By this we are reminded that our Redeemer has erected in this world a kingdom, of which we are all a part. And our Lord has instituted a particular form of government for the proper maintenance of this kingdom.
We are not spiritual anarchists. None of us are permitted to go about on our own, doing what we think is right in our own eyes. We are to be governed by Christ, and that means we are to be ruled by those he has raised up among us as elders.
But what we have here is more than a simple endorsement of the Presbyterian system of church government. Peter lays out for us a number of things that we need to understand about elders. If we are going to be true Presbyterians, we need to have a few things set straight. The very first lesson regards the dignity of the office of elder.
I. The dignity of an elder
As I said, the passage starts out with Peter identifying himself as a “fellow elder.” I think that this is a glorious beginning to this section. You would think that, in addressing elders, he would just come out and play the authority card. He could have easily said, “Hey guys, I’m an apostle and this is the way it’s going to be.” But he doesn’t do that. He starts off by identifying himself as being on the same level.
By doing this he signifies to everyone that he shares the same spiritual role as those who would be common elders in the church.
In essence, he dignifies the office of elder. He invests it with a great deal of nobility—a nobility that we might not otherwise give it.
We might be tempted to put the office of elder in some disrepute. We could easily say, “Well, these guys are not apostles. So we don’t really need to give them that much credence.” But Peter puts all that to rest in identifying himself as one of that number. He lifts the office out of the mundane and common and reminds us that it is a lofty office in the church of God. It shares something of the apostolic authority.
Later we are going to talk about submitting to elders. But before you get to that, you need to start here. You need to grasp the fact that this office is no mundane thing. It is a monumental thing to be an elder in the church.
So that is where we begin. Do not disparage this office. Do not give it less credence than it deserves. It is apostolic in nature in that Christ has invested these men with a great deal of authority.
And that really brings us to the next thing we are to know about the elder, and the main point for which Peter writes. That is the duties of an elder.
II. The duties of an elder
The main words to focus in on are the words “shepherd the flock of God” and “exercising oversight.” These two phrases sum up the totality of an elder’s work within the congregation. Peter is talking about the pastoral care of a congregation. By using these terms Peter is reminding us that the elder’s job is the spiritual care of a congregation. He is to look after them and see to their spiritual welfare, just like a shepherd would tend to the physical welfare of his flock.
And what exactly does that look like? How does an elder “shepherd the flock of God?” Some of you might like to know what exactly “exercising oversight” entails.
First of all, it means faithfully teaching the congregation the truths of the faith. That is, of course, the primary way an elder shepherd’s the flock. He feeds them with the nutrients of the gospel. But don’t think for a minute that this is the extent of his work.
I think that is a common misnomer. We think that an elder teaches a bible study or two or preaches once a week, and maybe he’ll attend some meetings here and there. But that is by no means the extent of his duties.
The sad thing is that we have people becoming elders who think that’s all they have to do. And the church suffers exceedingly because of it. They don’t have a clue what it means to really exercise oversight of a congregation. If you think about it, that is not shepherding a congregation. You can’t exercise real oversight with that amount of contact with a congregation.
If you really want to nurture a congregation and help them grow as a church, there is so much more you need to do. For instance, an elder is to be visiting his flock in their homes. They have to pop in every once in a while and make sure that they are practicing Christianity in their homes.
The church my wife grew up in is excellent at this. The elders there have a regular rotation. Each week they pray for a specific family during the congregational prayer time. And when your name comes up for the congregational prayer, that means it is your turn to receive a visit from the pastor of the church and your designated elder. At some point they come to your house and begin to inquire after your spiritual well being. They will ask you about your devotions as a family and how those are going. They will take time to talk to each of the kids and ask them particulars regarding their walk with the Lord. Above all, they will share some scripture with the family to encourage them in their faith and spend some time praying for the family before they leave.
That’s part of and elder’s duty. If he is going to exercising oversight he’s got to be mingling with the sheep on a regular basis outside of Sunday worship.
Here’s another thing that elders need to be doing. They need to be going after their sheep when they stray. A shepherd isn’t supposed to let his sheep wander in and out of the pasture. He’s not supposed to sit idly by when a sheep skips out on the flock.
But that’s what a lot of elders do. It is almost as if they see themselves more as lifeguards at a pool than shepherds. A lifeguard will just watch people come and go. His job isn’t to chase them when they leave.
That is the job of an elder though. As a shepherd his is not to let his sheep act as if they were aimless and autonomous vagabonds. If they haven’t been in church for a couple of Sundays, you should at the very least receive a call from your elder saying, “Hey, I’ve noticed you haven’t been in worship for the last three Sunday’s. I’m just calling to see if everything is all right.”
I know one church that did this well. It was a church of over 500 members, but they kept diligent track of their members. They had those little pew pads, and every Sunday you had to fill out your pew pad to show that you were in attendance. And the secretary tallied them up each week. And if it was found that you missed 2-3 Sunday’s in a row, you would receive a letter. The congregation jokingly called that it was the “excommunication letter.” But it was a letter reminding them of their responsibility to worship the Lord and fellowship with the rest of the body. And if there came to be a pattern of absence, then you would receive a special call or visit from the elders. They would express concern for your spiritual well being and try to find out what was going on. They might end up rebuking you for your laziness or warning you of your lagging faith.
All in all, these elders took this very seriously. They sought to make sure that no one was going astray in that congregation, and if they were they went after them.
Now, I spent a lot of time explaining and illustrating these two concepts of “shepherding and exercising oversight.” But by going into specifics, you understand why Peter goes on to talk about an elder’s attitude. After you understand all that is entailed, you understand why Peter says, “do this willingly, and not as under compulsion…do it eagerly.” An elder can easily shy away from this kind of stuff. It is a lot to do.
And the other extreme is shot down too. All this power can go to one’s head. You can become controlling as an elder and you can end up lording it over your congregation. That’s why he says that an elder shouldn’t be domineering.
I’m not going to say much more than that. I think that those things speak for themselves. I think it is more important to spend the time we did outlining some of the specific duties of an elder as it pertains to oversight.
I hope that you find that profitable, especially as you consider the next generation of leaders in this congregation.
But now that we’ve talked about the dignity and the duties of an elder, let’s think about the elder’s destiny.
III. The destiny of an elder
Peter encourages the elders to execute these duties by pointing them to their future. One day, he says, Christ will come back. One day you will meet Christ face to face and, if you have been faithful in your work, you will receive a reward.
To be sure, there is a hint of a warning here. It is subtle, and should not overshadow the primary emphasis of blessing. But there is a slight reminder that elders will be held accountable for their actions if they mess up.
This warning if found in the term Chief Shepherd. Back in those days the main shepherd wasn’t always out and about with his flock. If he was well to do in the shepherding business, then he might hire a number of men to take care of the flock for him. So these men—these under shepherds—would take the sheep out to pasture. Of course, that might be a distance where they are gone for more than a day. And every once in a while the Chief Shepherd would come and check up on his under shepherds. And if anything had run amiss, then the hireling would have to pay the consequences.
Peter draws on that imagery here. And there is a hint of that “hey, you better make sure you are not shaking down the sheep or neglecting them any way.”
But the primary emphasis here is the happier side of things. There is that subtle warning, but the stress is put upon the reward that a faithful elder will receive. He says that when Christ comes, you will receive an unfading crown of glory.
Now, we don’t know exactly what kind of reward it will be. Peter is speaking metaphorically here. He’s using a comparison to the crowns that champion athletes would receive in their games. Back in those days athletes would receive a crown made out of leaves and branches for winning their specific competition. But in a matter of days, it would dry out and wither.
And Peter says you will be likewise rewarded, except yours will be much more glorious in nature. It will be something that lasts because it won’t fade or wither. You will have a blessing that has a much more lasting luster.
If you want to ask me whether or not it is a literal crown, I’ll tell you, “I don’t know.” Will there be people walking around heaven with special hats on their heads? I don’t know about that. I’m not sure we can press the metaphor very far. All we can say is that God has something glorious stored up for those under shepherds who have been diligently tending the flock.
What we can say is that this is an excellent motivation for you elders here, or for any prospective elders in our midst. Certainly that was something that motivated the Apostle Paul. At the end of his life, as he was reaching his final destiny, Paul said, “I have fought the good fight, I have kept the faith, henceforth there is laid up for me a crown.”
IV. The distinction of an elder
In verse 5 Peter turns to address the congregation, particularly the young men in the congregations. He says, “you guys, you need to be subject to your elders.” Your elders have this distinction of deserving your respect. So obey them.
Now, there is a sense in which younger guys can be a little more bull headed. There is an inherent pride that lurks in the hearts of youth that says, “Don’t tell me what I must do.” And perhaps that is why they are singled out.
A number of years ago Pope John Paul came to America. I don’t remember exactly why he came, but I remember that one night there was a big event for catholic youth. It was almost like a Billy Graham rally. They rented out a stadium and they packed it full of young people. And Pope John Paul gave a special speech to these youth.
After the event one of the young people in attendance was interviewed by a TV news reporter who was on site. And, on national television, the kid said, “I don’t know who this guy is; thinking he can come in here and tell us how to live our lives.”
Come on! It’s the pope! To those of us who are protestants, this doesn’t mean anything. But for a Catholic kid to say this, that’s the epitome of disrespect.
As Protestants, we don’t regard the pope as a leader in the church. We know that it’s a blasphemous thing to call yourself the head of the church. But that kid is a good illustration of how young people can disregard their leaders. It is that spirit that Peter is speaking against here.
And if we are honest, we will admit that this is not something that is confined to young men. We all have a desire to cast off authority and live autonomous lives.
Peter even says as much. In the next part of the verse he says that all of us must “clothe ourselves with humility.” And then he adds that stinger, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.”
You know, you will not succeed in life if you do not submit to your elders. If you blow off your elders, it is equivalent to blowing off God. And if you want to align yourself against God, then you will find yourselves experiencing a great deal of frustration. He opposes the proud and gives grace to the humble.
And I really want to press this point home. I really want you to understand this. It is a truth that so many in our day are not cognizant of, and there is a great deal of pain because of it. We live in this independent American cowboy culture. We are living the existentialist dream where we think that nobody should influence the way we act. We just do what we want to do. So what we have is a torrent of people dodging and disregarding anything their elders say.
It’s not often that it happens, but sometimes you actually have a body of faithful elders. And they come along and address an issue or perhaps they call you to repentance. They go out of their way to shepherd the flock of God, but the sheep just ignore it.
And if you are just such a sheep, then don’t be surprised when you find yourself falling into all sorts of ditches and experiencing all kinds of frustration.
Your elders have the distinction of being God’s agents of Christ’s love. As a result, they are to have the distinction of receiving your full obedience.
In sum, we must regard them as the under shepherds of Christ. They are men who Christ has set over us to lead us in the way that we are to go. They are given to us for our welfare. And the glorious promise is that if we do submit to them, we shall receive grace. God’s favor will overflow to us.
May that then be our aim and satisfaction. And may we all be the best Presbyterians we can be.
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Matt is blessed to be a husband, father, and pastor in Ashland, Ohio.