Elders: The Shepherds of the Local Church
Text: Acts 20:17-38
Main Idea: Faithful eldership looks like mature Christian men humbly shepherding, leading, and protecting the church through their winsome, persevering, and fearless proclamation of God’s authoritative Word as they prayerfully depend on God’s grace and power for everything they need to fulfill their calling.
I. What is an Elder? (Acts 20:17; 28)
II. What Should Elder Leadership Look Like? (Acts 20:18–32)
A. Faithful Elders Continue to Serve in Spite the Pain (20:18–19)
B. Faithful Elders Don’t Water Down the Gospel when Things Get Hard (20:20–21)
C. Faithful Elders Persevere in Faithfulness Despite the Cost (20:22–24)
D. Faithful Elders Carefully Guard their Lives and God’s Flock (20:28–30)
E. Faithful Elders Must Depend on God and Trust his Word for Everything they Need (20:32)
Good morning church, if you have been following our current series on the local church closely, you may have detected an overall pattern. We have been working from the top down beginning with our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ himself.
- One, Jesus established the church, and he is the ultimate head of the local church.
- Two, ehe gathered membership of true believers (elders and members together) is the highest authority in the Local Church when it comes to affirming the “who” and the “what” of the gospel. This qualification is important because it reminds us that this authority is not the freedom to do whatever they want, it’s a delegated authority from Christ to uphold, affirm, and pursue his express revelation.
- Three, the consistent witness of the NT points us to the truth that one of the primary ways that the congregation rightly wields this authority is by appointing biblically qualified elders to lead the local church. (This is what we call: elder-led congregation rule or elder-led congregationalism.)
But, this leads us to our primary question this morning: What should elder leadership look like in the local church? Are they supposed to lead like a counsel of generals, executive board members, senators, or PTA members? All of these? none of these? A combination of these?
See, the second we ask this question, we are pressed into a second, interrelated question: What is an elder to begin with? Is there a difference between pastors and elders? Are the elders “over” the pastor(s) or is the pastor(s) over the elders? In light of this I will be organizing the message around two simple questions that flow from the text.
- What is an elder?
- What should elder leadership look like in the local church?
And just in case you are getting ready to check out because you think this message doesn’t apply to you. You need to know that this message is for the good of every person in this church, in that, it will help you better grasp the true nature of Biblical eldership. Or to put it another way, this sermon is for you even though it is not necessary about you.
What is an Elder? (Acts 20:17; 28)
A New Testament Role that is Modeled After an Old Testament Role
If we had the time to do a word study on the Greek term elder (πρεσβύτερος) this morning, we would quickly discover that the Greek term and its related words occur about 66 times in the NT. One the one hand, it is used about 25 times in the Gospels to refer to older, mature Jewish men who were part of Israel’s community’s leadership structure. And on the other hand, it is used in about 40 times to denote official representatives or leaders in the local church.
Yet, the most notable difference between Jewish elders and Christian elders is that Christian elders were not selected because of their age, their social status, or the length of their membership in the church. Rather, they were selected for their character, maturity in Christ, and steadfast commitment to the gospel of Jesus Christ; whether directly appointed by an apostle like Paul OR selected and appointed by the membership of the local church according to apostolic instruction (i.e., 1 Tim 3:1–7; Titus 1:5–9; 1 Pet 5:1–4). But as we turn our attention to the rest of verse 17, Luke tells us something more about elder leadership in the early church.
Acts 20:17 Now from Miletus he sent to Ephesus and called the elders of the church to come to him.
Notice, elders is in the plural and church is in the singular. Paul is not calling the elders of numerous churches in Ephesus. He is calling “the elders” of “the church” in Ephesus— one church that was led by a plurality (group) of elders. But, in this something seems to be missing, doesn’t it? We don’t find a single mention of the pastor or pastors of the Ephesian Church!
One Office, Three Different Terms
Now, does this mean that pastors and elders are two different things? I’m certain Paul would answer with a resounding “no,” because he uses two other terms in verse 28 to describe this group of elders.
Acts 20:28 Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for (shepherd) the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood.
The first term “overseer” (or Greek word ἐπίσκοπος) was as a common technical term that referred to a fixed office of guardianship or oversight over a specific group” of people.
The second term “to care for” or “shepherd” comes from the Greek verb (ποιμαίνω) which typically denoted the active work of a shepherd, caring for a flock.
But, at this point you might be wondering, “Ok, that’s nice. But where does the title ‘pastor’ fit into these two descriptions?” Well, the simple answer is that the word “pastor” is a loan-word from our Latin-speaking Church fathers that means shepherd. To put it another way, Paul did not call the pastor(s) from Ephesus because these three, elder, overseer, and shepherd/pastor terms consistently describe the same group of people.
- The term “elder” highlights their character, maturity and respect within the church.
- The term “shepherd” or “pastor” highlights their hands on responsibility to the church as a flock.
- And the term “overseer” (or bishops, Phil 1:1; 1 Tim 3:1) emphasizes their official office of guardianship over the church.
So in many ways it is appropriate to use any of these terms in regard to elders, even though we typically reserve the term “pastor” for our paid preachers and teachers.
But as we turn our attention back to the rest of our passage, we are quickly reminded that an elder’s duties are not restricted to definitions in a dusty dictionary, are they? Not in the least bit! Rather, the our passage describes what faithful elder leadership should look like in the Local Church.
What Should Elder Leadership Look Like? (Acts 20:18–24)
An Opening Question
Now I realize that a few of you might be wondering why I’m not jumping to Paul’s exhortations to the elders in verses 28–33? After all this sermon is about elders… Well, I included them because Paul isn’t just reminiscing about the “good old days,” like 62-year-old car salesmen at a class reunion with his high school football buddies. No! He is saying: brothers, before I give you my final command, I want you toremember my life and ministry among you so that you will be able to visualize the marks of a faithful elder.”
Five Marks of a Faithful Elder
ONE: Faithful Elders Continue to Serve in Spite of the Pain. (Acts 20:18–19)
Notice, what does Paul want the elders to recall about his service in these two verses? He wants them to remember that his God ordained ministry in Ephesus didn’t shield him from trouble. No, his service in Ephesus put him in the direct path of humility, trials, tears, suffering, and outright attack!
And in this what does he want these elders to see? He wants them to see that eldering is not a ticket to easy street. Nor is it the path to escaping difficulties in life, getting your own way, or how to instantly win friends. No. Spiritual leadership (more often than not) is about faithfully enduring any number of personally agonizing and humiliating: misunderstandings, setbacks, conflicts, or attacks for God’s glory and the eternal good of his church.
Now, are countless benefits to serving as an elder in the local church? Yes! But, Paul’s opening words are here to remind the elders of very age that our joy in ministry will be tempered by periods, sometimes long periods of God-ordained trials, pain, and suffering for the long-term health of the local church.
But this leads us to the question why is suffering such a natural component of faithful eldering? Well, it’s because faithful eldership is forever anchored in the faithful proclamation and stewardship of God’s Holy Word.
TWO: Faithful Elders Don’t Water Down the Gospel When Things get Hard. (Acts 20:20–21)
Don’t miss this, how did Paul respond to the tears and trials of ministry and non-stop plots of the unbelieving Jews who wanted to kill him? Did he water down his message? Did he diminish the most offensive parts of the gospel or the implications of the gospel? The answer in verse 20 and 21 is clearly no! Paul refused to “shrink back” or hide from the drama, the pain, the pressure, and the plots. And he continued to openly proclaim the entire counsel of God’s Word.
- He declared anything that was profitable to the elders and the local church (20).
- He continued to teach in both public and private settings so that everyone (Jews and Gentiles alike) could have access to him.
Acts 19:8–9 And he entered the synagogue and for three months spoke boldly, reasoning and persuading them about the kingdom of God. 9 But when some became stubborn and continued in unbelief, speaking evil of the Way before the congregation, he withdrew from them and took the disciples with him, reasoning daily in the hall of Tyrannus. 10 This continued for two years, so that all the residents of Asia heard the word of the Lord, both Jews and Greeks.
- And as he did this, what was the heart of his teaching? It was his non-stop witness or testimony to the saving message of the gospel of Jesus Christ (21). Repent and Believe!
But, why? Why is this so important for Paul? It’s because a compromised, “socially acceptable” gospel is no gospel at all. It’s like promising a cancer patient that raw honey and cinnamon are more effective than radiation and Chemotherapy. It’s like promising a skydiver that a handkerchief is more reliable than a parachute. But even worse, it’s making these promises because you are afraid of person’s possible response to the truth.
Simply put, an otherwise qualified man who is unable to clearly articulate the gospel, waters down the gospel, or is afraid to share the gospel is not YET fit to serve as an elder. Eldering is not just about “leading!” At its core, eldering is about faithfully stewarding God’s Word to God’s people and the unsaved world (cf. 1 Tim 3:2; 2 Tim 4:1–5).
THREE: Faithful Elders Persevere in Faithfulness Despite the Cost. (Acts 20:22–24)
Now, I know that this third mark of faithful eldership can seem like an impossible “high bar” for any pastor, much more, a lay elder in a local church. But, what I want you to see, in these verses, is that Paul is not just a glutton for punishment who is determined to “gut out” the final stage of his ministry. No, he is persevering in the power of the Holy Spirit!
Notice in verses 22–23, Paul is constrained by the Holy Spirit in his journey to Jerusalem, even though, the Holy Spirit is testifying that imprisonment and affliction are coming. And while we often think of the word constrained in negative terms it is clear that Paul sees it in the most positive sense. One the one hand, even though the road a head looked dark and dangerous the Holy Spirit was empowering the very obedience that he required to make it to Jerusalem. And on the other hand, the Holy Spirit was empowering him to complete the ministry that received from the Lord Jesus Christ himself —to testify to the gospel of the grace of God (v. 24).
Friends, this raises an important aspect about eldership that many people overlook. Eldership is not just a church office to be filled by qualified men. It’s an office that should only be filled by those who have a sense of calling to the office. As 1 Timothy 3:1 says, “If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task.”
And why is this sense of aspiration or calling so important? It’s because the calling comes with the encouraging promise that God will not leave us to our own devices to fulfill the task that he has given us. So yes, the calling of eldership is high, but it always comes with a promise to those who are called.
Yet, as we transition from Paul’s example to Paul’s commands, we are reminded that God’s grace and power do not absolve us of our personal responsibility to act.
FOUR: Faithful Elders Carefully Guard Their Lives and God’s Flock. (Acts 20:28–30)
Did you catch the opening clause in verse 28? Paul didn’t begin with their duties to guard the local church but their duty as elders to guard themselves! And he does this because he knows the deceitfulness of the world, the flesh, and the devil; and he is well acquainted the very real pressures of personal ministry. After all, he has watched in horror and disbelief as former ministry partners like Hymenaeus, Alexander, and Philetus shipwrecked their faith by wandering away from sound doctrine (1 Tim 1:20; 2 Tim 2:17). And he has a front row seat to the catastrophic impact that their departure and apostasy had on the churches they served.
Church, this is an important point that is easy to miss. Elders are not a group of Christians who have “made it” and are no longer susceptible to sin. No, the history of the church is full of elders who started well but forfeit their office and deeply wounded their churches. As Reverend Murry McCheyne warned his fellow ministers over one-hundred years ago: “Never forget the culture of the heart. In great measure according to the purity and perfections of the instrument will be the success. It is not great talents God blesses so much as great likeness to Jesus. A holy minister is an awful weapon in the hand of God.”
And according to Paul what is this “awful weapons” purpose? It is to shepherd and protect the flock over which the Holy Spirit has made these elders, overseers because fierce wolves are already circling and waiting for Paul to leave. For the sake of time let me make four observations:
- These elders have a holy “calling” on their life just like Paul, in that, the Holy Spirit has made them overseers of God’s flock. Notice, Paul does not focus on the human agents of their appointment or even their desire to serve as an elder. And that’s because he wants them to know that God himself has appointed them to ministry AND that they are ultimately accountable to him for their care of his blood bought people.
- How are these wolves going to attack God’s flock? They are going to pervert (or twist) the gospel so that they can lure some of these people away from their commitment to Christ.
- And why are they going to do this? What’s their motive? It’s not necessarily to lure church members into sin like the false teachers in 2 Peter. Nor does it appear to be the proclamation of an explicitly false gospel. No. These “wolves” want to step into the power vacuum that Paul is leaving so that they can gather a group of people around themselves, not the gospel of Jesus Christ.
- And if this is not bad enough, did you notice where these fierce wolves were going to come from? Look at verse 30. These wolves are not going be mounting their attacks from outside the church. No. They are going be mounting their attacks from inside the church. In fact, in the context, Paul seems to be warning them that one or more these wolves may arise from this very group of elders. Which means the command to pay careful attention to yourselves in verse 28 is not just a call for elders to guard their own lives; BUT to guard the flock from their fellow elders (and paid pastors) if they start to abandon their calling by promoting their importance and self-interest.
Friends these verses remind us that our greatest threats, for the most part, are not outside the church. Rather, they are normally inside the church. And all too often these threats are being coddled by the men who should be confronting them. Just think about it: if the elders of Mars Hill had been guarding each other and the flock, that church might still be a faithful gospel witness in Seattle today.
Now at this point you might be thinking, “Mark I’d love to have elders like this. BUT this is impossible! If this is what faithful leadership really looks like, who could ever or would ever want to serve as an elder?” Well, it’s important to clearly state that most elders will never experience the kind of acute conflict, suffering, or attacks that this passage addresses. In fact, the truth of the matter is that eldership in the local church can feel rather mundane because we end up spending the bulk of our time on much —much— simpler issues.
So please do not let me scare you off if you feel like God is calling you to serve as an elder. Because when it comes down to it, Paul makes it clear (in this 5th and final mark) that God does not expect elders to lead, proclaim, or protect in their own power or wisdom… they are to prayerfully depend on God and trust his Word for everything they need.
FIVE: Faithful Elders Must Depend on God and Trust His Word for Everything They Need. (Acts 20:32)
You know, what I love about this final verse is that even though Paul spent most of his speech pointing these elders to his life of faithful ministry, he doesn’t slap them on the back and say “I know you got this guys.” No. He anticipates the elder’s inevitable sense of doubt, worry, and fear that they are going to be in their own, and that they are not going to able to turn to him for help when they need it. And he points them away from their reliance on both him and themselves to their only, true source of strength, power, and authority: “I commit you to God and to the word of his grace which is able to build you up (32).” Notice, what’s he saying? He is saying this is the ultimate secret to faithful eldership in the church of the living God.
Friends, what is the true source of an elder’s ability to faithfully lead? Is it his business acumen? Is it his leadership training? Is it his tenacious drive and type-A personality? No. As one commentator points out: This entire passage points us to the profound realization that faithful Christian leadership is, quite simply, not a human possibility.
Yet, what Paul wants these elders and the church of every age to see is that: what is impossible in regards to man, is more than possible with God. So yes, while the true biblical picture of faithful eldership is humanly impossible. It is more than possible, for the church’s ever-imperfect elders as they lead from their knees in humble prayer depending on God to empower their faithful service as they look to his Word to guide them in everything they need.
So to the question: What does faithful elder leadership look like in the local church?
The answer is this: It looks like, mature Christian men humbly shepherding, leading, and protecting the church through their winsome, persevering, and fearless proclamation of God’s authoritative Word as they prayerfully depend on God’s grace and power for everything they need to fulfill their calling.
 “It is important to notice that there was a team of presbyter-bishops who shared the responsibility of pastoral leadership in this church (cf. 14:23; Tit. 1:5);” (David Peterson, The Acts of the Apostles, The Pillar New Testament Commentary [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009], 563).
 Eckhard J. Schnabel, Acts, Expanded Digital Edition., Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapid: Zondervan, 2012).
 “His opening words here include an emphatic pronoun (hymeis, ‘you yourselves’), suggesting that the elders especially knew what he was talking about ;” (Peterson, The Acts of the Apostles, 563–64).
 “Paul sees his mission as tied to a proper response to God and to faithfulness in his relationship to others ;” (Darrell L. Bock, Acts, Baker Exegetical Commentary on The New Testament [Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007], 629).
 Cited by, Bruce Milne, The Acts of the Apostles: Witnesses to Him… to the Ends of the Earth, Focus on the Bible Commentary (Ross-Shire, Great Britain: Christian Focus Publications, 2010), 404.
 “There is great significance and rhetorical force in recognizing its immediate reference to the Ephesian situation. Each congregation which is brought into existence because of the saving work of Jesus is precious to God and should be so treated by those appointed to be its leaders;” (Peterson, The Acts of the Apostles, 569).
 Milne, The Acts of the Apostles, 406.