We serve a God who has designed the church with very specific features and functions. In his divine wisdom, he has planned out the integral parts of the church for particular purposes. Yet, because he loves us, he has also established that design with our spiritual advantage and joy in mind. Therefore, whether we’ve been called to be elders who will give an account for those souls entrusted to our care, or we’ve simply been called to submit to the care of those who have, Scripture is abundantly clear that the sheep need shepherds.
Throughout Scripture, there are certain themes that show up again and again. One of those is the concept of shepherd. The job of a shepherd was to care for a flock of sheep. Shepherds were tasked with the responsibility of protecting the sheep from predators and guiding them to good pastures for eating and suitable streams for drinking. As we read the Bible, especially the Old Testament, we realize that many of the men God called to carry out his plans and purposes were shepherds by trade. Abraham was a shepherd. Isaac was a shepherd. Jacob was a shepherd. Moses was a shepherd. David was a shepherd, and of course, Jesus revealed himself to be the good shepherd (John 10:11). In fact, in the Psalms, even God is referred to as the shepherd of Israel (Ps 80:1), and the children of God are called the people of his pasture and the sheep of his hand (Ps 95:7).
This rich, biblical theme is important to understand as we consider the words of Peter in 1 Peter 5:1–5. There, the apostle writes to believers who have been scattered to different areas throughout the Roman Empire due to persecution, saying:
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. 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.”
Pastor John MacArthur, in his commentary on 1 Peter, provides us with valuable details regarding the context of Peter’s words in this letter. He says there:
As Peter penned this epistle, the dark clouds of the first great outbreak of official persecution, instigated by the insane Emperor Nero, were already gathering on the horizon. Seeking scapegoats to divert the public’s suspicion that he had started the great fire of July A.D. 64 that devastated Rome, Nero pinned the blame on the Christians, whom he already perceived as enemies of Rome, because they would worship none but Christ. As a result, they were encased in wax and burned at the stake to light his gardens, crucified, and thrown to wild beasts.1
So, what does all of this have to do with shepherds? Well, in light of the historical context, Peter’s purpose for writing this letter is really three-fold:
- It’s to encourage these believers to remain steadfast in their faith in the face of the persecution they are experiencing.
- It’s to remind them of the special privilege they have been given as children of God, although they do not currently see it or feel it.
- And, finally, it’s to remind them as individual believers, and as churches, how they are called to live and function in the midst of everything they’re experiencing.
In a word, the people of God were suffering and being scattered, but God had not left them without shepherds. The Lord had given them elders to care for their souls, and it is these elders that Peter addresses in 1 Peter 5:1-5.
The Biblical Role of Elders
Looking again at verse 1 of our text, Peter writes:
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:
Notice, first, that Peter writes with the presupposition that churches have elders. He’s not addressing a single elder, but rather, he is exhorting the elders among God’s people. So, let me ask you, does your church have a plurality of elders? Do you have a group of godly, qualified men who are prayerfully seeking to shepherd your congregation according to the Word of God, by the grace of God, for the glory of God? If the answer is no, the next question must be, why not?
In case anyone is tempted to think that this is an isolated assumption on the part of Peter, the reality is that a plurality of elders is the pattern for local churches in the Bible. For example, in Acts 14:23, we find Paul and Barnabas appointing a plurality of elders in every church they were ministering. Later, in Paul’s letter to Titus, he tells him that the reason he left him in Crete was that he “might put in order what was left unfinished and appoint elders in every town.” (Titus 1:5).
Throughout the New Testament, there are three main titles that all refer to this same biblical office. Whether it’s elders, overseers, or shepherds, all three synonymous terms refer to a body of qualified men whom God has called to lead the church. In fact, Peter uses a form of all three terms in the first two verses of our text:
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. (1 Pet 5:1–2).
So, Peter is addressing this exhortation to those who hold the biblical office of elder, perhaps even with the words of the resurrected Christ echoing in his mind: “Feed my sheep” (John 21:17). In doing so, he wants them to look both backwards and forwards. Looking back, Peter wants his fellow shepherds to consider the sufferings of Christ. In doing so, he wants them to realize that nothing they are currently experiencing can compare to the full weight of God’s wrath being satisfied by Christ for their sins. Looking ahead, he wants them to consider the future crown of glory that is reserved for those who endure to the end because of what Christ has done.