To Take Care of the Church of the Lord
Acts 20:17, 28, 32
1. When our beloved brother Paul, on his fateful journey to Jerusalem, thought of his life and of his future, he thought of the elders of the church. So do we today.
2. Every time a congregation, by the grace of God, does this, it is a meaningful season of renewal and restoration.
a. Renewal, because it is the process of the growth and development of something alive, in which ongoing life brings forth brothers who are prepared to step forward and shoulder responsibilities that have been borne by others.
b. Restoration, because it is the continuing task of returning to the New Testament design for the functioning church, in which we are always bringing ourselves in line with the course charted by the apostles of Christ.
i. That design is for each congregation to have its own group of mature brothers who are cut out for the spiritual work of taking care of the church of the Lord.
ii. But, in human experience, that organization of the church has proven to be the first, and easiest, part of the scriptural way from which we may drift.
3. We can avoid the risks of history and gain the benefits of the Lord if we will bear in mind the two most important elements in this process.
1. The first is what the work is.
a. What strikes a reader of the New Testament is that when he comes to the way the church is organized he does not find titles, he finds functions.
i. In fact, the task the appointed spiritual leaders of the church have is defined by the terms the New Testament uses for them, maybe even more than by the specific things they are told to do.
ii. Three words are applied to the same group of brothers, sometimes together in the same context.
(1) Acts 20:17, 28–the elders...overseers...care for...
(2) 1 Pet. 5:1, 2–elders...shepherd...exercising oversight...
(3) Tit. 1:5, 7–elders...overseer...steward...
iii. These terms let us know that we are dealing with a function rather than merely an office, and that the nature of the function will determine the kind of person it will take to do it.
b. What may help us see what the work is like most is visualizing how these three terms fit together. The relationship between them is important because each helps define the other, and I like to think of it like this.
i. “Elders” is who they are (Acts 20:17; Tit. 1:5; 1 Pet. 5:1).
(1) The word in English letters is “presbyters.”
(2) It refers to men of experience, maturity, and wisdom, whose faith has so obviously impacted their lives that they are recognized as examples (1 Pet. 5:3).
(3) Everett Ferguson says that the term was not tied to age per se, but that it was used of honored men who preserved the traditions and way of life of God’s people, determined how God’s word would apply to circumstances, settled disputes, and assigned discipline. (The Church of Christ 322, 324)
ii. “Overseers” is what they do (Acts 20:28; 1 Pet. 5:2: Tit. 1:7).
(1) The original is “episkopoi,” and sometimes it has been translated “bishop.”
(2) It means watching over, or managing, or supervising, almost like being a steward means making proper use of something that belongs to someone else.
(3) This is the word that emphasizes the active side of what elders do: they are attentive and capable in managing the affairs of the church, guarding the group, and directing activities without bossing. (Ferguson, 323)
iii. “Shepherds” is how they do it (Acts 20:28; 1 Pet. 5:2).
(1) The Latin of this term is “pastors,” but when it is translated it is “tend my sheep” (Jn. 21:16), “care for the church” (Acts 20:28), and “shepherd the flock” (1 Pet. 5:2).
(2) Ezekiel 34:3-5 shows that what the Scriptures mean by shepherding the flock means feeding them well, strengthening the weak, tending to the sick, binding up the injured, bringing back the straying, seeking the lost ones, protecting them from predators, and keeping them from scattering–and all of that with a strong gentleness.
(3) Elders oversee by shepherding: they lead by caring, protecting and providing.
2. The second element to bear in mind is the implication of the first: this process is first and foremost the exercise of looking in the mirror of God’s word and reflecting on who we are. The functions the Lord has given to provide for us are not arbitrary; they are the natural equipment for who he means for us to be. They are shadows of who we are.
a. We are a family in which the influence and example and wisdom of experience and maturity carries a moral authority of far greater impact than it might in the culture of the world.
i. Where the mind of the world takes its cue from someone who is going through the same thing and failing in the same ways, we look to someone who has already been through it and has done well.
ii. Respect for experience, humility with regard to ourselves, and appreciation for grace and the Giver of it, are our family attitudes (1 Pet. 5:5).
iii. Acts 14:22-23 suggests that the presence of elders in our family plays a big role in strengthening our souls in the midst of our tribulations, encouraging us to continue in the faith, and deepening our commitment to the Lord in whom we have believed.
b. We are a house in which the work of daily life is always ongoing, so that the activity has to be managed by those who pay careful attention from a perspective that is informed by the word of the Lord and by experience, and who can set priorities and determine methods accordingly.
i. We are not just a house, but God’s house (Tit. 1:7); and it is not just whether we are doing something, but whether we are acting as God would have us (1 Pet. 5:2), that matters.
ii. In Acts 15, when the church was busy and growing, the elders had a place along with the apostles in coming to one accord about what was best, and the entire church was encouraged and strengthened by it.
iii. It is not imagination but experience which keeps the energy of the church directed toward its purpose.
c. We are a flock in which souls are tended, cared for, led and fed by a group of brothers whose hearts are so much like the Lord’s that it is their nature to do that kind of work.
i. We live in a world where there are still wolves, sometimes even arising from among ourselves (Acts 20:29-30), but the presence of shepherds who are keeping watch provides for our good.
ii. The Good Shepherd knows his sheep, calls them by name, goes before them, lays down his life for them, and makes them one (Jn. 10:1-18).
iii. Abundant life is enjoyed where the sheep know shepherds like that, hear their voices, and go in and out under their care.
1. While you do your part in the process of appointing spiritual leaders, bear in mind:
a. What the work is.
b. Who we are.
2. The scenes we have just described are deeply meaningful because of Jesus (1 Pet. 5:4; 2:25).
3. It is instructive that mention of elders and their work seems to occur in close connection with entrusting our souls to the Lord (1 Pet. 4:19; Acts 14:23; 20:32).