Faithful Shepherds (Acts 20:28-38)

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Parting words are special and often memorable, especially when they serve as an exhortation. One thinks of Moses’ words to the Israelites at the end of Deuteronomy, or his more personal exhortation to Joshua as the nation’s new leaders. Joshua no doubt often called those words to mind as he reflected on the task God had given him.

When I left America for South Africa some 24 years ago, my pastor (and father-in-law) gave me an envelope. It contained a Mont Blanc fountain pen and a handwritten note. In the note, he stated that he had already given me one of his most precious earthly treasures—his daughter—but he also wanted to give me his most valued material possession: the fountain pen with which he had handwritten most of his sermons. “I love you and I’m praying for you,” he wrote. Every time I use that pen I am reminded of those encouraging words as we parted ways.

The apostle Paul was leaving these elders, never to return again. And so he gathered them together to deliver some final words. We saw previously that there appears to be a deliberate parallel between Jesus’ march to Jerusalem in His final days (particularly as recorded in the Gospel of Luke) and Paul’s steady march to Jerusalem in these closing chapters of Acts. But there is a second parallel here: Jesus delivered a final speech to the sheep who would shepherd His flock (John 13—16), and Paul does the same here. The essence of the two speeches is the same: “It will be okay. You have what you need; now do it!” Each speech recorded words of comfort as well as words of warning. In each case, shepherds were shepherding shepherds. Faithful shepherds were exhorting others to be faithful shepherds.

Previously, we considered vv. 17-27 of this chapter under the theme “a call to serve.” We saw that elders are called to serve, to speak and to suffer. The sum of that passage was that elders are called to be faithful preachers. Now, in vv. 28-38, we see Paul’s exhortation to these elders to be faithful pastors. They were to be faithful speakers as well as faithful shepherds.

In the local church, it is imperative that the elders be both faithful speakers as well as faithful shepherds. One element cannot be emphasised to the neglect of the other. A church that focuses only on preaching becomes nothing more than a preaching centre. Ultimately, while the preaching is powerful, the church will become weak because the sheep are not shepherded. A church that focuses exclusively on pastoring, on the other hand, becomes little more than a counselling centre. Counselling is all good and well, but the church cannot lose the authority of God in the preaching of His Word.

Both aspects are essential for elders to be effective. It is not necessarily the case that one is easier than the other. Both have their relative blessings and burdens. But biblical body life requires both. I trust that we will see so in this study.

The Faithful Shepherd Pays Attention

In vv. 28-31 we learn that the faithful shepherd must pay attention. Paul could exhort the Ephesian elders in this regard because he exemplified this attitude.

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 word “therefore” in v. 28 is at once a word of credibility and a word of connection.

It is a word of credibility for it follows immediately on the heels of vv. 26-27, in which Paul reminded them of his own labour as an elder. Paul had not shunned to declare all the counsel of God, and so was innocent of the blood of all men. “Therefore” they should hear him. He had set a wonderful example for them to follow.

The word is also, of course, a word of connection. It is a conjunction, which serves to connect what is about to be said to what has already been said. “Since you are called to serve, speak and suffer, do so as a shepherd.”

Paul urges his hearers to “take heed.” The term speaks of paying careful attention to something (see Hebrews 2:1). It carries the idea of, “Beware! Danger lurking!” The principle is clear: Faithful shepherds are alert to dangers lurking around the flock. And since they are also a part of the flock, they are aware of their own dangers.

The shepherds here are exhorted to pay attention to themselves and to the flock over the which God has made them overseers.

Faithful Shepherds Pay Careful Attention to Themselves

Sometimes, the greatest threat to the flock is the shepherd. This was clearly the case in Jeremiah’s time, for the Lord said through him, “Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of My pasture!” (Jeremiah 23:1). Jesus echoed this when He compared the Jews of His generation to sheep without a shepherd (Matthew 9:36-38). In point of fact, there were men appointed to the task of spiritual leadership, but they were so poor at their task that it was as if Israel in fact had no shepherds.

On the other hand, shepherds who guard their own hearts will also guard the hearts of the flock. This is the principle of which Paul wrote to Timothy, who later served as a shepherd of this very flock:

Let no one despise your youth, but be an example to the believers in word, in conduct, in love, in spirit, in faith, in purity. Till I come, give attention to reading, to exhortation, to doctrine. Do not neglect the gift that is in you, which was given to you by prophecy with the laying on of the hands of the eldership. Meditate on these things; give yourself entirely to them, that your progress may be evident to all. Take heed to yourself and to the doctrine. Continue in them, for in doing this you will save both yourself and those who hear you.

(1 Timothy 4:12-16)

We should note four things in this regard.

Pay Attention to Your Calling

First, faithful shepherds must pay attention to their calling. Their calling, by the person of “the Holy Spirit” was to be “overseers” of the flock. Says A. T. Robertson, “Paul evidently believed that the Holy Spirit calls and appoints ministers.”1

Elders must take their shepherding task seriously. They must not shortcut it. They must not minimise or marginalise it. They must, instead, prioritise it. The word “overseers” implies a relationship with the one overseen. James 1:27 translates the verb form of this word by the English word “visit” when he writes, “Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their trouble, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world.” Elders are called to sacrificially care for the flock.

Pay Attention to Your Character

Second, faithful shepherds must pay attention to their character. J. Oswald Sanders once said, “It does not take much of a man to be a man of God, but it does take all of him.”

The Ephesian elders were exhorted to pay attention to themselves. Part of that, no doubt, was a frequent review of texts such as 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:5-9, which list the biblical qualifications of an elder. The elder must face some tough questions: What are you when no one is looking? Do you only labour to be seen of men? Are you an eye pleaser? An elder of character is compelled by love for God, not fear of men.

Pay Attention to Your Conduct

Third, elders must pay attention to their conduct. J. C. Ryle wisely observed, “My people watch me six days a week to see if they should listen to me on the seventh day.” Again, Paul urged Timothy to “be an example to the believers in word, in conduct, in love, in spirit, in faith, in purity” (1 Timothy 4:12). Ecclesiastes 10:1 warns, “Dead flies putrefy the perfumer’s ointment, and cause it to give off a foul odour; so does a little folly to one respected for wisdom and honour.” The “perfumer’s ointment” is rendered utterly useless by a single dead fly. Similarly, just a little folly can wreck the reputation of a leader. Elders must be careful that they do not render their ministry void by means of “a little folly.”

Pay Attention to Your Coworkers

Fourth, elders must pay attention to their coworkers. Paul tells them to “pay attention to yourselves.” The plural of “yourselves” could possibly refer to the many members of the flock, of which the elders were themselves members. Or it could refer to the plurality of elders (see v. 30). The Greek doesn’t exactly help us to decide, but the principle is nevertheless valid: Mutual accountability within a body of elders is good for all the elders.

Elders, watch one another’s calling, character and conduct. The biblical pattern is always a plurality of elders.

Faithful Shepherds Pay Careful Attention to the Flock

Faithful shepherds pay careful attention not only to themselves, but also to the flock—all of it. They were to pay attention to the microcosm of the flock (i.e. the body of elders) and to the entire flock in microcosm.

They Value the Flock

One of the most frequent pictures of believers in the Bible is that of sheep. It has been noted by many that at least four things are characteristic of sheep: They are dependant, defenceless, dirty and dumb. Clearly, such creatures need shepherds who will value them.

Shepherds value the flock because it has been purchased by the blood of God’s own Son.  Even the least of the sheep is of infinite value because of the price that secured him. The church of God is precious. And the principle here is that you cannot claim to love the church at large if you don’t love the church local. The church comprises individually chosen and purchased members. Each member is valuable to God. Each member has a big brother in the Lord Jesus Christ. We dare not mistreat God’s bride. And elders, in a particular way, are called to value the sheep if they will shepherd the sheep.

Their Passion is the Flock

Faithful shepherds are passionate about the flock. That is why they “shepherd” the flock. The word “shepherd” in v. 28 has at least three major implications. To shepherd is to feed, lead and give heed to the flock.

Once again, the concept of a team of elders is vital here. As a church grows, it becomes increasingly impossible for one pastor to be able to adequately feed, lead and give heed to each member. Our church is by no means large (around 250 members at the time of writing), but even in a church as small as ours, there is no way that I can shepherd each individual member the way that I would like to. An eldership of seven, however, as we have in our church, is able to far more effectively do so. There will be members with whom I do not have a close shepherding relationship but with whom another elder does have such a relationship. Together, we can accomplish far more shepherding than I or any of the others can do alone.

Faithful shepherds must so shepherd the sheep that they will hear the voice of the Chief Shepherd. This, of course, requires a Word-centred ministry. Again, this was Paul’s pattern (vv. 26-27) and it must be emulated by those who would be as faithful in their shepherding as Paul was in his.

Of course, shepherds who will shepherd faithfully must know the flock. As noted above, as a church grows, it becomes increasingly difficult for a single shepherd to know all the sheep, and so, as the church grows, there is an increasing need for a plurality of elders.

Thankfully, the shepherds are not in this task alone. The Holy Spirit enables them to faithfully carry out their ministry. He gives them insight and perseverance.

To the faithful shepherd, the health of the flock is of paramount importance. There is a sense in which the faithful shepherd eats, sleeps and drinks his local church.

They Are Protective of the Flock

As a faithful shepherd, Paul was protective of the Ephesian flock, and he exhorted their shepherds to have the same attitude. He said, “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” (vv. 29-31).

The word “know” in v. 29 is a translation of a Greek word that means “to know for sure.” Paul had no doubt that savage wolves would enter the flock after his departure? How did he know? Had he received a prophecy to this end? Did he know simply by past experience? Was he relying on Old Testament prophecies for this certainty? Whatever the case, he was right, for 1 Timothy, written later to Timothy as an elder in this church, bears clear witness to “savage wolves” in the Ephesian assembly.

Importantly, because Paul was certain of the presence of savage wolves in the local church at Ephesus, we can know what to expect in our churches today. Things have no changed. Wolves can always be found where there are sheep.

The word “savage” speaks of being ravenous, unscrupulous and bloodthirsty. Those who are “savage” are enemies of the flock. They are like the burdensome and unscrupulous spiritual leaders of whom Jesus spoke in Matthew 23:4: “For they bind heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers.”

The phrase “not sparing” speaks of no restraint or no exceptions. For the savage wolves, every sheep is fair game.

These savage wolves, according to Matthew 7:15, are “false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves.” This is where we get the familiar phrase “a wolf in sheep’s clothing” from. When I was a kid, I always found that image strange, for I pictured a wolf trying to infiltrate the flock by draping a sheep’s skin on its back. This, however, is not the image we should have in mind. Sheep’s clothing, of course, is wool, and shepherds wore wool to keep themselves warm. The picture, then, is of shepherds (“false prophets”) who were in fact ravenous wolves. The point is that the wolves of which Paul warned would come to the church as shepherds. It is little wonder, then, that Paul urged Timothy to “remain in Ephesus that you may charge some that they teach no other doctrine” (1 Timothy 1:3).

Frighteningly, there would be wolves “from among yourselves.” Like Judas, there were evidently some in their midst who would prove to be false prophets. Paul warned them of this because the faithful shepherds in their midst needed to know the Word of God well enough to expect and to prepare for defectors. They needed to expect and prepare for doctrinal error. They needed to prepare the flock for this, thereby protecting the flock.

The ministry of faithful shepherds, by its very nature, is antithetical. It does not, therefore, shrink from the negatives. Faithful shepherds are not afraid to say no and to call out sin. And they are not afraid to call defectors for what they are.

The faithful shepherd is not surprised, though he is saddened, by defectors.  Ultimately, defection is doctrinal in nature (1 Timothy 4:1-3). Defection, by its very nature, is a failure to believe and obey God’s Word. Faithful shepherds must be familiar enough with God’s Word to recognise defection when they see it. He must pay attention to what the flock is exposed to, and if necessary, must expose false teaching for what it is. As the proverb exhorts, “Be diligent to know the state of your flocks, and attend to your herds” (Proverbs 27:23).

They Admonish the Flock

Faithful shepherds personally, passionately and pastorally admonish the flock. Paul exhorts the elders at Ephesus to “watch.” The word means “to stay awake” or “to be alert.” He reminds them that he did not cease to “warn” them while he was with them. This term means “to put in mind,” “to admonish” or “to counsel.” Paul no doubt admonished the elders, but he also, no doubt, admonished the flock (cf. vv. 17-27). He cared. He wanted them to be healthy. He wanted them to persevere.

Faithful shepherds will sometimes “get in your face”—lovingly. The thought of defection pains them. I have been at BBC for twenty years now, and I have never grown used to people leaving the church. The truth is, there is no need for the sheep to be devoured. If they will but follow faithful shepherds, who are pointing them to the Chief Shepherd, they will be safe.

The Faithful Shepherd has a Proper Ambition

In the second major section of our text (vv. 32-35) we learn that faithful shepherds have a holy ambition.

“So now, brethren, I commend you to God and to the word of His grace, which is able to build you up and give you an inheritance among all those who are sanctified. I have coveted no one’s silver or gold or apparel. Yes, you yourselves know that these hands have provided for my necessities, and for those who were with me. I have shown you in every way, by labouring like this, that you must support the weak. And remember the words of the Lord Jesus, that He said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’”

(Acts 20:32-35)

There is an intimate connection between v. 32 and vv. 33-35. It is all about the shepherds’ passionate ambition for the welfare of the church. Faithful shepherds are ambitious for the church’s edification, not for his own enrichment. He is concerned about her inheritance, not his own.

The word “commend” in v. 32 means “to deposit” or “to entrust.” It is translated by the word “commit” in 1 Timothy 1:18 and 2 Timothy 2:2, where the context in both instances is the commitment of gospel truth to others.

The elders here are commended “to God and to the word of His grace.” Faithful shepherds know their limitations, while at the same time believing that God has none. “The word of His grace” here is a reference to the gospel. Faithful shepherds have full confidence in God and in His gospel. They believe that God and His gospel are able to deliver what they promised. And what does God promise through His gospel?

And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ, till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ; that we should no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, in the cunning craftiness of deceitful plotting, but, speaking the truth in love, may grow up in all things into Him who is the head—Christ— from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by what every joint supplies, according to the effective working by which every part does its share, causes growth of the body for the edifying of itself in love.

(Ephesians 4:11-16)

Verse 32 speaks of the gospel giving “an inheritance among all those who are sanctified.” The theme of an inheritance is heavy in Ephesians (see 1:11, 14, 18; 2:30; 3:18; 5:5). It is by the gospel that we receive our eternal inheritance. That is why our church is so “obsessed” with the gospel, as should be any local church. We want our sheep to enjoy all that God has in store for them. We are hopeful that this will be realised—but only through the gospel.

As noted above, the faithful shepherd serves not for personal gain but for congregational benefit. He is not a materialist. He really is focused on a more lasting inheritance (cf. Colossians 3:1-2; Matthew 6:19-21). He knows what really matters, and it is not matter! The faithful shepherd is sacrificial in his giving because he is focused on the faithful Shepherd (v. 35). He is very careful with the administration of church funds. He is a giver because he gets the gospel.

The faithful shepherd is also a hard worker. Paul worked hard to provide for his own needs. The word “provided” in v. 34 comes from a root that speaks of an under-rower. Ships in ancient times often had a section below deck where slaves would sit, unnoticed by those on deck, rowing hard to keep the ship moving. It was hard and necessary work, and ultimately benefited the entire ship. Paul was unafraid of hard work, because he knew that it would benefit the church at large. He exhorted these Ephesian elders to emulate his example.

The Faithful Shepherd has a Prayerful Attitude

The third major lesson from our text concerns the faithful shepherd’s prayerful attitude. We read of this in v. 36: “And when he had said these things, he knelt down and prayed with them all.” Paul not only spoke to them but also prayed with them. We should expect faithful shepherds to pray for the flock.

Paul’s humility of mind (v. 19) led to the bending of his knees (v. 36). And, no doubt, the bending of his knees contributed to his humility of mind.

A proper assessment will always lead to prayerful activity. Faithful shepherds are dependent on the faithful Shepherd. They therefore pray (see 6:3-4). Importantly, this underscores the importance of a biblical diaconate, for the deacons serve tables so that the elders can row the ship.

The Faithful Shepherd Experiences Profound Affection

Finally, we learn from vv. 37-38 that the faithful shepherd experiences profound affection from the flock. “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. 37-38).

The phrase “they all wept freely” literally reads, “There was considerable weeping of all.” Paul would clearly be sorely missed. The flock had great affection for him. Perhaps there were some judases (v. 30) who kissed him, but the affection was nevertheless widespread.

There is a man in our church who was employed for some time as a shepherd in Zimbabwe before he came to South Africa. I asked him recently if the animals he shepherded ever showed him affection, and he said that they did, in fact, at times nuzzle affectionately against him.

Paul was loved because he was characterised, as a faithful shepherd, by all we have seen above. No doubt, the sheep sometimes were not happy with him, yet they held him in affectionate esteem. He was not in it for the affection, and that is precisely why he received affection. He selflessly served his Shepherd and was therefore a loving shepherd who was loved.

Shepherds, beware your motive! Don’t shepherd for personal gain. Jesus will be loved throughout eternity because He loved the flock. So love Him and leave the results and the rewards with him.

Shepherds, may God grant us the grace to be faithful. Flock, pray for us!

Show 1 footnote

  1. A. T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament, 6 vols. (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1930), 3:352.