Pay attention to yourselves and the church
BIG IDEA: Pay attention to yourselves and the church. How?
1. Imitate godly leaders
2. Be alert
Pillar New Testament Commentary, The Acts of the Apostles, by David Peterson
Exalting Jesus in Acts, Christ-Centered Exposition Commentary, by Tony Merida
Good morning! My name is Tim, I’m one of the pastors of Citylight and I’m overjoyed to have this opportunity to preach the word of God to you this morning. As a pastor, one of my roles is to help model for you how to repent of your sin, follow Jesus and live a life that glorifies God. There’s no question I am a pastor today because some godly leaders did for me what Paul is instructing the pastors in our passage to do. When I came to Christ in 9th grade, a man named Jonathan Weibel moved to State College (where I grew up) and become one of the pastors of the church there. He and his wife Suzy mentored me throughout high school and college. So much of following Jesus is caught in addition to taught and I owe many of my character traits to their influence. Even little things – I’ll occasionally catch myself cracking a joke that I know Jonathan would have made. Jonathan relentlessly follows Jesus and pays attention to his own character. But what made his influence so powerful in my life is that he also paid attention to me.
We are making our way through the book of Acts, and the apostle Paul has a lot going on. He has just spent years planting several churches and is trying to make his way to Jerusalem in time for Pentecost. Paul is traveling past Ephesus, but he’s not too busy to set aside some time to encourage the leaders of the church there, so he invites the pastors to join him in Miletus. When they arrive he reminds them of his own example and instructs them to:
“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.” ~ Acts 20:28
Paul is instructing these pastors to be like Jonathan Weibel: to pay attention to themselves and the people they are pastoring. Of course, since elders are not some special class of Christianity, but are called to be examples to the church, his instructions apply to all of us, not just the pastors listening. So the big idea today is this:
BIG IDEA: Pay attention to yourselves and the church. How?
1. Imitate godly leaders
2. Be alert
IMITATE GODLY LEADERS
Paul gets a bad rap. Maybe you think of him as harsh, the “rules guy”, the guy writing all the letters to churches telling them what to do, like he’s a scary, disappointed dad. But here right in Luke’s account, we see some of Paul’s actual character traits. Here are seven of them.
First, he identified with his people. He lived among them the whole time it says in verse 17. He wasn’t a distant celebrity pastor, swooping in with a sermon, and behind his desk the rest of the week, he was among his people, identifying with them.
Second, he was humble. Notice in verse 19 how he says he was “serving the Lord with all humility”. He saw himself as a servant, not a superhero. He wasn’t out to make a name for himself. He had a proper posture before God and before people.
Third, he was bold. He bravely suffered and faced up to opposition for the sake of the gospel. In verse 20 he reminds these pastors of how he “did not shrink” from his message even though it was so unpopular among the Jews that he faced constant persecution.
Fourth, he was tender. You see twice in this passage how Paul mentions his tears. This was not a “professional” dispenser of religious goods and services. No, he deeply loves people and could not share the good news of Jesus with them or plead with them to stay true to Jesus without being moved to tears.
Fifth, he taught the whole gospel with no prejudice. Notice all the “and” statements in verses 20 and 21. He declared AND he taught. He taught publicly AND house to house. He emphasized repentance AND faith, he taught the Jews AND the Gentiles. Wherever there was opportunity to present the gospel with clarity, Paul did, and he BOTH worked hard to remove all unnecessary obstacles to the gospel, AND never watered down the message just to gain a hearing. He declares in verse 26-27 that his conscience is clean because he has declared the whole counsel of God.
Sixth, he lived by the Spirit. He makes sure to emphasize the work of the Spirit in his life. The Spirit of God is compelling him to go to Jerusalem. God’s Spirit has also given him insight that this trip will bring some serious suffering. But Paul also says “I don’t know what will happen to me.” Paul is sensitive to the Spirit of God, and obedient, despite not knowing the whole story of what God plans for him.
Seventh, Jesus was everything to him. He says “I do not count 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.” Paul has been so captured by Christ, so transformed by the gospel, that he considers his life of no value to himself, only as a servant of Christ.
Paul goes to a lot of trouble to remind the pastors of the church of Ephesus how he lived among them. He’s not bragging, he’s giving them some gentle encouragement: be like me. Shepherd the people in you by following my example.
Paul wasn’t a superhero. He was a man who was completely changed by the gospel. He identifies with people because his savior was Immanuel, “God with us” having left the throne room of God to identify with humanity. He is humble because the gospel showed him how much he needed to be rescued. He is bold because Christ willingly suffered for him. He is tender because the love of Christ has turned his heart of stone into a heart of flesh. He teaches with no partiality, in every context, because the gospel is for every person, man, woman, black, white, democrat or republican, and despite cultural pressure, he would ensure everyone had equal access to the good news of Jesus. He listens to and obeys the Spirit of God because when he was saved, Christ poured out the Spirit of God into his heart. The gospel has freed him completely from self-regard. He doesn’t HAVE to count his life as precious to him because God has already shown him just how precious he is to God. Paul was bought with the blood of God’s son Jesus. Why should he be concerned about how valuable his life is to himself, when he is already so precious to God? May God do with me what he wants! The gospel freed Paul to serve Christ with a clean conscience, despite his utter failure of a past.
Oh that this same gospel would free me in that way! I don’t know about you… but I am so often aloof, prideful, fearful, hardened, lacking theological clarity, ignoring the prompts of the Spirit of God, valuing my own life and my own comfort over the mission Jesus has entrusted to me. Praise God for his grace of godly examples who show me how far I have to go.
Paul’s message to these pastors and to you and me is: follow my example.
Let’s pay attention to ourselves for a moment. Whose example are you following?
Do you have anyone you look up to spiritually who is a regular part of your life? There is a right way and a wrong way to pay attention to ourselves. Godly examples who raise the bar for us are a great way to pay attention to ourselves. See, we wind up paying the wrong kind of attention to ourselves if we are left TO ourselves to practice Christianity BY ourselves. We are easily led into a weak, “Christianity as self-care” version of following Jesus, where we focus only on our journal, our quiet times, our favorite podcasts and ignore all the corporate aspects of the faith illustrated and commanded in scripture. Let’s do one without forgetting the other. You can only develop what Tim Keller calls “the freedom of self-forgetfulness” when you are surrounded by others, in particular those who can serve as examples to you, who are with you, love you and willing to speak truth to you.
I get nervous when our biggest spiritual heroes are all internet personalities. What I mean is, you probably don’t personally know Tim Keller or Tony Evans or Beth Moore. Nothing against them – they seem like immensely godly leaders and we should learn from them – but everything that actually makes its way from them to us is pretty carefully and publicly presented.
On the other hand, while they may not be celebrities, God has given all of his children, myself included, pastors. Elders, appointed by the Spirit of God, confirmed by the people of God, called to live exemplary lives among us so we could see not just who they are in public, but in private as well. So we, as elders could plead with you with tears, model for you what it looks like to repent of our own sins, and teach the gospel with the kind of non-prejudicial clarity, Lord willing, that can only come when you examine our lives as well. And together beside us, faithful godly women serving and leading as well.
Whose example are you following? I encourage you to find someone local and follow them. Ask someone to disciple you. Join a discipleship group with a more mature believer. It does not have to be someone older, don’t forget that this exact church in Ephesus is where Paul sent the young disciple Timothy and instructed him to not let anyone look down on him because he is young. If a younger person is a more mature Christian than you, what better way to grow in humility than letting them disciple you in the word of God? And you can download some life wisdom into their lives too. You of course can’t do this at all if you don’t join the church and get involved in the community of the church, so of course if you haven’t done that yet, go ahead and take those steps first.
Pay attention to yourselves and the church. How? Imitate godly leaders. And second:
When Paul says “pay careful attention!” and later in verse 31 “be alert!” the natural question is… why? Why do we need this alertness? Someone says “be alert!” when there is danger. Alertness is an appropriate type of fear that keeps our minds sharp, that keeps us focused on what matters, that keeps us locked in. The greater the danger, the greater the need for “alertness”. What is Paul so concerned about here? He sees three dangers lurking around the corner.
First, false teaching. False teachers are lurking at the door. Paul describes them in verse 29 as “fierce wolves” who won’t spare anyone in the flock. This external threat has an agenda. They want to sell books and speak at conferences and get paid by their version gospel. They have a political or social cause they want the church to support. They have a version of “good news” that is nothing more than good advice at best, and demonic deception at worst. They give the church an alternate beginning: “you haven’t really fallen short of the glory of God” they say. “Sin isn’t your biggest problem, it’s your lack of confidence, it’s your circumstances, it’s antiquated morals, it’s societal structures ”. They present an alternate savior: “you don’t need the blood of Jesus spilled on your behalf… what you need is inward: to find your self esteem, to find your empowerment, or it’s outward: you need your circumstances to change, society to change, the people around you to change.” There’s an alternate conclusion: “you don’t have to wait for Christ to usher in the new heavens and new earth and do away with evil once and for all” “paradise will come once you are empowered, or let go of your traditions, or we get the right politicians into office, or do away with enough old structures”.
False teaching is really popular. It always elevates ME – the self. I don’t have to humbly admit my need for rescue, I can be the author of my own salvation story! False teaching says you can look inward or outward for salvation. But this is a lie. Paul calls the elders to watch out for themselves. They might be caught off guard by this, or even succumb to it themselves. You can not find salvation by looking inward or outward- only upward to the nail scarred hands and feet of Jesus. Church, there are false teachers on the right and on the left and everywhere in-between. They lurk around, selling books, recording podcasts, engaging on social media, just ready to devour anyone who lacks theological clarity and forgets the true message of the gospel of Jesus. To be clear, I’m not suggesting calls for racial equality or societal change are false teaching. On the contrary these are necessary implications of Christ’s death and resurrection. I AM trying to highlight movements and ideologies that treat the Gospel as insufficient or unnecessary.
Second, Paul is concerned about division. it’s not just the external threat Paul is concerned with. There would be a threat far closer to home. “men speaking twisted things” would arise from within the church. This internal threat would look like a well-intentioned (or not so well intentioned) church attender or member who begins leading a team of disciples in the church into disunity with the shepherds of the church, following a false gospel. Time and time again, as he did in Ephesus, Satan has used schism, division, church split and disunity to divide the body of Christ, to muddy the gospel and bring shame on the name of Christ. There has never, in all the years I’ve served the Lord, been a time more ripe for this kind of disunity in the church and I admonish you, church, watch out. Be alert. Whether or not the church opens up in exactly the way you want, or we make the exact decisions around public health that you prefer, or we call out against injustice in the exact manner that sits well with you, I admonish you to prioritize unity! Let’s have all the discussions, healthy disagreements and bring everything to the table. But in these and through these, pursuing reconciliation and peace.
We are doing something wrong if we cannot have black and white, male and female, republican and democrat, worshiping around the throne of God, united in our gratitude for saving sinners like us.
In warning us to be alert, I also want to provide hope. There has also never been a time more ripe for unity. This year has forced many of us out of our slumber, and it seems like we have an opportunity, as the Church, to get on the same page. I see you drawing close to God, I see you leaning in with your citygroups, despite zoom fatigue. I see you gently and graciously disagreeing with one another. I’ve had Holy Spirit inspired conversations with several of you over the past weeks over some contentious issues, and I’ve seen the Lord produce unity unlike we’ve ever had before. Hard fought unity! Your pastors are united. In the 7 years I’ve been here, Citylight has always been united, even though we have members of many different races, theological backgrounds and political beliefs. We’re not talking about uniformity, but unity and peace. Let’s not let our unity make us sleepy on this threat. We still cannot tolerate the building of coalitions, the dragging through the mud, the spreading of rumors, the gossiping and slandering of one another. There is no time – we must be alert – the enemy is lurking, and he will not just attack the church from outside of it, but inside as well. This is a time to continue to press into unity. From my vantage point, I see you doing it, and it makes me grateful to be your pastor in this season.
Finally, Paul says “watch out for greed.” This prescription, too, applies to all of us, pastors and church members alike. Greed makes its bed with laziness and idleness. I have never, in all my life, been more tempted by idleness than I am now. Boredom is so unhealthy for me. Paul says in verse 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 is more blessed to give than to receive.’” Follow Paul’s example of hard work, or else you will make financial prosperity a higher goal of yours than the mission of Christ. Pastor Mark shared an article with me about a 20-year-old who, during the pandemic, began experimenting with the Robinhood app and playing around with highly leveraged options investing. Knowing little about the platform or options investing, the young man committed suicide after seeing a -$730,000 balance in his account. Let’s not play around with greed in this season, even though we are more tempted than ever.
We pay careful attention to ourselves and the church when we stay alert for these threats.
Let’s apply this together: What threatens you right now?
Do you lack theological clarity? Are you caught up in a political movement, author, podcast, form of entertainment, news feed that is training you to see the world through the lens of a false gospel? How can you be protected from this if it’s so subtle and so deceptive? Or are you feeling a temptation to be divisive right now? What can you do about that? Or has greed overtaken you in this season?
I encourage you, if you will be protected from these threats, then join the church, and trust the shepherds of the church. Your pastors are watching out for you. Hebrews 13:17 says this: “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.” God is saying – I’ve given shepherds to you as a church – partner with them! Make it easy on them!
If we plead with you, in tears, to turn from your sin, listen! If we call out against false teaching, listen! The Holy Spirit has appointed us to watch out for you. This doesn’t make us above healthy criticism, we must also watch out for ourselves, and we need you examining our lives, initiating healthy disagreement with us, sharpening us, calling us to repent of our sins. We are grateful for your ministry to us – I’m inviting that and more of it! I guess I’m also pleading with you to embrace our ministry to you. How could you take a step toward a healthier relationship with your pastors today?
Pay attention to yourself and the church, because threats abound.
Whether it’s a false gospel, division, or greed – the gospel of Jesus will free you. Repent of your sins and embrace God! Identify the threat, be alert, trust your shepherds, and apply the gospel to it to be free.
In verse 32, Paul gives an immense encouragement to the Ephesian pastors: “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.”
Don’t miss this. We can’t change ourselves or our church by simply paying attention. Because of sin, we are powerless to accomplish this on our own. Praise God we have the word of his grace. The gospel word, scripture, is able to build you up and give you the inheritance you’re longing for. Let this sermon call you back to the true gospel of Jesus Christ. That God loved you so much, he sent his son to die for you, that he might take away your sins, adopt you into his family, and one day live in paradise with you forever. The true gospel of Jesus calls you to turn from your sins and turn toward God. Sometimes it feels more like a call to repentance – to turn from your idol. Sometimes it feels more like a call to God – to embrace the love of your savior. But repentance and faith are two sides of the same coin. This same gospel word that motivated Paul’s selflessness, that inspired all of his faithful service and godly character, is the word that is molding you. As you sit under pastoral preaching and care, and you embrace the word through your citygroup, teach one another and admonish one another in your discipleship groups, read the word in your private devotions and prioritize sharing the gospel word with clarity to those around you, the Holy Spirit will build you up.
In short, because God is paying attention to us, we are free to pay attention to ourselves without becoming self-absorbed. Because he is building his church, we are free to pay attention to the church without causing division. If you have turned from your sin in repentance and turned to God by placing your faith in Jesus, you are one of God’s beloved children. He purchased you with his blood. The same gospel that saved you from your sins is making you more and more into the image of Christ and calling you today to embrace his mission as your sole ambition. The same Jesus that died for the church, lives to care for us and make us more into a people fit for him. If you haven’t made Jesus Lord today, won’t you do that in the coming moments as we sing?
If he is your Lord, will you heed the call today to pay attention?
Let’s respond to him in worship.