Who Shall Shepherd the Flock?

Therefore, I exhort the elders among you, as your fellow elder and witness of the sufferings of Christ, and a partaker also of the glory that is to be revealed, shepherd the flock of God among you, exercising oversight not under compulsion, but voluntarily, according to the will of God; and not for sordid gain, but with eagerness; nor yet as lording it over those allotted to your charge, but proving to be examples to the flock. And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory.

The Seriousness of Elder Accountability for the Flock

Probably no issue has occupied more of the elders' time over the past several years than the issue of how to provide pastoral care and oversight to about 1,100 people scattered all over the Twin Cities. Verse 4 says that someday the "Chief Shepherd" is going to appear and there will be a reckoning with the under-shepherds, the elders. That is a sobering thing to those of us in leadership.

We have become increasingly convicted by texts like Hebrews 13:17, which says to the church:

Your leaders [the elders] keep watch over your souls, as those who will give an account [namely, to God]. Let them do this with joy and not with grief, for this would be unprofitable for you.

Or Acts 20:28 where Paul says to the elders of the church in Ephesus:

Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood.

You can hear the earnestness and the seriousness in those words: you elders shepherd the people "whom God purchased with his own blood." In other words, don't take this work lightly. Don't be casual and cavalier and breezy about this responsibility.

An Emerging Vision of "District Pastoral Care"

The fruit of all our study and prayer and work is an emerging vision of a district pastoral care eldership teamed up with district deacons and small group leaders who together will shepherd the flock of God called Bethlehem, and give an account of each member before the Lord.

The aim is to build a people, through the Word of God and prayer and all kinds of practical caring ministries in the districts, who in their hearts have a vision of a great, glorious, sovereign, gracious, wise, all-sufficient, all-satisfying God; and who savor that vision of God in worship, strengthen that vision of God in mutual encouragement and care, and spread that vision of God in works of love, local evangelism, and world missions.

Tom Steller will say more about the details of the pastoral care elders in a few minutes.

What I want to do is put the vision in a biblical context from 1 Peter 5, that proved to be far more relevant to our situation when I began to study it, than I thought it was going to be.

Why Does Peter Exhort the Letter Here? 

The text begins in chapter 5: "Therefore, I exhort the elders among you." If we ask, "Why did Peter feel the need to exhort the elders here at the end of his letter?" we get a clue to the answer in the word "therefore." Something is happening . . . "Therefore, I exhort the elders." (Again I build half my message on a word that the NIV simply chooses to drop!!! Look to the NASB or RSV.)

Warnings of the Coming "Fiery Ordeal" of Judgment

Peter has been warning the church about the "fiery ordeal that is coming upon them for their testing" (4:12). He says (in 4:13) that the Christians may share the sufferings of Christ for a season and then exult in the glory of Christ when he comes. This is what Peter says about himself in 5:1 when he calls himself a fellow elder with the elders he's writing to. He says he is a witness to Christ's sufferings and a sharer in the coming glory. This alerts us that this "fiery ordeal" (4:12) probably has something to do with the elders in chapter 5.

This gets even clearer in 4:17. Peter explains why this "fiery trial" is coming on the church. He says (v. 17), "For it is time for judgment to begin with the household of God; and if it begins with us first, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of God? (18) And if it is with difficulty that the righteous is saved, what will become of the godless man and the sinner?"

These verses have to do with the whole church. The fiery ordeal that comes as punishing condemnation on unbelievers hits the church first as fires of purification and refining (cf. 1:7).

The Background of Ezekiel 9 

But what about the elders? Is there anything special for them in this? There are two Old Testament background texts that suggest there is. One is Ezekiel 9. God's own people have committed abominations and God resolves to judge his own city. God says to his angel (v. 4),

"Go through the midst of the city, even through the midst of Jerusalem, and put a mark on the foreheads of the men who sigh and groan over all the abominations which are being committed in its midst." [Like blood on the doorpost at the Passover.] 5 But to the others He said in my hearing, "Go through the city after him and strike; do not let your eye have pity, and do not spare. 6 Utterly slay old men, young men, maidens, little children, and women, but do not touch any man on whom is the mark; and you shall start from My sanctuary [same idea and words as here in 1 Peter 4:17]." So they started with the elders who were before the temple.

So if Peter has in his mind the way God once began his judgment from the house of God—especially from the elders—he may well see a special need to exhort the elders in view of the fiery ordeal that is coming.

The Background of Malachi 3:1–3

The other background text is Malachi 3:1–3 where God says that his messenger is going to come to his temple—to his house or his people as Peter says (in 2:5):

2 But who can endure the day of His coming? And who can stand when He appears? For He is like a refiner's fire and like fullers' soap. 3 . . . He will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, so that they may present to the Lord offerings in righteousness.

The "sons of Levi" are the priests. Now it's true that in 1 Peter 2:5, 9 all believers are priests. But it is not easy for a leader to read this and fail to see that the refining fire of judgment has a special reference to leaders. The fire purifies the leaders first.

The Judgment of God Begins with Elders 

So when Peter says in 4:17, "It is time for judgment to begin with the household of God," it is easy to see why he would say in 5:1, "THEREFORE, I exhort the elders among you . . ."

So my answer to the question, "Why does Peter feel the need to exhort the elders?" is that this "fiery ordeal" in 4:12 is a judgment from God that begins with the house of God—and in the house of God begins with the elders, the leaders.

It is a fearful and wonderful thing to be an elder in the house of God. If the elders lead the church into strength and glory, they will also lead the church into the refiner's fire of God's purifying judgment. They will not stand above the church or outside the church giving suggestions for how to cope with fire; they will lead the church into the fire.

Peter Practices What He Preaches

So when Peter calls himself in verse 1 a "fellow elder," it's not that he is laying claim to an exalted title (he could have called himself an apostle!); he's expressing a willingness to suffer in the refiner's fire along with the rest of the elders. In fact I think this is what he means when he calls himself in v. 1b a "witness of the sufferings of Christ, and a partaker also of the glory that is to be revealed." I think "witness" here means more than, "I was there and I saw them." I think he means, "I bear witness to them by my words and by my life. I am with you in the struggle. I am with you in the fire that purifies and refines the elders of God's people."

In other words he is practicing what he preaches in verse 3—that elders lead by example not by lording it over the flock.

So Peter believes that the elders need a special exhortation here at the end of his letter. Fire is painful; judgment is serious. It is coming on the house of God; and on the elders first. In this situation elders need warning and they need hope. Peter gives both.

Three Warnings for Elders

Three warnings. Warnings against three typical failures in the eldership. A warning against laziness; a warning against greed; and a warning against pride. The lust for ease, the lust for money, and the lust for power and prestige.

1. A Warning Against Laziness

First, a warning against laziness—the lust for leisure and comfort and ease. Verse 2: "Shepherd the flock of God among you, exercising oversight not under compulsion, but voluntarily, according to the will of God."

He warns them against drifting into a lazy or distracted pattern of ministry that requires some kind of external "compulsion" to overcome. Don't be sluggish and unconcerned. Don't be like the mule that has to have a bit and bridle. Be willing.

Or it might be that it's fear he is warning against here and not laziness. It might be fear that makes an elder unwilling to serve. Don't be fearful of doing what you are called to do. Do it voluntarily.

This is why we do not want to pressure anyone into the eldership at Bethlehem. God wants men who want the ministry, not those who act out of external compulsion.

2. A Warning Against Greed

Second, Peter warns the elders against greed—the lust for money. Verse 2c: "Shepherd the flock . . . not for sordid gain, but with eagerness." This would apply especially to us who make our living in the ministry. Do not begin to look on your eldership merely as a means of making a living. Watch out for the temptation to make "godliness a means of gain," as Paul said in 1 Timothy 6:5.

Rather do your ministry with "eagerness." That is, love your work. Find joy in your work. Remember, as Paul said to the Ephesian elders in Acts 20:35, "It is more blessed to give than to receive." And remember what Hebrews 13:17 says, "Let [the elders minister] with joy and not with grief, for this would be unprofitable for you."

3. A Warning Against Pride

Third, Peter warns the elders against pride—the lust for power and prestige. Verse 3: "[Shepherd the flock . . . not yet as lording it over those allotted to your charge, but proving to be examples to the flock." Pride is the failure to realize deeply that without Christ we can do nothing. And so the proud heart starts to feel that it can be self-reliant. And then it begins to feel that it is indispensable. And then it starts to act that way and exalt itself and seek the praise of men.

But Peter says to the elders, don't exalt yourselves like that; lead—you must lead (as v. 5 implies)—but lead with servant lowliness; lead by example.

When the fiery trial comes to you first, lead by example. You don't escape it or run from it. You walk through it with the sheep.

Those are the warnings we need. A warning against living for ease; a warning against living for money; and a warning against living for power and prestige and praise.

Hope for Elders

But in this fiery situation elders also need hope. This is what Peter gives them in verse 4: "And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory."

Yesterday in the seminar on the urban poor Viv Grigg referred to the words of Jesus in Luke 14:13–14 about ministry to the poor. Jesus holds out the same kind of hope Peter does here:

When you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, since they do not have the means to repay you; for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.

In other words there are ministries we should do that may be thankless in this world. If we need a lot of strokes, we will probably not do what Jesus calls us to do. It's too hard and there's not enough reward here and now.

But if we really believe that we will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous, if we elders really believe that "when the Chief Shepherd appears he will give us the unfading crown of glory," then we will have motivation and strength to do what he calls us to do.

There may be times when our elders feel like the refining fire is too hot. We may feel that, if it takes this much fire to burn away our sloth and our greed and our pride, then it's not worth it. But that would be because we have taken our eyes off eternity, and off the all-satisfying Chief-Shepherd, our Lord Jesus.

Tom Steller is going to come and say a word about the pastoral care eldership at Bethlehem. My prayer as he comes is that God would cause gifted and qualified men at Bethlehem to sense the call of God on your life. There is a great work to do. A great fiery battle to be fought. And a great reward beyond all measure.