“And now, behold, I know that none of you among whom I have gone about proclaiming the kingdom will see my face again. Therefore I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all, for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God. 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. 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. Therefore be alert, remembering that for three years I did not cease night or day to admonish every one with tears.
“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. I coveted no one’s silver or gold or apparel. You yourselves know that these hands ministered to my necessities and to those who were with me. In all things I have shown you that by working hard in this way we must help the weak and remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’”
And when he had said these things, he knelt down and prayed with them all. And there was much weeping on the part of all; they embraced Paul and kissed him, being sorrowful most of all because of the word he had spoken, that they would not see his face again. And they accompanied him to the ship. (Acts 20:25-38)
One of my favorite figures of the Old Testament is King Hezekiah. Throughout the books of Kings and Chronicles, we read about the kings of Israel and Judah, one after the other. And after David, every king falls short. Either they did evil in the sight of God, or they failed to take any necessary reforms far enough. Many of the so-called good kings would remove idolatry from the temple and reinstate God’s law, but they’d still allow pagan worship to continue in what the Bible calls the high places.
Then along comes King Hezekiah. His father, Ahaz, may have been one of the worst kings in the line of David, but Hezekiah proved to be different. Not only was he faithful to God’s commandments, initiating much-needed reforms in Jerusalem, but he also “removed the high places” (2Ki 18:4).
He even went as far as to destroy “the bronze serpent that Moses had made.” That’s the serpent that Jesus refers to in John 3 when he says, “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life” (Jn 3:14-15). The people of Israel had become so misguided that they began worshiping that serpent. So even though it had historical significance—I mean, Israel’s great leader, Moses, himself had created it—Hezekiah was willing to destroy it to keep the people from committing idolatry.
Hezekiah certainly stands out in a long line of kings who mostly failed to do right in the sight of God beginning with Solomon. And what are we to learn from the books of Kings and Chronicles? If you’ve ever read them straight through, then you know how detailed and perhaps tedious they are. So what is the purpose of those books? What do we learn from them?
If nothing else, we are shown the importance of godly leadership. Both the people of Israel and Judah rose and fell according to the merits of their leadership, their kings. And the Bible seems to point the finger at their kings more than the people. The people were often guilty, of course, but God holds leaders to an even higher standard.
The Church Needs Sound Leaders
The same is true in the church today. Paul says that church leaders “must be above reproach” (1Ti 3:2). James warned, “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness” (Jas 3:1). Concerning the sins of church elders, Paul told Timothy, “As for those who persist in sin, rebuke them in the presence of all, so that the rest may stand in fear” (1Ti 5:20). On the other side of that coin, he also said, “Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching” (1Ti 5:17).
When Jesus observed the utter lack of spiritual leadership in Israel, he was distressed. Matthew says, “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Mt 9:36). It broke the Lord’s heart to see people wandering aimlessly without any competent men to lead them. He said, “The laborers are few; therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest” (Mt 9:37-38).
The best leadership that Israel had to offer were the Pharisees. And Jesus reserved his harshest words for them, saying:
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. For you neither enter yourselves nor allow those who would enter to go in. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel across sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves.
“Woe to you, blind guides.” (Matthew 23:13-16)
On another occasion, he said about them, “They are blind guides. And if the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit” (Mt 15:14). As leaders, they were worthless. And we discover why when we read Matthew 23. The short version is that they were ignorant, Christ-denying, self-exalting hypocrites. They were proud men who felt they had a better grasp of Scripture than anyone else even though they failed to see its most important teachings.
Most notably, they failed to see that salvation is of the Lord and the Lord alone. While they were teaching people how to essentially save themselves, God’s Word always showed that God alone must redeem us. Needless to say, the Pharisees were not the kind of leaders that Christ wants for his people. Not only was their theology wrong, but their behavior was also—well, they were not above reproach by any means.
So what does God expect from leaders in the church? Well, according to Paul in the first part of his farewell address here in Acts 20, good leadership begins with men who humbly and sacrificially serve the Lord. Even if it destroys their reputation among men, they are always willing to do what pleases God.
Second, they faithfully teach the church. And as we’ll see in a moment, they don’t shy away from aspects of God’s Word because they’re unpopular. They don’t teach it because men want to hear it; they teach it because men need to hear it, and all of it.
Third, godly leaders have a genuine concern for the lost. Paul told Timothy, “Do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry” (2Ti 4:5). While a pastor’s primary role is to teach believers, he’s not exempt from evangelism. “The fields are white for harvest,” Jesus said, “[and] the one who reaps is…gathering fruit for eternal life” (Jn 4:35-36). It’s too important for any minister to neglect. Frankly, I think there’s cause for concern when a pastor apparently has no desire to reach the lost. Christ certainly does. Paul did. And we should too.
Lastly, godly leaders very much believe in the John-the-Baptist principle: “[Christ] must increase, but I must decrease” (Jn 3:30). In other words, a pastor should put his own wants and needs below the requirements of his calling. God must be first, his people should come second, and the pastor should put himself somewhere beneath them on his list of priorities. What did Paul say? “I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God” (Ac 20:24).
Raising Up Multiple Elders
With that foundation laid, Paul continues speaking here to the Ephesian elders, teaching them to apply the principles that he’s already shared. But first, he offers a personal note (verse 25):
“And now, behold, I know that none of you among whom I have gone about proclaiming the kingdom will see my face again. Therefore I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all, for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God.” (Acts 20:25-27)
Paul knew that he wouldn’t see these men again. He had spent three years in Ephesus “proclaiming the kingdom,” preaching the gospel and expounding upon the Old Testament Scriptures thoroughly and clearly. He no doubt trained these elders to continue his work once he was gone. And that time had come. Technically, Paul had already left. But he stopped by once more just long enough to give this final word of encouragement.
By the way, it’s not always apparent in the book of Acts, but Paul never left any church without first appointing elders, presumably training them as well. We often have a funny view of the ministry. Many of us assume that elders just spring up out of nowhere. One day, a man is walking down the street when he hears a voice from heaven that says, “You. Yeah, you. You’re going to be a preacher. Go tell the church that you want to preach.” But that’s not typical.
It’s far more common and more biblical for established, ordained elders to recognize the gifts (or at least the potential gifts) of other men and then encourage them to take the first steps. Most will not do it on their own. I believe pastors have a responsibility to foster whatever gifts are present in the church. Paul told Titus, “Appoint elders in every town as I directed you” (Tit 1:5). He then provided a list of qualifications to look for in the men he met.
Let me also point out that the Ephesian church had multiple elders as did every church in the New Testament as far as we know. For instance, Acts 14 says, “They had appointed elders [plural] for them in every church” (Ac 14:23). Here in Acts 20, Paul “sent to Ephesus and called the elders of the church [again, plural] to come to him” (Ac 20:17). Titus was to appoint a plurality of elders in every town. Apparently, the size of the church was never a factor. The pattern is always the same: multiple elders in every church.
Why? I can think of several pragmatic reasons. But I’m content to follow the biblical pattern whether I know all of the reasons or not. When Christ sent his disciples out to preach, he sent them “two by two, into every town and place” (Lk 10:1). Paul never traveled anywhere alone. He always had fellow ministers to help him. When he was with Barnabas, they took turns preaching, and so on.
I point these things out because they lend themselves to the overall health and welfare of the church. By elders raising up new elders, the perpetuity of the church is maintained, and its available gifts are utilized. And by elders working together with other elders, the entire ministry is strengthened. According to Ephesians 4, which we’ll come to in our study of Ephesians, the strength of the ministry becomes the strength of the church. Paul said, “Shepherds and teachers…equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ” (Eph 4:11-12).
Preaching the Complete Will of God
Getting back to our text, Paul highlights an all-important function of the ministry. He says (again, using himself as an example), “I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all, for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God” (Ac 20:26-27). Paul was like Hezekiah in this way. If Scripture said it, he believed it, practiced it, and preached it. He never made any exceptions. He never attempted to avoid any of the difficult passages.
The language of Acts 19 suggests that he was very thorough when teaching the Scriptures. He reasoned and persuaded the Ephesians day after day for more than two years. The words are dialegomai and peithō. First, he discussed the matters thoroughly and intentionally. Second, he provided as much evidence, as much biblical proof of his assertions as possible. And we know that he wasn’t building a case for the gospel using mere intellectual arguments. He didn’t rely on human wisdom and logic. He wasn’t trying to be clever. No, he told the Corinthians:
I…did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom…my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.” (1 Corinthians 2:1; 4-5)
His arguments for the gospel were always firmly grounded in Scripture. But I also believe that he made every effort to teach effectively. He taught with simplicity and clarity. Just read any of his letters to the churches. They are quite systematic. There is a clear train of thought, a structured line of reasoning. That’s why I’m partial to verse-by-verse teaching. The inspired books of the Bible have an intentional order to them. And it’s only when we read and study them from beginning to end that we can really see that order. Plus, it’s extremely beneficial to see every passage in context.
As for Paul, he was faithful to preach the Word and leave nothing out. He declared “the whole counsel of God.” Or as J.B. Phillips paraphrases the text, “I have never shrunk from declaring to you the complete will of God” (PHILLIPS). If God said it, Paul taught it. And for that reason, he could say, “I am innocent of the blood of all,” no doubt alluding to God’s word to Ezekiel in Ezekiel chapter 33. I read this last week, but let me read it again. God said:
“So you, son of man, I have made a watchman for the house of Israel. Whenever you hear a word from my mouth, you shall give them warning from me. If I say to the wicked, O wicked one, you shall surely die, and you do not speak to warn the wicked to turn from his way, that wicked person shall die in his iniquity, but his blood I will require at your hand. But if you warn the wicked to turn from his way, and he does not turn from his way, that person shall die in his iniquity, but you will have delivered your soul.” (Ezekiel 33:7-9)
Paul could have no blood on his hands because he always spoke the truth, holding nothing back. But let’s not get the wrong idea about him. Yes, he was a bold preacher, but he was also loving and gentle. In fact, that’s one of the requirements for a pastor. “An overseer must be…respectable, hospitable…gentle, not quarrelsome” (1Ti 3:2-3). Frankly, it’s not becoming of any Christian to be overly critical or always harsh in his or her tone.
Just study Paul’s approach with people. He wasn’t afraid of getting stern when it was necessary, but he dealt with everyone in a very personal way. He always considered his audience before speaking and addressed them in the best way possible. His goal was not simply to the tell the truth but to convey that truth while taking the path of least resistance. When he spoke to the men of Athens, he talked about the Creator. When he spoke to the Jews, he talked about Old Testament prophecies. Clearly, he was slow and patient with people. He spent two months trying to persuade the Jews in Ephesus before they ran him off.
My point is, if someone rejects the truth, well, there’s nothing we can do about that. But we want to make sure that they’re rejecting the truth, not the way we present the truth. And for pastors, it’s especially important that we know how to effectively communicate the truth. A pastor must “be able to give instruction in sound doctrine,” which implies more than merely stating the facts (Tit 1:9). What can be just as important as what a man says is how he says it. And even more important than that is what’s behind what he says. Let me show you what I mean as we continue through this passage.
Feeding and Leading God’s Flock
Paul says, “Pay careful attention to yourselves” (Ac 20:28). Before any man can be effective as a leader in the church, he has to get his own house in order. How can he lead people closer to Christ if he’s not pursuing Christ himself? John Owen once said, “A minister may fill his pews, his communion roll, the mouths of the public, but what that minster is on his knees in secret before God Almighty, that he is and no more” (A Puritan Golden Treasury). In other words, church leaders have to get right with God first. Then and only then will they be in a position to lead others.
Paul tells these men to scrutinize themselves. Later, he told Timothy the same thing: “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” (1Ti 4:16). Notice how the qualities of the pastor are passed on to the church. The personal holiness of church leaders (of the lack thereof) will affect the entire church. So Paul tells the Ephesian elders, “Pay attention to yourselves. Examine yourselves. Put yourselves under a microscope to be sure that you are qualified to lead God’s people.” Again, the blind can’t lead the blind.
Consider how Paul describes the role of a pastor here. He says, “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” (Ac 20:28). The pastor is like a shepherd of sheep. And if the shepherd can’t keep himself on the right path, how will ever lead the sheep down the right path?
This analogy is fairly common in the New Testament. Peter used it. Jesus used it. Of course, Paul used it. But what does it really mean to shepherd the flock of God? I believe John chapter 21 gives us a simple formula if you will. You probably remember the occasion when Jesus asked Peter three times, “Do you love me?” (Jn 21:15; 17). And Peter reaffirmed his love all three times. And Jesus said to him, first, “Feed my lambs” (Jn 21:15). The second time, he said, “Tend [or shepherd] my sheep” (Jn 15:16). And the third time, he said, “Feed my sheep” (Jn 21:17).
There was a lot more happening in that conversation than meets the eye. First of all, Jesus and Peter were not even talking about the same kind of love. They were using two different words. Second, Jesus uses the word for lamb once and the word for sheep twice. Third, he uses the word for feed twice and the word for shepherd once. And I’ve often wondered whether Jesus was supplying pastors a general formula to follow, a way to understand how we should delegate our time and attention. I’m not sure we should carry his words that far, but they do give us a sense of the pastor’s priority.
First of all, we are to feed both the lambs and the sheep, the young and the old. Second, we are to tend or shepherd the sheep through our leadership. What about the lambs? Don’t we lead the lambs too? I suppose so, but that’s a responsibility that falls more on the parents than pastors. Regardless, the pastor’s priority is feeding God’s people and, perhaps consequently, shepherding them, leading them.
And what do we feed them with? Deuteronomy 8 says, “Man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord” (Dt 8:3). We feed God’s people with God’s Word. Ultimately, elders (1) teach and (2) lead. These tasks go very much hand in hand, of course, but it’s worth noting the slight distinction between them especially when it comes to matters of church government.
More than overseers, pastors have charge over the church. They rule the church. Suffice it to say, the New Testament does not teach congregational rule. It certainly doesn’t teach deacon rule. But I won’t take the time to explore that subject this morning.
When I say that elders have rule over the church, that’s not to say that they are allowed to impose their will on the people. The church doesn’t belong to pastors; it belongs to God. “He obtained [it] with his own blood.” Pastors are merely stewards of the church. In fact, Paul used that very terminology in 1 Corinthians 4 and said, “It is required of stewards that they be found faithful” (1Co 4:2). It is God’s Spirit who puts them in charge, and it is Christ who shed his blood to redeem the church. So a pastor’s care for the church should reflect that.
Think of it this way. Imagine that you have a sister who’s married. And her husband says to you, “I need to go out of town for awhile. I don’t know how long I’ll be gone, so I need you to look after my wife, your sister. Make sure she has food. Support her. Serve her. Protect her. I’d really like to find my wife doing as well as possible when I return. I’m counting on you.” While that may seem like a strange scenario, that’s precisely what pastors are to be doing.
You are my brothers and sisters in Christ, but you are also Christ’s bride, and I should treat you as such. When Paul described his relationship to the church in 2 Corinthians, he said this: “I betrothed you [or promised you] to one husband, to present you as a pure virgin to Christ” (2Co 11:2). Paul saw himself as a steward of the Lord’s bride. The church wasn’t his bride. But he had a responsibility to her given to him by Christ. And he knew that his obligation was to take care of her on Christ’s behalf. His goal, in fact, was to present her to Christ in the end as “a pure virgin.” In other words, he wanted to keep her from harm. He wanted to keep her from sin. He wanted to make sure that she was spiritually fed with the Word of God.
Or, if we want to continue using the shepherd-sheep metaphor, pastors are not really tending to their own flocks; they’re watching over God’s flock. That has a way of changing our perspective, doesn’t it? As careful as I might be to tend to my own sheep, I’m going to be even more careful with someone else’s sheep, especially when those sheep belong to God. And let’s not forget about the steep price he paid for them.
Protecting God’s Flock From Harm
If leading and feeding the sheep weren’t enough, Paul adds (verse 29):
“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. Therefore be alert, remembering that for three years I did not cease night or day to admonish every one with tears.” (Acts 20:29-31)
Pastoring is not as simple as guiding the sheep into the field so they can graze. Predators are lying in wait to attack the flock. As we’ve already seen in Luke’s brief history of the church at Ephesus, wherever the truth is proclaimed, Satan is ready to counter it with lies, deception, and false doctrine.
In Ephesus, men crept in who claimed to be apostles. In Revelation 2, Jesus said to the church, “I know…how you cannot bear with those who are evil, but have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and found them to be false” (Rev 2:2).
When Jesus was in the wilderness for forty days, Satan approached him with lie after lie, hoping to undermine the entire plan of redemption by tempting Jesus to sin.
But what makes Paul’s warning here especially disturbing is that the threat comes from both outside and inside the church. First, “fierce wolves will come in among you.” Second, “from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things.” (“Twisted” is another word for distorted.) And the end result is that some of the disciples may follow them. So Paul tells the Ephesian elders that, first of all, they must “be alert.” They must be vigilant.
Let me share with you a passage from a book titled, Minister as Shepherd. This book was written by an American pastor in the early 20th century, but it could have just easily been written today. The author, Charles Jefferson, says:
Many a minister fails as a pastor because he is not vigilant. He allows his church to be torn to pieces because he is half asleep. He took it for granted that there were no wolves, no birds of prey, no robbers, and while he was drowsing the enemy arrived. False ideas, destructive interpretations, demoralizing teachings came into his group, and he never knew it. He was interested, perhaps, in literary research; he was absorbed in the discussion contained in the last theological quarterly, and did not know what his young people were reading, or what strange ideas had been lodged in the heads of a group of his leading members. There are errors which are as fierce as wolves and pitiless as hyenas; they tear faith and hope and love to pieces and leave churches, once prosperous, mangled and half dead. (Minister as Shepherd)
What this pastor described has played out in church history time and time again. False doctrine creeps into a local church, tearing it apart from the inside out, spreading like cancer that kills. And where are the pastors whom God has called to keep watch over the flock? That’s a good question. Apparently, they haven’t heeded Paul’s warning to stay alert. Either that or they’ve been too afraid to do what Paul said next which is “admonish,” or give counsel (Ac 20:31).
For three years Paul warned the Ephesian church with such earnestness that he was often moved to tears. He understood the gravity of the situation. He knew the dangers. And he was willing to become an unpopular preacher if necessary to prevent Christ’s bride from being torn apart by wolves and perhaps misguided sheep.
What’s the solution here? What must a pastor do to feed, lead, and protect the flock? I believe the answer is found in verse 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” (Ac 20:32). What’s the answer? God and his Word. Church elders must be committed to serving God and studying his Word. It’s a remarkably simple formula that leads to the spiritual prosperity of both the ministry and the church.
The Self-Denying Vocation of Pastors
In the end, Paul reminds us that the ministry is not an ordinary occupation. It’s about giving, not getting. And the moment that a man’s ministry becomes marked by materialism or personal gain, he’s crossed a line that the Bible forbids. Paul, on the other hand, made it clear to everyone that he was not one of the greedy false prophets who were all-too-common in his day. While he had every right to the demand the financial support of the churches—read 1 Corinthians chapter 9—he often refused to take money from anyone. Instead, he continued his secular work of tent-making to support himself and those who were with him.
He tells the Ephesians elders here, “I have shown you that by working hard in this way we must help the weak” (Ac 20:35). Again, a man doesn’t go into the ministry to merely earn a paycheck. In some cases, he shouldn’t expect a paycheck. In some cases, he should even refuse a paycheck. That’s going to be determined, of course, by the situation and the people involved. Regardless, a godly pastor cannot be self-serving.
And when he had said these things, he knelt down and prayed with them all. And there was much weeping on the part of all; they embraced Paul and kissed him, being sorrowful most of all because of the word he had spoken, that they would not see his face again. And they accompanied him to the ship. (Acts 20:36-38)
Do you see the kind of impression that Paul left on these men? They were hugging him and weeping because they knew that they’d never see him again. Paul clearly had a profound impact on the Ephesian elders. And that’s how it should be. There should be a significant bond between pastors and churches. If a pastor is serving the church with all of his heart and soul as Paul did, there is going to be a deep friendship between the church and its leaders.
Preached at Joy Christian Church (Benson, NC) on April 30, 2017.