Paul’s farewell speech to the Ephesian elders in Acts 20 is as tender as it is convicting. Significant sufferings and afflictions await him. For Paul, finishing his own race well is of great importance (v. 24). Yet his greatest concern is for the church.
Paul is determined to leave a good dose of selflessness behind with the Ephesian elders. He urges them to give close attention to themselves, and then also to “all the flock” (v. 28). Not a lamb is to be left alone and defenseless. The elders are shepherds. Like Paul and ultimately like Christ Himself, they must lay down their lives for the flock. They have been called by the Holy Spirit to shepherd Christ’s flock.
Men do not call themselves into the office; it is not a matter of willpower, popularity, or entitlement. It is the work of God’s Spirit. The Spirit who calls men into this office is also the One who enables them to fulfill the office. Faithful elders are gifts whom Christ gives to His church as a means of caring for her. Their care and sacrifice point away from themselves to our heavenly Shepherd.
Paul refers to the church as that which God “purchased with his own blood” (v. 28). The deity of Christ, our Shepherd, is clearly accented. On top of this, we are reminded of the exodus, when God redeemed (purchased) His people for Himself. The church, in spite of its many imperfections, is still the apple of God’s eye, a glorious treasure that was purchased by the precious blood of the Lamb of God—Christ Himself. Paul’s affection for the church is clearly an echo of God’s affection. The church is that which God loves most in this world, and He calls His elders to tend His flock with a profound sense of care and attentiveness.
Why such heightened language of care and accountability? Because where there are lambs, there will also be wolves. Not sparing the flock, they will be intent upon devouring it. Peter says virtually the same thing in 1 Peter 5. Wolves and lions will circle the flock, seeking to separate, isolate, and devour. Yet wolves will come not only from the outside. They will appear even inside the church: “From among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them” (Acts 20:30). It is a sobering realization that the church will be threatened both from without and from within. The work of faithful elders includes protecting the church from those who contradict sound doctrine and seek a following.
It has been suggested that the fate of the church is (humanly speaking) not in the hands of pastors but of elders. There is much wisdom in that. Let us pray that God will continue to raise up faithful shepherds in His church to lay down their lives to protect us from wolves and even ourselves. And if we are blessed to have such devoted servants, let us thank God, and thank our elders as well.