Peter here reminds his readers that an elder has an honourable position. We see this aspect in Peter’s wish to be identified as an elder. After all, he had a more important role, that of an apostle (incidentally this is one of the verses from which it is deduced that lesser offices are included in greater ones, so those who hold to this interpretation would say that Peter was also a deacon). Yet he also wanted to be identified as an elder (Peter is not the only apostle who speaks in this way – the apostle John also calls himself an elder in his second and third letters). He recognised that it was an honourable role.
We can also see an aspect of its honourableness in the way Peter says that he and the elders to which he is writing are ‘fellow-elders’. In other words, he does not grade elders. We have a distinction between them in the use of ‘teaching elders’ and ‘ruling elders’. I have heard this distinction expressed wrongly: it is often said that some elders are teaching elders and the rest are ruling elders. The correct way to describe them is that they are all ruling elders and some are full-time teaching elders. But they have equal authority in the church. Another abuse of this aspect is when an elder is referred to as a ‘chief elder’ or as a ‘senior elder’. If all that is meant is that he is older than the others, then it is harmless. But if it is used to suggest that he has more authority, then it is a wrong description.
Peter then mentions that in addition to being an elder he is also a witness of the sufferings of Christ. Peter cannot mean that he was a literal witness of what Jesus endured at the hands of various authorities and on the cross. The apostle was not present when Jesus suffered in these ways. Instead he is saying that he was selected by Jesus to testify about what Jesus suffered, not only in a physical sense, but also concerning his atoning sufferings. And that is what elders are as well – they have been selected to testify about the atoning sufferings of Christ. We can see how this would be relevant at a time when his followers were suffering for him. They would need to be reminded of the greater sufferings of Christ.
The third feature that Peter shares with the elders is that he, with them, will partake of the glory that is ahead. Partaking has the idea of inheriting, and people normally look forward to what is going to become theirs in the future. Thinking of the glory to come will make them suitable leaders of the church in the present. What the church needs is not leaders who know a lot about this world; instead it needs leaders who are an example in heavenly-mindedness.
So what is an elder? He is a person who is an honourable ruler of Christ’s church with other rulers who are equal to him in authority; he is one who testifies to the atoning sufferings of Jesus whether in a public occasion or in a more private manner; and he is a person whose mind is in heaven and who anticipates the glory ahead once the troubles of this life are over. So we should see that an elder is a crucial individual in Christ’s church and such people have a very important role to play.