October 4, 2020
Kenny Stokes (Downtown Campus) | 1 Peter 5:1-4
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
In our series on 1 Peter, one of the main things we have seen repeatedly is that the apostle Peter writes to encourage suffering believers to persevere in hope and to continue to do good. It is a very timely message for us because two of the great temptations in times of suffering are (1) unbelief and (2) doing wrong.
When suffering moves in, clouds of doubt often follow, the clarity of God’s promises are harder to see, and the events of providence aren’t often what we want them to be. “If that was how God is going to work for me—forget it! I’ll take care of things myself.” That’s unbelief.
Likewise when suffering comes upon you like a storm, temptations to sin soon follow. The instructions of God’s word are harder to remember, and the wrongs seem too much to bear. “If this is what doing good gets me—forget it! I’ll get what I want in my own way.” Revenge. Slander. Attack. Belittling. Breaking relationships. The full range of sin—from passive withdrawal of love to active attack in hatred. That’s doing wrong. That’s sin.
The last verse from Pastor Jason’s sermon text last week called suffering believers away from both the temptation to unbelief and the temptation to sin:
Therefore let those who suffer according to God’s will entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good.—1 Peter 4:19
From the text this week, my primary aim is to exhort and encourage the pastors and elders of Bethlehem. Yet this was not written as a private communication to the elders only, but as an open communication in order that the whole congregation would hear and receive grace. So if you are not a pastor or elder, don’t be tempted to check out. I see at least four reasons for you to listen and benefit from this text:
Here is our outline. First, let’s look at Peter’s preamble in verse 1. Before directly addressing the elders Peter has a preliminary statement about himself that is important because in it we can see the continuity between how Peter shepherds the elders and how he exhorts the elders to shepherd their flocks.
Then, after the preamble in verse 1, we will walk through Peter’s exhortation to the elders in verses 2–4 by answering three questions: What? How? and Why?
It’s noteworthy that Peter doesn’t just continue the flow of his letter from chapters 1–4. Rather, he finds it necessary and helpful to begin his instructions to the elders with this thoughtful preamble in 1 Peter 5:1,
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 …
What is he doing? Notice three things.
In addressing the elders, there is no sense that Peter is pulling rank on them. Here, when speaking directly to the leaders of the church, he doesn’t flash his apostolic title or credentials. He doesn’t remind them that he walked with Jesus for three years. Nor that he saw Christ’s miracles and transfiguration. He doesn’t remind them of Christ’s restoration and commission to him, “Feed my sheep.” Here, he doesn’t do anything to elevate himself over them. Rather he comes in beside them, figuratively speaking, with humility. And he speaks to them as “a fellow elder”—a term used nowhere else in the Bible. This is elder-to-elder, or brother-to-brother, counsel.
We can see the difference between the word “command” and the word “exhort” in the apostle Paul’s letter to Philemon. In the letter, Paul writes encouraging Philemon to receive back his runaway slave Onesimus as a brother in Christ, not with retribution, but with Christian love. Listen carefully to how Paul uses both words command and appeal (exhort):
Accordingly, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do what is required, yet for love’s sake I prefer to appeal (exhort) to you … —Philemon 8–9
Paul could have “commanded” Philemon to do this, but instead he chose to “exhort” him. Why? Paul explains in verse 9 that he chose not to command but to appeal for “love’s sake.” And again he explains in Philemon 14,
I preferred to do nothing without your consent in order that your goodness might not be by compulsion but of your own accord.
Paul’s aim was that Philemon would freely and willingly love Onesimus from the heart by the power of the gospel, not by the power of human command. Real, biblical change always begins on the inside. While some have wrongly used Paul’s approach in Philemon to support slavery, the broader historical impact of Paul’s approach undercut slavery across the globe, at its root—not by the power of a command or law, but by the power of love.
Coming back from Philemon to 1 Peter 5:1, I take it that Peter chose not to command the elders about their responsibility, but to exhort or appeal to them “for love’s sake.” The goal was not mere compliance, but that the elders would freely, from the heart, love their people.
Peter reminds them that he is a witness of Christ’s sufferings. From the historical record, we know that he was an eyewitness to Christ’s persecution and rejection, betrayal and arrest. And, though it is unclear if he saw the actual crucifixion, we know that he saw the wounds on the risen Christ. Additionally, I believe he also means that he has witnessed the sufferings of Christ by suffering for being a Christian—just like these elders. And yet, just like these elders, he lives now in hope as a “partaker of future glory” yet to come at the return of Christ.
What is the point? Peter is positioning himself side-by-side with the elders as a fellow elder, a fellow sufferer living in the hope of glory. And in the midst of hardship he wants to see these elders engage in their work with a settled, confident hope of future glory.
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.
What is Peter’s exhortation to these elders? Peter urges them to do their job in 1 Peter 5:2,
Shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight ...
The job of the elders is to “shepherd” the flock by exercising “oversight” over the flock of God that “is among you.” Thus, the elders have a responsibility to shepherd the particular people over which the Holy Spirit has given them charge.
These three terms—“elder,” “shepherd” and “overseer”—conspire to give us the normative New Testament picture of the responsibility of the local church leadership. If you are new to Bethlehem, this might be helpful for you in understanding the view of New Testament church leadership after which our church is patterned.
Simply put, Paul saw to it that “elders” were appointed in every church he planted (cf. Acts 14:23). But what can make it confusing is the use of other titles besides elder, namely:
The reason we don’t take these as additional leadership roles in the church is because, as our text makes clear, the elders do the work of shepherding and overseeing the church.
Each term contributes to our understanding of the role and responsibility of the elders in each church.
Our text, along with Acts 20:28, provides the clearest demonstration of the fact that the New Testament uses these three terms interchangeably to refer to the one group in each local church given leadership responsibility. But all three terms refer to the same role, whether they are called “elders,” “pastors,” or “overseers.” So Peter exhorts the elders to shepherd the flock, exercising oversight.
Peter goes on to tell the elders how to do their shepherding and oversight. In verse 2, he describes the manner of doing the elder work with three “not” statements followed by three “but” statements (“not this way, but this way”).
1. ‘Not under compulsion, but willingly as God would have you.’ (v. 2)
We elders aren’t to serve because we have to, under outside compulsion, but because we want to. Several things can threaten to take the “want to” out of eldering.
Pastoring suffering people is hard. If the suffering is caused by opposition, as is the case in our text, persecution coming on the elders and church makes it harder still. Overseeing a church can be exhausting due to time and hard life situations. Opposition from within the church can even be more disheartening than the persecution from outside the church. Currently, most of the pastors I speak with in our Treasuring Christ Together Network (TCTN) would say that pastoring in the present highly polarized American context is difficult and exhausting.
On the other hand, the pressure to continue pastoring even when one no longer desires to can be strong. Elders feel the expectations of the people and of God to continue. Fear of being a failure. Pride. All these things can pressure the pastor-elder to keep on doing the work when the desire to do it has gone.
Elders are to shepherd, not under compulsion but willingly, but not only that …
2. ‘Not for shameful gain, but eagerly.’ (v. 2)
Elders are not to serve for “shameful gain.” Primarily, it seems Peter has in mind those who would use their position as a spiritual leader for financial gain.
I met a pastor several years ago at a pastors’ lunch fellowship. At one point after dinner, the conversation drifted to how each one of us had been called into the ministry. He stunned the group of pastors when he said, “I was working as a roofer in the hot summer sun. Miserable, I threw down my roofing hammer and said, “Darn it! There’s got to be a better way to make a living. So I became a pastor.” And let me tell you, that motivation was obvious in how he pastored his church.
Unbelievably, it can even manifest in crafty schemes to embezzle from the church.
One time, I met a pastor who illegally staffed his elder board with his own family members (his mom, his wife, his siblings and his children) and then tried to lead the church to sell off all its multi-million dollar assets so that he could be funded as a world traveling preacher for the rest of his life.
It is not surprising that one of the traits of false teachers in New Testament times (as well as our own day) is the love of money. Peter says in 2 Peter 2:3, “And in their greed they will exploit you with false words.” For this reason, one of the elder qualifications in 1 Timothy 3:3 is “not a lover of money.”
God wills that pastors lead and oversee the people with a whole-hearted desire. If you are an elder of this church or any church and you don’t joyfully want to lead, pray that the desire returns. Perhaps take a sabbatical. If an eager willingness to shepherd does not return, then you have no choice but to resign.
Elders are to shepherd not under compulsion, but willingly, and not for shameful gain, but eagerly, as well as …
3. ‘Not domineering, but being examples’ (v. 3)
Not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock.
In church planting circles a few years ago there was a misapplication of the historic theological description of the threefold office of Christ as Prophet, Priest, and King. You see, some pastors thought it “biblical” to claim one of those offices as their “type” of leadership. Unwittingly, this misuse encouraged domineering leadership. So pastors would say,
Do you see the problem? They failed to see that Jesus, our great shepherd, is all of those roles at the same time. And in our sanctification we believers are all being conformed to his whole image and likeness. It is not for us to take hold of one aspect like “king.” In taking hold of one aspect of Christ’s glory, they poisoned even the aspect they claimed as their own.
In recent years there has been an increase in claims of “abusive” leadership in churches. In some situations, the claim is justified, and sometimes it is not. It is not necessarily an evidence of domineering leadership if an individual in the church doesn’t get his or her way. Nor if the elders seek to hold you accountable to biblical living. Nor if you simply disagree with your elders.
What is domineering leadership? The word translated domineering here means to “to have mastery over” or “to lord it over” or “to rule over someone.” Jesus himself warned John and James against domineering leadership in Mark 10:42–43.
You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you.
Domineering leadership is when leaders use their authority to forcefully serve themselves, not others. Sometimes a domineering leader is aggressive and actively controls people, overpowering them with bullying or name-calling or inappropriate demands or even dismissiveness. Domineering elders might demand the people to comply with oppressive and unreasonable extra-biblical expectations. He might say, “Do it because I say so because I am the elder,” rather than leading by the authority of biblical persuasion. Another tactic that suggests domineering behavior is the misuse of Scripture to control the flock, such as demanding repentance and confession for behavior that is not biblically sinful. And surely the unspeakably horrific sin of sexual abuse by clergy is a form of aggressive domineering.
Sometimes a domineering leader is more passive-aggressive. I have seen pastors lead churches through self-pity. It goes something like this: The pastor says, “Everyone is against me except you.” And for fear of hurting the wounded pastor, I have seen good, kind-hearted people walk on eggshells to do what the pastor wants.
Some other more subtle strategies would be the manipulation of facts or the use of gossip or slander to control other people. A domineering pastor or elder might, in order to get his way, hide things from or avoid bringing things to the plurality of elders. A domineering pastor might insist that “for the sake of unity” fellow elders must swear allegiance and absolute loyalty to himself.
Back to Mark 10,
But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.—Mark 10:43–45
Elders are not to shepherd in a domineering way, but to prove to be Christ-like servant examples to the people.
And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory.
Now we come to the “Why?” In verse 4, Peter reminds the elders of their motivation for shepherding well.
Christ Jesus himself is the chief pastor, the chief shepherd of his universal church, and hence of every local church. The local elders are under-shepherds, serving under Christ. And Jesus is coming back. And when he does each and every one of the elders will receive “the unfading crown of glory.”
What is “the unfading crown of glory?” In ancient times, athletes who won competitive events received a victory crown made of beautiful flowers and greenery. Is the point that individual elders will receive individual crowns or rewards? That seems to be true from other texts, but here it seems most likely that Peter has in mind the unfading crown of glory God promises for all believers.
When Christ appears, the race will be done and we will receive the crown of glory—the triumph of Christ over all our trials, troubles and temptations and the treasure that he is for us—forever.
This is the motivation for the elders to shepherd well: Christ himself is our prize and our victory. This is the motivation for every believer to persevere in faith, to suffer in hope, continuing to do good not evil. Christ himself is our great reward; he himself is our supreme treasure. And he will be ours forever.
We close this morning’s worship at the Lord’s Table. In preparation, let me focus our thoughts on Christ, remembering him as we prepare for receiving communion.
Before the coming of Christ, during the time of Ezekiel the prophet, there came a dark time when the rulers of Israel constantly betrayed their God-given responsibility to shepherd and oversee the nation. In unbelief, they acted selfishly and negligently, causing great harm to the people. Through the prophet Ezekiel, God spoke a word of judgment on them and a word of hope for his people—which has been fulfilled with the coming of Christ. God says to these wicked shepherds in Ezekiel 34,
Thus says the Lord God: Ah, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fat ones, but you do not feed the sheep. The weak you have not strengthened, the sick you have not healed, the injured you have not bound up, the strayed you have not brought back, the lost you have not sought, and with force and harshness you have ruled them. … therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: Thus says the Lord God, Behold, I am against the shepherds … No longer shall the shepherds feed themselves. I will rescue my sheep from their mouths, that they may not be food for them. … Behold, I, I myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out. As a shepherd seeks out his flock when he is among his sheep that have been scattered, so will I seek out my sheep, and I will rescue them … I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I myself will make them lie down, declares the Lord God. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed.—Ezekiel 34:2–16
This is a gospel, the good news of the New Covenant. God himself came in the person of his Son Christ to shepherd his people. As we prepare to receive the elements, remember by faith that ...
Now may the God of peace who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant, equip you with everything good that you may do his will, working in us that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen.—Hebrews 13:20–21