm was for there to be a plurality of elders in each local church. That was evident in the verses we looked at earlier. So, when Peter said “elders” here I’m sure that he was referring to the elders in each local church. The second thing to note is that Peter spoke of “the elders” as being “among you”. So, they weren’t external. They didn’t keep an eye on things from afar and perhaps pay a visit from time to time. They were part of the local church. Neither were they imposed from without. In Anglicanism it’s quite common for a new vicar to be helicoptered in from who knows where and then after a few years to be moved on to somewhere else. But, the Biblical picture of elders isn’t that they’re semi-detached. They’re as much a part of the local body of believers as the rest of us. They are “among you”. They are each “one of us”. Neither are elders above the rest of us. They’re not a breed apart. Yes, they lead, but they do that by being among us.

Having explained who he is going to be exhorting, Peter went on say something about himself as the one who would be doing the exhorting. We see that he referred to himself 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”. He was really telling the elders three things about himself there and they were intended to encourage them to heed the exhortation he was going to give them.

Firstly, notice the title he used for himself. Remember that he had begun the letter by referring to himself as “Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ” but here he spoke of himself “as a fellow elder”. So, he identified himself with the church leaders he was addressing by using the same title as theirs. He wasn’t pulling apostolic rank. He wasn’t commanding them as an apostle. Rather, he was exhorting them as a fellow elder. In doing so he was setting a good example. He was indicating the way in which elders are to rule within the church. They’re not to govern with a heavy-handed authority from above but to exhort as fellow believers in the midst of the local church.

Secondly, notice what he claimed for himself. He was saying that, “as a fellow elder”, he was “a witness of the sufferings of Christ”. Again, if he was emphasising his apostleship you might expect him to refer to himself, quite rightly, as having been an eye witness of the resurrection but he claimed to be “a witness of the sufferings of Christ”. Previously, when Peter had spoken of “the sufferings of Christ” it was clear what sufferings Peter had in mind. For instance, we read in 1 Peter 3v18: “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit”. The suffering was obviously Christ’s death on the cross. But, in all probability, Peter didn’t actually witness Jesus’ suffering on the cross. Remember that, before the crucifixion, Peter had denied Jesus three times and then ran away. In what sense then was Peter claiming to be “a witness of the sufferings of Christ”? Well, in 1 Peter 4v13 we read that he said: “But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings”. Peter was a witness to “the sufferings of Christ” both in that he had seen believers suffering in the name of Christ and for His sake and in that he himself had experienced such suffering for Christ’s sake. So, Peter wasn’t only exhorting the elders as a fellow elder but as an elder who had experience the sort of suffering that was coming their way.

Thirdly, notice what he expected for himself. He referred to himself as “a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed”. We’ll think a bit more about that when we get to verse 4. For now, just notice the pattern that he’s laying out. He was experiencing suffering for Christ’s sake but was confident of partaking “in the glory that is going to be revealed”. So, Peter was one with the elders that he was exhorting, not only in that he was a “a fellow elder” and not only in that he had experienced the sort of suffering for Christ’s sake that they would have to face but also in that he and they shared the same expectation of future glory.

THE EXHORTATION

The exhortation itself is found in verses 2 and 3 and it really consists of the WHAT of eldership, the HOW of eldership and the WHY of eldership.

Firstly, we see the WHAT of eldership in verse 2 where we read that Peter exhorts them to: “shepherd the flock of God that is among you”. What are elders to do? They are to “shepherd the flock of God”. There’s a bit of a play on words going on there. The Greek word that has been translated as “shepherd” is “poimaino” and the Greek word that has been translated as “flock” is “poimnion”. Both words come from same root so the expression is best translated as “shepherd the sheep”. Elders are to shepherd God’s sheep.

If you’re using the NIV you’ll see that it has translated this as: “be shepherds of God’s flock”. It’s used the word “shepherd” as a noun whereas the ESV has it as a verb. The fact is that the Greek word “poimaino” is a verb so the ESV is correct in saying that Peter is exhorting the elders to “shepherd the flock of God”. Shepherding is what Peter is exhorting elders to do. We find exactly the same idea elsewhere in the New Testament. For example, we read in John 21v16: “He said to him a second time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Tend my sheep””. That was when Jesus was re-instating Peter after his three denials of his Lord and at this point Jesus said Tend my sheep”. The NIV has Take care of my sheep” but the Greek word is “poimaino” so Jesus was telling Peter to “shepherd my sheep”. No wonder Peter had referred to himself as a “fellow elder”. Jesus had told him to do what elders are to do. For another example we can look at Acts 20v28 where we read: “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood”. This was when Paul was saying farewell to the Ephesian elders and he told them that they were to care for the church of God”. Once again, the Greek word is “poimaino”. The NIV has “Be shepherds of the church of God” so, once again, it has changed the verb into a noun. It really should be shepherd the church of God”. So, it’s clear that shepherding is what elders are to do.

There is only one instance in the New Testament of the noun “shepherd” being used of church leaders. It’s the Greek word “poimen” and we find it in Ephesians 4v11-13 where we read: “And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ”. The NIV has “pastors” instead of “shepherds” but the English word “pastor” derives from the Latin noun pastor” which simply means “shepherd”. Somehow, that word “pastor” has come to be loaded with a meaning in Christian thinking that is way beyond what is suggested by the Biblical usage. As we’ve seen, the Biblical pattern is that there is to be a plurality of men called Elders and shepherding or pastoring, if you like, is what they do. We might well then ask ourselves why most Evangelical churches have, or want to have, one particular person with the title “Pastor” who is somehow different from or more prominent than the other elders.

Notice who elders are to shepherd. Peter exhorts them to “shepherd the flock of God or “sheep of God”. We must never forget that it is God’s flock. It’s His church. As Peter reminded the Ephesian elders they were to shepherd “the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood”. The flock does not belong to the elders or a pastor and yet how often do you hear of a church being referred to as “so & so’s church” where “so & so” is the “Pastor”? It doesn’t belong to any one man or group of men. A local church is God’s flock. So, the elders don’t own the church – they serve the church by shepherding it and that suggests things like caring for the church, tending to the needs of the church, feeding the church and leading the church.

Secondly, we see the HOW of eldership as Peter continues in verse 2 by saying: “shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight. The NIV has “serving as overseers”. Both versions have translated it rather clumsily. The Greek word is episkopeo which is a compound of epi, meaning “over”, and skopeo which is the verb to “look” or “see” so episkopeo is best translated as “overlooking” or “overseeing” and the text is then “shepherd the flock of God that is among you, overlooking or overseeing. We have the English words “microscope” and “telescope” don’t we? Well, “micro” means “small” and “scope” comes from “skopos” meaning “look” or “see” so the idea with a microscope is of looking closely at small details in a focused way. That’s not the idea with overseeing. The “tele” in “telescope” means “far” so the idea is of looking from a distance. Again, that’s not the idea with overseeing. Elders don’t look from a distance. As we saw earlier, Peter spoke of “the elders” as being “among you”. The idea with overseeing is of looking from above. You could think of it as having a bird’s eye view. It’s taking in the whole picture. It’s taking a broad, comprehensive view. So, elders are being exhorted to shepherd God’s flock by overseeing the flock as a whole. You could think of it as “watching over” the flock. It brings to mind the words of the Christmas carol: “While shepherds watched their flocks by night”. How are shepherds able to care for their sheep? It stems from overseeing or watching over the flock. What do shepherds look out for when they’re watching over the flock? I suggest that there are two aspects to it. Firstly, they’re looking out for the well-being of individual sheep. Are any sick or injured or malnourished? If so, they can care for them by addressing those needs. Secondly, they’re looking out for danger. Are there wolves threatening to attack? If so, they can protect the flock from harm.

It’s worth noting that the noun “episkopos” is also used of church leaders in the New Testament. It’s properly translated as “overseer” so it refers to one who “oversees”. That, as we have seen, is what elders are to do in order to shepherd the flock. The word “episkopos” was translated as “bishop” in the King James version and that is where Anglicans get their idea of bishops from and why it’s called an episcopal church. In their scheme of things, a bishop is above local church leaders and has oversight over several churches. However, if you consider New Testament usage it quickly becomes apparent that the term overseer is used as an alternative to elder. For instance, we’ve already noted that in Titus 1v5-7 Paul said to Titus: “This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you”. There you see the expectation that there would be a plurality of elders in each local church. He went on to outline the qualities required of elders by saying: “if anyone is above reproach, the husband of one wife, and his children are believers and not open to the charge of debauchery or insubordination” and then followed that by saying: “For an overseer, as God’s steward, must be above reproach. He must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain”. Having spoken of “elders”, Paul switched to speaking of an elder as an “overseer” and he outlined the same requirements for “overseers” as for “elders”. It’s clear that an “overseer” isn’t different from an “elder”. They are simply different terms for the same role. We see the same if we look at Acts 20. In verses 17 and 18 we read: “Now from Miletus he sent to Ephesus and called the elders of the church to come to him. And when they came to him, he said to them:”. So, Paul was addressing “elders”. In the course of that address we read in verse 28 that he said: “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood”. Again, it’s clear that in Paul’s mind “elders” are “overseers” and “overseers” are “elders” and what they do is “care for” or rather “shepherd”, “the church of God”.

So, piecing together what we’ve seen so far, each local church is to have a plurality of “elders”, or “overseers”, and those “elders”, or “overseers” are exhorted to shepherd the local church by overseeing the local church.

Thirdly, we see the WHY of eldership. In the Christian life, it’s not just what you do and how you do it that matters. Most important of all is why you do it. God looks upon the heart. He expects the motive for what you do to be right. That’s as true for eldership as for any other aspect of the Christian life. So, we find that Peter continues in verses 2 and 3 by saying: “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”. We see there that he is addressing the WHY of eldership. He is exhorting elders to be sure to have the right motives for being elders. He does that by means of a series of three “not / but” comparisons.

The first comparison is: not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you”. Elders are not to oversee the flock because they have been pressurised into doing so or guilt tripped into it. No, they are to do so “willingly”. It’s to be something that they have a personal desire to do. As Paul says in 1 Timothy 3v1: “The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task”. Elders aren’t to oversee the flock reluctantly or grudgingly but willingly. Peter makes it clear that that is the attitude that God is looking for because he adds “as God would have you”. He doesn’t just want elders to shepherd and oversee, He wants them to do so willingly. The idea is similar to what Paul said in connection with giving in 1 Corinthians 9v7 where we read Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver”. Just as the Lord loves a cheerful giver, He loves a cheerful elder. He doesn’t want anyone to be an elder out of a reluctant sense of duty. He wants willing elders.

The second comparison is: not for shameful gain, but eagerly”. Frank Zappa once released an album entitled: “We’re only in it for the money”. Put bluntly, Peter is saying that elders are not to be in it for the money. Just as they’re not to be motivated by compulsion, they’re not to be motivated by greed either. Paul says the same in Titus 1v7 where we read: “For an overseer, as God’s steward, must be above reproach. He must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain. Rather than being motivated by a calculating attitude that is geared towards making money, elders are to oversee the flock “eagerly”. That goes beyond “willingly”. It suggests real zeal and enthusiasm.

The third comparison is: not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock”. So, elders are not to be motivated by a desire to wield power. The ESV has “not domineering over” and the NIV has “not lording it over”. The idea is of not forcefully subduing or controlling. Who are they to not forcefully control? Well, an unusual Greek word is being used here. The word is “kleron” and it means something like “those allotted”. The ESV translates that as “those in your charge”. The NIV is probably better here in saying “those entrusted to you”. It’s clearly referring back to “the flock of God” that they were exhorted to shepherd back in verse 2. Elders have no right to dominate the flock because it doesn’t belong to them. It’s God’s flock. Rather, they are to be “examples to the flock”. Rather than leading by exerting power they are to lead by example.

So, elders are not to be motivated to oversee the local church by compulsion or greed or a hunger for power. Rather, they are to oversee the local church willingly and eagerly and as role models.

THE ENCOURAGEMENT

If the motive for being an elder in the local church is not duty or greed or power what encouragement is there for elders to eagerly oversee and shepherd the church? Well, remember that in verse 1 Peter had laid out the pattern of suffering now and the hope of future glory. Now he continues in verse 4 by saying: “And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory”. The “chief Shepherd”, of course, is Jesus. I’m sure that Peter refers to Him as “the chief Shepherd” to reinforce the fact that they are under Christ and, as such, serve the church rather than dictate to it. Peter expects Him to “appear”. That’s referring to His return. So, the encouragement for elders, as for every believer, is associated with the fact that Jesus will come again. So, for instance, in 1 Thessalonians 4, where Paul speaks of the return of Christ, he concludes the chapter by saying: “Therefore encourage one another with these words”.

Why is knowing that Jesus is coming again an encouragement? Well, Peter says that when He does so “you will receive the unfading crown of glory”. Most commentators seem to take that to be referring to some sort of special reward for elders that they will receive in glory. However, it seems to me, that to say that is to read more into the text than it actually says. It’s eisegesis rather than exegesis. What’s the difference? Well, exegesis can be defined as “the process of drawing out the meaning from a text in accordance with the context and discoverable meaning of its author”. That’s what a preacher should seek to do. Eisegesis can be defined as “the imposition of the reader’s interpretation onto the text”.

Surely, “the unfading crown of glory” is what every believer looks forward to following Christ’s return. Paul says in 2 Timothy 4v8: “Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that day”. You could get the impression that Paul was just claiming that for himself but he went on to say: “and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing”. It’s not just for Paul. It’s not just for elders. It’s for every believer when Christ returns. In James 1v12 we read: “Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him”. Again, it’s not just for elders. It’s promised to “those who love him”. I’m sure that “the crown of life” and “the crown of righteousness” and “the unfading crown of glory” are all the same thing. They refer to what Peter spoke of way back in chapter 1 as “an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time”.

So, the encouragement for elders in shepherding the flock is exactly the same as the encouragement that every believer has in living the Christian life and serving the Lord. What greater encouragement can there be than knowing that Jesus will return and that when He does we will be glorified and receive our eternal inheritance?

What can you take from this passage? Well, remember that you are “the flock of God”. As such, regardless of whether or not you have elders, you are under the care of Jesus as the “chief Shepherd”. Be sure to “encourage one another” with the sure hope of His return and the knowledge that when He appears “you will receive the unfading crown of glory”.

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