Shepherding the Suffering, Part 1 (1 Peter 5:1-4)

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Introduction

I invite you to turn with me in your Bibles to 1 Peter 5, which is the final chapter of this letter that Peter wrote to a group of churches in the region of modern day Turkey. Our passage for today’s sermon will be 1 Peter 5:1-4. If you do not have a Bible with you today, or if you would like to follow along in the translation I will be preaching from, please make use of one of the pew Bibles where you will find this passage located on page 1016.

As most of you know, my wife, Lara, is a school teacher. And sometimes teachers have to send home notes to the parents of their students letting them know about behavioral issues that are disrupting the classroom. Well, one time Lara needed to send home a note like this for one of her students and after writing it up she gave it to the young man letting him know that his mother needed to read it and write her name at the bottom of the letter showing that she had read it. So, the next day the boy comes back to school and Lara asked him about the letter. He did indeed have it, and he brought it up to her desk and gave it to her. So far so good. But, when she unfolded the letter to check for the mother’s signature, what she found was, not her signature, but the word “Mommy” written in very childlike handwriting at the bottom. Obviously the boy did not show the letter to his mother, nor did he understand that while her name was “Mommy” to him, she had another name that grown-ups called her.

Now, I have begun with this story to illustrate that it is common for us to use different names or titles to refer to the same person or persons. And this is particularly true when we are describing what someone does for a living. For example, you might say, “I can’t come to work today because I need to take my daughter to the doctor.” Or you might say that you are taking her to the pediatrician. Or maybe even to her physician.

And, when you were in college and complaining about how difficult a class was, you might blame the professor, or you might blame the teacher, while, in reality, they were doing an outstanding job as someone we might call a professional educator.

If someone is breaking into your house, you are probably going to call the cops. And hopefully a few minutes later you will hear the police cars coming because in those cars are officers of the law who are trained to deal with people who are breaking the law.

So do you see what I mean about how we often use different titles to describe the same person? This is fairly common thing we do and it is also true for those who lead our churches. Some people will say, “During the sermon on Sunday, our pastor reminded us that God’s salvation is a free gift.” Other people might say, “On Sunday, the preacher said that God purchased our salvation by sending Jesus to the cross.” While others might say, “The minister at that church really explains the gospel well.” So, there are at least three different ways people use to refer to those who lead the church. And, it’s not that any of these descriptions are inaccurate. In fact, they are all helpful descriptions of those who lead in our churches because they all highlight a slightly different aspect of the pastor’s work.

Well, while we most often, in our normal everyday talk, refer to these individuals as pastors or preachers or ministers (and there is nothing wrong with doing so), the Bible uses slightly different words to describe these people and their roles. In fact, there are three interchangeable terms that are used in the New Testament to describe the men God has called to lead local churches. And those terms are pastor, overseer, and elder. And in the passage we are going to look at this morning, Peter does just that—he helps us see that these three terms are interchangeable, and he helps us to understand some of the responsibilities of those who have been divinely called and appointed to care for God’s sheep.

Now, remember, Peter was writing to people who were suffering for their faith. He was writing to people who, because of their decision to follow Jesus, had been ostracized in many ways from friends and family and normal everyday society. They were seen as strange and different and were often mocked and ridiculed as a result. For the most part, they weren’t dealing with physical persecution or anything like that yet, but they were dealing with the same sort of stuff that we sometimes have to deal with as Christians today.

We saw this clearly in chapter four. But, as I’ve said at other times, these chapter divisions we have in our Bibles today (which were not added by the original authors), have the potential to keep us from making connections with things that were said in a previous chapter. And it would be easy for us to forget that Peter was writing to suffering people. But, if you look back with me at the final verse from the previous chapter, 1 Peter 4:19, you will see that Peter says, “Therefore let those who suffer according to God’s will entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good.” And then, in the next sentence which marks the beginning of our passage for today, Peter says,

1 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. (1 Peter 5:1–3 ESV)

And so, when we connect these two things together, we can see that the main message Peter has for us in these verses is that: When God’s sheep are suffering for their faith, they need shepherds to feed them and lead them. That’s what Peter tells us in the first three verses from 1 Peter 5.

Now, as I mentioned earlier, there are three different titles in the New Testament that are used interchangeably in reference to those who lead the church. And in this passage, Peter uses one of them directly, and alludes to the other two. In verse 1, Peter begins by saying, “I exhort the elders among you.” Do you see that in verse 1? The term “elders” is the first title for those who lead the church.

Well then, at the beginning of verse 2, he makes reference to the other two titles the Bible uses to describe those who lead the church by saying, “shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight.” Now, the word “pastor” that we use today is actually just the Latin word for “shepherd.” And by exhorting the elders to “shepherd the flock” Peter was tipping his hat to the “pastoral” responsibilities of those who God has called to lead the church. Just as a shepherd cares for his sheep, church leaders must tend to the flock God has placed under their care.

But, in addition to caring fo the sheep in a pastoral way, those in church leadership positions also have the responsibility to provide oversight to the church and to the people who make up the church. Do you see that in verse 2? Peter tells the elders to exercise oversight, and by doing so he is tipping his hat to the term “overseer” that is used in many other places within the New Testament to describe those in church leadership (c.f. Acts 20:28; Philippians 1:1; 1 Timothy 3:1; Titus 1:7).

So again, pastor, overseer, and elder, are terms all used interchangeably by the New Testament to refer to those we often call pastors, preachers, or ministers today. And, what this means, is that if we are going to understand the roles and responsibilities of those who have been called by God to lead the church—in good times and in times of suffering—we are going to have to understand how each of these biblical terms, pastor, overseer, and elder, contribute to our overall understanding of those in church leadership.

Pastor/Shepherd

So, let’s begin by talking about the word “pastor.” As I said earlier, our English word “pastor” comes straight from Latin. The word pastor in Latin was their translation of the Greek word poimēn (ποιμήν) which is equivalent to our English word “shepherd.” And so, whenever you see the word “pastor,” what you are really seeing is the word shepherd. That is important to understand.

Now, ironically, even though “pastor” has become the most common way we refer to those who lead churches today, it will probably be a surprise to most of you to hear that the Bible only uses the word “pastor” or “shepherd” in this way a single time. That’s right the word “pastor” is only used once in the New Testament to refer to those in church leadership. There are places where the verb form of this word is used to describe the work of those called by God to lead churches, but there is only one place where it is used as a title for those in church leadership positions. And, that one place is in Ephesians 4:11 which says, “[Jesus] gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ” (Ephesians 4:11–12 ESV). Now, in the ESV they didn’t use the word “pastor,” but opted for “shepherd” instead. But again, pastor and shepherd are just two different English words that mean the same thing, so it makes no difference. Many other translations, however, do opt for the word “pastor” in that verse. But again, regardless of the English word the translators chose to use, the idea is the same. Paul is talking about people who tend sheep.

So, what, then, does a shepherd—a person who tends sheep—do? And why does the Bible use this metaphor to describe those who lead the church?

Well, the most important thing a shepherd does, is that he feeds his sheep. Right? He can care for the sheep all he wants. He can keep them clean, he can keep them warm, he can keep them safe, he can keep them from fighting, and so forth. But, if he doesn’t feed them, none of that will matter because they will die. All he will have is clean, warm, safe, but dead sheep. So feeding the sheep is the most important responsibility that a shepherd has. Those other things are important too, but “feeding” cannot be overlooked and neglected for long or the sheep will die.

So, how does this relate to pastoral ministry? Well, just like a shepherd has to feed his sheep, those who serve the church as pastors have the responsibility to feed the flock of God that has been entrusted to them. Notice how, in verse 2, Peter says, “shepherd the flock of God that is among you.” As pastors we are not responsible for all God’s sheep, we are only responsible for the sheep God has entrusted specifically to us. Those are the ones we are obligated to feed. And the way pastors feed the flock, is not by inviting them over every Sunday afternoon for lunch, but by serving them regular helpings of God’s Word from the pulpit. Yes, walking into the pulpit for the pastor on Sunday mornings corresponds to a shepherd walking up to a feeding trough with bags of sheep food.

Now, you may remember, that after Peter had denied Jesus three times on the night of Jesus’s arrest, the way Jesus restored Peter after his resurrection was by having Peter reaffirm his love for him three times. And the interesting part of this, with regard to what we are talking about today, is Jesus’s response to each of Peter’s reaffirmations of his love. The dialogue is found in John 21:15-17. Let me read it to you. John tells us that

15 When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Feed my lambs.” 16 He said to him a second time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Tend my sheep.” 17 He said to him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter was grieved because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” and he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep.“ (John 21:15–17 ESV)

So, Jesus, the chief Shepherd, is concerned about his sheep. And he charged Peter with tending to them and feeding them. And in our passage for this morning, Peter is passing that same responsibility on to everyone else who has been charged with shepherding the flock of God. Those who lead the church as shepherds have the responsibility of feeding and nurturing the sheep under their care so that they grow up into healthy mature sheep who are willing to lay down their lives as an offering to God. As we saw in Ephesians 4:11, those who are pastor-teachers, have the responsibility to “equip the saints for the work of ministry.” And the way we equip is by feeding the sheep of God with the word of God. No matter how good the pastor is at doing other things, if he is not feeding God’s sheep with God’s word, he is not being a very good shepherd because the sheep God has entrusted to him are slowly starving to death.

Overseer

But, feeding the sheep is not the only thing that those in church leadership do. And that’s why in addition to exhorting these elders to “shepherd the flock of God,” Peter emphasizes that “exercising oversight” is another way they care for the sheep. Do you see that in the middle of verse 2? Well, as I said earlier, by exhorting the elders of this churches to exercise “oversight” as they shepherd the flock of God that has been placed under their care, Peter is tipping his hat to the term “overseer” that is used in many other places within the New Testament to describe those in church leadership.

In fact, one of the most important and well-known places the title “overseer” is used to describe those in church leadership, comes in 1 Timothy 3—which is the passage that basically every church uses as a list of qualifications for calling a pastor. Turn their with me so that I can show you the passage I have in mind. Again the passage is 1 Timothy 3 which is on page 992 of the pew Bibles. Notice what Paul says there. He doesn’t say, “If anyone aspires to the office of pastor,” does he? And he doesn’t say, “If anyone aspires to be a preacher,” does he? No, what does he say? That’s right, he says, “If anyone aspires to the office of overseer…” And yet, this passage is used almost universally as a list of qualifications for those who would serve in pastoral ministry. And rightly so. Because again, the words pastor, overseer, and elder are used interchangeably in the New Testament to describe the same office.

In fact, after reminding his coworker, Titus, in Titus 1:5 (which can be found on page 998 of the pew Bibles) of his responsibility to appoint elders in every town, Paul shifts almost without even thinking about it to describing these “elders” as “overseers” just two verses later in verse 7. But, I am starting to go deeper than I wanted to here, so let me get back to talking about what the term “overseer” tells us about those God has called to lead his church.

Well, truthfully, we sort of know what it means for someone to exercise oversight, don’t we? It means they are to keep a watch on things. They are to keep a watch over the affairs of the church and over the people who make up the church. Just like a shepherd has to make sure things are in order for his flock, and has to keep a watchful eye on the sheep while he is going about his other tasks, a pastor/overseer/elder has the responsibility of overseeing the operation of the church and the people within it. This is about providing leadership and direction for the church as a whole and for the people within it. As pastors, we have assumed and accepted responsibility for the people God has placed under our care. And, it is something that we as pastors will answer for one day. Listen to what the Bible tells us in Hebrews 13:17; it says,

Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you. (Hebrews 13:17 ESV)

And in James 3:1, James says,

Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. (James 3:1 ESV)

And I want you to know how much this sort of thing weighs on those of us who have been called into pastoral ministry. It is a real burden. There is a reason the author of Hebrews says, “Let them do this with joy and not with groaning.” Because sometimes it does make us groan when a sheep is drifting away and we know we are going to have to give an account for our oversight of them one day.

So again, oversight is about assuming and accepting responsibility for the people God has placed under our care and for the church that God has placed under our care. It is about providing leadership and direction—and even discipline from time to time. But, Peter also wants us to understand that this oversight is to be carried out in a certain way. Notice what he says at the end of verse 2 and in verse 3. He says that overseers are to exercise oversight, “not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock.”

Remember, Paul told us in 1 Timothy 3, that “if anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task.” So there ought not be anyone serving in pastoral ministry who is doing so unwillingly. In fact, it ought to be something you have such a strong compulsion to do that you cannot have peace within you if you are doing anything else. And you certainly better not be doing it for money. That is not to say that pastors shouldn’t be compensated, but compensation ought not be the reason why anyone is serving the church. And, finally, they better not lead in a domineering and demanding way like so many of the world’s leaders do. But instead, they are to lead by example. That is why the author of Hebrews says,

Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith. (Hebrews 13:7 ESV)

Now listen, the truth is, there are many things about me that you ought not imitate. And those are things I need to work on. But, hopefully there are some things about me that are worth imitating. Hopefully, my belief in and commitment to God’s Word is worth imitating. Hopefully, my willingness to surrender to God’s call upon my life is worth imitating. And hopefully there are some other things about me that are worth imitating. And where, I am a good example for you, I hope you will follow that example because that is part of the way I am supposed to exercise oversight in this church—by being an example to the flock.

Elder

Now, while the term “pastor” is used only a single time in the New Testament to refer to those who lead the church, and while the term overseer is only used a few more times, the word “elder,” on the other hand, is the most common term in the New Testament for describing church leaders.1 In fact, it is used in this way about 20 times.

So, if we are going to have a right understanding about those people we normally call pastors today, we better understand what the Bible has to say about elders—because again, pastors are elders and elders are pastors. Now, one of the reasons why the word “elder” came to be the default way the early church referred to its leaders was probably because that is how Jewish people referred to their leaders. It was common for them to refer to “the chief priests and the elders” and this seems to have carried over into the church. But, the New Testament never places any age limitation upon those who would serve as pastors or elders. While the Greek word for “elder” can refer to those who are more advanced in age (just like in English), there is no requirement for those in church leadership positions to be of a certain age (remember Timothy was a young man when Paul installed him as the leader of the church at Ephesus). But, this word does remind us that those who serve as church leaders ought to be spiritually mature. You don’t want a brand new Christian serving as your pastor. You want someone who is mature, not in age, but in their faith. While age and spiritual maturity often go together, and ought to go together, we know that is not always the case. And that is why a man’s age is not one of the qualifications included in the Bible for those who aspire to serve the church as an elder.

Okay, so what do elders do? Well, we’ve pretty much already talked about it. Remember, Peter is addressing elders here, and he exhorts them by saying “shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight.” So that is what elders do, they shepherd the church and they oversee it. The ESV Study Bible explains it like this; it says, “The terms ‘shepherd’ and ‘exercising oversight’ emphasize the function of elders, while the title ‘elder’ focuses on the office.”2 In other words, an elder is someone who shepherds the flock by feeding them with God’s Word, and watches over, or oversees the affairs of the church. That is what an elder does.

And so, that is why Peter’s exhortation in this passage to these elders, who were shepherding a flock of suffering sheep, was to feed them and lead them. Feed them with God’s Word and lead them by example. And this matches up well with what the rest of the New Testament says about elders. For example, in 1 Timothy 5:17, Paul emphasizes both of these aspects of pastoral ministry by saying,

Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching. (1 Timothy 5:17 ESV)

Do you see how that verse talks both about leadership and church governance as well as the teaching of God’s Word? It talks both about elders ruling well and laboring in the preaching and preaching of God’s Word. Those are the two primary responsibilities of those in pastoral ministry.

Conclusion

Now, the timing of us coming to this passage right now is really good. To have arrived here at this time is not something I could have planned or scheduled when I started 1 Peter back in March of this year. So I am thankful God worked it out this way. The reason it is really good that he did so is because last Sunday night at our members’ meeting the deacons presented and briefly discussed updated set of bylaws for our church that uses the term “elders” alongside the word “pastors” in several places. Again, this is important in our bylaws because we can’t really understand what a pastor is supposed to be and do if we aren’t making the connection with those places in the Bible that describe pastors using the term elders and overseers.

Remember, there is only one verse in the whole Bible that refers to those who lead the church as pastors. There are a few that use the term overseer. But there are about 20 passages that use the term “elder” and then go on to describe elders as those who shepherd the flock with their teaching and their oversight.

Now, to be honest, I am not 100% sure why the shift was made away from using the terms “bishops” (which is another word for “overseer”) and “elders” in the 1925 Baptist Faith and Message to the term “pastor” in the more recent versions of that document. Maybe it was because doing so simplified things in some way? But, the truth is, there is no problem with it as long as we understand that the terms are all interchangeable and that the other two terms are, in fact, more common in the New Testament when speaking of those in church leadership. Again, this matters because we cannot have a complete understanding of pastors unless we acknowledge the relationship between these three biblical terms. For example, if we didn’t acknowledge that what Paul says about overseers in 1 Timothy 3 applies to those we call pastors, we would have no clue about who is and who is not qualified to serve in that role.

So, admittedly, this has been a teaching-style sermon without a whole lot of application. And I recognize that. But, that is not all bad. We truly need to understand these sorts of details if we are going to be a healthy church. We need to understand what the Bible says about those who lead the church.

But before I close, let me offer this as a reminder to you. While God has given the church, specific men to serve as shepherds… the truth is, those men are only under-shepherds—we are sort of like sheep dogs. None of us is ever going to be perfect and we will often let the flock down. And sometimes we might even bark at and bite the sheep we are supposed to be caring for. But, as 1 Peter 5:4 reminds us, there is another Shepherd—the chief Shepherd, the good Shepherd—who will never let any of us down. In John 10, Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10:11 ESV). “I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me” (John 10:14 ESV).

So friends, in closing, let me ask: “Do you know the good shepherd, and does the good shepherd know you? Yes, do you know the good shepherd who has lain his life down for his sheep? Well, I want you to know that his name is Jesus Christ. And I want to encourage you to listen to his voice when he calls. Enter into his sheepfold. Let him be your Shepherd, your good Shepherd, and follow him wherever he leads. He has appointed under-shepherds to help you in this regard, but ultimately he is your Shepherd and he has called you to follow him. He will never let you down. He will never lead you astray. He is the Good Shepherd who was willing to die for his sheep.

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  1. Lane T. Dennis and Wayne Grudem, eds. The ESV Study Bible. Accordance electronic ed. (Wheaton: Crossway Bibles, 2008), paragraph 24269. ↩︎
  2. Lane T. Dennis and Wayne Grudem, eds. The ESV Study Bible. Accordance electronic ed. (Wheaton: Crossway Bibles, 2008), paragraph 24270. ↩︎