3. Farewell: Be Alert, Wolves Are ComingRelated Media
Note: Outline numbering continued from Part 2
6. Paul Warns the Elders that Fierce Wolves Are Coming from Without and from Within, Acts 20:29-31
Following his plea for the elders to keep a vigilant watch over God’s blood-bought flock, Paul fuels the fire of his exhortation. He explains the chief fear that motivates his concerns: (Acts 20:29-31).
Fierce Wolves Are Coming
“I know that after my departure, fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock.” (v. 29)
Paul knew the enemy so well that he could say, “I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock.” There was no question about it. It was going to happen. Since the local church is figuratively called a flock, it follows that its enemies are “wolves,” the proverbial predators of sheep. The wolves Paul speaks about are false teachers who stalk the flock. They are called “fierce wolves,”
- A pack of large, fierce wolves who will not spare the flock from destruction.
- They are strong and cunning.
- They are persistent, and they come from every side.
- They are insatiable and merciless in their appetite for devouring Christians.
- Their presence can only bring death, confusion, and destruction. Paul says “they will not spare the flock.” They do not care for God’s flock, they care only for themselves and their perverse teaching. They are self-deceived teachers. They are self-appointed, not God-appointed. They are agents of Satan, not God. Both the Old and New Testament give us clear characteristics and identity markers of what these people are like. You can see this in the book of Jeremiah, Jude, 2 Peter, and the gospels. No one was more fierce on attacking these teachers than Jesus Christ.
- Paul’s presence was a powerful force against the “savage wolves” of false doctrine (Acts 15:1). He fought tirelessly against the infiltration of false teachers. His whole life was spent in defense of the gospel (Phil. 1:7).
- When it came to the truth of the gospel, Paul would not budge for anyone (Gal. 2:5).
- His most scathing anathema fell on those who attempted to add to Christ’s gospel (Gal. 1:7-9).
- For three years, Paul had thoroughly proclaimed and defended the gospel in Ephesus, and his departure marked a crucial moment for the church in Ephesus. Now that he was gone, it was the Ephesian elders’ duty to protect the flock of God.
Peter says the same things Paul says:
2 Peter 2:1 – “But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction.”
False Teachers from within the Flock
Acts 20:30 – “And from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them.”
Paul goes on to predict something even more subtle and frightening than wolves; he warns that false teachers will arise from within the congregation! Not only will wolves come in to destroy the flock, men from within God’s flock--professing Christians--will emerge as false teachers.
Such men expose themselves by teaching “twisted things.” “Its result stands in contrast to something that is straight and true.” (Dave Peterson) Paul means that they will teach perversions of God’s holy truth--twisted, distorted, heretical doctrine. They will not out-and-out deny the truth of God’s Word, for that would be too obvious and ineffective for Satan’s purposes. Instead, they will pervert truth. As masters of subtlety and novelty, they will mix truth with error, reinterpret the truth, and change the meaning of words to give the illusion of truth.
To Draw in Disciples after Them
Such false teachers want followers, so they seek “to draw away the disciples after them.” “The threat is of teaching that takes one off the straight path and draws disciples away from God’s direction and leading. This verb means ‘draw away from a place.’ The image is of pulling someone in a direction that the person should not go or of leaving a former location.” (Dave Peterson) They try to tear Christians away from the flock and its Spirit-placed overseers (Gal. 4:17). They care nothing for the church’s unity or safety. They care only for themselves. How different they are from Christ’s true servants who “preach...Christ Jesus as Lord” and consider themselves as the “bond-servants” of His people (2 Cor. 4:5).
Paul’s solution to the ominous threat of false teachers is: “Therefore be alert, remembering that for three years I did not cease night or day to admonish every one with tears.” (v. 31) The word “alert” is from the Greek word gregoreo, which literally means “keep awake” or “not sleep” (Matt. 26:38; Luke 12:37). It is most often used figuratively in the New Testament to mean “be watchful,” “be vigilant,” “stay awake and ready for action.” In this instance it is a present tense, imperative verb of command that means, “keep on being alert and ready for action.” It implies a conscientious effort, a mental and spiritual attitude of alertness.
The verb “alert” fits well the pastoral imagery of Paul’s exhortation. A good shepherd is always alert to danger. He is not caught unaware. He is vigilant and ready to act in order to protect the sheep.
Paul’s Personal Example of Vigilance
To strengthen and clarify his exhortation to be alert, Paul calls upon the elders to remember his example: “remembering that for three years I did not cease night and day to admonish everyone with tears.” He is saying that his own life is a study of pastoral vigilance in action. In fact, the greater portion of Paul’s speech to the elders is a rehearsal and defense of his personal example while in Ephesus. David Gooding comments:
“Paul’s address to the Ephesian elders is remarkable for this, that his exhortation to defend the church of God occupies scarcely more than four verses; but the model he offers of how the defense should be conducted occupies at least thirteen. The model he offers is of course himself and his behaviour towards the church during the years he was with them.” (David Gooding)1
Paul’s vigilant protection of the flock entailed a ministry of admonition (noutheteo), which means “to warn,” “advise,” or “counsel.” To admonish is to exert a corrective influence in a positive, caring way. According to Kittel’s dictionary, “The basic idea is that of the well-meaning earnestness with which one seeks to influence the mind and disposition by appropriate instruction, exhortation, warning and correction.”2 In the present context, admonishing involves instructing believers about the persistent, dangerous attacks of false teachers and the human tendency to become inattentive to this danger.
Paul’s admonitions started when he first arrived in Ephesus. He didn’t wait until his departure to warn about the sure dangers of false teachers. He admonished them “night and day” for a period of three years.
Paul used every contact with them--not just official occasions--for admonition. Furthermore, “tears” filled Paul’s admonitions because the damage done by false teachers caused him much heartache: “For many walk, of whom I often told you, and now tell you even weeping, that they are enemies of the cross of Christ” (Phil. 3:18).
Finally, Paul’s admonition was inclusive. He never ceased “to admonish each one.” His eye was on every single sheep. Oh, that elders today might warn and equip each saint with such thoroughness and devotion!
The reason for being alert is not just to be informed, but to act. Both imperative commands, “pay careful attention” (v. 28) and “be alert” (v. 32), imply action. A good shepherd is never passive. He knows the necessity for acting quickly and decisively in the face of danger. He knows when he must fight and when he must stand his ground. To be aware of danger and not to act is to be a lazy, cowardly shepherd who betrays the flock.
The Ephesian elders should at all cost stop these false teachers. They are in the words of David Peterson, “Guardians of the tradition of the apostles.” They are to be faithful in guarding the gospel and guarding the community. They should be prepared to die for the truth, to sacrifice themselves.
This will mean lots of work. It will mean agonizing study, confronting of false doctrines. This is actually scary work. Two years ago, several of us elders confronted a false teacher who had stolen one of our sheep. I can assure you, it was not a pleasant confrontation. Like tough old weeds, they do not give up or come out easily. They will fight you. They will twist words and ideas so that by the time you are done, you are as confused as they are. Behind them is Satan and the “doctrine of demons” (1 Tim. 4:1). They are fighters. They are double talkers. Sometimes they have great personalities, and they are very intelligent, more intelligent than we are.
Because of this, many people will not stand up to false teachers. They’d rather ignore them, run from them, wish they weren’t there. In our own city, in a large church, the pastor was teaching false doctrine. One of my friends confronted him repeatedly, but very few people would stand with him. Everyone was afraid. Finally, after years of being pounded with seriously defective doctrine, it was the exodus of many people that finally got the elders to act. So this is scary business. It is life and death issues.
Let us take Paul’s example as a courageous warrior and shepherd who gave his life to fight for the sheep and to stand against wolves.
Failure on the Part of the First Century Elders
When we look at these Ephesian elders, we learn from the book of 1 Timothy that they failed to guard the church. It appears that wolves from within held them in a deathgrip.
The Galatian elders also failed. For them, it was wolves from without. The Judaizers invaded their churches and they failed to protect the church.
Two thousands years of church has shown repeated failure on the part of church shepherds to guard against wolves. What is the problem? What is it we have failed to do that this is such a repeated pattern? Well, Paul tells us right here, be alert! Guard the church. The great danger is that we think we’re alert, but we are not alert. We are actually asleep. We are indifferent. We are too trusting.
(Illustration: I was brought up in the United Presbyterian church. The elders were asleep. They invited wolves into the church to speak from Princeton and Columbia.)
(Illustration: As a teenager at the table with a false teacher.)
How do we stay alert?
1. We must appoint as elders only biblically-qualified men. Men who know the scriptures. Note that one of the qualifications for the elders is Titus 1:9,
- He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught.
- So that he may be able
- To give instruction in sound doctrine
- And also to rebuke those who contradict it
- For there are many who are insubordinate, empty talkers, and deceivers.” (v. 10)
The reason many elderships fail is that they appoint men who cannot do the job.
2. As elders, we must be consistently and persistently being sanctified by the Word of God. John 17:17, “Sanctify them in the truth; Your word is truth.” The Bible is the truth, and we must flood our mind with the truth so that we are hyper-sensitive to error. We can smell it, we are repulsed by it.
3. As elders, we must guard our reading material. If you are reading the wrong material, you will go in the wrong direction. I would say the same thing is true of seminaries. If you go to the wrong seminary, you might destroy your sensitivity to truth.
(Illustration: Dr. Bruce Waltke at Harvard. It took four years to untangle himself from much of the teaching.)
4. We need to be reading good material, like Martin Lloyd Jones and other great Biblical commentators.
5. Listen to great sermons on CDs. For example, you can get John MacArthur’s material, Dr. Johnson’s material, all free. Listen to the Word preached.
6. Go to good conferences. This is a great way to expose yourself to the wider church and get good teaching.
7. Read magazines like Christianity Today, Time Magazine, to keep your ear to the ground as to what new trends are being promoted. America is very trendy, and the trends come at us very quickly. We need to know these trends and to warn our church. (Illustration: “The Shack.”)
8. Keep yourself accountable to other men so that if they see you wandering away from the truth, they can at least warn you. They may even have to rebuke you. Possibly even protect the congregation from you if you turn away from the truth.
9. Be aware of the natural human tendency to go to sleep and to be naïve and to lack courage in the face of false teaching. We have many example of boards and church elderships that allowed false teachers to run right over them and do nothing about it. In fact, the only thing they can do is yawn or get mad that someone tries to awaken them from their sleep to take action.
Elders must act because God has given them the authority to lead and protect the flock. They do not do this work on their own authority. Since the Holy Spirit placed the elders as overseers in the flock for the purpose of shepherding the church, they have the authority to act as shepherds and overseers. They are God’s undershepherds who act in accordance with their God-given shepherding authority to protect the flock and to stop false teachers.