Why study this word?
In the context of Peter’s instructions to the elders, ποιμάνατε or shepherd carries the weight of his charge. In 1 Peter 5:2, this word describes what Peter is urging the elders to do in light of what he has said up to this point in the letter. This is the only imperative in this passage. The participles and adverbs which continue in 1 Peter 5:2-3 describe how the elders are to go about fulfilling this command, and 1 Peter 5:4 describes the reward for elders who are faithful to this command.
What can this word mean?
Many words have a range of possible meanings, so the first step in determining what a word means in a given passage of Scripture is to determine all the things that the word can mean. In the case of poimainō, this word has one overarching meaning: to act as a shepherd. Poimainō has in view every aspect of the shepherd’s task: leading, guarding, feeding, tending, and pasturing.
Poimainō is etymologically connected to ποιμήν (poimein), sheep, which are the subject of the shepherding action. Depending on the context, poimainō can take on a literal or metaphorical meaning. Of its eleven uses in the New Testament, this word is used in a literal sense only twice (Luke 17:7; 1 Cor. 9:7). Both of these verses speak of actually working with cattle. The metaphorical use of this word is more common throughout the New Testament. Speaking of Christ, this word takes on the sense of “ruling” (Matt. 2:6; Rev. 2:27). Jesus Christ is the Chief Shepherd (ἀρχιποίμενος) of 1 Peter 5:4, so poimainō, when Christ is the subject, carries with it the authority of the Son of God. Additionally, poimainō is used to describe the work of those who serve as Christ’s spiritual under-shepherds (John 21:16; Acts 20:28).
If recipients of the shepherding are people, and not actual livestock, then one should determine who is represented as fulfilling the shepherding action. If Jesus Christ is the subject, this word will likely take on the connotation of ruling and shepherding all the people of God, the full flock. If Christ is not the subject, this word will describe the nature of the under-shepherd’s task. Jesus Christ, the Chief Shepherd, provides under-shepherds for local flocks.
What does the word mean in this passage?
Given that Peter is addressing elders within these churches, poimainō should be understood as a metaphorical description of the elders’ responsibilities. These under-shepherds have received some degree of delegated responsibility for participating in the work of the Chief Shepherd. Peter is exhorting the elders to faithfulness in this calling. As they shepherd the flock, Peter comments on the manner in which they perform this task. The elders should be willing and eager to serve in this way, not driven by compulsion or greed (1 Pet. 5:2). The elders should live as an example of faithfulness, not as one who lords his authority over the flock (1 Pet. 5:3). Those elders who heed Peter’s instructions will receive the unfading crown of glory from the Chief Shepherd as the reward for their service.