The Sheep Need Shepherds

Kevin Hay

man holding stick and standing near herd of sheep on the seashore

Throughout Scripture, there are certain themes that show up again and again. One of those is the concept of shepherd. The job of a shepherd was to care for a flock of sheep. Shepherds were tasked with the responsibility of protecting the sheep from predators and guiding them to good pastures for eating and suitable streams for drinking. As we read the Bible, especially the Old Testament, we realize that many of the men God called to carry out his plans and purposes were shepherds by trade. Abraham was a shepherd. Isaac was a shepherd. Jacob was a shepherd. Moses was a shepherd. David was a shepherd, and of course, Jesus revealed himself to be the good shepherd (John 10:11). In fact, in the Psalms, even God is referred to as the shepherd of Israel (Ps 80:1), and the children of God are called the people of his pasture and the sheep of his hand (Ps 95:7).

This rich, biblical theme is important to understand as we consider the words of Peter in 1 Peter 5:1–5. There, the apostle writes to believers who have been scattered to different areas throughout the Roman Empire due to persecution, saying:

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: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; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock. And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory. Likewise, you who are younger, be subject to the elders. Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.”

Pastor John MacArthur, in his commentary on 1 Peter, provides us with valuable details regarding the context of Peter’s words in this letter. He says there:

As Peter penned this epistle, the dark clouds of the first great outbreak of official persecution, instigated by the insane Emperor Nero, were already gathering on the horizon. Seeking scapegoats to divert the public’s suspicion that he had started the great fire of July A.D. 64 that devastated Rome, Nero pinned the blame on the Christians, whom he already perceived as enemies of Rome, because they would worship none but Christ. As a result, they were encased in wax and burned at the stake to light his gardens, crucified, and thrown to wild beasts.1MacArthur, John. 1 Peter MacArthur New Testament Commentary. United States: Moody Publishers, 2004, 3.

So, what does all of this have to do with shepherds? Well, in light of the historical context, Peter’s purpose for writing this letter is really three-fold:

  1. It’s to encourage these believers to remain steadfast in their faith in the face of the persecution they are experiencing.
  2. It’s to remind them of the special privilege they have been given as children of God, although they do not currently see it or feel it.
  3. And, finally, it’s to remind them as individual believers, and as churches, how they are called to live and function in the midst of everything they’re experiencing.

In a word, the people of God were suffering and being scattered, but God had not left them without shepherds. The Lord had given them elders to care for their souls, and it is these elders that Peter addresses in 1 Peter 5:1-5.

The Biblical Role of Elders

Looking again at verse 1 of our text, Peter writes:

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:

Notice, first, that Peter writes with the presupposition that churches have elders. He’s not addressing a single elder, but rather, he is exhorting the elders among God’s people. So, let me ask you, does your church have a plurality of elders? Do you have a group of godly, qualified men who are prayerfully seeking to shepherd your congregation according to the Word of God, by the grace of God, for the glory of God? If the answer is no, the next question must be, why not?

In case anyone is tempted to think that this is an isolated assumption on the part of Peter, the reality is that a plurality of elders is the pattern for local churches in the Bible. For example, in Acts 14:23, we find Paul and Barnabas appointing a plurality of elders in every church they were ministering. Later, in Paul’s letter to Titus, he tells him that the reason he left him in Crete was that he “might put in order what was left unfinished and appoint elders in every town.” (Titus 1:5).

Throughout the New Testament, there are three main titles that all refer to this same biblical office. Whether it’s elders, overseers, or shepherds, all three synonymous terms refer to a body of qualified men whom God has called to lead the church. In fact, Peter uses a form of all three terms in the first two verses of our text:

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:shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight. (1 Pet 5:1–2).

So, Peter is addressing this exhortation to those who hold the biblical office of elder, perhaps even with the words of the resurrected Christ echoing in his mind: “Feed my sheep” (John 21:17). In doing so, he wants them to look both backwards and forwards. Looking back, Peter wants his fellow shepherds to consider the sufferings of Christ. In doing so, he wants them to realize that nothing they are currently experiencing can compare to the full weight of God’s wrath being satisfied by Christ for their sins. Looking ahead, he wants them to consider the future crown of glory that is reserved for those who endure to the end because of what Christ has done. Why would Peter want to exhort the elders of the church in this way?

The Crucial Responsibility of Elders

Flowing from the suffering Christ endured and the crown that Christ purchased, Peter goes on to say:

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; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock. (1 Pet 5:2–3)

This portion of our text gets to the heart of why God has designed the church to be led by supernaturally empowered, biblically qualified, shepherds. Specifically, it’s because the church is comprised of people whom God compares to sheep. As one author rightly noted, “It is no accident that God has chosen to call us sheep…The behavior of sheep and human beings is similar in many ways…sheep do not ‘just take care of themselves’ as some might suppose. They require, more than any other class of livestock, endless attention and meticulous care.”2Keller, W. Phillip. A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23. United States: Zondervan, 2007, 22.

Therefore, when Peter calls these elders to shepherd the flock of God that is among them, he’s calling them to keep the sheep from wandering, to protect them from enemies, to keep them from eating things that would be harmful for them, and to guide them to a place of health and vitality. How is that to be accomplished? Well, from the positive perspective, Peter says that the elders practically shepherd by exercising oversight. They exercise their God-given authority to look after and watch over the members of the church, whom God has entrusted to their care.

From the negative perspective, however, Peter provides three ways the elders are not to shepherd the flock: First, their oversight is not to be carried out under compulsion, or external obligation. While the responsibilities of an elder are weighty, they must possess a supernatural, joyful desire. Second, Peter says that men should not shepherd for the sake of shameful gain. Unlike the prosperity preachers of our day, true shepherds serve eagerly, simply because it is a privilege to serve God and his people. Third and finally, Peter says that men should not shepherd by domineering over those in their charge. In other words, those who have an autocratic, micromanaging, heavy-handed posture towards their flock should not be elders. As John Calvin has rightly stated, “A pastor needs two voices, one for gathering the sheep and the other for driving away wolves and thieves”3John Calvin, 1, 2 Timothy and Titus, Crossway Classic Commentaries (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1998), 184.

Peter’s admonition in this text reflects the heart of God on the matter. As demonstrated in Ezekiel 34, God brought an indictment upon the false shepherds of Israel, who were supposed to be caring for the people of God, saying to them:

Thus says the Lord God: ‘Ah, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not the shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fat ones, but you do not feed the sheep. The weak you have not strengthened, the sick you have not healed, the injured you have not bound up, the strayed you have not brought back, the lost you have not sought, and with force and harshness you have ruled them. (Ezek 34:2-4)

Now, you may be thinking about how horrible it was that these negligent shepherds were using and abusing the people of God instead of helping, guiding, protecting, and feeding them with the truths of God’s Word. If so, you would be completely right in your assessment. However, if this is God’s perspective on his flock who are being neglected by false shepherds, what might his perspective be of a church that refuses to be led by shepherds at all? What might God’s perspective be of a church that rejects his good design for church leadership and chooses an unbiblical model produced in the mind of man, instead? The Lord, who is our good shepherd, has not left the church without leadership. Out of the abundance of his wisdom, grace, and kindness, he has given the church the gift of shepherds (Eph. 4:11-12). Therefore, the issue isn’t about God’s providence. It’s a question of our obedience.

The Eternal Reward of Elders

Lest we think this topic of elders is negotiable, Peter continues by reminding these under-shepherds of who they’re ultimately serving and what’s at stake:

And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory. (1 Pet 5:4)

Now, throughout my life, I have received various awards. In fact, I have a box in storage right now with trophies and plaques from my days of playing high school and college soccer. When I originally won those awards, I was very proud of them. They were new and shiny, and they typically marked some meaningful accomplishment. Even now, I will occasionally come across that box of trophies, and when I do, I will take a moment to look at them and reminisce on their significance. What I’ve noticed over the years, however, is that most of my awards look very different than they did when I first received them. For many of them, the golden color has worn away. For others, they are obscured by scratches and chips. And, for still others, the little golden soccer players are missing their heads, because my brother broke them off as a kid.

When we consider the reward that Peter is referencing, though, it infinitely transcends any earthly award anyone has ever received. The crown of glory, which Christ will give to those elders who have served him and the church, faithfully, will be a reward that is unfading. It will never deteriorate or wear out. In other words, like the treasure Christ called his people to lay up in heaven, where moths and rust cannot tarnish or destroy, the unfading reward reserved for his faithful shepherds, will never lose its glory (Matt 6:20). Why? Because the glory of that eternal reward will not be found in the value of a precious metal or in the brilliance of its illustrious splendor, but rather, its glory will be found in the beautiful words uttered by the lips of our Master, “Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your Master” (Matt 25:21).

Looking ahead to that glorious day, however, there is still a calling to fulfill. Churches who persist in refusing to establish a biblical pattern of eldership will also have to give an account to the Lord one day. Thus, the calling of eldership has everything to do with the sheep of Christ’s pasture. Right now, there are thousands of churches being led and shepherded by faithful pastors of God’s choosing. At the same time, there are a multitude of churches who simply refuse to follow the biblical precedent.

The Vital Response of Members

Like two sides of the same coin, for every side of authority, there must also necessarily be a side of submission. As Peter instructs his audience:

Likewise, you who are younger, be subject to the elders. Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble. (1 Pet 5:5)

Although Peter specifically addresses those in the church who are younger, since it is most often the case that rebellion, arrogance, and immaturity are found in those who are young, the principle is applicable to all believers. In doing so, he exhorts them to submit themselves to the elders of the church. How do they do that? Well, using figurative language, he says that they are to put on humility toward one another as if it were a piece of clothing. In the same way that we typically change our clothes at least once per day, this is something we must also strive to do on a daily basis.

Quoting Psalm 3:34, Peter concludes this section by providing a God-centered perspective on this call to humility: God opposes those who persist in pride, but for those who strive toward humility, he provides the grace to accomplish it. As it applies specifically to the congregation’s posture towards its leadership, without that Spirit-empowered humility and submission to the eldership God has given, no church will ever function the way God has designed. Why is this so vitally important? The author of Hebrews gets to the heart of the matter:

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 no advantage to you. (Heb 13:17)

We serve a God who has designed the church with very specific features and functions. In his divine wisdom, he has planned out the integral parts of the church for particular purposes. Yet, because he loves us, he has also established that design with our spiritual advantage and joy in mind. Therefore, whether we’ve been called to be elders who will give an account for those souls entrusted to our care, or we’ve simply been called to submit to the care of those who have, Scripture is abundantly clear that the sheep need shepherds.

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1 MacArthur, John. 1 Peter MacArthur New Testament Commentary. United States: Moody Publishers, 2004, 3.
2 Keller, W. Phillip. A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23. United States: Zondervan, 2007, 22.
3 John Calvin, 1, 2 Timothy and Titus, Crossway Classic Commentaries (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1998), 184.
Author man holding stick and standing near herd of sheep on the seashore

Kevin Hay

Pastor Redeemer Bible Church, Gilbert, Arizona

Kevin Hay serves as one of the pastors of Redeemer Bible Church in Gilbert, Arizona. He is a DMin student in Expository Preaching at The Master’s Seminary and is the editor of the book Assurance: Our Confidence in Christ by Thomas Goodwin. Kevin and his wife, Alicia, have eight children: McKenna, Landon, Meela, Madison, Liam, Levi, Mariah, and Maylee.