The term elder (G4245 – presbuteros) was the Jewish term for leader. The gentiles used the term bishop or overseer (G1985 – episkopos) to designate a leader of a city etc. In 1Peter 5:2 Peter begins to exhort the elders, or the leaders of the local church bodies in Asia Minor, concerning the responsibilities of their office by telling them to feed or tend the flock of God. The Greek word (G4165) means more than simply feed (the sheep). It takes into consideration providing for the needs (of the sheep) like pasture land, water, and safety. Leadership and protection are factors when defining this word (cf. John 10:11-12).
At this point I am reminded of Jesus speaking to Peter in John 21. After Jesus’ resurrection, he confronted Peter when Peter decided to return to his fishing business (John 21:1-3). Jesus appeared to him and other disciples with him, but specifically told Peter to feed (G4165) his sheep. The word Jesus used in John 21:15 & 17 is a different Greek word (G1006), and specifically refers to actually pasturing the animals, but G4165, which Jesus uses in John 21:16, has additional responsibilities in view.
Peter was in Galilee with the intent on going back to his fishing business. That is, he thought it best to abandon the idea of evangelizing the world for Christ. It seems he was very discouraged over denying he knew Jesus. Peter no longer felt worthy of the call of Christ, and he no longer trusted his own loyalty to Jesus. Everything he was certain of before Jesus’ crucifixion was now a matter of conjecture. Something like this was probably behind his “I am going fishing” in John 21:3.
When Peter finally admitted that Jesus knew all things, Peter was then ready for Jesus to heal his fear of failure and discouragement over his own disloyalty. Jesus told Peter how his end (death) would glorify God. Since Peter believed and admitted that Jesus knew all things and was able to tell Peter that he would never fail again like he did at Jesus’ trail before the high priest, Peter was able to, once again, leave all to follow Jesus.
Fear is a common emotion when persecution lay in one’s path, and discouragement over one’s inadequacies and past failures may cause one to freeze in the face of trial, not knowing if one could trust oneself to be true to the name of Christ. Peter went through this sort of thing. In fact, the Lord mentioned that Satan had desired to sift Peter as wheat (Luke 22:31), and Jesus as much as told Peter he would fail, because he told Peter that when he (Peter) was converted or turned himself around (Luke 22:32), he was to strengthen his brethren—i.e. the Church, This was exactly what Peter was doing in his epistle.
Persecution across Asia Minor had exploded in the face of Paul’s arrest. With Paul out of the way, the Jewish authorities at Jerusalem felt they had their best opportunity to either destroy the Messianic faith in the Diaspora or at least bring it under the authority of the high priest at Jerusalem. Paul spoke of the mystery of iniquity that was already at work, while he evangelized Europe and Asia (2Thessalonians 2:7), but his work among them, and the direct influence he was able to cause to bear on the believing communities had, thus far, prevented the authorities at Jerusalem from having their way. Now that he was imprisoned by Rome, however, the situation appeared different. The influence of the high priest at Jerusalem had greater effect without Paul’s direct opposition.
In the past local Jewish authorities had gotten Paul in trouble with the civil authorities under the guise of either rebellion against Caesar (Acts 13:50; 17:5-7) or as a troublemaker that would hurt the economy by blaspheming their gods (Acts 14:19; cf. Acts 19:23-27). The believers knew very well what had happened to Paul, for such was part of their own experience. The problem facing them at the time of Peter’s letter was, that Paul was in prison, and it was up to the elders of these very churches to do as Paul had done, knowing they may very well suffer the same fate at the hands of the civil authorities that Paul had suffered before them. Such a prospect was not easily entered, because of fear of failure or discouragement over past indiscretions that led to their failing Christ. It was the feeling of inadequacy that Peter’s letter was meant to address and hopefully overcome, helping the elders to fulfill the responsibilities of their offices.