Thoughts on Acts 20:17-38.
Yesterday was the last Sunday that the interim pastor was set to preach. I take over the pulpit ministry as senior pastor next Sunday. However, this was no ordinary interim pastor. He had once been the pastor of the church...for 25 years or so. After two pastors had come and gone, he stepped back into the pulpit in January of this year to preach each Sunday morning. Yesterday, the church celebrated God's grace in Pastor Glen Lockwood's ministry and Pastor Lockwood's faithfulness to God, His Word, and His people through his ministry here. As part of the regular service of worship, I read from Acts 20...the passage I'm thinking about today. It seemed appropriate at the close of Pastor Lockwood's time in the pulpit and in the transition to a new pastoral tenure. I was edified by the Scripture afresh as I thought about the years behind and the years to come, and I thought I would share some brief comments about the text. First, though...read the text. Pull out your Bible, and read it. This is a good habit. Don't just read Bible studies about texts...read the texts. If you are able, read it out loud...I usually find things that seem to stay invisible when read silently.
Ok...I want us to focus on the instructions Paul leaves these elders for the future of their church. They may be helpful as we think about the church contexts in which we live and serve.
1) To sum up Paul's testimony about his ministry at Ephesus, he wants the elders to realize that they know certain things about his ministry, and they should remember them. He lived among them (v.18), serving through tears and trials (v. 19, 31), but he never shrank from the task at hand...preaching the gospel of grace and teaching them (v. 20-21, 26-27). He wasn't after money, but he worked hard to provide for himself and others, being generous with his earnings (v. 33-35). In other words, he served faithfully in every circumstance so that he might accomplish the goal set forth in Colossians 1:28-29: "Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ. For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me." What a tremendous testimony! Paul leaves a wonderful example for the Ephesian elders to follow. Their depth of love for him and appreciation for his ministry among them must have been part of why there was "much weeping" as they knew they would not see him again.
This was evident yesterday as person after person told me of the 'big shoes' I would have to fill. This was nothing but a testimony of the place that Pastor Lockwood has in the hearts of these people...because of his faithfulness through tears and trials.
2) Next, think on the warnings Paul gives the elders to consider with regard to the whole congregation (v. 28ff). The overall instruction to the elders is that they must "pay careful attention to [themselves] and to all the flock". This flock has been purchased by the blood of Christ, and they have been made overseers of this flock by the sovereign will of the Holy Spirit. This, in itself, makes the task a momentous one. As we look across our congregations, let's really think on that. The blood of Christ brought these sheep into a flock. It is not the children's program or the musical style or the visitation practices of the pastor or excellent communication or pretty buildings or advanced technology that bind us together. It is the blood of Christ that has made us one. Then, after purchasing and assembling men and women together in one geographic location, the Spirit set aside men who are to be elders of that flock...overseers...men who will give an account for those they lead. It is God who assembled them, and it is God who raised up elders among them. The weight of this responsibility is one that cannot be imagined by those who have not borne it.
Though this would certainly be enough reason for Paul's instruction, it's not the only reason the apostle charges them to "pay careful attention". He goes on, in v. 28-29, to remind them of the reality of the world in which they will live and work. While it is a divine work of grace that brought them together and a divine calling of the Spirit that placed them in leadership, it is not a Utopian work they must do. It is a real and sinful and hard world in which they will serve the Lord, and the "god of this world" (2 Cor. 4:4) will still be "seeking someone to devour" (1 Pt. 5:8b). This demonic strategy will show itself in two distinct kinds of attacks. First, wolves will come in from the outside and will not spare the sheep. Second, some from within the church will begin to teach twisted doctrine and try to gain a following for themselves.
As leaders, then, the tears and trials that Paul faced will be theirs as well. The persecution he faced will face them. The bullseye on his chest will now mark them, but they must not shrink back from preaching and teaching the gospel of grace. They must protect the church from the wolves from the outside. They must also weed out the false teachers from within, in order to protect the followers of Christ and the doctrine/testimony of the church
These words of warning hit home with me as I begin this new work of ministry, and they should be words heeded by any who go through a kind of leadership transition like this. The church planter leaves for a new work, and a more permanent pastor is taking that ministry...pay careful attention! The missionary has trained natives to be elders and leaders in their churches, and the missionary is going to move on to a new unreached people group...pay careful attention! A pastor steps down, and a new pastor begins...pay careful attention!
Honestly, these are words for any time in a church's life. There should not come a day, on this side of eternity, where we cease being on guard against attacks from without and from within. There is no spiritual "sigh of relief" for those who still live in these bodies in this world. The enemy is still seeking to steal and kill and destroy, so we must be on guard.
It was a wonderful day of honoring the ministry of Pastor Lockwood, and it was a wonderful time of remembering that there would be no honorable ministry of Pastor Lockwood apart from the grace of God which is at work in him. However, yesterday was not meant to signal the end of spiritual warfare for me or for this church. If anything, the pressures, temptations, trials, and tears may increase in the days to come. That is why we must not only shed tears for the faithful servant who is stepping aside, but we must also "take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm" (Eph. 6:13).