No servant of God has made a greater impact on the Christian church than Paul the apostle. After his dramatic conversion, he devoted his life to preaching, traveling and writing—to plant and establish the churches, and the believers who would carry on the work.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful to know what he would say to a group of elders as he was nearing the end of his life work? Of course we have his letters writ-ten from prison, and his correspondence with Timothy and Titus, but what about thoughts addressed specifically to church elders? Fortunately, we have just such a record in his farewell address to the elders of Ephesus preserved for us by Dr. Luke in Acts 20. Let’s take a look at the high points, keeping in mind that Paul would speak urgently, knowing he would not see these men again in this life.
The first half of his address is devoted to personal testimony concerning past labors (vss 18-21) and his coming imprisonment (vss 22-27). Then in the second part, he gives some strong charges to the elders (vss 28-35).
Thinking back over years of service for the Lord, he reminds the elders of his testimony and labor among them. The opening words are “Ye know…” (KJV). This is not a time to convince his hearers; his record is in the book, and he appeals to their conscience. He has served the Lord, and refers only to humility, tears and trials. Interestingly he makes no mention of impressive miracles, great sermons or personal authority. His manner has been that of a servant, and as to content, he has withheld nothing of value, speaking to the disciples both in public places and in private homes. To those in the world, he brought a simple message of “repentance toward God, and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ” (vs.21).
How important it is for elders to look beyond the details of church administration once in awhile, and think about what they will really be remembered for when the time comes to depart this life. Has there been a humble attitude? Is our approach to ministry one that holds back nothing that will edify God’s people? Has there been any effort to bring good news to those who are without hope? Every servant of Christ should evaluate what he is really living for—and it’s not a bad idea to discuss such questions from time to time with our fellow elders.
Next, Paul looks ahead and assures the elders that he has not only received and accepted God’s message passed on through fellow believers, foretelling imprisonment, but in consequence he now goes forward “bound in the spirit.” Nothing will move him from following the example of the Lord Jesus, and life itself can be surrendered to God if only he might finish his course, complete the ministry assigned to him, and do it with joy! Everything can be summarized in a short phrase: life for Paul is about good news of grace—God’s grace!
Finally, this means goodbye, but it’s more than just a sentimental farewell. It is a confident assurance that no one can accuse Paul of keeping back anything God wanted to make known. He has faithfully declared “all the counsel of God” (vs. 27).
Such bold confidence is not only vitally important for elders today serving in a world filled with fear, but it actually forms the basis on which the next section of warnings is built. Paul would soon be warning a younger servant that days would come when men would not be able to stand sound or healthy teaching, and so they would promote teachers who could “tickle their ears” (II Tim. 4:3). Many believe we are living in those very days. The church today needs to hear the whole counsel of God.
It seems to some a mark of spirituality to take no thought for what will be preached, leaving everything to “the leading of the Holy Spirit.” Yet the Spirit has given clear instructions that man needs every word of God, the whole counsel, not just those favorite themes of our favorite preachers, presented under the guise of being Spirit led. What steps are the elders taking in your assembly to make certain that adults, young Christians, and children are being systematically instructed in every section, every doctrine of God’s Word?
In the second part of his farewell, Paul gives some pointed charges to the Ephesian elders. It is most interesting to note the four verbs of action he employs (“take heed,” “watch,” “remember,” “support”), and then to ponder all the things he didn’t say!
First, the elders must take heed to themselves and their relationships with one another (vs. 28). Without a loving unity, attempts to shepherd people will be worthless. They must always remember that it is God’s flock, purchased with precious blood.
Next he warns them to watch out for dangers from outside, wolves that would tear up the flock. Even worse, evil men could arise from among the elders themselves. It seems unbelievable, but there are men in leadership who would compete with the Lord, seeking to “draw away disciples” after themselves. The charge is to vigilance (watch) and remember the message Paul has brought from the Lord.
In closing, Paul commends the elders “to God and to the word of his grace” (vs. 32). Only the Word of God has the power to build up the saints (those being set apart to God). Money and material things never motivated Paul. He was glad to work hard to provide not only for his own needs but also for his fellow workers as occasion required. He remembered, and charges the elders to remember the word of the Lord that giving brings greater blessing than receiving, so there must be some time and energy given to supporting the weak (vs. 35).
Elders are busy men, with families, jobs and the care of the church. Pressures and urgent things can swallow up all available time. But according to this passage, elders must make time to take heed to relationships, watch for dangers that threaten the flock, spend time in the Word, remembering things that must have top priority in life, and then going about the work in such a way that the lowly, the weak and the hurting are supported and not forgotten.
Solemn responsibility this matter of shepherding, but it will bring the crown of glory one day from the Chief Shepherd! (1 Peter 5:4). In the meantime, it will also result in a happier, healthier and more fruitful assembly.