28 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. 29 I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; 30 and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them. 31 Therefore be alert, remembering that for three years I did not cease night or day to admonish every one with tears. 32 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. 33 I coveted no one’s silver or gold or apparel. 34 You yourselves know that these hands ministered to my necessities and to those who were with me. 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.’”
36 And when he had said these things, he knelt down and prayed with them all. 37 And there was much weeping on the part of all; they embraced Paul and kissed him, 38 being sorrowful most of all because of the word he had spoken, that they would not see his face again. And they accompanied him to the ship. – Acts 20:28-38 ESV
Paul had stopped in Miletus on his way to Jerusalem and, while there, he had invited the elders for the congregation in Ephesus to come visit him, so that he could impart some words of encouragement to them. Paul was well aware that he might never get to see these men again, and wanted to challenge them to take seriously their role as the spiritual shepherds of the flock over which God had placed them. Paul used his own life as an example of selfless service, declaring “I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27 ESV). He was confident and content with his efforts on their behalf, having served “the Lord with all humility and with tears and with trials” (Acts 20:19 ESV). Now, he was passing the baton on to them, and challenging 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 ESV). Notice that he began with a warning for these men to pay careful attention to themselves. Their personal lives were to be closely monitored and the state of their own spiritual health was to be constantly assessed. In one of his letters to his young protegé, Timothy, Paul described the qualifications for an elder.
2 So a church leader must be a man whose life is above reproach. He must be faithful to his wife. He must exercise self-control, live wisely, and have a good reputation. He must enjoy having guests in his home, and he must be able to teach. 3 He must not be a heavy drinker or be violent. He must be gentle, not quarrelsome, and not love money. 4 He must manage his own family well, having children who respect and obey him. 5 For if a man cannot manage his own household, how can he take care of God’s church? – 1 Timothy 3:2-5 NLT
These men had a grave responsibility, and they would one day answer to God for the manner in which they cared for His sheep. They needed to see themselves as overseers, or guardians over those under their care. The Greek word Luke used is episkopos, and carries the idea of someone who cares for and watches over the well-being of others. But Paul knew that it would be difficult for them to properly provide for and protect those under their care if they themselves were not adequately fit for duty. Spiritually deficient leaders will always result in spiritually anemic followers. Men who were unfaithful to their own wives, lacking in self-control, unable to manage their own households, quick-tempered, quarrelsome, greedy, and unable to teach the Word of God, would make lousy shepherds and do more harm than good to the flock of God. And Paul made it clear why they had to be spiritually prepared and properly equipped for their roles as shepherds.
29 I know that false teachers, like vicious wolves, will come in among you after I leave, not sparing the flock. 30 Even some men from your own group will rise up and distort the truth in order to draw a following. 31 Watch out! – Acts 20:29-31 NLT
The dangers were real. Paul would have fully concurred with the statement made by Peter: “Stay alert! Watch out for your great enemy, the devil. He prowls around like a roaring lion, looking for someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8 NLT). For Paul, the thought of false teachers slyly infiltrating the ranks of God’s people and leading them astray with clever-sounding words, was more than he could stand. The subtle, yet sinister reality of false doctrine was going to be a constant threat to the spiritual well-being of the church. It remains so today. Half-truths and watered-down doctrine are always more dangerous than outright lies. Frontal assaults, while always a possibility in spiritual warfare, are rare. The enemy tends to inflict his damage in more subtle and deceptive ways. But elders must understand that distortion of the truth can be just as dangerous and deadly as the denial of it. But to be able to recognize the lies of the enemy, God’s leaders must know the truth of His Word. That is why Paul told Timothy:
16 All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful to teach us what is true and to make us realize what is wrong in our lives. It corrects us when we are wrong and teaches us to do what is right. 17 God uses it to prepare and equip his people to do every good work. – 2 Timothy 3:16-17 NLT
Those who remain ignorant of God’s Word will be unable to live or lead well. They will find themselves living like “infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming” (Ephesians 4:14 NIV). Leaders can be appointed, but their ability to lead is God-given and a byproduct of their time in the Word and the degree of their dependence upon God. Which is why Paul stated, “I entrust you to God and the message of his grace that is able to build you up and give you an inheritance with all those he has set apart for himself” (Acts 20:32 NLT). Their capacity to lead was going to be directly tied to their reliance upon God. They would need to daily lean on the grace of God and recognize that He alone could provide them with the strength and wisdom required for their role as shepherds of His flock.
Paul closes out his discourse with these men by using himself as an example. He was not speaking pridefully, but was confident that his own life could be used as a model for godly leadership.Paul had never been in it for the glory. He didn’t serve for any kind of recognition or financial remuneration. He plainly states:
33 “I have never coveted anyone’s silver or gold or fine clothes. 34 You know that these hands of mine have worked to supply my own needs and even the needs of those who were with me. 35 And I have been a constant example of how you can help those in need by working hard. – Acts 20:33-35 NLT
And Paul’s life fully reflected the teaching of Peter concerning godly leadership.
2 Care for the flock that God has entrusted to you. Watch over it willingly, not grudgingly—not for what you will get out of it, but because you are eager to serve God. 3 Don’t lord it over the people assigned to your care, but lead them by your own good example. 4 And when the Great Shepherd appears, you will receive a crown of never-ending glory and honor. – 1 Peter 5:2-4 NLT
Godly leadership is not about power, position, or prominence. It has little to do with matters of superiority or control. Being a leader in the context of the church of God is all about service, not authority and power. In fact, Jesus provided His disciples with some fairly stunning words about this very matter. He spoke them immediately after James and John had made their rather arrogant and self-centered request to be given positions of power when Jesus established His Kingdom. Jesus simply said:
25 “You know that the rulers in this world lord it over their people, and officials flaunt their authority over those under them. 26 But among you it will be different. Whoever wants to be a leader among you must be your servant, 27 and whoever wants to be first among you must become your slave. 28 For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve others and to give his life as a ransom for many.” – Matthew 20:25-28 NLT
And Paul added his own little twist, reminding the elders in his audience of some other words spoken by Jesus: “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35 NLT). Paul was expecting these men to lead like Jesus. He wanted them to lead by putting themselves last and others first. They were to lead by selflessly sacrificing their lives for the sake of the flock. All of this recalls the words of Jesus, spoken to the apostle Peter in the days immediately after His resurrection. Three times Jesus questioned Peter’s love for Him. And three times Peter assured Jesus of his love. And each of those times, Jesus responded with three simple, yet profound statements.
“Then feed my lambs.” – John 21:15 NLT
“Then take care of my sheep.” – John 21:16 NLT
“Then feed my sheep.” – John 21:17 NLT
The greatest way a leader can prove his love for Jesus is to love those for whom Jesus died and for whom the leader has been called to serve.
When Paul had finished his meeting with the elders, they prayed together, then parted ways. There were many tears and much sorrow because, of all the things Paul had said to them, the one thing that had stood out the most was his announcement that he might never see them again. It is obvious that they loved Paul dearly. They clearly saw him as a loving and godly leader. He had been for them what he was asking them to be for those under their care: A selfless, sacrificial shepherd who had always been willing to lay down his life for the sheep. Now, they were to return to Ephesus and do the same.
New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.