A Final Charge To Elders
Topic: Mission Passage: Acts 20:17–20:38
It's not often you can say that a particular sermon radically changed your life, but I can honestly say that my life (and my family’s life) was radically changed by a sermon I heard from the very passage we are looking at this morning. In fact, if it weren’t for that sermon I might not be here in Corning today. It was 13 years ago and I was attending the 1998 Sovereign Grace Ministries Leadership Conference (called PDI then) with my wife and some leaders from the church that I was pastoring at the time, an independent church called Lamb’s Chapel on Long Island. At the conference Dave Harvey shared a message from these verses entitled Paul, Pastors & The Imposter of Success and as he preached I felt the Lord stir in my heart a firm conviction that God was calling us to be a part of Sovereign Grace Ministries. The next morning that conviction was still just as strong and I started the wheels turning that eventually led to my family relocating to the Philadelphia area, then attending Pastor’s College, and eventually coming to Corning to plant a church 8 years ago. Looking back, Janice and I are I incredibly grateful that God led us in the way He did, and it all began with a sermon out of Acts 20…
I can’t guarantee that your life will be radically changed by the sermon today, or even that you’re going to relocate to another state because of it, but it is an important passage not only for elders (which, as we see in a few minutes is just a different name for the pastors), but for churches as well. It is a speech directed to elders, but it is a speech that is given for churches because Paul knew that as the leaders go, so goes the church.
So we’re going to be talking a lot about pastors this morning because what we’ll be looking at is Paul’s sober charge to pastors – but don’t feel that this message is only for those called to be a pastor. It’s important for a healthy church to understand the call and responsibility of their pastors for one reason so they can lovingly insist on their pastors making those things and not lesser things their priority. And for another reason so that the church better knows how to pray for their pastors. The call to pastor a church is both a joy and a daunting task and Matt and I are very aware that we need the grace and help of God and we need your prayers.
Before we read, I want to quickly set the context, Paul is wrapping up his third missionary journey and heading back to Jerusalem with the objective of traveling to Rome to preach the gospel, but on his way back to Jerusalem Paul stops in the port city of Miletus which is about 30 miles south of Ephesus and he sends for the elders of Ephesus to meet him in Miletus. When they arrive, Paul leaves them with an emotional farewell that can be broken into three sections. We’re going to begin by reading the first section, found in vv. 17-27 and in this section
I. Paul points the Ephesian elders to his personal example of ministry - 20:17-27
You yourselves know how I lived among you the whole time from the first day that I set foot in Asia.-vs.18
Paul doesn’t try to establish his credentials based on how many churches he’s planted or how many people he’s got coming to his meetings or any of the other things that we tend to measure success by. Paul reminds them of his personal example while he was with them. He reminds them of his life.This means he got close enough for them to watch his life. Ministry wasn’t just what he said, it was his life. Paul built his credibility in ministry on his personal integrity – you know how I lived…
a. Credibility in pastoral ministry is built on integrity, not gifting
The call to pastor requires the gifting of a pastor, but the credibility of ministry is not built on gifting, it’s built on integrity. The word integrity means whole and personal integrity means a person is whole through and through – they are what they say they are. Pastors and really all Christians should make it our goal to be whole – integrous. What a pastor is on Sundays should be what he is on Mondays. What he preaches from the pulpit he should be applying in private. Not perfect, Paul wasn’t perfect and no pastor is. We are sinners and flawed men. No one needs the mercy and forgiveness of Jesus Christ more than pastors, and our privilege is to point and teach all men of the sufficiency of Christ to cleanse and save flawed sinners.
Not perfect, but striving to be genuine and transparent. Pastoral work is trust work. If you don’t trust a pastor, you won’t be able to receive pastoral ministry from him. That’s one reason why they say a pastor doesn’t really begin to bear fruit in the ministry until he’s been in a church for five years. Over that time he is building credibility – people are learning to trust him, they are getting to know how he lives among them.
Something that Dave said in that message 13 years ago that has stuck with me is that as people get closer to the leaders of a church they should be more encouraged in their walk with the Lord, not increasingly disillusioned in their walk. Paul is confident that he can point them to his life and know that his life – while not perfect – will reinforce, not undermine, his message. Paul says, you know how I lived among you…from the first day.
b. Pastoral ministry flows from a servant’s heart
Serving the Lord with all humility and with tears and with trials…
From the very first day they saw, not a professional minister, nor someone who lorded it over them, but rather a servant of the Lord. They saw his humility, they saw his tears – tears that I think represent his love and compassion for the Ephesians. He wept when a brother or sister strayed, he wept for joy when a lost sinner came to faith in Christ, he wept when a member of the church suffered. Paul’s ministry was characterized by tears. And he served with trials. While the book of Acts doesn’t record a lot about the trials Paul faced in Ephesus, he tells the Corinthians that he fought with beasts at Ephesus – probably a reference to intense opposition from the Jews he faced. Paul wasn’t a hireling, he didn’t abandon the flock when the wolves came. He served with trials. Paul served the Lord – servant’s heart.
c. Pastoral ministry must be centered on the faithful and courageous preaching of God’s word
The one thing Paul emphasizes most is his faithfulness to declare God’s word fearlessly.
…I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable and teaching you in public and from house to house…(vs. 20)
…for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God. (vs. 27)
Preaching the whole counsel of God can be a frightening thing. Every pastor knows the temptation to avoid saying something because it might offend someone. If you preach God’s word long enough you’ll probably offend everyone at some point. Teach on this and I risk offending those who come from a charismatic background. Teach on that and I risk offending those who come from a non-charismatic background. Preach on predestination and there’s a good chance that someone’s going to be troubled to hear we believe that the word predestination means predestination. Declare the Bible’s call to personal responsibility and there’s a chance that someone from a highly reformed background might think we’re undermining God’s sovereignty.
And so every pastor is tempted to shrink from declaring the whole counsel of God. One of the reasons we believe in the importance of preaching through whole books is because it forces us as a church to look at the whole counsel of God, not just the passages or subjects that the pastors prefer. And it prevents the pastor from avoiding preaching on those passages that are difficult or controversial.
As Paul looked ahead to the unknown (only knowing there would be imprisonment and afflictions) he didn’t care about protecting his life, he cared about finishing the course God gave him which in verse 24 he summarized as this: to testify to the gospel of the grace of God. For Paul, preaching Christ and Christ crucified was his reason for living and once that was completed as God willed, he was ready to die.
In verses 26-27 Paul references Ezekiel 3 where God speaks to the prophet and says, “if I give you a warning to give to the wicked man and you don’t give it, his blood will be on his head and on yours. If you give the warning and he ignores you, then his blood is on his head alone.” Paul could say that he was innocent of the blood of all because he did not shrink from declaring the entire counsel of God.
Pastoral ministry must be centered on the faithful and fearless preaching of God’s word. Pastors shouldn’t go out of their way to offend, but if the faithful preaching of God’s word brings offense, a pastor isn’t to shrink back either. May God give strength and courage to the pastors of Grace Community Church to preach God’s whole word faithfully for generations to come should the Lord tarry. And may the Lord give grace and wisdom to the congregation of GCC to have a heart that says, “bring it on! Preach God’s whole counsel to us and hold nothing back!”
Integrity, a servant’s heart, and the faithful preaching of God’s word – this was the example that Paul left for the Ephesian elders. In reminding them of these things, Paul is calling them to emulate his example in their ministry. Then in verse 28 he charges the elders to be faithful shepherds of the flock.
II. Paul charges the Ephesian elders to be faithful shepherds (vv. 28-31)
This is one of the passages that indicates that the roles of elder, pastor, and overseer are all describing one role with different emphases. It is clear from verse 17 that he is speaking to elders, but in 28 Paul calls them to pay careful attention to the flock (the church) over which the Holy Spirit has made them overseers (or bishops) and then calls them to shepherd (which is the Greek word for pastor) the church of God. The elders are overseers are pastors. That’s why we here at GCC don’t believe that elders, pastors and overseers are three roles, but three aspects of one role.
Paul calls them to pay careful attention – reminding them that the church of God is a flock that was purchased at the dear price of God’s own Son’s precious blood. If God so loved the flock that He would lay down His life, pastors should not be negligent in their care and guarding of the flock. And one of the ways that care is expressed is in the spiritual protection of the flock.
I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them.
Paul warns them there will be dangers from within and dangers from without. Wolves will come in from outside and tear the flock apart if allowed to. This refers to false teachers and the heresies they introduce.
But dangers will also arise from within as men will seek to gather the flock to themselves through deceptive and twisted words. These are men who are motivated by a desire to draw disciples to themselves not to Christ. They don’t care for the flock, they see the church as existing as a ladder to their own promotion. Faithful elders need to guard the flock from selfishly ambitious men whose goal is to lead the flock away from Christ and to themselves.
Wolves on the outside, wolves in sheeps clothing on the inside. Paul warns the Ephesian elders and churches today that we live in a dangerous world – the church will be attacked. It’s not if, it’s when. There are merciless wolves who will tear the new and the weak and the vulnerable apart if allowed to. So Paul charges the elders “pay careful attention to yourselves (that wolves don’t arise within the eldership) and to all the flock (that wolves aren’t allowed to attack).”
What this means is that a pastor isn’t meant to be Mr. Rogers with a Bible. A good pastor can’t just be “nice” to everyone. Pastors should be gracious and kind and loving and gentle – no question. But when a wolf comes, a pastor needs to get the shotgun out (to put it bluntly). John MacArthur put it this way:
The pastor needs two voices: one for gathering the flock and one for scattering the wolves.
One of the important ways pastors do this is by teaching truth and exposing heresy. Good Christians can disagree on many points of biblical doctrine, but heresies are those teachings that contradict and lead away from the central and non-negotiable teachings of scripture. The inerrancy of the Bible, the authority of the Bible, the triune nature of God, the sinfulness of man, God’s redemptive plan of saving sinful man through faith in Jesus Christ and his atoning death on the cross, and the church as the people of God and the bride of Christ. Those things are non-negotiable for orthodox Christians.
Paul’s not talking about people who disagree or have concerns or even mishandle how they should walk out their concerns. Sheep can create a lot of problems in the church – that doesn’t make them a wolf, and thank God the Chief Shepherd is patient and longsuffering with all us sheep and pastors should seek to be these things as well. Paul has in mind here people who have ravenous souls that want to rip and devour the flock apart for their own wicked agendas. They can’t be rehabilitated – at least not by human effort and the pastor isn’t called to try. They need to be scattered not gathered by the shepherd. The pastor needs to pay careful attention and be alert.
III. Paul entrusts the elders and the church to God (vv.32-38)
In the end, Paul says, I know that wolves will come and ambitious men to destroy the church, but I am still leaving and I am entrusting you and your future to God. He again reminds the elders to preach the word of grace which is able to build the church up and give believers that glorious inheritance that Christ has prepared for us. It is the faithful preaching of God’s word that will protect and preserve the church’s future and that’s why Paul emphasizes it in this passage.
After commending them to God, Paul again reminds them of his financial integrity and example, and then he kneels down and prays with them. What a prayer meeting that must have been! We know it was filled with tears and weeping because they were committing one another to God, knowing they would never see each other again.
I love this picture because we see that the Ephesian elders loved Paul and he loved them. Paul wasn’t some kind of 1st century church consultant, he was a dear friend and a beloved brother. As we close this morning we’re reminded that the church – regardless of role or position – is bound together by the love of Christ.