A word to ministers - Acts 20:13-38
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
I look at the phone. Perhaps I should make some calls. All those people who have been missing for a few weeks. Perhaps a quick call to find out how they are doing.
There is my computer, with all its applications shouting for my attention. I use an Apple Mac so I shouldn’t have to endure the constant crashing of a Windows PC but still the computer world can be all-consuming.
o There is the email account. All those people wanting an instant reply.
o There is the broadband Internet connection. All those news websites or culture websites. Or sermon websites. Perhaps I should be browsing to find out more information.
My bookshelves. Get the commentaries out. Start preparing for Sunday’s sermon or general reading.
My diary. Fill my day with meetings.
My church address list. Visiting the sick or the housebound.
Or what about just visiting people who don’t go to church? Should I go door knocking? Or maybe I should stand outside Jacksons with a sandwich board telling people the world is coming to an end?
I’m excited about the week ahead. I keep on saying to myself, “What a privilege to be a full-time leader in the church of Jesus Christ.” But I remain haunted by the question: What exactly should I be doing?
A few weeks ago I was challenged by an article written by an ex-army chaplain called Tim Booker. For the last three years he has been chaplain to the The Third Battalion, of the Royal Australian Regiment – otherwise known as Alpha Male Central. This regiment is the backbone of Australia’s Airbone Battle Group, and produces some of the meanest and toughest individuals in the country. However, now Tim has returned to local church ministry and this is what he says about his new role:
“Now that I am back in parish ministry, I am fighting a constant war against the irrelevant things that seem important but are really only there because they have been sent by the devil to suck the life out of me and ruin ministry.
What I really want to be focused on are prayer, people and preparation. But what I keep finding myself focused on are psychopaths (the crazies that knock on my door most days), printers (the technology meltdowns that waste hours) and pride (my own insecurities that drive my desire to have a mega-church).
As a minister, it is very easy to get bogged down with administration and other non-people issues that seem important at the time. Then, to de-stress from that, it’s tempting to spend hours surfing the web looking for that perfect sermon illustration, respond to emails, or just sit there at your desk with a blank look on your face, trying to work out where to start. Before you know it, another day has passed by. Is this what you want to model to the precious saints now under your care?
We’ve wasted enough days like that. We need to get out there and minister to people, and we need to model how to do that. So let’s switch the computer off, pray like we have never done before, spend time with people like we never have before, and preach the Word like we never have before.”
I love being challenged like this. I love straight talking. But even more than this I love to see this kind of talking presented in the Bible. Not just the wisdom of human beings. That’s still okay. But when it appears in the Word of God then the punch is much more powerful.
This is what we have preserved for us in Acts 20. The story at this point is that Paul is heading back to Jerusalem. In fact, according to Acts 20:16 he is desperate to arrive before the major Feast of Pentecost.
So because of this he deliberately avoids stopping off in the port of Ephesus. In the not so distant past he had spent three years of his life preaching the gospel to vast number of people in this major city of the ancient world, which was located in what we call modern day Turkey. Not hard to work out why he didn’t want to stop off. We know what it’s like when we visit an old place we have lived. All those friendships and meals. It takes time. So he sailed past.
And yet he knew this was a major moment in his life. He was convinced that this was the last time he would be ministering in this region of the world and so he wanted to make sure the Christians in this major city would keep on preserving in their faith. Paul was no fly-by-night evangelist. He didn’t simply jet in, ask for a response, and then leave the local church leaders to pick up the pieces. He cared passionately about follow up.
And so on this occasion, although he did not have time to visit Ephesus in person, he made sure the important leaders of the church in Ephesus were brought to him.
Verse 17: “From Miletus, Paul sent to Ephesus for the elders of the church.”
It’s important that we realise who these people are. In verse 17 they are called elders and then in verse 28 they are called overseers and shepherds.
These are not different groups of people but are different ways of referring to the same group. They refer to different aspects of who they are and what they do.
o Elder. Spiritually mature. Normally this refers to age as well but not necessarily. You can be spiritually mature and yet still a younger person.
o Overseer. This is a way of translating the Greek word episkopos. We sometimes translate this as Bishop. Now unfortunately in the Church of England this position has become a separate office from an elder but here it’s the same person. A local church leader. Why an overseer? Refers to their responsibility to look after those under their care.
o Shepherd. If you come from a Free Church background you will be used to calling your church leader a Pastor. Pastor is derived from a Latin word which means shepherd. Again this refers to the responsibility given to these people of looking after the people of God – who are called the flock. So feeding them, leading them to pasture and protecting them from danger.
A few points to crucial to notice…
o All these titles refer to the same people.
o All these people are leaders of a local church. Not denominational leaders but rooted in a local church.
o More than one. The New Testament never models the one man band ministry where one leader plays all the instruments in the spiritual orchestra.
Who are these people today? Depends on which local church you belong to. Different bible believing churches have different organisational structures. Wherever we are it’s important to know who these leaders are.
Who are these people at St Johns? All forms of leadership and responsibility. From Sunday Club leaders, Pathfinders, Mark 2 and home group leaders. But in terms of an exact parallel at St Johns then your elders would be Melvin, Nathan, Malcolm and myself.
There are lessons that anyone in church leadership can learn from Acts 20 but since this farewell speech is particularly addressed to elders I want to apply it directly to Bishop Tinker, Pastor Buttery, Elder Peters and myself – who should I be? Well, for tonight I’ll be Bishop McMunn.
Doesn’t mean everyone else can now leave or go across for coffee. Although these verses teach us what we should be doing it’s also crucial for congregations to hear this. You need to have your expectations right of what we should be doing and also we need your prayers so that we will act as we should.
There is a direct connection between the health of the church and the faithful ministry of church leaders.
What should we be doing? From Acts 20, we discover that full-time church leaders should…
o Be dedicated to people
o Be dedicated to preaching
o Be dedicated to protection
First of all, Paul teaches that we should be dedicated to people.
Listen to what Paul says in verse 18. When the elders arrived from Ephesus, Paul said to them, “You know how I lived the whole time I was with you, from the first day I came into the province of Asia. I served the Lord with great humility and with tears, although I was severely tested by the plots of the Jews. You know that I have not hesitated to preach anything that would be helpful to you but have taught you publicly and from house to house. I have declared to Jews and Greeks that they must turn to God in repentance and have faith in our Lord Jesus.”
Paul spent three years in Ephesus and it’s very clear from this short description of his past ministry in the city that he was a man who was dedicated to people.
He was not known for being a behind the desk man or for being too busy to meet with individuals. One of the worst things a minister can hear is a comment like this, “Oh I didn’t want to bother you because you are too busy.” Horrifying to hear it said by someone because this implies many more people will be thinking of it but will be too sacred to say it. We got into this job because of people. And it is at the heart of what we should be doing.
Why does Paul tell these elders about his past ministry amongst them? Not to blow his trumpet. Not so he gets a new church building dedicated after him. But because his example is one for them to follow. His dedication to people is a model for them to copy.
His dedication to people is expressed in a number of very challenging ways.
o Verse 18. You know how I lived among you. Not shut off in an ivory tower or behind closed doors. But somehow he was prepared to share his life with them. Reflected in verse 20. Not only did I teach you publicly but from house to house.
o Or what about the challenge of verse 19? He’s in it because he wants to serve the Lord, literally being a slave to the Lord, but look at one of the features of his service – tears! Here was no detached observer but someone who felt for the people he was ministering to.
o When do you cry? When you love someone and something happens that hurts or makes you feel sad or makes you feel overjoyed.
ß Why do I not cry when I take funerals in the parish? In some sense I need to be detached but then again because most of the people we cremate are not known to us in any personal way. Should be a very different story if someone from the church family died.
o These tears are not a one off reference. Mention is made of them in verse 31, where Paul says, “Remember that for three years I never stopped warning each of you night and day with tears.”
o And then the moving scene at the end of the chapter. Verse 36, “When he had said this, he knelt down with all of them and prayed. They wept as they embraced him and kissed him. What grieved them most of all was his statement that they would never see his face again. Then they accompanied him to the ship.”
o Then notice how chapter 21 begins, “After we had torn ourselves away from them, we put out to sea and sailed straight to Cos.”
Our job done rightly is all about people. Passionate about them. Not emotional disengaged but feeling for them at the very deepest part of our being.
Pray for us in this. Both that we will do this but also that we will be able to cope with the emotional burden that comes with the job.
Elders should be dedicated to people.
Secondly, we should be dedicated to preaching.
Big question: How do you care for the people entrusted to you? Granted that’s it’s all about people but what does it mean to care for them? Essentially, the best way to care for God’s people is to teach them God’s word. And that’s what Paul was dedicated to in Ephesus and the model he wants to be followed in every generation.
Listen to what he says in verse 20. “You know that I have not hesitated to preach anything that would be helpful to you but have taught you publicly and from house to house. I have declared to both Jews and Greeks that they must turn to God in repentance and have faith in our Lord Jesus.”
One of his main roles as a shepherd is to lead the sheep to pasture. Food is the word of God. The very heart of this ministry is the teaching of the Bible.
Which is why the symbol at the ordination service of an elder in the Church of England has been the giving of a Bible and not a plate and cup. The centre of our job is not communion but the teaching of God’s word to God’s people.
What I love about Paul is that he is very flexible on his method but never on the message.
Teaches them publicly but he also teaches them from house to house. Of course there is the monologue preaching but there is also the opportunity for dialogue, disagreement and dissection on other occasions.
The key principle is to be flexible on the method but never on the message.
Certainly not flexible on the message, is he? In verse 20, he declares that he has not hesitated to preach anything that would be helpful to his audience. And then in verse 27, he says, “I have not hesitated to proclaim to you the whole will of God.”
Who decides what is helpful? Not his audience but the God who has given us his Word.
Tough things in here but people do need to hear uncomfortable truths sometimes if they are to understand the glorious message of Jesus Christ.
And who is this for? Paul makes it crystal clear in verse 21. “I have declared to both Jews and Greeks that they must turn to God and have faith in our Lord Jesus.”
Everyone alive must turn to God from their idolatry and follow Jesus. Why? Because they are destined for hell and need to be rescued for heaven.
To do this job we need to be convinced that there are no good people on the road to heaven but people who need to be rescued from an eternal destiny without God.
Bible says in James 3:1, “Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.”
There is a sense in which elders of local churches will be held more accountable because of the responsible position they hold.
This explains what Paul says in verses 26 and 27. He can say with confidence, “I declare to you today that I am innocent of the blood of all men. For I have not hesitated to proclaim to you the whole will of God.”
Paul is not responsible for making the choice for an individual. But he was responsible, as all elders are responsible, for setting out the truth about reality to the people who are listening.
Very likely that this language of being innocent of the blood of all men is taken from the writings of the prophet Ezekiel. Let me read you what we find in Ezekiel 33:7-9, “Son of man, I have made you a watchman for the house of Israel; so hear the word I speak and give them warning from me. When I say to the wicked, ‘O wicked man, you will surely die,’ and you do not speak out to dissuade him from his ways, that wicked man will die for his sin, and I will hold you accountable for his blood. But if you do warn the wicked man to turn from his ways and he does not do so, he will die for his sin, but you will be saved yourself.”
Paul can say he is innocent of the blood of all men because he has not hesitated to tell it as it is.
Temptation as an elder is always to shrink back and not tell people things that we know they will not like to hear.
There was a Scottish church leader called Robert Murray McCheyne who preached in the Scottish city of Dundee in the early 1800s. Each Saturday he visited the dying in order to prepare his heart, so that on Sunday he might plead with souls the more earnestly. Yet he still said this:
“I have not been like a shepherd after lost sheep, nor like a physician among dying men, nor like a servant bidding you to the marriage, nor like one plucking brands from the burning! How often have I gone to your houses to try and win souls, and yet you have put me off with a little worldly talk. I dared not tell you that you were perishing. How often have I sat at some of your tables and yearned for your souls, yet a false shame kept me silent! How often have I gone home crying bitterly, ‘Free me from blood-guiltiness, O God!’
That is the feeling of many a pastor. So I ask you to pray for us that…
o Remain committed to teaching the word of God
o Not just from the pulpit but from house to house. Your expectation when we come and see you that we will speak about the word of God. This should be happening anyway when Christians get together.
o Remain committed to teaching the word of God in its fullness.
Reason: As elders we should be dedicated to preaching.
Thirdly, we should be dedicated to protection.
This is what Paul makes clear in verse 28. “Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood. I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw disciples after them. So be on your guard!”
Look closely at verse 28 you will notice that elders are to protect two different groups of people. First of all, they are told to keep watch over themselves and then, secondly, they are told to keep watch over the flock. It’s vital that we do both things.
Robert Murray McCheyne, “My people’s greatest need is my personal holiness.”
We need to look after ourselves, physically, emotionally and spiritually. If we don’t there will be consequences for everyone else.
That’s one of the reasons why the output of a workaholic pastor always goes down and down.
We need physical rest like everyone else. We need to be refreshed for the week ahead. And that’s why we need to be clear and firm about our days off.
Spiritually. We give out so much and therefore need to be fed ourselves. Which is why I love what Paul says in verse 32 (remember he is speaking to local church leaders): “I commit you to God and to the word of his grace, which can build you up and give you and inheritance among all those who are sanctified.”
We need to keep on being fed by the word of God. I know that my work is at its worst when I neglect this vital aspect of my life.
I ask you to pray for us that we will be dedicated to protecting ourselves.
Secondly, I ask you to pray that we will also be dedicated to protecting the church family here at St Johns.
You have been bought by the blood of Jesus and hence you are precious in God’s sight. You are the sheep of Jesus, the good shepherd who has laid down his life for you. And so you need to be protected from those who can do you great harm. You need to be protected from savage wolves who will come in among you and destroy the flock.
How do you recognise a wolf? Will they wear a special dog colour to signify they are on a different mission? Will they growl and walk on all fours? Will their business card made subtle references to Little Red Riding hood?
Not by what they wear or how they smile. Wolves are generally nice and friendly people. Frequently, they will have all the official symbols of being an elder in a local church.
So in the Church of England they will have a dog collars and have Rev before their name. They will sometimes be local vicars, sometimes Archdeacons and sometimes Archbishops.
I still meet people who are shocked when they hear this said. How can you say that someone in high office could be a wolf? That’s what Paul says here. Not only come in but come out from among you.
More shocking thing is not that in the Church of England that wolves are devouring whole congregations but even out of this church wolves could arise. Previous members of SOCM or home group leaders.
How do you recognise them? By listening to them speak. I don’t mean they have a funny accent but their message will not cohere with the message found in the New Testament. They will lead people away from the Bible. They may or may not have clever intellectual arguments for doing so. But in the end a wolf will lead people away from the life giving word of God.
This makes sense. The task of a wolf is to destroy the flock. How do you kill a sheep? Many creative ways. But the simple way is to starve it of food. This is why wolves lead people from the pasture of God’s word.
I ask you to pray for us that we will be on the look out for wolves. And also when we speak out on these matters I ask you to trust that we do not love a fight, we do not seek confrontation but we love the flock.
It is a big thing to call someone a wolf but it is a loving thing to do. What you should never do is feed the wolf, give him a house and then give him the keys to the sheep pen. You expose the wolf and make sure the sheep keep their distance.
We should all be on the look out for false teaching but there does seem to be a particular responsibly on those church leaders appointed to be shepherds of the flock. And that’s why I ask that you would pray that we as elders would be dedicated to protection.
This is what we should be doing during the week. I want to end by showing you the implications of this for the church family here at St Johns.
Turn with me to Ephesians 4:11-13.
As we do our job properly the church will be built up numerically and into maturity.
This is something we should long for.
So if we want to reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God, and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ then let me ask you to pray that your elders would be…
o Dedicated to people.
o Dedicated to preaching.
o Dedicated to protection.
Let’s pray as we finish.
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