February 2, 2020
Jason Meyer | Acts 20:26-31
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 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.—Acts 20:26–31
The following statement was shared with the congregation during the sermon on November 17, 2019, and represents the core changes proposed by the Bethlehem elders:
In light of God’s many graces and our desire to strengthen the core at Bethlehem, the elders are asking the congregation to pray with us for the future structure and organization of Bethlehem. In particular, we are considering a transition to regular live campus-specific preaching and campus-specific Quarterly Strategy Meetings. This means that the campus pastors would be mainly responsible for the preaching at each campus and that most strategy meetings would be decentralized from the downtown location and instead held at each specific campus location. We recognize this would be a significant change for the church, and if made, there will be implications for our congregation, pastoral staff, and ministries. Therefore, we earnestly desire to hear the thoughts and reflections of the congregation in this process, inviting you to pray with us for God's direction.
Here is the process set before us: (1) sermon series in February through April, (2) campus-specific Family Meetings, (3) personal correspondence with the elders, and (4) All-Church Quarterly Strategy Meeting on April 26. The sermon series will take us from February through April and it is devoted to unpacking our 20/20 Vision and the texts that have been the most formative and foundational for us.
Our vision for these changes is a shepherding vision. We’re referring to this as our “20/20 Vision” because we’re talking about these changes beginning to take place in 2020, and we believe that they are primarily related to sight, namely, shepherding oversight. We want to see our people more clearly, speak to them more specifically, and lead them more effectively. The 20/20 Vision is part of our 10-year 25 x ’25 vision. The Lord gave us a renewed passion for church planting and unengaged people groups, but he also gave us a renewed passion for shepherding the flock. In a sense, strengthening the core has become a quest to become better shepherds.
In other words, as the elders sought the Lord for how to strengthen the core, he has graciously shaped our vision with biblical texts about shepherding the flock. These texts excite us in a renewed way—not as things we have never done, but as things we can grow into more and more. We are talking about moving further up and further in to the realities of these texts. There are three main formative texts for us that we will cover in the next three weeks: (1) Acts 20, (2) Hebrews 13:17, and (3) 1 Peter 5:2. The fourth text we will cover is perhaps the most foundational text for shepherding as we look at Jesus as the Good Shepherd who knows his sheep and calls them by name: (4) John 10. So February will be a time to walk through these pillar texts for us. In March and April, we will try to put these texts on eldership into their proper perspective in the context to which they belong: the doctrine of the church.
As we seek to grow in our understanding of the relationship between the leaders and the people, we will also keep asking an essential question: Why do we think that more regular campus-specific preaching will strengthen our shepherding and thus strengthen each campus at Bethlehem?
1. A Call for Watchfulness (vv. 28a, 31 – be alert therefore!)
A) ‘Pay Careful Attention’
Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock …. Therefore be alert.—Acts 20:28, 31
The main verb in verse 28 is the call to “pay careful attention” (prosechete). This is a word that goes to the heart of what shepherding is. It means “be concerned about, care for, watch with care.” What is amazing about this word is that it is not the normal word for shepherding. Shepherding is keeping watch over the flock and so this is really a command that conveys the way shepherds should watch: carefully, vigilantly, and attentively—or like verse 31 says, “be alert.” In other words, this command precludes a limp, lazy, drowsy, passive way of watching. Shepherds must not have a cavalier attitude toward their core commission: Watch!
Hopefully, now that the verb itself has our attention, we must focus on the object—what do shepherds watch with such attentiveness? The verb has a double object: pay careful attention to (1) yourselves and (2) all the flock. Perhaps the surprising note at the beginning is Paul’s call for the elders to watch over themselves first. They cannot adequately care for the souls of others if they neglect the care of their own souls.
B) …‘To Yourselves’
Elders must keep watch over their doctrine and their lives. This is the same warning that Paul gave Timothy:
Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.—1 Timothy 4:16
Watch your life and your teaching closely and persistently. Don’t get lax or loose or cavalier. Why? Salvation is at stake, both for yourself and your hearers. Therefore, Paul’s call in First Timothy for a “self-watch” involves far more than self-awareness. Look at the verse right before this command, in 1 Timothy 4:15. Paul has called for a certain way of life: Immerse yourself in what you teach so much that people will actually see your progress:
Practice these things, immerse yourself in them, so that all may see your progress.
Awareness without obedience can be a formula for hypocrisy. A leader cannot lead merely by barking out orders from behind. Leaders lead. They lead the way in obeying what they teach. Listen to the profile of Ezra’s leadership in Ezra 7:10, “For Ezra had set his heart to study the Law of the Lord, and to do it and to teach his statutes and rules in Israel.” Paul speaks the same way when he says, “follow me as I follow Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1). Leaders do not just study texts or teach texts; they live them. Living obedience is part of leading people.
The second object is “all the flock” (v. 28).
Why does Paul say “all the flock” instead of just settling for the more general phrase: “Pay careful attention to the flock”? The emphasis seems to be the special need to focus on the whole flock. What is at stake? I think one commentator gets it right when he says this:
“In view of the preceding reference to ‘the whole will of God’ (v. 27), it may be significant that the charge here is to care for all the flock, meaning ‘the inclusive church of Jews and Gentiles that results from announcing God’s saving purpose for all.’ Neglect of one group or another will result in the whole congregation being hurt or hindered in its growth and witness (cf. 6:1–7)”
The whole counsel of God in Acts is many things, but it is at least a reference to the way that God has brought Jews and Gentiles together into the body through the blood of Jesus. Paul tells these elders that those truths have an impact on the scope of shepherding. They cannot pick and choose which people they will watch. The whole counsel of God means the whole flock must be shepherded: young and old, male and female, Jew/Greek, Barbarian, Scythian. All are one in Christ and must be shepherded. The whole flock must flourish.
Now that Paul has given the general call for vigilant watchfulness, he begins to unpack the reasons for watchfulness. He highlights two reasons for watchfulness—one positive inducement and one negative.
… In which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God—Acts 20:28
There is so much here in this expansion. We learn why the Holy Spirit made or chose overseers (episkopos) to shepherd (poimainein). It is important to observe how much overlap exists between these terms. Paul uses the word episkopos, which means someone who has oversight over something or someone. The term for shepherding is also a word for “watching over and caring for sheep.” We sing songs like “While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks by Night,” and we instinctively understand what shepherds do: they watch over their flock. Therefore it is vital to see that the elder/overseer/pastor-shepherd are all overlapping terms that give a cumulative picture of what elders are called to do.
Shepherd does not just mean “feed the flock.” That meaning is too narrow. A shepherd does lead a flock to pasture and thus feed the flock. It is not less than that, but it is much more. It refers to the totality of care that must be given to the flock.
The implication here is stunning for shepherds. Shepherds do not become shepherds on the one extreme through coincidence or fluke of circumstance; and on the other hand, they do not make it happen in some self-determined, self-actualizing way. You are a shepherd because of God’s choice, God’s call, and God’s design. What you were called to is what you were made for and so it something you should delight in. And that delight is a delight in God. This is an Eric Liddell realization: “God made me fast. And when I run, I feel his pleasure.” I feel this reality the same way: “God made me a shepherd. And when I shepherd, I feel his pleasure.”
“… to care for the church of God”—Acts 20:28
This powerful truth immediately puts shepherding in a more ultimate context and perspective. The flock belongs to God, not the under-shepherds. This text is so radically God-centered. A shepherd is chosen and called by God to teach the whole counsel of God to the flock that belongs to God. The fact that the church belongs to God should be both a comfort and a challenge.
It is a comfort for the people to know that first and foremost they do not belong to frail and fallible humans, but to the King Eternal. The Good Shepherd that calls his sheep by name keeps them and no one can snatch them. He who began that good work of bringing you into the flock will complete it, which means keeping you.
If the church belongs to God, then leaders have been put on notice. The Lord will call us to account for how we treat and lead his flock. Next week we will feel the weight of that a little more as Hebrews says elders “will give an account” (Hebrews 13:17).
“… which he obtained with his own blood”—Acts 20:28
This phrase brings the comfort and the challenge back to the forefront. God owns the flock as his church or assembly. Specifically, they are bought with a price: “his own blood.” The blood of Christ is the purchase price for the church of God. That is why the gathered heavenly assembly forever sings: “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing” (Revelation 5:12). We do the same thing when we gather as a church.
In fact, the phrase “church of God which he obtained with his own blood” takes a page right out of Isaiah’s playbook for the church. Isaiah 42:8 says that God is going to send his servant to establish the new covenant “for the people, a light for the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness” (Isaiah 42:6–7). Why? The very next verse heralds the God-centered reason!
I am the Lord; that is my name;
my glory I give to no other,
nor my praise to carved idols.
In Isaiah 43:21, God declares that these gathered people are “my people” (λαόν μου) whom I formed or obtained [περιεποιησάμην—same word as in Acts 20:28] for myself that they may declare my praise. He formed them and created them to proclaim his praise as the only Savior (Isaiah 43:11) who alone blots out his people’s transgressions.
“I, I am he who blots out your transgressions for my own sake, and I will not remember your sins.”—Isaiah 43:25
The Psalms remind us that we are doubly his. He owns us through creation.
It is he who made us, and we are his;
we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.—Psalm 100:3
And he owns us by redemption, which he purchased with his own blood. God’s church belongs to him in a double sense: created and redeemed.
It is a breathtaking realization to see God’s Trinitarian purpose and pleasure revealed in the church.
“The ministry of shepherding finds its source and goal in the eternal mission of the holy Trinity. All that was planned by the Father before the world began was accomplished in time by his only Son Jesus Christ, our Lord, and continues to be delivered day by day by the Holy Spirit who works through the preached word and sacraments administered in his name.” 
Now Paul moves to the negative part of his warning: the wolves are coming.
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.—Acts 20:29–30
Notice four things about these wolves: (1) where they come from, (2) why they come, and (3) what are their tactics? and (4) when will it take place?
A) Where: From Outside and From Within
I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you.—Acts 20:29
Paul looks forward to the future, after his departure, and he warns them that the wolves are coming. They need to be prepared. Paul has done his best to fight them off and so they are going to need to step up after he leaves.
But notice he also says that they will come from within—even among this group of elders.
And from among your own selves will arise men …—Acts 20:30
Paul was not pulling any punches when he told them to keep a close watch on themselves. Some may make a startling discovery—they are not a caring shepherd over the sheep, but a savage wolf wanting to feed on the flock.
Paul’s language for wolves probably draws from Jesus’ teaching:
“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.”—Matthew 7:15
Let’s think a little more deeply about this warning. Why are wolves such a danger?
B) Why? They Are Unsparingly Savage
Fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock.—Acts 20:29
Paul is saying that the threat is not a minor danger, but a mortal danger—death, being torn to pieces. Don’t play around with false teaching. One of the worst predators is one that kills not just for food, but for sport. They are not hunting to eat, but for the thrill of the kill. That is what Paul says about false teachers. They love to distort and divide, because they want to kill the flock and not spare it. Sometimes you will hear of tyrants that would not spare the women and children. Paul says that the false teachers won’t spare anyone—it is more likely that they will especially target the vulnerable.
“… speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them.”—Acts 20:30
Notice the cunning scheme: distort and then divide (i.e., draw disciples to themselves). The wolves want to take the true doctrine and begin to tear it apart so that they can tear apart Christians from the safety of the fold.
Paul gives a prophecy here about what will happen in the future. Many commentators think that Paul’s prophecy here of internal heresy that led to divisions was fulfilled in 1 John. The apostle John addresses a church (probably the church in Ephesus) that has suffered division. Some have left the church (1 John 2:19) and have tried to draw others away by distorting the doctrine of Christ’s true humanity. They question whether Jesus really came in the flesh (casting doubt on the Incarnation). The apostle John shows that this doctrine is essential for salvation.
Paul issues a similar warning in Romans. Distortion and division does not merely deny doctrine, but it can be cultivated by creating obstacles contrary to the doctrine you have been taught.
I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them. For such persons do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetites, and by smooth talk and flattery they deceive the hearts of the naïve.—Romans 16:17–18
The central claim in 20/20 Vision: Live preaching will further strengthen the core on each campus in two ways: (1) formative (discipleship strategy) and (2) corrective (addressing specific errors or imbalances).
First, in terms of the formative, the pulpit should be a vital part of forming a discipleship ecosystem and ethos. In other words, the move to live preaching means that the pulpit will be more directly connected with the discipleship strategy of the campus and its specific initiatives.
Second, in terms of the corrective, live preaching is better able to protect the flock from wolves and false teaching by addressing specific errors or imbalances in the flock.
The Biblical Case
1. The Formative
Look again at the way Paul ministered in Acts 20 and the way he expects them to continue that same type of watchfulness and vigilance. Paul puts great emphasis on the totality of the teaching that he did. We see the type of preaching: he preached comprehensively (he declared the whole counsel of God – v. 26). We see when he preached constantly (night and day – v. 31). We see how he preached: he preached passionately (with tears – v. 31). We see the place he preached: everywhere (in public and private, house to house – v. 20).
Earlier in Acts 20:20, Paul says that he took every opportunity to teach them—both in public settings and private settings like house to house.
… how I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, and teaching you in public and from house to house.
He would preach anything, anywhere, at any time if he thought it would profit this people. The best defense is a good offense: Teach the truth constantly and totally and passionately. But another word here is needed. Paul preached the truth contextually. Teaching profitably depends upon teaching contextually. Paul went out of his way to be with the people and discern what would be profitable for them. Part of the vigilant watchfulness of his shepherding was constantly asking, “What do they need?!” Live preaching better fits with this ecosystem of specific and contextual teaching and discipleship.
Within that ecosystem of teaching and discipleship, Paul tried to discern what the people needed. He also constantly had an eye out for false teachers and false teaching. That is one of the reasons why Paul saw the need for such a constant steady stream of teaching. False teaching is a moving target. Just take a moment to think about how much of Paul’s ministry was contextualized to the needs of each congregation in his letters. He addresses different types of problems and errors and aspects of false teaching. Colossians is different than Corinthians; Galatians is different than Thessalonians. We see the same thing in the book of Revelation, when the risen Lord has a different word of commendation and warning for each of the seven churches. Some of these places were not far apart geographically, but contextually they were dealing with different things.
That is exactly what the elders are claiming in our 20/20 Vision. We believe that live preaching, primarily by the campus pastor and the campus elder team, will be more profitable because it will more directly address the specificity of the needs and the problems and the errors and the imbalances of each campus.
Conclusion: The Lord’s Supper
The last thing that we want you to think is that we as elders are consumed with structure. We are consumed with the gospel and the call to preach it and live it. The Lord’s Supper is a way to remember the purchase price and God’s great possession of his people. How should these crackers stir our memory? They cause us to retrace our steps and remember our story. Just like in the children’s stories where someone lays out bread crumbs on the path to help them find their way back, that is what happens here. The crackers are like breadcrumbs that lead you back the way of the Calvary Road. You come to one dark Friday where Jesus shed his blood to purchase a people for God’s eternal possession. You remember why you belong to God—not because of what you do, but because of what he has done. You remember that all the promises are “Yes” in Christ because of that blood. No more sin. No more shame. No more lack of belonging. You belong here.
Think about how important this moment is for unbelievers, elders, and all believers.
The best we pastors have to give Christ’s sheep and lambs doesn’t come from within; it comes from him. His love is perfected through us; it reaches its goal when we extend the love we’ve received from him. We love because he first loved us (1 John 4:11, 19). And Christ’s love never runs dry.
If you are dry or thirsty, come drink again—lift high the cup of salvation. Swim in the ocean of his grace.
He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.
Your shepherds don’t want to get in the way; we want to point the way to the One Who is the Chief Shepherd: the Savior who is called “the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls” (1 Peter 2:25).
 David Peterson, The Acts of the Apostles, Pillar Commentary, Eerdmans, 2009: p. 569.
 Harold L. Senkbeil, The Care of Souls, xvii
 Harold L. Senkbeil, The Care of Souls, xxi
Main Point: Eldership is a call for careful watchfulness over the whole flock––including the shepherd himself.
Pray for a grace to look to Christ and return to him as the Shepherd and Overseer of our souls.