1 Peter 5.1-14: Christ-likeness for All
1 Peter 5 continues an exhortation that began all the way back in 2.11. There the apostle began to spell out what Christ-like living looks like in the midst of a world that is hostile to us. He exhorts us to abstain from fleshly lusts (2.11), to behave properly among unbelievers (2.12), to submit to the government (2.13-16), and to honor all people (2.17). Then Peter began a series of more specific exhortations. He first addressed how Christian slaves ought to act (2.18-25), how Christian wives ought to act (3.1-6), and how Christian husbands ought to act (3.7). He followed this is exhortations that apply to everyone: to be harmonious, sympathetic, brotherly, kind-hearted, humble, and zealous for good (3.8-13), ready to suffer (3.14-22) and not to be ashamed to be who we are (even if it invites ridicule, 4.1-7). Peter says that we are especially to treat each other well (4.8-19), and this imperative was all the more important in light of the persecutions they faced. This was not a time to withdraw from one another. It was instead the time to draw closer and help and encourage each other.
It is in this context of banding together in a difficult situation and of being the people we ought to be in every facet of our lives that Peter penned two final exhortations, one to elders and another to the younger men among his readers. Brotherly love and proper behavior is what elders are supposed to cultivate in others and show in themselves, and it is what the others are supposed to follow.
The exhortation to elders comes in 5.1-4. It is clear that Peter is not simply referring to older men in general, but to those men who serve as elders in local churches, because not every older person is tasked with the work of shepherding God’s flock. Peter’s exhortation to the elders is simple but important: “shepherd the flock of God among you, exercising oversight not under compulsion, but voluntarily, according to the will of God; and not for sordid gain, but with eagerness; nor yet as lording it over those allotted to your charge, but proving to be examples to the flock” (v 2). Let us note a few things about this verse:
1. The New Testament command is that elders oversee the flock that is among them. If you think about it, this is only logical. How could they oversee the spiritual well-being of people who do not live, work, and worship among them in the same congregation? The idea that elders can oversee or manage the work and spiritual welfare of Christians who live in other places (sometimes hundreds, or even thousands, of miles away) does not survive in the light of this verse. The work of shepherding requires that one knows well the people he is leading.
2. The work of elders is a volunteer work in the purest sense of the term “volunteer.” Elders are to work out of a sense of love and concern for others. God’s will is that they do their work “willingly” and “with eagerness,” that is, because they truly want to provide this kind of help to fellow-Christians. It is important that an elder should serve from the right motive.
3. Peter explicitly warns against abuses that may tempt an elder. First of all, no man should do it if he is driven to do it for the satisfaction of his own ego. This is the sense of the word translated “under compulsion.” It denotes action that is driven by the compulsion of self-gratification. There is no greater perversion of this position of service to others than to turn it into a way of simply serving self. The man who wants to be an elder because he wants the prestige and the attention that comes with it (or so that his wife will be able to brag about him), has no business being an elder. That is serving for the wrong reason. Secondly, elders are not to do it for the money. While we do not commonly practice this today, it is perfectly Scriptural for a man who devotes all his time and energy to this work to be supported by the local church for it. Paul said that an elder who does his work especially well should be counted worthy of “double honor” (i.e., twice the support), especially if he also preaches the gospel (1 Tim 5.17f). With the prospect that a man could earn some “easy money” by aspiring to be an elder in the church, there was always the possibility that some would do it for the money and not for a genuine concern for the souls of others. Again, this is serving for the wrong reason. Third, elders are not law-makers, they are not “the bosses” of the local church. While their work may occasionally require that they make decisions about what the group should do in certain practices, this is not the essence of their work. It is a mistake to think of elders as the men who make the rules in the local church, and any elder who thinks of himself in these terms needs to step down. Instead their oversight consists first and foremost of setting the proper example, namely, an example of men who are filled with love, a knowledge of the word, spiritual wisdom, and genuine humility. Their leading is to imitate the way in which Christ shepherds His people (who is mentioned in exactly these terms in the very next verse), leading by the power of love and gentleness, by the power of righteousness and truth. In the kingdom of God leadership is service, and this is true nowhere more than with elders.
Peter addresses the younger men next (5.5-7). The instruction is simple: be submissive to your elders with an attitude of humility. If exhorted, reproved, rebuked, corrected, or admonished by the elders, the younger men should listen and submit to the spiritual wisdom of these men rather than develop a rebellious or stubborn attitude. This makes the works of elders so much easier (Heb 13.17), but it also makes a person pleasing to God. Peter reinforces this latter point with a paraphrase of Proverb 3.34: “God is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” The exhortation to humility, however, does not just apply to those in subjection. It applies equally to the elders who oversee. Thus Peter says “all of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another” (v 5). When everyone works together in a spirit of humility, only good things result.
The epistle closes with an exhortation to all to watch out for the devil, and to persevere in times of suffering (5.8-11). Let there be no doubt about it: Satan wants us to fail, and he seeks every opportunity to destroy us spiritually. The image of a roaring lion on the prowl for prey is vivid and arresting. Satan may not appear in such a way, and his enticements are certainly never presented as the deadly things they really are, but as Christians we must never be fooled by Satan’s façade of friendliness or the fleshly allure of his offers. He is not our friend. He is instead our deadly enemy who will destroy us at the first chance we give to him. What if you visited the local zoo and someone came up to and said that a lion had gotten out of his enclosure — would you casually walk around the zoo, taking in the sights as they come? Or would you be looking in every direction for that lion? It is not by accident that Peter connects his warning about Satan with the suffering his readers were experiencing (vv 9-10). The fact is that the persecution they were suffering was the work of Satan, who was using the hatred of unbelievers in an attempt to destroy Christians. To resist the devil and to persevere through persecution is, in fact, the same thing.
The epistle ends with greetings and a final call to stand firm in the grace of God.
Why Do Lions Roar?