Be Shepherds Of The Church Of God
Key Verse 20:28
“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.”
Paul’s Farewell to the Ephesian Elders (20:1-38)
He was on his way to Jerusalem. He did not want to stop at Ephesus. We are not sure why. But it may be that he wanted to avoid places like home. Its hard to pry oneself away from home and from places we love and cherish in our hearts. Ephesus was like this to Paul— a place he could call home. The people there were his family. They loved him, and they would do anything to keep him. he in turn may be tempted to remain a while longer in Ephesus, accept their hospitality, and delay his suffering. So its possible that he did not want to pass by Ephesus to avoid temptation. But he couldn’t just pass by without seeing them. He called them to come to him and they came with all their hearts. He wanted to say good by to them since he would not see them ever again— at least not in this life. And he had some final words to give them.
Final words— there is something very interesting about final words. What would you say to someone you love— more than love— to your own son or daughter— if you were never to see them again. What request— what advice— what words of counsel— what grievances— what to say to someone if it were the last thing they would hear you say.
In his words, he not only revealed his intense love for these Ephesian Christians. But he also revealed the heart and the mind of the shepherd.
Paul left Ephesus and finally arrived at Troas. The disciples at Troas observed the Lord’s Supper weekly and studied the Bible diligently. One day while Paul was having an all night Bible study with the fellowship of believers, Eutychus, who had worked hard all day on the bottom of society, sank into a deep sleep on the window ledge; then he fell to the ground from the third story and was picked up dead. Paul came down and picked him up alive. Then Paul’s mission team travelled until they reached Miletus. From Miletus Paul sent to Ephesus for the elders of the church, where he began to make a farewell speech to them. In his speech Paul reveals the heart and the mind of the shepherd. From him we learn how to live as shepherds of God’s flock. We also learn how to please God as we live out our calling to world mission.
Verse 16 makes it clear that there was a desire in Paul’s heart to visit the Ephesian church yet again. A church like that was family. It would be extremely difficult to be in the area and not visit them to love them and be loved by them yet again. But Paul had something urgent on his heart. “He was in a hurry to get to Jerusalem.” He was carrying a generous offering made by the Gentiles to deliver to their suffering Jewish brothers and sisters in Jerusalem. Paul wanted to make it to Jerusalem by Pentecost if possible.
Paul’s ship was moored at Miletus, a coastal town and a suburb of Ephesus. He knew in his heart that he would never be able to see those Ephesian Christians again, since God had other plans for him from there on. And being the proximity of Ephesus, Paul simply couldn’t let this opportunity go by without proper farewells. So he “He sent to Ephesus for the elders of the church.” (17) He had a few last things to tell them. What could he possibly tell them more than what he had already told them during the three years he had spent with them?
Before we get into the details of the farewell, before we stop to look at the verses and elaborate on them and then transform them into something we ourselves can learn from and apply into our lives, I want to do something different. I want us to fully appreciate the splendor of this farewell address. I want us to listen to it with the ears of our hearts, in order to fully capture the very heart of it. There is something beautiful in the way that Paul spoke to these Ephesian Elders— something we loose when we put it to the study. Listen to this address as you would to a father speaking to his children as if it were the last time he would see them or speak with them ever again. I want us to really hear this shepherd’s heart words.
(18-21) “When they arrived, he said to them” You know me very well. You know my life. You know how I lived among you the whole time I was with you. And how I lived among you is no secret. I lived as a servant of God. I served the Lord— and I served you— with humility and with tears, in spite of all the hardship I had to endure from my own people. I taught you everything I believed was good and helpful to you. And I did so publicly so as to preach the Gospel to as many people as I possibly can, but I also taught you one by one, family by family, household by household. And the core of my teaching was this: that you ought to turn your heart to God in repentance and to always have faith in the Lord Jesus.” (22-24) “I cannot stay with you as I did before, because the Holy Spirit is urging me to go to Jerusalem. I don’t really know what will happen to me there, but I know that it’s not going to be easy. The Holy Spirit tells me that prison and hardship await me. But even if I should die in the process, I’m content. This is what I am living for— this is what my life purpose is all about— To fulfill the work God entrusted me with— the task of telling all people the good news of God’s mercy and saving grace. My life is nothing if I don’t do this. It’s what I live for.” (25-27) “I know that I will not see any of you with whom I preached the kingdom of God anymore— at least not in this life. But, I can tell you that I am innocent of your blood— and I cannot be held accountable for anyone’s soul. My conscience is clear in this matter, in the way I served you, and especially in what I taught you, for I taught you the whole Truth according to the will of God.” (28) “So I counsel you to keep watch over yourselves. And also keep watch over the flock of God— the flock he entrusted to your care. Be shepherds of his church! Be shepherds because the Holy Spirit has made you shepherds to feed his flock. In his sight they are precious beyond measure because he purchased them with his own blood.” (29-31) “I know that after I leave you, predators will come among you— even from you— who will be ready to tear the flock apart. These false teachers will distort the Gospel truth for their own selfish purpose— to have disciples of their own. So be careful! And remember how for the three years I shepherded you I never stopped warning each one of you about these things— night and day and with tears.” (32) “I can sit here and worry about you. But I’m not going to. I know that I have done my best to shepherd you. And now all I can do is to entrust you to God and to his care, because he alone can protect you; and I am also entrusting you to his word of grace. His word of grace can build you up to be the shepherds God would have you be. It can also assure you the glorious inheritance of the saints. (33-35) “I am not talking about an inheritance of money or material things. You know this about me and you can also testify to it. I did not take anyone’s money, but I worked to supply my own needs and the needs of those with me. I did this to show you the hard working and sacrificial life God would have us live to help those who are weak, remembering the Lord’s golden rule: that its better to give than to get.” (36-38) After this, Paul knelt with all of them, bowed his head and said “Let’s pray” because without prayer and the blessing of God, even the best of sermons and addresses are useless”.
It’s a moving farewell message. What is he possibly trying to tell them? Even though almost every verse in this address should be treated as a key verse, there are some things I want to focus on. What defines Paul’s life as a shepherd, and consequently admonishes the Ephesian Christians to imitate? Here is a rough division of the address. In verses 13-16 we have a review of the journey that landed Paul in Miletus where he addressed the Ephesian elders. In Verses 17-21, is Paul’s life example among the Ephesians. In verses 22-24, Paul’s meaning and purpose of life. In verses 25-31, Paul’s commission to the Ephesians. In verses 32-35, Paul commits them to God. In verses 36-38, Paul prayer and parting with the Ephesians.
Part I. Paul’s life example. (17-21) “You know how I lived the whole time I was with you, from the first day I came into the province of Asia.” In other words his life was visible to them, inner life as well, for he was a man of impeccable integrity. Then he continues to tell them how he lived among them. He says: “I served the Lord with great humility and with tears. Although I was severely tested by the plots of the Jews.” (19)
First, Paul served the Lord with great humility and with tears. Look at verse 19. Paul served the Lord among the Ephesians with great humility and with tears. To do so, Paul had to practice Jesus’ servantship to others. He had to serve as Jesus served, by laying down his life for the sheep. He served them thus, with Bible study and with prayer, until the gospel was formed in their hearts and lives. Indeed, humility is servantship, the secret to the fruitful shepherd life.
Its is remarkable that Paul says that “he served the Lord” Paul served the Lord. That seems to be his passion and his commitment. Serving is not entirely without difficulty and sacrifice. But he wasn’t burdened because in his heart he knew that the essence and object of his service is the Lord. For Paul serving the Lord was not a job but a lifestyle. His life and service to the Lord could not be separated.
And he discovered that serving the Lord was in serving others. He served them with the word of God. He served them with prayer. He served them through counsel. He served them with his whole heart. But from these words here, we can see the nature of his service. In serving the Lord and others, he tells us that two things were needed, (1) great humility and (2) tears. Paul once said: “Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus.” (Php2:5) He was talking about humility. It’s what Paul learned from Jesus. It’s how Paul served. To best serve God, one must have humility and one must have tears. Humility can be described in many ways. But generally humility means that you must listen to the voice of God and do as God would have you do, and not do your own thing. Humility is submitting oneself to the will and sovereignty of God. Humility is serving God’s purpose in one’s life, even if it costs you your life— as Paul makes clear in verse 24, where he said: “I consider my life worth nothing to me, if only I may finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus given me.” He was ready to give his life in service to God. Many assume to serve God, but they do so in their own way, according to their own convenience. That is not humility. Others will spend time in prayer and in the word of God finding the will of God. That is humility. Humility is to always stand on the grace of God, and compelled by the love of Christ to serve God and others even with tears. Humility is to look on others with the compassion of Christ. And that sometimes requires tears.
“I served the Lord with great humility and with tears, although I was severely tested by the plots of the Jews.” In other words, he served God in spite of his hardship. He didn’t retaliate. He didn’t despair. He didn’t give up. Yet he was severely tested. An interesting characteristic of serving the Lord is the testing. The work we do as his servants always includes some form of hardship. If we don’t we have to wonder if we are serving God at all! Paul was tested by the plots of the Jews at every turn. And every Christian will be tested in some way or other. Hardship is practically promised for the Christian pilgrim. (Acts 14:22) Sometimes our honor is tested, and we may be tested in integrity and honesty. There are tests of faith, tests of compassion, even tests of forgiveness vs. retaliation. When we are in Christ, we are tested! There is no question. And when we are tested, two things can happen. We can grow weaker or we can grow stronger. Paul was tested but he overcame with humility and tears. Our generation really hates to suffer anything. Sometimes the philosophy is “whatever comes easy to me, that is what I’m going to do”. But in serving the Lord, we must be ready for self denial and self sacrifice— and a commitment to a life of humility and tears.
“You know that I have not hesitated to preach anything that would be helpful to you.” (20) In serving the Lord and them, Paul preached anything and everything that was helpful to them— everything for the wellbeing of their souls. And all that he taught is beyond our ability to include here. We can be assured that he preached the whole word of God, and the whole will of God to them, such that they eventually lacked nothing in knowledge, understanding and insight into the word of God.
The word “hesitate” appears twice in this short address. In verse 20 and again in verse 27. Hesitate is a very interesting word. The first time it made an impression on me is in the Book of Genesis where it says that, “Lot hesitated”. At the word of God through the angels, Lot hesitated. It was the living word of God to him. But he hesitated. It was a reflection of his little faith and practically no commitment to God. Apparently he always hesitated at the word of God. He never fully trusted to give himself to God and to faith in the word of God. His hesitation cost him his ministry, the life of his wife, and the compromising morality of his daughters. It is not a small thing for a man to hesitate before the word of God. Paul could have also hesitated in teaching them the word of truth. But he didn’t! He absolutely stood on the word of God as on a foundation more sure and secure than anything else we know and have in this world. His faith dictated that he teach them everything that was helpful to them— especially when their souls were at stake. It takes faith in the absoluteness of God’s word to teach the will of God to sinners, whether Christian or non-Christian. Because the word of God is living and active; like a double edged sword it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit judging the very thoughts and attitudes of the human heart. (Heb.4:12) As Paul never hesitated but boldly accepted and taught them the absolute word of God, his heart’s desire was they do the same. The word of God was his life. They ought to remember that and do the same.
Second, Paul taught them the life of repentance and faith in Jesus. Look at verse 21. In teaching the Bible, Paul helped people to acknowledge that God is the Sovereign and Almighty God. People had lived without God, driven not by the truth, but by the sinful nature. As such, they were dying in their sins. But Paul led them to God. To lead them to God, Paul taught them the life of repentance. Repentance purifies the heart and brings us close to God through faith in Jesus. We too must teach, “turn to God in repentance and have faith in our Lord Jesus.”
Look at the core of Paul’s teaching— what he didn’t hesitate to teach. “I have declared to both Jews and Greeks that they must turn to God in repentance and have faith in our Lord Jesus.” (21) He taught everything helpful to them, and at the heart of that, was the single most important message of all. “Turn to God in repentance.” And “have faith in our Lord Jesus.” Praise God that Paul did not hesitate to preach the message of repentance and faith in Jesus to all men. Men need forgiveness of sin more than they need anything else. They need the mercy of God. They need to mend their broken relationship with God and return home to God their Father. And repentance and faith brings them to the only place where they can find such things— at the foot of the cross. At the cross they can witness the greatest act of love in his history. In the cross they can repent their sin, and begin a new life— a life of repentance and of faith in Jesus. Turn your heart to God in repentance and have faith in Jesus is the same urgent message for our times. We must not hesitate to teach it.
Later in his address Paul tells them of the seriousness of preaching the Gospel of repentance and of faith in Jesus. (26-27) “Therefore, I declare to you today that I am innocent of the blood of all men. For I have not hesitated to proclaim to you the whole will of God.” God had once said to Ezekiel the prophet: “Son of man, I have made you a watchman for the house of Israel; so hear the word I speak and give them warning from me. When I say to the wicked, ‘O wicked man, you will surely die,’ and you do not speak out to dissuade him from his ways, that wicked man will die for his sin, and I will hold you accountable for his blood. But if you do warn the wicked man to turn from his ways and he does not do so, he will die for his sin, but you will have saved yourself.” (Ezekiel 33:7-9) This message is not from man but from God. It was God who urged the prophets to speak the word of God’s truth to the people. If they refuse to listen or if the prophet changes it, it can no longer accomplish the purpose for which it was given— It can no longer give life. Paul was given a charge, to deliver the message of repentance and of faith to the people without compromise. The gospel message must be delivered without compromise that it may save life.
Third, Paul’s attitude toward God’s high calling. Look at verses 22-24. Verse 24 reads, “However, I consider my life worth nothing to me, if only I may finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me — the task of testifying to the gospel of God’s grace.” In serving the life-giving gospel which Jesus had commissioned him to preach, Paul met many hardships, persecutions and sufferings, risking his very life. But he neither betrayed the mission Jesus gave him, nor was he deterred from fulfilling it. Why? Look at verse 23. Paul had committed himself to the life of suffering. At the time Jesus called him to serve the gospel, Paul became convinced that God’s servant “must go through many hardships…” (14:22) He was certain that he must share in the remaining sufferings of his Lord Jesus. (Rom.8:17; Php.3:10; 1.Pe.4:13; 2.Ti.1:8) But according to verse 24, Paul carried his mission to the end because he loved Jesus and the gospel more than he loved his own life. Paul knew in his heart that in this world, there is nothing worth living for other than serving the gospel. Indeed, for the gospel, he was ready to lose his life. Thus Jesus had said in Mark 8:35, “For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it.” Now he was going to Jerusalem. (22) His mission to Jerusalem was twofold. First, he wanted to bring a sense of unity between all Christian brothers be they Jew or Gentile in origin. Second, he wanted to stir his peoples’ hearts to world missions, reminding them of their calling to be “a light to the Gentiles.” To fulfill his mission, Paul was ready to lay down his life.
Part II. Paul’s purpose and meaning of life (22-24) “And now, compelled by the Spirit, I am going to Jerusalem, not knowing what will happen to me there. I only know that in every city the Holy Spirit warns me that prison and hardships are facing me. However, I consider my life worth nothing to me, if only I may finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me— the task of testifying to the gospel of God’s grace.” We might even read it as such— “Compelled by the Spirit to suffer— compelled to complete the task— compelled to testify.” He was a man compelled not by his own whims and desires but compelled by the Holy Spirit. When he was with them, he served them with humility and with tears. Now the Holy Spirit compels him to go to Jerusalem where suffering and hardship awaited him. But he would not be deterred by the prospect of hardship. He had a life purpose that he would not be swayed from— a task to fulfill he would not abandon for anything— not even if it required his very life. Paul deeply knew and held on to the grace of God in his life. He knew that it was the immeasurable grace of God that rescued him from a life of sin and of enmity with God. He also knew that this was also God’s heart’s desire— that God wanted to shed this grace on all mankind. After his conversion, the Gospel of God’s grace became the only task worth giving his life for. He gave his life for it.
There is something worth dedicating my life to, something that is not selfish nor self motivated nor profit oriented— even if it cost me my life. Paul was a man like this. People dedicate their lives to the most insignificant and unworthy causes. To their pleasure and to obeying the sinful desires of their hearts; they dedicate their lives to their jobs and to other people. The young people of our generation love heroes but when they cannot match up to the fabricated screen heroes, they are either disillusioned with life and its meaning, or become so indifferent to it that they plunge into godless living and the exploration of dark things. But there is something worth dedicating your life to— something greater than your life— something worthy of sacrificing your life to— to Christ and the Gospel of God’s grace. In such a world, it’s really the only worthy cause. And Paul wanted the Ephesian Christians to learn this from him.
Fourth, Paul commanded them, “Be shepherds.” Read verses 28-31. Paul had many things to say as his final words. But he did not say, “Take care of yourself.” He said to the Ephesian elders, “Be shepherds.” Of course Paul knew that shepherd life was not easy for it involves much self-sacrifice. Nevertheless, Paul commissioned them to be shepherds of the flock of God like the Good Shepherd Jesus. He went on to teach them the sacrifice of a true shepherd in verse 31. Indeed, a shepherd must personally take care of the flock, not one or two days, but more than three years night and day, serving them with humility and with tears.
Part III. Paul commissions the Ephesian Elders. (25-31) Paul was certain that he would not see the Ephesians again. (25) He knew that in the future, the Gospel he had preached to them and agonized to plant in their hearts would be maligned and twisted by false teachers seeking a following of their own. (29-30) These things will happen because Satan is ever on the prowl. This knowledge must have surely been painful to Paul. But he was leaving them with a clear conscience because he had taught them everything they needed for life and godliness. (2 Peter 1:3) “I am innocent” he says “of the blood of all men for I have not hesitated to proclaim to you the whole will of God.” (26-27) But he would leave them with a charge. “I have a charge to give you.”
“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.” (28) Such words as “Keep watch over yourselves” appear many times in the New Testament. They are a charge to deny the sinful nature and to surrender to the lordship of Christ and the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Yet Paul’s charge for watchfulness does not end there. To the Ephesian Elders he says: “Keep watch over all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers.” Just as he was compelled by the Holy Spirit to go to Jerusalem, they were compelled by the Holy Spirit to keep watch over the flock the Holy Spirit has entrusted to their care.
He goes on to say, “Be shepherds of the church of God.” There are many qualities to a shepherd. We can see these qualities in the Chief Shepherd who demonstrated for three and the half years who a shepherd must be and what a shepherd must do. By nature a shepherd’s concern is the sheep and the welfare of the sheep. He keeps them safe and well fed. He solves their imminent problems and at times he guides them where they do not want to go. Here is what Paul reminded them of a shepherd’s duty. He gives them an example from his own life. He says “Remember that for three years I never stopped warning each of you night and day with tears.” (31) It’s what Paul did for them as a shepherd. It’s how they must shepherd the flock of God.
But we must not forget one inherent quality of a shepherd. Paul defines it vividly in verse 20. “You know that I have not hesitated to preach anything that would be helpful to you but have taught you publicly and from house to house.” That quality is the personal touch. Paul taught them the word of God. He was a public teacher, teaching them in the view of all people so as to bring the Gospel to as people as would listen. But more than that, he was a personal teacher, who taught them from house to house. He shepherded them family by family. He shepherded them person by person. He shepherded them one by one. This was one bright jewel in Paul’s shepherd’s crown, that he gave his sheep personal attention, that he loved them not as a group but as individuals, andthe most precious children of God. It’s the kind of shepherd Paul was, and it’s the kind of shepherd Paul wanted the Ephesian Elders to be— It’s what the Lord wants all of us who are in Christ Jesus to do. Be a personal shepherd.
Paul had a good many reasons why we must all shepherd the flock of God and so personally as well. But one reason stands above all. He says in verse 28b. “Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood.” To shepherd them is to acknowledge that they are worth more than anything else in life— because the Lord had paid for them with his own blood.
Fifth, “Live by the word of God’s grace.” (32) Look at verse 32. “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.” Paul had to leave his beloved sheep behind and go forward with the mission God gave him. How could he leave them and to whose care? Paul committed them to God for God is able to protect his flock and lead them in truth. Paul also committed them to the word of God’s grace. God’s grace is God’s sacrificial love for unworthy sinners. God’s grace is God’s forgiving love. Paul wanted them to grow in the grace of God which is the foundation of their Christian lives and the assurance of their spiritual inheritance. Paul urged them to live not by their feelings which lead them astray from God, but by the word of his grace so that they may become spiritual giants, unshaken by the world. It is true that those who forget the grace of God in their lives become finally estranged from God. However, those who grow and stand firm on the grace of God become good shepherds who can lead others in the word of God’s grace, unto the kingdom of God.
Sixth, “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” (33-38) Finally, Paul taught the Ephesian elders to struggle hard to overcome selfishness and to serve the Lord and his flock sacrificially. He taught them that love is not in words, but in deed. As Jesus’ people, he urged them to grow in the sacrificial love of the Lord Jesus. Paul and the elders parted company in tears for they loved Paul and appreciated his precious sacrifices in helping them to grow as the shepherds of God’s flock.
Part IV. Paul Commits Them To God. (32-38) Surely Paul was concerned that after his departure, many dangers await the flock of God. How could he possibly leave them? But he says: “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.” Paul had to commit them to God, for even if they had the best shepherd, only God is able to keep and protect them. This was Paul’s personal faith to entrust them to God’s care. Sometimes there is nothing else that a shepherd can do. He also committed them to the word of God’s grace. In other words he encouraged to study the Bible and remain grounded in the grace of God. He believed that the word of God is the pillar of our Christian lives. And the word of God’s grace is the foundation of all that is good and blessed in our lives. And when we hold on to the word of his grace we can mature into the shepherds God would have us be. More than that, we can also find an inheritance more valuable than anything this world can offer.
In verses 33-35 Paul reminds them of his own life, a life free from the material pursuits, but rather full of selfless service and much sacrifice for the children of God, especially the weak. He had learned this kind of life from his own shepherd Jesus, who taught him that it is better to give than to receive. So he lived a giving sacrificial shepherd’s life much like his shepherd had done, rooted in and dedicated to teaching the Gospel of God’s grace. He wanted to fulfill the task his shepherd had given him. He wanted to testify to the Gospel of God’s grace. Finally Paul knelt down with all of them and prayed. (36) He prayed that they would be shepherds to the flock of God. He prayed that they commit themselves to the word of God’s grace. He prayed that they would fulfill the task of testifying to the Gospel of God’s grace. He prayed that they would live sacrificial lives. When he had prayed, he bid them farewell.
Read our key verse, 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”