A Message for the Elders
Topic: English Passage: 1 Peter 5:1-4
What is the most popular psalm in the Bible? It would be difficult for us to know for certain, but I think it’s an interesting question to think about. Which psalm do you think most people in the world be familiar with?
We can’t know for certain, but I think we’d all agree that somewhere near the top of that list we would find Psalm 23. The familiar opening line says “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.”
Before he became king, David was a shepherd. And he understood how important it was for a flock of sheep to be led properly. He also saw a very clear parallel between a shepherd’s care for the sheep and the way his God took care of him. “The Lord is my shepherd.”
That is one of the main truths that the Apostle Peter wanted his audience to know and embrace in their time of suffering. God wants you to know that there is a Shepherd watching over you.
The Good Shepherd is Jesus Christ. He came in fulfilment of God’s promises, and He gave His life for the sheep. And now He is at the right hand of the Father watching over us. In describing our salvation, First Peter 2:25 says: For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.
Our Lord watches over us. The Father has entrusted us to into the care of the Son. And all the power and the mercy of the Father are seen in the loving care of the Son.
So, even though we face many and serious difficulties, Peter reminds us that we are in God’s care. The final verse of chapter 4 said: “Therefore let those who suffer according to God's will entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good.”
In the local church, that care of God for His people has, an earthly representation. The shepherding care of Jesus Christ is supposed to be seen, not exclusively, but especially, in the shepherding care of the leaders of a local church.
Look with me at First Peter 5:1, and you should notice either the word “therefore” or “So.” That’s a connecting word. It’s not just Peter wrapping up with some closing thoughts. What he’s about to tell us is connected to what he has just said.
And I think the best way to understand that connection is to connect the care of our Creator to the care of the leaders in the local church. In other words, since God cares for His people, church leaders need to care for their people.
Saying it from another angle: Since you entrust yourself to God, you should also entrust yourself to the men he has placed as leaders over you.
As we’ve been working through this letter, we’ve seen Peter address various groups or categories of people. He talked to citizens. He talked to slaves. And He also addressed wives and husbands. The heart behind all those messages was the same: live an honorable life that glorifies God. But the specific application was unique to each group.
Now, as he’s wrapping up the letter, he decides to speak directly to the church leaders. And they are known as the elders.
This idea of elders was common among local synagogues, and even as the church spread into the Gentile world, the Apostle Paul, when he planted churches, ensured that each church would have a body of elders.
If you notice here, it says “the elders among you.” These weren’t detached leaders, governing from afar. These were local leaders. They were shepherds living among the sheep. They were to be accessible to the people.
The term “elder” usually points to a man’s age, but in the context of local church structure, it refers to an office marked by wisdom and leadership.
The Bible uses a few terms interchangeably: elders, overseers, and pastors. Those words might be used as a noun, abut they also have verb forms.
You can see the verbal form of overseeing in verse 2. It says elders should “exercise oversight.” You also see the verbal form of “pastor” where it says they are to shepherd the flock. The word “pastor” means a shepherd. And a shepherd is supposed to shepherds his flock. That’s his task.
In God’s plan, local churches are to have, or at least be pursuing a group of elders, overseers, or pastors. Biblically, those aren’t different levels of church government. They are all referring to the same office.
Like you might be seeing with all that’s happening in Afghanistan, the quality of leadership is a big deal. The quality of leadership matters. More than anyone else, they affect the entire group. And that means that the instructions Peter gives to pastors or elders is vital.
In order to emphasize what he’s about to say, Peter includes some of his credentials. Look at verse 1 again. Peter says he is “a fellow elder.” He understands what it means to lead a flock. As an Apostle, he was a leader in the church of Jerusalem. Peter shepherded people. He is a fellow elder.
But he’s also something more. Verse 1 continues. Peter is “a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed.”
Apart from the Apostle John, the Bible doesn’t give a whole lot of details regarding where the disciples were exactly when Jesus was crucified. They were there on Thursday night when Jesus was arrested. And then Peter ran away from the High Priest’s house when he realized they might identify him. But like the rest of the crowds on Friday morning, I imagine they were close enough to see the crucifixion.
In addition to being witnesses of Jesus’ death, there were three Apostles who got a special preview of Christ’s glory. That happened on what we call the Mount of Transfiguration.
Peter , James, and John saw Jesus’ face shine like the sun. And Moses and Elijah appeared as well, while God the Father affirmed Christ by saying, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well-pleased. Listen to Him!” And the disciples were terrified. And they weren’t allowed to say anything about it until after the Resurrection.
So, Peter, like we elders here, knows what it’s like to shepherd a flock. But unlike any pastor today, he had a preview of the coming glory of Christ. He had a vivid memory of the demonstration of Christ’s power and supremacy. And with that authority, he gives to the elders a command.
Look at verse 2—Shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight.
About three weeks ago, I saw that someone somewhere had posted something online highlighting the important of proper italicized word placement. And then, this person posted the same sentence seven times, with a different word emphasized with italics. When you change which part of the sentence gets emphasized, the meaning changes.
It said: I never said we should kill him.
I never said we should kill him.
I never said we should kill him.
I never said we should kill him.
I never said we should kill him.
I never said we should kill him.
I never said we should kill him.
It matters what parts of a sentence get emphasized. And for those of you who just took or who are about to take the Bible study class, you saw or will see that part of our job as a student of the Bible is to try to determine what the author’s emphasis originally was. Unfortunately, the original Greek letter didn’t have the distinctions between uppercase and lowercase letters, and it definitely didn’t have italics.
What’s Peter’s main point here in talking to the elders? I don’t think Peter’s main point has to do with what our duties are. Our duties are to shepherd the flock and to watch over them. There is teaching and there is protecting. And there’s a lot that falls into those categories. But again, I don’t think that’s Peter’s emphasis.
I think Peter assumes that the elders understand their role is to provide spiritual care and spiritual oversight and spiritual protection for the members of the church.
If you want more information about that, I would point you to a series we did back in January of 2020 in which we talked about the importance of elders and their duties. We also talked about the qualifications for an elder and why God has reserved this position only for men. Those topics are not going to be our focus for today.
Our focus for today, and what I believe is Peter’s main focus, is the heart of the elders, their attitude concerning what they’re doing. It’s not so much that he’s trying to get men to be elders in the church, or that he’s trying to get the elders to do their job. Peter is trying to make sure the elders do their job the right way, with the right heart. I think that’s his primary emphasis because that’s what he devotes more attention to in verses 2 and 3.
When you study the Bible, it’s helpful to try to see how a passage is organized or broken up. In a story, that means looking for the scenes. In a letter like 1 Peter, that means thinking about the structure of each paragraph and each sentence.
In this case, as you look at verses 2 and 3, you notice that one of the repeating words there is “not.” In fact, you’ve got three of them. And that gives us a very simple outline to teach.
Peter, in response to the suffering in and the needed care for the local church, says: “these are kinds of elders we do not want.” And for me, and for all 7 of our present elders, and for any future elder of our church, this is what we want to avoid.
Number 1, we have the compulsory elder. The compulsory elder. Notice what verse 2 says—shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly.
To do something under compulsion means you’ve been forced to do it. It’s a demand. You were externally compelled to do it. And so, tied to that is the idea that, if you had your own way, you wouldn’t be doing it.
I remember all the times I would take out the trash as a kid. I didn’t do it because the trash was full, or because I cared about the home. I did it because my dad made me do it. But I didn’t want to do it. So, either externally or internally, I grumbled. “This is so dumb. This is so unnecessary for me. This isn’t even my mess to pick up. Why do I always have to be the one to fix this?!” That’s the heart of many a foolish child, but how tragic if that were to be the heart of an elder.
Peter says, “Elders, do your work willingly.” In other words, joyfully. He’s not saying the work is easy or always fun. But he’s saying we don’t want to do it simply out of compulsion, like we’ve been obligated or pressured to do it.
First Timothy 3 says that a man should desire or aspire to the office of overseer. That desire will have seasons of greater and lesser degree, but it should be there.
Churches shouldn’t force men to be elders, and no elder should feel forced to continue. The compulsory elder is motivated by some external pressure, and one of the most common pressures is fear of man. Maybe his mother told him to be an elder. Maybe his wife told him. Maybe he got the impression that being an elder is some kind of next-level spiritual service in the church. That’s not what it is.
Jesus Christ, by His Spirit, gives all of us gifts. And He places us in a body of believers so that we would use our gifts to serve. And for a small group of men, in some season of their life, that gift may mean seeking to serve as an elder—to take part in a group specifically tasked with the spiritual care and oversight of the members.
God doesn’t want compulsory elders. God doesn’t want an elder marching through his duties because he is obligated to do it. Like a faithful slave, he should do his work from the heart, willingly.
In a season of hardship and obstacles, Paul reminded Timothy to fan into flame the gift of God which was given to him. And then Paul adds, “for God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control.”
Pastors and elders will face seasons of fear or timidity or fatigue. And we need encouragement and support in those times. But we need to be careful not to move along our duties simply because others expect us to do it. There’s nothing wrong with having a sense of duty. But if all a pastor or elder has is a sense of duty, it’s going to show up in a grumbling heart o a complaining spirit, just like that kid taking out the trash.
Hebrews says that some sheep are a joy to lead, and others are a grief. They make us groan. In those times of grief, we need encouragement to continue. But we also need the self-awareness and the humility to consider, “Maybe God would have me take a season to focus my attention on something else.” God is not pleased with obligatory elders. He wants us to serve willingly, from the heart.
A second category of elder that we want to avoid in the church is the greedy elder. So, we want to avoid the compulsory elder and the greedy elder.
The compulsory elder is wrongfully motived by something external. The greedy elder is wrongfully motivated by something internal.
Notice what the end of verse 2 says. Elders are to shepherd and oversee the church “not for shameful gain, but eagerly.” Not for shameful gain, but eagerly.
When there is a group of people who understand the importance of giving generously to the greater cause of Jesus Christ, you get the opportunity to make some easy money. And that started happening very early in the Christian church. That’s nothing new.
Peter and Paul both warned about these kinds of false teachers. It’s not a sin to pay or to take care of a pastor in a church. That’s what 1 Corinthians 9 and 1 Timothy 5 tell us. Elders who especially work at ruling in the church should be honored, but that can very much be abused by the guy being paid.
There are some extreme examples of this in our culture. You’ve got men and women driving around in fancy cars and fancy jets and living in mansions that cost tens of millions of dollars.
But there are also the lesser seen examples of this, which some of you have been exposed to in your church life. Pastors start a church, they take up offerings. They open bank accounts and buy property in their own name. And then, after a couple years, they close the church because “God is telling them to move on” and they cash it all out and go do it again somewhere else.
The Bible never says that it’s a sin to be rich. But, number 1, it calls those with earthly riches to be generous and compassionate. And, number 2, the Bible always addresses the motive of our heart.
When Paul gave Timothy the requirements for an elder, he specifically said the man needs to be free from the love of money. That’s in First Timothy 3. Later, in chapter 6, Paul condemns those who pursue godliness as a means of material gain.
Instead, Paul says, we need to pursue contentment. “Those who desire to be rich,” verses 9 and 10 say, “fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs.
That is definitely not what God wants for His church. A pastor can make a lot of money, but not love it. And a pastor can make a relatively small amount and still love it. And there will even be pastors who are content to make very little, but they do very little work. That’s a form of greed as well. They want a comfortable life. They want an easy life.
Inspired by the Spirit of God, Peter says to the elders: Serve the church eagerly. Don’t do it for the money. Don’t do it for the benefits. Do it from the heart.
In thinking about this issue of greed, I think we should also mention that the desire for money is only one example of greed, but there are others. A man may pursue leadership in a church because he wants attention or prestige. He wants to be esteemed by others. That’s a form of selfishness. It’s a form of greed.
That’s exactly what Jesus pointed out in the Pharisees. They loved to be the ones to pray at dinner. They loved to be seen being religious. They loved to be given the seats of honor.
They were false shepherds. They devoured widow’s houses for the sake of their pocketbook and their reputation. They misrepresented and dishonored the God they claimed to serve. In 2 Peter 2, it says they were trained in greed, and judgment will come. Every greedy, false teacher will meet a swift destruction one day. God does not want greedy elders in His church.
There’s one final kind of elder Peter warns about. And just to repeat, this is not a general warning to the church, though there are some lessons here for all of us. This is a message aimed at the elders. I need to evaluate my own heart to see if, or to what degree, I might fall into some of these categories. The third kind of elder that dishonors God is the domineering elder. The domineering elder.
Elders, we are to lead and care and protect, verse 3, not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock. Another translation says, “not lording it over them.”
Think about Pharaoh in Exodus and the taskmasters who were over the Hebrew slaves. They were ruthless. They were harsh. To the Egyptian masters, the Hebrews weren’t people, they were labor. They were a means to accomplish their personal plans.
How sad that that kind of stuff happens in churches too. Pastors, either overtly, or maybe in a more hidden way are bullies, pressuring people, threatening them into some sort of action that is more about the pastor’s personal goals than what Christ has made known in His word.
This has always been a danger for leadership. In his own time, Jesus said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them.” And then He added, “It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
The domineering elder expects you to listen and obey without discussion, because they said so. Otherwise, there will be consequences. The domineering elder will see the sheep, not as contributing members in the body of Christ, but as the means to seeing his own plans carried out. As an elder, I shouldn’t want the members to fulfil my plan for their lives. I should want you folks to fulfil God’s plan for your life.
Elders have been given some authority in the church, but that authority is derived, it has limits, and it’s to be used in a specific way, with the heart of Christ, the heart to serve, not to dominate.
Think about the principles we covered back in chapter 3. Wives are told to submit to their husbands, but husbands are never told to keep their wives in line. There’s no command there for him to rule over her making sure she does exactly what he tells her. The command there is to be compassionate and considerate, and gentle.
Just like there are abusive husbands in this world, there are abusive pastors, and that is a disaster for a church.
Do I, as an elder, want something from you? Yes I do. I want you to walk in righteousness. I want you to think about and follow through with plans to be more effective for Christ and less connected to the world. But the true fruit of spirituality doesn’t come primarily, or ultimately, from me making you do things. It comes from the Holy Spirit. God gives the growth.
I don’t shout at my grapevine for not giving me enough fruit. I feed it. I prune it. I protect it. And I wait for the fruit. That doesn’t mean I can’t rebuke you or correct you, or that you can’t ever rebuke me or correct me. But corrections are supposed to be made for unbiblical behavior, not because you didn’t do something the way I wanted. And if someone gets corrected, Galatians 6 says it should be done in gentleness.
As an elder, I need to keep in mind that God is conforming you to the image of Christ, and that may not look exactly how I might have imagined. My specific plans for you might not be God’s specific plans for you. And though I can prompt you to consider biblical truths or to consider what love looks like, I need to allow for me and you to come to a different conclusion on a lot of issues.
One helpful passage for me, along these lines, has been 1 Corinthians 16, where Paul is ending the letter describing his plans moving forward. He talks his plans for the collection they are taking. He talks about his plans to go to Macedonia. And he talks about Timothy’s plans to visit that church.
And then, in 1 Corinthians 16:12, Paul starts talking about Apollos, a gifted and effective teacher. Here’s what he writes: “Now concerning our brother Apollos, I strongly urged him to visit you with the other brothers, but it was not at all his will to come now. He will come when he has opportunity.”
Someone might have accused Paul of being a passive leader, but that’s not how Paul saw it in this case. And if you know Paul, that’s not a very good accusation against him. This is the Apostle Paul, who could have pulled rank and said, “Apollos, you will go to Corinth! End of discussion!” That’s not what he did.
This is the same heart we see in his letter to Philemon. He’s not ordering him around. He’s affirming Philemon’s freedom in Christ, and then he makes a request. Paul does that because he’s not dealing with some clear-cut issue regarding sin or doctrine. He’s allowing God to work in each person’s heart, in His own way, and in His own timing.
Listen, the day may come when some of you make decisions that maybe don’t dishonor God, but they aren’t exactly what I would have done in your situation. I need to consider: is that something worth seriously confronting you about? Or is this something that I can hand over to the Lord trusting that He’s working?
I’ve said this to you before, but I think it’s good to repeat it. One of my professors in seminary used to say, “Men, you want to be a gentle shepherd, not a German shepherd.” Don’t just sit back barking at everybody because they didn’t do exactly what you wanted.
The gentle shepherd recognizes that his authority is not comprehensive. It has limits. And God is working on everyone. There will always be sheep we need to go chasing after. There will always be sheep that need admonishing. But the attitude behind that should be love, and it should all be done in gentleness.
Our elders’ authority over you is not absolute. It’s limited to the Scriptures. And you are free to disagree with us on many, many issues. Our authority over the members is not like the authority of a parent over a young child where we might discipline you for every little infraction.
Elders aren’t supposed to be cracking the whip from the back. They are supposed to be out in front, serving as examples to the flock. That’s what Peter says, and other biblical authors say the same thing. The domineering elder is content with external obedience rather than doing the patient, difficult work that leads to genuine changes of the heart.
In the end, what the compulsory elder and the greedy elder and the domineering elder need to remember is that this church doesn’t belong to them. This is, as verse 2 says, “the flock of God.” We’ve been placed here for a temporary period, to care and protect. And to equip the church for the work of the ministry.
Thinking back on Psalm 23, David didn’t write, “The Lord is my King. He makes sure I obey His laws.” He said, “The Lord is my shepherd. He guides me. He takes care of me.” That’s the heart of God the elders of a local church are called to express.
And if we prove faithful, if we demonstrate that the Spirit of Christ has indeed been placed within us, we will receive a reward. Just like everyone else who has trusted in Christ. Just like all Christians are motivated by a reward, so should the elders.
Look at verse 4—And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory.
One day, according to Hebrews 13:17, the elders are going to give an account. We are going to present you to Christ. And we’ll say, “Jesus, you gave me this flock for a short time. I was a steward, but this flock is Yours. You are the Chief Shepherd.”
And we pray the Lord says, “Well done, good and faithful servant” and rewards us with the unfading, unending, eternal crown of glory. Just like a crown sets someone apart visible. Those who belong to Christ and have served Him faithfully will be marked with the glory of Christ when He comes for His people. May the coming glory of Christ lead us to greater faithfulness. And may that faithfulness begin with the elders of His churches.