Imaging Christ's Care for the Flock
Rather common is the importance we give to a farewell speech. It may be a final encouragement before leaving a long-held position. Maybe it’s words shared before moving never to return again. Maybe it’s the final words someone shares with their family before dying. Whatever the context, we often cherish such words.
Such words often sum up the significance on one’s life—what they lived for, what they valued, what wisdom they want to impart for the next generation. Today we finish Paul’s farewell speech to the Ephesian elders. They are words to cherish. Paul spent three years investing in this church—so relationships go deep. We witness their fondness as they accompany Paul to his ship. There’s much weeping, embracing, kissing. Paul is going to Jerusalem. He won’t see them again. So he imparts some final words, words he wants seared on the elders’ minds. Let’s pick it up in verse 25…
25 “And now, behold, I know that none of you among whom I’ve gone about proclaiming the kingdom will see my face again. 26 Therefore I testify to you this day that I’m innocent of the blood of all, 27 for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God. 28 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. 29 I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; 30 and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them. 31 Therefore be alert, remembering that for three years I didn’t cease night or day to admonish every one with tears. 32 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. 33 I coveted no one’s silver or gold or apparel. 34 You yourselves know that these hands ministered to my necessities and to those who were with me. 35 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’s more blessed to give than to receive.’” 36 And when he had said these things, he knelt down and prayed with them all. 37 And there was much weeping on the part of all; they embraced Paul and kissed him, 38 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.
These are words spoken to elders. So it’s very sobering to preach this message. I’m sure it’ll be sobering for Ben and Wes and Dale to hear this message. With such a focus, though, the rest of you shouldn’t check out. Paul’s words may be to elders, but the Spirit has written them for the church. Whoever reads Acts is reading about the risen Lord Jesus building his church. That involves Jesus gifting the church with leaders who exemplify Paul’s words. Would you know what to look for in a pastor? Would you know what’s right and good for the church?
To Elders but for the Church
Your role relates to godly elders in multiple ways. According to 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1, you must recognize and appoint elders who fit certain qualifications. Some of those qualifications receive further treatment here. These words help you discern which men ought to pastor, which men need further maturity, and which men to avoid.
These words also equip you to hold your elders accountable. They call our attention to that what sort of leadership honors Jesus. The more you’re equipped by these words, the better you’ll be able to speak into our lives for our good and our maturity and our progress in the faith. We need you in our role.
Something else. Hebrews 13:7 says, “Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith.” Insofar as elders imitate Jesus, the church should imitate them. These words develop Christ-like qualities for you to imitate, as your elders learn them too. They develop attitudes toward the church that all of us should share. In fact, Paul’s speech depicts the church in some of the most beautiful, endearing terms.
Also, these words are important, because they help you pray for your elders. Dale, Wes, Ben, myself—Lord willing, others who will join us—we need you to pray these things for us. We need you to ask God to make these things real to our hearts and evident in our leadership of you.
Paul faithfully entrusts the elders with the whole purpose of God.
So, with that said, let’s jump into this passage, looking first at Paul faithfully entrusting the elders with the whole purpose of God. This is verses 25-27, “Behold, I know that none of you among whom I’ve gone about proclaiming the kingdom will see my face again. Therefore I testify to you this day that I’m innocent of the blood of all, for I didn’t shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God.”
Other translations have, “the whole purpose of God.” What is that, exactly? If we look at what Paul declares in the immediate context, we find several clues. Working backwards—verse 25, “the kingdom;” verse 24, “the gospel of the grace of God;” verse 21, “repentance toward God and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.”
If we then broaden our search to the way Luke uses the same word elsewhere, we find even more clues. In Acts 2:23 and 4:28, it refers to God’s predetermined purpose revealed in Scripture and accomplished in Jesus Christ. Jesus was delivered over according to God’s predetermined purpose. Herod and Pontius Pilate and the Jews were allowed to do to Jesus whatever God’s hand and God’s purpose predestined to take place.
Paul uses the same word in Ephesians 1:11, speaking about those in Christ: we were made an inheritance “having been predestined according to the purpose of God’s will.” So we’re dealing here with God’s unshakable, predetermined purpose for his kingdom to redeem the world; and God reveals this purpose in Scripture and also accomplishes this purpose through Jesus Christ.
That’s the purpose Paul declares to the elders. For three years he taught them God’s purpose. If you want to know what and how he taught them God’s purpose, read his letter to the Ephesians. Ladies, you’ve got a retreat next weekend where you’ll look at God’s purpose in detail from Ephesians. Everything they needed to know about God’s purpose, Paul gave them. He has been a faithful messenger of God.
He even depicts his faithfulness in language that recalls Ezekiel 33. Ezekiel was God’s watchman. A watchman would scan the horizon and warn people of any danger. Likewise, Ezekiel was responsible to warn Israel of God’s coming judgment. That was God’s purpose. If he kept quiet, he was responsible for their blood. But if he was faithful to warn them, they were responsible.
Paul draws from that Old Testament imagery saying, “I’m innocent of the blood of all.” What makes the imagery from Ezekiel 33 more powerful is that God condemns Israel’s false shepherds in Ezekiel 34. Unlike the false shepherds who did not announce God’s purpose, Ezekiel was faithful to do so. So also here, Paul is faithful to do so. If these elders choose to do nothing with Paul’s teaching, if they choose to ignore God’s purpose, if they choose to keep God’s purpose from God’s people, or tweak his purpose to save face, or use his purpose to get rich or promote their name, they will stand guilty before God but not Paul. He’s innocent. He’s faithful.
Paul outlines faithful eldership in terms of…
And now, like Paul, these elders must be faithful to declare God’s purpose and spend their lives according to God’s purpose. What does that look like? When these men return home to Ephesus, how should they pastor? What will faithful leadership look like?
1. Vigilant shepherding shaped by the work of the Trinity
One, it will look like vigilant shepherding shaped by the work of the Trinity. Notice in verse 28 the imagery of shepherding. He compares the church to a flock. The verb the ESV translates “to care for,” literally means, “to shepherd.” Why describe the role of an elder in terms of shepherding?
Because that’s the imagery God uses to depict his care for his people. The Lord is my Shepherd—Psalm 23. The Lord “will tend his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms; he will carry them in his bosom…”—Isaiah 40:11. Jesus is the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep—John 10:15. The Lamb in the midst of the throne guides his flock to springs of living water—Revelation 7:17.
By comparing elders to shepherds, the Bible is saying that elders must image the true Shepherd who leads us beside still waters. The problem with many human shepherds in Scripture is that they don’t image the Lord’s care. In Jeremiah 23 and Ezekiel 34, the shepherds over Israel were cursed by the Lord for not reflecting his care. Poor shepherding is evil, because it lies about God and his care for his people.
True shepherding pays careful attention to all the flock. Verse 28 says, “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock.” Meaning, stay alert. Don’t fall asleep when you’re supposed to be watching. Don’t jeopardize your alertness with drunkenness and folly and apathy. Remain vigilant in care: “Who are they? Where are they? Are any malnourished? Any of them weak? Any hurting? Any on the fringes in danger of wolves? Did any get lost? Count them again. Any sheep bullying the others?”
Pay careful attention, he says, to all the flock. Not just some of the flock. Not just the sheep in the flock you like more than others. But all the flock. Know the flock well, and image God’s concern for them.
But notice further how this ministry is shaped by the work of the Trinity. He says, “[Pay careful attention to the flock] in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers.” The Holy Spirit makes pastors and gives them to churches.[i] Seminaries do not make pastors. The Holy Spirit ultimately makes pastors. These shouldn’t be men volunteering to fill a leadership vacuum. They should be men compelled, driven by the Spirit to shepherd. Paul tells us how to discern whether the Spirit is making a man a pastor in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1.
Next Paul lays out the purpose for elders: “to care for the church of God.” Why does God give the church elders? To care for his people through them. But notice to whom the church belongs. The church doesn’t belong to any of the pastors; the church belongs to God. Church, you are God’s people. Once we were not God’s people. We were cut off from God, separated from God by our sin. We were not welcome to fellowship in his assembly. But here we belong to God.
How’d that happen? How can sinful people enter such a relationship with the holy God? How can guilty people belong to God’s assembly? The rest of verse 28 tells us: “he obtained [us] with his own blood.” Those words have amazed and baffled people for centuries. Amazed, because it’s God’s own blood. Baffled, because in what sense can one say that God has blood—the divine nature can’t bleed?
A couple solutions have presented themselves. It could be translated, “which God obtained with the blood of his own.” God refers to God the Father; he obtains the church with the blood of his own Son, is the idea. And that would be true.
But if one keeps the translation as it is here, God refers to God the Son; and we must remember that God the Son has both a divine nature and a human nature. The person of the Son always acts through his divine and human natures according to their respective capacities. Often, what’s asserted of either nature can be asserted about the person of the Son, but not the other nature. So what’s true about his humanity you can assert about the Son’s person; and what’s true about his divinity you can assert about the Son’s person; but what’s true of his divinity and his humanity can’t always be asserted of each other. So in this case, his human nature bled on the cross and not the divine nature. But one can still say it’s “God’s blood” because, acting through his human nature, the person of God the Son bled.[ii] It’s a remarkable statement.
So that’s another way to read the text, and several major confessions in church history take it that way. Either way, though, what really stands out here is how precious the church is to God. God obtained the church with his own blood. There’s no divine gift superior to the gift of God the Son. There’s no one of higher value, no one more treasured by the Father, no one possessing greater riches. Yet, God did not spare his only Son but gave him up freely for us all.
Can you see how that work of the Trinity might shape the elders’ shepherding? Not only was I entrusted with this role by the Holy Spirit. But every single person in the church is worth the blood of God’s Son. That’s how precious the sheep are to the Father. That’s how precious the sheep ought to be to the elders. That’s how precious you ought to be to one another. No matter the annoyances or stubbornness or weaknesses or sins or relational incompatibility or young or old or male or female—whoever they are, if they belong to God, they’re worth the blood of Jesus.
Pastors and churches can’t grow cynical about those God deems precious. Not only that, elders must remember that they too need the blood of Jesus to bring them to God. Seeing the extent of Jesus’ care—that he lays down his life for the sheep—compels elders to lay down their lives too for the sheep.
2. Steady admonishment in the word of God’s grace.
Faithful leadership will also look like steady admonishment in the word of God’s grace. Our family likes to play a game called Carcassonne. We added the hills-and-sheep extension the other day; and sure enough there are also wolves. Any shepherd knows that where there are sheep, there will be predators.
Verse 29 says, “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.” The wolves are false teachers here. They don’t care about the flock. Jesus said you’ll know them by their fruits (Matt 7:13). Not just their teaching but their lives will prove whether they truly care for God’s people or they’re just using God’s people.
Paul’s warning couldn’t be more relevant. We live in a day rampant with false teachers. Jesus and the apostles warned us of this. 2 Peter 2:1 speaks of them secretly bringing in destructive heresies. 1 Timothy 6:4-5 speaks of them having an “unhealthy craving for controversy…imagining that godliness is a means of gain.” Jude says they pervert the grace of God into sensuality. 2 Peter 2:14, they have hearts trained in greed.
We could name many. Prosperity teachers—not only do they misunderstand the covenants and lie about suffering; they turn Jesus into a means of selfish gain. Other teachers elevate out-of-body experiences and “conversations with God” above Scripture. Others teach that salvation comes by faith in Jesus plus something else. In Paul’s day it was the circumcision party. In our day it’s the Roman Catholic Church, Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and anybody who says you must clean yourself up first.
Others warp the grace of God by denying its power to create holiness in God’s people. Moralistic therapeutic deism plagues many churches, who reduce Christianity to a list of rules, meeting felt needs, and vague God-talk. Rob Bell questions God’s justice in eternal punishment. Greg Boyd questions God’s knowledge of the future. Becoming more popular is to reject Jesus’ death as a penal substitution. More subtle still are views that conflate the gospel with their particular political ideology.
How does the church survive? What protects the sheep in the face of so many wolves? God, and the steady admonishment in the word of his grace. Paul commends them first to God. The church will endure, the flock will survive, by God’s doing. As the old hymn goes: The Church shall never perish! / Her dear Lord to defend / To guide, sustain, and cherish / [He’s] with her to the end. God will do it.
But God also uses means. He uses elders steadily admonishing the church in the word of God’s grace. Verse 32, “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.” The word builds up the church. The word gives you the inheritance. What inheritance? Christ in all his glory; the kingdom and all its riches. We mature and we reach the inheritance by the word of God’s grace.
Faithful elders must take that word and steadily admonish the church. Paul commends his own example to follow in verse 31. “Therefore be alert, remembering that for three years I didn’t cease night or day to admonish every one with tears.” Night or day—that means he admonished them all the time. With tears he admonished them! Not just a “take-it or leave-it” attitude. No! He’s weeping for them: “Don’t go there, brother! Christ has you, sister! Don’t believe that lie! Here’s the truth in Christ!”
Elders preach the word and teach the word and emphasize the word, because we want you to grow into Christ and we want you to obtain glory with Jesus. God has designed elders to be his means of protecting the saints from wolves and building up the saints for glory—all by admonishing them with his gracious word.
So if you hear us keep returning to the word; and you watch us open the Bible; and you read us quoting Scripture in text messages; and you receive counsel rooted in Scripture—please know, it’s because the word is going to make you like Jesus and get you to glory. Don’t brush it off! That’s for me too! I’ve got three elders myself here; and I cherish their admonishment in the word of God’s grace.
3. Pursuing joy in the Lord Jesus by imaging his generosity, especially toward the weak.
Finally, faithful leadership will look like pursuing joy in the Lord Jesus by imaging his generosity, especially toward the weak. Verse 33, “I coveted no one’s silver or gold or apparel.” 1 Timothy 3:3 says an overseer must not be a lover of money. Titus 1:7 says he must not be greedy for gain. The Bible is very clear: leaders are especially vulnerable to loving money and turning pastoring into a means of selfish gain.
By contrast Paul says this in verse 34: “You yourselves know that these hands ministered to my necessities and to those who were with me. In all things I’ve 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’s more blessed to give than to receive.’”
On occasion Paul received gifts from other churches; and that extra support freed him to teach the word full-time. But his normal habit was working hard to support himself. He did this for several reasons. In 1 Corinthians 9, he did it to image Christ in setting aside his rights to receive payment, in order to serve others the gospel free of charge. In 1 Thessalonians 3:7-8 he worked hard so as not to burden anybody and to discourage idleness. Some of that comes out here as well. He not only supported himself but he worked hard to meet the needs of his fellow workers.
But in verse 35 we get a further motive: “It’s more blessed to give than to receive.” That is, it produces further happiness, further joy, further satisfaction in Jesus, to give. Jesus is appealing to our joy in him. The goal of working hard isn’t just to have wealth, but to use wealth in ways that images the Lord Jesus’ generosity. When that’s our MO, two things happen: joy in Jesus increases; the glory of God’s grace in the gospel shines—it gets illustrated, displayed, enjoyed more deeply in the church.
Isn’t that how generosity works in 2 Corinthians 8 as well? Their abundance of joy in Jesus overflows in a wealth of generosity—2 Corinthians 8:2. And this grace stands behind it all in 2 Corinthians 8:9—“For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich.”
We were wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked in our sins with no hope for salvation. But Christ, the richest person ever, chose to love us by giving up his riches to see us glad, strong, rich, healed, and clothed. The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve and give his life as a ransom for many. When your joy is in that good news, you’re motivated to give! You’re motivated to serve! And you won’t be enslaved to money or to coveting other people’s stuff.
Now, there are other instructions Paul gives about churches supporting their pastors, such as in Galatians 6:6 and 1 Timothy 5:17-18. This support frees them to minister the word more regularly. But when elders live by Paul’s words, they teach the congregation not to set their hope in earthly riches. Instead, their lives (alongside their words) teach the church to set their hope in Christ. Christ gave himself up to meet our greatest need, when we were weak. Now he lives in the church, that we might image his generosity toward others. Pursue your joy in his lordship. Pursue your happiness imaging his generosity, especially toward those who are weak. He is worthy; the gospel is good.
Vigilant shepherding shaped by the work of the Trinity. Steady admonishment in the word of God’s grace. Pursuing joy in the Lord Jesus by imaging his generosity. That’s faithful leadership. What words to cherish. I wonder what the elders talked about on the two-day journey back to Ephesus. Or was it a quiet trip back, well-sobered by the incredible responsibility before them. These words have certainly worked me over well this week; and also produced deeper longings to stay the course Paul outlines here.
Would you pray these things for your elders? Would you pray these things for the leaders of other churches in the area that you know: The Village, Paradox, City Church, Solid Rock, Calvary Bible, Normandale? Would you hold us accountable to these truths and walk with us in them? Would you commit yourself to pass these words along to the next generation, that when we’re dead and gone they might appoint men through whom the care of the Good Shepherd himself might be recognized? I pray you would. And now, I commend us all to God and to the word of his grace.
[i]When the Spirit gifts and appoints someone to lead the church (Acts 20:28), he does not do so apart from giving them zeal to carry out their leadership (Rom 12:8).
[ii]The wording here reflects footnote 102 on page 123 of my dissertation, “Jesus as the Pierced One: The Use of Zechariah 12:10 in John’s Gospel and Revelation” (2018).
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