Several times during my speaking assignments in this series I have shared with you of my visit in 1999 to Cappadocia in Eastern Turkey, to the very area that Peter was writing his letter to Christians scattered there. I have also shown the pictures of the unique “Flintstones Bedrock” look of this region, where people literally lived in homes hewn out of the volcanic rock formations, many of them along hillsides and into the flanks of mountains.
Not only did people live in such caves and caverns, they also worshipped there. On our visit we went into several ancient cavernous churches where the faithful gathered in the centuries just after Peter’s letter to them. Scenes from the Scriptures were painted on the walls, essentially serving as the Bible in the hymnal rack on the back of the pew. Likely illiterate, the visuals depicted major biblical themes that were likely referenced in the teaching of the leadership.
To these elders of the numerous scattered congregations of God’s “chosen strangers,” the words of Peter were likely read in these caves. We too, upon our visit, sat there and read aloud these encouragements and instructions; and I tell you it was a tremendously moving experience to have these words echoing in our ears, generations after they first reverberated through these very spaces.
Peter wrote several sentences specifically to the elders of these churches … words directed to them that would have been read in the presence of the entire company of saints, saying …
5:1 – 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: 2 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.
In whatever profession or endeavor we give our time, we appreciate meeting and speaking with someone else who is involved in the very same thing. A mutual feeling exists that here is someone who understands exactly what I go through on a daily basis. They know of the unseen challenges and difficulties that people looking in from the outside are unable to appreciate, imagine, or understand.
And so Peter writes to these elders as a true comrade, a fellow elder who had additionally the firsthand experience of having walked with the Great Shepherd, Jesus. And he gives them three “negatives / positives,” or, “don’t do / but be like” scenarios in terms of leadership and shepherding.
- Don’t do it because you have to, but rather because you willingly want to. We have all had experiences in life where we were stuck leading something because nobody else would do it, or because we got elected to it by virtue of missing a meeting. It’s no fun. Likely if it was such a great thing to lead, everyone else would want to do it. But shepherding the church of Christ is, along with its challenges, a great blessing and privilege.
- Don’t shepherd to pursue person gain, but do it out of an eager heart to be a servant. This is of course so central to being Christlike: that we focus not on what we personally gain from any level of ministry, but rather upon what we give to others. It is a defining distinctive about Christ, and it too is a distinctive about His under-shepherds who serve.
- Don’t use your position to lord it over people, but rather be an example worthy of following. Christ was a servant leader, and it is the way those entrusted to lead His sheep should be. No sheep wants to be led by being whacked with a staff, literally or figuratively. Confidence in leadership, be it from an actual sheep or a human sheep, comes from the wisdom of the shepherd in providing good and safe pastures and water.
As with all of work for the Lord, the benefit package isn’t always so great in the immediate context, but the rewards are out of this world! Literally. Peter says there is a special category of reward for faithful and good shepherds — called the crown of glory.
Like many who have ended up being in this category most specifically addressed by Peter’s words, I can tell you that I did not set out from the beginning to do what I’ve now done for close to four decades. I didn’t grow up longing for the day when I would be the pastor of a church. Nope. I was thinking more about things like sports writing or journalism, stock market brokerage. And even as I went off to college, it was with a goal of doing something in the professional music field; I was not thinking of it being in a church context.
But the circumstances brought me to a calling I could not refuse, a “feed my sheep” directive that caught me much by surprise. There have been many blessings. But there have been as many difficulties and days and nights when I’ve asked God to let me quit. He has always said “No, stop your whining and get back to the sheep.”
Some people count sheep in their sleep, or so the story goes. For me, I worry about sheep at night. It is a daily experience of waking at night and thinking about the church, about the people, about who is missing or going through some experience of suffering. Such is the life of a shepherd. I’m not complaining, I’m just reporting.
And this passage speaks to me before it speaks to most of you, and it reminds me that it involves great privilege to be in the position of worrying about sheep in the middle of the night. There is reward for this and for serving faithfully. I forget that. After all, in a greater sense, I’m a stupid sheep myself.
We’ve all been — all are — sheep of shepherds. Yes, led and blessed at some point by shepherds in this world, but ultimately by the Great Shepherd.