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2. Farewell: Protect God’s Flock

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Note: Outline numbering continued from Part 1

4. Paul Relinquishes His Responsibility as their Teacher and Leader, Acts 20:25-27

Now, Paul again uses, as in verse 22, similar language to move to his next thought, that this is his final meeting with his former colleagues (v. 25). Sadly, he must say,

“And now, behold, I know that none of you among whom I have gone about proclaiming the kingdom will see my face again.”

Proclaiming the Kingdom, Acts 20:25

By “kingdom,” Paul means the overall plan of God. Some people think that the kingdom of God is the overall theme of the Bible. Certainly there is the universal kingdom of God, and there are phases of this, such as the mediatorial kingdom that pre-millenialists would believe in, or others, a spiritual kingdom presently in the church. Whatever your belief about the kingdom, it is certainly a major theme, and it will open and close the book of Acts. What I get from this is that Paul deals with the full plan of God from beginning to end. God works with a plan.

Watchmen, v. 26 (Ezk. 33:4-5)

Paul begins v. 26 with an emphatic statement. He is dead serious. Paul uses the Old Testament watchmen terminology that he has guarded the city from invaders and enemies. Thus, if there is any problem of false teachers attacking the church, it did not happen on his watch. Thus he says he is innocent of the blood of all. Again, for the second time, he emphasizes that he did not shrink from teaching them the whole counsel of God.

Declaring to you the whole counsel of God, v. 27

We have here a deep insight into the thoroughness in which Paul trained the elders and the church. There are great lessons here for us if we will listen. This means the whole plan of God, the comprehensive will of God and redemptive plan. This is laid out in Romans and Ephesians beautifully. This is all tied to the preaching of the Gospel, Paul’s primary message. The Gospel has many dimensions to it. We can never exhaust the plan of God in the Good News. Ephesians has been called the crown of Paulinism. It explains God’s universal plan for the church. It is the big picture. There is a mighty lesson for us all here. Paul taught the whole counsel of God. This means the whole plan of God.

So, I want to ask you: are you teaching the whole counsel of God? Or do you just preach scattered sermons?

The fact is this: our people by in large have no conception of the development of the story of the Bible. They have no idea how the books of the Bible fit in the overall scheme, nor do they understand the development of the covenants, or that the Bible is a progressive revelation.

I have a real passion to help people see the whole biblical story and the great redemptive events of the Bible, the chief characters of the Bible, the covenants, the great themes of Scripture, the prophets, and the law.

We can say the same thing about the New Testament. In a study done at one of our top Christian colleges, students were asked to place in chronological order the names of the chief figures of the Scriptures. 80% of the students could not put these biblical figures in proper chronological order.

Paul’s words here are a ringing challenge to us all. Every new believer needs to learn the full counsel of God. No wonder Paul can leave with confidence that he has done his job.

This is why it is important that we teach the church books like Romans, Galatians, 1 Corinthians.

(Give the illustration of the pastor from Long Island.)

5. Paul Charges the Ephesian Elders to Guard the Church from Wolves, Acts 20:28

Paul begins his main exhortation to the Ephesian elders with the warning

“Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock.”

He wants the elders to do their job effectively. In a sense, he is focusing them. When he is done, there should be no question as to what they are to do.

The verb rendered “pay careful attention” = (prosecho) “to keep watch” or “pay strict attention” or “guard.” This verb is often used in the context of false teaching (Deut. 12:30; Matt. 7:15; 16:6,12; Luke 20:46).

It is an imperative verb, and the tense used here indicates continuous action. So Paul is saying, “keep a constant watch over yourselves and all the flock.” The opposite would be to neglect the flock, to be inattentive, or to be preoccupied with other matters so as to be unaware of the problems and dangers confronting the flock. In contrast, “Unceasing vigilance is the essential requirement in shepherds.1 The idea is watchfulness, alertness.

Soul Care

“Pay careful attention to yourselves.” In order to fulfill their task, the elders must first vigilantly protect their own spiritual condition. Spurgeon calls this matter “soul care.” An elder cannot guard the spiritual lives of others if he cannot guard his own soul. Matthew Henry: “Those are not likely to be skillful or faithful keepers of the vineyards of others who do not keep their own.”2 So Paul wisely charges the elders to first keep watch over their own spiritual lives.

The well-known Puritan writer Richard Baxter (1615-1691), in his classic work The Reformed Pastor, sounds the alarm that Satan “has a special eye” for the guardians of the flock. Satan knows that if he can destroy the shepherds, he can swiftly invade and devour the flock:

Take heed to yourselves because the tempter will make his first and sharpest attack on you.... He knows what devastation he is likely to make among the rest if he can make the leaders fall before their eyes. He has long practiced fighting, neither against great nor small, comparatively, but against the shepherds--that he might scatter the flock.... Take heed, then, for the enemy has a special eye on you. You are sure to have his most subtle insinuations, incessant solicitations and violent assaults. Take heed to yourselves, lest he outwit you. The devil is a greater scholar than you are, and a more nimble disputant.... And whenever he prevails against you, he will make you the instrument of your own ruin.... Do not allow him to use you as the Philistines used Samson--first to deprive you of your strength, then put out your eyes, and finally to make you the subject of his triumph and derision.3

Elders, therefore, must take whatever action is necessary to guard their daily walk with God. Michael Green reminds us that,

“error has many attractive faces by which even the most experienced may be beguiled.”4

Elders must also guard themselves against being ensnared by the pleasures and cares of this world. They must guard against bitterness of heart, discouragement, spiritual laziness, and unbelief. They must keep their minds and hearts fixed firmly on Jesus Christ (Heb. 12:1-3).

I want to remind you all that as you get older, this may even be a greater temptation. John Owen writes: “Watch over your heart when you get older.” It is easy to become lazy at heart, indifferent, bitter, cynical, and very self-centered. Guard your soul.

We guard our souls by diligent prayer, by consistent and persistent Bible reading, by strong accountability with fellow Christians, by confessing sin regularly, by reading and keeping in touch with new trends, by going to good conferences, by protecting ourselves from life’s many distractions, by protecting our lives from hyper-busyness. It is the responsibility of each of us to guard our souls.

All the Flock

In addition to guarding themselves, elders must guard “pay careful attention to all the flock,” that is, the local Christian congregation.

To effectively communicate his exhortation, Paul employs the familiar, Old Testament imagery of the flock-shepherd relationship. He describes the local church as a flock of sheep that the elders are to shepherd and, especially, to protect from wolves.

The sheep-shepherd image beautifully illustrates the church’s need for leadership and protection. An essential part of this metaphor is the inseparable relationship between the sheep and the shepherd. The more you can learn about sheep and shepherds, the more it will help you in having a mental concept of what you are to do, and what the people are like. I highly recommend the books by Phillip Keller. They are very profitable.

Sheep

Because sheep are defenseless, an unguarded flock is in danger. So there must always be shepherds to keep watch over the flock. Throughout Scripture, a shepherdless flock is deplored and lamented (Num. 27:17; 1 Kings 22:17; Zech. 10:2; Matt. 9:36).

  • The command to guard the flock means that the elders must keep their minds on the church.
  • They must be watchful and observant.
  • They must be attentive at all times to the spiritual well-being of the people. They must watch for people who have wandered off from the flock or for new believers who are struggling to survive.
  • They must constantly be alert to dangers both from outside the flock and from within.
  • They must know about new trends and doctrines that will influence the people. Great King Solomon gives the same counsel when he writes, “Know well the condition of your flock, And pay attention to your herds” (Prov. 27:23).

Finally, we must not overlook Paul’s use of the significant, little word “all.” The elders are responsible to protect all the sheep--the whole flock, not just their favorite portion of the flock. None must be neglected, for all are precious.

The word all points out the difference between the elder’s role and the role of others who also faithfully minister in the local flock: the elder’s role entails the overall management of the entire flock, not just a part of it.

Like every other member of the congregation, an elder will have personal interest in and involvement with a specific ministry such as a small group Bible study, music, youth, Sunday School, counseling, missions, or evangelistic outreach. These ministries have a limited number of people and responsibilities to attend to, and one does not need to be an elder to do them. But the role of the church elder involves the individual and corporate responsibility to care for the whole flock with all its people, programs, and problems. So most elders carry a number of specific responsibilities, as well as the responsibility of the body of elders to assume the overall management of the entire flock. Not everyone qualifies for this responsibility (1 Tim. 3:1-13). It is a heavy load that few men care to accept.

The Elders’ Divine Placement by the Holy Spirit

Paul reminds the elders that they are divinely placed in the flock: “All the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers.” Having stated his main charge to “pay careful attention,” Paul goes on to reinforce it in the rest of verse 28 and verses 29-31. In typical Pauline fashion, he explains the underlying doctrinal bases for his command to guard the flock:

  • The Spirit’s sovereign will,
  • The immense value of the Church, the Cross of Jesus Christ,
  • The inevitable onslaught of false teachers

Paul reminds the elders that it was God, the Holy Spirit, who made them overseers for the express purpose of pastoring the flock. The verb “made” comes from the Greek word tithemi, which generally means “put” or “placed.” In this case the translation “placed” or “set” seems to fit the context best: the local flock they are to guard is the very one the Holy Spirit placed them in as overseers. The verb’s middle voice expresses the wonderful truth that the Holy Spirit did this for His own wise purposes.5 Moreover, the verb is used in the New Testament to indicate a special theological sense of divine appointment or placement (Acts 13:47; 1 Tim. 1:12; 2 Tim. 1:7,11).

This is clearly the intent in 1 Corinthians 12 where Paul writes, “But now God has placed the members, each one of them, in the body, just as He desired” (12:18; cf. 12:28). Thus these men are overseers by divine placement, initiative, and design.

The Holy Spirit

Paul stresses the personality and will of God the Holy Spirit in determining who oversees the church of God. It was not the church nor the apostles that placed these men as overseers. It should be noted that Luke, although giving the history of the expansion of the Gospel, has much good, solid theology in his book. We should never be afraid to glean theology out of Acts. We have to be careful, but it is full of Divine truth about the Holy Spirit, Christ, and the Gospel.

Although human means were not excluded from the process, the placement was ultimately made by a divine person, God the Holy Spirit. So as God’s overseers, the elders must guard the church with their lives. To do anything less would be to disobey the One who ultimately appointed them.

Made You Overseers

Following the reference to “elders” in verse 17, we might expect to read that the Holy Spirit set these men as “elders” to shepherd the church of God (verse 28). Instead, verse 28 refers to the elders as “overseers.” Paul has just exhorted the elders to keep watch over the flock, so it is appropriate for him to call them “overseers.” The word indicates supervision, protection, management, guarding, and care of the flock of God. It stresses function and the word “elder” stresses position, status, honor. Elders’ function is to oversee God’s sheep.

To Shepherd the Church of God

The purpose for which the Holy Spirit placed the elders in the flock as overseers was “to shepherd the church of God.” The ESV translates this Greek verb “to care for”. This is not a good translation. It is not the Greek verb. This is the verb “to shepherd”. The verb “shepherd” (poimaino) means “to tend as a shepherd,” which encompasses the complete shepherding task of leading, folding, feeding, and guarding the sheep. This image of shepherding perfectly fits the Holy Spirit’s purpose for the elders.

The shepherd imagery blends the ideas of authority and leadership with self-sacrifice, tenderness, wisdom, hard work, loving care, and constant watchfulness.

Shepherding requires long hours of work and complete attention--the shepherd must always be with the sheep.

It demands knowledge of the sheep, good management skills, and courage in the face of danger.

Most important, it demands love for the sheep. (Ill. John the shepherd in Spain)

Thus, “to shepherd” means to govern the church of God, to provide leadership and guidance for the church, to teach and correct from God’s Word, and to provide protection from all dangers that threaten the life of the church.

We should note that in the New Testament the verb shepherd is used three times in the context of Christian leaders:

(1) Jesus charged Peter to shepherd His sheep (John 21:16);

(2) Peter charged the Asian elders to shepherd the flock of God (1 Peter 5:1a,2a); and,

(3) Paul reminded the Ephesian elders that the Holy Spirit placed them as overseers to shepherd the church (Acts 20:28). Twice, then, elders are given the mandate to shepherd, that is, to pastor, the local church.

The noun shepherd, however, is used only once to describe Christian leaders. In Ephesians 4:11 Paul lists five spiritual gifts, and one is the gift of shepherding: “And He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors [shepherds] and teachers.”

So just as there are gifted evangelists and teachers, there are gifted shepherds. It is also noteworthy that in the New Testament, the term shepherd (pastor) is never used as a title for a church leader. Christ alone is given the title of shepherd.

The Church of God, which He Obtained with His Own Blood

He has already called the church “a flock.” Now he calls it “the assembly of God.”

The flock the elders pastor is a flock of unspeakable worth. It is special because it is “the church of God.” It is God’s congregation of people. It does not belong to the elders, the apostles, or any man. God called His flock into being and He is the One who cares for it, sustains it, and provides for it.

His Own Blood

Paul further expresses the magnitude of the worth of “the church of God” by the clause, “which He obtained with His own blood.” This is one of the great theological statements of the book.

Bible translators disagree over both the correct Greek text and the proper translation of this clause,6 but we must not permit these technical problems to detract from the statement’s intent and impact. Whatever the correct rendering may be, the point regarding the immeasurable worth of God’s church is still made.

“With this we touch the mainspring of all true defense and shepherding of the church: the cost at which God bought it.” (David Gooding)7

The price one is willing to pay for an object demonstrates its value. For the Church, God gave His only Son as a sin-bearing sacrifice. The Son bled and died for the Church. How could God have paid more for His Church? He has paid an incalculable price. How God must love the Church! How much it must mean to Him when His chosen elders earnestly care for His blood-bought children. Richard Baxter dramatically captures the passion of Paul’s persuasive reasoning when he states,

Can you not hear [Christ] saying, “Did I die for these people, and will you then refuse to look after them? Were they worth My blood, and are they not worth your labor? Did I come down from Heaven to seek and to save that which was lost, and will you refuse to go next door, or to the next street or village to seek them? How small is your labor or condescension compared to Mine! I debased Myself to do this, but it is your honor to be so employed. Have I done and suffered so much for their salvation, and will you refuse that little that lies upon your hands?”

Everytime we look out upon our congregations, let us believingly remember that they are purchased by Christ’s blood, and that therefore they should be highly regarded by us.8

What an immense honor it is to shepherd the church of God! It is a most serious matter when a pastor elder is inattentive to the needs of the church of God, yet this remains a common, worldwide problem.

I am convinced that one of the key reasons elders neglect the congregation and many men lack the desire to be elders is that they fail to comprehend the inestimable value of the church of God and fail to appreciate the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ (2 Cor. 5:14,15). When men grasp the eternal value of God’s flock and the nearly unimaginable price paid for our salvation, they should be inspired to commit their lives wholeheartedly to caring for the church of God. As the great hymn writer Isaac Watts wrote: “Love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all.” (Isaac Watts)9


1Gooding, True to the Faith: A Fresh Approach to the Acts of the Apostles, p. 360.

2 The NIV Matthew Henry Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992), p. 529.

3 Richard Baxter, The Reformed Pastor (repr. Grand Rapids: Sovereign Grace, 1971), p. 7.

4 Michael Green, The Second Epistle General of Peter and the General Epistle of Jude, Tyndale Bible Commentaries (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1968), p. 149.

5 Commenting on the verb tithemi and its use in the middle voice, J.I. Packer writes: “In the middle voice (which insofar as it differs from the active accentuates the thought of action for the agent's own benefit)....  The thought of God settling what shall be by sovereign decision runs through all these passages” (J.I. Packer, “tithemi,” in The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, ed. Colin Brown, 3 vols. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1(1975): 477).

6 The best rendering seems to be, “the church of God, which He obtained by means of the blood of His own One.”  For an alternate translation, The Revised English Bible reads, “the church of the Lord, which he won for himself by his own blood.”

7 Gooding, True to the Faith: A Fresh Approach to the Acts of the Apostles, p. 360.

8 Baxter, The Reformed Pastor, p. 55.

9 http://www.cyberhymnal.org/htm/w/h/e/whenisur.htm

Related Topics: False Teachers, Issues in Church Leadership/Ministry, Leadership, Pastors

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