Last week we spent our time on verses 12 to 19 of chapter 4 where Peter was writing about suffering for the faith and how, whoever suffers for the faith, ought to entrust themselves to God and continue to do good. And having written about those things, Peter turns his attention to the work of the elders. You see, we’re to entrust ourselves to our God; and one of the ways the Lord looks after his people, one of the ways he cares for his people and protects them, is by providing his people with elders, elders who are called by God to watch over his people the way a shepherd watches over his sheep. And today’s passage — which is about the eldership — can be divided into three parts. Firstly, in verse 1, Peter describes himself. Secondly, in verses 2 to 4, he describes the work of the elders. Thirdly, in verse 5, he addresses those who are not elders. So, let’s look at these three parts now.
So, look with me at verse 1 where Peter writes:
To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow-elder, a witness of Christ’s sufferings, and one who also will share in the glory to be revealed.
Peter is describing himself in this verse; and it’s interesting to note once again the way he keeps coming back to heaven. We’ve seen this all the way through this letter. Back in chapter 1, he wrote about how Christians are strangers and aliens in the world; and we’re strangers and aliens in the world, because this world is not our true home; our true home is now in heaven, with Jesus Christ our Saviour. That’s where we really belong, and we’re only living here, on the earth, for the time-being. And Peter went on to write about our inheritance which, of course, is eternal life in the presence of God; and it’s an inheritance which can never perish, spoil or fade, because it’s kept safe for us in heaven. In chapter 2, he once again referred to our status as aliens and strangers in the world; and he went on to show that, though our true home is in heaven, we’re to live good lives on the earth, in the hope that those who see our good deeds, and the way we live, will come to glorify the Lord. And then in chapter 4 he announced that the end of all things is near; it’s near because the next big date on God’s calendar is the coming of the Lord Jesus, who will come to judge the living and the dead, and to bring his faithful people to our heavenly home. And then, in last week’s passage, he reminded his readers that whatever fiery trials we now suffer will only last for a while, and God has something far, far, far better in store for us in the future.
Right throughout this letter, Peter kept coming back to heaven and to everlasting life in the presence of God. And he does the same in verse 1 of chapter 5 when he’s describing himself, because not only does he describe himself as an elder, and not only does he describe himself as a witness to the Lord’s suffering, but he also describes himself as one who will share in the glory to be revealed. And he’s talking about the glory of the Lord Jesus Christ. When he first came to earth, and was born in Bethlehem, he was born in weakness and in poverty and in obscurity. Though there were angels to welcome him, and shepherds and wise men, hardly anyone in the world knew about his birth; and hardly anyone who saw him during his life on earth understood that he was the Son of God. And all through his life, he kept his glory hidden most of the time. But the day is coming, when he will come to earth again; and when he comes, he’ll come in glory and power; and every eye will see him; and every knee will bow before him; and every tongue will confess that he is indeed the Lord. His glory will be revealed to all. And when he comes like that, his people will be glorified with him and we will live with him for ever. That’s what Peter is referring to in verse 1: sharing in Christ’s glory when he comes again. That was Peter’s great hope; and it’s the great hope shared by all those who trust in the Lord Jesus Christ. Our life now is often marked by sorrow and suffering; that’s what we were thinking about last week: suffering for Christ. But just as the Lord Jesus suffered first and then entered his glory, so all who trust in him, may have to suffer all kinds of fiery trials in this life; but afterwards, we will enter his glory and share it with him.
The Elders: their work
So, in verse 1, Peter describes himself. And it’s interesting that he sees himself as an elder. Yes, he was an apostle, chosen by the Lord Jesus for that very special office in the church. But he also saw himself as an elder. And in verses 2 to 4, he addresses his fellow-elders. And this part of the passage can also be divided into three parts. Firstly, he describes the work of the elder. Secondly, he describes the way they should do their work. And thirdly, he mentions their reward.
So, firstly, the work of the elder. Peter said to them:
Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, serving as overseers.
So, what are the elders to do? Well, they’re to shepherd God’s people, his flock. And they’re to do that by overseeing them. So, think of a shepherd, who watches over his sheep. He has to watch over his sheep to ensure that none of them go astray, because sheep are prone to wander. I’ve mentioned before how one of our members in my last church was a sheep farmer; and he used to talk about how sheep were so stupid and they would wander off and get lost. If they saw a hole in the hedge, they would immediately go through it, leaving behind the lush grass in their field and heading off who knows where.
The shepherd has to watch over the sheep to ensure that none of them go astray. And he also has to watch out for danger, because sheep are weak and vulnerable, and there are wild and vicious animals, lurking nearby, ready to pounce on the unsuspecting sheep.
A shepherd needs to watch over his sheep, to ensure they don’t go astray and to ensure that they are safe. And that’s what the elders are to do. They’re to watch over the congregation to ensure that none of the members go astray, and head down a path which is not right and which is not good for them. And they’re to watch out for danger, because there’s the Devil who is like a roaring lion, and he wants to pounce on us and to destroy our faith in Christ; and there’s the world around us, which is always trying to get us to conform to its way of doing things; and there’s our own sinful human nature which is always ready to lead us along the wrong path.
The elders must be vigilant and alert all of the time; and they need to watch over the Lord’s people all of the time. And, of course, the way they keep the people from going astray, is by teaching them and reminding them of God’s word, because in God’s word, the Lord reveals to his people what is the right way for us to go and what is the wrong way for us to go. In his word, he has revealed to us the paths of righteousness which we’re to follow along; and it’s the duty of the elders to teach the people so that they will not go astray and head down a wrong path.
And the way they warn the people of the dangers around them is also by teaching them and by reminding them of God’s word, because in God’s word, the Lord warns us of the dangers of the Devil and of the dangers of the world and of the dangers of the flesh.
And so, it’s the duty of the elders to teach the people and to remind the people continually of God’s word, because in God’s word the Lord has shown us the way we’re to go; and in God’s word the Lord has warned us of the dangers we face. And so, in our pulpits all around the world, the teaching-elders will teach the people; and in homes all around the world, the elders will bring biblical counsel to the people; and when the elders meet together to consider the work of the church, they’re to examine God’s word in order to see what the Lord has revealed.
The Elders: the way they should work
Peter then moves on to describe the way the elders should do their work. And there are three contrasts. Firstly, they are to serve, he says in verse 2, not because you must — or we might say, ‘under compulsion’ — but willingly. Elders are not to do their work reluctantly or grudgingly. They’re to do their work willingly. Gladly. Voluntarily. And Peter adds: ‘as God wants you to be’. The Lord wants our glad and joyful service. He doesn’t want someone to take on the eldership with the attitude which says: ‘Well, someone has to do it.’ He wants elders to do their work willingly; and that’s what pleases him.
Secondly, elders should not be greedy for money, but eager to serve. That’s in verse 2 as well. Before an elder is ordained in the Presbyterian Church, he’s asked a number of questions during the service of ordination. And the first question each elder is asked to answer refers to his motivation for taking on this office. You see, we don’t want elders who take on the eldership for what they can get out of it. We don’t want elders who are hoping to advance themselves by taking on this responsibility. We don’t want self-serving elders. Instead we want elders who are eager to serve others. Think of the Great Shepherd, the Lord Jesus, who came into the world, not to be served, but to serve. And how did the Lord Jesus serve his people? By giving up his life for us. So, elders are to give themselves to serving God’s people. They’re to give up their time and their energy in order to watch over the Lord’s people.
And thirdly, elders should not lord it over those entrusted to them. Now, elders exercise authority in the church; they’re to be leaders in the church. For instance, in verse 4, the young men are commanded to be submissive towards the elders; they’re to obey them. So, elders do exercise authority in the church. However, they’re not to abuse their authority; they’re not to become bullies and tyrants; and they certainly have no right whatsoever to use force in the church. So, how are they to lead the congregation? If they can’t use force or threats and if they can’t bully people, what can they do? Well, one way they lead the congregation is this: they’re to lead by example. Peter says in verse 3:
not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock.
In biblical times shepherds used to walk ahead of the sheep; and the sheep followed behind; and wherever the shepherd went, the sheep followed. Well, elders are to live their lives in such a way that the congregation will be happy to follow them. A member wants to know how to glorify God; let them follow the example of the elders. A member wants to know how to please the Lord; let them follow the example of the elders. A member wants to know how a Christian should live; well, let them follow the example of the elders. And so, elders should be the kind of people who set a good and godly example at all times.
There’s something for our elders to think about. Are you doing the work of an elder reluctantly, or are you glad to do it, because you want to please the Lord? Are you doing the work of an elder only because of what you can get out of it, or because you’re willing to follow your Master who came, not to be served, but to serve and to give his life for his people? And if everyone in your district was to follow your example, and do what you do, would they be better Christians than they are now?
So, there’s the work of the elder. There’s they way the elder should do his work. And then there’s the elder’s reward. Verse 4:
And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away.
In biblical times, the under-shepherds were out in the fields, looking after the flocks; and from time to time the Chief Shepherd would come out to see how they were getting on and to see whether they were doing their work well or whether they were slacking off. Well, one day the Chief Shepherd is going to come — and Peter is referring to the day when the Lord Jesus comes again — and when he comes, what will he find? Well, if he finds that his elders have been faithful, then he will give them a crown to reward them for their faithful service. Peter calls it ‘a crown of glory that will never fade away’. Athletes in those days, when they won a race, would receive a crown or wreath made of leaves. And so, of course, the leaves would eventually wither and die. But the crown which the Lord Jesus gives his faithful elders as a reward will never wither or fade or perish. It’s an everlasting reward.
So, there’s something for our elders to think about: there’s something to motivate you to greater faithfulness: if you serve the Lord faithfully, and if you watch over his people carefully, then, when the Lord Jesus Christ comes and inspects your work, he will give to you a crown of glory which will never fade, but which will shine through all eternity. There’s something for you to think about when you’re tired and fed up and are tempted to slack off in your duties.
And there’s something for the members to pray about: pray for the Lord to help our elders to do their work well, so that when the Lord Jesus comes again, he’ll gladly set on their heads this wonderful crown of glory as a reward for their labour.
So, Peter describes himself. And he describes the work of an elder. Finally, he he addresses those who are not elders. Listen to verse 5:
Young men, in the same way be submissive to those who are older. All of you, cloth yourselves with humility towards one another, because ‘God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble’.
Actually, it should have been translated:
Young men, be submissive to the elders….
Now, the commentators discuss why Peter refers specifically to young men here. No one is entirely sure, but a good suggestion is that the young men in the congregation are the ones who need to be reminded of their duty to submit themselves to the elders. Young men are often independent and stubborn and they have the attitude that no one is going to tell them what to do. Well, says Peter, in the church of Jesus Christ, someone does have to tell you what to do.
But, of course, it’s not only young men who are like that. I know older men who are like that. And I know lots of women, young and old, who are like that. We all need to hear this instruction from Peter and to remind ourselves that if Jesus Christ, the head and king of the church, thinks we need elders to oversee us, then we do need elders to oversee us. None of us should imagine that we’re wiser than the Lord Jesus; and therefore none of us should think to ourselves that we don’t need the elders. If Jesus Christ says we need elders, then we do. So, we’re to submit to their authority and we’re to do what they say. And that means, learning from their example and following their leadership as they seek to do what is best for the spiritual well-being of the congregation. We should pay attention to the elders and respect their authority.
And all of us, all of us, should be completely humble towards one another. Peter says we’re to cloth ourselves with humility. When you get up in the morning, you put on your clothes; and you continue to wear them throughout the day. Well, since we’re to clothe ourselves with humility, that means we’re to be humble towards one another throughout the whole of the day, seeking to love and serve one another, putting others first, putting them before ourselves. However, the person who is proud always assumes he or she is better or knows more than everyone else. He always wants to get his point across; she always wants everyone to listen to her; the proud person wants everyone to do what they say; and the proud person is annoyed whenever they don’t get their own way.
But look at this: God opposes the proud person. For a time, he might get his own way; for a time she might get what she wants; they get their own way, because they’re so pushy. But ultimately, the Lord is against them. So, instead of being proud and pushy, we should be humble, because whereas God opposes the proud, he graciously helps those who humble themselves.
So, God has given us elders to watch over us for our good and to teach us to obey God’s word. And the members of the church ought to submit to them and be humble towards one another. Well, we’re going through the book of Exodus on Sunday evenings, and we’re almost at the point in the story when the Israelites made the golden calf. Why did they make that golden calf? Firstly, because Aaron, their leader, failed to warn them that what they were doing was wrong and he didn’t teach them to obey God’s word. Secondly, because they were proud and thought they knew best. And because their leader didn’t warn them, and didn’t teach them to obey God’s word, and because they were proud and thought they knew best, they ended up doing what they should never had done: they bowed down and worshipped an idol. Well, if only their leader had warned them; if only he had reminded them of God’s word; if only they were humble and willing to listen, what a difference it would have made. And so, we ought always to pray to the Lord, asking him to help our leaders to watch over us and to teach us to obey God’s word. And we ought alway to pray to the Lord, asking him to help us to be humble and teachable and to be willing to submit to their leadership.