- First Presbyterian Church, Jackson, Mississippi - https://www.fpcjackson.org -

Shepherding the Flock of God

Well this is now the second Lord’s Day we’ve live streamed our worship services, and that, along with so much else in our lives right now, feels really very strange. Doesn’t it? It’s really odd. So given how weird life is for most of us, I actually thought it would be wise, instead of preaching about the pandemic for another week or every week, to try to press toward normalcy as much as possible. So what we need most in the crisis isn’t the unusual or the exceptional; it’s the steady, regular truth of God. It’s the same message, the same Gospel, the same truths that work in the crisis moments as well as in the ordinary days. 

So in that conviction, I want you to take a Bible in hand and to turn back with me to our regular, ongoing series looking at the teaching of 1 Peter. We begin chapter 5 today. It’s close to the end of the letter, and unless things take a dramatic turn, I intend to continue on through the book in the weeks ahead. So do please take a Bible and turn there with me; 1 Peter chapter 5. You will remember that Peter has been teaching us how to live on mission together as exiles in a cultural context and at a time hostile to the Gospel, bearing witness for the Lord Jesus. And I think that’s helpful for us to remember in these days because that continues to be our call and our mandate, even amidst a pandemic. Schools and work and so much else beside in our ordinary lives has been suspended, but the church’s mission hasn’t been suspended. To be sure, we have to get creative – hence live streaming and other forms of ministry – about how we prosecute the mission, but we do not have any warrant from God to abandon the mission. 

And so Peter has been saying very much that same thing to the church under hardship in his own context. And he addressed various categories of people. Beginning back in chapter 2, he talked about Christians in civil society; he talked about slaves and masters, husbands and wives. He spoke about how we are to care for each other within the church and how we are to respond to those who ask us for a reason for the hope that is in us, with gentleness and respect outside the church. And now here in our passage today, beginning in verse 1 of chapter 5, he speaks to the leaders of the church – chapter 5, 1 through 5. You’ll notice at the end of chapter 4 he says, “Therefore, let those who suffer according to God’s will entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good.” Suffering looms large; it casts its shadow all over 1 Peter. 

And that’s still in his mind as he begins chapter 5 verse 1. Notice that little conjunction at the beginning of verse 1, “so.” “So I exhort the elders.” So in light of the reality of suffering that is a universal pattern in the church of Jesus Christ, there is a particular exhortation needed for our leaders because our leaders will be particular targets of the kind of trials that are normal amongst God’s people. Elders set the pace for the flock. Harry Reeder, one of my mentors who’s the pastor at Briarwood PCA in Birmingham, Alabama likes to say, “Elders are to be thermostats, not thermometers.” Right? So they set the spiritual temperature; they don’t merely reflect the temperature around them. Thermostats, not thermometers. And if that’s true, if our leaders, our elders set the pace, set the temperature, they need a particular word of encouragement and exhortation. And so this is a very practical, and actually I think quite timely passage for us. 

We’re going to think about it under four headings. We’ll think first about the elder’s office. In our contemporary scene, not every church has elders. You may even never have been in a church that has elders before, so is this just a quirk of Presbyterian churches like ours or is it a Biblical office? So we’ll think briefly about the office of the elder. Then, we’ll think about the elder’s work. What is it that they are supposed to be doing? If this is a Biblical office, what is the task entrusted to our elders? Then thirdly, the elder’s reward. You’ll see that in verse 4. Peter offers some encouragement and some motivation to pursue the work in the way that he challenges us to do. And then finally in verse 5, the elder’s reception. How should we receive the ministry of our elders? The elder’s office, work, reward, and reception.

Before we get into all that, let’s pause again and pray and ask for God to help us. Let’s pray together.

O Lord, open our eyes to behold marvelous things, wonderful things out of Your Law. Give us ears to hear what the Spirit says to the church. Unite our hearts in the fear of You. Incline our hearts in obedience to You. For Jesus’ sake, amen.

1 Peter chapter 5 at the first verse. This is the Word of God:

“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.”

Amen, and we praise God for His holy, inerrant Word.

I remember seeing a movie years ago that came to mind as I was preparing this; a war movie. I can’t tell you anything about any of the characters or really anything about the story. Only one scene sticks in my mind and it came to mind here. The scene is a young, inexperienced officer has arrived on the front lines to lead his men. And eventually – he makes all sorts of mistakes – and eventually a rather gruff, well-seasoned sergeant takes him aside and gives him some advice. And among other things, he tells him to stop walking at the head of the column in the front of the group because the enemy snipers are on the lookout for officers. And if he stands out in the front like that taking orders and so on, he’s going to be easy pickings. And so with a gulp and a blush and a nod, the young officer beats his retreat to the center of the column. 

These five verses made me think about that scene because Peter is saying to the churches, look, bearing witness to Christ will be costly. And if you are an elder, a spiritual leader in the church, that means you are going to be a particular target. The world, the flesh and the devil – the three main elements of the enemy’s forces – have their snipers out looking for your leaders. And they know if they can take out our leaders, then they can discredit the witness of the whole church. They can shatter the trust of the flock. They can sow division and petty squabbling. They can stop the advance of the church in its tracks. The enemy is on the lookout for officers. And so Peter is playing the part of a seasoned veteran giving godly counsel to elders who need to hear it as they lead the church into the conflict zone.

The Elder’s Office 

And as we pay attention to that godly conflict, as I said a moment ago, the first thing to reckon with is the elder’s office itself. The elder’s office. Look at verse 1 please. “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.” Now clearly in the churches of Asia Minor to whom Peter was writing they were led by a body of elders. The word that’s translated “elder” there, you may know, is the Greek word “presbuteros,” from which we get the English term, “presbyterian.” Ours is a church governed by presbyters, by elders. Now that word “presbuteros,” elder, is actually one of three terms used typically in the New Testament to describe this office. And while the other two nouns are not in our passage, the verb form of the same word is used. 

So look at the text again. Let me show you that briefly. The “presbuteroi,” the elders, the presbyters, notice what they are to do. They are to “shepherd the flock,” verse 2. “Poimaino” is the verb there, “shepherd.” A “poimen” is the noun, often translated “pastor.” An elder is to shepherd or pastor the flock. And elder is a pastor. And then he goes on to say, “Shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight.” The verb there is “episkopeo.” The noun is “episkopos.” We get our English word, “Episcopalian” from that. So an elder shepherds pastors by exercising oversight. An elder, a “presbuteros,” is a shepherd, a “poimen”, a pastor, and an “episkopos,” a bishop, an overseer. Now in the first three centuries or so, one of the presbyters, bishops, pastors in a region came to particular prominence in each region and came to, as the church structures evolved and became more complicated and hierarchical, came to take the name “bishop” exclusively in order to distinguish himself from the others and so began the Episcopal form of church government in the centuries following the New Testament. And churches like the Episcopal church and the Lutheran church and the Roman Catholic church and so on, still have that structure today. But in the New Testament, a bishop and an elder and a pastor were the same thing; they are different names for the same office. 

You can see the same point again in Acts chapter 20 verse 17 in Luke’s description of Paul’s trip to Miletus where we’re told he called for the Ephesian elders. The word there is “presbuteroi,” presbyters, elders. But once the elders arrive, Paul says to those elders in verse 28, “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock of God, over which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers,” or bishops. So elders are the same thing as overseers. And he tells them to care for – it’s the same verbs translated as “exercising oversight,” “episkopeo” – to exercise the function of a bishop, to be an overseer of the church of God. So elders are bishops are pastors. Every elder is a bishop. Every elder is a pastor. Every pastor is an elder and a bishop and so on. And we could pile up two or three other examples fairly easily from the New Testament to demonstrate the fact that the office of elder is the basic unit of church government in the New Testament church. The church was not governed in New Testament times by a hierarchical structure of local priests and dioceses and bishops and archbishops and so on. Neither was it governed democratically by the congregation. It was governed by a college, a body of elders, plural, in each congregation governing together. 

The Elder’s Work 

Well alright, we’ve established that the office of elder is Biblical. What about their work? What is an elder supposed to do? Well did you catch how the apostle Peter describes himself there in verse 1? “I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder.” Apparently apostles like Peter are elders as well. An apostle is also an elder. You could even translate the Greek not just “a fellow elder” but “your fellow elder” – in amongst you; one of you. Instead of just throwing his apostolic authority around and requiring them to do what he’s going to go on to describe as their work, he comes alongside them, do you see that, as one of them – a fellow elder, knowing himself to be subject to the same obligations, facing the same threats, carrying the same burdens. And that’s actually an example of pretty good eldering, isn’t it? Thoughtful, tender, gentle. He stands with them, not just over them. He models to them here what he’s going to go on to require from them.

And look what he tells them to do specifically. First he says, “Shepherd the flock of God that is among you.” Now remember Peter’s own backstory and you’ll see how precious this metaphor of the shepherd must have been to him. You will remember Peter was the one who, gripped by fear in Jesus’ trial, denied his Savior three times. When the rooster crowed, as Jesus has predicted he would, he was found saying, “I never knew Him. I tell you, I don’t know who He is.” And he swore that he didn’t know Jesus. And then as the rooster crowed, he was overcome with grief and then he had to watch as his Lord, whom he professed to love, whom He betrayed at the time of crisis, was beaten and then crucified. It must have been utterly devastating to Peter, full of shame and regret. And that’s why it was so precious to him after the resurrection that the risen Christ would take Peter aside and reinstate him three times over, asking him the question, “Simon, son of John, do you love Me?” And when Simon Peter said, “Yes, You know that I love You,” He said, “Feed My lambs. Do you love Me? Tend My sheep. Do you love Me? Feed My sheep.” What is it that Jesus is calling Peter to be and to do? He is to be a shepherd in the flock, and that means he is to feed the sheep the Word of God. He is to tend to their needs with empathy and care. He is to protect them from wolves, from false teaching. He is to guide them away from the wastelands of worldliness into green pastures and quiet waters that their souls might be restored. Shepherd the flock – that’s an elder’s task. 

And do it, he says, notice, “exercising oversight.” Elders do have the responsibility of overseeing the life of the church and the flock of God. Now as elders, I think we would all admit that we easily default to the role of managers. It’s not quite the same thing as an overseer. We get together and we make decisions, and that’s fair enough; that’s an important part of our work as elders. But actually Peter is reminding us of the harder part of our work, the uncomfortable part sometimes of our calling as elders. As elders, we are called primarily to be concerned with the oversight of the people, not just with efficient, organizational structure. Being an elder isn’t first about deciding who gets to do what around here. It is about loving the flock of God, feeding them the Word of God, and being in their lives with compassionate and godly concern.

And look at verse 2 again, because Peter is concerned here not just for what elders do, but for how and why we do it. Isn’t he? You see that in verse 2? “Shepherd the flock, 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.” Sam Storms, in his comments on the passage says, “The three negative attitudes might be summarized as love of praise, love of profit, and love of power.” That’s really helpful, I think. Love of praise, love of profit, and love of power. Those are the things elders are not to be motivated and driven by. We’re not to be driven by the love of praise. We are to shepherd, “not under compulsion, but willingly.” That is to say, the expectations of others ought not to be the driving motive in our hearts. Elders, like all Christian leaders and everyone involved in Christian service, should want to be elders. First Peter chapter 3 verse 1, “If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task.” Elders are meant to want to be elders and want to do the work of eldering. 

And look at verse 2. Shepherd them “not under compulsion, but willingly.” And notice this phrase, “as God would have you.” More literally, “according to God.” Willingly, shepherd them willingly, according to God, not according to the prevailing attitudes of your peers, not according to the moods and whims of the culture or the time; certainly not driven by any desire for the praise of men, but do it according to God. Let God set the terms. Do it for God’s glory, according to God’s Word. He wants us to be cheerful, wholehearted servants who care for the flock, His little flock. 

We are not to be driven by the love of praise. We are not to be driven by the love of profit. Look at the text again. Look at verse 2. We are to shepherd “not for shameful gain, but eagerly.” Now God has blessed First Presbyterian Church with men of integrity and sacrificial generosity to be your elders. I’m so proud to serve among them. They are remarkable. But it’s not hard to find cases in the wider church of spiritual abuse where leaders have leveraged their position to their own financial gain. Well Peter says instead of greed, generosity is to be the default setting of an elder’s life. Pour not only your resources but your very self out to care for the flock in imitation of the chief Shepherd, the Lord Jesus Christ. 

And thirdly, we’re not to be driven by the love of power. We are to shepherd, Peter says, “not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock.” Notice carefully Peter says, “the flock is in your charge.” Earlier he said, “the flock is among you.” An elder is among those for whom he is responsible. We’re not called to lord it over or be domineering in the church. Ours is not an office of control for the power hungry, but an office of ministry and care for the shepherd. And that means we are to be out among the people. Billy Dempsey, one of the pastors here, likes to say that shepherds should smell like the sheep. Shepherds should smell like the sheep. The sheep should know their shepherd so that when the shepherd leads them his sheep are glad to follow because they have seen his life. He has been an example of humility and tenderness and godliness and pointed them to Jesus. Paul could tell the Thessalonians in 1 Thessalonians 1:5, “You know how we lived among you for your sake.” That’s what every elder should be able to say to the people of God entrusted to their charge. “You know how we live among you for your sake.” Shepherds who love the sheep.

Let me speak to the elders of our congregation if I may for a moment directly. It’s never been more important, brother elders, for us to fulfill this part of our calling. Jesus’ lambs for whom He died are at risk right now. Aren’t they? They are vulnerable. Fear and unbelief, suffering and sickness, isolation and loneliness and so much more besides all threaten the spiritual health of the church in the midst of this pandemic. And we don’t know how much longer it’s going to go on. We can’t assume others will do the ministry that our people need. 

This is our calling brothers, and so we need to be asking ourselves as elders, “How am I going to minister to the Lord’s needy sheep?” They are in danger. They are bleating for their shepherds to come and care for them. Will we do it reluctantly, begrudgingly, under compulsion because we feel it’s expected? Will it be for the praise of men or will it be according to God for the glory of God on God’s terms in obedience to the Word of God? Will you serve only when it’s clear what you can get out of it? I’ve never seen that in you. Will you serve eagerly as you so readily do? Will you get yourself out among the sheep? Even if it can only be by a well-placed, well-timed phone call in these difficult days of social isolation, will you touch the flock? Can you say to your flock, “You know how we lived among you for your sake”? That’s our charge and our call. It is costly, but it is the call of Jesus Christ. Hear the bleating of the needy flock and go in obedience to the chief Shepherd.

The Elder’s Reward

The elder’s office, the elder’s work, thirdly, the elder’s reward. I need some encouragement to help me in that task; I’m sure you do too, those of you who are engaged in Christian ministry of any kind really. Look at verse 4. Here’s Peter’s encouragement and motivation. “When the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory.” What helps motivate a Christian servant, someone engaged in Christian ministry, an elder, to overcome awkwardness in calling up a member of the congregation he doesn’t know and checking on how they are doing? What can help an elder cross the pain barrier, that pain threshold, to do hard things for the Lord’s sheep in hard days? What helps a shepherd selfishly and sacrificially and eagerly? Well, Peter says it’s a clear view of the promise of glory that will be ours when the chief Shepherd appears. 

Peter has alluded to the theme of glory already back in verse 1, if you’ll look back there for a moment. Notice how he speaks about himself. He says he is first “a witness of the sufferings of Christ” and “a partaker of the glory that is going to be revealed.” These are the twin poles, aren’t they, between which the whole Christian life is lived – suffering and glory. Peter says, “I saw the suffering of Christ firsthand. I know what it cost Him to save me. And now looking at His cross, I know what it will cost me to follow Him.” And he’s not asking the elders to do anything, bear anything, be anything that Jesus hasn’t done first, borne for them, done for us first at the cross. And he’s not asking us to do anything or be anything he himself isn’t willing to do or be or bear himself.

But then he’s also a partaker of the glory that is to be revealed. He knows that following Christ is going to be costly. He was there when Jesus was nailed to the tree and yet, he could say as Paul puts it in Romans 8:18, “The sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing to the glory to be revealed.” Do you see the message? He’s saying, “Look fellas, being an elder is going to be hard and sore and costly, for sure, particularly in these days. But let me tell you as one who watched the crucifixion take place, who knows what following Jesus can cost, the glory to come is worth any cost we might be called upon to bear. The glory to come is worth any cost we might be called upon to bear. When the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive an unfading crown of glory.”

When Christian service here is hard and long and wearisome, and it sometimes is, Peter wants us to look for the coming of the chief Shepherd and the glory that’s waiting and to press on to take hold of the prize. That’s actually a principle for all of us in our Christian lives in these days. Isn’t it? Through toil and trial, through suffering, perhaps even through sickness, through isolation, look for the appearing of the chief Shepherd, for the crown of glory promised, and press on. 

The Elder’s Reception 

The elder’s office, the elder’s work, the elder’s reward. Finally, the elder’s reception. How should we respond to our elders when they care for us like this? Look at verse 5. “Likewise, you who are younger be subject to the elders.” “You who are younger” there doesn’t mean those of you who are literally junior in age. It’s the opposite of the word “presbuteroi.” Elder, it means junior in the congregation in relation to the elders. He’s really talking about all of us who are to be shepherded by the elders who do the shepherding.

And how are we to respond? Well, we are to be subject to the elders. Subjection and submission today – those are dirty words. We live in a time of radical individualism and autonomy where to really be free and satisfied means to be completely self-determining. So I want you to feel how counter cultural Peter’s words are here, how radical, how profound a witness they offer to a world in a time of isolation, when a rugged and radical individualism actually creates more pain in these days of isolation than it helps. Peter is saying Christians love each other, elders pour their lives out for the flock, and the flock gladly follow the elder’s lead so that there is a beautiful unity of mutual submission to King Jesus and to one another so that while society may fracture and fragment, the church holds together as one body, one flock, under one Head, one Shepherd – the Lord Jesus Christ. What a profound witness that can be. 

The church of Jesus Christ flourishes under the governance and care of Jesus, the chief Shepherd, who is coming. He has made us one and Peter is writing to encourage and promote and further that unity. Though we are separated by great distance, we are one in Him. And your elders are His hands and feet as it were to extend the touch of His care into your lives. The elder’s office, the elder’s work, the elder’s reward, and the elder’s reception. As we respond to God’s Word, may He get glory in our hearts, in our homes, and in our church and in our land in these dark days. Would you pray with me please?

Father, thank You for Your holy Word. We pray for our elders and for the elders of all Your churches in this nation. May they be men of God who care for the flock with tenderness and compassion, with courage, with vision, with joy, serving the chief Shepherd through whatever trials may yet come, looking for His appearing and for the reward of glory that is promised. And help all of us as we imitate them to press on, to take hold of that for which God has taken hold of us in Christ Jesus. For we ask it in His name, amen.