Reflection | As we turn to chapter 5, Peter heads into the homestretch of his first letter to scattered Christians throughout Asia Minor. In our passage for today, Peter will begin by addressing the elders. He then will widen his circle of focus to include the younger members in the community. He will conclude by providing counsel for all believers. We will look at the bulk of these instructions to the collective group next time.
First, Peter begins by speaking to the elders: “To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder and a witness of Christ’s sufferings…” (verse 1). “Elder” comes from the Greek word, “presbyterous” and biblically, it refers to those are called and serve in leading the local church. Contrary to popular Christian thought, age is not a scriptural criterion for occupying this role. However, maturity, experience, and moral integrity, which often come with age, are the specific qualifications spelled out in the New Testament (see 1 Timothy 3:1-17, Titus 1:5-9).
Peter makes his appeal to these leaders as one who is also an elder. Let us recognize there is much more to Peter’s resume than this designation. Even though he points to his experience as an eyewitness, Peter could have more explicitly referenced his authority as an apostle – as one of the original twelve disciples who first followed Jesus. He also could have spoken about his missionary journeys and decisive moments at the forefront of the start of the early Church. Right from the start, Peter is modeling the overall posture he is encouraging these elders to adopt – one of humble service rather than elevating oneself above others.
Appealing to his empathy with these elders in their task, Peter frames their shared job description through the lens of a familiar scriptural image: “Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care…” (verse 2). The imagery of shepherding is richly biblical, permeating Israel’s story. Israel is God’s flock and God himself is their shepherd (see Psalm 23:1-4; 28:9). Jesus intentionally associated Himself with this role and thus proclaimed Himself to be both the Messiah and God in the flesh when he declared that he was the Good Shepherd (see John, chapter 10. Peter points to this understanding of Christ later in the passage as he talks of “the Chief Shepherd” who will return later (verse 4).
Like a shepherd, an elder’s role is one of supervision. The Greek word used literally means “to take oversight,” or “to look diligently after.” Elders are those who watch over the community. It’s a role that requires paying attention to what is happening within the fellowship as well as being aware of what’s going on in the lives of those who make up the local church. Elders, however, are not merely spectators. They keep an eye out in order to anticipate and initiate in the tending of needs – in helping and guiding the flock.
Peter stresses that serving as elder is not something one ought to do “because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be…” Those in the church should not take on a role of leadership to fulfill the expectations of others. Leadership in the Body of Christ always must be a willing response to being called by the Holy Spirit. The Lord desires that one serves just as one gives – willingly and therefore, wholeheartedly. A person forced into spiritual leadership by the pressure or demands of others cannot and will not serve as God intends. He or she will either abuse or be abused in their role – individually burning out or burning others and thus driving them away from God and the Church.
Hence Peter goes on to add a caution against “pursuing dishonest gain” and “not lording it over those entrusted to you but being examples to the flock” (verse 3). Those who answer the call of leadership in the church must be eager to serve for the sake of the Great Commission and the Kingdom of God alone. Our role, those of us who are elders or leaders, is to serve. Personal gain – be it material goods, psychological affirmation, or a desire for control – must not be one’s motivation as an elder.
Rather than seeking the enrichment or aggrandizement of oneself, a Christ-like leader ought to aim to guide others in their Christian walk. Peter rounds out his instructions by indicating this kind of leadership is about showing, not merely telling. An elder’s primary responsibility is to be a living witness to other believers of how to follow Jesus – particularly in the face of hardship, suffering, and persecution.
Elders are those who lead by first following Jesus. Peter makes this clear by reminding those to whom he is writing that the community of believers belongs to God and not to its human leaders. Peter understands both himself and the “fellow elders” to whom he speaks as being “under-shepherds.” All leaders in the Church but especially those who serve as elders must remember they serve not on the basis of their own authority by that of Christ Himself – the One who alone can gather and restore God’s scattered people.
Peter’s instructions prove that it is easy to lead others badly, by serving reluctantly, or for personal gain, or in a domineering and controlling way. True Christian leadership is the call to serve. Jesus taught about it this way: “The greatest among you is to be the servant of all” (see Matthew 20:20-28). In order to serve like this, the answer to the call to shepherd must always first be understood as a call to be shepherded. Elders who are not regularly yielding, abiding, and being cared for by Jesus should not be leading anybody. Leaders in the Church lead well – in a manner that is healthy and effective – not because of their great faith but because of Jesus’ faithfulness.
Peter learned this lesson the hard way. It all came together for him over a charcoal fire on a beach in the aftermath of his three-fold denial of Christ. When Jesus was asking Peter “Do you love me?” and then in response to each of Peter’s affirmations told him to “Feed my sheep,” Jesus was communicating a crucial truth. Peter’s ability to feed Christ’s sheep would not come from Peter’s undying loyalty to Jesus but rather from Jesus’ faithful love toward Peter that always would restore and sustain Peter despite his disloyalty.
Leadership is never an easy task. It is often a thankless one. Some have said, “Leadership is its own reward.” Peter seemingly agrees when he assures the elders to whom he is writing, when Jesus returns at the end of all things, “you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away” (verse 4). The exact meaning of this phrase is unclear. But if nothing else, Peter is assuring elders that their service and sacrifice for Christ are never in vain and will not be forgotten. The reward for leading like Jesus is that we become more like Christ in our character and person. In other words, we draw closer to who we are meant to become.
Peter now turns to those who are younger, spiritually speaking, in the community, and calls for them to “submit yourselves to your elders” (verse 5). This simple and concise direction falls in line with a theme Peter has unpacked throughout this letter. Christians live together under several layers of authority. God in Christ, our Creator and our Redeemer, is the ultimate authority over us. In our service to the Lord, we exist in a broken world that is temporarily held together by various forms of human authority – by governing bodies in the public realm or family structures in the home.
Similarly, within the Church itself, there is a configuration of organizational leadership. Those who are called to shepherd need to be followed by the flock. As members of the Church, we are to follow Jesus by following those whom Christ has called to lead us. Both a church without leadership and a church that will not submit to biblical leadership is a church that is liable to propagate a damaging witness to Jesus and to do harm to others. As followers of Jesus, we are not called to blind allegiance but rather to evaluate and hold our leaders accountable. Church leadership, however, is not accountable to our personal preferences or desires. Church leadership is to be held accountable to teaching and direction that are demonstrably from God’s Word and Spirit and centered in Christ.
Peter extends his appeal not on the basis of a hierarchy of power but according the scriptural principle of mutual submission. He instructs both elders and members, young and old alike: “All of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another.” Properly understood, the biblical understanding of humility is not about self-hatred or putting oneself down. As C.S, Lewis once wrote, “Humility is not thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less.”
In other words, biblical humility is about deferring to God and not ourselves as the center of the universe. Humbling ourselves is to live rightly before the Lord – to glorify Him through how we treat others – with respect, with dignity, with love.
Notice how Peter describes the act of humbling ourselves. It is a choice rather than something that instinctively comes from within us. Submitting to one another is like putting on a change of clothes. We have to take off our normal “outfit” – the posture out of which we normally operate. And what is our typical demeanor? The Bible is repetitive on this count. Either out of fear and insecurity or arrogance and presumption, our default attire is our pride. No one likes their pride being wounded. All of us have a hard time accepting when we are wrong – and even when we do accept it, many of us still believe we ought to be right!
Unchecked pride became our go-to designer wear that moment back in the Garden when we started to convince ourselves we knew better than God. And it’s remained in fashion for humanity ever since. Peter, however, quoting Proverbs 3:34, reminds us changing our attire is necessary “because God opposes the proud but shows favor to the humble.” Our refusal to promote and serve others above ourselves is not just a denial of the dignity and the needs of those around us; it is an affront to God – the One in whose image we are all made. To live for ourselves is to live opposed to God because we were created to live for God by existing in concert and in care of each other.
Pride is resistant to grace – both the need for it and continuing to rely upon it. Still, it can be hard surrendering the thickness of the skin of our ego. Practicing humility is putting on much more intimate wear. It exposes us and makes us vulnerable rather self-protected. We resist humility and safeguard our pride because we are afraid of becoming insignificant, of going unrecognized, of making ourselves nothing. Anticipating this, Peter directs us to “Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you” (verse 7).
Just a verse earlier, he assures us that when we humble ourselves, we are not ultimately unguarded but rather we are putting ourselves “under God’s might hand.” Such a continual step of faith and trust will not go unanswered by our good, good Father. In yielding the work of seeking our own glory and instead seeking to serve and work for the good of others, at exactly the right time, Peter promises, God “will lift us up.” As Christians, we must never fear death – even the death of our pride in service to others. Because, thanks to Jesus, when we die to ourselves, our resurrection in Christ is always assured.
Consider & Discuss | Do you lead and follow with humility? What anxieties do you feel when submitting to authority? How does this instruction about elder relationships help you understand God as the Chief Shepherd? Through Peter’s words about leadership and humility, what is God asking of you personally? How do you see pride impacting your relationship with God? With other people? How is pride connected to anger, bitterness, envy, lust, anxiety, and other besetting sins? What anxieties or worries are you carrying that you need to put in the Lord’s hand so that you can be lifted up by Him?
Prayer Focus | Heavenly Father, I come before Your throne of grace and mercy asking You to lead me through Your Word and Your Spirit in humbling myself – first, before You and then, before others. I confess that many times I am well-pleased with myself to the point of arrogance and presumption towards You and my brothers and sisters around me. I confess that my pride also can be driven by my fears or my longings about what others think of me. Teach and guide me to relinquish my pride – to let my ego and my self-centeredness fall by the wayside so that I may instead be clothed in Your compassion and love. Give me a deeper sense of humor so that I can laugh at myself rather than take myself so seriously. When I am tempted to view myself as greater than anyone, snuff out the tinder of my self-importance by overwhelming me with the magnitude of Your glory and grace. Help me to remember that when I humble myself before You, I am trusting You and You will always lift me up. Amen.