Most of the time, we take our church leaders for granted. We don’t give much thought to who they are or what they do. We respect them, but we don’t really know them. And so, in the next three weeks I would like for us to spend some time getting to know them.
In the NT descriptions of church leadership no one is more prominent than the men we have come to call “elders.” But why do we call them elders or shepherds? Is that a name someone arbitrarily came up with and it stuck? Or is there something behind the words we use? Over the next three weeks, I want us to spend some time talking about elders and what they do, and our relationship with them as a congregation. And I don’t think there’s a better place to start than in Acts 20.
Paul had decided to sail past Ephesus to avoid spending time in the province of Asia, for he was in a hurry to reach Jerusalem, if possible, by the day of Pentecost. From Miletus, Paul sent to Ephesus for the elders of the church. When they arrived, he said to them: “You know how I lived the whole time I was with you, from the first day I came into the province of Asia. I served the Lord with great humility and with tears, although I was severely tested by the plots of the Jews. You know that I have not hesitated to preach anything that would be helpful to you but have taught you publicly and from house to house. I have declared to both Jews and Greeks that they must turn to God in repentance and have faith in our Lord Jesus. And now, compelled by the Spirit, I am going to Jerusalem, not knowing what will happen to me there. I only know that in every city the Holy Spirit warns me that prison and hardships are facing me.
However, I consider my life worth nothing to me, if only I may finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me—the task of testifying to the gospel of God’s grace. Now I know that none of you among whom I have gone about preaching the kingdom will ever see me again. Therefore, I declare to you today that I am innocent of the blood of all men. For I have not hesitated to proclaim to you the whole will of God. Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood. I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them. So be on your guard! Remember that for three years I never stopped warning each of you night and day with tears.
Now I commit you to God and to the word of his grace, which can build you up and give you an inheritance among all those who are sanctified. I have not coveted anyone’s silver or gold or clothing. You yourselves know that these hands of mine have supplied my own needs and the needs of my companions. In everything I did, I showed you that by this kind of hard work we must help the weak, remembering the words the Lord Jesus himself said: ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’” When he had said this, he knelt down with all of them and prayed. They all wept as they embraced him and kissed him. What grieved them most was his statement that they would never see his face again. Then they accompanied him to the ship. (Acts 20:16-38)
In Acts 20, we find Paul back in Ephesus one more time as he travels to Jerusalem, where his next four years will be spent in imprisonment and trials and ultimately in a Roman prison. He had intended to sail past Ephesus, a city where he had spent three years of his life in ministry, but they stop in a smaller seaport, Miletus, 30 miles south of Ephesus and Paul sends word to the elders there that he wants to see them one more time. They come.
This passage of scripture, along with 1 Peter 5, gives us a distinct flavor of the multi-dimensional roles of the men into whose hands the Lord has placed the leadership of the church. We see it as much in the three terms Paul uses in addressing this group of men as in the description of their responsibilities.
Acts 20:17 – “From Miletus, Paul sent to Ephesus for the elders of the church.”
When Paul addresses these leaders as “Elders” he is recognizing the quality in their lives that comes with age and experience. In a society that glorifies youth and disregards age and dismisses experience, the Bible reminds us of some of the principles that are not just tied to a certain time and culture, but are ageless in their applicability:
Lev. 19:32 “Rise in the presence of the aged, show respect for the elderly and revere your God. I am the Lord.”
Prov. 16:31 “Gray hair is a crown of splendor; it is attained by a righteous life.”
Years ago I worked with a wonderful elder named Felix Stalls. I was in my early 20’s, a time in my life when I knew more than I would ever know again, (and if I was honest – thought I knew more than anybody else). And there were times we would get into discussions in which I thought I knew better than he did. And he would often remind me - “I’ve got a whole lot more experience being young than you have being old.” It was not a flippant put down, but a serious reflection on the fact that his years had given him a broader perspective on life than I as a young man could imagine or grasp. There are some things that you cannot learn without time and experience. Though I knew more then, I understand more now.
And so Paul’s description of these men as “elders” is not an arbitrary distinction by age, but a recognition that maturity and wisdom can only be attained through years of experience.
Acts 20:28 – “Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers.”
Our leaders are men who have been given authority and responsibility for the care of the members of this congregation. They are to watch over the work of the church and make thoughtful, prayerful decisions about our direction. They are selected by you – they are appointed by God.
They have been set over the church – not in the sense of superiority, but the in the awesome sense of accountability. That is what the Hebrews writer is trying to communicate when he writes to the church, “Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account. Obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you” (Heb. 13:17).
The Greek word Paul uses that is translated “overseer” is episkopos – epi=over, skopos=to watch (similar to microscope, telescope) – so “to watch over” or “oversee” helps describe one aspect of their work.
The idea of overseeing a church carries with it a need for vigilance and dedication. You can’t oversee people from a distance or at arm’s length. You have to know the people you are leading and have a personal investment in their lives.
The work of overseers is not the religious equivalent of a board of directors who sit behind closed doors and make decisions. It describes the spiritual guidance of a group of people who have willingly placed themselves under their care.
The term will later be translated “bishop” and that will carry all kinds of ecclesiastical baggage. Bishops would become office holders and upper management, and that would be to the detriment of the church. That’s certainly not what Jesus envisioned for leaders in his church.
Overseers are men who care for the lives of people and have accepted the responsibility for leading them to God. They will keep watch for the needs that exist and respond with caring and compassion. They will be on guard for the dangers that threaten the congregation and protect their people. They will be there as men who care for your souls.
Acts 20:28 – “Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood.”
Shepherding language paints an especially vivid picture in the verses that follow. Vss. 29-31 “I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them. So be on your guard!”
This single word, “shepherd” draws a very descriptive picture of the role of a leader in the church – he is one who guides, protects, provides, cares for needs – he is one into whose hands the lives of the flock have been entrusted.
As Paul speaks, his primary concern is for the protection of those in their care. This isn’t the first time he has laid this charge on them – he began by saying “for three years I never stopped warning each of you night and day.” These were perilous times for the church. The dangers that would come their way from false teachers, from betrayal, even from among themselves as some would turn away from the truth and lead others away from it.
Paul calls them to faithfulness in their stewardship – not to take lightly this precious gift that has been entrusted to their care – this church of God which Paul reminds them that God “bought with his own blood.”
In the Gospel of John, Jesus will talk about his own role as a shepherd: “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand is not the shepherd who owns the sheep. So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away. Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it. The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep. I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me—just as the Father knows me and I know the Father—and I lay down my life for the sheep.” (John 10:11-15)
These men shepherd this flock of God’s people in Jesus’ name. You are Jesus’ flock, and he has entrusted your care to these men. Jesus is the good shepherd and the model for the shepherds in the church. They attempt to care for you in the same way that Jesus would – with loving care and compassion, standing strong when dangers threaten, knowing and being known by their sheep – laying down their lives in selfless sacrifice for this congregation.
It is David’s own words in Psalm 23 that give us the most vivid picture of a shepherd’s role: The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not be in want. He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters, he restores my soul. He guides me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Surely goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever.
In David’s words you get a picture of a shepherd who knows the needs of his sheep and is constantly working to provide for those needs. And of all those needs, the spiritual needs are foremost: to make sure we dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
So, if we begin to dismiss the value of the church – if we begin to question the role of the shepherds of Christ’s church – we need to listen again to Paul’s speech to the Ephesian elders. These men care for God’s most precious possession – his church. They are his first line of defense and protection and provision.
The most powerful verse in the passage comes in vs. 32:
“I commit you to God” – we are reminded again that this is never entirely a human equation. He has already said that it is the Holy Spirit who has made them overseers of the flock. Now he commits their lives and their leadership to God’s guidance and care.
“…and to the word of his grace” – One of the things that I take great courage in is that each of our elders is a man of God’s word. They seek their strength and wisdom from an infallible source. I have tremendous confidence in them because I see their hearts being lead by that same word of God’s grace to which Paul committed the Ephesian elders.
As I mentioned, Paul had not intended to stop – vs. 16 “Paul had decided to sail past Ephesus to avoid spending time in the province of Asia, for he was in a hurry to reach Jerusalem, if possible, by the day of Pentecost.” Perhaps he knew how painful the goodbyes would be. But his heart gets the best of him and when they stop in the port city of Miletus, he sends word to them to come to him there.
He tells them plainly that he is going to Jerusalem to face – what he isn’t sure of – but he knows that prison and hardship await him. And then he tells them that they will never see his face again. That’s what grieved them most.
I guess that is what is really the saddest thing about a Christian’s funeral – not that we fear for their soul or regret their death, because we know and trust God’s promises for what awaits them – but that we will never see their face again – that we won’t be able to enjoy their companionship and share our lives with them anymore. And that is what grieves us the most.
And really – that says something about the kind of relationship that these men shared.
“They all wept as they embraced him and kissed him.”
The bottom line of this passage for me is the kind of relationship I see between Paul and these men. It goes beyond respect – this is a relationship that draws from all of them the deepest of emotions. They are devoted to each other – they have spent time together, shared sorrows and victories together, challenged each other. Their lives are inextricably bound together by a bond that transcends flesh and blood. They are one in Jesus Christ. Their love for each other isn’t the conditional, wait and see, arms-length, hold back until, don’t get involved type. In Jesus Christ, they would lay down their lives for each other.
That, ideally is the type of relationship God wants you to have with the shepherds in your church. Not a passing acquaintance where you see each other for a few minutes on a Sunday morning, but one where you have spent time together, sharing what’s going on in your life, receiving godly counsel, praying together. God put these men in your life as a spiritual resource. When he calls them shepherds, he is describing a relationship of the most constant care and concern for your well being.
I hope you have some relationships like that in your life. The kind where you feel the kinship, and intimacy of thought and heart runs deep. We all need those kinds of relationships. We can’t live in Christ without them. Anyone who tries to live the Christian life on their own, isolated, superficial, disconnected –has missed what is perhaps the most significant, the most powerful part of the Christian life – the relationships. And that’s why God put shepherds over his church.
It was a frigid day at Valley Forge in the winter of 1777. General George Washington was walking down a road in the encampment when he came to a group of soldiers fortifying the camp. Because he collar was turned up and his hat pulled down, nobody recognized him as the Commander in Chief of the Continental Army. He stopped to observe some of the soldiers building a breastwork of logs. The men tugged on a large heavy log while their corporal stood giving orders. “Alright, up with it!” he cried. “Now, altogether, push!” The men gave a great heave, but the log got away from them and slid back. Again, the corporal shouted his commands. Again, the men raised the log and just as it was near the place where they wanted it, they started to slip and the log was about to get away from them again. Washington ran forward and threw his shoulder into the struggle and the log dropped into place. “Why don’t you help your men when they need a hand?” Washington asked. “Why, because I’m a corporal,” the officer replied. “Well “I’m the Commander in Chief,” said Washington, throwing open his coat to reveal his uniform. “The next time you’ve got a log to heavy for your men to lift, send for me.”
Our shepherds are not here to shout orders from the sidelines, they are here to help shoulder your burdens and walk with you through life.