Having begun this epistle by addressing a broad array of Christ-followers, Peter now narrows the focus in his closing paragraphs. One specific group that attracts his interest is composed of ‘elders’, those tasked with the care of congregations. Peter does not talk about how people came to join this group, but instead emphasizes what should characterize them as members of it.
By describing elders as ‘shepherds’, Peter draws on one of Scripture’s most potent images. Ezekiel’s searing description of leaders of Israel as shepherds who did not care for the flock, strengthen the weak, heal the sick, or bind up the injured comes to mind; these words are in sharp contrast to the Lord who promises to tend His sheep, search for the lost, and bring back the strays (Ezekiel 34: 3-4, 15-16). So do the words of Jesus in John 10. There, Christ likens Himself first to the gate by which sheep go in and out of the pen where they are kept safe and well, and then He calls Himself ‘the shepherd’. By employing this image, Peter mines a rich vein.
What is an elder’s charge? It can be put variously, but here’s one handy summary: like shepherds, elders guide and guard. They go before, but along a path they have helped to clear; elders are first of all eager to serve, and their primary thought is the well-being of the flock. They also guard, for there are threats against the flock, and so they must be vigilant. Not twitchy, jumping at every noise, or dragging out cannons to take care of mosquitos, but alert, and measured as they react or respond.
There’s more to Peter’s interest with elders–enough for another week or two’s reflection–and so I think I’ll linger here a while….