Caring for the Church
As Paul continues his mission, we see once again that his plan for the ongoing care of churches he’s started is a council of elders in those churches who care for the church. Through his address to the elders at Ephesus, we can all learn how to care for the church of God.
Church Elders: How to Shepherd God’s People like Jesus, Jeramie Rinne
When I was a kid I would often bug my parents about getting a pet, an idea they often did not indulge, because they were aware of the responsibility it required in a way that I wasn’t. One time, however, they caved in, and they let me brother and I get a couple small pet lizards. We got the glass aquarium, the stone you plug into your wall that keeps the aquarium warm, and so forth. My parents’ approach however, was that my brother and I were going to have to actually take care of these lizards; we couldn’t just offload it on them. So I thought, “This is going to be fun,” especially because part of caring for them was going to the pet store and buying bugs, which the lizards would then eat. That was really cool, for like 2-3 weeks. Then the shine wore off a bit and suddenly I wasn’t excited about using my Saturday to hit the pet store. Eventually I forgot about the lizards all together, and sure enough, they died. What happened? I loved the idea of having lizards, I loved a particular activity (feeding the lizards), but I didn’t actually love the lizards.
Now perhaps you’ll forgive me for that, but do you see how disastrous it would be if we related to people that way? And yet we so often find ourselves excited about a new friendship or perhaps even a new church, enjoying certain activities with them, then struggling to care for them, the actual people, in an ongoing way. In the passage we’re looking at today in the book of Acts, we see a different approach. Paul, the speaker in the passage, had preached the gospel in Ephesus, developed new friendships, and planted a new church there. And even though God told Paul to leave Ephesus and keep preaching the gospel elsewhere, God so cared for the church in Ephesus that He gave it elders, the leadership council of a local church, and Paul so cared for the church still that he addressed those elders in the speech we’re looking at and told them to care for the church of God. Since all Christians, even non-elders, are called by God to use their gifts and resources to build up the church, we are going to learn from this speech three ways to care for the church of God: Forget yourself, pay careful attention to yourselves, and pay careful attention to the flock.
Paul begins his speech to the Ephesian elders by reminding them of his own example. He describes himself in verse 19 as serving the Lord, which sounds nice, right? But then he reminds them how his service to the Lord was with all humility, tears, and trials springing from plots of opponents against him. Nonetheless, he did not shrink back from declaring to them anything that was profitable, whether in public or in their houses, continuing to speak to them about repentance toward God and faith in the Lord Jesus. Though it cost him dearly, Paul had continued caring for the church in Ephesus by teaching them the Word.
Not only did he teach the Word among them, but later starting in verse 33 he talks about how his hands ministered to his own needs, and especially to the needs of the weak. Though he was there to preach the Word, while he was there, he worked hard in his profession as a tent-maker and used the proceeds of his work to care for the poor, remembering the words of the Lord Jesus quoted in verse 35: It is more blessed to give than to receive. That’s not from the back of a Hallmark Card; that’s Jesus. Paul cared for the church by caring for its poor.
But now Paul anticipates his time in Ephesus ending. In verse 22 he says that he is passing beyond Ephesus to go to Jerusalem, because he is constrained by the Holy Spirit to go. What’s going to happen in Jerusalem? Paul says he doesn’t know, but what he does know, what the Holy Spirit has told him, is that he’ll be imprisoned and afflicted there. He goes anyway. Verse 24 explains why: “But I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God.” Now how does a verse like that land on modern ears? You can almost hear people saying back to him, “No Paul, don’t say that. Your life is precious!” Does Paul reveal a psychological disorder here? No. He’s not saying, “my life is absolutely worthless.” He’s saying my life is worthless to me. “I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself.” He’s saying, “I’m not here for me.” I’m not here for a high social standing, so humiliation is fine. I’m not here to just be happy, so tears are fine. I’m not here to be comfortable, so affliction is fine. I’m not here to be free, so imprisonment is fine. I’m not here to be wealthy, so giving to the poor is fine, and so on. I’m here for what? My life matters for what? Back to verse 24: “If only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God.” He’s only got one aim in life! Live the life the Lord assigned him, testify to the good news of the grace of God. The Lord sets the path, he constrains me where to go; my goal is to faithfully follow until I finish that course. That’s the example Paul is holding out to us: Forget yourself, so that you might give yourself to the life the Lord has assigned you.
Do you see how available you would be for the Lord’s use if that was your attitude? What if when you made decisions from as small as what to do with your next hour to as big as where to live, what job to take, who and whether to marry, your wealth, comfort, and reputation weren’t even on your radar? What if when you went to work, or perhaps for many of you these days, “logged on” to work, your only goal for the day was to finish the course Jesus had set out for you? Might some of you even consider whether Jesus is calling you into a ministry like Paul’s or the elders to whom these words were addressed, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God? Our world is telling you from the time you’re born, like literally I’m learning now with a young son that this message fills children’s books, that if you really want to be happy, you have to view your life as really precious to yourself. Paul says no, because Jesus said no. Jesus said it’s more blessed, that means more happy, to give than to receive. You want to be really happy? Forget yourself; don’t account your life as precious to you; account Christ precious, and give yourself to Him. That’s how you really find yourself. And then, perhaps surprisingly after holding out to us this example of self-forgetfulness, Paul says in verse 28: “Pay careful attention to yourselves.” Let’s talk about that.
Pay careful attention to yourselves
We can start with what it doesn’t mean to pay careful attention to yourselves: Clearly it doesn’t mean, “Pay careful attention to your wealth, social status, and safety.” So what does it mean? He expands on this command later in a letter to Timothy, who ends up being one of the elders in Ephesus. In one translation of 1 Timothy 4:16 Paul writes, “Watch your life and doctrine closely.” Paying careful attention to yourselves then, means paying careful attention to your life and your doctrine, and if you’ll allow me to break that down even further, under the heading of “life,” we could include your hands and your heart, what you do and what you love, and under the heading of doctrine, we could call that your head, what you think and teach. So, pay careful attention to your hands, heart, and head.
By hands I’m just talking about your practices, those things to which you regularly give your time. This is the focus of much of today’s popular talk about “self-care,” and we can learn much from it: You have to schedule it, get enough sleep, exercise. The problem with it, though, is it can devolve into just carving out time to do stuff you like, regardless of whether those things are actually helping you. For example, I “like” scrolling through Twitter, but I find when I do it excessively it actually hinders my contentment and feeds my covetousness; that’s not helping. On the other hand, I often don’t “feel like” praying, but I never regret it after I do it. That’s something to which I need to pay careful attention. Are your self-care practices helping you become more or less like Jesus? Are they resulting in a greater expression of the fruit of the Spirit in your life or the works of the flesh?
So that’s the hands; let’s talk about the heart. There are a number of things that can start small in your heart, but if you don’t pay careful attention to them, they will start to create distance between you and Jesus, and then also typically between you and your church. Let me mention a few. Pay careful attention to unresolved hurt. If a fellow church member has sinned against you, failed to meet an expectation you had of them, or hurt you in some other way, your heart will be prone to drift from them if you don’t deal with it. You need to either choose to overlook the offense or confront it. Don’t let it fester. Pay careful attention to a harsh spirit: Are you finding yourself easily angered? Do you want people to just do what you say? Are you looking for opportunities to speak negatively of others? Are you reading peoples’ actions and words in the worst possible light? Consider the Lord’s gentleness to you; choose not to accuse others of wrong in your heart when another explanation is possible. Pay careful attention to covetousness: Are you finding yourself bitter toward what God has given someone else that He hasn’t given you? Have you slowed down giving your money away? Do you find yourself daydreaming about a relationship or sexual encounter with someone to whom you cannot be married? Don’t play around with such things; now is the time to put them to death. Pay careful attention to isolation. Proverbs 18:1 says “Whoever isolates himself seeks his own desire; he breaks out against all sound judgment.” It’s worth noting here in our passage that the plural is used: Pay careful attention to yourselves, which seems to imply that the elders in Ephesus should pay careful attention to one another as well. Who in your local church knows you? Who knows your characteristic sins and sorrows? How many weeks in a row have gone by without you talking to anyone else honestly about the state of your soul with God?
And finally, pay careful attention to your head, your doctrine. Much like grievous sin, we don’t usually wake up one morning and decide to embrace heresy. It starts in your gut. You start saying, “Yes, of course I believe every word of the Bible is the word of God and without error,” but in your gut, subconsciously even, something says, “Buuut I’m not so sure about that teaching on sexuality…” That can especially take place when people you really want to respect you, a professor, someone successful in your field, etc., aren’t themselves submitting to God’s authority in Scripture. As Pastor Jonathan Leeman points out, some doctrinal drift is good, when it’s closer to the Bible, but some is obviously bad, when further away. They key is to pay careful attention to when your gut is drifting, and really evaluate that honestly: Are you actually trying to get closer to what God says in Scripture, or is something else causing your gut to drift? Talk to people who do submit to the authority of Scripture and be extra diligent about filling your mind with what it actually says. Pay careful attention to your hands, heart, and head, and then, finally, pay careful attention to the flock.
Pay careful attention to the flock
This is the second half of verse 28: After telling the elders to pay careful attention to themselves, Paul tells them to pay careful attention to the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made them overseers, to care for the church of God, which he purchased with his own blood. Notice how the church and the elders are described here: A flock, with overseers called elders whose job is to care for that flock. God’s ordinary care plan for every Christian is in churches led by a group of men called elders.
So Paul tells the elders to pay careful attention to the flock, for three basic reasons: First, the Holy Spirit has made you overseers in that flock. Nobody can take office in Jesus’ church upon him or herself. The Holy Spirit makes a man an elder, that calling on him is evident by observation of his life and doctrine, and that calling is with the purpose that he care for the church of God. So the first reason the elders should pay careful attention to the church of God is because it’s the job the Holy Spirit gave them. If you are a Christian, the Holy Spirit has called certain men to oversee your walk with God and pay careful attention to the condition of your soul, not to bug you or abuse you, but to care for you. Are you welcoming that into your life or resisting it? And even if eldership isn’t the ministry Jesus has given you, are you using your gifts to care for the church in which the Holy Spirit has made you a member?
The second reason to do so is given at the end of verse 28. Look at this description of the church: “which he purchased with his own blood.” In other words, do you see who these people are? Citylight Center City, if this is the church in which the Holy Spirit has made you a member, do you see who those other 97 people are who are your fellow members here? They aren’t the people who aren’t doing enough, the people who aren’t diverse enough, the people who aren’t old enough, the people who aren’t cool enough, the people who don’t love you well enough. They are the people God loves so much that He bought them with His own blood. Many of those other things may be true by the way, but they aren’t the reason given to care for the church in which the Holy Spirit has placed you. The reason is simply they’re a church, and they’re the people among whom the Holy Spirit has you right now. If God loved them so much as to purchase them for Himself at the price of His own Son’s blood, how could you not care for them?
Then the final reason, which is expanded upon, is the threat of false teaching. So Paul says in verse 29 that after his departure fierce wolves will come, interestingly from among their own selves according to verse 30, whose goal will be to draw people to follow them rather than to follow Jesus. Therefore he tells them in verse 31 to be alert, and reminds them of his example, how day and night for 3 years he did not cease admonishing them with tears, teaching the whole counsel of God. He’s telling them: My ministry from Jesus means leaving Ephesus, but I want you to stay and keep teaching this Word, so that when false teaching creeps up, not if, but when, the sheep will not be led astray. It’s important for every Christian to realize, including the elders, that it is possible for you to be led astray. That’s part of why the Holy Spirit has given you elders, who have gifts and time to study the Word and false teaching enough to demonstrate the difference between the two.
I know it can be hard to join an actual church and trust elders to care for you, because sometimes elders treat people like I treated my lizards, and maybe you’ve even felt that personally. I know on the flipside it can be hard to be an elder, because who is sufficient for these things? Who can carry the weight of caring for the people God purchased with His own blood? These difficulties are why verse 32 is so important, and we’ll end there: “Now I commend you to God and to the word of His grace, which is able to build you up and give you the inheritance among all who are sanctified.” The word of God’s grace is the gospel, the good news, concerning Jesus Christ. Before Paul served the Lord with humility, tears, and trials, Jesus left His throne, took on the form of a servant, and was humbled through tears to death on a cross. Being true God, His life was of infinite value, and yet even He did not account it as precious to Himself, if only He may finish His course, the course that went through the cross. He paid such careful attention to us that He offered His own blood to purchase us and rose again from the dead so that all who place their faith in Him would receive the inheritance among those who are sanctified, those who are set apart, those who are His.
Jesus forgot Himself for you; forget yourself for Him. His Word is the only thing able to build you up and give you an inheritance with the saints; pay careful attention to your hands, heart, and head, so that you do not drift away from it. Respect your elders, receive their care and teaching, not because they are great, but because Jesus is great, and His Spirit has made them your overseer, to build you up with the word of His grace. Whatever your role in the church, use your gifts and resources to care for the church of God in which the Holy Spirit has placed you, for Jesus bought it with His own blood.