Description / Transcription
Father, as we come to Your Word we are mindful, and if we are not mindful, we should be, that our time will be wasted effort, wasted effort in speaking, wasted effort in listening, if You do not send your Holy Spirit to anoint the preaching of Your Word and to anoint the ears of all who will listen. And so we pray out of a deep sense of need that You would help us, You would speak to us just what we need to hear, as families, as people, as a church, that we would be changed, challenged by Your Word, encouraged, exhorted. We pray that You would do a mighty work through Your Word. We pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.
We have been moving through portions of the book of Acts over the course of this semester and we are almost done. Not that we have gone through the whole book or even half of the book, but we come now to the second half of chapter 20 and then Lord willing next week we will jump to the end of the book, chapter 28, before we turn our attention with a short Advent series for the rest of December.
This morning we come to Acts chapter 20, verses 17 through 38. You may recall last week we looked at the pillars of pastoral ministry as we saw Paul, not so much as the missionary but as the pastor, strengthening, encouraging, these churches, and now we see again Paul, and we will see something of his pattern, but then also the priorities he lays down for the elders in Ephesus.
Acts chapter 20, beginning at verse 17:
“Now from Miletus he sent to Ephesus and called the elders of the church to come to him. And when they came to him, he said to them: ‘You yourselves know how I lived among you the whole time from the first day that I set foot in Asia, serving the Lord with all humility and with tears and with trials that happened to me through the plots of the Jews; how I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, and teaching you in public and from house to house, testifying both to Jews and to Greeks of repentance toward God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. And now, behold, I am going to Jerusalem, constrained by the Spirit, not knowing what will happen to me there, except that the Holy Spirit testifies to me in every city that imprisonment and afflictions await me. But 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. 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 Je 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.”
We see at the very beginning in verse 17 that this is an address to the elders, to the presbyterous, that’s the Greek word translated as elders. You ever wonder why we are called a Presbyterian church, presbyterous is simply the Greek word for elder. Presbyterian church is a church that is governed by elders. And we have in the PCA ruling elders, which you might think of as lay elders, nonvocational elders, and for the most part, and then we have teaching elders, often called pastors.
Here, Paul calls together from the island of Miletus for the church in Ephesus and Asia to come to him that he might give them a farewell, to speak to them. There are a couple of unique things about this speech. For one, it is the only speech in the book of Acts given to Christians.
Now, there’s lots of conversation, obviously, between Christians, but it’s the only address, it’s the only speech that’s given from one person in a public setting here that we have record of. Last week we saw Paul was preaching to Christians there, but here we have the actual speech that Paul has given to Christian. This is why this chapter in particular sounds more like Paul’s epistles, because there he’s writing to Christians in the church, and here he’s speaking a farewell address to these believers.
What’s also unique is that this is one of, if not the longest, speech given in the book of Acts. Now we know that Paul gave long speeches, we saw sometimes he preached so long that people got killed, but here we actually have a good deal of it. Now it suggests something of the importance of this speech, that it’s the only one that’s given in detail to Christians in the book of Acts, recorded for us, and that it is one of the longest. So we are right to conclude that God wants us to hear something very important by way of instructions to the elders.
Now we don’t usually do a kind of audience participation like this, but perhaps it would be beneficial on this morning. If you are one of our teaching elders, one of our pastors here, would you stand up. Please tell me our pastors attend church. [laughter] Okay, good, there’s some of them. Stand up and stay standing. I at least see Bruce. And if you are one of the ruling elders at this church, whether you’re emeritus, you’re on sabbatical, if you are a ruling elder at this church, would you please stand. Okay. Now we know that there are other men who have served as elders in perhaps other PCA churches or other contexts, but I just want you to be able to see there’s, actually there’s a good deal of people that sit in the balcony, so good, no shame if you sit in the balcony, many of our elders are up there, and then down here, so thank you, men. Just wanted you to see, yes, you can thank them for their service [applause].
Now this sermon is going to be for those three or four dozen men, but it’s for all of us. Just like I said last week, even though I was speaking of pastoral ministry and most of you are not pastors or going to be pastors, yet it is a sermon for all of us because you need to know perhaps some men here will be trained up and called to the office of elder, but even if you are not, we all need to know what does God require of the elders, and those who serve in this office need to be reminded of these things.
I want you to first see an example and then second an exhortation, or if you would like a different alliteration, you have the pattern and the priorities. I was really humming, I just had two good titles.
So an example, first, or the pattern of this eldering ministry, and it’s the pattern that we see from Paul himself.
Look at verses 18 through 21. There are five word pairs here which unpack what Paul’s ministry was all about and Paul as an example for all gospel ministry gives us something here appropriate for the elders, maybe in particular for the teaching elders, but for all of the elders in the church.
Look at verse 19. We see the how of ministry. How did Paul do ministry? Verse 19, he served with humility and with tears.
We see then the what of ministry in verse 20. He did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, teaching you in public and privately from house to house. So we see both the what in verse 20, declaring and teaching, and then the where, publicly and privately.
And then in verse 21 we see the who: Testifying both to Jews and to Greeks, so to insiders and to outsiders.
And then the fifth word pair in verse 21, what was he saying? He’s testifying of repentance towards God and faith of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Now you could make this almost an entire pastoral ministry or elder training curriculum right here, but just notice again those five word pairs: The how of ministry, we serve with humility and tears; what was he doing, declaring and teaching; where was he doing it, public and private; to whom, Jews and Gentiles; and what was he saying, he was declaring repentance and faith.
If you wanted to have in the space of three verses what does Gospel ministry look like for the shepherds of God’s people, this is a pretty good pattern. We are messengers. We bear witness to the Way, the Truth, and the Life. And we do so as servants, not smug, not angry, but declaring, teaching the Good News with tearful eyes, with broken hearts, to tell people the old, old story. Creation, fall, redemption, Christ crucified, risen, and coming again; and we love to tell this story, both publicly as I do on Sunday mornings and pastors do throughout our Sundays, and privately, that is house to house, or a phone call or an e-mail or a conversation, and to speak to whomever will give ears to listen, men and women, Jew and Gentile, rich and poor, black and white, Asian and African, Latino and Caucasian, to whomever God is pleased to bring this Word. That was Paul’s calling and it is by way of pattern an example the work of the elders. Our privilege, our obligation, humbly, openly, speaking of Christ, calling people to faith and repentance.
Now we will spend most of our time, if that was the pattern, or the example, we will spend most of our time in the rest of the verses looking at the exhortation, or the priorities. If that was the pattern in Paul, let’s look more carefully at what he lays down as the priorities. There were five word pairs, we just moved through very quickly, now more slowly.
I want you to notice four admonitions that he gives to the elders. So if you’re an elder her, you’re listening, you’re taking notes, these are four exhortations, four admonitions for you, and for everyone else who’s listening, this is what you ought to expect, what you ought to pray from, for and with your elders.
First admonition: Do not shrink from suffering. Do not shrink from suffering.
We see this in verses 22 through 24. Paul is determined to go to Jerusalem. He knows it will be dangerous for him. Everywhere he has gone on his journeys he has been met with hostility, often by the Jews, and he knows that returning there to the capital of Judea he is going to face strong opposition. He knows not what he will face except verse 23, “the Holy Spirit testifies to me every city that imprisonment and afflictions await me.”
And as I said last week, sort of tongue in cheek but serious, if I felt like the Holy Spirit was telling me, “I don’t know what you’re going to have, but you’re going to have afflictions and you’re going to have imprisonment,” I would take it as a good sign the Spirit was telling me to go somewhere else.
But for Paul, that’s all I know from the Spirit, that’s what is awaiting me, and that’s where I have to go. To Jerusalem.
He goes, for the sake of the Gospel. He valued the message of the cross more than he feared carrying the cross. And so it must be for all of us as God’s people, but in particular for the elders of the flock, that we must value the message of the cross more than we fear to carry a cross.
Look at verse 24: “But I do not account my life of any value, nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course in the ministry that I receive from the Lord Jesus Christ to testify to the Gospel of the grace of God.”
Paul would be in big trouble for speaking this way. He would have some sort of disorder, some sort of disease. He would need some remedial training for thinking so ill of himself. No, of course, there’s, there’s a way to really be hateful toward yourself, that is just sort of the inverse of self-centeredness. This is not this sort of misanthropy, but rather this is the healthy, sort of humility that we ought to have as we follow Christ.
Paul says I have a priority in my life that is more important than my life. For many people, our number one priority if we’re honest is to keep living. The most important thing in my life is my life. Paul says uh-uh, that’s not the most important thing in my life. I don’t know what awaits me in Jerusalem, it’s going to be hard, it’s going to be afflictions, it’s going to be imprisonment, maybe it’s death, but the most important thing in my life is not my life. It’s that I give testimony to the gospel of the grace of God.
Do not shrink from suffering.
Now I do not think for a moment that pastors and elders suffer more than other people. We have the privilege to walk with many of you in grievous suffering. I think I have the best job on the planet. I, I get paid to study the Bible and pray with people. Sure, there are hard things about being a pastor as there are about any other job. I don’t believe that pastors or elders intrinsically suffer more than other people.
But here’s what I do believe. There is a peculiar damage that is done when elders shrink from suffering. Did you hear that distinction? I’m not saying that we suffer more than other people, we have the hardest job, you feel sorry for us… No, not at all. But there is a peculiar danger and damage to be done when God’s leaders shrink from suffering. And you end up avoiding hard people, you avoid hard situations that are painful or confusing, you don’t deal with conflict either because you run around it or you run over people through it. You refuse to take hard stands. You refuse to do the right thing when it upsets people. You refuse to take risks, knowing that people don’t like to take risks.
All of those are ordinary ways in which leaders can shrink back from suffering. We think of suffering as all of the big things and accidents and cancers and death and disease and certainly those are grievous, but there are temptations every day to shrink back from suffering.
No one goes into ministry, of any kind of ministry, thinking, “You know what? I’m looking for the easiest way through life.” That’s not why you get into pastoral ministry. But the temptation becomes very subtle over time. You get a few scars, you pick up some hurts, you get a little cynical, and you went into ministry thinking, “I want to serve people, I want to love people, I want to boldly preach the gospel of the Lord Jesus,” and somewhere along the way it became an exercise in self-management. Can I get through this without too much pain? Can I get through another day without too much difficulty to myself? And it’s slow and it’s imperceptible and it can happen to any of us in any kind of ministry and it is a peculiar and particular danger to those who are in leadership.
Of course, there are unhealthy extremes, like thinking “I am most faithful when I am most miserable, and God never wants me to relieve any of the pain that I’m in, He never wants me to change something, or look for a new venture.” No, the point is not that you should find all the pain you can, but that like Paul we should not regard our own life as precious in comparison to the proclamation of the Gospel.
So instead of thinking what is the pathway in ministry of least pain, we should ask what is the pathway of greatest glory for God?
Do not shrink back from suffering.
And here’s the second exhortation, the second priority for the elders: Do not shrink from teaching the whole counsel of God.
You see in verse 20 Paul says “I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable.” He says again in verse 27, “for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God.” It’s instructive that you can summarize these first two priorities in this way. You will get your life in ministry off track if you shrink back because of suffering and if you shrink back from declaring the whole counsel of God.
Look at verses 26 and 27: “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.”
Those verses need to be engraven on the soul of everyone whose life work is to teach the Word of God. Now it is particularly so, I suppose, for pastors, but it’s true for ruling elders as well as teaching elders, and it’s true for you moms as you instruct your little ones and for all of us who have opportunity to teach the Word of God. “I did not shrink.”
You get the image? Wherever the world is pressing in on you, to shrink back, to say I don’t know about those verses, I don’t know if we can believe that anymore. And it may not be the big bad world out there, it may be your particular friends, neighbors, coworkers, even family. There’s no great courage for me to tell you things that everyone outside these walls doesn’t like, but all of you agree with. No, that’s not a lot of courage.
What takes courage is to say something from God’s Word that I know that a lot of you might not like, and so it is with your own relationships. We are all tempted to shrink back, just find the stuff in God’s Word that we can all agree on, that we all like, that makes us all feel good.
This imagery of being innocent of the blood of all comes from Ezekiel. If you turn back just quickly, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, then this big long confusing book of Ezekiel. Ezekiel chapter 33. I just want you to see where this imagery comes from in Paul’s mind.
Ezekiel 33: “The word of the Lord came to me: ‘Son of man, speak to your people and say to them, If I bring the sword upon a land, and the people of the land take a man from among them, and make him their watchman, and if he sees the sword coming upon the land and blows the trumpet and warns the people, then if anyone who hears the sound of the trumpet does not take warning, and the sword comes and takes him away, his blood shall be upon his own head. He heard the sound of the trumpet and did not take warning; his blood shall be upon himself. But if he had taken warning, he would have saved his life. But if the watchman sees the sword coming and does not blow the trumpet, so that the people are not warned, and the sword comes and takes any one of them, that person is taken away in his iniquity, but his blood I will require at the watchman’s hand.'”
You understand the imagery. In the ancient world, there would be someone, or perhaps a small cadre of people, who would be assigned to be a watchman. Your fortification, your first line of defense, is to see out in the distance the army approaching you. Your fortress is your wall, and as you stand on the wall and you see the enemy is approaching, your job is to sound the trumpet, to sound the alarm, to alert everyone “to your positions, take cover, flee,” whatever the requirements would have, because an enemy is approaching. Judgment is on its way.
Paul in Acts chapter 20 likens himself, and by excellent the elders, to a sort of watchman, and he says “I did not shrink from declaring the whole counsel of God, I am innocent of the blood of you all.”
You see, if the watchman blew the trumpet and the people ignored it, and they were slaughtered by their enemies, then the watchman is innocent. But if he saw that there was judgment coming and he did nothing and the people were killed, then blood would be upon his own hands.
Paul says with that imagery in mind, “I am innocent of the blood of all. I have told you the hard bits. I have not spared the warning of God’s judgment to come.”
See, as a preacher I must warn you of judgment. If someday you graduate from here or you get another job and you look for another church, do not go to a church where the pastor will never warn you of judgment. Now, it’s not a church where you look for it every time you have a verse and it’s every sermon sounds just the same, it’s hellfire and brimstone every week, but you know the thing about the Bible is there is some hellfire and some brimstone.
May it never be the case, may it never be the case that anyone who is a member at Christ Covenant Church could stand before God someday and say “no one ever told me I needed a savior, no one ever told me there was a judgment to come, no one ever blew the trumpet.” If that is the case, then blood will be upon my hands, and the hands of your shepherds.
“I did not shrink back from declaring to you the whole counsel of God.”
Which is why we do not make excuses for deep, weighty, meaty sermons. You need to hear the whole counsel of God. You might remind me, “That’s true, Pastor, we don’t need to hear the whole counsel in every sermon.” I get it, yes. But that’s why we teach verse by verse, chapter by chapter, book by book, week after week after week, because you don’t just need what I think is important or what I resonate with, you need the whole counsel of God.
It’s quite possible Paul wrote Romans at this point in his ministry as he taught in Ephesus daily for these three years. And so he would not be very sympathetic to the appeal that, “Well, we don’t really have to get into all of this theology stuff.” He wrote Romans to people, some of whom were enslaved, and he gave to them the best theology in the world.
Churches go bad when elders start shrinking. When your teaching elders, your ruling elders, shrink from the whole counsel of God, when they get bored with the Bible, when they think they’re smarter than the Bible, when they start hedging on the Bible, when they preach or teach or counsel in a way that only lightly touches on the Bible, do not shrink from suffering, do not shrink from teaching the whole counsel of God, Paul tells these elders in Miletus.
And then third, his third priority: Be careful.
You see verse 28? First, he says pay careful attention to yourselves. It seems a strange thing to say. Is this just a little me time? A little treat yo-self for the elders here? No, this is absolutely critical to faithful Gospel ministry. He’s not talking about a spa day for the elders.
He’s saying exactly what he told Timothy in 1 Timothy 4:16: “Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing, you will save both yourselves and your hearers.”
If the elders here are to keep a close watch on the flock, they must start by keeping a close watch on themselves. All you men who stood, how’s your doctrine? How’s your prayer life? How’s your Bible reading? How’s your marriage? How’s your internet browsing? How’s your Netflix bingeing? How’s your anger? How’s your discipline?
Any sin is serious, but sin unchecked among the elders is particularly deadly. Any doctrinal deviation is problematic, but a doctrinal deviation among the shepherds of the church can be catastrophic. Sin creeps into your life and makes you soft towards sin.
Now I have no way of proving this, but it’s a theory that I have. One of the reasons, can’t prove it, but I wonder if one of the reasons why so many churches have compromised in the area of sexuality when it comes to biblical marriage or other forms of sexual propriety, I wonder if it’s because so many pastors are themselves compromised in lives of pornography that they have been soft to their own sin and therefore they have become soft to other sin.
Sin creeps into your life. You get soft. Or you get hardened to your sin and you start being hardened towards others. You get out of step theologically. If you get out of step theologically, men, and it’s a little deviation, and people follow you for a hundred miles, you are way off course, and so elders have to be vigilant, for their sake and for the sake of all those who are following them, looking to them for leadership, for direction, for truth, for grace.
There will be fresh attacks, surprising distractions, so men, we must be praying, we must be in the Word, we must be reading good books, we must be guarding ourselves against sensuality and laziness and self-pity and people pleasing.
Pay careful attention to yourself, and then look at what he says in verse 28, “and to all the flock,” “to all the flock in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers to care for the church of God.”
Now we don’t have time to get into this, but Acts chapter 20 is one of the key chapters for understanding Presbyterian polity. That’s just a fancy way of saying, “How do we do church government? How do we order ourselves?” It’s a key text because we have in this speech three different words for elders, which are used interchangeably.
If you look back at verse 17, “Now from Miletus he sent to Ephesus and called the elders.” I said that that’s the word presbyterous in the Greek. So these are elders he’s speaking to. And then if you go back to verse 28, “pay careful attention to yourselves and to the flock, in with the Holy Spirit has made you overseers,” that’s the Greek word episkopous, overseers, you hear our English word episcopal, which means rule by bishops. One of the reasons we don’t have bishops, it’s not just an accident of church history, it’s because we believe that the word for bishop and the word for elder are used interchangeably here. There is no office that oversees the elders called a bishop because the elders are the overseers.
And then care for the church of God is in verb form to pastor, to be a shepherd. We have the imagery of sheep earlier in verse 28 with the reference to a flock, poimainein is the word in Greek.
So you have elder, overseer, pastor, not used of three different offices, but of one office, and by tradition we call the pastors those who are ordained and in our tradition go to seminary, but it’s, it’s one office of elder. Two different kinds, a ruling elder and a teaching elder.
So all of the elders are called to be pastors, overseers, shepherds. The world “elder” speaks to the gravitas, the wisdom, the maturity that men should have in this office. Overseer speaks to their role in governing and authority, and then shepherd speaks to their role in life on life work with the sheep, to shepherd the flock of God.
Paul says there are wolves out there. Actually, he doesn’t say wolves out there, there will be wolves in there, verse 30. “From among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things to draw away disciples after them.”
If you know the rest of Scripture, you see Paul’s concerns were validated. 1 Timothy 1:3: “As I urged you when I was going to Macedonia, remain at Ephesus so that you may charge certain persons not to teach any different doctrine.” In writing to Timothy, he says there are people in Ephesus and they’re teaching wrong doctrine.
2 Timothy 1:15: “You are aware that all who are in Asia turned away from me, among whom are Phygelus and Hermogenes.”
So there are names of those who have turned away.
Or most alarming of all, Revelation 2:2, Jesus’ letter to the church at Ephesus: “I know your works, your toil, your patient endurance, how you cannot bear with those who are evil, but have tested those who have called themselves apostles and are not, and found them to be false… But this I have against you,” He says later, you have lost your first love… Repent, return, or I will remove the lampstand from you. And though it didn’t happen immediately, it did happen.
I’ve been to Ephesus. Some of you have been on those tours and you’ve been to Ephesus. It’s amazing. You walk and you’ll see the Roman ruins. There’s no lampstand there. There’s no church. The lampstand was removed.
So Paul is giving these warnings for a reason. Keep a close watch on yourself and on the flock. You’re shepherds. That’s what you ought to think of when you think of the elders.
One time years ago when my kids were a little bit younger, although I always have kids that are younger, when some of the older ones were younger, and I was heading off to an elder’s meeting at my last church, and they said “you’re always going, where are you going?” I said, “oh, I have an elders meeting.” “Elders meeting. Is that where the men get together and sit around a table and have meetings and talk?” I said, “well, that is one of the things we do and it’s important to do.” In their mind, elders meant a meeting. That’s understandable, that’s what their dad is doing.
But I hope much more than that, when you think an elder, you think shepherd. Someone who cares for me, who cares about me, who knows me, who knows about me. I hope that you’ve, you’ve gotten the information on the new shepherding model we’ve done, all we know how to do, you’ll be getting a letter soon that explains some more and talks about the different elders shepherding groups and pastoral communities that you’ll be placed in. If you don’t have the information, you should be able to watch that video that we did from the joint Sunday School class in October, but hopefully if nothing else, you’ve gotten this: That the aim in all of this effort we’re doing is that every member in this congregation, currently 2089 of you, would be known by an elder, and know an elder.
Now you can’t be known by the senior pastor, that’s just the way it is in a church this size. But, with pastors, with elders, with all of our shepherds, we want every member in this church to know “that’s an elder that’s praying for me, that’s working to get to know me, he can’t be my personal disciple or coach, but he’s there and he wants to know me and I want to be known by him.”
So much of what we’re trying to accomplish with this new model is to be obedient to verse 28, that the elders can pay careful attention so all the flock.
What does an elder do? What does a shepherd do? Think of Psalm 23. The good Shepherd feeds, leads, guides, protects, preserves. That’s what the shepherd does in Psalm 23. That’s what your shepherds ought to do. Publicly, like this, big picture; privately, in your life. At its most foundational, shepherding is the subtle blend, as one author puts it, of authority and care. He must be the shepherd ruler like Psalm 2, who is a ruler, and yet the king in Isaiah 40 who tenderly carries the nursing lambs close to his heart. To be a shepherd is to be tough and tender, to be courageous and comforting. That’s what your elders are aiming to do, to keep a close watch on themselves and on this flock, so that if you want to fall through the cracks here, you will have to look for them. You’ll, people can find them, it’s a big place, there’s cracks, but you’ll really have to look, you’ll really have to get in there, and when you get in there, hopefully one of your shepherds says, “What are you doing in the crack? Come on out.”
One author describes shepherding in the ancient world like this: “On some high hill across which at night hyenas howl, you will meet him. Sleepless, far-sighted, weather-beaten, armed, leaning on his staff, looking out over his scattered sheep, everyone on his heart, and you will understand why the shepherd sprang to the front in Judea’s history, why they gave the name of shepherd to their king, why they made him the symbol of their providence, and why Christ took the shepherd as His own type of self-sacrifice.”
The elders are to be the shepherds of the flock, pay careful attention to themselves and to others.
And then a final exhortation, a final priority: Do not shrink from suffering, so not shrink from teaching the whole counsel of God, be careful, and be caring. Be caring.
Verse 33: “I coveted no one’s silver or gold… You yourselves know… I ministered to my necessities… In all things I’ve shown… In this way we help the weak… We remember the words of the Lord Jesus… ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.'”
Paul says, in other words, “I’m not in this for money, fame, prestige, position, spiritual merit badges in heaven.” Yes, he says in verse 35, “I have worked hard” and so being an elder is hard work. If you are an elder in this church and you do not think it is hard work, then we have not given you or you have not given yourself to the right kind of work, because it is hard. It ought to be hard.
But the aim, Paul says, is to give more than to receive. The elder is, in particular, a burden-bearer. Now this is a command for all Christians, we know, but in particular for the leaders, for the shepherds. You have problems, I want to know about them. You’re carrying a weight, let me share some of the load.
See, to be a burden-bearer means you take something of someone else’s burden upon you. It means they’re a little lighter, you’re a little weighed down. That’s how you carry someone’s burden. You can’t minister if you shrink from suffering. Let me be inconvenienced, let me be lighter in my wallet, let me give some of my time, maybe some of my sleep. Let me feel something of your suffering, weep when you weep, carry just a little bit of what you’re carrying.
Now that’s the task of every Christian, but in particular it is the work of the elders as they care of the flock, and I can tell you that you have in this congregation good men. They love you, they want to care for you well. And we want to learn how to do it. We need to grow in our skills and abilities like anyone else. But I hope that as we start this new model and you learn where you have been placed and which elder shepherding group and under which pastoral community that you will give yourself to be known to this elder, you will share something of your life that he might in turn share some of his, and care for you.
Finally, I want you to notice this encouragement in verse 32: “I commend you to God,” Paul says, “and to the word of His grace, which is able to build you up to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified.”
So here’s the encouragement he gives for the elders, and I think it’s an encouragement for all of us. It’s a farewell charge. Stick with the Word. That’s the work of the elders, to speak the Word, to teach the Word, to direct you to the Word, to connect your life and your suffering and your struggles, to the Word of God. It’s that simple, it’s that serious.
Isn’t it amazing, here in verse 32, this is Paul’s farewell speech, we know, and verse 36 and following what a tearful goodbye it is. He’s hugging, he’s weeping, they’re kissing him on the cheek as they would in that culture, and so here he has an opportunity to give them a sort of send-off, “I commend you.” This is his last words. Now, he has a few more verses to go, but this is, this is how I’m summing it all up.
Remember when you were in high school and you wrote in people’s yearbooks, really meaningful things, “love ya like a sister,” “nice sitting next to you math class,” here’s the worst to put in a teenager’s yearbook, “don’t ever change.” Noooooo. [laughter] I want to change. Sort of your goodbye, your parting salutation, your commendation.
Well, here’s Paul, signing their yearbook at Miletus. And he doesn’t say “have a great summer,” “stay sweet,” he says “I commend you to God and to the word of His grace.” That’s his parting shot. God will keep you as you keep close to the word of His grace.
People ever ask you what’s your one, you have one piece of advice? I’m heading off to college, mom, what’s your final piece of advice? I’m moving away, what’s your advice? Sometimes people say, “Kevin, you’ve been a pastor, what’s your advice?” That’s a lot of pressure to think of that.
Well, Paul gives a pretty good answer to that question. You want to know my parting advice? I may never see you again. If I can wave my magic apostolic wand and make sure you elders get one thing right, here’s what I want you to get right: Stick with the Word. Stick with the Word. I commend you to God and to the word of His grace. Stick to the Word and God will stick with you. It will build you up, he says.
Paul says I may be done here, but God’s not done. You want to keep parenting your children even when they leave home? Teach them the Word of God. You want to be influential in people’s lives as a teacher, a mentor, a Bible study leader, even when they’re long gone? Teach them the Word of God.
Paul says the Word will keep building you up. I’ll be gone; my work will continue, because I taught you the Word, and the Word will keep working long after I’m gone. It will give you an inheritance.
In other words, the Word will keep you going and the Word will bring you home. Stick to the Word.
The elders in this church, some 40 of us, can’t do everything. You can do the math and divide 50 people each for an elder, and that’s still a lot of people. It’s not too much to pray or to have some conversations or perhaps visit from time to time, but it’s too much to be a personal counselor or mentor. Elders can’t do everything.
But if we can shepherd in this way, in the Pauline way, in God’s way, shepherd people in the Word and with the Word, then the Word will keep on working. That’s the aim, that’s the goal.
There are few things more important in the Church than that group of men that have meetings once a month that we call the elders. As we endeavor to pray for every one of you by name, dividing up the congregation into those elder shepherding groups and try to pray for you by name, would you commit to pray for some of us? You’ll get a name of your elder and certainly to pray for him, but even to pray just broadly for all the elders at this church would be a great blessing. The task is a joyous one, it’s also an arduous one, and none of us who are called to feel up to it. We are well aware of our own sins, our own failings. We struggle to think of ourselves as examples for the flock, as patterns to be followed, and so would you pray for us.
It is very hard for a church to pray more than the elders pray. It is hard for a church to be more spiritual than the elders are spiritual. It’s hard for a church to have a warmth of fellowship and friendship if that doesn’t exist among the elders.
And so you may not be in those meetings, you may not see those meetings and those relationships, but I can promise you everything radiates out from the group of men, the lives they’re living, the God they’re serving, the relationships they have with one another, and their work in the Word, in their lives and in your life, for the sake of the flock.
Let’s pray. Our gracious heavenly Father, we thank you for Your Word which instructs us, which helps us, which trains us, equips us. We pray for the ruling elders and the teaching elders of this church. You have blessed us with men, if we are not mistaken, men who love Your Word. They do. Love the people, and we want to only grow in both of those things. So help us to be faithful, to keep a close watch on our lives and on our doctrine, and that You’d give us wisdom to lead well, to shepherd well, with grace, with tenderness, with affection, with mercy, with compassion, with truth and grace, and that You would be pleased. We pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.