Series: 1 & 2 Peter, by Rosie Moore.
Last week we looked at the sunrise fish braai, when the risen Christ restored Peter, commissioning him to shepherd his people (see Before the Rooster Crows, John 21:15-19). Three times Jesus asked Simon, “Do you love me?” And three times Jesus commissioned him as shepherd: “Feed my lambs… Tend my sheep… Feed my sheep” (John 21:15-19). This encounter with Jesus was to become a defining moment in the Apostle’s life.
That’s why, thirty years later, when Peter gave detailed instructions for church leaders, his life had been radically hammered out by Jesus’s words to him. Simon the fisherman had become Peter the shepherd, willing to die for Christ’s name. Against this backdrop, he wrote to the first century church leaders:
“To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder and a witness of Christ’s sufferings who also will share in the glory to be revealed:
Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not pursuing dishonest gain, but eager to serve; 3 not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock. 4 And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away” (1 Peter 5:2-4).
For Peter, power dynamics and self promotion have no place in church leadership. Instead, Church elders are to lead God’s people the way shepherds lead their sheep. Shepherding is a divine trust, an urgent and important business for which leaders will give account to the Lord Jesus himself. They will be rewarded and judged based on how they fed, tended and protected God’s people. Christ identified himself as God’s long-awaited Shepherd, and hence, he has the right to set the criteria for Christian leadership (John 10:11-16; Col 1:18; Eph 5:4-5; 23).
If we have been entrusted with leadership over people, whether it be over a large Church, a small Bible study or a family, it is good to know what faithful Christian shepherding looks like.
Christian shepherds are humble people.
There is humility in how Peter identifies as a ‘fellow elder,’ ‘a witness of Christ’s suffering’, and a ‘partaker in the glory to be revealed’. Notice that Peter doesn’t give himself a grand title like ‘Bishop of Rome.’ He reserves the title of ‘Chief Shepherd’ for Christ alone.
Rather, he identifies himself as a fellow worker, serving alongside other elders in shepherding God’s people. Every spiritual leader should grasp that Jesus is gathering his people from every nation and generation, “so there will be one flock, one shepherd” (John 10:16). This should manifest in an attitude of collegiality rather than competition towards fellow leaders and other ministries.
Remember too, that when Peter wrote his letter in about 62AD, Rome ruled the world with an iron fist and status meant everything. Yet, the Christian church was to be radically different from the power-obsessed culture in which it operated. Jesus had impressed upon Peter that in God’s kingdom, authority is based on service, not on power (Mark 10:42-45). That’s why true shepherds are always humble people.
Then Peter gives a rubric of contrasting character traits for shepherding (1 Peter 5:2-3):
Not under compulsion….but out of willingness.
Not for personal gain…but out of eagerness.
Not domineering…but by example.
These contrasts harken back to the terrible spiritual leaders in Ezekiel’s day (the ‘shepherds of Israel’) who fed only themselves, not the people. They were negligent in their spiritual duties. They ruled God’s people with harshness, scattering and leaving them as prey to wild beasts. These bad shepherds were at best neglectful, passive and weak. At worst, they were predators and exploited their flock.
Peter has a lot to say about false shepherds and ‘waterless springs’, which we will explore in the coming weeks. But for now, he instructs his fellow elders to be godly shepherds who lead from the front and serve their flock.
Here are two practical needs of the flock that every shepherd must meet:
Feed the sheep!
First and foremost, sheep need to be fed! Emotional gimmicks and talking points will not nourish your flock. Give your people Bible-based expository teaching as their staple diet, because people crave plain biblical truth. If your sheep are to flourish in a hard world, they need shepherds who nourish them with rich pasture and clear water, not snacks of Scripture here and there to support the leader’s own opinions (Ezekiel 34:18). Paul urges Timothy and Titus to hold fast to sound biblical teaching (2 Tim 1:13; Titus 1:9; 2:1).
This has become apparent in recent years, especially since Covid has turned the world upside down. Many in the flock are feeling let down, because their leaders are timid of the truth. Many leaders water down the Bible to attract people to their ministries. They revise it to stay relevant, or apologize for it to make Christianity more mainstream.
Many leaders are afraid to teach with the raw Bible for fear that their congregation will lose interest. They’ve lost confidence in the word of God to change hearts, minds and lives. But Peter reminds us in the previous chapter: “If anyone speaks, they should do so as one who speaks the very words of God.” (1 Peter 4:11). There’s no better way to do this than to stick closely to Scripture.
Shepherds, please do not give up on the Bible! You and the sheep entrusted to you are transformed only one way: by the renewal of our minds. And we transform the world around us when we speak the plain biblical truth and do not compromise (Rom 12:2). So, whether you’re a parent, a Bible teacher or children’s worker, remember that the Bible is God’s word that is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, useful for everything in life (Heb 4:12; 2 Tim 3:15-16). It doesn’t need to be helped along or adapted, because it is the “living and abiding word of God that remains forever” (1 Peter 1:23). “And this word is the good news that was preached to you” (1 Peter 1:25). It is the only word that can save and sanctify people.
The Bible is as relevant today as in Peter’s day, because it’s simply the truth. But if men, women and children are not properly fed with God’s word, they will soon become malnourished and easy prey for Satan’s lies. Shepherds, train your people to be like newborn babies who crave the pure spiritual milk of God’s word. That’s the only way they will grow up in their faith and live healthy, holy lives in this generation (1 Peter 2:2).
Truth is like cool water in a hot desert, and recent studies are showing that Bible-centred churches are thriving, whereas liberal churches are dying. A leading study concluded that “while 69 percent of pastors at declining churches believe Christian beliefs need to change over time to stay relevant, not one pastor at a growing church says the same.”
Watch over your sheep!
Shepherds, have courage to answer the big questions of our day, so that your flock will not be confused or deceived by the many false teachers who are muddying the waters of Scripture with their feet (Ezek 34:18). There are many hot-button controversial topics that you know will draw fire. You will never be able to keep everyone happy. But people will respect your courage to address a subject from a straightforward biblical perspective, even if they disagree with you. Controversy is unavoidable when you deal with truth, as it was with Jesus’s perfect teaching. The crowds who heard Jesus were always divided (John 7:43; Acts 14:4). When Paul preached, he too caused revivals or riots. It’s what the truth does.
Jesus tackled the hard questions of his day too:
“What do you say about fasting?” (Matt 9:14)
“Should we work on the Sabbath?” (Matt 12:10)
“How often should I forgive someone?” (Matt 18:21)
“Is divorce allowed?” (Matt 19:3)
“What is needed for eternal life?” (Matt 19:16)
“What will signal the end of the world?” (Matt 24:3)
“Should we pay taxes?” (Matt 22:17)
Although it’s a messy, risky business, shepherding is a trust from God– a noble and vital commission (1 Tim 3:1). If you are a shepherd in any sphere, serve your flock faithfully and live as their example. You can’t shepherd from afar or delegate your responsibilities. Engage biblically with their real life issues and lead them to the pure water of the word. Never despise or neglect the flock that Christ has entrusted to you in the interests of ‘greater things’. Feed the sheep, bind up the injured, seek the lost, bring back the strays, strengthen the weak, heal the sick and protect your sheep from predators who seek to deceive them (Ezek 34:2-9). Anything else?! Yes, remember:
“You are my sheep, the sheep of my pasture, and I am your God.” (Ezek 34:31)
This song by the Gettys is a wonderful reminder that Jesus is our tender Shepherd. Leaders cannot hope to shepherd others unless they too are being shepherded daily by Christ.