Galatians Summer Bible Study
Subscribe and receive the teachings in your inbox starting July 11.

Paul's Pattern for Elder Ministry, Part 2

Paul's Pattern for Elder Ministry, Part 2

April 06, 2008 | Andrew Davis
Acts 20:17-38

sermon transcript



When God wanted his people to build a tabernacle where His glory would be displayed, He committed to His servant Moses a clear set of plans, a pattern that he should follow. It says in Acts 7:44, "It had been made as God directed Moses, according to the pattern he had seen."  God entrusted to Moses, I believe, a vision of the heavenly reality that the tabernacle was just a shadow of, and from that we got acacia wood poles and curtains and all kinds of things that are recorded in the Book of Exodus, a pattern for the tabernacle, a recipe of how that would be built. Later in redemptive history, when God wanted His people to build a temple, that one place from all the tribes where His people would go three times a year to worship where sacrifices and offerings would be made, that house would be a house of prayer for all nations, He raised up His servant David, He put this desire on David's heart, and then He committed to David a set of plans, a pattern that David's son Solomon would follow in building the temple. In I Chronicles 28:19, it says, "All this," David said, "I have in writing from the hand of the Lord upon me, and he gave me understanding in all the details of the plan."

So, there we have a pattern for the tabernacle, and we have a pattern for the temple, both of them committed to the servants of God by God Himself. In the New Covenant, God is building a far more glorious structure. It's a spiritual structure. It's made up of living stones of people who have been redeemed through faith in Christ, from every tribe and language and people and nation, and they are being constructed together into this glorious temple, that's rising to be filled with the Spirit of God. Just as He committed to His servants, Moses and David, the pattern to follow, so also, He has committed to the New Testament believers a clear pattern for the local church, a pattern for us to follow for its order, for its spiritual growth, for its health, for its fruitfulness. He's given it to us by the Word of God. Last week, we discussed the way that God has set up the church as a display of his glory, with a clear pattern of church government being a plurality, a group of elders leading congregations. Now, we looked at Acts 20, there are other passages that we could have looked at, we could have looked at 1 Timothy 3 or Titus 1.  I think it's essential to look at those passages as clear descriptions of the character traits of being an elder, and I do commend them to you.

I wanted to go to Acts 20, which is a narrative passage, and though Paul isn't speaking himself as an elder directly, but I think in his apostolic ministry, he has assembled together the elders of the church at Ephesus, and as he describes his own ministry to them, among them, I believe he is giving them a clear pattern of elder ministry. We looked last week at Paul's farewell address to the Ephesian elders, and I presented it as what I believe it to be a lasting pattern of elder ministry. By way of review, what do we find last week? First, we saw the number of elders, and it was plural. I'm not saying we know the exact number, it's not given to us to know, whether there would be 13 of them or 6 of them, the precise number is not important, but we do know that there was a plurality. It says in verse 17, from Ephesus, "He sent for the elders of the church." So, one location, one church, but a plurality of elders.  We also saw in Acts 20, the titles, plural of elders, there are different ways that these folks are identified. Elder in verse 17, “presbuteros”, from which the Presbyterian denomination gets its name. You also have later the word overseer, “episcopate” from which the Episcopalian denomination takes its name. Then we have the verbal form, “shepherd,” the noun form of that, Ephesians 4 is “pastor”.  I think it's pretty plain to see that elder, overseer, and pastor are just interchangeable terms for the same office of leadership in the local church.  We saw also that elders are called by the Holy Spirit of God. It's not the church that makes someone an elder. It's not the other elders that makes someone an elder, it comes from God, the Holy Spirit of God. In verse 28, it says, "The Holy Spirit has made you overseers." 

Fourthly, we saw the character traits of elders, visible holiness. We discussed, humility, personal courage, single-minded focus, freedom from covetousness, diligence or vigilance in responsibility, passion, and compassion, the emotional side. We talked about hard work, generosity, faith in God for the results, and happiness. These are all character traits of godly men.  I want to say a word about this, and also in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1.  There's no individual that meets all of these character traits, these requirements perfectly. None of us.  All of these issues are works in progress, in my heart and the heart of any elder, and frankly they're works in progress in all of our hearts, because to be honest with you, there's really nothing required of an elder that's not required of all Christians, except for the issue of teaching. Not everyone has the gift of teaching. We'll talk about that in a moment. But all of us are required to be holy and to set examples for others, etcetera. We are to be works in progress, but that was last week. That was what elders are supposed to be. 

 Elders’ Role in the Church

What are they supposed to do? That's going to occupy our attention today. Writing a chapter in John MacArthur's book on pastoral ministry, Richard Mayhue listed 17 verbs expected of elders based on a single passage in 1 Thessalonians alone. 17 verbs just from 1 Thessalonians:  praying, evangelizing, equipping, defending, loving, laboring, modeling, leading, feeding, watching, warning, teaching, exhorting, encouraging, correcting, confronting, and rescuing. 17 verbs, and that's just in one passage in 1 Thessalonians. That's pretty overwhelming, isn't it? Pastoral ministry can be overwhelming, and for this reason, I think God's given us two things. First of all, He's given us the plurality of elders, so that all of these responsibilities are not zeroed in on one individual, the senior pastor, let's say, but rather a group of men called to this.

He's also given us a clear priority structure about these things. You get it in Acts 6, when they were having a discussion, a division among them about the distribution of food among widows, and the apostle said, "We will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the Word." Clearly, there's all kinds of responsibilities, but the centerpiece of elder ministry, I think, is prayer and the ministry of the Word.  I want to start there with the duties of the elders, and I'm going to start with the ministry of the Word. This is the most vital aspect of the ministry of elders. We are justified by faith in Jesus Christ. We are sanctified by faith in Jesus Christ. We begin the Christian life by faith, we make progress in the Christian life by faith. Romans 10:17 tells us that faith comes from hearing the word, so we must have a steady diet, a steady inflow of the Word of God, and this is the centerpiece of elder ministry. I want to take your attention and focus on a key verse in our passage today. Look at verse 32. Verse 32 is a key verse for me in understanding elder ministry. There in verse 32, it says, “And now I commit you to God and to the word of his grace, which can build you up and give you an inheritance among all those who are sanctified." That's an incredibly important verse for me as an elder. 

 First of all, note the sense of urgency, "and now," it's very dramatic, "And now I commit you to God." The Apostle Paul knows this is the last time he's going to be able to speak to these men. He's never going to see them again. They're never going to see his face again, so there's a sense of the urgency of the time. "And now," he says. Notice the personal commitment in ministry. He says, "And now I commit you to God." There's a personal commitment going on in that ministry. We see the essence of the ministry. At the center of the ministry of the word is a commitment to God, a God-centered ministry. He says, "I commit you to God and to the Word of His grace."  I think I want you to notice here is that God does not, or Paul does not make much of a distinction between being committed to God and being committed to the Word of His grace. As a matter of fact, I don't think he can make any distinction. How can you commit someone to God without the ministry of the Word and prayer? This is how he does it. He's committing them to God. He speaks of the word of grace doctrine, the deep truths of the faith, the deep commitment of the Word of God.

 Some time ago, this word, commit or commend captured my attention. "I commit you to God." Paul is never going to see these people again. Sometimes I feel like ministry is... There's a feeling like a father with children, and Jesus said the night before He was crucified, "I will not leave you as orphans. I will come to you." There's a parallel verse that teaches this, in Romans 6:17, it says, "But thanks be to God that though you used to be slaves to sin, you wholeheartedly obeyed that form of teaching to which you were entrusted." Doctrine, the gospel, God has entrusted your soul to doctrine, He's entrusted you to the gospel for safekeeping for the rest of your life. And it will take you the rest of the journey there. You'll never be done with it. You're never gonna be done with the gospel. You're not going to grow past it, you're not going to say, "Well, I've got Romans down now, and I'm just going to move on to more advanced things in the Christian faith." It's impossible. You'll never get past the cross, you'll never get past the blood, the inner working of the Spirit, you will never get past the joyous truths of justification by faith alone apart from works of the law. This is the centerpiece of the gospel.  God has entrusted your soul to it, to the Gospel, the power of God for salvation. 

 Some time ago, my wife and I had a sobering responsibility to make up a will, and it didn't have so much to do with all of our worldly possessions, but it had to do with our children and who it would be that would look after them, should both of us die at the same time? What a sobering thought that was as we prayed about who it would be that would look after them and how they would be cared for, to whom would we commit our children? Now, of course, any parent going out for an evening entrusts their children to a babysitter, something like that, and we hope that that babysitter's going to be responsible and know what to do in case of an emergency, etcetera. There's no greater issue in life than the health of your soul, the final destination of your soul. Here Paul entrusts the church at Ephesus to God and to the Word of His grace, and therefore the centerpiece of elder ministry is the ministry of the Word of God. Elders need to be faithful in teaching, they need to teach courageously, they need to teach what is unpopular, they need to teach it courageously because here's the thing. I've noticed in my own heart, and I see it in ministry too. 

All of us have an instinct against the Word of God [Romans chapter 1] The fact is, even after we're converted, we still have the flesh, and the instinct of the flesh is always anti-God, anti-Word all the time. If sin starts to take root in your life, and then the word of God comes to tell you what's happening, you're going to have a push back against it. There's going to be a reaction, and that happens all the time in the ministry of the word. An elder must be faithful to teach it anyway. The first question must not be, “Is it popular, but is it true, is it biblical, is it scriptural, is it right?” You must be courageous. In Acts 20:20, Paul says, "I have not hesitated to preach anything that would be helpful to you but have taught you publicly and from house to house.” In verse 27, he says, "I have not hesitated to proclaim to you the whole will of God." There's that tendency to shrink back, to hesitate, Paul said, "I didn't do it. I didn't give in to that temptation, but I preached whatever was helpful to you. I taught you publicly and from house to house." Satan is going to raise up enemies to the word.  He says, "From outside, they're going to be these savage wolves that are going to come in and not spare the flock. Inwardly, even from your own number, some will rise up and will distort the truth in order to draw away disciples."

Elder Role: Teaching the Word

So, an elder has to be strong in the Word. Titus 1:9 says, "An elder has to be skillful in the word to find what's wrong with the false teaching and to expose it and say, 'This is the problem.'" Because false teaching always has an element of truth to it, it’s a truth that goes beyond the boundaries set up by other scriptures generally. There's a boundary line set up. There's a truth, but they push it too far. An elder has to be able skillfully to see what the fault is. Titus 1:9 says, "He must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it." It has to be comprehensive. You can't say, "Well, you know, that isn't an important aspect of the Bible." God has committed to us a big book, and I am committed to preaching verse by verse through books of the Bible, and I will die before I finish everything in this book. I've already calculated it out. As long as I don't live to 900 years old, which I probably won't, this book will outlast me even just in terms of the practicalities of preaching, everything that's in it. Yet, I want to give you a model saying, you should be studying every page the rest of your lives, daily quiet times, filling, saturating your hearts with the word of God, because God has not spoken any superfluous extra words that don't matter. "All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness.” Elders have to be able to teach. 

Now, there are different gifts of teaching, different aspects of the teaching ministry. All elders must be able to teach, that's required. You cannot be an elder if you can't teach. By the way, it does say in James 3:1, "Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers,” so actually in a local congregation, you're not going to have many teachers. The role of a teacher is described here in James 3:1 as someone that God raises up and you shouldn't presume if it's not given you as a gift, alright? What that teaches me is that there should be no jealousy whatsoever concerning elder ministry. The majority, the overwhelmingly vast majority of Christians will not be elders, and yet all of them will be rewarded by their faithful service to God, whatever He entrusted to them, whatever it is, it doesn't make a difference. Men or women, it does not make a difference. What God has entrusted to you is based on your faithfulness, in that you will be rewarded. He raises up elders who are able to teach the Word of God, but even within that, there are distinctions of different kinds of teaching ministry. Not every elder will be able to do the same kind of teaching ministry. Some may flourish in a small group setting, some may flourish in personal counseling, using the word of God in counseling, some may flourish in the public proclamation of the word, preaching. Not every elder is cut from the same cloth and given the same gift of teaching, but all elders must be able to teach.

Elder Role:  Praying

 Secondly, they must be men of prayer. Look at Acts 20:36, "When he had said this, he knelt down with all of them and prayed." Prayer and the ministry of the Word, the two go together. You know why? Because Paul said very plainly in 1 Corinthians 3, "I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow. So, neither he who plants, nor he who waters is anything, but only God, who gives the growth.” Do you know how elders testify to that? By getting down on their knees and saying, "God, give the growth. God, give growth to this church, help them grow in their hearts, help them grow to spiritual maturity. Oh God, give us growth numerically. God convert people, save them, we can't do it.” It's something only God can do, being born again is something from God.

Elders testify to that as Paul did, by getting down on their knees and praying. Now, do they have to get down on their knees? No, they don't. You can pray in any physical position but isn't it interesting how many times Paul mentions getting down on his knees. In Ephesians 3, "For this reason, I kneel before the Father." It's a position of humility before God, recognizing we can't do anything. They must be men of prayer. 

Elder Role: Shepherding

They also have to be shepherds of souls. Look at verse 28, "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." I was raised in Eastern Massachusetts, in suburbia. I went to a suburban high school. I went to college in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I was an urban guy in college.

I have seen sheep occasionally. Generally, in those petting farms where you put a quarter in and you get these little things and they eat out of your hands, or you can feed them milk. What do I know about shepherding? Nothing, except what I've learned in the Bible because it's so important. The idea of shepherding is feeding the flock, leading the flock, protecting the flock, and that's what I think of in terms of shepherding. Feeding, we've just covered concerning the ministry of the word of God. Jesus said to Peter after his resurrection, "Peter, do you love me more than these?" "Yes, I do." "Feed my lambs. Feed them." That's the Word of God.  In terms of counseling, what should I do as a pastor?  I hear, “This is what I'm facing. These are the issues. These are options for me in terms of a job, or my wife and I are having this issue going on, give me some counsel, give me some guidance and wisdom.” There must be a shepherding of the souls and a love for the souls, and then there's a protection of the flock too. We mentioned that a moment ago, savage wolves, your enemy the lion prowls around, seeking someone to devour. There's a need to protect the flock doctrinally and in terms of protection from sin. All of that is an aspect of the shepherding ministry. 

Elder Role:  Leading

 Fourthly, leadership. We're in a journey, we're traveling, we're not staying put. There are decisions that have to be made and there's leading that has to be done.  Paul's leadership as an apostle and as the founder of the church was clear, but now he is entrusting that role to these elders. They have to carry it on. There is leadership involved, and this is consistent throughout redemptive history, throughout the Bible, God consistently raises up godly men, and entrusts his people to them and they lead them. In the New Testament church, that leadership is entrusted to elders. A key passage on this is 1 Timothy 5:17, “Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching.” The word “rule” there means to manage the affairs of, to govern, to lead or have authority over.  I do not believe, as my Presbyterian friends do, that God is here setting up two different kinds of elders, ruling elders, teaching elders. I don't believe that, and I don't think that you can, as some have said, get all of your polity from one verse. I don't think that that distinction, that that one verse is enough to say that there's totally different kinds of elders, I don't think so. But I do believe it's pretty clear from that verse and others, that elders are called on to manage the affairs of the church to lead well.

Elder Role: Role-modeling

Fifthly, we have role modeling, and I talked about this in terms of Paul's life. Paul put his life on full display before them from the first day he set foot in their city, and now that he's leaving, the elders have to step into that role. Somebody has to be willing to stand up and say, "Follow me as I follow Christ." We need that. How else can young Christians know what it means to be kind and compassionate and humble, or for a young husband to learn from an older husband, what it means to love your wife as Christ loves the church. Those are just words on a page until you see it fleshed out in everyday life. We must have the examples, and thanks be to God for them. I've had many in my life and in various areas of the Christian life. Some of you are some of my best examples in many areas, but elders must be willing to do this. It's tragic when you see athletes going through bad things and they say, “I’m not a role model.” Have you seen that?  Well, yes, you are. You can't help it. People are going to follow you. Elders need to know before they even become one, “I am a role model, I must be a role model, I must be able to commend my life as a pattern to follow.”  Not sinless, of course not, we're not saying that. Sometimes it can be just a matter of brokenness and humility and be imitators of me as I am an imitator of Christ. There is much to say about this, but I'm going to move on.

Elder role: Serving

Service is another responsibility of the elder. Verse 19, “I serve the Lord with great humility and with tears.” The Greek word is related to that of a common slave, “doulos: is a verbal form of that. We talked about slavery a number of weeks ago in Colossians. Paul is commending himself as a slave or bond slave of Christ and of the people of God. There should be no task beneath an elder. If Jesus is willing to get down and wash his disciples' feet, there is no task beneath an elder to do. That doesn't mean strategically that they should spend most of their time washing feet. I think Acts 6 makes it plain, “We will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word,” but still the attitude, the aroma around these folks is one of servanthood. Service, being willing to do anything, they need to set the example for this.

Elder Role:  Evangelizing

Seventhly, evangelism and missions. Look at verse 21, “I’ve declared to both Jews and Greeks that they must turn to God in repentance and have faith in our Lord Jesus.” Repentance and faith, those are the two. I really look on repentance as just another aspect of faith. When your eyes get clear and you see the holiness of God, what are you going to do but say, “Woe is me, I'm ruined, I'm a man of unclean lips.” You're going to see your own sin, and the clearer you see God, the more you're going to want to turn away from sin. We turn to God away from sin, and we have faith in the finished work of Jesus Christ on the cross, that is the Gospel. Paul says in verse 21, “I’ve declared it, I proclaimed it.” We are here to proclaim the gospel, we can't just believe the gospel, it’s a precious truth. We hardly ever speak of it. “It’s precious to me, my faith is an intensely personal thing to me.” I've had people tell me that before. Thanks be to God; the apostles didn't keep it so. Thanks be to God, they declared it and proclaimed it to everybody. This church must be an evangelistic church, as every healthy church must proclaim the gospel, they must turn to God in repentance and have faith in the Lord Jesus, and we must proclaim it, that we are repenter believers, we're on the journey, we're not done with repentance, and we're not done with faith in the Lord Jesus. We began it that one day and we were justified at that moment, forgiven of all of our sins, but we've been on a repenting believing journey ever since, and so we must declare it, elders must lead the way in evangelism.  They must set the personal example. They must be active in personal witnessing.  They must be big picture strategic thinkers, as I mentioned about leadership, they must lead the church into wise patterns of ministry and evangelism, engaging the urban scene, engaging international students, engaging missions to the ends of the Earth. It's the elders who are going to strategize and think big picture. 

That's part of what it means to be an elder. An elder must never forget that the salvation of human souls is why Jesus came to the Earth, the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.

That's what an elder is to be and that's when an elder is to do. One final word before I get to the application, and that is the accountability of elders. This is a very sober thing.  Look what Paul says in verse 26 and 27,” Therefore, I declare to you today that I'm innocent of the blood of all men. For I have not hesitated to proclaim to you the whole will of God.” What does that mean - “I am innocent of the blood of all men for I have not hesitated to proclaim.”?  What does that mean?  I was reading in my “John McCarthy through the Bible in a year” guide, maybe some of you are reading that, reading about the two spies that went to Rahab's house in Jericho.  Rahab took the men, protected them, sent the soldiers off in another direction, and then talked to them. She wanted something from those spies. She wanted a promise that the army of Israel would not kill her and her family, "Please don't kill us, we know that God's given you Jericho, we know He's giving you the whole land, we're all trembling and in fear of you, but please, I was gracious to you, now be gracious to me and my family." They said, "Fair enough, we will. Your house is in the wall, we know where it is, you hang a scarlet thread through the window, we will know this is your home, you and all of your relatives, anyone that you have in the home, they are protected and safe. But if they go outside of that protected place, their blood is on their own heads." That's what they said. What does that mean? They're accountable to God for their own death, "But if we kill them while they're in the house, their blood's on our heads, we're accountable, we're responsible." When Paul says, “I am innocent of the blood of all men,” he said, “I discharged the ministry God gave me to do. I preached the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I told them where the refuge was like Rahab's house. I told them where the place of safety was, and that place of safety is Jesus and His blood.” That's what the scarlet thread, I think to me represents, I always remember that. It's a place of refuge, like Noah's Ark, it's a place of safety. You come there and you're not going to be judged. The wrath of God will not come down on you. 

 I'm speaking to you today, if you have come here today and you are not in a saving relationship with Christ, there is a place of refuge. Life is short. We might die at any moment. We never know. And if you're in an unsaved state, you're in danger of going to hell. But there is a place of safety. There is a place of safety.  Flee to Christ. Flee to Christ. Trust in Him. His blood was shed on the cross for sinners like you and me, and all you need to do is repent and have faith in Jesus and you'll be forgiven.  I can declare to you who are in my hearing now that I'm innocent of your blood. I will not stand accountable on judgment day for you if you don't believe in Jesus. Your blood's on your own head, if you don't flee to that house of safety, named Christ. 

 I say to you that elders must have this sense of accountability, of responsibility, of “Someday I'm going to give an account to God for you.” Hebrews 13:17 says, “They keep watch over you as men who must give an account.”  Accountability to God. I believe there's also, to a much lesser degree, but a significant degree, accountability to the church. Every week I present doctrine to you, I present sermons and you listen like Bereans and see if what I say is faithful to the scriptures, and thanks be to God for it, and if I stray, you will be there to correct me, and if I sin and it's appropriate based on 1 Timothy 5, you'll be there to discipline me or any elder. There's an accountability also to the congregation, just as the congregation is responsible to God to submit to the Godly leadership of the elders as well. There's this beautiful balance between the congregation's role and the role of the elders. 

Now, by way of application, what application are we gonna take from all of this? Why am I preaching these sermons? I'm preaching these sermons because I've come to the conclusion that we could do better in this church. We could be more biblical in our church government, our governing structure than we are. The way our present bylaws read, there is one basically elder, the senior pastor, and there may be others or may not be just, it's left open that the Church has the freedom to call others, godly laymen, who could exercise a shepherding kind of role. Now they can only do so as deacons at the present time. Furthermore, as to committees, I do not find in scripture. Committees have had fruitful ministries, but I think we can do better by being a more biblical model which is a plurality of elders, each of whom meets the scriptural requirements we've discussed here, and who understand their role to take responsibility as a group for the health, the spiritual health of the church. Deacons would carry on servant ministries under the leadership of the elders. Committees, if there are any, are called by the elders for a certain function and purpose and report to the elders. I think this is the biblical pattern. For the last four or five months, I've been meeting with a group of leaders from the deacons, and we have proposed a new set of bylaws, and they'll be available to you today at the doors, at the exits, you can read them. It says draft all over because it's still a draft, it's just a piece of paper right now, recommendation for a new set of bylaws, which has as its heart, plurality of elders. I want the church to have exhausted any question or any thoughts or any objections biblically and have prayed it through and be ready to act in its own wisdom. Will you close with me in prayer?

Other Classes in This Series