November 18, 2018
Dave Zuleger (South Campus) | | Acts 20:28-32
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.—Acts 20:28–32
Introduction: Leaders Led by the Chief Shepherd
Last week we covered what the Lord calls us to as a blood-bought family in our care for one another. Today, I’m going to look at what the Lord calls the elders of the church to in their care for the body. And I’m bringing this up for a couple reasons: 1) meaningful membership will flow from healthy eldership. In other words, if elders are not caring for the flock the way they are called to, the church won’t flourish in their mission to glorify Christ. 2) It’s good for you as a church body to know what your leaders are called to so you can pray for us and hold us accountable to do obey that call. We won’t be perfect, but we want to be faithful.
Right from the beginning, I just want to say that even though God has called elders to lead the church and has given them to the church for the flourishing of the people of God, this church is not ultimately led by the elders. It’s led by Chief Shepherd, Jesus Christ, and the under-shepherds—the elders—are simply called to follow his leading.
We see this pattern in the first taste of church leadership we get in Acts 6:3–4. The apostles—the leaders of the church—are being confronted with some practical issues of neglect happening in the body, and this is how they respond to this problem:
Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.
You can see that there is a devotion to the Word and prayer needed from those charged with leading the church. Why? Because they cannot lead in their own wisdom. They cannot make decisions in their own wisdom. They cannot preach and teach in their own wisdom. They ought not care for the flock in their own wisdom. Rather, they should be those devoted to meeting with the Chief Shepherd in the Word and prayer regularly to follow him and then humbly and courageously lead the church after him.
So, don’t get the idea from this sermon that this church any way is ultimately led by elders, it’s not. It’s led by King Jesus and the role of elder is to love and lead the church as they follow Him.
We get a unique look here at the call of elders. Paul knows this is the last time he will see these men, and so this is his final appeal to them for how they ought to lead the church. And notice that he’s calling them to lead a specific group of people in Ephesus. That is the call of elders, to shepherd the particular flock of people expressed in local bodies. And notice that Paul commends them to the word of God’s grace that is able to build them up and give them an inheritance. His hope for these elders is in the word of God that will cause them to see Christ! Your South elders here have been specifically assigned to be devoted to the Word of grace in order to minster to the members of the South Campus just as these elders Paul is talking to were specifically called to the church in Ephesus.
As you look at these five verses in Acts 20:28–32 you see one basic command in two places: In verse 28: Pay Attention! In verse 31: Be alert! So, as shepherds of the church of God there is an attentiveness needed. That’s the main call of Paul to the Ephesians elders – keep your eyes on yourselves and on this flock closely! Why this call to pay such close attention?
The Call of the Spirit of God
We all have those people in our lives, when they give us advice or tell us do something, we seek to do it and do it with all our hearts. We trust them. They’ve earned our respect and devotion. All the more when that person is God. Elders pay close attention to this task because they’ve been called to it by their God!
Notice how in verse 28 it says, “the Holy Spirit has made you overseers.” This is not merely a natural post or a natural job selection. This is a call of the Spirit of God to shepherd the church of God. As the Spirit leads men to aspire to ministry, and as the Spirit works to confirm this call among the people of God, it is a holy calling. God is calling these men to a life of “paying attention” and a life “devoted to the word and prayer” so that they can care for his people. So, as elders labor and pray and read and teach and care, there should be a sense of the work of the Holy Spirit in their calling and therefore in their labor. Ultimately, they did not choose this work. The Holy Spirit called and confirmed it, and therefore it’s not something to be taken casually.
“Paying close attention” is not an optional reality but part of the calling and setting apart of the elder by the Spirit of God for the good of the church.
The Preciousness of the Church to God
Oftentimes, when a precious package comes in the mail, it says “Handle with care.” The value of the object is proportionate to the level of care. And God cares deeply for his church.
Notice that Paul calls this the church of God and points out that it was “obtained with his own blood.” Elders take paying attention to the flock seriously because they know it was purchased by the blood of Jesus. If Jesus cared enough to lay down his life to purchase the flock of God as the Chief Shepherd, then certainly the under-shepherds ought to lay down their lives in giving careful attention to the local flock they are called to shepherd.
When elder meetings go late, or when counseling sessions get hard, or when preparation to teach gets wearisome, or when planning and praying feels hard, the elders remember that it is worth it because God purchased these people with his own blood. The church is precious to God. The church belongs to God. The church is the Bride of Christ, and faithful elders have hearts that see these people as precious as well and long to see the church flourish and are eager, even when it’s hard, to put their hands to the plow time and time again for the people so precious to God.
The Dangers to the Church of God
And elders are called to pay attention closely because the dangers abound. Notice Paul says wolves will come into the flock from outside and from within. They will teach twisted things. They will try to divide and devour the flock. They will try to lead the church away from Jesus.
Here we see that Paul is anticipating this will happen in Ephesus. And he’s calling the elders to pay careful attention and be watchful for the sake of the flock they are called to shepherd. In other words, even here at Bethlehem, we must be watchful and be sure we are keeping our eyes firmly fixed on Jesus as we devote ourselves to the Word and prayer, because Satan is always looking for ways into the hearts and minds of God’s people.
So, in summary, we see that God calls these shepherds by the Holy Spirit, and asks them to pay careful attention to themselves (that is their own hearts and their teaching, per 1 Timothy 4:16) and the flock because the church of God is so precious to him that he purchased it with his own blood—and the dangers abound.
I want to encourage you that in my first few months here at Bethlehem I have seen an elder team that wants to pay careful attention both to themselves and to all the flock. Let me give you two examples of that.
First, I have seen elders wrestle through the word of God as we’ve tried to make decisions on the relational commitments, as we’ve wrestled through care cases, and as we’ve sought wisdom for moving forward as a campus. It’s a gift of God to be on a team where the elders are seeking to submit themselves to the word of God, even when there are differences. Also, I’ve been so encouraged by the way this elder team seeks to be prayerful—whether that be during elder meetings, before worship services, or in counseling—there are many pray-ers pleading for help from the Lord.
Second, at our last elder meeting at the South Campus, the elders passed two new “care plans.” One of them is a plan for us as elders to have deeper relationships with one another so that we can pay more careful attention to ourselves. The other one is a new member care plan. We’ve developed a plan that will have an elder in contact with every member household about 3–4x faster than we are now. We want to know you. We want to serve you. We want to love you.
We have room to grow, but the elders at the South Campus really do take seriously the call to “pay careful attention” to themselves and all the flock.
Now that we’ve seen these motivations to pay careful attention to the flock, let’s look at in what kinds of ways that plays out.
Notice that in verse 28 Paul simply calls these men “to care” for the church of God. Elders are called to “give an account” for souls (Hebrews 13:17) which means they are called to care for the souls of those in their local flock.
When you think of the role of a shepherd, one of the pictures the Bible uses for this role of elder, you can imagine that a shepherd must provide food and water and shelter for the flock. Actually in Psalm 23 we see that the Lord, the Chief Shepherd does just that. He leads us to green pastures and still waters. In the same way, elders are meant to bring their people to the living bread and the living water of Jesus by regularly pointing them to Christ—feeding them with Christ.
This happens from the pulpit, in classes, in counseling sessions, in hospital rooms, in worship, and in home visits. Jesus said to Peter, “Feed my sheep.” So, the first way we hope to love you well here at the South Campus is to give our lives to regularly, through our interactions with you in all these ways to feed you the living water and bread of Christ as we go to his word and prayer together. Jesus will always be center stage, and we will seek to hear from him regularly in his word and speak with him regularly in prayer as a blood-bought family.
An elder cannot be too devoted to the Word and prayer, and he cannot pay too careful attention to the flock or to himself because the dangers are real. Satan will seek to find his way in through the lusts of the flesh or the lies of the mind.
And it is the role of the under-shepherd, the elder, to have the wisdom to protect the church from being led astray and the courage to say something when they see it happening. An under-shepherd is devoted to the word of Christ and prayer with Christ and therefore has an allegiance to Christ first that overflows in a self-giving, protective love for the body of Christ.
I think it is so key that this passage says that elders should keep a close watch on themselves and the flock, because sometimes sinful actions lead to false teaching and sometimes false teaching flows out of sinful desires. Therefore, elders must pay careful attention to their own hearts and their own teaching (1 Timothy 4:16) and to the hearts of their flock because Satan is not against using either.
We live in an age where the prevailing cultural winds say to “do whatever makes you happy in the moment.” An age that says, “True freedom is doing what you want, when you want.” Whereas the Bible tells us that true freedom in the Spirit is doing what Jesus wants, when Jesus wants you to do it. And we see all sorts of false teaching flowing out of these sinful lusts.
A wise shepherd who loves the sheep he cares for does not sleep on the job until he hears wolves attacking the sheep. Rather, he stays awake when it’s darkest. He leads when they walk through the valleys. His eyes are open and he’s ready to do whatever it takes to care for the sheep.
And finally, the elders are called to prepare the church. We actually see an example of Paul preparing these elders. He says, “I exhorted you night and day,” and then he commends them to that same word of grace that they saw him teach and live. Paul was not just laboring among them as if they were babies completely dependent on him. He was laboring among them in order to equip them for their ministry among the sheep.
In the same way, as we go to Ephesians 4 we see that pastors are called to “equip the saints for the work of ministry.” Elders hope to equip the flock to care for one another. Elders hope to create people who are also devoted to the Word and prayer, who also counsel one another, who also show up at the hospital, who also are eager to care for the members of the church of God purchased with his own blood.
In other words, the goal of faithful shepherds is to lead in such a way that we equip you to comfort, correct, and compel one another. The goal of faithful shepherds is to raise up all sorts of people who can flourish in their gifts to the glory of God. The goal of faithful shepherds is to equip for ministry, not just simply do all the ministry themselves. The goal of faithful shepherds is not simply to do everything themselves but to multiply ministry by equipping others. Would you pray for us on his front? We really want to continue to do this better here at the South Campus! And would you pray about where God might be calling you to serve and use your gifts? We’d be happy to try and equip you.
Application: Servant-Hearted Leaders and Family
So, God has called elders by the Holy Spirit to shepherd the flock of God that he purchased by his blood. He has said that because of the seriousness of the call, the preciousness of his blood, and the seriousness of the dangers, to pay careful attention to themselves and to the flock. He has called them to provide for the flock. To protect the flock. And to prepare the flock.
That’s the goal of the elders here South and that’s the reason we’ve begun to deepen our care for one another and deeper our care for our member households—and I would just encourage you to become a member and get on that care list so that we know we are accountable to care for you as well. So, in this moment I want to invite the elders that are here to stand so that you can see them. And while I do that, I’m going to ask Phil Nelson, one of our elders to come up and share his heart for this church as one of the elders at the South Campus. (Phil’s testimony.)
So, as you just heard Phil talk about, our heart as elders is that our obedience to the call to care for all of you would lead to a deep sense of us truly being a “blood-bought family” that cares for one another deeply. We want to be devoted to the Word and prayer so that our eyes are on Jesus and we become like him as we seek to lead you. Jesus did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many and we want to model that kind of self-giving love and hope it becomes contagious. Church elders seek to know and follow Jesus more deeply so they can follow in his footsteps of servant-leadership
As we follow Jesus, who was the ultimate servant and showed his self-giving love on the cross, we are praying that we as elders would overflow in self-giving love for all of you. And that as we overflow in self-giving, servant love for you, you would overflow in self-giving love to one another as a blood-bought family.
In other words, we are praying that we are men who keep our eyes firmly fixed on Jesus and truly become servant leaders and create a family that serves one another and seeks to serve the lost.
So, we are asking for your prayers. We’re not perfect. We need Jesus. Pray for us to keep our eyes on him in the Word and prayer. Pray for us to persevere in paying close attention. Pray for us to persevere in leaning in to care for the flock God has called us to. And pray for our whole church that we would become a church that loves to serve one another as an overflow of keeping our eyes on Jesus together—who shows us that ultimate freedom is in joyfully following him as we serve others.