4. Farewell: Entrusting the Local Elders to God and His WordRelated Media
Note: Outline numbering continued from Part 3
7. Paul Entrusts the Elders to God and His Word, Acts 20:32
Paul knew that the Ephesian elders would face many trials and fierce battles, so he concludes his message by entrusting them not to any earthly authority or human organization but to God and His life-sustaining Word:
“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” (Acts 20:32).
Paul had complete confidence in God and the Word to keep his beloved co-laborers safe.
A. Entrusted to God
“I commend you to God.”
He knew that the same God who had sustained two million Israelites for forty years in the barren wilderness of Sinai could sustain these elders in their shepherding ministry. The Old Testament Scriptures, which they all knew, were a powerful witness to the power of God to care for His people in the worst possible circumstances:
“He led you through the great and terrible wilderness, with its fiery serpents and scorpions and thirsty ground where there was no water; He brought water for you out of the rock of flint. In the wilderness He fed you manna which your fathers did not know, that He might humble you and that He might test you, to do good for you in the end” (Deut. 8:15,16).
“For the Lord your God has blessed you...He has known your wanderings through this great wilderness. These years the Lord your God has been with you; you have not lacked a thing” (Deut. 2:7).
The fundamental principle that every child of God must learn and relearn many times throughout life is to depend on the God who is absolutely trustworthy. The Christian life is the life of faith--faith in an all-powerful and all-loving God who is the source of all life and grace. Yet, like Israel, there is nothing with which we struggle more than with self-sufficiency and unbelief (Ps. 78:17-22).
The troubles, failures, and problems that were to come were intended to drive these elders to greater trust in God, to a deeper and more intimate relationship with the living God.
Paul had experienced this trust in Ephesus: “indeed, we had the sentence of death within ourselves in order that we should not trust in ourselves, but in God who raises the dead” (2 Cor. 1:9).
The elders would have to learn, as Paul did, “that we are [not] adequate in ourselves to consider anything as coming from ourselves, but our adequacy is from God” (2 Cor. 3:5).
B. Entrusted to the Word of His Grace
“I entrust you…to the Word of His grace.”
Paul entrusted the elders not only to God, but to “the word of His grace.” Remember, God is, through the Holy Spirit, active in the Word of His grace. “God and the Gospel cannot be divided, since He uses the Gospel to save those who believe” (Peterson). With Paul’s frightening predictions of wolves, false teachings, and divisions, the elders desperately needed “the word of His grace,” which is the full gospel story (Acts 13:43; 14:3; 20:24). The gospel is the story of the wonderful Lord Jesus Christ, His person and His work; it is the story of God’s love and grace to undeserving sinners; it is the message of forgiveness, the promise of the Holy Spirit, and eternal life. The elders must rest in this living, supernatural message and continue to learn of its infinite riches and depths.
The elders heard “the word of His grace” through Paul’s preaching. Elders today can read the same message as it is recorded in the New Testament. Paul was confident that God’s Word was perfectly sufficient to provide guidance, comfort, and strength for these hard-working shepherds. He knew, as Moses declared long ago to Israel, “that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by everything that proceeds out of the mouth of the Lord” (Deut. 8:3b). The absolute sufficiency of God’s precious Word to sustain His children through all the struggles of life is splendidly expressed by C. H. Mackintosh (1820-1896) in his classic devotional exposition on the Pentateuch:
Here [Deut. 8] we have the only true, the only safe, the only happy attitude for man, namely, hanging in earnest dependence upon “every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of the Lord....” We may well say there is nothing like it in all this world. It brings the soul into direct, living, personal contact with the Lord Himself.... It makes the Word so absolutely essential to us, in every thing; we cannot do without it.
There is not a single crisis occurring in the entire history of the Church of God, not a single difficulty in the entire path of any individual believer, from beginning to end, which has not been perfectly provided for in the Bible. We have all we want in that blessed volume, and hence we should be ever seeking to make ourselves more and more acquainted with what that volume contains, so as to be “thoroughly furnished” for whatever may arise, whether it be temptation of the devil, an allurement of the world, or a lust of the flesh; or, on the other hand, for equipment for that path of good works which God has afore prepared that we should walk in it.
And it never fails those who simply cleave to it and confide in it. We may trust Scripture without a single shade of misgiving. Go to it when we will, we shall always find what we want....A few sentences of holy Scripture will pour in a flood of divine light upon the heart and conscience, and set us at perfect rest, answering every question, solving every difficulty, removing every doubt, chasing away every cloud, giving us to know the mind of God, putting an end to conflicting opinions by the one divinely competent authority.
What a boon, therefore, is holy Scripture! What a precious treasure we possess in the Word of God! How we should bless His holy name for having given it to us! Yes? And bless Him, too, for everything that tends to make us more fully acquainted with the depth, fullness, and power of those words of our chapter, “Man shall not live by bread only, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of the Lord doth man live.”1
In order to effectively guard the flock from wolves, elders need to be strong and well skilled in the things of God.
Paul promises that the Word would build them up and make them strong. As a source of divine power, the Word is “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work” (1 Tim. 3:16,17). Elders need to be built up just as much as the people need to be built up, and the Word is that source. It equips us. It prepares us for our work. It is the best teacher.
(Illustration: A new convert only months old in the Lord, was told in the Denver Seminary library to spend the summer reading Karl Barth. I said, “Don’t read Karl Barth, read Jesus Christ and His apostles.”)
If elders, then, neglect to read, study, meditate on, and obey the Word, they will become weak and the flock will be in danger. Only strong overseers can withstand the pressure. Only the living power of the Word can give elders the strength needed to protect the flock from false teachers. What a marvelous blessing it is to have elders who are spiritually alert, strong in the Word, and rest fully upon God for all their decisions and activities.
Not only does the Word build us up, but the promises, the inheritance that is due all God’s people. This inheritance is eternal life, the kingdom of God, co-heirs with Christ. It is the result of the Word preached in the Gospel. (Eph. 1:11,14,18)
8. Paul States His Example of Selflessness, Hard Work, and Compassion, Acts 20:33-35
Nothing is more apt to bring sinister charges against the Lord’s servants than money, so Paul’s farewell includes a disavowal of all greedy motives:
“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’ ” (Acts 20:33-35).
A. Not Covetous
“I coveted no one’s silver or gold or apparel.”
Few people can honestly make such a confident, open-hearted confession. Note that Paul did not say he took no one’s gold, because he did accept money from the saints. (The church in Philippi was especially faithful in sharing financially with Paul, as recorded in Phil. 1:5; 4:15,16; 2 Cor. 11:8,19.)
Paul’s claim is even more profound. He is saying that greed has no control over him and that he has no inner, secret desire for material profit from his converts.
Anyone, even the greedy, can say, “I coveted no one’s silver.” Greedy people can be self-deceived.
Stealing church money is a huge worldwide problem. I have many missionary friends and in the parts of the world that they live, handing money over to the locals is a dangerous moment. One of our missionaries, his entire work was jeopardized when it was discovered that one of the leading local brothers had been pilfering money. Just this past week, I had a three hour meeting with a missionary from Africa. The top African leader in their mission was caught stealing tens of thousands of dollars in medical supplies and Bibles that were to be given away free, yet he sold them for himself. That is why in the qualification for an elder, he cannot be a lover of money.
None of us here would steal money, but there are a thousand ways to misappropriate the Lord’s people’s money. There are many excellent excuses we can use. One pastor was using church money to play golf. His excuse was, “This is how I minister to people and do my work.” In fact, we can steal and no one will ever find out, but God knows. Paul said, “I didn’t covet even your gold.”
(Illustration: Several weeks ago in Time magazine, an article appeared on generals and senior military officers abusing their privileges, taking many perks from the government. They had private cooks, drivers, using military aircraft, vehicles for their personal use. Their excuse was “We’re not paid that much.”)
B. Hard Work
“You yourselves know that these hands ministered to my necessities and to those who were with me.”
But Paul appeals to an unusual aspect of his work in verse 34: “You yourselves know that these hands ministered to my necessities and to those who were with me.” By this reminder, Paul reveals that his normal practice was to provide his own lodging, food, and necessities through his own manual labor (1 Cor. 9:4-6; 2 Cor. 11:7; 1 Thess. 2:9; 2 Thess. 3:8-10). Even more amazing, Paul also supported his co-workers in the gospel by working as a tentmaker (Acts 18:3). Thus, working with his “hands” was no token gesture on Paul’s part. He labored both night and day (1 Thess. 2:9; 2 Thess. 3:8).
Like the life of his Lord (Mark 3:20,21), Paul’s life was characterized by arduous, ceaseless labor. Paul labored at his trade and his preaching. The phenomenal results of his service in the gospel were the Spirit’s doing, not the result of self-serving desires (1 Cor. 3:5-9; 2 Cor. 4:7). His life was proof enough that he had no desire for the wealth of others.
Notice Paul’s emphasis on his example of hard work, “I have shown you that by working hard in this way.” (v. 35) If you are a shepherd of people, you are going to work hard. Many of you will have regular jobs, you will have families to raise, and a church to care for. There is no place for spiritual laziness for the shepherd of God’s people.
C. Help the Weak
“In all things I have shown you that by working hard in this way we must help the weak.”
Christians, especially Christian leaders, must display Christ’s love by sharing their resources with the poor and needy. Paul presents to the elders his own selfless example of hard work, self-support, and sharing his resources: “In all things I have shown you that by working hard in this way we must help the weak.” I want you to notice that this is a moral obligation. Note the words “must”… “we must help.” It is also a scriptural obligation, required many times in the Old Testament. Part of shepherding people will be to care for those who cannot care for their own needs because of sickness, disability, age, or whatever reason. They will need our help because they are dependent upon the church.
He mentions the same idea of working in order to help the poor in Ephesians 4:28: “Let him who steals steal no longer; but rather let him labor, performing with his own hands what is good, in order that he may have something to share with him who has need.”
“It is more blessed to give than to receive.”
So Paul implores the elders to have a similar concern for the weak in body and in material necessity, always remembering “the words of the Lord Jesus, that He Himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’ ”
The elders, then, like Paul, are to be characterized by hard work. They are to be employed in order to support financially their families and help the needy. They are to give considerable time to shepherding God’s church. By doing these things, they will be examples to the congregation of the type of life God intends for all His people.
9. Paul Bids the Elders Farewell
At the conclusion of Paul’s fervent exhortation, Luke records a touching farewell scene:
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 mostly 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).
Paul was not a church hireling; he was a true spiritual shepherd. These elders had worked intimately with Paul and been inspired by his amazing, single-minded devotion to Jesus Christ. Prayer, then, was the only fitting conclusion to their gathering.
As they “knelt down and prayed,” the elders looked to God alone for strength and guidance for the future. We can imagine that as a mighty man of prayer, Paul prayed for the spread of the gospel in Asia, for protection from false teachers, for the growth of the church, and for the Ephesian elders’ labors and trials. Although Paul didn’t command the Ephesian elders to pray, he could not have set a clearer example for them. It is God’s intention that those who guard His flock utilize, as Paul did, persistent prayer--the greatest means of spiritual protection (Acts 6:4).
Throughout this whole section, Paul underscores faithfulness to the Gospel. His whole life is a living example of how a pastor-elder should live. We have a big job that God has assigned to us, but may I encourage you with Peter’s word to the elders of Asia Minor, when he said, “And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory.” (1 Peter 5:4)
1 C. H. Mackintosh, Genesis to Deuteronomy: Notes on the Pentateuch (1881, repr., ed. Neptune: Loizeaux , 1972), pp. 760-762.