An Emotional Goodbye

Rev. David Bast Uncategorized

READ : Acts 20:17-38

Like every organized human society, the Christian church needs leaders. But leadership for Christians has certain unusual requirements.

For the past several messages in this series covering the book of Acts, I have been focusing on the apostle Paul’s ministry in the city of Ephesus. Paul spent about three years in this strategic center, which meant that his third missionary “journey” actually had more the character of a settled pastorate.

After leaving Ephesus Paul returned to Greece, where he spent the winter visiting churches and collecting funds to assist poor Christians back in Judea. The following spring Paul set out for Jerusalem with this collection. Along the way he passed through Macedonia once more, then sailed to Asia Minor. As his ship stopped briefly on the coast, Paul sent a messenger a few miles inland to Ephesus asking for the leaders of the church to come to him so he could speak with them and take a last farewell. His meeting on the seashore with the Ephesian elders turned into an emotional goodbye for Paul and his friends. The apostle used this final opportunity to talk to them about their responsibilities as leaders in the church of Jesus Christ.

LEADERSHIP IN THE CHURCH

Paul’s meeting with the Ephesians can serve as a master class in Christian leadership. The believers with whom he met are described as “elders of the church” (v. 17), “overseers” or “bishops” (v. 28), and “shepherds of the church of God” (v. 28). These three terms (notice that they all refer to the same people) taken together define the role of leaders for the church of Jesus Christ. To accomplish its work the church must be well led (cf. Eph. 4:7-16). Each of the words Luke uses to describe the leaders of the Ephesian church is still vital for Christian communities today.

The basic term for those who lead within the church is the word “elder.” Church leaders are called elders because of the prime qualities their office requires: wisdom, personal holiness, integrity, sensitivity, compassion for the needs of others. These qualities taken together define spiritual maturity, which usually – though not always – is found in those who are oldest in years and in Christian experience.

Paul further defines the nature of Christian leadership in the words of admonition he addressed to the Ephesian elders: “Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers.” “Overseer” is a literal rendering of the Greek word episkopos. Episkopos has come to mean “bishop” in English. But in the New Testament church leadership was not exercised in a hierarchical structure by one person over all the others. Spiritual oversight is a work church leaders carry out together by supervising and guiding the spiritual life and health of a congregation in order to promote the growth of all in grace, love and holiness. While some churches have assigned this work of oversight to one man (the bishop), others maintain the corporate ministry of the New Testament through the use of councils or boards of elders. The work of overseeing the lives of Christians does not mean that elders in the church are given the power or authority to rule over their fellow believers. Jesus himself defined how Christian leadership was to be exercised when he told his apostles:

You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.

Mark 10:42-45

So the first principle of Christian leadership is that it is a leadership that consists in serving. The last term Paul used in speaking to the Ephesian elders is the best of all: “Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood.” “Shepherd” (in Latin, “pastor”) is the loveliest and most comprehensive name given to Christian leaders. It is a metaphor taken from the world of flocks, fields and folds that was so familiar to ancient people. But it is also drawn from scripture, from the most familiar and best loved chapter in the whole Bible: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” Once again, Jesus himself is the greatest example of this kind of leader. “I am the good shepherd,” he said. “I lay down my life for my sheep” (John 10:14). Christian leadership requires sacrificial service for the good of others.

THE LIFE OF A PASTOR

Like Jesus, Paul too can point to himself as an example of what it means to be a good shepherd and pastor. He begins his farewell to the Ephesian leaders by drawing their attention to the nature of the true pastor’s life, using his own work among them as an example. Paul can appeal to their personal knowledge of his conduct: “You know how I lived the whole time I was with you” (v. 18). What he taught about the life of a pastor he himself had practiced, and they all knew it. It was a life distinguished above all by two things. First, a readiness to suffer for the sake of the Lord and for his ministry.

“I served the Lord with great humility and with tears, although I was severely tested. . . . 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.”(vv. 19, 23-24)

The second essential for a true Christian leader is an unimpeachable personal integrity.

I have not coveted anyone’s silver or gold or clothing. You yourselves know that these hands of mine have supplied my own needs and the needs of my companions. (vv. 33-34)

Here is another way in which leadership in the church ought to be different from leadership in the world. It’s in the whole matter of money. Top jobs in business or government get top pay. Many people use the size of their salary as a measure of their importance and worth, and they strive to reach the top so that among other things they can become wealthy. Top business executives routinely make staggeringly huge amounts of money, even while slashing the company payrolls and throwing thousands of ordinary workers out of their jobs. Greed and ambition are often the rule. But not for Christians. Not in the church – at least not when it’s being obedient to scripture. Christian leaders must never use their office as a means of personal advancement, ego gratification, or enrichment in the world’s terms. No, the life of a Christian leader is one of humility and tears, of the willingness to suffer and endure hardships for the sake of the church. Far from becoming rich, if need be, Christian leaders, like Paul, will support themselves with other work in order to serve when the church is unable to pay them.

THE PASTOR’S WORK

Throughout Paul’s farewell he refers to the specific work pastors ought to be doing among their people. Once more the nature of this work is best seen in the way Paul himself performed it. He describes his ministry in Ephesus as fundamentally consisting in the preaching and teaching of God’s word. Paul reminds the Ephesians that he preached “anything that would be helpful to you” (v. 20), “the whole will of God” (v. 27), “the kingdom” (v. 25), “the gospel of God’s grace” (v. 24), and that all “must turn to God in repentance and have faith in our Lord Jesus” (v. 21). That was the message. He also taught them, he says, both “publicly and from house to house” (v. 20). So it’s abundantly clear that Paul’s primary work as a pastor was the ministry of the Word, the systematic, intensive, comprehensive, personal and uncompromising public and private preaching and teaching of the Bible.

In doing this, the apostle discharged a heavy responsibility: “I declare to you today,” he solemnly told the Ephesians, “that I am innocent of the blood of all. For I have not hesitated to proclaim to you the whole will of God” (vv. 26-27). Consider the implications of that statement. Paul’s knowledge of the gospel, coupled with his call to service, put him in a position of grave personal responsibility. Like the prophet Ezekiel, he was placed as a watchman on a tower, charged with the duty of warning about coming judgment and proclaiming the way of salvation. If Paul failed to speak all of God’s Word to the people to whom God had sent him, then he would be held responsible. But if people heard the gospel and rejected it, then their blood would be on their own heads.

This reminds us of the incredible stakes involved in Christian ministry. Pastoral work is a matter of life and death – not just physical life and death, but eternal life and eternal death. Paul is saying that the way people respond to the word of God determines whether they are saved or lost forever. The pastor’s responsibility is to speak God’s word of grace and judgment clearly. Those who hear are responsible to repent of their sins and believe in the Lord Jesus. Failure to do that results in guilt and destruction. That’s how serious a thing the preaching of the gospel is.

There is a further reason – if any more were needed – why consistent and faithful Bible teaching is the essential work of a Christian pastor. There will be serious threats to the faith of new believers and churches. Paul warns the pastoral team in Ephesus to keep watch (v. 28) and be on guard (v. 31). False teachers would attack like savage wolves both from outside (v. 29) and within (v. 30) the church. Only the careful, systematic teaching of the whole Bible will be able to protect believers from these self-styled prophets or unfaithful pastors who try to lead churches astray and lure Christians away from following Jesus Christ. So it’s a big job, an important, heavy responsibility.

THE PASTOR’S HEART

Why do some Christians offer to do this work as pastors, elders and overseers? After all, it doesn’t pay much. It’s often frustrating, sometimes heartbreaking, even dangerous. Paul shows us why. In this wonderful farewell Paul also gives us a glimpse of the true pastor’s heart -his own. The tears flowed freely at the final parting between the apostle and his friends.

When he had said this, he knelt down with all of them and prayed. They all wept as they embraced him and kissed him. What grieved them most was his statement that they would never see his face again. (vv. 36-38)

It’s easy to see the affection there. Paul was a pastor to these pastors, and the great thing that characterized their relationship was love.

The primary motive for a person becoming a leader in the church isn’t greed or ambition, nor yet a cold sense of duty. No, what moves men and women to become missionaries, pastors, or elders; to accept a life that often involves hardship, suffering and tears, isn’t guilt. It’s love. Love first of all for the Lord Jesus and for his honor and glory. When Samuel Zwemer, a pioneer missionary from my own church to Arabia, lost two young daughters to disease, he inscribed on their graves a phrase from the book of Revelation: “He is worthy to receive riches.” That’s why Christians are willing to give even their lives in Christ’s service. It is because of love for the Lord Jesus.

And also love for people, for people who don’t yet know the Lord, for believers who do know him and want to know him better, and for those who want to grow in love and service to him. Does that include you? Do you love Christ, and other people too? Then you have the most important quality of a Christian leader.