By Christopher VanDusen
All believers in the Lord Jesus Christ ought to be prepared for fiery persecution, but how do church leaders prepare their churches for this, and how do those under their leadership help them to prepare? The apostle Peter answers these questions in 1 Peter 5:1-5.
1 Peter is a letter that Peter wrote to a large number of Christians who were suffering insults, criticism, and slander from their unbelieving neighbors. After Peter heard of this, he wrote the letter to these believers whom he calls “aliens”. In it, he comforts, encourages, and instructs them on how to respond rightly to their persecution.
Peter begins by describing the great salvation that God has given to them through Christ, and focuses on the hope of the completion of their salvation at His return. He then reminds them of the fact that the Old Testament prophets sought to understand it, but were never able to understand what the aliens have now experienced.
In the next section, Peter begins to explain how the aliens are to live in light of their salvation. They’re to be hopeful, holy, and reverent toward God. Then, he applies this instruction to their relationships with one another by commanding them to love one another passionately because of their common spiritual life. To begin the second chapter, he tells them to stop sinning against one another, and to long to learn God’s Word so they can become more like God.
In the next section, Peter describes how the aliens are learning God’s Word to serve Him as His priests. He says that they’re fulfilling this role on earth by proclaiming God’s goodness to the world around them. Then, he instructs them on how to do this with respect to their governments, their masters, husbands, and their wives. To conclude this section in the beginning of chapter 3, Peter commands them to be united, and to bless those who persecute them.
After this, Peter expands on how and why the aliens are to respond to persecution. First, they need to continue to live righteously, since it’s better to suffer for good, than to suffer for evil. Second, they need to do this to follow the example of Christ, who conquered evil, saved their souls, and earned God’s blessing — all by suffering. To begin chapter 4, Peter commands the aliens to view suffering the way that Christ did, since they’ve died to sin, and are alive to righteousness. To conclude this section, and the chapter, he forbids them from being surprised at fiery persecution. Rather, they’re to rejoice in it by trusting God.
To add to his instruction on how to respond to fiery persecution, Peter begins chapter 5 by explaining how elders are to treat their congregations, and how congregations are to treat their churches in verses 1-5:
“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: 2 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; 3 not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock. 4 And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory. 5 Likewise, you who are younger, be subject to the elders. Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.”” (ESV)
In this passage, Peter gives five main instructions to the aliens:
- Elders are to Shepherd Earnestly (vss. 1-2a)
- Elders are to Shepherd Eagerly (v. 2b)
- Elders are to Shepherd by Example (vss. 3-4)
- The Younger are to Submit to their Elders (v. 5a)
- Everyone is to Show Humility toward Everyone (v. 5b)
Elders are to Shepherd Earnestly
Peter begins his instruction for elders by relating to them, and by describing their most important duty in the churches:
“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 . . .”
Peter begins his instruction with the word “so” or “therefore” to show that the reason he’s giving this instruction is because he’s just told the aliens that they need to expect fiery persecution, and rejoice in it by trusting God. But how do they trust God, and continue to do what He’s commanded them to do, when this is what leads to their persecution? One of the most important ways that this is accomplished is by church leaders leading their churches well.
Peter addresses the aliens’ church leaders by “exhorting” them. The Greek word translated “exhort” literally means “call near”, and could also be translated “call”, “encourage”, or “urge”. So, this isn’t just a command from Peter, but an urgent plea for these church leaders to obey him.
Peter describes these church leaders as “elders”, which literally means “those who are mature”. In the church, these are spiritually mature men who meet the character qualifications in the apostle Paul’s letters of 1 and 2 Timothy, and Titus, and are skilled at teaching God’s Word. The reason they’re called “elders” isn’t only because they’re spiritually mature, but also because they’re experienced at living life.
Next, Peter describes himself 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”. In this case, he’s not only instructing them as an apostle of Jesus Christ, but especially as an elder just like them. In other words, he’s not addressing them here as their superior, but as their equal. Further, he reminds them that he witnessed Christ’s sufferings, to tell them that he understands what he’s calling them to do when he tells them to suffer persecution like Christ. Finally, he says that he shares in “the glory that is going to be revealed”. This is the glory of Christ that’s going to be “revealed” when Christ returns and gives all of His people new, perfect, and sinless bodies like His.
Peter’s first command for the elders is to “shepherd the flock of God that is among you”. Here, he’s likening the elders to shepherds of sheep. However, these flocks don’t belong to them, but to God. Also, these flocks are among them, and not next to them. Therefore, they’re to shepherd the people that they know.
By commanding the elders to “shepherd”, Peter’s telling them to do a few things. First, Jewish shepherds led their sheep to food. In the same way, the elders are to lead their congregations to the food of God’s Word. Second, shepherds led their sheep by talking to them. This means that the elders are to teach their congregations God’s Word. Finally, shepherds protected their sheep from predators. Similarly, the elders are to warn their congregations of false teaching, false teachers, and temptations.
Secondly, Peter describes the main way that the elders shepherd their sheep. It’s by “exercising oversight”, or “overseeing”. The Greek word literally means “look intently at”. This means that the elders need to understand the condition and needs of their congregations, and diligently pay attention to them.
Finally, Peter describes the first way that the elders are to oversee their congregations. First of all, it’s “not under compulsion”, or not because they’re forced to, or have to. Rather, they’re to do it “willingly, as God would have [them]”. This means that they’re to be all in, and to watch over their congregations with genuine concern and love.
Elders are to Shepherd Eagerly
In the second part of verse 2, Peter commands elders to shepherd their congregation eagerly by saying, “not for shameful gain, but eagerly”.
Yet again, he forbids them from shepherding in a wrong way by saying that they’re not to do so “for shameful gain”. By using the word “shameful”, Peter’s describing this gain as that which brings shame to him who gets it, since it’s wrong. This “gain” could describe multiple things, such as power, praise, or physical pleasure, but is especially referring to money, since that’s the type of “shameful gain” that’s warned against multiple times in Paul’s letters, particularly in his letters about elders. Therefore, Peter’s specifically forbidding the elders from shepherding in order to make money in evil ways. In fact, he would echo Paul’s teaching that elders ought not to be motivated by a desire for money at all.
Rather than shepherding their congregations on the condition that they wrongly profit from them, the elders need to do so eagerly. In other words, they’re to be motivated by their own desire to shepherd their congregations, rather than a desire to take from their congregations.
Elders are to Shepherd by Example
Peter’s final instruction for elders in verses 3-4 describes the way in which they ought to lead their congregations, with the promise of a reward for those who obey him:
“. . . 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.”
The prohibition here is for the elders to avoid “domineering over” the congregations “in [their] charge”. The Greek word translated “domineering over” literally means “exercising lordship over” or “lording it over”. This means that the elders aren’t to act as the “lords” or “rulers” of their congregations. Peter describes their congregations by using a Greek word that literally means “portion”. By saying this, he’s reminding the elders that the Lord has entrusted their congregations to them.
Rather than shepherding their congregations by acting as their lords or masters, Peter commands the elders to be “examples to the flock”. They’re to lead by example, rather than merely authoritative command. Rather than saying, “do this because I’m the one telling you to”, they’re to say “look at how I’m living, and imitate me”. This will force them to practice what they preach.
To conclude his instructions for elders, Peter promises those who follow them a reward from the Lord. He says that they’ll “receive the unfading crown of glory” when “the chief Shepherd appears”. By calling Jesus “the chief Shepherd”, Peter’s again implying that the congregations under the care of the elders belong to Him, and not to them. Therefore, by shepherding the flocks, they’re working for Jesus. When Peter says that He’ll “appear”, he’s referring again to the return of Christ, when “glory . . . is going to be revealed”. That’s why he calls the reward that obedient elders will receive “the unfading crown of glory”. This is a reference to crowns made of leaves that were given to the winners of athletic contests at that time. Whereas they faded away, the “crown” that the faithful elders will receive will never fade away, since it’s actually “the glory that is going to be revealed”, and which they’ll “partake” of by being given new bodies, and eternal life on the new earth. In other words, “the unfading crown of glory” is at least partly symbolic, representing the glory of Jesus that they’ll share in because they’ve proven that they’re true shepherds, and therefore true sheep.
The Younger are to Submit to their Elders
To begin verse 5, Peter next instructs the congregations on how they’re to treat their elders by saying:
“Likewise, you who are younger, be subject to the elders.”
Peter begins this command with the word “likewise”, which means “in the same way”. He does this to connect this command the reason that he instructed the elders in the way that he did. Just as the reason for his instructions to them was because the aliens are going to endure fiery persecution, and need to trust God, and continue to obey Him, so also this is the reason he’s giving this command to those who are “younger”.
By calling these people “you who are younger”, Peter’s implying that the elders aren’t just spiritually more mature than them, but also older. Younger Christians who are under the oversight and leadership of older people need to be reminded that they need to “be subject to the elders” in times of fiery persecution. The reason for this is that younger people are less wise, less self-controlled, and less experienced than the elders. Thus, they are more likely to be tempted to react to times of intense suffering in stupid or sinful ways.
Instead of giving in to these temptations, they need to “be subject to the elders”. The phrase “be subject” means to recognize the authority of someone over you, and agree to obey him. In this case, the younger aliens are to recognize the authority and position of their elders over them, and obey their instructions insofar as they are consistent with the teaching of Christ and His apostles.
Everyone is to Show Humility to Everyone
Peter ends this instruction on the relationship between elders and their congregations by commanding both elders and congregations to be humble toward one another:
“Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for ‘God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.'”
First, Peter commands all of the aliens to “clothe” themselves. This means that the quality they’re to display must “cover them”, and be seen to those around them. This quality is “humility toward one another”. The Greek word for “humility” literally means “lowliness of mind”, and means to have a proper attitude toward one’s value with relation to others. It means to see oneself as a slave of Christ, and a servant of others, so that you’re no more important than anyone else. On the contrary, it leads you to obey Paul’s command in Philippians 2:3 to “count others more significant than yourselves” (ESV).
When applied to the elders, this means that they need to view themselves no more important than their flocks. When applied to those younger than them, this means that they should view their youthfulness as no better than the “oldness” or “elderliness” of their elders.
The reason that Peter gives the aliens for being humble toward one another is that “‘God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble'”. This is a quotation from the Old Testament that means that God “works against” those who value themselves more than others, but gives “favor” to those who value themselves rightly, and others more than themselves. In other words, if the aliens don’t treat one another with humility, then they are doing something that’s unchristian, but being humble will bring God’s blessing.
Elders Shepherd, Young Ones Submit, and All Be Humble
So, if you’re a believer in the Lord Jesus Christ, how does this passage apply to you.
First, if you’re an elder who’s overseeing and shepherding a church, do you view the apostle Peter as a fellow elder? When you read his letters, and read about him in the New Testament, remember that he wasn’t just an apostle, but also an elder of a church.
Second, if you’re an elder, are you shepherding the flock of God that’s among you?
Third, are you overseeing your congregation willingly?
Fourth, are you overseeing your congregation eagerly, rather than to shamefully gain from them?
Fifth, are you being an example to your congregation, rather than acting as one of their lords?
Finally, remember that if you’re a willing, eager, and exemplary shepherd of your congregation, then you’ll receive the unfading crown of glory when your chief Shepherd appears.
If you’re less mature than the leadership of your church, are you being subject to them?
Finally, do you clothe yourself with humility toward your brothers and sisters in Christ because God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble?
If you’re a habitually proud person, then that means that God is opposed to you, and hasn’t given you His grace. This means that you’re an enemy of God, and are living in rebellion against Him. If you continue to think that you’re more important than God, then He will eventually punish you forever for your rebellion. The good news is that He sent His eternal and divine Son to earth to become a man, Jesus of Nazareth, to live the perfect life, and to suffer and die on a Roman cross to be punished by God for our acts of rebellion. Then, He raised Him from the dead, and took Him into heaven as our Ruler. He commands everyone to change their minds and put their trust in Jesus as their Lord and Savior to receive His mercy and forgiveness, since He’s going to judge everyone perfectly through Jesus, and punish all His enemies in a place of eternal torment. Please make sure that you’ve repented of your rebellion against Him, and are trusting only in Jesus to save you from God’s punishment, and from your evil. If you’ve done that, then Jesus commands all His believers to be baptized in water by a Christian as an appeal to God for a clear conscience, and a profession of faith.
All Scripture quotations are taken from the:
English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Text Edition: 2016. Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.