Sermon preached on 1 Peter 5:1-7 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 8/28/2011 in Novato, CA.
Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
1 Peter 5:1-7
“When the Chief Shepherd Appears”
In a postmodern culture, one of the things most disliked is authority. Some of you might recall the popular bumper sticker that said, “Question Authority.” This is a mentality that continues in our culture today. Many different types of authorities have been questioned in this postmodern culture. And yet though life has many authority structures in it, one of those structures that often seems most questioned is the authority in the church.
Now to be fair, there is often good reason why authority has been questioned in the past. In our country’s history, if authority wasn’t questioned, we’d not have the Declaration of Independence and the democratic republic that we hold so dear. In our church’s history, if authority wasn’t questioned, you wouldn’t have had the Protestant Reformation, something we continue to celebrate. There are times that we must question authority. We should always exercise discernment, and not assume that just because someone has a title that they are exercising their office appropriately. And yet, we do have to guard against a reactionary response. Discernment is not the same as distrust. We should look to guard against the classical abuses of authority. But we have to also guard against a response that would get rid of something very important in the Scriptures. We need to remember, that God has established various authority structures, including those in the church. God is not an anarchist. Given our postmodern culture’s distaste for authority this is something we need to particularly emphasize when we get to it in Scripture. And we should see that the Scriptures not only speak to those under authority. They also constrain those who are in authority as well. That’s what this passage shows us. It exhorts the elders in the church. And it exhorts those who are under the elder’s authority. And what we’ll see today, this is a part of how God lovingly cares for his people. Ultimately, this points us to Jesus Christ, our Chief Shepherd, who is constantly caring for his sheep.
Well, let’s begin by examining what Peter has to say to the elders in the church. The elders are those entrusted in the church with the normal rule and shepherding of the church. Some elders have the specialized tasks of ministering the word and sacrament, and we call them pastors. And yet all elders will pastor in some sense, in the sense of shepherding the people. That’s what we see Peter calling the elders to here. Verse 1 Peter addresses the elders of the church. He even identifies with them. He says that he’s a fellow elder. He goes on to say that he shares in common with them the glory that will be revealed. And yet Peter also especially draws out his unique position – as someone who is a witness of the suffering of Christ. To these elders he commands them in verse 2, “Shepherd the flock of God.” Some of you might recall that at our elder visitations, we’ve been reading over Acts 20 where Paul calls the Ephesian elders to pay careful attention to the flock of God. That’s the same idea as what we have here in 1 Peter. Elders are called to shepherd. They are to tend and care for the flock. They are to feed the sheep with the Word of God and guard them from the spiritual wolves and thieves that are out there. They have been called to spiritual oversight. Peter calls them to that right here. This is the elder’s responsibility. It’s not an optional thing. It’s not something that an elder might do if they have enough time. If they have been ordained as an elder, they are to shepherd those who are among them, according to verse 2. And so to the elders among us, I bring this command to you – shepherd the flock of God. Care for those God has entrusted to your care. Care for them according to the Word of God. With your time, with your love, with your concern, with your strength, with your spiritual gifts. Shepherd. Oversee. Love.
Peter goes on to explain what this shepherding should not look like, and what it should look like. He gives three descriptions: each with a negative and a positive description. First one. He says in verse 2 that this leadership work should not be done by compulsion, but willingly. Not out of a simple sense of forced obligation, but as the joyful desire of your heart. Back in the Old Testament, God had the people select elders to serve. In the New Testament, the missionaries are seen appointing elders in the church to serve. Today we as a church continue to select them and appoint them to service in the church. However, just because someone accepts the position, doesn’t also mean that it was their heart’s desire to serve as an elder. In 1 Timothy 3:1 it says that it’s commendable to desire to be an elder. And yet, among pastors, and among ruling elders, I find that just because someone takes the job, doesn’t mean they take it simply out of great joy to serve. Often they do struggle with taking it out of compulsion. They see the need in the church, and they see that there aren’t maybe a lot of people able and willingly to do it, and so out of a sense of obligation they take the job. Now, I do think that if you take a position out a genuine desire to serve, that’s not a bad motivation. But a better motivation is to really want to serve in that way. Elders, if you find yourself struggling with this, call out to God to grow your heart. So that your service is not chiefly done because it’s your duty, but pray that it would be your delight.
The second description is at the end of verse 2. Elders are to serve, not for dishonest gain, but eagerly. This doesn’t preclude an elder or a pastor from getting paid. We know that because other Scriptures make it very clear that it’s appropriate to pay those elders who devote their life in their service to the church. Rather, the concern here is that an elder doesn’t use his office for shameful gain. For something dishonest or illegal. Back then elders could steal from the contributions. Think of Judas Iscariot. John 12 records that among the Twelve Disciples he was the treasurer that held the money donated to give to the poor, and it says he was stealing from that fund. Elders were given a lot of trust, and could take advantage of that. Even today, that could be a real possibility. The elders in our church and most churches try to handle money in pairs, to try to keep that temptation from even happening. But it’s still a possibility. And then you can think of how Jesus condemned those scribes who took advantage of widows’ hospitality, essentially eating them out of house and home. Elders too could be motivated to try to take advantage of their office for their financial benefit. Peter says this sinful attitude must not be their motivation. But notice what he says should be their motivation. He doesn’t say don’t be motivated by dishonest gain, but by honest gain. No, he says to be serving eagerly. In other words, money really isn’t to be the motivation at all. Your service as an elder must be something you are genuinely eager to do.
The third description is in verse 3. Don’t Lord your position over others, rather be an example to the flock. This is an interesting one and a very important one. It explains the tone of the leadership. Certainly this passage and others show that elders have to exercise authority and oversight. But this is to be done in a spirit of brotherhood. Elders are not better, smarter, more important people. They should not pridefully domineer their brethren. A good illustration of this is in Deuteronomy 17:20. There it instructs how the future kings of Israel are to act. It says that they must not consider themselves better than their brothers. That’s the same kind of idea here with the elders. Yes, they have a position of leadership and authority. But that’s not to make them grow haughty. They themselves are not to be above God’s laws. Rather, they should chiefly show what an elder is all about by looking to live out those laws. They are to be good examples to the flock. That of course means that when they do sin or make a mistake they will show an example of what a Christian does in those circumstances. Christian’s ought not to pretend they never sin or struggle. But when they do, they confess their sins to one another, the look to reconcile with others, and they rely on God’s grace in how they live.
Peter gives elders some motivation for their service. This is verse 4. They are to serve, and serve in this way, because Christ is coming back. Christ who himself is the chief shepherd. There’s a bit of warning implied here, as well as a wonderful promise of blessing. The warning is that elders are not the chief shepherds. They are under Christ. Christ is the chief. He’s the king and head of his church. Elders are but undershepherds. We serve him. He is the master. We are his servants. And this master is coming back. Remember Christ told different parables about how servants are to act in light of the master coming back. Those servants who acted wickedly in their master’s absence, not following their instruction, were met with horror at their master’s homecoming. On the other hand, those who served faithfully were commended. “Well done, good and faithful servant.” Well, Peter here assumes for these elders that they will serve well. He points them to their rewards. He says in verse 4 that when Christ comes back, that he will have for them a crown of unfading glory. The crown is the imagery. The glory is the ultimate reward. What this will look like, I can’t say for sure. Some have thought this just refers to their eternal life. That’s possible. But there are passages that talk about additional reward Christians will receive for their faithful service in this life. Most tend to see that’s what’s in view here. That’s how I take it as well. Scripture talks about this extra reward in glory. But it doesn’t tell us much of what it will look like. Rather, let elders be content to know that this reward is promised, and that it will be glorious. May that fuel our service as elders. And certainly this same sort of motivation is held out to all Christians that they will be rewarded for their faithful service in this life.
Let me add an additional encouragement to the elders here. Peter says we need to be examples to the flock. And yet, recall that Peter says here in verse 1 that he was a witness to the sufferings of Jesus. When he points out his witness of Christ’s sufferings, you can’t help but remember Peter’s own shortcomings there. When he witnessed Christ’s arrest, how he faltered. He denied Christ three times, just prior to his death. After pridefully saying that even if all else fell away, that he would not; so shortly after he himself denied knowing Jesus three times. And yet Peter had been restored and made an apostle. In John 21, we see Jesus restore him. And Jesus restored him to the ministry of an apostle and an elder. Three times there in John 21, Jesus asks Peter if he loves him, and then commands Peter to feed and care for his sheep. This should be an encouragement to the elders here. We might stumble and fall, even as we serve. But God is able to restore us even in our shortcomings. Keep loving our Lord and looking to his grace.
So we’ve talked about what Peter calls the elders to do here. You see, that God is very much concerned that his elders serve in a particular way. Other passages as well mandate how elders are to serve and what that service should look like. God is concerned that the authority of elders is properly administered. But then Peter turns to address those who are under the elders’ authority. Verse 5. He addresses those who are younger. That’s a bit of a strange way to describe this. Some have thought he was only referring to younger aged people, that maybe younger aged people are the ones who have difficulty submitting to the elders in the church. That this was a unique problem to that age group. But what is likely a better interpretation is that Peter is just using a comparative word to distinguish those who are not the elders. In other words, the comparison is not one age, but on office. Today we have a special word to describe this that they didn’t use yet back then – lay people. The unordained, the rest of the people in the church. Either way, what’s mentioned in the rest of the passage clearly applies to the whole church.
And that is a call to submission, and to humility. The first part of verse 5 is where we find the call for the submission to the elders. The word for submission here is where you subject or subordinate yourself to an authority. Granted we do this, in the Lord. We don’t follow elders to disobey God’s word. We do use discernment. But submission, means that you generally obey them. You see, to be in submission to an elder, or any authority, you have three main options when they make a decision. One option, you can actively concur with it. That means you agree with it, and your submission comes natural. A second option, is that you passively submit to it. In other words, you might not agree with the authority’s decision, but it’s an act of humility and obedience, where you acknowledge your disagreement in your heart, but in humility you recognize the office and authority and say maybe that you are in error, and so you passively submit. Or you say that the peace of the church would require you to passively submit, even if you think they are wrong. A third option would be to peaceably withdraw. This an extreme measure. When the matter is of such significance that your conscience does not allow you to either actively concur or passively submit, then you have no other choice but to peaceably withdraw from that authority. There may be ramifications in that process, such as you find yourself under church discipline, but that’s another discussion. But realize that you should not consider peaceably withdrawing unless you have exhausted your options to try to appeal the decision of an authority. For example, if your elders at Trinity do something unbiblical, before you peaceably withdraw, you humbly should try to get them to change their decision, and then even appeal the matter to the higher channels in our presbytery and denomination. That’s the bigger part of being in submission to the government of the church. You follow all the channels of the Biblical church government until you can either actively concur or passively submit, and only as a last resort consider peaceably withdrawing. Why do all this? Because it is a command by God to submit to the elders.
Well, Peter also commends humility to us here. In general, this is so important for Christians. But in context of submission, this is very helpful. People don’t have a problem following the elders and the church government when they agree with them. They have the problem when they don’t agree with them. Humility says that you will be willing to truly hear out the elders. To weigh and discern their concerns. To rethink what you assumed you already had down. When challenged by an authority, humility is so key. Peter’s example again here is helpful. It was a failure in humility that was connected with his denials we mentioned earlier. Before denying Jesus three times, he disregarded Jesus’ warning about the disciples’ falling away. He pridefully boasted that even if everyone else fell away, he would not. Prideful Peter had since learned humility. Peter eventually learned that to be great in the kingdom of God that you have to become least and last and a servant of all. That lesson of humility comes out here late in his life. He learned that lesson. Christ wants us to learn that humility too. It’s something we are to clothe ourselves in. That’s rich imagery. It’s what people are to see when they look at us. God humbles the proud, but gives grace to the humble.
What I’d like to look at now as we conclude this message is to see God’s care for us in all of this. That’s what behind this authority structure in the church. God cares for his people. That’s what verse 7 says. He cares for us. In all your cares and burdens, he cares for us. In all your humble submission to the church elders, he cares for us. In all the elder’s attempts to lead as described in this passage, he cares for us. Our God cares for us. No matter what Satan might try to tell you – our God cares for us.
God’s care for us is seen in this passage, both from a long term and short term perspective. From a long term perspective, we see his ultimate care for us in eternity. This is something realized at Christ’s return. When our Chief Shepherd appears. In verse 5, it says that God gives grace to the humble, but the next verse considers that from a long term perspective. Verse 6, “Humble yourself under the mighty hand of God, that he may exalt you in due time.” And so, yes God does give us grace throughout our lives, and he can lift us up at any time; but in light of this whole book, we see that point of exaltation being chiefly at Christ’s return. Remember the start of 1 Peter, he talked about how we may suffer now for a little while, but we look forward to that unfading glory we will taste of upon Christ’s visitation. Right now we humbly face troubles; but God will ultimately exalt us, when he our Chief Shepherd appears. This is like what was promised to the elders – this crown of glory when Christ comes back. So, you see that God’s care ultimately is seen upon Christ’s return. No matter what difficulties and challenges we face here, we know that glory and exaltation awaits us, long term. Long term, God’s care for us comes to a wonderful climax when our shepherd returns.
And yet, even now, God cares for us. That’s why verse 7 can tell us today to cast all our cares upon him. That’s why verse 7 doesn’t say that God only in the future will care for us – no, today he cares for us. Seek this out and you will find it to be the case. Seek it out in prayer. Bring all your worries and troubles and concerns to him. See that he will bring answers to them. See that he will bring you peace in them as you come to him in prayer. Come to him and you will find his rest. You will realize his care for you, even now. Don’t get me wrong, Satan will not want you to realize that he cares for you. He’ll try to blind you to it. But we are told right here that God does care for you. Seek it out, and you will find his fatherly care. You’ll see he’s been caring for you all along.
God’s care here and now can be seen even in what we’ve discussed today. You can see God’s care for you in that he’s sent elders to the church. Yes, human elders are an imperfect expression of his care. Imperfect in the sense that human elders in the church are sinners too. Elders won’t shepherd perfectly. They won’t care for the church perfectly. But they are an expression of God’s care for you. Think of it this way. In the Old Testament, God prophesied that he would send good shepherds to his people. Think of how Jesus criticized the way the religious leaders at that time failed in this way. The Old Testament prophet said the same things about many of Israel’s leaders in the past as well. But in Jeremiah 3:15, God promised to send shepherds according to God’s heart, who will feed the people with knowledge and understanding. Yes, there are still bad shepherds out there. And yet we see in the new covenant shepherds being appointed who do lead by God’s Spirit and feed the people with God’s Word. They don’t do it perfectly. But to the degree they are faithful servants, then they are part of God’s prophecy in Jeremiah being answered.
Of course the ultimate promised shepherd is found in Ezekiel 34:23. “And I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd.” That’s talking about the Chief Shepherd. It’s talking about Jesus. Elders in the church are pleased to serve the Chief Shepherd. Through the elders in the church, the Chief Shepherd begins to show his care for us, his sheep. He will continue to care for us through his Word, and Spirit, and the work of his church, until he comes. And so do you see what this passage is driving us to see again today? Jesus. This passage ends with telling us that God cares for us. That care happens chiefly through the shepherds he gives us. And ultimately through the Chief Shepherd. See Jesus again today in the Word. Today’s passage again draws you to place your trust in Jesus. Follow him, and he will indeed be caring for you.
And so, elders, shepherd the flock of God. Members of Trinity, submit to the elders of this church, in the Lord. Let us all pursue humility in whatever station we find ourselves. Let us see how much Jesus loves us and cares for us. His love for us and his care for us will come even in the difficult times. For this is what we’ve seen in 1 Peter. That suffering might come now for a little while, but glory will follow for eternity. Peter’s life had some suffering. The ministry of elders will involve some suffering. As we look to live in humility in front of a world that hates Christians, suffering will come. But the Chief Shepherd is coming again. Soon. We are in the last days. Trust in his care. Look for his care even through the leadership of the church. Pray for your leaders that they would administer that care as we should. Look to Christ even to grow the elders in your midst, even as God is growing us all. Amen.
Copyright (c) 2011 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.