In this text, Peter gives instructions to Christian leaders. In pointing out the kind of person a leader should be, he is actually pointing beyond all human leaders, to the Chief Shepherd, Jesus Christ, and the qualities we find in Him.
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Let’s remember who is writing this letter. It is Peter, whom all the gospels portray as the leader among the twelve apostles. The gospel of Mark was probably already written and known, as was possibly Matthew. Even before these were well known, certainly stories about Jesus were widely circulated, and many of them included Peter. He knew Jesus personally. He was one of only three who were chosen to see Jesus revealed in glory at the transfiguration. He was the only person besides Jesus Christ himself, who ever walked on water. After the day of Pentecost, it was Peter who preached the sermon that led to three-thousand people being saved. Several times he stood before the leaders of the nation of Israel, and proclaimed the truth of Jesus. He was imprisoned, beaten and persecuted for his trust in Jesus. Once, he was miraculously delivered from execution. God used him to heal many people; so much so that, at one period in Jerusalem, sick people would lay in the street in the hopes that Peter’s shadow would fall on them as he walked past.
It is this Peter who now wants to speak a word to church elders – that is, the leaders of local house churches. He could have said: “I command you, as the one God used to heal dozens of people.” He could have written: “As the only person besides Jesus to walk on water, I say…” There are many ways he could have reminded these leaders that they should listen to him. Instead, he writes: “As a fellow elder.” This section ends with Peter urging everyone to be humble, and he certainly put humility into practice here. Though he could have commanded them as an acknowledged leader, instead, he appeals to them as an equal.
I want to use this text to briefly talk about leadership in the early church. Peter appeals to the “elders.” He does not simply mean “the oldest people in the church.” By this time, the word “elder,” for Christians, meant a specific kind of church leader. A lot of elders were indeed older men. But there were also younger men like Timothy who were considered church elders. In other words, the term is more about leadership than it is about age.
There are other words used for the same kind of leader. The term “overseer” (sometimes translated “bishop”) seems to be interchangeable with the term “elder” in the New Testament. Finally, there is a third name given to this same type of church leader: “shepherd.” The Greek word for shepherd was later translated into a Latin word that is still commonly used in English today: pastor. In the New Testament, all three of these words are talking about church leaders who were responsible for directing the affairs of the church, and for teaching and preaching, and caring for the members. Not all of the elders were necessarily teachers and preachers, but virtually all of the teachers and preachers were supposed to be elders.
Here is a brief description of a church elder:
6 An elder must live a blameless life. He must be faithful to his wife, and his children must be believers who don’t have a reputation for being wild or rebellious. 7 A church leader is a manager of God’s household, so he must live a blameless life. He must not be arrogant or quick-tempered; he must not be a heavy drinker, violent, or dishonest with money.(Titus 1:6-9, NLT)
8 Rather, he must enjoy having guests in his home, and he must love what is good. He must live wisely and be just. He must live a devout and disciplined life. 9 He must have a strong belief in the trustworthy message he was taught; then he will be able to encourage others with wholesome teaching and show those who oppose it where they are wrong.
Here’s another passage. This time the Greek term used for “church leader” is “overseer,” but you can see it is talking about exactly the same thing:
1 This is a trustworthy saying: “If someone aspires to be a church leader, he desires an honorable position.” 2 So a church leader must be a man whose life is above reproach. He must be faithful to his wife. He must exercise self-control, live wisely, and have a good reputation. He must enjoy having guests in his home, and he must be able to teach. 3 He must not be a heavy drinker or be violent. He must be gentle, not quarrelsome, and not love money. 4 He must manage his own family well, having children who respect and obey him. 5 For if a man cannot manage his own household, how can he take care of God’s church?(1 Timothy 3:1-7, NLT)
6 A church leader must not be a new believer, because he might become proud, and the devil would cause him to fall. 7 Also, people outside the church must speak well of him so that he will not be disgraced and fall into the devil’s trap.
With this passage, Peter adds his own instructions to elders. This is all relevant to elders, of course, but it is also relevant to all Christians. Peter is describing the kind of pastor/church leader you should seek out and value. You can use this text to hold pastors accountable, if you need to, including me, by the way.
First, we should shepherd God’s flock. A shepherd leads the flock to places where there is food, water, and safety. So, elders should lead churches to spiritual food and drink through God’s Word (the Bible), prayer and fellowship. In addition, as the verses I just quoted say, an elder needs to protect the church from bad teaching, from things that lead people astray. What this amounts to is good, sensible teaching of the Bible. Teaching elders should take their responsibilities very seriously:
1 Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.(James 3:1, ESV)
Frankly, I have met many people who call themselves pastors or elders who do not take this nearly seriously enough. I suspect that there are many people who take it upon themselves to teach and preach, who really ought not to. When I read what Peter writes here, I am reminded of a conversation he had with Jesus after the resurrection:
15 When they had eaten breakfast, Jesus asked Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love Me more than these?”( John 21:15-17, HCSB)
“Yes, Lord,” he said to Him, “You know that I love You.”
“Feed My lambs,” He told him.
16 A second time He asked him, “Simon, son of John, do you love Me?”
“Yes, Lord,” he said to Him, “You know that I love You.”
“Shepherd My sheep,” He told him.
17 He asked him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love Me?”
Peter was grieved that He asked him the third time, “Do you love Me?” He said, “Lord, You know everything! You know that I love You.”
“Feed My sheep,” Jesus said.
So Peter, nearing the end of his own life, is passing on the same charge to the next generation of church leaders: “Shepherd the people! Feed them spiritually, care for them as a shepherd does for the sheep.”
The next piece I get from Peter’s words is that the flock belongs to God. I have never had “my own” church. I have only ever had the privilege of caring for parts of God’s flock. Sometimes we pastors, talking shop to one another, say things like, “In my church…” I don’t think that is so terrible, as long as we remember that it isn’t really our own church, not ever. We are only caretakers of Jesus’ church.
The next thing Peter says is that elders should serve willingly, not because they feel forced to. I knew a pastor who went to seminary during the Vietnam War, to escape the draft. He hated ministry, and wasn’t even sure he believed in God, but he felt he had to continue to be a pastor or he would be a hypocrite. What he couldn’t see was that he was a hypocrite anyway. He served under compulsion.
At one time I felt as if I was locked in to being a pastor, and I took this verse seriously: I quit. During the next three years God showed me that I really am supposed to be one of his under-shepherds, an elder in his church, and ever since then I have felt privileged to be called to this ministry.
Next, elders are not supposed to be in it for the money. That’s a good thing for me, because if I was in it for the money, I’ve been doing it very wrong! I’m not complaining, by the way, but I haven’t exactly built a ministry empire for myself, nor a cash-cow. However, we all know about church leaders who have built private empires and cash cows. I would not want to be them when they have to explain themselves to Jesus.
Elders are not to be domineering. Here, we see part of why Peter appeals to them only as a fellow elder, not as one of the great leaders of the church. He is putting his own words into practice. Though he could command them, he is leading in the same way he wants them to lead: humbly, with love, appealing to them, not trying to dominate or browbeat them. Above all, he is leading by example, and exhorting them to do the same.
Finally, elders are to look for honor and reward not in this life, but when Jesus returns. Being a pastor – at least the way Peter teaches us to – is not always a glorious thing. I have as much education as most attorneys, but generally, especially these days, pastors are respected less than lawyers, doctors and other professions. But our full reward is in Jesus, in the New Creation, not in the here and now. We can be patient, knowing that God sees our work, even when others don’t. Just as we are not supposed to be just in it for the money, nor are we supposed to be elders/pastors in order to build our own reputation.
Those who are not elders have responsibilities toward their leaders, as well. Peter says that the rest of the church should listen to the elders. This agrees with many other parts of the New Testament. Here are just two examples:
17 Obey your spiritual leaders, and do what they say. Their work is to watch over your souls, and they are accountable to God. Give them reason to do this with joy and not with sorrow. That would certainly not be for your benefit.(Hebrews 13:17, NLT)
17 Elders who do their work well should be respected and paid well, especially those who work hard at both preaching and teaching. 18 For the Scripture says, “You must not muzzle an ox to keep it from eating as it treads out the grain.” And in another place, “Those who work deserve their pay!” (1 Timothy 5:17-18, NLT)
Now, as I have said, these things give us a good basis to evaluate whether a leader in the church is worthy of our trust and respect. That is good and helpful. But when we consider the characteristics of our leaders, we should also find in them things to imitate. The author of Hebrews writes:
7 Remember your leaders who taught you the word of God. Think of all the good that has come from their lives, and follow the example of their faith.(Hebrews 13:7, NLT)
We may or may not have a leadership position in the church, but these instructions to elders are things we can all aspire to emulate. If I reflect any of these qualities at all, it is because I learned them not only from reading the Bible, but also from watching more mature believers whom I admire, and aspire to be like. The first such person in my life is my own father, and there were many others also, who showed me by their own lives what real Christians should be like. The goal is not only to imitate such people, but eventually to become the sort of person yourself that others can look at, and imitate.
And of course, the real life that they are reflecting (and that we want to reflect) is the life of Jesus Christ. Ultimately, our focus moves from helpful (though flawed) leaders to Jesus himself. We want our life to reflect and resemble His life, to show His love and grace to the world.