Yesterday we gave some thought to Jesus’ conversation with Peter after the resurrection after they had eaten breakfast together on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. Three times Jesus had asked him “Do you love me?” and three times Peter had affirmed, not that he loved Jesus in the way he had been asked, but that he was Jesus’ friend. At the conclusion of each exchange Jesus had instructed Peter to “Feed my lambs/sheep.” Peter the fisherman had been given the new occupation of being a “shepherd” to the Lord’s people.
Many years later this shepherd gave advice and instruction to his fellow shepherds. It is obvious that he had learned much about the business of shepherding God’s flock – which he passes on to others to help them fulfill their responsibility as shepherds.
“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: 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. And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory.” (1 Peter 5:1-4).
Peter uses two different words which refer to the same responsibility in these verses. Notice that he tells the “elders” to “shepherd” the flock of God. This tells us that elders and shepherds are the same. The word elder is from a Greek word “presbuteros” from which the Anglicized word “presbyter” is derived. Obviously its primary signification is “one who is older,” but in the sense in which Peter uses it the reference is to one who not only is older, but who because of age and experience is specially appointed to the work of watching after the people of the Lord. The other word he uses, “shepherd” has to do with the work itself – that of feeding, leading and protecting the flock of God. Another word properly derived from “poimen” (shepherd) via Latin, is “pastor.”
One other word Peter uses to describe the work of the shepherds – “oversight.” Peter uses the word “oversight” to describe what elders do. This word translates a form of the Greek, “episkopos,” meaning to oversee or superintend. Paul applies this word to the men themselves in Acts 20:28; Philippians 1:1. The English word “bishop” is a carryover from the Greek “episkopos.”
Peter tells his fellow elders to “shepherd the flock of God.” The King James version has “feed the flock.” This is a bit misleading because it does not give an accurate picture of what a shepherd does. A shepherd not only leads his flock to “green pastures,” but he protects them from danger by being constantly on guard against predators and thieves. A shepherd was constantly with his flock. As Jesus said when speaking of himself as the “good shepherd,” the real shepherd “calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.” The idea is that there is a close, personal, trusting relationship between the shepherd and the sheep. Biblical elders do not constitute an organizational, institutional “board of directors,” but maintain a relationship of trust, being people who can be approached by those whom they serve in the Lord.
This is to be done for the flock “that is among you.” How can someone lead, watch over, tend or protect a flock they cannot see? The “sponsoring church” model is not God’s way of dealing with the needs of a church. Elders watch for souls, not for money. If they cannot see the ones whom they are supposed to be watching for, how can they care for their soul?
Elders are to “exercise oversight” or superintend the church. This demands vigilance or watchfulness. They cannot ignore the signs of weakness, error, sin and falling away from the Lord. Watchful elders, at the first sign of a problem among people, will move to correct, restore or rebuke those who have need.
Peter tells the elders to not take the oversight of a church under compulsion. They are not to be pushed or forced to accept the role of shepherd. One who is coerced into being named an elder will not care for the flock. A true shepherd must love those under his care and loving them will watch for them willingly.
An elder must serve “not for shameful gain, but eagerly.” If one is interested in personal gain in any way they will not watch for the souls of others. They are interested only in themselves. Whether the gain is in money or personal advancement, it disqualifies that one from being a good shepherd.
Overseers are to not be “domineering over those in [their] charge.” Obviously this is one lesson Peter had learned. He and the other disciples of the Lord quarreled among themselves as to who was to be “greatest in the kingdom” – who would sit at the right hand and who at the left of Jesus when he sat upon his throne. (Matthew 18:1; Matthew 20:21; Matthew 20:23). He told them that the Gentiles (Romans) “lorded it over them,” ruling them mercilessly, tyrannically, but that it would not be this way in the kingdom of God. There is no place for a dictatorial attitude among God’s shepherds.
Instead of ruling with an iron fist, elders are to be “examples to the flock.” They know that their responsibility is to help to mold people into the image of Christ, bringing them to a state of spiritual maturity. In order to do so they must model that image in their own lives. They must show people what it means to be like Christ instead of just telling them to be like him. But no one man will perfectly reflect the image of the Lord. Perhaps this is why the Lord saw fit to specify that there be a plurality of elders in a church so that together they might give a better idea of what it means to be like the Lord.
Peter concluded his instruction to elders with a wonderful promise. He said, “And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory.” When the Lord comes again, those who have served their brethren well will be honored by the Lord. What a blessing it is that there are good men who are willing to serve others by teaching, leading and watching for their souls. Good and faithful men who are willing to give of themselves should be appreciated by all for whom they watch.