MESSAGE FOR SEPTEMBER 4, 2011 FROM ACTS 20:25-38
Read: Acts 20:25-38
This week, we move back into Luke’s record of the early church found in the book of Acts. As we move further into chapter 20, Paul is heading toward Jerusalem after spending most of the last three years ministering in the city of Ephesus. After he had preached in Troas and travelled through other areas northwest of Ephesus, he heads back in the direction of Ephesus. He wants to have one more opportunity to influence this Ephesian church, but he doesn’t want to visit the city because he’s in a hurry to get to Jerusalem and a quick visit there would not have been possible. So, he meets with the elders—the pastors—the overseers (these terms are used interchangeably in the New Testament) of the Ephesian church in the town of Miletus, about 30 miles south of Ephesus. While there, he delivers his final words to these men he had commissioned to lead Christ’s church as its pastoral team. As we said last time, though this is directed at pastors, many of the truths are appropriate for parents or anyone who has been given a responsibility to shepherd.
In verses 25-27 Paul begins his farewell. “25 And now, behold, I know that none of you among whom I have gone about proclaiming the kingdom will see my face again. 26 Therefore I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all of you, 27 for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God.” I didn’t want to skip this, but because we have seen similar truths before, I don’t want us to labor it. As Paul ministered among the Ephesians he felt very keenly that he was accountable to God for the souls of those to whom he was sent.
Because Paul was confident he had been faithful in Ephesus, he can say, “I am innocent of the blood of all of you.” By implication he is saying to the Ephesians, “You will not be able to stand in the judgment and tell God you never heard the gospel—I was given that charge and I was faithful to discharge it.” This kind of pastoral accountability is not limited to Paul’s preaching. Hebrews 13:17 says, “17 Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.” The Bible knows nothing about a pastor who will not stand before God and answer for how he exercised that role. The church is called to submit to the leadership of the pastoral team—assuming it is consistent with Scripture--BECAUSE those in leadership will be held accountable before God to how they discharged their responsibilities. Just this week, I heard of a small church where the two elders did not even regularly attend worship services. They will be shocked when they stand before God in judgment and discover that he held them accountable to be faithful under-shepherds of that church. Because Paul had declared the whole counsel of God to the church—“anything that was profitable” to them according to verse 20, he was innocent of their blood. If the Ephesian church faltered, it would not be due to any deficiency in Paul’s ministry.
In the next section of the chapter, we see three sobering admonitions Paul gives to these Ephesian elders. This chapter is the exclamation point at the end of Paul’s ministry in Ephesus, so we must pay heed to it whether we are pastors or not. The first admonition is found in verses 28-31 and is: Spiritual leaders in Christ’s church—elders in particular--must guard their own hearts and others in the church. Paul says, “28 Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood.”
There should be no lax overseers of Christ’s church. The responsibility must not be taken lightly. It is to be done with earnestness and sobriety. “Pay careful attention to yourselves…” A few years later, Paul says much the same thing to Timothy who was ministering in Ephesus. He tells him in 1 Timothy 4:16 “ 16 Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.” Do you hear the sense of urgency—the intensity in both of those commands—“Pay careful attention”… “keep a close watch?” Don’t just pay attention, “Pay careful attention.” Don’t just keep watch on yourself, “Keep a close watch on yourself.” All believers, but elders in particular, must continually and carefully monitor our spiritual lives. An unexamined life is perilous for all believers, but when the pastor-elders live that way, the entire church suffers great harm. It is imperative that pastors live this way because the sheep will follow the shepherds. If the under-shepherds take a laid-back, hit-and-miss approach to their walk with God, so too will be the flock they shepherd. Whether we like it or not, the old maxim is true in the church—the fish rots from the head down.
Paul also tells the elders to take this same vigilant posture toward the sheep to which they have been entrusted. These must not be superficial relationships even though everything in the church today leans in that direction. This kind of intentional vigilance must be kept for all the flock, which is just another reason why the pastorate must be plural and not invested in a single man. No one man could exercise this kind of careful attention over 100 believers, much less 500. Paul gives two reasons in this text for this careful attention to the flock in verse 28. We must be carefully guarding our hearts and the hearts of those we shepherd because “…the Holy Spirit has made you overseers to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood.” Our vigilance over ourselves and the flock is mandatory because our calling is sacred and the church is sacred—set apart by God. The calling is sacred because, if your ministry is legitimate as an elder, it wasn’t fundamentally your idea. The Spirit of God called you into the eldership and confirmed it through the body of Christ. It is a holy calling because the God who calls you is holy. The pastorate—vocational or non-vocational, is not a ministry to be “tried on for size” to see if it fits—it is the expression of obedience to a divine calling. Not only is the calling sacred, the church is sacred—set apart by God in two ways. The first way it is sacred is because it belongs to him. Paul says of the church, it is “the church of God.”
The church is the possession of someone and it’s not the pastor or the members—it is owned wholly and completely by God. He is her Master, King and Owner. Second, the church is sacred because of the infinitely exorbitant sum he gave in payment for it. He says that the church was “obtained with his own blood.” That’s a reference to Christ and his saving work and this section reinforces our theology of God in two ways. First, it teaches the Trinity. The SPIRIT calls GOD’S church, which he purchased with JESUS’ blood. All three Members of the Godhead are intimately involved in creation and ministry of the church—as they were in the creation of the world. This section also explicitly proclaims the deity of Christ—Jesus is God. Paul says the church was obtained with the blood of God—an unmistakable reference to Christ. Jesus had the blood of God in him because he is God.
Almighty God had blood coursing through his veins. The Son of God had blood in his veins fundamentally for the purpose of shedding it as a purchase price for God’s church. He took on flesh and blood—He was given life so that he could surrender it to pay for the church—to redeem it out of its slavery to world, the flesh and the devil. The blood of Jesus is uniquely precious because it was untainted by sin—a life without sin was offered as the purchase price of God for his church. The Almighty, Omnipotent God became a finite man—the eternal King of glory became a bloodied sacrifice…Why?… to purchase the church. Of all the commodities ever given to purchase something, there has doubtless never been anything so infinitely valuable, so intensely concentrated in its worth as the shed blood of Christ. A billion tons of silver, gold, platinum, uranium or precious gemstones could not even approach the value of one drop of Christ’s life blood. Only the blood of Jesus can purchase people out of sin.
Paul is saying, “Pastors, you must pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock because this sacred bride is so infinitely precious to God that he was willing to give as the purchase price for it—the blood of his only Son.” The purchase price determines the value of something and there is no purchase price comparable to what was given for the church that God has called elders to oversee. Only the most experienced guards are given the task of overseeing the crown jewels. Only the most elite members of the secret service are given the responsibility of protecting the President. Only the nation’s top military officials are given the privilege of guarding our most sensitive national defense secrets. The crown jewels, the life of the president and our military secrets are fallen, worthless, rotting assets compared to the blood of Christ. And it is the pastor elders who are given the ultimate, the highest, the summit of all human responsibility--overseeing a body of people God has purchased with his own blood. Parents, as those given the responsibility to shepherd your believing children, this should sober you as well.
A second reason Paul gives why elders must pay careful attention to themselves and the flock is in verses 29-31, “29 I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; 30 and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them. 31 Therefore be alert, remembering that for three years I did not cease night or day to admonish everyone with tears.” A second reason for this intense vigilance on the part of the overseers is: vicious enemies will attack the church. Paul calls these enemies “wolves” as they attack the sheep in Christ’s church. That graphic metaphor tells us something about the fierceness of this fight and how important the shepherds are in protecting the flock from the wolves. The sheep in Christ’s church is that remnant of people God has pulled out of spiritual darkness into his glorious light and are now supernaturally empowered with wisdom and spiritual power to battle against his forces and win the victory as they trust in Christ. As a result, Satan is continually warring against the church of Christ. He knows the truth of Romans 16:20 as Paul says to the church, “The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet.” He will not be crushed without a fight.
Paul gives three truths describing this approaching attack against the church in Ephesus and which characterize the countless assaults made against the church today. First, the source of the opposition will be inside the church. In many cases of spiritual attack against the church, the ultimate source is someone in the church. This is only consistent with the Adversary’s character which is permeated by deception. He doesn’t come knocking on the church door dressed as a swastika-bearing neo-Nazi—that would immediately put the church on alert. No, he uses men or women who sit on committees, who go to prayer meeting, who befriend many people in the church and they in fact may be in the leadership of the church. These are people with who, in the eyes of many, are model saints. In order for Satan to inflict maximum damage to the church, he must attack it from the inside by people who, like wood ticks, have deeply embedded themselves within the heart of the church before they explode.
Whenever you hear about a church that has suffered a grievous attack, it’s almost always an inside job. This is also strategically much more valuable to Satan than the crazed homeless person who comes into worship waving a gun in the middle of a sermon. No, this occurs within the church that is called to love each other—to exercise love and gentleness—who are called to honor their brothers and sisters above themselves. These are people who have been told by Jesus, “…35 By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” The enemy hates a church where sacrificial love for one another reigns because it’s a glaring, flashing neon light indicating that these people are the real deal, genuine followers of Jesus. So, he gets the false converts or the immature Christians within the church to attack through various means and in so doing he kills two birds with one stone. First, he does maximum damage to the church because the human land mines are embedded within the church before they explode and second, he destroys the testimony of the church by spewing the black smoke of division over the church which obscures the truth that they are followers of Christ and greatly neutralizes their witness. The source of the opposition is internal.
Another truth about this vicious attack Paul prophecies for this church in Ephesus is: it will involve the twisting of Biblical truth. Paul says in verse 30, “and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things…” The form of spiritual attack on a church that brings about the most devastating and lasting damage to a church is—the twisting, perverting or undermining of the truth of Scripture. If you would have told the mainline Presbyterians or mainline Methodists or Mainline Lutherans 60 years ago that within about half a century they would be ordaining homosexuals to the clergy, they would have written you off as a fool. But they didn’t know that 50 years ago, the course had already been plotted—the spiritual GPS had already been programmed to take them where they are today. That occurred when those denominations in their arrogance stood in judgment on the Word of God and made themselves, not the Bible the final measure of truth. My New Testament professor Bob Stein used to say that when the mainline denominations rejected the Word of God as their inerrant standard, they became like cut flowers. Still pretty and looking fine on the outside, but destined to wither and die because they had been severed from their roots--which is the Word of God. They broke with Scripture as their final source of authority and as a result are dying a slow death and look just like the world—same values, same priorities, deceived in the same way as this lost world because without the Word to direct them, they became part of the world.
Paul warns these Ephesian elders that these wolves would come in and “speak twisted things.” They wouldn’t come in with a completely foreign teaching as a substitute for the gospel—the church would easily recognize that. No, they would come in and twist or distort the truth Paul had taught these believers. That is much easier to do in our era when Biblical illiteracy is so high. Barna conducted a religious survey in 2009 and the results are discouraging to believers but is the best of news for our adversary. Barna says that less than one out of every five born again adults (19%) has a biblical worldview, which is unchanged in the past 15 years. An overwhelming majority of self-identified Christians (81%) contend that spiritual maturity is achieved by following the rules in the Bible. That means that the overwhelming majority of self-identified Christians cannot possibly be growing to maturity because they have substituted “keeping Biblical rules” for the central role the gospel plays in spiritual maturity, which means the overwhelming majority of self-professed believers don’t understand the gospel well at all!
Whatever Barna means by “born again” or “self-professed Christian” doesn’t matter much given the ridiculously poor numbers. The point is—in a church that doesn’t know the truth very well, it is very easy to twist it and have no one even notice. This is why strands of the emergent church who teach things like (you can’t be certain of anything) has been able to fool so many of our young people—it’s why in our own denomination the statement “God has a complete and exhaustive knowledge of the future” was not allowed to be inserted into our denomination’s statement of faith when a few years ago, a Conference pastor challenged God’s exhaustive knowledge of the future. Paul would say the responsibility in all of these cases lay with the pastors of the church because it is those men who are charged with protecting the flock from people who speak twisted things. They must be able to spot false teaching and expel it from the church before it destroys it.
A third truth about this vicious attack is: it will be man-centered, not God centered. Paul says in verse 30, “30 and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them.” The intention of the false teachers is not for the benefit of those who follow them—they are in it for themselves. They want “to draw away the disciples after them.” Even though they may speak passionately about God, make no mistake, their intention is to gain a following for themselves. Their ministry of false teaching is about them—their fame—their glory—their personal enrichment and the fulfilling of their selfish ambitions. We have seen this played out a heart-breaking number of times within evangelicalism—either in the form of men and women who use people for their money or build their egos within huge media ministries, or much smaller churches where dictatorial pastors rule like gods for their own glory.
Next, Paul teaches these elders from his example how to combat these attacks in verse 31. He says, “31 Therefore be alert, remembering that for three years I did not cease night or day to admonish everyone with tears.” The first weapon against these vicious attacks is: unceasing vigilance and truth-telling. Paul tells these elders to “be alert” and then he cites his example to show them what he means by that. Paul’s example was that he “did not cease night or day to admonish everyone…” Paul—day and night for three years admonished them. The word in the original for admonish literally means to “put in your mind, to cause or gently reprove.” Paul spent three years day and night cramming truth into the heads of these Ephesians—the whole counsel of God—he warned, he reproved. He was unceasing in his truth-telling.
Elders must be people who know the book and use the book not only in their lectures and sermons but also in their personal conversations. By their example, they must model a dependence upon the Word to solve problems and resolve conflicts. They must always be willing and able to speak into a vacuum of truth in a person or a group, regardless of the consequences. Next, Paul says that these three years of admonishing was “with tears.” A second weapon against false teaching is impassioned truth-telling. Paul taught them with tears because he was impassioned about the truth and that God be honored though its faithful proclamation. People should never mistake an elder for a boring theological lecturer, but as a man who has in his personal life been profoundly impacted by truth and cannot keep from speaking it with passion and fervor. In this way, those who hear it see how important it is. If you aren’t impassioned when you speak truth, how are the sheep supposed to know it’s important?! They will mirror your passion or lack thereof back to you. Different people display passion differently, but we all know when it’s missing.
A final weapon overseers must employ against these attacks is found in Paul’s example in verse 32. “32 And now I commend you to God and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified.” Paul entrusts these men to God and the word of his grace—the gospel, its promises and implications. Therefore, pastors and all those who shepherd people must place their dependence upon God and the Word of His grace. We must rely on God. When God called Jeremiah to be a prophet he told him in 1:7, “7 But the LORD said to me, “Do not say, ‘I am only a youth’; for to all to whom I send you, you shall go, and whatever I command you, you shall speak. 8 Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, declares the LORD.” We are not to depend upon our charm, our air-tight arguments, our spiritual gifts or our intellectual prowess when we are in conflict with the evil one—we must trust and revel in the truth that “God is with us to deliver us.”
We must trust in the gospel-the word of grace, as Paul says--to “build us up and give us the inheritance among all who are sanctified.” We must go again and again and again to the Word when we are under attack—when we are discouraged, afraid, intimidated, feeling condemned or persecuted. It’s the Word that builds us up as we develop an eternal perspective. We must see our ministries in light of our future inheritance so that our faith in future grace will direct how we battle against the evil one. The ultimate goal is not having a big church or a successful ministry and we must never compromise the truth in the name of receiving those things—it’s receiving the inheritance among those who are holy. Many small church pastors who never had more than 50 on a Sunday morning will receive an inheritance because they were faithful shepherds of the flock while some mega-church pastors will not gain an inheritance because the ministry was rooted in something other than the gospel.
As we close, let’s think about how this applies to us. First, as a church--be faithful to pray for your pastors. We are going to be bringing two or three new pastor elders on in the next year or so and they will be taking on this weighty responsibility to shepherd God’s flock. Pray for them and all your pastors—that they would by God’s grace pay careful attention to themselves and the flock. That they would be vigilant, on the alert for false teaching within the church. That they would quickly kill their own sin and walk closely with God in humility and wisdom. That they would know the truth and passionately proclaim it among the flock—that they would place their dependence upon God and the Word of his grace, the gospel and that they would serve with an eternal perspective, looking not for temporary success but for an eternal inheritance that will not rust or burn. And perhaps most of all, pray that in our day when the local church is minimized and marginalized, that they would remember how profoundly precious the church is to God based on what he was willing to give to redeem her—his own blood.
Second, a church this size needs at least a dozen qualified pastors to begin to adequately shepherd this flock. Pray that God will raise up pastors from among us—that qualified men would hear and respond to the call. And men, if you have been sensing this call, talk to me or one of the other elders and we can see if you should begin the pastoral training regimen here at this time. May God give all of us sheep the grace to be faithful to God in our callings as we shepherd those under our care for God’s glory and our joy.
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