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 (1 Peter 5:1, ESV)
Ministers can learn a lot from Peter. When he wrote this letter, he had already suffered much for Jesus. He had endured imprisonments, rejection, and brutality at the hands of the authorities. But his previous pains could not eliminate the certainty of his future pains. He knew he would suffer and eventually die for Jesus because Jesus had told him so (John 21:18-19). And because Peter knew what he was heading into, he had developed a specific mentality.
It is that mentality that Peter shares with us in this passage. In this closing portion of his letter, Peter’s exhorted a church on the margins. Just as Peter knew what he was going to endure, he had a Holy Spirit informed sense of what they and their pastors were about to endure, so in these verses, he took time to direct their pastors .
But what can we learn from Peter’s exhortations to these pastors? And why should this matter?
One reason is that the role of pastor is one of great importance to the well-being of the church, and the well-being of God’s people. Through solid teaching, servant-leadership, and a healthy example, good pastors can aid their congregation in a myriad of ways. They can impact their spiritual, emotional, and even physical health. They can calm, encourage, and correct them. They can help every relationship they are in. They can strengthen them for their life pursuits. They can talk them out of grave error and life-altering sins. They can help you draw close to God. And they can stand out as an example to follow. Choosing the path of pastoral ministry is an important and weighty decision.
For instance, consider the consequences if pastors were to focus on entertainment rather than discipleship. What do you think would result? Or, what would happen if we, as pastors, repeatedly lead our congregations into theological error? Or, think of the impact of serving as a pastor who is motivated by the fear of man rather than the fear of God? As current or aspiring pastors, reflecting on Peter’s exhortations can provide valuable guidance and self reflection for our ministry and service to God’s people.
It helps us answer the question: what is a pastor supposed to be?
1. They Are Shepherds (5:1-2)
Shepherd the flock of God that is among you … (1 Peter 5:2, ESV)
First, we learn pastors are meant to be shepherds. I would like to eradicate the term of its sappy sentimentalism. In the Old and New Testaments, shepherds were used as metaphors for good spiritual leadership. Moses and David were shepherds of Israel who laid down their lives for the sheep in order to confront the powers of darkness. Isaiah and Ezekiel rebuked bad shepherds who did things for unrighteous gain and would not say hard things the people did not want to hear.
Remember the context in which Peter is writing: these churches were at the beginning stages of marginalization for the gospel’s sake. Peter saw swells of hostility rolling in and predicted that a tsunami was coming. And since the pastors were the visible figureheads and leaders of these churches, Peter assumed these men were in jeopardy. War was coming.
And, as I said earlier, Peter could relate to the combative nature of the role these men were in. He had fought for the gospel outside and inside the church, oftentimes suffering in the process.
But he could also relate because he had seen Jesus endure the war of all wars. He called himself a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker of the glory that is going to be revealed (v. 1). It is true. Peter had watched while the tide of popular opinion turned against Jesus. He watched Jesus become alienated from his own family members. He saw the Jewish leaders and Roman officials reject Jesus. He knew about the plots against Jesus, the arrest of Jesus, and the beatings Jesus endured. He was there in the distress of the garden of Gethsemane. And he was privy to the pain and agony of the cross. He knew Jesus was the original self-jeopardizing Shepherd (5:4). And Peter knew that any suffering he endured for Jesus meant he had suffered like Jesus.
So what did Peter want these pastors to do? He wanted them to shepherd. What did he want them to become? Self-jeopardizing shepherds. He said, “Shepherd the flock of God that is among you” (v. 2).
But what does that mean? In the Bible, spiritual leaders were meant to shepherd in two main ways: through tending and feeding God’s people. Those were the two exhortations Jesus gave Peter (John 2:15-17). To tend means to care, lead, guide, and protect. It can be exhausting work, and no man does this perfectly. To feed means bringing the nutritive resource of God’s word to his people in a variety of ways. It is also tiring work, and the job of tending and feeding is never done.
2. They Must Be Willing (5:2-3)
… exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly … (1 Peter 5:2, ESV)
The second attribute of pastors, according to Peter, is that they are willing to work and willing to do the work. In this brief section, Peter went for the heart of a pastor’s motivation. John Calvin said Peter was pointing out three vices pastors might succumb to—laziness, greed, and lust for power. Peter tells us there is no room for any of these three.
First, Peter said a pastor must exercise oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have him (v. 2). I have known men who did not want to do the work but “felt called” to the work, so they thought they had to pastor. But Peter said pastors should not do it by compulsion, but willingly (v. 2). They should want to be pastors.
He also said pastors should not pastor “for shameful gain, but eagerly” (1 Peter 5:2). This was not Peter’s way of saying pastors should never be paid. Some are not. Some are. Paul said things like “Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching … the laborer is worthy of his wages” (1 Tim. 5:17-18). Peter is not picking on salaried pastors but on those who do it for shameful gain (v. 3). We can easily observe exorbitant forms of this in modern prosperity preachers or some “celebrity pastors.” Instead, Peter said, pastors should be eager to do the work.
Now, please think about the implications. Pastors should want to do the work. Continually. Peter used the words willingly and eagerly. But a desire, a will, is not something that one acquires early on and never has to revisit. No, a pastor must perpetually cultivate his heart and health so that he stokes his will within to crave the work.
Many pastors are immensely discouraged. Many have burdens placed on them they could not possibly bear. Some of them have allowed expectations of them to run out of control. And most are exposed to the more unsavory effects of sin and the problematic portions of the church family on a regular basis. And when the church is marginalized or exiled, fears can compound, and a pastor can feel he has a target on his back. So he (and the church) should work hard to establish boundaries and rhythms that allow his soul to be nourished and re-nourished by God. He must open his spirit to God’s Spirit so that God can reignite the will within.
3. They Must Be Examples (5:3)
… not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock. (1 Peter 5:3, ESV)
But beyond the heart motivation of a pastor is his method of leadership. Peter said they must be examples to the church. Many of us know the Bible teaches us to imitate God. In the Old and New Testaments, God is the standard. We are made in his image to bear his image. He tells us to be holy as he is holy. As Paul said, “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children” (Eph. 5:1). We also know we are to model our lives after God the Son. John said, “Whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked” (1 John 2:6).
But even though we are called to imitate God and walk as Jesus walked, pastors are to live as examples to the flock (v. 3). Rather than domineer over the church—or “lord it over” the church—God’s leaders are called to lead by example. The apostle Paul embraced this mentality when he said, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1). He also told Timothy and Titus to live exemplary lives (1 Tim. 4:12; Titus 2:7-8).
This calling is even evident in the New Testament lists describing what a pastor must be; they are light on talents and heavy on character because that character should be an example for the whole church (1 Tim. 3:1-7; Titus 1:5-9). As the writer of Hebrews said, “Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith” (Heb. 13:7).
But the context of Peter’s words makes it sound as if this methodology—being an example—was in jeopardy. It sounds good to us for pastors to lead by example, but in those days, a pastor could lead through domination, partly because they had a significant amount of authority. And this can be done today.
Many Christians, of course, have stories of painful interactions with church leadership. I know I do. And I am sure I am part of those stories for many others, even unknowingly. But the general trend of a pastor’s life and ministry should be towards humble service rather than running roughshod over God’s people.
Unfortunately, some of the most charismatic and confident church leaders also struggle with this methodology. But Jesus stands out as our constant source of wisdom and our pattern to follow. He did not domineer but patiently served his people while exemplifying the life he wanted them to follow.
As ministers of the gospel, it is essential to examine our own character. Reflect on our way of life, our emphases, and our passions. Consider what drives us.
Are we intent on building our own kingdom, or are we serving God’s kingdom? Are we concerned with our own popularity, or do we drive forward to the fame of Christ? Can we celebrate the wins of others, or do we always have to be at the forefront?
Do we love our family? Do we manage our lives well? Are we self-controlled and disciplined? Do we speak gently to individuals? Do we fear God? Do we love his word? Do we take our own sanctification seriously?
Or, do we neglect our family? Are our lives chaotic and impossibly overwhelmed? Are we angry and inflammatory when we speak? Do we have few boundaries? Do we lack self-control? Are we loose with our words? Do we cross lines and disobey God?
Again, no one is perfect, but as pastors or those aspiring to the call of pastoral ministry, we should strive to live exemplary lives. This is especially important in chaotic times, seasons when the church is exiled.
4. They Are Motivated by Their Lord (5:4)
And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory. (1 Peter 5:4, ESV)
Finally, Peter says good pastors will be motivated by the return of the ultimate pastor, the true Shepherd, the Good Shepherd, the Great Shepherd, Jesus Christ (Ezek. 34:11-16; John 10:11-14; Heb. 13:20). But they are also motivated by what Jesus will give them: the unfading crown of glory (v. 4). It is true that every believer will receive a crown of righteousness or life, but the passages that suggest as much might be using “crown” as a metaphor for the heavenly life (2 Tim. 4:8; James 1:12; Rev. 2:10, 3:11). But the crown Peter mentions here is different from the crown all believers will receive.
The crowns (stephanos) used in Peter’s day were given to winners of athletic contests or Roman generals who were valiant in battle. But many of those crowns were made of perishable materials, wreaths that would wither over time. But Peter said the crown pastors achieve are unfading (v. 4). A good pastor will be motivated by the reward coming from his Lord. He will look forward to hearing Jesus say, “Well done, good and faithful servant, enter into the joy of the Lord” (Matt. 25:21).
And this motivation will make him impervious to the sudden shifts that can come upon the exiled church. When his motivation is what Jesus thinks of him, a pastor will have reservoirs of strength that enable him to handle criticism, navigate waves of trials, and endure pressures from outside and inside the church. With Christ’s reward as his motivation, a pastor will say whatever he has to say, even if his audience does not like it or even if it lands him in prison.
We must strive to be men who care much about what Christ thinks of them and think less about what people think of them. It seems there is something powerful about becoming the kinds of pastors Peter described.
Peter’s next sentence exhorted the young to be subject to the elders and everyone else to practice humility (1 Pet. 5:5). In other words, if we, as pastors, are good shepherds, are willing to do the work, are good examples, and look to Jesus’ reward, we will be effective leaders. Our congregations are imperfect; we certainly are too. Together, with humility, we can accomplish much.