The Church


Acts 20:13-38

Text Comment

v.13

An interesting historical detail, the kind of thing a participant in the history would remember and all the more interesting a demonstration of historicity because no reason is given for Paul taking a different route. No point is being made. The distance covered was about 20 miles.

v.16

Remember they had celebrated the Feast of Unleavened Bread, or Passover, at Philippi. There were only 50 days between the two feasts, though that was plenty of time to make the trip to Jerusalem if one did not dawdle.

v.17

Miletus was 30 miles south of Ephesus. Paul apparently thought that if he went to Ephesus he would have a hard time leaving quickly, but if he called the elders to him, he could still get away in a timely fashion.

Exactly what Luke means by “elders” is one of the questions that is raised by the rather spartan description of church government in the NT. The term is used of church officers with a range of responsibilities, as it was in Judaism of that time. The “elders of the people,” for example, were the leaders of Judaism, both priests and lay-rulers. The Sanhedrin is sometimes referred to as “the elders” even though some of its membership were priests. A priest was an elder in that sense, though a lay-elder or ruler was not, for that reason a priest. There was a clear distinction between the two offices, even though they could both be referred to by the term “elder,” the specific title of the office of lay-ruler but the generic term for all church leaders. In this sense Peter and John can call themselves “elders.” While an apostle was an elder in the generic sense, no one would think that being an elder made one an apostle.

Apparently, the same overlap is found in the Christian use of the term elder, or presbyter, which is perfectly understandable given the Jewish origins of the NT church and the fact that its offices were derived from those of the OT church. “Elder” can refer to what we would call ministers or priests (the English word “priest” remember is only a transliteration of the Greek “presbyter”), or to lay-rulers, or both together (as in 1 Timothy 5:17).

The issue is sharpened here in vv. 28ff. where the emphasis seems to fall upon the role of these men as teachers. It is further a question whether “shepherds” (v. 28) is ever used in the Bible for lay rulers or is rather a term denoting teachers such as prophets and priests. These are questions that cannot be answered with certainty.

v.19

A measure of his personal interest and concern. Here is Charles Simeon on a time in his ministry in Cambridge.

“Last year during the Long Vacation I took the first Epistle to the Thessalonians for my subject on Sunday mornings, and through mercy was enabled not only to enter into the spirit of it, but to breathe the spirit of it in my ministrations. But the proud, unsubdued spirit of some of my people could not bear it. Had I scolded them from the pulpit, they could have endured it: but when I wept over them, and besought them with many tears, they quite raged, and separated from me altogether. But those who were of a humbler spirit were twined closer round my heart.” [Moule, 188-189]

The mention of the plots of the Jews is made to demonstrate that his was a persevering ministry. He kept working for them in spite of the opposition.

v.20

The reference to his teaching everything that would be “helpful” may be his response to some charges against him, such as we know he endured in other places (Galatia, Corinth), charges addressed to his teaching, his doctrine.

v.21

A beautiful and simple summary of NT evangelistic preaching.

v.23

This knowledge came, apparently, either through prophets or through private revelations, as we know Paul received on other occasions.

v.24

Rutherford: “Duties are ours, events are the Lord’s.”

v.25

Something of a problem here, for the Pastoral Epistles seem to indicate that Paul did return to Ephesus. In which case we have not here Paul’s reporting of a revelation he had received from God, but merely his own expectation given the circumstances.

v.27

The terrible responsibility of ministers. “Let few be teachers…”

“What sea could furnish mine eyes with teares enough to poure out, if I should think, that of all this congregation, which lookes me in the face now, I should not meet one at the Resurrection, at the right hand of God! When at any midnight I hear a bell toll from this steeple, must not I say to my selfe, what have I done at any time for the instructing or rectifying of that man’s Conscience, who lieth there now ready to deliver up his own account and my account to Almighty God?” John Donne in a sermon preached in 1624 [In Stewart, Heralds of God, 207]

v.28

“Elders” and “Overseers” once again used synonymously in the NT. There is no NT evidence for “overseer” or “bishop” as a higher office than “presbyter” or “elder.”

“His own blood” in which case this is a terrific proof-text for the deity of Christ, or, more likely, “the blood of his own [one; beloved], that is his Son, Jesus Christ.”

v.32

The “word”. There is no disjunction between God and his Word as in modern theology and no suggestion of the idea that the church stands over the Word and not under it as in Roman Catholic theology.

v.35

A saying not recorded in the Gospels but remembered in the church. Red Letter Bibles!

I want to concentrate our thoughts this evening on vv. 28-31. This is usually a text preached to seminarians and ministers and there is, without question, a great deal here for anyone who aspires to leadership in the church, whatever his office may be.

But I want rather to consider with you what this passage suggests concerning the church herself and why Paul should have felt constrained to speak to the elders in terms so solemn, so bracing.

Here the church is described as fragile, vulnerable, hovering as it were between life and death, living on a knife edge and requiring little to bring it down. If the ministers and elders are not particularly diligent, disaster will overtake the people of God.

Now, the “tenuousness” of the church’s situation in the world is not an unfamiliar theme. It is an extension of the Bible’s teaching of the “tenuousness” of the individual Christian’s situation, or of what might be called the Bible’s doctrine of “the difficulty of salvation.”

Take all of these statements together, for example:
“It is hard for the righteous to be saved…” 1 Peter 4:18
“Many are called but few are chosen.”
“Broad is the gate and broad the road that leads to destruction and many enter through it, but small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life and only a few find it.”
Christ’s parables of the soils; the net; the wheat and tares;
“Without holiness it is impossible to see God.”
“Strive to enter in…” Luke 13:24 — “struggle, agonize”
“Not every one who says to be ‘Lord, Lord’ …”
“Unless a man take up his cross…”

John Bunyan was simply being faithful to all of this teaching, and to all the history of salvation stillborn in biblical history, when he depicted the pilgrimage to heaven as lonely and perilous and the way as narrow and steep and beset by dangers of every kind. Over and again Christian is saved in the nick of time. It is a high adventure, this Christian life!

Alexander Whyte [Bunyan Characters, I, 72] tells of a Scottish minister who said on his deathbed “Would to God I were back in my pulpit but for one Sabbath.” “What would you do?” inquired a friend at his bedside. “I would preach to the people the difficulty of salvation.”

Now, to be sure, this is looking at the matter from the human perspective. From God’s viewpoint and Christ’s the sheep are secure and nothing can separate them from his love. But we mustn’t mute the Bible’s emphatic teaching of the difficulty of salvation. It was very difficult to purchase it and it is difficult to acquire it and live it through to the end. So difficult, indeed, that only God’s grace and power make it possible.

Now, what is true of the individual believer, Paul says here is true of the church.

The Bible certainly can never be accused of deceiving us on this point.

  1. Israel in the OT: Plagues, passover, and Red Sea lead to Moriah, Golden Calf, and Kadesh Barnea and death in the wilderness.
  1. Conquest leads to the period of the Judges.
  1. David and Solomon lead to Rehoboam and Jeroboam and the rest of the sad story; and the return from the exile leads too soon to Malachi.
  1. The church in the NT. Antioch is hardly established before doctrinal disputes threaten its peace and purity.
  1. Corinth.
  1. Revelation 2-3: one generation after their founding, with many original members still present in these congregations, some are now near to death.

And Church history tells the same tale!

  1. The effect of Constantine.
  1. 14th century Europe.
  1. Reformation: Luther’s despair at the end of his life.
  1. Scotland some 20 years after the great spiritual power of the “Killing Times.”
  1. England one generation after the Puritan period.
  1. American Presbyterianism.
  1. Or this church: granted that it was beset from the beginning with the weaknesses and errors of our separatist Presbyterian movement, but would anyone have thought in 1952 that it would come to the troubles it came to in 1977? Many of you didn’t know that history.
  1. And many of us know too many horror stories of individual churches, seemingly sound and thriving one week and in deep trouble or broken apart a month later (as happens to individuals!).

Could we ever dare say that Paul has spoken too drastically or that he has overstated the danger?

The Death of a Vital Church can result from various factors. I oversimplify to discuss them singly, for they always come together! In each case true faith and true godliness is undermined and then killed.

  1. Theological error: Galatia, The Medieval Church, Deism/Unitarianism in erstwhile Puritan churches, liberalism in American Churches (or India, etc.).

    Alexander Zenos, professor at McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago in the early years of this century, argued in his book Presbyterianism in America that doctrine was designed to shift with the new winds of change in any culture, that each generation must interpret the Bible according to the “prevailing corporate mind.” He noted that the generation leading up to the controversies of the 1920s and 1930s was a time of doctrinal indifferentism. He approved of that indifference, of course. And the result was that the church didn’t so much rush to unbelief as it slouched to it. But, that indifference extended only to evangelicals so asleep as either unable to detect that what Paul called the “whole will of God” was no longer being preached in their churches or unwilling to protest and fight that infidelity in their pulpits. For protesting evangelicals there was nothing but the iron fist. Zenos himself was the prosecutor of Dr. Buswell in the church courts, when Dr. Buswell was drummed out of the PCUSA in 1937. (His crime….that missionaries should preach the gospel and not spread unbelief.)

    We live today in a day of doctrinal indifferentism. You can take it to the bank that worse defections from the faith once delivered to the saints are on the way and that the American evangelical church will lurch from one capitulation to another, and stand and fight only when it encounters something that smacks of theological rigorism or fundamentalism or moral and spiritual enthusiasm or fanaticism, which is to say, any form of Christianity that is like that Paul formed in his churches!

  1. Moral error and its toleration: Corinth, Laodicea (worldliness), Many American evangelical churches [strife/division; worldliness; love of money, prestige; etc.]
  1. Spiritual dullness: Ephesus (“lost your first love”); Scotland after persecution; many of our own churches — I have preached in some of them, both in Scotland and here in the USA.
  1. Or still more subtle forces. Did you see the article by Stephen Saint (son of Nate) in the most recent Christianity Today (March 2, 1998, 42-45).

First, let me say that there is unmistakable evidence among certain Huaorani Christians today of a strong desire not only to follow Christ but to share the gospel with others (self-propagation). I remember an encounter I witnessed between some Huaorani Christians and members of a secular North American tour groups who were visiting a Huaorani camp.


There were 34 students in this group, all from the University of Washington and Western Washington University. To reach the Huaorani encampment, the students were transported by jungle bus to the end of a graveled path laid down by an oil company. From there, three Huaorani men led them through the eastern flanks of the Andes Mountains in Ecuador and down into the virgin Amazon basin. Their trek included 14 hours by foot on a jungle trail as well as paddling downriver in large dugout canoes to reach the campsite.


As the students unloaded their bags, I could see they had come to truly respect and enjoy their Huaorani guides. So much so, in fact, that as we settled around a campfire that evening, a student asked me where the “savage Huaorani” were that they had read about in preparation for the trip. Sitting on logs under a star-studded sky and with a chorus of jungle insects singing in the back ground, I explained that the very people they had been traveling, eating, sleeping, and hunting with were, in fact, these “savages.”


Seeing the students’ looks of disbelief, I suggested they ask some of the Huaorani who were middle-aged or older where their fathers were. One student, taking up the challenge, nodded toward a Huaorani woman. I translated.


Boto maempo doobae wendapa,” she replied — “He is already dead a long time ago. Having been speared, he died.” Her tone of voice suggested any other cause would have been unusual.


Four more Huaorani around the circle gave similar answers, graphically showing on their own bodies where each victim had been impaled.


“Ask Ompodae,” one student urged another. Several of the young ladies had taken a liking to Ompodae, an unusually warm and affectionate woman who was a wife and a mother of ten.


“My father, too,” she said, the pain of the memory showing in her expression. Then, holding out her arm, she pointed at old Dabo, who was listening to our conversation a couple of feet away. “He killed my father and almost all of the rest of the family, too. Living angry, he speared them all.”


“My God, I was just sitting next to him,” exclaimed one of the young men from the tour group. Another added. “I’ve heard enough about killing.”


But one more Huaorani woman, Dawa, who normally left the conversation to others, spoke up. Pointing to her aging and gentle husband, Kimo, who was sitting by me, she stated, “Hating us, he speared my father, my brothers, and my mother and baby sister whom my mother was nursing in her hammock. He took me and made me his wife.”


Our visitors looked genuinely stunned. “How could she live with the man who murdered her family?” one of the young ladies asked. The students began whispering among themselves, and suddenly I pictured the setting from their perspective. They had gotten themselves in a situation where they couldn’t travel without a guide. They were utterly dependent for their survival on a group of primitive people that had just admitted to be habitual killers.


It occurred to me that they didn’t yet know my relationship to the Huaorani. Dawa had just finished telling how Kimo had killed her family and made her his wife. now I put my arm around Kimo’s shoulders and informed them, “He killed my father, too.”


Silence. At last, the question on everyone’s mind found a voice: “What changed these people?”


I interpreted the question, and Dawa, Kimo, and other Huaorani began to describe a life where everyone did as they willed. They explained how they threw babies away when they weren’t convenient to care for. They talked about how people begged to be buried alive when they knew they were dying so their spirits wouldn’t wander without solace when freed from their decomposing and unburied bodies.


One of the Huaorani, a gentle and happy woman, told the group how she had strangled her daughter with her own hands to meet the demands of her speared and dying husband, who wanted his children to be buried with him to keep him company. The one son she had refused to kill was the students’ lead guide.


Then they explained to our 34 highly educated young people from the most technologically advanced society in history how they learned from the missionaries that the Man Maker sent his Son to die for people full of hate, fear, and desire for revenge.


“Badly, badly we lived back then,” Dawa said. “Now, walking God’s trail which he has marked for us on paper [the Bible], we live well. All people still die, but if living you follow God’s trail, then dying will lead you to heaven. But only one trail leads there. All other trails lead to where God will never be after death.”


Dawa’s clear explanation had left her audience spellbound. Now she had a question for her listeners.


“Have you heard me well? Which one of you wants to follow God’s trail, living well?”


There was silence again. Then the seed of Dawa’s message landed in the fertile soil of at least one heart as a lone hand raised into the night air. Dawa understood the American student’s gesture and joyously clapped her hands. “Now I see you well,” she said. “Leaving, we will still see each other in God’s place some day.” Then she looked around at the others. “Dying, I will never see you again if you don’t follow God’s trail. Think well on what I have spoken, so that dying, we will live happily together in heaven.”


…But how many of the Huaorani today are like Dawa? To what extent is the Huaorani church self-propagating? Self-supporting? Self-governing?


…The harsh reality I encountered as I returned was that the Huaorani church of the midnineties was less functional than it had been in the early sixties when I lived with Aunt Rachel and the tribe as a young teenager.


The root of the problem, I eventually realized, was that insidious disease that has sucked the life out of many Native American tribes and continues to devastate many ethnic communities within North and South America today — dependency.


…But the younger generation has not understood the perpetual fear and hate that dominated their parents’ and grandparents’ lives. Today only a handful of the younger generation demonstrates an abiding faith in the God and message of peace that so radically changed their parents’ lives.


So what is to be done? What are the antidotes to these ever-present poisons?


Paul’s primary antidote is a consecrated leadership, the same one emphasized by the OT prophets. This can seem odd to Americans, especially American young people, accustomed as they are to anti-authoritarian patterns of thought, but the church is no democracy and Christ has ordered its life such that as its leaders go so go the people. A major theme of the OT prophets!


Ministers, elders, and deacons, who have a living sense of their accountability to God, who are devoted to Christ and, therefore, to his church (can’t be the one without the other!), who are determined to do the Lord’s will and fulfill their calling in this life no matter the cost, who genuinely long to see souls saved, Christians grow, the kingdom spread, Christ exalted — who want to present to the Bridegroom a Bride pure and unspotted, will never be willing to see falsehood preached from a pulpit that had always before preached the whole counsel of God, will never be content to see a congregation grow lethargic, worldly, indifferent, will never be willing to see the life of prayer die away in the church, or the fellowship wither to the point of spiritual uselessness, or the church begin to hoard its money instead of spending it to advance the Savior’s interests in the hearts of men.


Paul laid this obligation upon the leaders himself and enforced it by appeal to his own example.


You, as members of a Christian congregation, can take from this exhortation the great responsibility that falls upon you to choose for your officers men who will care about the preservation of the church’s fidelity to Christ and earnest devotion to the work of the gospel. Many churches — surprisingly, but sadly, — do not do this, do not come anywhere close to doing this. Elect men of no spiritual substance and re-elect them. They are willing, after all. And they curse themselves and their children thereby.


I tell you, we will be able to tell how this congregation will fare in the next generation by the Christian quality, godliness, and devotion of the younger men added to our leadership and by the example they set, such that our boys and younger men will aspire to such stature for the church’s sake themselves. So long as Philip Henrys are producing Matthew Henrys, the church has nothing to fear!


You boys and young men sitting here this evening. What do you dream of doing with your lives? What occupation have you set your sights on? What great thing would you like to achieve?


Well, says Paul, here is the great work that any Christian man can and must do: build, strengthen, and defend the church of Jesus Christ, which God bought with the blood of his own Son.


You can prepare yourself in different ways to follow a particular career path, but to do this, to be a man who can do what Paul says must be done for the church’s sake, you must prepare yourself in a far more difficult and demanding way — the way of faith, godliness, and the mastery of the Christian life and the Word of God and the disciplines of fasting and prayer.


But, it will be more than that, young men. It will require some knowledge of the history of the church of God, to learn what becomes of churches and how and why their history takes the form and shape that it does. Men who content themselves with a superficial knowledge of the faith will poorly serve the church. The Devil is an acute theologian and church historian: he knows how and where to apply the pressure!


And, one thing more, the men who lead the church, whom the church chooses to lead it, must be men who intend to go on, to get farther in the things of God and never content themselves with their present level of spiritual achievement. There will always be more battles to fight, more to learn of God’s Word, more territory to take for the kingdom of God, and the church that is on the move forward, is always the safest church. Like Nehemiah, it can say to the temptations of its day, “We are doing a great work and cannot come!”


In other words, we can summarize Paul’s exhortation this way. It is a hard thing for a church to be saved, and harder still to be saved in the next generation and the generation after that. Only men who know how hard it is for believers to be saved themselves and who are steeled to face the hard work of that salvation, are fit to be entrusted with the salvation of the church! The cultivation of our young men for the future leadership of the church, to be better, holier, wiser, tougher men than their fathers, is the first and most important step a church takes to ensure its long term spiritual life and Christian usefulness.


So take away two lessons: one for yourself personally — it is hard thing to be saved, so you must not take your salvation for granted, but apply yourself diligently to it always — and one for the church — that she must have a leadership committed to Paul’s view of the vulnerability of the church and capable of protecting it by their own fidelity and zeal for the house of God and the name of Christ.