The Lord's Day EveningJune 10, 2007
A Solemn Charge
Dr. Derek W. H. Thomas
Now to Acts 20. The week before we were at the beginning of this great monumental chapter, the twentieth chapter of Acts, where Paul is now going to address once again the Ephesian elders at a place called Miletus. We’re going to pick up the reading at the thirteenth verse and read through to the end of the chapter.
Before we do that together, let's come before God in prayer. Let us all pray.
Lord our God, we come again into Your presence. We daren't do anything without Your help and assistance; we can't even read the Scriptures unless You come and illuminate our minds. We are prone not to understand things. We need You to shine light in our hearts and in our minds, that as we read we might understand and respond to that which You reveal to us. We thank You for the Scriptures, that they are able to make us wise unto salvation through faith which is in Jesus Christ our Lord. So help us now, then, to read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest, and all for Jesus’ sake. Amen.
This is God's word. We pick it up at the thirteenth verse of Acts 20:
“But we, going ahead to the ship, set sail for Assos, intending from there to take Paul on board; for thus he had arranged it, intending himself to go by land. And when he met us at Assos, we took him on board and came to Mitylene. And sailing from there, we arrived the following day opposite Chios; and the next day we crossed over to Samos; and the day following we came to Miletus. For Paul had decided to sail past Ephesus in order that he might not have to spend time in Asia; for he was hurrying to be in Jerusalem, if possible, on the day of Pentecost.
“And from Miletus he sent to Ephesus and called to him the elders of the church. And when they had come to him, he said to them,
“ ‘You yourselves know, from the first day that I set foot in Asia, how I was with you the whole time, serving the Lord with all humility and with tears and with trials which came upon me through the plots of the Jews; how I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, and teaching you publicly and from house to house, solemnly testifying to both Jews and Greeks of repentance toward God and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. And now, behold, bound in spirit, I am on my way to Jerusalem, not knowing what will happen to me there, except that the Holy Spirit solemnly testifies to me in every city, saying that bonds and afflictions await me. But I do not consider my life of any account as dear to myself, in order that I may finish my course, and the ministry which I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify solemnly of the gospel of the grace of God. And now, behold, I know that all of you among whom I went about preaching the kingdom will see my face no more. Therefore I testify to you this day, that I am innocent of the blood of all men. For I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole purpose of God. Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood. I know that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves men will arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them. Therefore be on the alert, remembering that night and day for a period of three years I did not cease to admonish each 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 have coveted no one's silver or gold or clothes. You yourselves know that these hands ministered to my own needs and to the men who were with me. In every thing I showed you that by working hard in this manner you must help the weak and remember the words of the Lord Jesus, that 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 they began to weep aloud and embraced Paul, and repeatedly kissed him, grieving especially over the word which he had spoken, that they should see his face no more. And they were accompanying him to the ship.”
Well, may God bless to us that reading of His holy and inerrant word.
Now Luke is giving us a description of the journey that he and Paul make from parts of the north. Paul, you remember, had been at Troas. He preached that long sermon that went on and on and on, and poor young Eutychus, as the oxygen drained on the third story, and as the sermon went on and on…sleep, you remember, got the better of him, and he fell to his death. And you remember how Paul raised him to life again and went on preaching until daybreak.
And having been at Troas, Paul is now picked up in this ship. He had intended to go by land, but Luke has now joined him. He's brought on this ship to various places, eventually to come to this port city of Miletus, not too far from Ephesus where he had spent, you remember, three years of ministry. Luke tells us that he intended to pass by Ephesus, probably because he knew that once he got there he’d never get away again. There were friends there. There were ties there. There were bonds of love and affection there. But he wants to say a word to the elders at the church in Ephesus, and he calls them to Miletus. We don't know how many elders there were, just that they were in the plural.
We know from something Luke has told us way back in Acts 14 in the province of Galatia that it was Paul's habit, custom, to ordain elders in the churches that under God he was enabled to establish in these various places. These elders are variously described here. They’re called elders, or presbyters, in verse 17. In verse 28, although our English translation somewhat hides the fact, but twice he refers to them as shepherds, or as doing shepherding work. They are shepherds who take care of the flock of God. And then, again in verse 28, he refers to them as overseers, or as we would sometimes transliterate that word from the Greek, bishops. Presbyters, shepherds, bishops…there are three different Greek words, but he intends the same office by all three words, describing various functions of that office of an elder.
Now I want us to see two things. First of all, Paul describes for us a pattern of apostolic ministry; and, secondly, Paul gives to us the focus of an apostolic commission.
I. A pattern of apostolic ministry.
First of all, he gives to us a pattern of apostolic ministry. He relates (he repeats, as it were) what he had done three years in Ephesus, and he does so along a six-fold trajectory.
He tells them first of all that his ministry among them had been selfless. He says in verse 19, “…serving the Lord with all humility.” He goes on to explain in verse 24, that he doesn't consider his life as dear to himself on any account, “…in order that I may finish my course, and the ministry which I received from the Lord Jesus to testify solemnly of the gospel of the grace of God.” He’d engaged in this work because he’d been called to this work. He engaged in this work out of a love for the people to whom he ministered. It wasn't about him. It wasn't about building an empire for the Apostle Paul. It wasn't about what his name would gain by way of reputation in the various cities and provinces to which he went. His ministry was entirely for the sake of Christ, he says.
In the second place, he describes his tears, once in verse 19: “…serving the Lord with all humility and with tears….”; and then again in verse 31: “Therefore [he says] be on the alert, remembering that night and day for a period of three years I did not cease to admonish each one with tears.”
It had cost him. He’d got emotionally and affectionately involved in this ministry. He wasn't a mere professional. He didn't do this because this was his job. He loved the people. He entered into friendships with certain people. There were certain loyalties and ties and bonds of affection. He tells us in verse 20 that he had ministered from house to house; he’d been in their homes, he’d had supper with them. He’d eaten with them, he talked with them, he played with their children. What a word that is for ministry.
I can't think of this without remembering the wife of an elder in the church I served in Belfast. She was a Scot, a dour Scot who had spent many a cold, freezing night in Scotland, and had that demeanor about her. I remember (I think I'd only been in the ministry a couple of years) I was complaining about something or other. I don't remember what it was I was complaining about, but I do remember her response. It was all of twenty-five years ago, and I remember it as though it were yesterday. I still can see her face, and the look of scorn with which she said it to me: “Yours,” she said to me in no uncertain terms, “Yours is not a job; it's a calling.” I withered as I heard these words, and was rebuked. I melted like a puddle before her, and I still think of it now. And Paul is saying, ‘I ministered to you with tears. I got involved in that ministry.’
He mentions, in the third place, the cost of his ministry. He speaks in verse 19 of the plots of the Jews. All of Paul's ministry, as all ministry, is engaged in in enemy occupied territory, where the devil roams, where Satan prowls like a roaring lion seeking whom he may devour. As Thomas Cranmer so eloquently put it, “None of us goes to heaven on a feather bed.” There are always trials and always tribulations, and Paul was very conscious of that.
And, fourthly, he mentions the impartiality with which he engaged in this ministry. He mentions in verse 21 that he had ministered to both Jews and Greeks. It must have…and I don't know whether we sufficiently think about it…how difficult it must have been for Paul to minister to Gentiles, to Greeks, as a one-time Pharisee who had thought of Gentiles as nothing more than dogs; that if he ever had come into contact with Gentiles, he would have to go through a ritual of cleansing; couldn't eat with them; couldn't fellowship with them; couldn't be in the same home as them. And the transformation had taken place now by the grace of the Holy Spirit to minister to those to whom naturally he’d be disinclined to minister to.
And he mentions, fifthly, the fact that he’d been a tentmaker in Ephesus, as he had been in Corinth. He elaborates on it in verses 34-35, how he’d been a burden to no one, how he’d worked making leather goods for him and those who worked alongside with him.
And how, sixthly, that the principal focus of his ministry…and note how he puts it in verse 27: “I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole purpose of God.” Or, as the King James has it, “The whole counsel of God.”
Paul had declared the whole truth about God. The word counsel or purpose is one of those Greek words…a cluster of words…that revolves around the notion of election and predestination, and the eternal plan, and the eternal purpose of God. That had been the focus of Paul's ministry, the plan and purposes of God. It hadn't been about himself. It hadn't been about how great a preacher he was, or how great a church planter he was, or how great an evangelist he was. He wasn't about giving the numbers of converts that he had had. It wasn't about him. The focus of his ministry had been about the purposes and the plans of Almighty God: that plan that is revealed in Genesis 3:15, that the seed of the woman will crush the head of Satan; that God is determined to save a people for Himself; that out of this sin-cursed, sin-ravaged world God intends to gather a people, to save them through the blood of Jesus Christ, His only Son. And Paul had expounded again and again and again through the passages of the Old Testament all those things concerning Christ, concerning the purpose of God, the plan of God. He hadn't shunned from declaring to them the whole plan, the whole purpose.
Charles Haddon Spurgeon once said, “I received some years ago orders from my Master to stand at the foot of the Cross until He comes again. He has not come yet, but I mean to stand there until He does.” And Paul is saying as he's departing from these Ephesian elders, ‘This is what I did, and I didn't shun from declaring to you the whole purpose, the whole counsel, the whole plan, the whole scheme of God with regard to the redemption of His people.’
II. An apostolic commission.
And then he turns, in the second place, and I want to emphasize this a little more. Having described for us a pattern of apostolic ministry, he turns now in the second place to give a focus of apostolic commission.
He charges the elders, in verse 28, along a three-fold line. He tells them to do three things: To take care of themselves; to take care of all of the flock of God; and, to do so watching for the enemy of souls who prowls about.
You notice in verse 28, “Be on guard for yourselves.” You have to imagine this scene. Paul is standing somewhere near the docks, I imagine, in Ephesus, because immediately he's finished speaking they accompany him to the ship and away he sails to Jerusalem. You have to imagine the sea and the boat, and Paul is ministering to this company of elders from the church in Ephesus. I don't know how many there were–half a dozen, a dozen, I don't know. And it's a solemn occasion. They’re not going to see him again–and they don't see him again. These are his final words to them. This is his swan song, as far as Paul is concerned; he could be arrested in Jerusalem, and he could be executed. He wants to go to Rome, and the whole book of Acts is about how Paul gets to Rome, but he doesn't know at this stage that he’ll ever get to Rome. As far as he knows, he's already met one plot of the Jews, which is why he's on this journey to Jerusalem in the first place. Remember, he had wanted to go from Corinth, from Cenchrea to Jerusalem, and discovered the plot of the Jews to execute him. And he’d gone on this circuitous route north, and now down on the western coast of Asia Minor, and now finally in Melitus to catch this boat going to Jerusalem. And he says to them, “Take care of yourselves.”
This is a word to you that are elders tonight. It's a word for all of us, of course, in the sense that we need to pray for our elders, but it's a word especially to you who are elders, who are shepherds, who are bishops here in this congregation. You need to guard yourselves first of all. That's the first thing that Paul says: you need to watch out for yourselves. You need to guard your heart, you need to guard your soul, you need to be on guard. That's what Paul says, you remember, to Timothy, in I Timothy 4:15: “Pay a close watch to yourself, first of all.” Because you know you’re going to be of no use ministering to anyone else if your own life is out of shape, if your own life is a mess of contradiction.
You know there's a principle here, you see. And the principle is this, and it's a scary principle: that a congregation rarely, rarely rises above the level of godliness portrayed in its own eldership. Now you may challenge that, but I think that's true — that a congregation rarely rises above the level of godliness and piety and consecration evidenced amongst its own eldership. So Paul is saying to these elders, ‘You are to be examples to the flock, so pay attention to yourselves.’
Tozer–you all know A.W. Tozer, who wrote so many books back in the 1930's and ‘40's and ‘50's. He once said, “Do you know who gives me the most trouble? Do you know whom I pray for the most? Me. Me. Just myself. That's the one that gives me the most trouble.”
Take heed to yourselves.
Do you remember? In the Book of Revelation, in those seven letters to the churches, one of those letters is to the church in Ephesus. Do you remember the charge that Jesus lays against that church? And He lays it against the elders of that church, the leaders of that church: that they have lost their first love, that's the charge. They have lost their first love.
Now, elders, fellow elders, let me ask you tonight: Where do you stand in your relationship with God? Where do you stand in your relationship with holiness and consecration, your love for the Bible? We were thinking this morning about treasuring God's word, hiding the word about Christ richly within our hearts. Elders, are you in the word? Are you daily in the word? Are you feeding your own souls first of all? Do you have a regimen of reading the Scriptures, of studying the Scriptures, of feeding your own souls before you feed others? Be careful about yourselves. Are you attending the means of grace? Are you constantly diligent in the place of prayer? Do you love the gatherings of God's people? Do you love the Lord's people? Do you love Christ? Elders, do you love Him more today than you did last year? Just as you grow in your love and devotion to your spouse and children as you get to know them more and understand them better, you love them more, do you love Christ more? Take heed to yourselves.
Richard Baxter…Richard Baxter was a Puritan in the seventeenth century, who spent all his life in a little place called Kidderminster. God used him in an extraordinary way to convert half the town. It's one of those extraordinary episodes of sovereign revival, of an outpouring of the Spirit in an extraordinary way upon a lifelong ministry. He was the most prolific Puritan writer of the seventeenth century, but his most famous book is The Reformed Pastor, and it's based on this text, Acts 20:28. This is what he says on this particular section:
“Take heed to yourselves, lest your example contradict your doctrine, and lest you lay such stumbling blocks before the blind as may be the occasion of their ruin, lest you un-say with your lives what you say with your tongues, and be the greatest hinderers of the success of your own labors. It much hindereth our work when other men are all the week long contradicting to poor people in private that which we have been speaking to them from the word of God in public, because we cannot be at hand to expose their folly; but it will much more hinder your work if you contradict yourselves. And if your actions give your tongue the lie, and you build up an hour or two with your mouth and all the week after pull down with your hands, this is the way to make men think that the word of God is but an idle tale. One proud, surly, lordly word, one needless contention, one covetous action may cut the throat of many a word, and blast the fruit of all that you have been doing. Tell me, brothers, in the fear of God, do you regard the success of your labors, or do you not? Take heed to yourselves.”
And then he says,
“To all the flock of God…to all the flock of God…[actually, he uses the verb now to shepherd]…you are shepherds; now, shepherd. Do that which you are called. Shepherd all the flock of God.”
All the flock of God, not just the ones you like; not just the ones with whom you share a love for a personal interest; the weak, who you help this week and you’ll need to help next week, and you’ll need to help the week after, and you’ll need to help the week after that, because they’re weak. Those who labor under a particular besetting sin, and they need your help, and they need you to come alongside them, and they need you to be a brother to them, and a mentor to them, and a help to them, and a word of encouragement to them. And the backsliders…yes, the backsliders, the ones who belong to the church, but they’re not in the church, they don't come to the services as much as they should…who are bowed down beneath a load of care, who are suffering from trials and tribulations (some of them of their own making), and you need to shepherd them.
I remember…I was raised on a farm, and my father was a shepherd. He kept sheep — lots of them, hundreds of them. And you either love sheep or you don't, and sheep can be pretty and nice and cuddly, and in wintertime especially little lambs can be wonderful things to look at. But they can be awfully stubborn, and never content with the field that you put them in because there's always a better one somewhere else. And I remember a cold, cold, winter's night when it was snowing, and a blizzard coming down…wind, northeast wind blowing from Siberia. I remember. I was just a little boy. I have no idea what time it was. I was in bed asleep, and I remember my father waking me up with a lantern and saying, “I need your help,” because even though there was snow and even though there was a blizzard, some of the sheep had decided the best place to be was right at the top of the mountain where the wind was coldest and fiercest, and where they would die, and having to wrap up in this freezing, freezing, temperature, to go to the very top of this mountain and to bring these sheep down. I remember my father carrying one of the little lambs, and putting it inside his coat to shelter it from the north wind.
Shepherd all the flock of God, elders…all of them. Of course, you need to know them. You need to know who they are, and you need to know what their needs are. And they’re disagreeable…you know there are some disagreeable ones, and some of them are ourselves. And those with whom naturally we don't form natural bonds of friendship, but we minister to them, and we minister to them as shepherds imitating the great Shepherd of the sheep Himself, namely our Lord Jesus, because if Jesus ministered to us on the basis of whether we were likable and agreeable, and never strayed, and never did anything wrong, then He’d never minister to us at all. But from the far country He came and found us when we were dead in trespasses and sins, when we didn't want Him, when we at first refused the overtures of His mercy; but He came to us, and He came to us again and again and again. And He reached out His hands, and He said, “Come unto Me, and I will give you rest.”
Take care of all the flock of God. Feed them. Nourish them. Protect them. Some of them you have to carry, because, Paul says, there's an enemy about.
And do you notice he goes on to say that “…from among your own selves” [verse 29]…
“I know that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves men will arise, speaking perverse things….”
And most commentators think that Paul is saying there not just that they will arise from among the congregation at Ephesus, but some of these men will arise from among the elders themselves. That's why you need to be on your guard. That's why you need to watch yourself, that you need to have a shepherding self-watch; because there's an enemy, a malevolent enemy who never rests in his desire to destroy the kingdom of God.
Do you notice the language that's used here?
“Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood.”
Now theologians amongst you will realize that we're on the edge of a precipice there, because God doesn't have blood: “…The church of God which He purchased with His own blood.” It raises a host of issues because the church has been adamant that the properties of the individual natures of Christ, His divine nature and His human nature, cannot be attributed to either nature. You can't attribute divine qualities to His human nature, and you cannot attribute human qualities to His divine nature. It caused a storm at the time of the Reformation, something that Luther held with regard to the body of Jesus being present at the Supper in more than one location at the same time, something which is physically impossible.
The language here is purely verbal, but you see what Paul wants to say. In using this…and it's the most daring language imaginable…what he wants to convey at this point is simply this: The cost…the cost of our redemption…the cost of purchasing the church is that God sent His Son to die for us and shed His blood for us. That's the cost.
Now, elders, what are you prepared to give up? What sacrifice are you prepared to make for the flock of God? Because the example is this: that Christ did not spare Himself. He shed His blood for us. He went to death for us.
You know, when Paul was done, and they follow him now to the ship…and don't you love the way it says, “And they were accompanying him to the ship”? They don't want to let him go, you see. They would have gone on ship with him to Jerusalem if they could, if they didn't probably have families back home in Ephesus. And they repeatedly embraced him and kissed him, remembering especially the fact that he had said that he would see their face no more. And there wasn't a dry eye in the house. There wasn't a dry eye in the house. You know, as that boat left. I don't think it was so much Paul that was on their minds. I'm sure that was a part of it, but it wasn't just that. It was the enormity of the commission that he had given to them, that they were above everything else to take care of themselves and take care of the flock of God, over which the Holy Spirit had made them overseers, on the principle that it is more blessed to give than to receive, as Jesus had said.
And, oh, my friends, and especially you that are elders tonight, especially you that are elders…let that word penetrate deep, deep, deep into your hearts.
Let's pray together.
Father, there are times when we read the Scriptures and our hearts are torn apart by our own sin, our own failures, our own inadequacies. Time and again we've made promises, but we have often failed to keep those promises. So we come again, we come as little children with arms outstretched, and we ask for help, remembering…remembering as Paul here commended these Ephesians to the grace of God, the word of His grace, uphold us, strengthen us. Bless us as a church, that together as elders and sheep, as shepherds and flock, that together we might bring You glory, that there might be evidenced here on this little hill on North State Street light that shines and says “Christ is in this place, and it shows.” And we ask it for Jesus’ sake. Amen.
Please stand for the Lord's benediction.
Grace, mercy, and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ be with you all. Amen.
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