On Elders, Giving Up at Life, and Not Being PC
The Apostle Paul said a lot of things. He wrote a lot of things. In fact, Paul wrote at least 13 of the 27 books of the New Testament and is responsible for about a quarter of its total word count. It is possible that he wrote the book of Hebrews as well, which would add to his prolificity. And I should hasten to add, that these writings were under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, and therefore have a unique authority in our lives. These powerful words of this apostle are not the mere words of man, but the inspired and inerrant words of God. Why am I mentioning all of this? Simply to say, that of all Paul wrote I have found what he says to the Ephesian Elders in Acts 20 to be some of the most powerful and convicting words of all.
Maybe you haven't been stopped in your tracks by these words yet. But let me show you just a few things that have been deeply convicting and precious to me from this section of Scripture. First let me give you some context.
Paul is here speaking to the elders of the church at Ephesus on his way to Jerusalem. He anticipates further suffering and persecution ahead, so he delivers this speech as a sort of last address, a final farewell. In it he speaks of his ministry among them. He highlights his example, and he gives them a powerful charge to carry on their ministry with integrity and strength.
While I won't look at everything in this passage this time let me highlight three areas where we can learn a lot. These are the three things in the title – elders, giving up at life, and not being PC (that is: politically correct).
Paul is speaking to elders, and so in a sense everything he is saying is tailored to these leaders of the church at Ephesus. In this passage we learn just what an elder is supposed to do. And we can see the picture in three main terms. Paul is speaking to the elders, [presbuteros]. He describes them as occupying the office of overseers, [episkopos], sometimes translated bishops, and he describes their work as that of shepherding – to care for the church [literally to shepherd or pastor]. These terms are here interchanged in describing one office. Pastors, elders, bishops, are one office. We actually see that same interplay with these three terms in 1 Peter 5:1-2, where Peter exhorts the elders to shepherd the flock, exercising oversight.
As interesting as that is, the takeaway is that the office of elder is a serious calling. This is the one main office of spiritual leadership in the church. Deacons have a role to play, the congregation as a whole has a role to play, but at the helm of leadership are the elders. These are the men that God calls to lead the church. They are called to lead by example as elders, to exercise a watchful care and administration as overseers, and to lovingly shepherd the people as pastors. This is a weighty office and a wonderful gift to the church. And here in Acts 20 we see Paul leaning into these men and charging them to do their duty as elders. He is exhorting them to lead and serve well.
Paul tells them to "pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood." (v.28)
Watch yourselves, Paul says. Don't grow slack in your own sanctification. Be exemplary as a Christian man. Don't let up on knowing Christ, yourself. And watch the church, Paul says. Don't turn a blind eye to sin in the camp, don't neglect to really know the flock, don't fail to care for them through busyness or laziness. Shepherd them. Oversee the church. Lead. He also tells them to watch out for enemies from within and without – foreign and domestic threats (vv.29-31). Be alert, Paul says.
In addition to this direct exhortation, Paul gives the elders his example to follow. This is how he begins and ends:
You yourselves know how I lived among you…serving the Lord with all humility and with tears and with trials that happened to me through the plots of the Jews; how I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable (vv.18-20)
It is Paul's example that I find so powerful, and it's his example that leads to my next two points, strange as they may sound – giving up at life and not being PC.
Paul is an example of a man who has given up his life, who has devalued his life, who has laid it all on the table. We see this in verse 24, really a stunning statement. Paul, reflecting on future sufferings and trials says:
But I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God.
Paul doesn't care about his life. He has given up on "the good life". He is a man heaven-bent on doing what is best, what is most-important, according to God. He is not planning for retirement in Greece, he is not angling for more "me-time", he is running a race, he is doing a job, he is a man on a mission. What an example that is to us! Elders and all Christians need to carefully consider this example and ask the convicting question, "am I living like that?". Can you say what Paul says? Do you account your life as valuable to yourself, as precious, as something to guard from too much sacrifice? Are you constantly concerned with setting up boundaries, to protect your vision of your life? In short, are you trying to save your life? We must not forget Jesus' words – whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it (Matthew 16:25). This is the cost of discipleship. As Bonhoeffer said, "when Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die".
So learn from Paul to give up at life. Stop being seduced by the American (Canadian) dream. Stop holding your life close, give it all for the cause of Christ. If anything stands out in Paul's speech it is this incredible resolve.
But lastly, I want to mention how Paul shows us how to not be PC. He leads by example in eschewing political correctness. How? You may ask. Notice again that little phrase I did not shrink [back] (vv.20, 27). To shrink back is to withdraw, to pull back, to fail to do what you ought to do. What is it that Paul didn't shrink back from? Verses 26-27 give us the answer:
Therefore I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all, for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God (vv.26-27).
This implies that there would be a temptation to give the people of God less than the whole counsel of God. This is less an issue of knowledge and more an issue of courage. You see elders could easily be afraid of what the world thinks, what people in the church might think, and out of that fear they could shrink back and not speak the true and oftentimes offensive words of God. There is a constant temptation to soften the Word, to shrink back.
So in this way Paul shows the elders and by extension the whole church how to be bold, how to not be politically correct. For to be politically correct is simply to say what is approved, and what is smooth, and what will not get you in trouble. To be PC as a Christian is to shrink back. We must not do that. We must be courageous. As we no longer account our lives of any value or as precious to ourselves, we can now speak boldly and truthfully, not shrinking back. We are not afraid. And in doing this we are obeying Christ as Lord. To fail to speak the truth would not be loving, it would be both cowardly and selfish. And God would hold us to account for such a failure. Paul declares that he is innocent of the blood of all, precisely because he has boldly and lovingly declared the truth to all. In this too, we should follow his example.
I told you that this is one of Paul's most powerful speeches. With the Ephesian elders we can take up this charge in the 21st Century. Elders and all Christians let us live in such a way that we can say with Paul, I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God.
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