Last words are important, aren’t they? If you knew that you would be speaking to someone you love for the very last time, you would be sure to communicate something of substance. You definitely would not have a flippant conversation about the weather or the Reds. Your conversation would be sweet, special, and, no doubt, serious.
I firmly believe that our 21st century culture is in need of 1st century churches, and this morning we learned what that means. With this post, I’ll once again turn to Acts 20. Here we are able to listen in on as the Apostle Paul communicates his “last words” to the Ephesian elders. Acts 20:17-34 provides us with a unique glimpse of Paul’s ministry method. Here is where we see Paul’s love for the local church, his view of the ministry, and his instructions on how the local church should be led.
Although Paul is anxious to get to Jerusalem before Pentecost, he takes the time to meet with the elders of the church of Ephesus. In Paul’s mind, this may be his last time to see these men (Acts 20:25, 36-38). His plans are to go back to Jerusalem, from Jerusalem to Rome (Acts 19:21) and from Rome on to Spain (Romans 15:24, 28). The word “elders” (Acts 20:17) is used interchangeably with the word “overseers” (v. 28), and “overseer” is the same Greek word translated “bishop” in 1 Timothy 3:2. In 1 Peter 5:2, Peter also writes that elders are to “take the oversight”. The Greek word for “pastor” is also in Acts 20:28 and 1 Peter 5:2 also, but it is in the verb form and translated “feed.” The point is that these three words (elder, bishop, and pastor) all describe the same office. Thus, what we have in Acts 20 is a message from Paul to pastors, but this message is for everyone!
I want to show you four things that the inspired apostle wanted these pastors to do. These four things describe what every man of God should concentrate on in his ministry.
#1 – Protect Christ’s Testimony Carefully
Paul begins verse 28 by saying, “Take heed therefore unto yourselves.“ This is a call for constant and careful self-examination and personal holiness. As verse 19 says, a pastor is, first and foremost, a servant of the Lord, as are all believers. The primary meaning of that word “serving” is obedience. A pastor, and every Christian, must walk in obedience to the Lord. Being in the ministry, being a pastor, does not automatically make one holy and without struggles with sin and temptation. It is just as possible to be backslidden in the pulpit as in the pew. What is needed is a genuine personal walk with the Lord.
The text contains some things of which all Christian, but especially pastors, should beware.
- Beware of carelessness (v. 31). Failing to be alert (“watch”) and failing to remember what you already know and what you have been warned about is careless and dangerous. Satan and sin are deceptive. Satan love to trip believers up, and he would love to ruin the lives and testimonies of pastors. You cannot afford to be careless with your calling, careless with your gifts, careless with your ministry.
- Beware of shallowness (v. 32). The stability of your life is going to depend on the depth of your personal walk with the Lord. Prayer and Bible study are the keys to edification and enrichment.
- Beware of covetousness (v. 33). Paul reminds them of his own freedom from self-interest. More than once the Scriptures remind us that the ministry is not about the pursuit of money. If financial success is a pastor’s goal in life, he should look for another profession. This does not mean that a church should not support their pastor or pastors, but it does mean that a pastor must not “be in it for the money.”
- Beware of laziness (v. 34). Paul himself did not have a salary from the church at Ephesus and those who are privileged to be drawing a salary should be earning it by their work ethic. There is a lot of freedom in the ministry. You don’t have a boss looking over your shoulder to make sure you are working. With freedom, however, comes responsibility. A pastor must not abuse the liberty that the ministry affords with laziness. So what is a pastor to do? He is to labor in the word and the doctrine so that he will be worthy of double honor (1 Timothy 5:17).
- Beware of selfishness (v. 35). True ministry means giving not getting; it means following the supreme example and teaching of the Lord Jesus Christ who loved the church and gave Himself as a sacrifice for it. Christ had a sacrificial and sanctifying love for His church, not a selfish frame of mind.
We all must ensure that our lives will not stain the name of Jesus Christ, the testimony of Christianity, nor the reputation of our church. This is true not only of the pastor, but of all church members: Protect Christ’s Testimony Carefully!
#2 – Proclaim Christ’s Gospel Boldly
Verse 21 reminds us that we have a responsibility toward the lost – namely evangelism. According to Romans 1:14 Christians are all debtors to the unregenerate world. No view of ministry is complete that fails to have a proper perspective on reaching the lost. A pastor may not be gifted as an “evangelist”, you may not be a gifted evangelist, but you are commanded to “do the work of an evangelist” (2 Timothy 4:5). The work of an evangelist in the words of Paul in this text is to “testify” – a word used often in Acts to describe preaching and witnessing. It is an intensified form of telling, and this telling is to be done to everyone – the Jews and the Greek. It is to be done everywhere v. 20 “publicly and from house to house.” And the message that we are telling is “repentance toward God, and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ.” According to v. 24 this is “the gospel of the grace of God.” And according to Romans 1:16 “the gospel of Christ…is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek.”
The commission of every church is to “preach the gospel to every creature” (Mark 16:15), and the command to every Christian is to be a bold witness for Christ. And a pastor is to be a preacher of the gospel and nothing else. No pastor, no Christian, and no church should ever be ashamed of the testimony of Christ. As a pastor, I want to be able to say at the end of my life what Paul said in v. 26, “I am pure from the blood of all men.” There are hints of Ezekiel 3:17-21 in Paul’s statement. If a watchman on the wall failed to warn the people of impending danger, their blood would be on his hands. A pastor must be a faithful watchman; every church member must be a faithful watchman. Proclaim Christ’s Gospel Boldly.
#3 – Pastor Christ’s Flock Faithfully
There are several instances in the New Testament where the church is referred to as a flock and Acts 20 is one of those instances (v. 28). The word translated “feed” is where we get the word “pastor” and that simply means “to tend as a shepherd”. A pastor has been called by God, gifted by the Holy Spirit, and ordained by his church to be a shepherd.
Verse 28 says that a pastor should “take heed … to all the flock.” That word translated “take heed” calls a pastor to pay attention to and to watch out for his church. A shepherd must be watchful. He must keep watch over his flock. He watches that his sheep do not wander away. He watches to make sure that they get everything they need to eat and drink. He watches the weather in case they will need shelter. He watches for predators. A shepherd wants to watch out that his sheep do not get lost or hurt.
The sheep need a shepherd to protect them. And that is one of the duties of a pastor to his church. According to v. 29, that protection must be from outside predators – “grievous wolves.” According to v. 30, the threat to the church may also arise from the inside: “Of your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them.” The church is always under theological and moral attack. False doctrines flourish everywhere, as do immoral influences. False doctrine affects what people believe and immoral influences affect how people behave. Every church needs a loving shepherd who will teach them what to believe and how to behave.
The sheep also need a shepherd to lead them. Verse 28 instructs a pastor to be an “overseer”; that means to provide leadership. 1 Peter 5 has this same theme. Read 1 Peter 5:2-3. The pastor who will not lead will instead be led! And many churches are led by children – a youth group, or led by women – a ladies group, or led by carnal, spiritually immature people, or led by financial profitability, and even, in some cases, led by the fickle whims of the unregenerate world. I am referring to the whole seeker-sensitive, market-driven philosophy that places the direction of the church in the hands of the unsaved. A pastor must lead the church, but Peter explains that leadership is not by coercion, not by the strength of personality, not by intimidation, not by charm, and not as being lords over God’s heritage. A pastor must lead his flock primarily through his Biblical teaching and by his Godly example.
A faithful pastor will protect Christ’s testimony carefully; proclaim Christ’s gospel boldly, and pastor Christ’s flock faithfully. Finally, Paul says that a faithful pastor will preach Christ’s word clearly.
#4 – Preach Christ’s Word Clearly
In verse 27 Luke records that Paul said, “For I have not shunned to declare unto you all the counsel of God.” According to Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance, the Greek word translated “counsel” means “will, purpose and advice.” To refer to the Word of God as “the counsel of God” is to declare that Scripture is a comprehensive and complete revelation of the will of God, the purpose of God, and the advice of God. What more could a man of God give his people than this?
2 Timothy 3:16 makes it clear that “all scripture is given by inspiration of God.” God is the source of Scripture. All Scripture is:
- Profitable for doctrine – what is right
- For reproof – what is not right –
- For correction – how to get right
- For instruction in righteousness – how to stay right.
A pastor’s ministry is to “preach the gospel”, to “feed the flock of God”, and to “perfect the saints” and the method for doing that must be to faithfully preach through all the Scripture. A pastor is called to “preach the Word”! He is called to preach the Word constantly – “in season and out of season” – when people are interested in the Word and when they are not interested in the Word of God. Isn’t it interesting that Paul warns Timothy about an approaching day when people will not be interested in hearing the Word faithfully proclaimed? And Paul’s counsel was not to switch from fad to fad in search of some new gimmick to draw in a crowd! Paul said “preach the Word” when folks want to hear it and when they don’t want to hear it. Preach the word – not your own ideas, not the philosophies nor the fables of man. Preach the Word!
For me, as a pastor, the final analysis and the most important thing will not be how clever my sermon outline was; not how cute my illustrations were; not how funny my stories were; and not how short my sermons were. In the final analysis the most important thing will be this: how true the message was, and how faithful was I to the text of Scripture. To preach Christ’s Word clearly a pastor must “study to show yourself approved unto God a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly divide the word of truth.” (2 Timothy 2:15) I must speak the word of God distinctly and give it the sense and cause the people to understand the word of God. A pastor must preach God’s Word clearly, plainly (the plainer the better) and boldly. This should include a gospel presentation, a doctrinal explanation, and practical application.
It is a serious mistake for God-called ministers to abandon their responsibility to preach the Bible. In the final analysis, God will hold me accountable for making His word plain. On judgment day preachers will not be asked where they went to seminary or whether they earned an advanced degree. They will not need to present membership statistics or submit their annual budgets. It will not matter how popular they were or whether they could make people laugh. Instead they will stand before a holy, heavenly tribunal and will be asked, “Did you preach the Word?” Those who followed their own agenda or even worse, the world’s agenda will no doubt hang their heads in shame. But many humble preachers, who were held in little esteem will on that day shine in the brightness of their Father’s glory. For in their proclamation of God’s Word they were faithful to the end. They will hear Him say, “Well done faithful servant!”