Pray Also for Us (Acts 20:28-32)
I. Establishing Leaders
Acts chapter 17 is often talked about because of Paul's famous message to the Greek leaders and philosophers of the Mars Hill council. But the chapter actually begins with Paul's ministry in a Macedonian city called Thessalonica. He and his co-laborer Silas were only there for a matter of weeks, but nevertheless, a church was established. I'd like you to consider what Paul wrote in his first letter to this new community of believers (maybe only weeks or months later)...
We ask you, brothers, to respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you,  and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work. (I Th. 5:12,13)
How interesting that for a very young (spiritually young) group of disciples, one of the things included in Paul's first letter is fostering a healthy view of leadership. But when we think about the plan of God in bringing new life to the world, this makes perfect sense. You may remember that, before he returned to the Father, Jesus commissioned his followers to go into all the world and be his witnesses of his life, of his death and resurrection, of his lordship and redemption; to call men and women to follow Him through the forgiveness and power now possible.
But we've also seen in the book of Acts how this mission was accomplished by the establishing of churches, not just the conversion of individuals. AND, we learned that part of establishing a church is establishing leaders over that church. Luke tells us in Acts 14:23 that Paul and Barnabas “appointed elders for them [these new disciples] in every church”.
I'd like to 'zero in' on this idea of leaders this morning by thinking about how Paul spoke to just one group of church elders in just one of the cities in which he ministered. Look with me at Acts 20. We'll be camping out in verses 28-32 this morning.
II. The Passage: “To Care for the Church of God” (20:28-32)
Chapter 20 describes how Paul was returning to the Middle East from Macedonia, and on his way, stopped at the eastern Aegean port city of Miletus. Verse 17 of this chapter tells us...
Now from Miletus he sent to Ephesus and called the elders of the church to come to him.
What I want you to notice in Paul's message to these elders is the way in which he points them back to the work to which God has called them; in essence, the very same work he had been doing, as he makes clear in verses 18-27. Look with me at his words in verses 28-32:
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 he 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.
So to make sense of these verses, in terms of both interpretation and application, let's do a couple things. First, think with me about...
1. Paul's Description of the Church
Verse 28 reveals three truths about this entity called “the church of God”:
First, the church of God is the flock of God. This is a common OT image, maybe best known from Psalm 23, where Yahweh, the God of Israel, is confessed as David's shepherd. In the NT, Jesus describes himself as “the Good Shepherd” (John 10:11), and Peter calls him the “chief Shepherd” in I Peter 5:4. But the image is more than just common. It is rich with reassurance, reassurance of God's presence and provision and protection. We also read here in v. 28 that...
Second, the church of God is his 'called out' community. Some of you may remember that the word Paul uses here, the word we translate “church”, is the Greek word ekklesia. It was a common word that meant 'those called out”, that is, a 'called out assembly' (like for a public meeting). When used in reference to God's people, the emphasis is on who has called us out, from where, and for what reason. According to I Peter 2:9, it is God who has “called you out of darkness into his marvelous light”.
Third, the church of God is a blood-bought people. Since God is spirit, the reference in verse 28 is, of course, to Jesus as God the Son made flesh. As we sing about, as we celebrate with gratitude, the price of our redemption was the precious blood of Jesus shed on the cross for our sins. This third idea actually brings us back to the first according to John 10:11, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”
So “the church of God” is the called-out, blood-bought flock of Jesus. Brothers and sisters, friends, there's simply no way to over-emphasize just how special, how precious, how distinct the church really is. Now with Paul's description of the church in mind, let's think next about...
2. Paul's Directives for the Elders
Let me stress that the Apostle's charge to the Ephesians elders is God's charge to every elder. This charge is summed up by two words from this passage, both in verse 28: “careful” and “care”. These elders were to “pay careful attention” in order to “care for the church of God”, this precious, called-out and blood-bought flock.
Now, you'll notice that these men are instructed here to “pay careful attention” to two things: themselves and the the people of God. So again, Paul wants them to understand that part of caring for the church involves paying careful attention to themselves. In the same way, caring for the church also involves paying careful attention to the individuals and faith family as a whole.
But what does Paul mean when he charges them to “pay careful attention” to yourself? Consider how Paul stressed the same thing to his younger associate Timothy while Timothy was serving in....? You guessed it: Ephesus. He wrote in 1 Timothy 4:16, “Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this...” Notice how Paul connects “yourself” and “teaching” in that verse. And that connection seems to be present here in Acts 20.
Why do these men need to “pay careful attention” to themselves and “the flock”? Because, verse 29: ...fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and... [wait for it] from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them. That's what threatens the flock: “twisted things”. Clearly, Paul is talking about twisted teaching here, or what we might call “false doctrine”.
So yes, these leaders need to be vigilant and watchful of outside influences, making sure that compromised beliefs, that corrupt teaching does not infect the church. But they also need to guard their own hearts, and be vigilant with one another. Why? Because they are not immune to temptation, to apathy, to compromise. The spiritual damage an elder can cause is often more severe. Why is that? Because of his position; because of his influence... because he is trusted.
So if we move to verse 31, we find this attention (or alertness) is not simply about maintaining a defensive posture. As he did in the opening lines of his address, Paul reminds these leaders about the example he set among them. Yes, he helped guard the church from external and internal threats. But he also regularly went on the offensive. How? “...Admonish[ing] every one with tears”. For how long? For “three years”, whether “night or day”. To admonish is to gently warn or caution. So on a regular basis, Paul would warn the believers about the kinds of things that could derail them morally and spiritually. Paul explained his ministry approach in Col. 1:28...
Him we proclaim, warning [admonishing] everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ.
Knowing that, it isn't surprising then to read the final verse in our study passage, verse 32. Having charged them to be spiritually alert, specifically, to pay careful attention to themselves and their own teaching, as well as the spiritual health and beliefs of the church, Paul concludes this section by commending or committing these elders to “God and to the word of his grace”. The “word of his grace”? That has to be the gospel, referred to earlier in verse 24 as “the gospel of the grace of God”. If this church in Ephesus is to weather the storms and ward off the wolves, it will ultimately be God's doing. The under-shepherds must look to the chief Shepherd.
But one of the most important ways God sustains any church is “the word of his grace”, the gospel. To be a gospel-centered church is to be a guarded church; a rooted church. Look back at how Paul spells out the important role of the gospel in keeping a church healthy. Again verse 32: this gospel is “able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified (or set apart)”.
To be gospel-centered, a church needs gospel-centered elders; men built up in the gospel of grace. When elders like this keep God and the gospel central in everything they do, the church is built up; those who profess faith are preserved, and those without Christ are saved. When such leaders keep first things first, not only are they equipped to recognize threats (from both outside and inside the church), but they are equipped to do the very thing Paul did for all that time in Ephesus: (vs. 20-21) “...how I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable... testifying... of repentance toward God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.”
III. How to Pray
Though many of us have been exposed to a variety of traditions and titles, we need to remember that the NT knows nothing of cardinals or chaplains or clerics. It knows nothing of padres or popes. It knows nothing of rectors or reverends... or for that matter, youth pastors or executive pastors. But it does know elders; leaders it also describes with the terms overseer and pastor (i.e., shepherd). Three titles, yes. But all of them refer to the same man.
Along with the supporting role of deacon, this elder/overseer/pastor role is the position for which Paul provided qualifications in both I Timothy 3 and Titus 1; the leader to whom the Apostle Peter wrote exhortations in 1 Peter 5. And this is the position Paul and Barnabas filled when they planted churches in fulfillment of Christ's commission. And of course, as we've seen this morning, it was the elders of Ephesus that Paul felt burdened to meet with and pray for.
But what does the importance of this role, this office, have to do with you? A good portion of you will never serve as an elder of the church. So why highlight this passage? How should you apply these truths? Well, there are a number of reasons why everyone should understand God's design for church leadership (e.g., to spot unhealthiness). But let me suggest one practical application this morning. To use the words of Paul himself in Colossians 4:3, “At the same time, pray also for us...” In light of our passage this morning, let me suggest five ways you can pray for me, for all three elders at Way of Grace, and for pastoral leaders everywhere:
#1: Pray that each elder will remember and rejoice daily in the gospel of grace. This is true for all of us, isn't it? There are so many distractions, so many temptations, that pull each of us from the work of Jesus and the hope of Jesus. Elders are no different. We need your prayers, that we would daily give attention to our own hearts in light of the gospel.
#2: Pray that the elders would keep watch over one another. It's very easy to come together as leaders and focus only on a 'to do list'. It's very easy to assume others are spiritually healthy. We're leaders, right? Everyone's supposed to be spiritually healthy, right? No. Pray that we, as a band of brothers, would truly care for one another in light of Paul's words here.
#3: Pray for the elders' regular recognition of the church's true identity. The demands and difficulties that come with life-on-life ministry, or the latest church-growth techniques being pedaled, can easily skew our view into an organizational box. But as we've been reminded this morning, the church is far more glorious than that. Pray for regular recognition of that fact.
#4: Pray that each elder would smell like the sheep. To provide for and protect the sheep, elders need to be among the sheep. Please pray for diligence and a deepening love. And please pray that all of us would open the door a little more to God's care through these leaders.
#5: Pray for discernment and courage in the elders' gospel-centered provision and protection. When we discern real concerns, whether in our hearts, with another leader, or in the flock, it takes humble courage and wisdom to speak up and address those concerns in a way that glorifies God. Pray that we would that very thing, for the sake of the church and her witness.
Brothers and sisters, friends, where do such prayers come from? From what spring do they flow? From a heart full of Jesus and love for his work. You see, to be gospel-centered, a church does need gospel-centered leaders. But it also needs gospel-centered disciples, worshipers, servants to encourage and pray. May “the word of his grace” daily drive each of us to pray daily, with gratitude that together we are His precious, called-out and blood-bought flock!
More in Our Bible Reading Plan (2021-2022)
January 16, 2022Your Heart is the Problem (Matthew 5:21-22; 27-28)
January 9, 2022When Planning is Prideful (James 4:13-17)
January 2, 2022Bearing Each Other's Burdens (Galatians 6:2)