To the Elders of Christ’s Church from Peter (v. 1)
Nowhere is our faith in God’s word more practically demonstrated than in our cheerful readiness to be governed by his Son. Did he not ask: “Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not the things that I say” (Luke 6:46)? This question is just as applicable to the church in her government and discipline as to individual believers. Warm feelings, good music, and inspiring messages are at best hypocrisy unless they are expressions of submission to Christ’s headship over his church and draw from his authority in our midst. Obedience to Christ in this regard is for his church, the holy temple and house in which he dwells by his Spirit, to be governed as he has commanded in his word: the rule of the church by elders.
That this was the apostolic practice is clear from Peter’s words: “the elders which are among you.” The apostles “ordained elders in every church” (Acts 14:23; Tit. 1:5); it was unthinkable for an apostolic church not to be ruled by a plurality of elders. That this institution is never announced or explained indicates that they took the elder office over from the Old Testament, and from Moses, who by God’s authority arranged for his old covenant church and nation to be ruled by elders. Qualifications for this office are given by the apostles (1 Tim. 3; Tit. 1), which assumes this form of government is normative for the church. Every apostolic congregation was ruled by multiple elders, elected by the congregation, and of equal authority. There is no hierarchy of authority, though there is a distinction of function. All elders are governors or rulers of the church under Christ and have the gift of government (1 Cor. 12:28). Pastors and teachers have the additional responsibility of “laboring in the word and doctrine” (1 Tim. 5:17). From this arises the two-office view of eldership: ruling elders or church governors, and teaching elders or pastors. We might say that some elders have the sole responsibility of governing, watching over the moral life of the congregation, while others have the added duty of feeding the church with the public proclamation of the word. Our present passage addresses all elders, with pastors chiefly in mind as those called and gifted to feed the church with the word of God, as Peter was. Ruling elders are included in the “govern the church of God” command, as well as by implication of shared ruling office.
This is an important distinction to maintain, else disorder will ensure in the government of Christ’s church. When Paul speaks of Christ’s gifts to the church, he enumerates, beginning with the apostolic office, only those offices dedicated to the preaching and teaching of the word (Eph. 4:8-12). Ruling elders are not included here, unless we are to believe that they are also preachers, an idea which the New Testament rejects explicitly, and may also administer the sacraments. This latter idea has gained credence in some circles, but the older interpretation of apostolic practice has by far the greater support. Those who are “stewards of the mysteries of God” (1 Cor. 4:1), called and gifted by God to preach the word, in season and out of season, are also the only rightful administrators of the sacraments. These are the signs and seals of the word, and should be administered only by those who are called of God to feed the flock through preaching. These elders “labor in the word and doctrine.” The gift of church government is a separate bestowal of Christ, even as it is separately treated in other passages. This is not to diminish its significance; in fact, it is only when ruling elders are seen as the protectors and guardians of the moral life and discipline of the church that we do justice to their office and trace it back to its ancient roots: in God’s own division of labor between the Levites who in the old covenant instructed the people of God and the elders who made sure that God’s word was followed and obeyed. A healthy church is thus doubly provided for by pastors and teachers who feed it with God’s pure word and governors or elders that oversee its spiritual health and hold its ministers accountable. Together they share the gift of ruling, thus preventing the gross abuses of hierarchical prelacy by providing for a parity of all church governors, with Christ’s will in Scripture being the sole authority of the church’s faith and life.
In this first verse we behold the amazing transformation of Peter! He who before argued along with the rest about who would be the greatest (Mark 9:34), now humbly, though he was an apostle of Jesus Christ and his living voice in the church, places himself on par with the elders of Christ’s church. He does not put forward an authority of his own. No longer does he boast of strength within himself but attributes his right to be heard to Christ himself. This he does in the first place by declaring that he is a “witness of the sufferings of Christ.” Being an elder in the church, a leader in God’s own flock, is not a matter of personal preeminence. It is rather a declaration of utter consecration to the cross of Christ, his sacrifice on our behalf. Here there is nothing of the old pride in Peter, even as there must be nothing in those who would lead the people of God but humility before Jesus Christ and awe before his cross. This is the very tree of life by which we are made righteousness and cleansed from all our sins. In the light of Christ’s sufferings, how hideous to find in his church politics, novel agendas and programs, and the desire for preeminence! Nothing qualifies a man to lead as much as having been prostrated before the cross of Christ and thereafter consecrated in heart and life to his gospel and glory.
Peter also looks ahead to a future glory: when Christ shall be revealed. The life and strength of an elder in the church are not only drawn from the cross in the past but from faith in the glory of Christ in the future. How else can he walk by faith in God’s word, when so many fall by the wayside, unless he his deeply conscious and fervently longing for the return of his Lord? The manifestation of the glory of the children of God, the crown of life, and the glories of heaven are all future. We must now bear the cross. Obedience is challenging. The world constantly presses; temptations to compromise abound. Fixed is the elder’s hope in the soon return of Jesus Christ. It quickens him to service and sacrifice. It gives him strength to endure, like Moses, by “seeing him who is invisible” (Heb. 11:26). It makes the unseen things of the glory above his very power unto faithfulness (2 Cor. 4:18) and gives him strength to urge the congregation to “set its affections on things above” (Col. 3:1-3). Taken together, we not only see a personal renovation in Peter’s soul – from denial and pride to submission and humility – but also the way in which every true pastor and elder of Christ’s church is held tightly in the grip of the whole gospel of God: the sufferings of our Savior and his glory to be revealed. His sufferings cleanse our consciences from dead works and free us from the tyranny of sin; his glorious coming quickens with hope, zeal, and great boldness in contending for the honor of our Lord in the church and in the world. If Peter had written nothing else about the elder, these lines would be enough to teach us that the elder, whether a pastor or church governor, is a man who is consumed with the gospel of Jesus Christ and unashamedly lives in its hope and power. The church is fed within and protected from without by nothing else than the pure gospel of Jesus Christ, believed on to salvation and lived unto holiness. Her government and discipline, her worship and piety, her witness and strength are drawn solely from this fountain.
Feed and Shepherd (v. 2)
This command to “feed the flock of God” flows directly from Peter’s walk on the beach with the Lord. Three times the Lord told Peter: “Feed my lambs.” Every pastor is charged by Christ himself to provide for the life and strength of God’s own flock by giving it nothing but his pure word. It is God’s flock and lives by his word alone (Matt. 4:4). Yes, here are condemned all those “vain babblings” and strife-inducing questions that so plagued the early church, as well as all the novel teachings and therapeutic preaching that are so much in vogue today. Yet, is this not also a most urgent, pressing call for every faithful elder to be “nourished on the words of good doctrine” (1 Tim. 4:6) and every preacher of the word to “give himself wholly to these things” (1 Tim. 4:15), to “take heed unto yourself and unto your doctrine, continuing in them” (4:16)? This is the certain remedy, then and now, for all the evils, compromises, and immaturity that afflict the church: for ministers to preach all the word, only the word, ever the word of God. The more they encounter “itching ears” among the people of God, the desire for man-pleasing doctrines, the more they must preach and teach the whole counsel of God (Acts 20:27). Ruling elders must ever teach, guide, give an example, and discipline by God’s word in its entirety. Ah, but men have no appetite for God’s word, for expository preaching, for having God’s precious thoughts laid before them in good order, with penetrating application, with all the conviction of one who himself has sat at God’s table and eaten his food. Let God’s word do its own sifting. He will draw whom he will and cut away the dead, fruitless branches (John 15:1-4). It is not for us to ascertain what men can stomach, if that evaluation leads us away from God’s word. It is certain that if men are drawn to the church by half-truths and offers of easy peace and false healing, they will be retained only by more of the same. This is God’s flock, not ours. He sets the terms of communion and the standards of holiness. He defines the duties of elders: set my table with my word: only mine. My true sheep will eat and be satisfied in my safe pastures; the false will fall away.
It is not enough, however, simply to lay out the food. Oversight is necessary. This means, among other important things, that when God feeds his church with his heavenly manna, elders are charged to make sure, as far as they are able, that we eat it. It is horrid ingratitude on the part of Christ’s professing people and culpable neglect on the part of his elders to have God’s food laid out for us but then to leave it up to each one whether or not he will live by the meal God has provided. Elders are commissioned by Jesus Christ with a real authority to hold us accountable to live by God’s word. This implies that elders must know the lives of God’s people, watch them carefully, correct their faults, and encourage them to godliness. This is not left up to the leaders of small groups; so necessary is this that only ordained and qualified men have this function committed to them by Jesus Christ. How this flies in the face of the spirit of our age: that each of us is free to believe what we want and live as we please – but not in God’s flock. He will have us shepherded according to his word. Does this not also speak to its clarity and authority? Loss of faith here explains the reason preaching has moved further away from the doctrines and precepts of God’s word into far hazier realms of personal experience and psychological manipulation. Real oversight demands a clear revelation from God to which each has access and accountability. This oversight, like feeding, can be found only in the Bible, to which elders and people alike have the responsibility to study, believe, and obey. It is God’s precious thoughts to us. It is his will for our lives.
The Way to Lead in the Church (vv. 2-3)
With honest attention to personal motives and great tenderness to Christ’s lambs must elders attend to these duties! Peter utterly condemns a lazy spirit and calls elders to undertake their oversight willingly. This is a voluntary office; it cannot be successfully executed by men who are compelled to undertake it out of public pressure or are uncertain as to their personal fitness for it. This is the reason many of the apostolic qualifications concern personal character. The same is true of the perennial danger of elders assuming the office from the desire to have preeminence in the church, which often comes to expression in this “filthy lucre.” Then as now, there have been those within the precincts of God’s holy temple who have pursued godliness, or a shadow of it, as a means for financial gain (1 Tim. 6:5). Those who would lead must have no regard for personal, earthly benefit or any lust for personal power. Their sole concern is the honor of Christ and the promotion of his life and glory in the people of God.
O, but however much the precious Bride of Jesus Christ needs teaching and oversight – and her need of these is always greater than on earth she can feel – she needs something else just as much: examples of love for Christ, of Christian living, of men from whose heart flows the power of true religion and by whose lives she is shown living models of holiness and consecration to her Master. This is the reason Peter calls all elders away from personal tyranny, hard, lordly words without compassion, or that authoritarian spirit that is ever the bane of those in whose hearts burns a love for the truth but who lack a deep enough taste of our Savior’s compassion for his lambs. But is not this tender compassion for Christ’s meek and lowly ones, the very power and presence of Christ in our midst? The essence of true discipleship? How we must pray that truth and zeal for the flock will bear their true fruit in changes lives, especially among the leaders of God’s heritage, his prized possession! Disciples are not made by fear, a harsh, commanding spirit, or a regime of terror. Disciples are made by word and example: Christ’s powerful, life-giving voice calling men from their tombs and those now-living men showing others the love of Christ and the paths of godliness in their own Spirit-filled lives. This is what all must have who would be true, effectual servants of Jesus Christ and co-laborers with him in the word and government of his church: his own life of meekness and gentleness, of holiness and consecration to his Father in them. An example of Christ himself in our midst! His “thus saith the Lord” united by the Spirit of holiness with his “become like me!” His “learn of me, I am meek and lowly of heart!” This is a high standard joined with the highest possible motives for legitimately called elders. Only Jesus can make such men; how we must pray for him to do so in our times – men who having themselves been fed by Christ’s hand look like him, lead gently, show the way to heaven, set an example of godliness – like him.
The Good Shepherd’s Crown (v. 4)
Ever before the eyes of such men stands the risen Christ, the Good Shepherd, the true King of the church. They expect him to appear; they live as those who truly believe that “the end of all things is at hand” (4:7). They teach and govern for his honor and glory, with an eye to their soon standing before him to give an account. Indeed, this is the only source of strength for an elder who must teach God’s word in the face of Satan’s vicious deceits and protect the church from his constant attacks – “Christ is coming; my Master will soon appear; I must hand him his sheep in better condition than when I receive this charge; Satan is roaring but my Lord has given me this charge and I will not forsake it; here, Lord is your own received back to you.” Keep, faithful elder, the coming of our Savior always before you: to strengthen in dark times, awaken in sleepy ones, and quicken you to faithfulness. He holds an unfading crown of glory in his hand; the “Well done” is even now on his lips. The church needs your faith and faithfulness, your living example of Jesus Christ and personal commitment to his cross and coming glory. Nothing will preserve her from Satan’s assaults and the flesh’s weakness but your vigilance. Feed and guard God’s flock, his heritage. Every insult, sacrifice, and tear is worth his approbation.