The Elder as Shepherd

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Last week Peter encouraged us with the fact that more trials are coming and we ought not be surprised about it. But he also said that judgment is coming and it will begin with the house of God. As we move to Chapter 5, Peter begins addressing a group we haven’t seen to this point.

1 Peter 5:1-4 tells us, “Therefore, I exhort the elders among you, as your fellow elder and witness of the sufferings of Christ, and a partaker also of the glory that is to be revealed, 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. And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory.”

Peter talks about the elder as a shepherd and mentions the term elder here for the first time. He addresses the elders who are among you in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia. He counts himself among them as a fellow elder. Peter exhorts them. This is an interesting word. It means to encourage or address in a manner of comfort and instruction. It was not a word that describes sternness or a command to obey. Peter says, “I exhort the elders among you, as your fellow elder.” Peter was an elder like those he was addressing. He did not approach them with the authority of his apostolic office. He did not use these words because he was the head of the church; or because, he had any pre-eminence over the other elders. Remember Alexander Haig? He was the Secretary of State under Ronald Reagan. After the assassination attempt on March 30, 1981, Haig was quoted as saying, “I’m in control here.” Do you think Peter would he have used this language if he was the “head of the church” on earth?

Peter wanted the elders to understand that he was one of them, not over them, but a fellow elder. He speaks with humility and compassion. Remember, he just told them, “Do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal among you, which comes upon you for your testing, as though some strange thing were happening to you.” Peter is concerned about the order and government of the church as well as submission and devotion. It is with this background that Peter speaks with the elders, those who are leaders, administrators, and judges in the church.

Let’s look at the term so we can get a better understanding of what it means. Eldership in the N. T. church followed the example that the Lord established for Israel. Gen. 50:7 speaks of elders in the house of Joseph. Elders of Moab and Midian are mentioned in Num. 22:7. Abraham’s servant is mentioned as having charge over “all that he owned” in Gen. 24:2. During the exodus from Egypt, the elders of Israel formed a definite group whose authority was recognized in Ex. 3:16-18. The ordinance of Passover was given to Israel through the elders as recorded in Ex. 12:3. Moses structured the government of Israel to include judges to govern groups ranging in size from 10 to 1000. 70 elders of Israel were granted a vision of God in Ex. 24 and were later filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied in Num. 11. Elders continued in a governing fashion during the exodus, through the exile period, and after exile. Each Jewish community had a council of elders or presbytery as mentioned in Luke 7.  In Chapter 20, Luke also mentions, “the chief priests and the scribes with the elders” in the temple confronting Jesus. When Christ made atonement for sin on the cross, His sacrifice eliminated the need for a priestly office, but the government of elders continued. Paul distinguishes the gift of rule and the gift of teaching when speaking of the functions of the office and ordained elders in the churches he planted. Administrators as well as teachers served the church. Jesus spoke of scribes that seemed to indicate these men were specially gifted in teaching and preaching. The ministry of teaching elders is emphasized in the New Testament, but Peter seems to emphasize the governing aspect of elders and likens an elder to a shepherd, a term that means feeding as well as oversight.

Elder comes from the Greek word presbuteros, which means elderly. Some denominations are governed by a group called the presbytery or elders. There are several words for the office of pastor that are used interchangeably in the New Testament. Each describes a different function of the office. Here, Peter concentrates on the shepherding aspect of an elder. Peter exhorts the elders to, “shepherd the flock of God among you.” Shepherd comes from the word poimaino. Peter knows about this word first hand. It is the same word that Jesus used to describe Peter’s responsibility to His sheep in John 21 when He called Peter. Shepherd covers two aspects of an elder’s responsibility. The first is feed which represents the real aspect of feeding.  It is providing nutrients. For the shepherd, it means leading the flock to green pastures. It means making sure the flock has everything necessary to ensure their physical well-being. The second aspect of shepherding addresses the care, guidance, and protection of the flock. A shepherd was to offer proper food for his flock and to govern it.  We call this exercising the office of pastor. It means, as a good shepherd provides for the wants and needs of his flock, the pastor of the church is to furnish food for the soul so the faith of believers may be strengthened. Notice the elder is shown as a shepherd leading his flock rather than a cowboy driving them. Sheep do not respond well to force and neither do the people in God’s flock.

It takes a special man to shepherd the flock. It can be discouraging and disheartening when the sheep don’t follow the lead. But you don’t quit. The sheep need proper nourishment.

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The Rest of the Story

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Last week we finished up in the book of Jonah and it ended abruptly and somewhat strangely. We’re left to wonder about Jonah. Where did he go when he left the eastern outskirts of Nineveh? What became of Nineveh? Let’s look at the rest of the story of Nineveh.

First we need to go back to the future. We left Jonah sitting under the withered remains of a castor oil plant with God asking Jonah a question that goes unanswered. That’s not where the story ends. Fast forward about 130 years or so. Nineveh remains the center of Assyrian power. But something troubling has occurred. Another prophet comes on the scene and proclaims the message Jonah wanted to preach. Nahum 1:1-6 says, “The oracle of Nineveh. The book of the vision of Nahum the Elkoshite. A jealous and avenging God is the LORD; The LORD is avenging and wrathful. The LORD takes vengeance on His adversaries, And He reserves wrath for His enemies. The LORD is slow to anger and great in power, and the LORD will by no means leave the guilty unpunished. In whirlwind and storm is His way, and clouds are the dust beneath His feet. He rebukes the sea and makes it dry; He dries up all the rivers. Bashan and Carmel wither; the blossoms of Lebanon wither. Mountains quake because of Him and the hills dissolve; indeed the earth is upheaved by His presence, The world and all the inhabitants in it. Who can stand before His indignation? Who can endure the burning of His anger? His wrath is poured out like fire and the rocks are broken up by Him.”

Yes, it’s over. 50 years earlier, King Shalmaneser of Assyria took the 10 tribes of Israel into captivity. Little is known about the prophet Nahum, but his message is clear. God’s mercy is not unlimited. There is a day coming when God’s judgment will be poured out. When will that be? There’s the problem for many people. They say tomorrow I will serve God, tomorrow I will live for God. James 4:14 says, Yet you do not know what your life will be like tomorrow. You are just a vapor that appears for a little while and then vanishes away.” We’re not guaranteed tomorrow so today is the day we must choose to serve God. Nineveh forgot something very crucial. While their repentance was genuine, it was short lived because something was missing from that city and missing from Assyria. Remember the entire population of Nineveh was saved. When they had children, did anybody bother to tell them about Jesus? Did anybody tell the new people moving into their neighborhoods about Jesus? Did anyone bother to live for Christ? There was no discipleship. Remember Jonah bailed out. After he preached the life changing message, he left. He didn’t take the time or put forth the effort to nurture these new believers. Jonah left without telling the people how to live for God, how to study the Scriptures, how to resolve conflict with people, how to be a people of faith. Nah. 1:3 says, The Lord is slow to anger and great in power, And the Lord will by no means leave the guilty unpunished.” Punishment came in 612 B.C. when the great capital city of Assyria was destroyed. Even though these verses seem to emphasize the doom and destruction of a wicked city, there is still hope; not for Nineveh, but for us.

Nineveh was the recipient of God’s grace and mercy. Jonah delivered the wake-up call, the jolt of truth they needed to hear and they escaped the immediate threat of destruction. They were delivered, but soon forgot how they were delivered and by Whom they were delivered. Maybe you have received the wake-up call to live for Christ, but did you get out of bed or go back to sleep? We must not and we cannot sleep. Time is running out for our families, our friends, our neighbors, and our coworkers. Salvation is not just meant to keep us out of hell; it gives us the power through the Holy Spirit to live for Christ. Too many people profess salvation, but do not live for Christ. There are two verses sandwiched in here to give us comfort because this book really is a book of comfort. Vs. 7-8 say, The Lord is good, a stronghold in the day of trouble, and He knows those who take refuge in Him. But with an overflowing flood He will make a complete end of its site, and will pursue His enemies into darkness.” The goodness of God is a basic tenant of our faith. Original sin rested in doubting God’s goodness. In Gen 3:7 the serpent told Eve, “For God knows that in the day you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” The God who brings judgment does so because He is good. “Therefore, putting aside all malice and all deceit and hypocrisy and envy and all slander, like newborn babies, long for the pure milk of the word, so that by it you may grow in respect to salvation, if you have tasted the kindness of the Lord.” (1 Pet. 2:1-3) Everything in our lives is because of God’s goodness.

We have a privilege and responsibility. “Nineveh is devastated! Who will grieve for her?” (Nahum 3:7b) How wicked do you have to be that no one will grieve, no one will be upset at your destruction? If North Korea would be utterly destroyed, who would cry for the loss? How self centered do you have to be to not care that people will spend eternity in hell? Think about it like this: God has no grandchildren. Our responsibility does not end with delivering the life saving message of salvation through Christ. That’s just the beginning. The command for God’s children is to, “Make disciples of all nations, baptizing in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” (Matt. 28:19-20) Disciples are made through time. Part of discipleship is teaching. It’s not giving someone the latest Christians book and telling them to read it. It’s not sending someone to a conference or a training class. Discipleship must be intentional. Don’t expect people to grow into what God wants them to be by blindly falling into it. Nineveh had the opportunity, but they rolled over and went back to sleep. So where does the responsibility rest? God puts the responsibility on leadership. Your shepherds are sleeping, O king of Assyria; Your nobles are lying down. Your people are scattered on the mountains and there is no one to regather them.” (Nah. 3:18) Contextually, this is speaking of the reason Nineveh was destroyed. The people charged with Nineveh’s protection did not do their job. As a result, the people were scattered about the country side. Nobody was there to gather the people together, to regroup, to refocus. Not the shepherds, not the nobles, and not the king. It’s an interesting contrast to the King of kings that declares, I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd lays down His life for the sheep.”  (John 10:11) We need leaders to boldly go where God has called them to go. There should be no group of people, no neighborhood, no community, no nation, no family, no classmate, no co-worker, no tribe, and no tongue that does not hear of the good news of Jesus Christ and the grace He offers to each person. It’s our job to carry that message.

So what about Nineveh? Nah. 3:19 tells us, “There is no relief for your breakdown, your wound is incurable. All who hear about you will clap their hands over you, for on whom has not your evil passed continually?” This seems pretty harsh that in the inspired Word of God there would be something that seems contrary to God’s all loving nature. Rejoicing over the destruction of a city? That’s not the focus of Nahum’s message. We rejoice not in the destruction of Nineveh, but in the assurance that God takes care of His children. God works according to His purpose for the world. The leadership of Nineveh and Assyria were oppressive tyrants threatening the region with stealing and plundering; that were willing to kill anyone that stood in their path. They committed atrocities that make our stomachs turn when we think of them. God’s message is clear: Who’s going to cry for Nineveh? One commentator writes, “Shall those whose eyes you have gouged out shed tears at your death?  Shall those whose ears and nose you have cut off lament now? Shall the tongues you have chopped off recite your praises?” No, the time had come in which “the offer of mercy must be superseded by divine judgment.”

Nineveh had their chance. God sent the prophet Jonah to preach that message. Don’t miss the point that God is still active in the world to correct wrong, to strengthen the weak, and set free the oppressed. We should be willing to participate in God’s work. It’s easy to stand with Nahum and look disapprovingly on a wicked city filled with wicked people. Are we going into battle with God’s army to destroy or to set captives free? The root cause of Nineveh’s evil, of Assyria’s evil, of North Korea’s evil, of Afghanistan’s evil, of Saudi Arabia’s evil, of any one in any nation is sin. There is just one answer to sin and that is to be set free from the bondage of sin. This freedom that is found in God through His one and only Son Jesus Christ that was born of a virgin, lived a sinless life although tempted in every way like we are. He was unjustly accused and sentenced to death. He was tortured, abused, shed His blood, and died and was buried. Yet three days later He rose again just as He said He would. He was seen by the multitudes and ascended to heaven where He sits right now interceding with the Father on our behalf. God is full of wrath and yet good and slow to anger. God is calling us walk for Him, to walk with Him. In Luke 9:23 Jesus said, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross daily and follow Me.” Our life in Christ is not something we put on or take off. Christianity is not a religion, but a way of life.

So what do Jonah and Nahum teach us? The world’s hatred is directed at us. The Muslim world has not received the message of God’s grace and we need to deliver it there. When we receive the call from God like Jonah did, will we run away? Will we jump to Nahum’s message of judgment? Or will we deliver the life changing message of God’s love and compassion? We come to see that God is calling us to bear our cross each and every day, even to Calvary and death. Elizabeth Achtemeier writes, we are not only “to resist evil, not only to correct it, but also sometimes simply to suffer it, confident in the assurance that God will finally cleanse his earth of all corruption.” Col. 1:10 tells us to, “Walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, to please Him in all respects, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God.” How can we not offer Muslims God’s amazing grace? How can we withhold God’s grace from anyone?