Let me read some of the questions I had to answer when I was ordained an elder of this church:
Are you fully convinced that the Holy Scriptures contain all doctrine necessary for eternal salvation through faith in Jesus Christ and will you instruct the people committed to your care from these Holy Scriptures…?
Will you be ready to drive away all false and unsound doctrines that are contrary to God’s Word; and to this end both publicly and privately warn and encourage all within your care…?
Will you strive to live according to the teaching of Christ, so that you and your family may be good examples to the flock of Christ?
Well, tonight’s passage in Acts is addressed to the elders of a church, which for us means at least the ordained senior staff and church wardens – i.e., those who have overall responsibility for JPC. So the rest of you may already be thinking, ‘This isn’t going to be relevant to us.’ So let me tell you why it is:
• Firstly, it’s relevant to you because it’ll help you understand the elders’ role. E.g., people sometimes complain when we talk about moral and doctrinal false teaching, and ask, ‘Why can’t you just be positive?’ And, as we’ll see, the answer is: part of our role is to protect the church from false teaching.
• Second, it’s relevant to you because it’ll help you keep us accountable to our role. If there are things in this passage that we’re not doing, or not doing well, you need to point them out to us.
• Third, it’s relevant because it’ll help you help us in our role. Eg, if you see that teaching the Bible is central to what we should be doing for you, then you’ll help us to prioritise that by not expecting us to do everything else that needs doing.
• Fourth, it’s relevant because for some of you here, this is what God wants you to be doing in the future.
• Fifth, it’s relevant to the many of you with whom we share our responsibility – eg, all the Home Group and small group and youth and children’s leaders here. The fact is, this passage isn’t just about what I should be doing for the whole of JPC; it’s also about what many of you should be doing for your part of it.
• And sixth, it’s relevant to all of us because spiritual leadership is first and foremost by example. And in many ways, this passage is just describing what an exemplary Christian should look like.
So would you turn to Acts 20.17. Chapter 19 tells us that the apostle Paul spent three years in Ephesus, planted a church there and moved on. And in tonight’s passage, his travels bring him back near Ephesus. So let’s pick it up at v17:
Now from Miletus he sent to Ephesus and called the elders [literally ‘presbyters’] of the church to come to him. (20.17)
There are two things to notice about that word ‘elders’. One is that it includes the idea of literally being older. Back then they didn’t have our concept of ‘middle age’, so up to 35/40 you were young; and above that you were old. And these elders would have been men old enough to have the necessary character, maturity and responsibility. The other thing to notice is that these are elders, plural. Paul always appointed teams of elders. That doesn’t mean one of them shouldn’t lead the team, as David does here. It does mean that church leadership shouldn’t be a one man band.
So Paul calls together these elders, knowing he’ll probably never see them again. And so he leaves them with two convictions that are absolutely essential for gospel ministry. And for God to grow JPC, these two convictions will need to grow in every one of us who is a believer:
First, CONVICTION ABOUT THE GOSPEL
Look down to v18:
And when they came to him, he said to them:
‘You yourselves know how I lived among you the whole time from the first day that I set foot in Asia, serving the Lord with all humility and with tears and with trials that happened to me through the plots of the Jews; how I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, and teaching you in public and from house to house, testifying both to Jews and to Greeks of repentance towards God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.’ (20.18-21)
So Paul is reminding them of his ministry – as if to say, ‘What you saw in my ministry is the model for yours.’ And the first thing you see here in Paul is conviction about the gospel. So v21, he says I spent my time:
‘testifying both to Jews and to Greeks of repentance towards God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.’ (20.21)
Just turn back to Luke 24.46. Here, the risen Jesus is getting the apostles to understand what had just happened that first Easter – so this is the gospel in a nutshell:
and [Jesus] said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. (Luke 24.46-48)
And the question is: are you convinced that’s true?
• Are you convinced that Jesus died on the cross for the forgiveness of your sins and of everyone you’ll ever meet?
• Are you convinced that all those people need forgiveness?
• Are you convinced that even the most decent of them, if they reach judgement day unforgiven, will hear the risen Lord Jesus say, ‘You didn’t accept me as King, so you can’t be in my kingdom’?
• And are you convinced that Jesus rose from the dead and that it shows he really was and is the Son of God, and that he’s alive and the ruler of this universe?
• Are you therefore convinced that he’s the rightful ruler of everyone you’ll ever meet – every atheist, every agnostic, every Jew, every Muslim, every Buddhist… everyone?
• And are you convinced that the biggest offence being committed in the world today is that billions of people are living as if Jesus wasn’t their rightful ruler and as if they didn’t owe him everything?
• And are you convinced that they are on collision course with him, and that there really will be a day of judgement, and that there really is a heaven and a hell beyond it?
Paul was convinced of all that. Which is why he spent his life, Acts 20.21,
‘testifying both to Jews and to Greeks of repentance towards God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.’ (20.21)
So testifying of repentance (which literally means ‘turning’) is saying to people, ‘Jesus is your rightful Lord and you need to stop living as if he wasn’t and turn back to him and start life over again with him in his rightful place.’ And then testifying of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ is saying to people, ‘And the amazing thing is that if you do turn, you can trust that he will forgive and accept you – whoever you are, whatever you’ve done – because he died to take away the condemnation you deserve for your sins.’
And maybe you still need to turn to Jesus and trust his forgiveness. You may need time to understand all this more before you do. But you may know enough by now. You’ve been through Christianity Explored and Discipleship Explored. Or you’ve been around church for a year or two. Or you’ve grown up in JPC. You know it’s true and that you need to respond. Well, if that’s you please pick up a copy of this booklet Why Jesus? to read – it goes over the gospel and how to respond. Because if you do know it’s true and that you need to respond, but that you’re just putting the who issue ‘on ice’, you need to realise you’re not doing nothing – you’re saying, ‘No’ to God. And the danger with that is that it becomes habit-forming.
But if you are already a Christian, how convinced are you about the gospel? Being honest, none of us are as convinced as Paul – or we’d be sharing the gospel like he did. And we need to grow in these convictions – which is one aim of the teaching ministry of a church; and it takes time. And you get a glimpse of that in the second half of v20 where Paul says he spent those three years
‘teaching you in public and from house to house’ (20.20)
And that describes the often long process of sharing the gospel with those who are on their way to faith; as well as the lifelong process of building up those who have come to faith, so that we all have enough conviction to be sharing the gospel out there ourselves. Because that isn’t easy is it? And nor is teaching the Bible to Christians, given the way we all struggle with God’s will in some areas of our lives – how was your Home Group last Wednesday, for instance (on Malachi 2.10-16 – about marriage and divorce)? So it’s no wonder Paul says twice, ‘I did not shrink from saying things’:
‘I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable [ie, good for you spiritually]…’ (20.20)
Ie, ‘I said what people needed to hear, not what they might have wanted to hear.’ And then v27:
‘… for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God.’ (20.27)
Ie, ‘I didn’t avoid certain parts of the Bible because I knew they’d be hard to take or touch on sensitive subjects.’
So if we want to see God grow JPC, let’s pray and work for growing conviction about the gospel in ourselves. And that will make us more outward-looking. In David’s article in this month’s newsletter, he quotes one church growth expert who says this:
For many ‘the status quo has more appeal than growth’ and ‘taking care of today’s members is a higher priority than reaching people beyond the fellowship.’ (quoting 44 Steps up off the plateau, Lyle Schaller)
And Richard Baxter in his classic book The Reformed Pastor testifies to that same tension between the needs of ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders – and says which way we need to let ourselves be pulled:
We must labour, in a special manner, for the conversion of the unconverted. [This] is the first and greatest thing we must drive at. The misery of the unconverted is so great, it calls loudest to us for compassion. [By contrast he says:] If a truly converted sinner do fall, it will only be into sin which can be pardoned; he is not in the hazard of damnation by it, as other are. (The Reformed Pastor, Richard Baxter)
You see what he’s saying? He’s staying, ‘If you’re already in the lifeboat, you need to give first attention to those still in the water – rather than to making life inside the lifeboat all you might like it to be.’ So like Paul in v21 that will mean,
‘testifying both to Jews and to Greeks’ (20.21)
And that means: to everyone – the people like us (Paul was a Jew himself) and the people unlike us (which is probably best done by more church planting). And it will mean doing that and persisting in that with apparently hard and unpromising people – like the Jews who largely rejected Paul. And yet he never gave up on them, even though it cost him dear. Eg,, end of v19, he talks about the
‘trials that happened to me through the plots of the Jews’ (v19),
some of which nearly left him dead. And then, v23 he says he’s heading for Jerusalem (the headquarters of Judaism) not knowing how it’ll pan out,
‘except that the Holy Spirit testifies to me in every city that imprisonment and afflictions await me. But I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God.’ (20.23-24)
Ie, ‘To see Jesus glorified as he should be, and fellow-sinners saved as they need to be, means more to me than my own comfort, my own safety, even my own life if it comes to that. Pray God that we will become people who can say that.
And before we leave conviction about the gospel, we get two glimpses here of how Paul never forgot that people’s eternal destinies are at stake. That’s what’s behind v19, where he says he’s been
‘serving the Lord with all humility and with tears’ (20.19)
Have you ever felt like that – or literally wept – over someone who’s walked away from the gospel? Or over a professing Christian who’s walked away, or is currently walking away, from Christ?
The other glimpse of how peoples’ eternal destinies weighed on his mind is in v26:
‘Therefore I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all of you’ (20.26)
Ie, ‘I’ve told you the gospel – I’ve told you how to be put right with God and saved from his judgement; so if you now reject that, I’m innocent of where it ultimately takes you.’ Will you aim to be able to say that about the people around you? You won’t be able to say it now. And it doesn’t mean we should just go and blurt out the gospel at people without being wise about when and how. But that’s what we should be aiming to be able to say.
So the first essential is conviction about the gospel.
Second, CONVICTION ABOUT THE CHURCH
Look on to v28:
Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood. (20.28)
Some people read this passage as if only now does Paul get onto the role of elders, and that it turns out to be all about looking after the church – ie, those who are already Christians. But that’s way off the truth. Because in the verses we’ve just looked at, Paul is holding up his ministry as a model for theirs. So that the elders’ first concern has got to be for people outside the church, who don’t yet know Christ. But having said that, they’re then called here to have equal concern for those who do know Christ.
So what does that look like? Well, first of all, v28, Paul says to these elders:
‘Pay careful attention to yourselves…’ (20.28)
Or as he wrote to Timothy:
Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching [ie, your teaching]. (1 Timothy 4.16)
So, ‘Keep a close watch on yourself’ means, ‘Keep a close watch on your own walk with the Lord and your example.’ Because spiritual leadership flows out of your own walk with the Lord, and is first and foremost by example. Which is why, when you’re not on good form spiritually, you don’t really want to do whatever ministry you have, and you find yourself silently saying, ‘Do as I say, not as I do.’ Which is not the position you want to be in. On this, I remember John Chapman, the Aussie evangelist, saying, ‘You’re a Christian first, and a Christian minister second – so don’t let ministry become an excuse for being less than Christian.’ So, eg, some days this week, I might have said, ‘I haven’t got time for my own Bible reading because I’ve got a sermon to prepare.’ Or I might say, ‘So many Christians take up my time 1-to-1 that I personally can’t do any evangelism.’ But that would be making ministry an excuse for being less than Christian.
So ‘Keep a close watch on yourself… and on the teaching [ie, your teaching].’ Ie, ‘Keep a close watch on whether you’re being faithful to the Bible.’ Eg, don’t let snazzy presentation in youth work mask careless Bible handling (‘They’re only kids, after all.’). Don’t lead your small group underprepared thinking, ‘I’ll just wing it’ (‘It’s only a discussion, after all.’)
Verse 28 again:
‘Pay careful attention to yourselves… and to all the flock, of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for [literally, ‘to shepherd’] the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood [or, as the ESV footnote says, a better translation would be ‘with the blood of his Own’ – that is, his own Son, the Lord Jesus.]’ (20.28)
In his book The Reformed Pastor, Richard Baxter unpacks that one verse – which takes 250 pages. And you wouldn’t thank me for copying that. We could unpack the word ‘overseer’ which is about management, supervision, guardianship. Or we could unpack the word ‘shepherd’ which, to quote someone,
blends the ideas of authority and leadership with self-sacrifice, tenderness, wisdom, hard work, loving care, constant watchfulness. Shepherding requires long hours… complete attention… knowledge of the sheep, good management, and courage in the face of danger. (Biblical Eldership, Alexander Strauch)
But the main thing to see here is Paul’s conviction about the church. `He says it’s:
‘the flock, of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with the blood of his Own.’ (v28)
So God bought JPC, this local church of believers, with the blood of Jesus. God owns it. God loves it. And God has made some of us responsible for all of it, and many of us responsible for part of it. And God is saying, ‘Don’t ever forget that this is my church and that you’re answerable to me for how you take care of it – or your part of it.’ Here’s Richard Baxter again in The Reformed Pastor:
Let us hear these arguments of Christ whenever we feel ourselves grow dull and careless [in our ministries]: ‘Did I die for these souls, and will you not look after them? Were they worth my blood, and are they not worth your labour? Did I come down from heaven to earth to ‘seek and save what was lost’; and will you not go to the next door or street or village to seek them? How small is your condescension and labour compared to mine! I debased myself to this, but it is your honour to be so employed.’ [And Baxter concludes:] Every time we look upon our congregations, let us… remember that they are the purchase of Christ’s blood and therefore should be regarded by us with the deepest interest and most tender affection. (The Reformed Pastor, Richard Baxter)
Is that how you see your Home Group, or children’s group, or Christianity Explored group, or whatever it is for you?
And then, v29, Paul highlights the main reason why elders must ‘pay careful attention to the flock’. It’s because,
I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them. Therefore be alert, remembering that for three years I did not cease night or day to admonish [which has the sense of lovingly warning and correcting] everyone with tears. (20.29-31)
So why can’t we just be positive? Because there’s so much false teaching and Bible-twisting that you need to be alerted to. And as Martin Luther said, ‘You have to fight where the battle is.’ So, eg, we don’t want to be talking about the issue of homosexuality as and when we do; but that’s where the battle is in the culture, and as you know, it’s invading the churches.
So we need the convictions about the church that I want any babysitter to have towards my children: we need to see this church as God’s ‘baby’, to be ultra-careful with it, to feed it and give it nothing that he wouldn’t want it given, and to protect it from everything that would harm it.
But the ultimate conviction about the church is in v32, where Paul says:
‘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.’ (20.32)
So Paul is leaving this church in the care of relatively young Christians, knowing the cultural pressures and false teaching dangers it faces. And humanly speaking, he might have wondered, ‘Will it survive?’ And that’s where you need the ultimate conviction about the church – which is that God creates it as he brings people to faith and that God will build it up and sustain it by his Word, until Jesus comes again. That’s what Paul is saying in v32:
‘And now I commend you [ie, commit you, entrust 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.’ (20.32)
So can God enable JPC to survive – whatever happens in the wider church and culture? Yes. Can God enable to JPC to thrive – to grow to 2,000 in multiple congregations on this site and elsewhere in town? Yes. And when that calls on us to give large amounts of money, as we did for 3 Osborne Road, as we did for Holy Trinity Gateshead, how can we know what we’re giving to will survive and grow? The answer is: we have to entrust it to God, knowing that he is in the business of making his church grow.
And if we want him to use us in that, we need this level of conviction about the gospel and this level of conviction about the church.
If there was time, I’d also say from the rest of this passage that we need ‘Care about motives’ (from vv33-35, where Paul says how careful he is not to let money colour his motives in ministry) and ‘Care about people’ (from vv36-38, where it’s obvious that Paul was dearly loved by those he pastored – which must have been because he loved them so dearly – see 1 Thessalonians 2.7-12). But I’m out of time.