This was Peter’s instruction to the elders of the ecclesias to which he wrote his first epistle. The responsibilities of elders, or in today’s parlance, arranging brethren, are no less demanding today and Peter’s words cannot be set aside. They have been recorded and preserved for succeeding generations.

It is interesting to look at the background to those words. Peter had been through a purging spiritual experience in which he had shown immaturity and had put self-interest before the needs of others. It was after the first memorial supper that the perennial question arose once more among the disciples, which of them should be the greatest (Luke 22:24)! Among other things the Lord pointed out that all of them, Peter included, would “be offended because of me this night” (Matt 26:31). But Peter was not prepared to accept this. He countered the Lord’s statement thus, “Though all men shall be offended because of thee, yet will I never be offended” (v33).

Luke in his gospel gives us further details of this fascinating and tragic conversation. Clearly the Lord knew what he said was true: the scripture had testified, “I will smite the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock shall be scattered abroad” (Zech 13:7; Matt 26:31). Addressing Peter by his natural name he said, “Simon, Simon, behold, Satan hath desired to have you, that he may sift you as wheat: But I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not: and when thou art converted, strengthen thy brethren” (Luke 22:31–32).

Peter was perplexed at this direct statement that he was in danger of failing his Lord, and meets these words as follows, “Lord, I am ready to go with thee, both into prison, and to death”. It was this overweening confidence that elicited the Lord’s fateful prophecy, “Peter, the cock shall not crow this day, before that thou shalt thrice deny that thou knowest me” (Luke 22:33–34). We are not told what Peter’s reaction to these awful words was, but we do know, that despite the forewarning they were fulfilled to the very letter (v54–62).

Fortunately this lapse on Peter’s part was not the cause of his demise. The Lord had prayed for him as he does for us all. Also he had highly commended Peter at the foot of Mount Hermon, when he proclaimed his conviction without hesitation that Jesus was the Christ the Son of the Living God. Peter was to have the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and we know that later he used them to unlock the door of faith to the Jews at Pentecost (Acts 2), and to the Gentiles when he visited Cornelius (Acts 10). But this did not mean that Peter was free. He had denied his Lord thrice and he had to face the consequences. Grievous sins are never overcome by ignoring the fact that they happened. There has to be repentance, confession and the determination to make good. Peter was no exception, and as one of the Lord’s most prominent followers it was essential that he acknowledge failure.

The Lord did appear to Peter first after his resurrection (1 Cor 15:5). We do not know what was said on that notable occasion. We do know, however, what was said to Peter after the Lord had appeared to some of the disciples at the sea of Tiberias. After they had dined on fish caught by following the Lord’s instructions, “Jesus saith to Simon Peter, Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me more than these?” (John 21:15). It was a question that recalled Peter’s protestations that although all might be offended (caused to stumble) because of Jesus, yet he certainly would not. His confidence in his own ability was flawed, and he had proven to be a miserable failure. Wonderfully the Lord was not ‘finished with’ Peter. In this we can take hope. He is longsuffering with us too, today, and awaits our return if we should err.

Jesus had told Peter that he needed to be converted, and that once this had taken place he was to strengthen his brethren. Three times the Lord asked Peter the ‘same’ question, and this greatly humbled him. He did not like his Lord doubting his protestations that he loved him. The important point the Lord made was that if it was true that Peter loved him then he could prove this by obeying the command, “Feed my sheep” (John 21:15–17).

Now here is an interesting conjunction of thoughts, and all shepherds should take note. If we say we love Christ then we, too, will have to feed Christ’s sheep and not please ourselves. The impact of Jesus’ words on Peter was not forgotten. Thirty or so years later when he wrote his first epistle he repeats them for our admonition.

In his epistle, as indeed throughout the deeds recorded about Peter in the Acts of the Apostles, we meet an entirely different Peter. Life’s lessons and experiences have worked on his character. He is concerned with the well being of the ecclesias. He understands the importance of brethren working together harmoniously in the truth. He speaks of the need for them to “love one another with a pure heart fervently” (1 Peter 1:22; see also 3:8). His call for submission “one to another” is a far cry from the Peter, or Simon, who preferred himself to his fellows. Shepherds can only truly feed the flock of God if they are prepared, like their Lord, to deny themselves and put the needs of others first. This is “conversion” and maturity. Peter now looked upon himself, not as a superior apostle, which in many respects he truly was, but as a fellow elder (In 1 Peter 5:1, “also an elder” is in the Greek sumpresbuteros, or “fellow elder”, as it is also translated in the rsv).

We must always remember the Lord’s words that we all are brethren and that he alone is our Master. Realising this we will be prepared to serve with a view to helping, feeding and strengthening others. If we entertain any fancy ideas about ourselves being better than others then we will not be disposed to feed the flock of God. The rulers of God’s people in the times of Ezekiel were reproved for preoccupation with their own things at the expense of the needs of the flock: “Thus saith the Lord God unto the shepherds; Woe be to the shepherds of Israel that do feed themselves! Should not the shepherds feed the flocks?” (Ezekiel 34:2). The “care of the ecclesias”, and individual brethren and sisters in particular, is the concern of true shepherds. Let such devote themselves to strengthening, encouraging and building up the ecclesias in the distressing last days. Then might Peter’s words of promise find a wonderful fulfilment… “And when the chief Shepherd shall appear, ye shall receive a crown of glory that fadeth not away” (1 Peter 5:4).