We’ve already spent a couple of weeks on Paul’s farewell speech to the elders in Ephesus. First of all, in verses 18 to 24, he reminded them how he didn’t hesitate to preach anything that would be helpful to them. And he declared to both Jews and Greeks that they must turn from their sins in repentance and turn in faith to Jesus Christ.
Secondly, in verses 25 to 27, he declared to them that he was innocent of the blood of all men. In other words, he had faithfully discharged his duty to preach the message that sinners must repent and believe. And, therefore — because he was faithful in preaching the message of repentance — God will not hold him accountable for anyone in Ephesus who has not repented from their sin. God will not blame Paul because he faithfully preached God’s word. And so, if anyone did not listen to him, Paul can’t be blamed — he is innocent of their blood — because he faithfully discharged his duty.
And, do you remember? I suggested that this is the way to evaluate a preacher’s ministry. One preacher is deemed successful because the church grew under his ministry. Another preacher is deemed unsuccessful because the church declined under his ministry. That’s the way we think about these things. But Paul puts before us another way of assessing a person’s ministry: Was this person — this preacher — faithful in declaring the will of God? Did he remain faithful even when those who heard him did not listen? If a preacher is able to say at the end of his ministry that he was faithful in preaching God’s word then he ought to be satisfied that he has fulfilled the work God has given to him. He has faithfully discharged his duty no matter what the outcome.
Paul moves on in verses 28 to the end of the speech to instruct the elders about their work. Up to now, he’s been talking about his work among them; but now he wants to talk to them about their work. And so, in verse 28, he says to them:
Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood.
This verse tells us so much about the work of the elders and it tells us so much about the church.
First of all, he refers to the church as a flock and the elders are to be shepherds who watch over the flock.
Now, this is a familiar image to us. All through the Old Testament, the people of God are pictured as being like sheep. And so, as well as Psalm 23, we have Psalm 100 where it says:
Know that the Lord is God.
It his he who made us, and we are his.
We are his people, the sheep of his pasture.
And, in the Old Testament, God is the Good Shepherd who leads his people and he provides for them and he protects them. And, in the Old Testament, the Lord appointed the kings and priests of Israel to be his under-shepherds, or his assistant shepherds, to help him look after his people. And sometimes they did their work well; and other times, they did they work poorly and they neglected the Lord’s people or they abused them or they misled them. But the point is that throughout the Old Testament, God’s people are pictured as sheep. And so, it’s not surprising to find Paul using the same image to refer to the New Testament church. We are like sheep who have wandered away. But the Good Shepherd laid down his life for us. And he has called us to himself and he has given us new life. And he has brought us into the safety of the sheep fold which is the church of Jesus Christ. And there, in the safety of the church, he has appointed elders to look after us the way a shepherd looks after his sheep.
Paul describes their work in at least three ways. They’re to watch over the Lord’s people. The word he uses means ‘be concerned about’ or ‘to care for’. So, they’re to be concerned about themselves — after all, they won’t be much use to the church if they don’t keep watch over themselves — and they’re to be concerned about all of God’s people. Then he calls them ‘overseers’. Now, the word ‘overseer’ can be translated ‘bishop’. But ‘overseer’ is a better translation because it makes clear that their work is to watch over the Lord’s people. Of course, they’re not keeping watch the way an examiner watches over us to spot any mistakes. They’re not like the driving examiner who makes a note of all the errors we make; or the exam invigilator who is keeping an eye out for cheating. No, they’re watching over us in order to help us. And then Paul instructs them to be shepherds of God’s church. As a shepherd looks after his sheep, so the elders are to look after the members of the church.
And look at what Paul said about the scope of their work. He told them that they’re to watch over all the flock. Now, in the context of Ephesus, Paul might well be referring to the fact that the church in Ephesus comprised both Jews and Gentiles. So, he’s reminding the elders of their duty to care for every kind of believer: not Jews only; not Gentiles only; but both Jews and Gentiles. But it’s a reminder to every elder in every generation to look after all of God’s people and no elder should say that he will look after one kind of believer and not another. Young and old. Men and women. Rich and poor. Those who are doing well and those who are struggling. The elders are to look after all of them.
Now, where do these elders come from? Look at what Paul says: he says they were appointed by the Holy Spirit. Now, that simply means that the Holy Spirit equipped them with the kind of Christian character and the gifts and talents necessary to become faithful shepherds of God’s people. The Holy Spirit produced in them the kind of character and talents which Paul lists in 1 Timothy 3 and in Titus 1 where he gives us the necessary qualifications for the eldership. The Holy Spirit produces in certain men the right kind of character and the right kind of gifts. And the church recognises it and recognises that here’s someone who has been equipped with all that is needed for the work of the eldership.
And so, Paul tells us that the church is like a flock of sheep. And the Lord has equipped certain men to be elders in the church. And the work of the elder is to care for all of God’s people.
Paul also describes the Lord’s people as ‘the church of God which he bought with his own blood’. Now, this tells us about the value the Lord has placed on us. He wanted us so much, he wanted us to be his own people so much, and to be with him for ever and ever, that he was prepared to give up his own Son to death on the cross in order to have us as his own people. And the Lord Jesus was prepared to shed his own blood and to give up his life as a ransom so that we could become God’s own people. We were so precious to him, that he was prepared to give up everything in order to have us.
We look at ourselves — and all our faults and failings — and we’re not very special and none of us is important; none of us will ever be invited to a State Banquet in Windsor Castle, let alone be invited as the Guest of Honour; none of us is very impressive. But the Lord God loved us so much and he so much wanted us to be with him that he was prepared to give up his Son for us. It shows us the greatness of his love for us and how valuable we were to him.
And because he loved us, and cares for us, he not only gave up his Son for us to pay for our sins, but he’s also given us elders to look after us day by day as we live our lives. He’s not left us on our own. He’s not left us to fend for ourselves. He’s given us elders to oversee us and to care for us.
And, of course, the reason we need elders to care for us is what? Look at verse 29. Savage wolves — by which Paul means false teachers — savage wolves will get in and they will worry the sheep and will try to destroy the Lord’s sheep with their false teachings.
And look at verse 30: Even some of the elders will prove to be false teachers and they too will lead the sheep astray. Instead of helping the people to follow the Lord Jesus, they will try to get the people to follow them.
So, all the elders need to be alert. They need to be on guard. And they need to warn the Lord’s people away from all those who are trying to lead them away from the Lord Jesus.
Let me finish with a few implications from all of this. First of all, none of us should think we can get by on our own. None of us should think that we’re strong enough on our own. You see, if we didn’t need the elders, and if we could get by on our own, then God wouldn’t have given them to us. But he has given them to us; and he’s given them to us because we need them.
Secondly, I’ve come across churches where the sheep have revolted. You know, some of the people are full of enthusiasm. And they have their plans and their ideas and their own ideas about how things should be done. And they’ve regarded the elders as old and out-of-touch and unnecessary. And so, they’ve kind of sidelined the elders; and they do whatever they like, whenever they like without every seeking the guidance and help of the elders. But that’s not right, because the Lord’s will is for the elders to watch over the people and therefore for the people to let the elders watch over them.
However, I’ve also come across churches where the elders have regarded the people as the ones who do all the work. In fact, the elders have regarded every new convert and every new member to the church as just another worker whose task is to work harder and harder and harder for the church. But that’s not right either. The elders are to care for the people, instead of using them. They’re to protect the people, instead of overworking them. The elders are to be shepherds who care for the sheep instead of being taskmasters who pile more and more work onto them. It’s interesting — isn’t it? — that the Lord’s people are compared to sheep. You see, an ox in those days was used to pull a plough. A horse and donkey were used as a means of transport. They were working animals. But what does a sheep do? It spends the day, feeding on grass and dozing in the sunshine. Their life was a comparatively easy one. And the shepherds were the ones who were to work hard, night and day, to care for the sheep and to ensure that everyone remains close to the Lord Jesus.
Paul was about to leave these elders. He would never see them again or the church in Ephesus. He knew false teachers would appear who would distract the people and try to lead them astray. He knew, as well, that they would face daily troubles and hardships and that the Devil would be constantly tempting them to give up their faith. And so he reminded these elders of the work they had been given by God. God had appointed these elders to watch over his people and to care for them and to warn them when dangers arise. And so, we ought to give thanks to God for our elders. And we ought to pray for them and to encourage them. And we ought, of course, to follow them and not revolt against them because God has given them to us for our good.