Watching Over the Flock (Acts 20:28-31)
The other day I sat down and figured up the number of elderships I’ve been under, either as a member or as the preacher. Because I have been under so many elderships, I have seen elders work in a variety of ways. I have seen elders burdened by their office.
I’m confident that each of us has seen elders work tirelessly to protect the flock. Many of you, like my family, have been in different congregations and you’ve seen different elders work in different ways. Over the past several months, I have seen our elders work very hard for the good of this congregation.
From the earliest days of the church, local congregations have had their problems. The church at Thyatira allowed a so-called prophetess to lead disciples astray (Rev 2:20). The church at Laodicea was lukewarm (Rev 3:15-16). At different stages in the first century, the church at Ephesus had its problems. There were heretics that ran rampant in Ephesus (1 Tim 1:3-4). The church in Ephesus had left their first love (Rev 2:4-5). Yet before these problems have an opportunity to manifest themselves in Ephesus, Paul meets with the elders of that congregation. Paul knows that he will never see these men again (Acts 20:25), so he uses his final opportunity with these elders to teach them an important lesson. That important lesson is: “Elders play a vital role in the church.”
Scripture (Acts 20:28-31)
Elders are to take heed to themselves and to the flock. It’s important that Paul tells them to take heed to themselves before he tells them to take heed to the flock. We must always take care of ourselves before we seek to take care of others. “Why do you look at the speck in your brother’s eye, but do not consider the plank in your own eye?” (Matt 7:3). “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 Tim 4:16).
The elders in Ephesus needed to take heed to themselves, for the problems at Ephesus would begin in the eldership. Acts 20:30. One of the major, first departures from New Testament Christianity was the eldership–the idea that bishops should rule cities, regions, countries, etc. goes back to within just a few years after Paul spoke these words.
The word “heed” is in the present tense. That indicates habitual action. The elders can never stop their watching over a congregation.
The Holy Spirit has made them overseers. While the church selects her own elders, the Holy Spirit puts them into office. I think this is very much like marriage–the preacher performs the wedding, but God ties the knot. “What God has joined together, let not man separate” (Matt 19:6). This speaks to the seriousness of the office. God has placed these men in their office. This is leadership God’s way.
Elders are to “shepherd the church of God.” As shepherds of God’s church, elders protect the church (1 Sam 17:34-35). As shepherds of God’s church, elders lead the church (Ps 23:2). As shepherds of God’s church, elders feed the church (Ps 23:5).
Salvage wolves would come in and not spare the flock. Elders must protect the flock, for there are many who do not love the church of God. There have always been those who would teach error to draw away disciples after themselves. There have always been those who would be more than happy to scatter the flock for their own personal gain. There have always been those who have cared more about their own opinions than the good of the church. There have always been those who–like Apollos–love the church but who need to learn the way of the Lord more accurately and, unless they learn better, could unknowingly cause great damage to the church.
verses 30-31: Because error will come from within the eldership at Ephesus, these elders need to watch.
“Elders play a vital role in the church.”
We need to understand the gravity of the eldership. God intended elders to do what is necessary to further the work of His kingdom. Elders aren’t to take that role lightly. Paul tells the Ephesian elders that they need to take their role very, very seriously. I believe the Holy Spirit inspired Luke to include this section so that modern churches and modern elders could understand the gravity of the work God intends for elders. Elders aren’t around for one group to get what they want or for the elders to get what they themselves want (an elder cannot be “self-willed”–Titus 1:7). Elders are around to do the work of God! I am thankful that I can stand here and say that all three of our elders are committed to doing the work of God. I have seen these three men at work, and the health and wellbeing of this congregation are paramount to them.
Because of the gravity of their work, the church has some serious obligations to the eldership.
We need to pray for our elders.
I can’t find a text that instructs us to pray for our elders, but I can find several texts that speak of praying for the church. “Epaphras, who is one of you, a bondservant of Christ, greets you, always laboring fervently for you in prayers, that you may stand perfect and complete in all the will of God” (Col 4:12). Epaphras was an evangelist in Colossae who was imprisoned with Paul in Rome (Phile 23). While Epaphras is in prison, he’s praying for the Colossian church. Paul made mention of the Ephesians in his prayers (Eph 1:16).
If you’re going to pray for the church, you need to pray for her elders. The elders are charged with overseeing and protecting the church. How can you pray for the health of the church without praying for the those who have the responsibility to keep the church healthy? Let me urge you to pray for our elders. Not just when we assemble and they are mentioned from the pulpit. But, today, spend serious time in prayer on their behalf.
We need to submit to the elders.
There are some within our brotherhood who deny that elders have any real authority. I don’t know how you could say that. “Remember those who rule over you, who have spoken the word of God to you, whose faith follow, considering the outcome of their conduct” (Heb 13:7). “Obey those who rule over you, and be submissive, for they watch out for your souls, as those who must give account. Let them do so with joy and not with grief, for that would be unprofitable for you” (Heb 13:17). Paul refers to the elders as “overseers” (Acts 20:28). Does not the very act of overseeing imply authority?
The elders may not always do what I think they should, but I still have the obligation to submit. Sometimes I’m called on to submit without knowing every detail about why they made the decision they made. Honestly, that’s the nature of their work. The nature of their work is to handle confidential, private matters. Those matters cannot be made public. How will you submit to the elders?
One reason I’m confident that elders have authority is that Jesus is called a Shepherd and Overseer. “You were like sheep going astray, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls” (1 Pet 2:25). Speaking to elders: “When the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that does not fade away” (1 Pet 5:4).
Peter, who himself was an elder (1 Pet 5:1), refers to Jesus as the “Chief Elder.” Jesus has great authority (Matt 28:18); our elders do, too. Have you submitted to the authority of Jesus Christ?
This sermon was originally preached by Dr. Justin Imel, Sr., at the Dale Ridge church of Christ in Roanoke, Virginia.