Caring for the Community (Acts 20:17–38)

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Paul loved the church. And he had a particular love for the church at Ephesus—the church in which, as far as we know, he spent more time than any other church (with the exception of Antioch). Paul stayed in Ephesus for three years, and his impact there, and the later impact of the church there, was felt far and wide. He experienced supernatural community there.

But as we reach Acts 20 in Luke’s recounting of the acts of the apostles, we learn that Paul expects to leave Ephesus for good. He does not expect to see the Ephesians again (vv. 25, 38). Acts 20:17–38 therefore form Paul’s parting words to this church, and parting words are always significant.

Paul was deeply committed to the church and to its welfare. He had more insight into the church than anyone else at that point of history, for God had revealed the full “mystery” of the church to him (see Ephesians 2). He had cared deeply for this particular community of faith. He still cared for it. And so he called for a meeting of its elders—those entrusted with its care. The elders had been enlisted, equipped and entrusted to care for this flock. Now, once again, they would be exhorted—with specific reference to their expectations as elders.

This is the only sermon or speech in Acts that is addressed to a Christian audience. Luke records many sermons preached to unbelievers, but here Paul is addressing a group of believers. Its content is therefore significant.

We would do well to note that the only sermon in Acts addressing believers concerns not evangelism, missions, the culture, the family, or theology and doctrine, but the church. Specifically, it concerns care for the community. (This, of course, is not unrelated to the other issues.)

If you pay attention to the book of Ephesians, this emphasis will not surprise you, for Ephesians makes it quite clear that the church is the greatest thing on earth. And since it is so, it is not surprising that Paul would choose to address the leaders of the greatest thing on earth.

This text remains profoundly significant for Christians in the 21st century. This message was originally prepared to be preached at the ordination service of an elder in our church, but the principles here are helpful for several reasons.

It is important that believers be reminded of the expectations of biblical elders.

Those who are appointed to the office of elder1 need to know what is expected of them. After all, Paul told elders to pay careful attention to themselves (v. 28).

These principles are also important for those who may aspire to the office of elder. Paul tells us elsewhere that it is a noble office to aspire to (1 Timothy 3:1), but it is one that must be aspired to with fear and trembling. If you aspire to the office of elder, then hear Paul’s exhortation here and rise to the challenge.

This is also an important text for the local church congregation. The congregation needs to know what it should expect of its elders. It must know how to pray for its elders. It must understand that its elders are accountable to the flock—they are not untouchable. It must know the burden that the elders carry, and understand the caring heart that the elders bare for the church.

It is also helpful for visitors to a church to hear these principles explained. They will help visitors to assess the seriousness of the church. Is this a church you can join, or should you look elsewhere? Will you be able to happily submit yourself to this church and its leadership (Hebrews 13:17)?

As we consider the text, several characteristics of elders flow from Paul’s address. We will look at four. (The first three produce the fourth.) Elders, we learn, are found transparently tested, tirelessly tenacious and tearfully teaching. If these things are true of the church’s elders, those elders will be treasured and trusted. Stated another way, elders are enlisted (summoned by God), equipped (strengthened, supplied and sanctified by God) and are therefore entrusted with the care of God’s flock. If elders take Paul’s charge seriously, the flock will be well cared for.

Transparently Tested

Those who are called to lead God’s church are called to be examined like an open book. The Ephesians had had opportunity to examine Paul “from the first day that [he] came to Asia” (v. 18). They had seen his “humility,” “tears” and “trials” (v. 19). He had “kept back nothing” from them, but had taught then “publicly and from house to house” (v. 20). In short, they had had plenty of opportunity to observe his life.

An elder should be able to say to his congregation, “You know me—warts and all.” This takes time. Paul urged his churches not to lay hands on anyone hastily. I have seen instances in which churches, looking for a pastor-teacher, have invited a man to preach on a Sunday and then taken a church vote on Monday. This often ends up poorly, because no one has taken the time to examine the man’s character, or his family life, or any part of his track record. This is one of the reasons that we at BBC have an elder internship program, where men who aspire to the ministry spend at least two years being observed by the church before being appointed.

Recluses need not apply for the eldership. Elders must be visible to the congregation. The church has a right to expect this. The church can expect its elders to be available. It can expect them to be approachable. It can expect them to be vulnerable.

Elders must be engaged in the body. Invisible shepherds are ineffective shepherds. The church has every right to expect that its elders will be some of the first to arrive on a Sunday and some of the last to leave. It can expect that elders will be engaged in body life throughout the week. If a man is not engaged, he is not fit to lead the church.

Paul spoke of the “trials” that these elders had witnessed in his life. Trials are designed to produce transparency. Testing reveals; it is designed to examine. Those who aspire to the office of elder can expect hardships, but they can also be expected to persevere. They do this in order to “be an example to the believers in word, in conduct, in love, in spirit, in faith, in purity” (1 Timothy 4:12). Paul urged Timothy to remember his appointment as an elder, and reminded him, “God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind” (2 Timothy 1:6–7). Under testing, the elder should never cry, “I don’t need this right now!” Evidently, you do!

Shepherding is not an easy task, and if the elder expects it to be so he will be bitterly disappointed.

Testing reveals who we really are. It examines our worship. When Abraham was called to sacrifice Isaac, he considered that trial to be an act of worship (Genesis 22:5). The elder understands that he is a “bondservant” of the Lord Jesus Christ (2 Corinthians 4:5). Those who serve only themselves are strongly rebuked in the New Testament (Jude 12).

This kind of transparent living produces wonderful soil in which to train others. Paul did not merely talk about community, but engaged in it. The result was that he trained elders! Elders are likewise to be involved in training others. As Paul told Timothy, later the pastor-teacher at Ephesus, “The things that you have heard from me among many witnesses, commit these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also” (2 Timothy 2:2). As Paul had trained Timothy, so elders are to train others.

Tirelessly Tenacious

Paul’s testimony was one of tireless tenacity. Listen to his recollection of his ministry at Ephesus:

You know, from the first day that I came to Asia, in what manner I always lived among you, serving the Lord with all humility, with many tears and trials which happened to me by the plotting of the Jews; how I kept back nothing that was helpful, but proclaimed it to you, and taught you publicly and from house to house, testifying to Jews, and also to Greeks, repentance toward God and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ.

(Acts 20:18–21)

He was not discouraged by this required tirelessness (v. 24) but instead “did not cease to warn everyone night and day with tears” (v. 31). And he not only worked hard in ministry, but he worked hard with his own hands in order to provide for his own needs (vv. 34–35).

Elders are to be busy—with the right things. They are to teach, train and testify. They are to preach, protect and propagate. They are, in short, to pastor. A good shepherd, said Jesus, is willing to lay down his life for the sheep. Our Good Shepherd did so, and His good undershepherds are to do the same. Sometimes, this involved a good deal of headbutting with powerful goats.

Elders must know how to wisely separate the important from the urgent. Elders will face any number of “urgent” needs, but they must know when to say no because something else is more important. This requires the fear of God rather than the fear of man.

An urgent task is one that requires immediate attention. An important task is one that will contribute meaningfully to the long-term mission, value and goals of the church. And, as Dwight Eisenhower said, what is important is seldom urgent, and what is urgent is seldom important.

In our text, v. 28 is important: “Therefore take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with his own blood.” The elder must treasure the church and be tirelessly tenacious in serving her. If he treasures the community, he will care for the community. We always sacrifice for what we value.

Practically, elders are tasked to feed, lead and give heed to God’s flock. And, knowing that temptations to be moved from this will come, they must be tenacious in persisting in this task. Paul carried out this responsibility night and day (v. 31) and from house to house (v. 20). He evidently wasn’t concerned about being “balanced” in life: He threw everything he had into the task of shepherding.2

To the Corinthians, Paul wrote, “Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they the seed of Abraham? So am I. Are they ministers of Christ?—I speak as a fool—I am more: in labours more abundant, in stripes above measure, in prisons more frequently, in deaths often” (2 Corinthians 11:22–23). He wrote of similar tireless labour in 2 Corinthians 6:4–10. Or listen to the description of his tireless labour at Thessalonica:

For you yourselves know, brethren, that our coming to you was not in vain. But even after we had suffered before and were spitefully treated at Philippi, as you know, we were bold in our God to speak to you the gospel of God in much conflict. For our exhortation did not come from error or uncleanness, nor was it in deceit. But as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel, even so we speak, not as pleasing men, but God who tests our hearts. For neither at any time did we use flattering words, as you know, nor a cloak for covetousness—God is witness. Nor did we seek glory from men, either from you or from others, when we might have made demands as apostles of Christ. But we were gentle among you, just as a nursing mother cherishes her own children. So, affectionately longing for you, we were well pleased to impart to you not only the gospel of God, but also our own lives, because you had become dear to us. For you remember, brethren, our labour and toil; for labouring night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you, we preached to you the gospel of God. You are witnesses, and God also, how devoutly and justly and blamelessly we behaved ourselves among you who believe; as you know how we exhorted, and comforted, and charged every one of you, as a father does his own children, that you would walk worthy of God who calls you into His own kingdom and glory.

(1 Thessalonians 2:1–12)

Elders must get used to being tired. Waging a good warfare is tiring stuff! Elders will be weary, but they must never grow weary of doing what they have been enlisted to do. Paul urged the Thessalonians to not grow weary in doing good (2 Thessalonians 3:13; cf. Galatians 6:10), and elders need to hear this charge. And they need great grace to continue in the midst of weariness.

You therefore, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus. And the things that you have heard from me among many witnesses, commit these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also. You therefore must endure hardship as a good soldier of Jesus Christ. No one engaged in warfare entangles himself with the affairs of this life, that he may please him who enlisted him as a soldier.

(2 Timothy 2:1–4)

Elders must be tirelessly tenacious, for the goal is worth the effort.

Tearfully Testifying

Paul says that he served the Lord “with many tears” (v. 19) and that he “proclaimed” the truth to them “testifying to Jews, and also to Greeks, repentance toward God and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ” (vv. 20–21). He uses the word “testify” again in vv. 24, 26 and speaks of the fact in v. 31 that he warned his hearers “with tears.” He urged the Ephesian elders to do the same:

Therefore take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood. For I know this, that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock. Also from among yourselves men will rise up, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after themselves. Therefore watch, and remember that for three years I did not cease to warn everyone night and day with tears.

(Acts 20:28–31)

The blend of testifying and tears is striking in this text. Elders are called to be both tough and tender. They are called to feed the flock and to lead the flock. They feed, primarily, by leading—that is how they give heed to the flock.

Teaching is one primary responsibility of the eldership. It is a huge part of caring for the community. That is why an elder must be “able to teach” (1 Timothy 3:2). In fact, this ability to teach is the primary thing that distinguishes elders from deacons.

But, of course, we cannot separate teaching from prayer. Elders are to give themselves to prayer and to the ministry of the Word (Acts 6:4). Notice the order! The elder’s teaching must be prayerful teaching.

Elders are expected to teach God’s Word both publicly and personally. That does not mean that all elders are expected to preach during corporate worship. Some may be better gifted than others to do so. But all elders have the responsibility, in some setting, to teach publicly—and all elders must teach privately.

The goal of this teaching is to equip the sheep to love the Chief Shepherd (Ephesians 3:14ff). The goal is to nourish the flock so that it will be healthy to reproduce. I am no farmer, but I understand that shepherds do not reproduce sheep; sheep produce sheep.3 The elders must shepherd in such a way that the flock is healthy enough to reproduce.

The goal of teaching is for the elders to nourish to flock, to build it up on the gospel. This requires that the elders themselves be nourished by the Word (see 1 Timothy 4:6–11).

In short, the elders must be committed to preaching and teaching the Word—continually. That is why Paul commended the elders to the Word (v. 32).

Teaching passionately and pastorally is the primary responsibility of the eldership. That is why Paul taught this church with tears. And this was his manner in all the churches he ministered to. Consider, for example, these parallel words to the Corinthian community:

But I determined this within myself, that I would not come again to you in sorrow. For if I make you sorrowful, then who is he who makes me glad but the one who is made sorrowful by me?

And I wrote this very thing to you, lest, when I came, I should have sorrow over those from whom I ought to have joy, having confidence in you all that my joy is the joy of you all. For out of much affliction and anguish of heart I wrote to you, with many tears, not that you should be grieved, but that you might know the love which I have so abundantly for you. But if anyone has caused grief, he has not grieved me, but all of you to some extent—not to be too severe.

(2 Corinthians 2:1–5)

Elders are to be so caring for the community that they passionately give themselves to the feeding of the flock. They are to tenderly care so that they unflinchingly instruct. They are sometimes called upon to “warn” in the context of their teaching (v. 31). Again, Paul urged church leaders everywhere to do this—and he exemplified it himself.

1 Corinthians 4:14—I do not write these things to shame you, but as my beloved children I warn you.

Colossians 1:28—Him we preach, warning every man and teaching every man in all wisdom, that we may present every man perfect in Christ Jesus.

1 Thessalonians 5:12—And we urge you, brethren, to recognise those who labour among you, and are over you in the Lord and admonish you.

1 Thessalonians 5:14—Now we exhort you, brethren, warn those who are unruly, comfort the fainthearted, uphold the weak, be patient with all.

2 Thessalonians 3:14–15—And if anyone does not obey our word in this epistle, note that person and do not keep company with him, that he may be ashamed. Yet do not count him as an enemy, but admonish him as a brother.

Titus 3:10–11—Reject a divisive man after the first and second admonition, knowing that such a person is warped and sinning, being self-condemned.

Elders are to be tough and tender in their teaching. They are to exemplify what it means to speak the truth in love. There is a naivety today to the constant exhortations that we hear to be “nice” all the time.4 This is what mothers and fathers do—and it is what shepherd’s do (see John 10). Jesus rebuked strongly, and yet He was caring and relational. Elders are to be the same.

Effective elders are willing to say and do the difficult thing—even if the more they love the less they are loved (see 2 Corinthians 12:15).

Trusted and Treasured

Our text also shows us the result of elders who are characterised by the above: They are elders who are trusted and treasured: “And when he had said these things, he knelt down and prayed with them all. Then they all wept freely, and fell on Paul’s neck and kissed him, sorrowing most of all for the words which he spoke, that they would see his face no more. And they accompanied him to the ship” (vv. 36–38).

How said it would have been if these elders had simply high-fived Paul and told him that they would see him around. That is not what happened. There was a great deal of weeping involved in this parting. These elders knew that they would deeply miss Paul and they were willing to show their affection for him. These are the kinds of elders the church needs. These are the kinds of elders who make it easy for the church to follow them (Hebrews 13:7, 17).

Elders are true to their word and are therefore trustworthy. Paul was like that (vv. 26–27) and he exhorted the elders to be the same (vv. 31–32). Integrity when it comes to the truth of God is essential. Elders must not be narcissistically nice when it comes to their shepherding. They must not manipulate the Scriptures. Elders who care for the community will properly feed the community.

Biblical elders are not covetous, and therefore they are trustworthy. Though he had every biblical right to expect the churches to which he ministered to minister materially to him, Paul was willing instead to work with his own hands. His testimony stood in stark contrast to the covetousness of the false teachers of whom you read in the New Testament. He understood that elders cannot be characterised by covetousness (1 Timothy 3:3). Elders must be willing to give rather than to receive.

Biblical elders are all of the above—and therefore they are treasured by the community. Elders who care for the community will be dear to the community. When they leave, they will be missed.

Are you an elder? Then strive to be characterised by the above. Do you aspire to be an elder? Then aspire to be characterised by the above. Are you a church member? Then aspire to be such a church member. Are you looking for a church? Then look for a church whose leaders—and whose members—aspire to be characterised by the above.

Show 4 footnotes

  1. In the New Testament, the terms “elder,” “pastor” (shepherd) and “overseer” (bishop) are used interchangeably. The three terms describe the same office. In our church, we are accustomed to speaking of “elders,” and so that is the term that I will use throughout this study.
  2. I am not, of course, suggesting that the elder shepherd the flock to the detriment of his own family. He must shepherd his own family too, and indeed his family is part of the flock. Neglecting his family is not as much a failure to balance as it is a failure to shepherd.
  3. I understand, of course, that elders are both sheep and shepherds, and so they must reproduce as sheep themselves, but this does not take away from the fact that they must shepherd in such a way that the flock itself reproduces.
  4. Doug Van Meter, “The Naivety of Niceness,” http://goo.gl/KAHBSp, retrieved 8 May 2016.