Shepherding the Flock of God
Passage: 1 Peter 5:1–5:5
Shepherding the Flock of God
When I was a boy, I really enjoyed reading those “choose your own ending books.” Do you remember those books? You would read several pages, and then the book would ask you a question like, “If you want the scientist to get eaten by the dinosaur, turn to page 21. If you want the scientist to escape the volcano, turn to page 28.” I liked those books, and I almost always chose for the scientist to get eaten by the dinosaur. That was my preferred ending.
What if we had that kind of option with 1 Peter? What if we had the option to choose how this letter would end? What would you write? There are a number of good options. Maybe you would give these Christians more encouragement to be faithful evangelists to those them. That would be good. Maybe you would remind them of the truths from earlier in the letter. Also a good thing. You get my point – there are a number of good options.
Even with all those options, I doubt any of us would choose the option that Peter actually takes. I don’t think many of us would chose to end this letter, written to suffering Christians, by talking about church leadership and church government. Yet, that is exactly what Peter choses to do. Look at the beginning of chapter 5: “So I exhort the elders among you.” Here at the end of the letter, Peter brings up, of all things, church leadership. From our perspective, this might seem odd, maybe even a little out of place. Of all things that Peter could say to these suffering Christians, he spends an entire paragraph on church leadership.
The question we have to answer, then, is “Why?” Why does Peter write these instructions at this point of the letter? I think it’s because healthy churches are vital components for godly living in the world. If you think about the context of the letter as a whole, this actually makes a lot of sense. Peter writes to suffering Christians whose mission is to make much of Christ during the time of their exile on earth. Remember that from chapter 2 – we exist as God’s people to proclaim his excellencies. That’s our mission in the world. But that mission often brings opposition from the world. That’s why Peter has been so focused on enduring suffering for Christ. That opposition from outside the church can quickly create strain inside the church. You’ve probably experienced something similar in a relationship before. There’s nothing really wrong between you and another person, but you’re both under so much outside pressure that the relationship itself begins to feel strained. That same dynamic can happen in a church.
With that in mind, Peter writes these instructions in order to foster healthy life within the church body. He knows that a healthy church, where all the parts relate rightly to one another, is a vital component of godliness and faithfulness in the world. So contrary to what our very individualistic Christian culture might tell us, we actually need the church. It’s not enough for us to be healthy, growing Christians individually. It’s not enough for my own walk with the Lord to be strong. Those things are good and necessary, but they are actually not sufficient to sustain me during the difficulties of life. I need more than myself. I need you, this church body. And I need this church to be solid, growing, and healthy. And that’s why Peter writes this paragraph. It’s not really out of the blue at all; it’s the natural extension of Peter’s equipping these believers to live godly, faithful lives in the world.
So, what does Peter say about church leadership? He addresses three groups – the elders or pastors, those who are younger, and then everyone. With each group, Peter gives them a command or instruction on how they should fulfill their role within the body. So, as we work through the passage, we will focus on those three groups as well. But before we begin, I want to share some points that might help you in listening to this sermon. The majority of what I say this morning will be addressed to pastors or those who might one day be pastors, but there is still good reason for all of us to listen to Peter’s words. So, some points to help you listen:
First, I am a pastor, and this passage is what I aspire to do. It is not what I do perfectly. So, don’t hear me this morning as giving myself a prolonged pat on the back. No one is more aware than I am of the fact that I have a lot to learn about shepherding God’s people. If anything, I am preaching primarily to myself.
Second, for those who will never as a pastor, this passage reminds you of what you should look for and expect from those who do serve. This passage is a job description of sorts for what pastors should do in the church. And this passage also reminds you of what you should give in return to your pastors, which we will see more of in v5.
Third, for those who aspire to the office of pastor and will one day hold it, this is your job description. There are many things you could do as a pastor one day, and even many things people will say you must do. But this passage gives you what is most necessary, what God expects. So, let this passage, not contemporary church culture, set your expectations for ministry.
Fourth, when speaking about leadership in the church, the NT uses the words elder, overseer, and pastor interchangeably to refer to the same office. And the NT model is a plurality of pastors or elders within a single church. So, as I am preaching this morning, I am not talking about what a Senior Pastor should do, or what a paid pastor should do. I am talking about what all pastors – staff or not, paid or not – should do in the church.
The Pastor’s Calling Is to Shepherd the Church
We’re going to follow Peter’s order and begin with his instructions to the elders. Peter makes two points to the elders of the church. First, Peter reminds them that the pastor’s calling is to shepherd the church. The command is found in v2, where Peter says, “Shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight.” That’s the main idea that Peter wants to communicate. But before that command, notice in v1 that Peter identifies himself with three descriptive statements. He is a fellow elder. He is a witness of the sufferings of Christ. And he is a partaker of the glory that is to be revealed. Now, why does Peter identify himself like this in v1? Why doesn’t he just jump to the command in v2, since that is the main idea? Quite simply, I think Peter is identifying with these men. He doesn’t stand above them in issuing this command; he stands with them. And this would have been encouraging to these elders. Peter knows what the task is like. He knows what it means to suffer for the cause of Christ. As a fellow elder, Peter challenges these men and calls them to faithfully pursue their ministry.
Now, we are ready to look more closely at the content of Peter’s exhortation. He commands these men, “Shepherd the flock of God that is among.” Peter is most likely passing on what he received from the Risen Christ. Remember the scene at the end of John’s Gospel, when Jesus meets his disciples on the shore of the lake. Three times, Jesus asks Peter if Peter loves him. And three times Peter says, “Yes.” And in response each time, Jesus tells Peter to feed and tend to Jesus’ sheep. In one of those instances, Jesus uses the same word that Peter uses here. So, it is likely that when Peter writes, “Shepherd the flock of God,” he has Jesus’ own voice ringing in his ears. Peter is passing on to these men what Jesus spoke to him.
Now, what does it mean to shepherd the flock of God? Think about an actual shepherd. The Bible, particularly the OT, is full of shepherd imagery, and that imagery gives us insight into the work of pastoral ministry. So, what does a shepherd do? Most importantly, a shepherd is responsible to feed the flock, to make sure that the sheep get the good, nutritious grass. In a similar way, the most important task of an elder is to feed God’s people with life-giving, nutritious word of God. Everything else is secondary to this, because feeding God’s people with God’s word is the one thing necessary for their health and growth in the faith. Now, this doesn’t mean that every elder has to preach all the time. It does mean that every elder must be able to teach and explain God’s word to God’s people. That could be in preaching, teaching, personal conversation, counseling, or any number of contexts. But the point remains. Pastors feed God’s people with God’s word.
Not only do shepherds feed the sheep, they also lead the sheep through danger and into safety and rest. Psalm 23, the great psalm about God’s shepherding of us, teaches us this point. Shepherds get the sheep through dangerous situations and to places of safety. In a similar way, an elder’s task is to lead God’s people through the dangerous days of this life and into the rest and safety of the heavenly city. This means that a pastor must enter into the trials and temptations of his people’s lives, not stand aloof from them or abrasively correct them.
And finally, shepherds protect the sheep from wolves. Part of the shepherd’s role was to be watchful, often at the expense of his own safety. In a similar way, an elder’s job is to stand watch over God’s flock, keeping lookout for any false doctrine or false teachers that seek to harm God’s people. And an elder must be willing to do this work even at great cost to himself. Even if it means that he is at times disliked, a pastor must be willing to stand watch over God’s people. That is what Peter is getting at with the phrase exercising oversight. It’s the idea of watchfulness or constant attention to the life and well-being of the flock.
Now, I want us to notice that all of these shepherding activities are for the good of the flock. Did you notice that? None of these things are actually intended to benefit the shepherd; they benefit the sheep! A shepherd serves not for himself, but for his flock.
After the command, Peter then proceeds to tell these elders how they are to do this shepherding. Look at the end of v2 on through v3. You’ll notice three sets of contrasting statements – not this, but that. Those statements describe the how of shepherding. Let’s look at each one. First off, pastors must not shepherd out of mere duty, but must joyfully give themselves to care for the church. That is the point of the first contrast, “not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you.” The word compulsion implies a sense of duty that borders on lack of desire or even unwillingness. Think of it like this. Pastors shouldn’t shepherd the church the same way they pay their taxes. You pay your taxes because you have to, out of duty. Peter says, “Don’t pastor like that. Be joyful and willing to do the work.”
Pastors also must not shepherd out of greed, but out of an eagerness to serve others. That is the point of the second contrast, “not for shameful gain, but eagerly.” A greedy heart is the quick downfall of a pastor. How many stories have you heard about a pastor whose work was ruined because he was greedy for money or power or a bigger ministry? Too many. Instead, at the heart of a pastor’s life must be an eager willingness to serve others, not himself. Everyday, an elder should wake up and think to himself, “How can I get more good things for my people – more joy, more faith, more hope, more of Christ?” A faithful pastor is eager to be used for his people.
Finally, pastors must not shepherd out of pride, but must humbly set the example for others. That is the point of the third contrast, “not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock.” A pastor should remember that his leadership is a trust given to him by Christ so that he can be an example for others. His life should demonstrate to the church, “This is the true faith, and this is how to live it out.” He doesn’t have to be a perfect example; there are no perfect pastors. But he does need to be a consistent, faithful example in all things, including even how to confess and repent of his own sin.
When you put all these things together, you get a very clear picture of what a pastor is called to do. A pastor is called to eagerly and joyfully shepherd God’s flock through the faithful ministry of God’s Word. His aim is always the good of the church, even at the expense of himself. And his great enemy is always the temptation to use the church for his own benefit.
The Pastor’s Motivation in Light of Christ’s Return
After describing the pastor’s calling, Peter moves in v4 to describe the pastor’s motivation. Look at v4: “And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory.” What motivates an elder in this calling? The reality that the Chief Shepherd will return, and those who were faithful in the work will receive the unfading crown of glory. That’s the motivation – not material gain, not influence, not temporal power, but eternal joy in the presence of Christ the Chief Shepherd. So, just as we have seen in other portions of the letter, the reality of the last day should motivate elders to minister faithfully in the present.
This motivation is of great benefit to a pastor. For one, it gives encouragement. If an elder faithfully shepherds God’s flock, then he will receive commendation from Christ himself. On the last day, he will hear Jesus say, “Well done, good and faithful servant. Enter into the joy of your Master.” And unlike anything he might gain in this life, the crown Christ gives is unfading. Money, power, and “influence” fade; Christ’s commendation endures forever. So, v4 is an encouragement to pastors to serve for that reward.
But v4 also reminds an elder of the weightiness of the calling. There is a Chief Shepherd, and he is returning one day. And on that day, every pastor will give an account of his ministry within the church. How did he shepherd the flock of God? How did he care for God’s people? The Chief Shepherd will ask about his sheep, and what will the pastor say? So, v4 reminds an elder of the weightiness of the calling.
But most of all, v4 should foster humility among those who serve as elders. They are not the Chief Shepherd; Christ is. They are under-shepherds. Yes, they possess some authority in order to exercise oversight, but they’re not the head of the church. Christ is. And they are ultimately accountable to him. Therefore, every man who takes the office of elder should do so with a profound sense of his own lowly position underneath the lordship of Christ. Every pastor should learn well the last words of Martin Luther, who said on his deathbed, “We are beggars; this is true.”
As we step back from this passage, we can quickly see that this calling and this motivation are weighty things. To serve the church of the Lord Jesus is no small thing! So, one of the ways you can apply this passage is by consistently praying for the elders of this church, both myself and Daniel, as well as the other men who will one day serve our body. Pray that we would be joyful and eager in the ministry, that our spirits would be consistently encouraged and delighted in shepherding the flock of God. Pray that we would not be susceptible to greed. Pray that we would be vigilant against dishonesty. Pray that we would be on guard against the silent killers of many pastors – pride and selfishness. Oh how deceitful is the human heart! I know full well how easy it is to justify your own sin in the name of something that sounds very spiritual. So, pray for your pastors’ hearts.
The Church Is Called to Follow the Elders as They Follow Christ
After addressing the elders in vv1-4, Peter moves in v5 to address those who are younger. His point is that the church’s calling is to follow the elders as they follow the Chief Shepherd. Look at the first sentence of v5: “Likewise, you who are younger, be subject to the elders.” Most likely, Peter is addressing a specific group within the church, those who are actually younger, probably in age but maybe even in the faith. Now generally speaking, those who are younger have a harder time with authority. I know plenty of adults that also have a hard time with authority, but it is generally a youthful problem. I think Peter writes to prevent that problem. He just spent four verses describing how elders are to be servant-leaders, and that might lead some of the youthful folks to conclude that they don’t have to follow the elder’s leadership. So, to prevent that mindset, Peter says “Be subject to the elders.” In other words, follow their leadership and oversight. The implication is that the general attitude in a church should be to follow, affirm, and encourage the elders’ leadership. It doesn’t mean the elders are always right or should never be questioned; pastors are fallible. It does mean that the general attitude should be thoughtful, thankful following of their leadership.
Humility is the Calling of All
Peter then closes the paragraph by addressing the entire church. His point here is that everyone’s calling is humility. Look at the second half of v5: “Clothe yourselves, all of you with humility towards one another, for God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” Note the imagery Peter uses. He doesn’t just say, “Be humble.” He says, “Clothe yourselves with humility.” Humility is as necessary to the church’s existence as clothing is to our everyday lives. Without humility, it becomes virtually impossible for the church to function properly. Without humility, the pastors will tend toward pride and self-advancement. Without humility, the congregation will tend toward resisting the elders’ leadership.
But with humility, the elders are able to be true shepherds, men who care for others at the expense of themselves, just as the Chief Shepherd did. With humility, the congregation is able to thoughtfully and joyfully follow the elders’ leadership. With humility, the body is strengthened internally; each part is bonded closer together in love. And the result is a healthy church that is equipped to proclaim God’s excellencies throughout the time of their exile.
To encourage the pursuit of humility, Peter quotes a proverb, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” Like so many proverbs, the phrase is simple but the point is profoundly important. God sets his face against those who are proud. He opposes them. So, if you have prideful pastors in the church, God is opposed to them. Prideful church members, God is opposed to them. But, to the humble, God gives grace.
Now, which do you want – God’s opposition or his grace? I want his grace, and more of it! Then, pursue humility, Peter says. The reality is that regardless of your position in the church, God’s calling on your life is difficult. In some sense, it’s even beyond your ability to do. Shepherding God’s people is hard. Following the pastors’ leadership can be hard. Loving one another is hard. Serving one another with your gifts can be hard. All those things, regardless of position, are hard. So we need God’s grace to be faithful. There are many times that I don’t shepherd well. In those moments, I need God’s grace. How do I get it? By being humble. The point is – if you want more grace, pursue more humility. So, as a church, let’s commit ourselves to praying for God to make us more and more humble. Not so that we might look good and godly, but so that we might receive more of grace.
I want to close this morning with a final encouraging reminder from this passage. It comes from v4, where Peter references Christ as the Chief Shepherd. I don’t know about you, but when I read this paragraph, that phrase “And when the Chief Shepherd appears” stands out in sharp relief. And I take great encouragement from that phrase, and I pray that you will as well. The encouragement is this – the great hope of the church is not our pastors or our humility, but the Chief Shepherd himself.
The church’s great hope is not faithful shepherds, but the good news that Christ is the Faithful and Good Shepherd. It was Christ who perfectly embodied this vision of pastoral ministry. Jesus did not lead and serve out of duty or compulsion. Rather, for the joy that was set before him, he endured suffering and the cross. Christ did not serve others for shameful gain; he never pursued his own benefit. Though he was God in the Flesh, he did not abuse his power or demand that others serve him. Rather, taking the form of servant, he humbled himself in order that he might serve us, the least of these. Christ did not lord his authority over those he came to serve, and he did not abuse the authority he possessed as the God-Man. He could have called down angels to protect him, but he didn’t. He could have demanded the religious leaders bow to him, but he didn’t. Instead, he set the example for his people. He showed us what it means to entrust your soul to a Faithful Creator while doing good. He showed us what it means to love one another earnestly. He showed us what it means to endure suffering for the glory of God. Our great hope as a church is not in men, but in the God-Man, Christ Jesus, who has faithfully gone before us as the Chief Shepherd and who will faithfully lead us into God’s heavenly kingdom.
The church’s great hope is also not that we will be able to always clothe ourselves with humility. If that was our hope, then we would be hopeless, because many days, we’re still clothed with pride. Our great hope as a church is that Christ clothed himself with humility, and he did it for us and our salvation. Even though he was by nature God, Jesus did not consider himself too exalted to take on human nature. Christ literally did what Peter calls us to do in this passage – he clothed himself with humility by taking on human flesh. And why did he do this? For us and our salvation. Not only did he take on human flesh, he continued to humble himself by suffering and dying on the cross, even though he did not deserve to die. When we had no hope of saving ourselves, Christ did not remain in heaven, shaking his head and saying, “You foolish people. When will you learn?” No, he humbled himself in order to save us. The great hope of this church is not that we will be humble enough and godly enough to fulfill our mission as God’s people. Our great hope is that Christ humbled himself in order to bring us graciously into the saving love of God the Father.
And really, seeing Jesus Chris and not ourselves as the great hope of the church is the key to our mission! Remember, we exist to proclaim God’s excellencies, to make much of Christ as the glorious Savior and Son of God. So, the more we present Christ as the great hope of the church, the more his glory and his excellencies are displayed in our lives. Pastors who point their people to Christ and not themselves make much of Jesus. Churches who point people to Christ and not their own godliness make much of Jesus. Proud people who quickly confess that their only hope is the Humble King Jesus make much of Christ. Seeing Christ as the great hope of the church is the way that we faithfully fulfill our mission as Christ’s church.
The good news is that Jesus Christ loves Midtown Baptist Church more than I do, and he is a faithful shepherd where I am not. And the good news is also that Jesus Christ humbled himself where we would not, and his humility gives us access to God’s grace. Whatever your role in this body, may we never tire of telling each other and the world that our great hope lies not in ourselves but in the Chief Shepherd. And may that Chief Shepherd be exalted through our humble dependence on him.
More in 1 Peter: Sojourners and Strangers
March 2, 2014Stand Firm in God's Grace
February 23, 2014Humble and Vigilant
February 9, 2014Joyfully Entrusting Ourselves to a Faithful Creator