While attending to my normal Wednesday duties here in the office this morning, I had the broadcast of the Presidential Inauguration playing in the background. I am always struck by the simplicity of the presidential oath of office; to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.” Biden is now the 46th President to be sworn in under this oath, and while each President enters the office with his own agenda for the presidency, each has the same oath, to defend the constitution of the United States of America.
By God’s providence, I happened to be in the midst of my daily Bible reading at the time of the inauguration. Today’s reading had me in Acts 20, Paul’s farewell address to the Ephesians. Much like the oath of office, Paul gives a charge to those who would serve as Elders (overseers) of the Church.
“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” (Acts 20:28).
Few passages of Scripture serve such a charge to those who have been called by God to minister to His Church as this in Acts 20. The Apostle Paul, setting his sights to Jerusalem, knowing that there he would be arrested and afflicted (20:22), bids farewell to the Christians in Ephesus. He reminds them of his ministry there, how he labored among them to preach and declare the whole counsel of God (20:27), testifying to the gospel of the grace of God (20:24).
Once gone, Paul knew that the Church would face great obstacles. He knew that fierce wolves, false teachers, would come into the flock to deceive and destroy them. He even said that some would rise up from among them, twisting and corrupting their teaching in order to lead disciples away from faithful obedience to Jesus. Knowing such days were coming, how did Paul charge the elders?
- They were to pay careful attention to themselves and to the flock. The word here for “attention” means to consider carefully, to examine. Those who are called to oversee the flock must be on guard, carefully watching over them, as a shepherd would. A shepherd keeps watch, making sure that predators don’t get in among the fold, that the sheep don’t stray and fall into danger, and that the flock is well fed. This is the care of the shepherd, the spiritual oversight of the elder. To ensure that the wolves don’t come in to tear the Church apart, that false teaching doesn’t lead them astray, and that the people are continually fed the nourishing words of life.
But what’s notable here is that the shepherd must carefully examine himself first, before caring for the flock. The shepherd must be fed by the whole counsel, protected by the gospel of God’s grace, lest he become one of the ravenous wolves himself. “Pay careful attention to yourself and to the flock,” Paul says, because if the shepherd is led astray, the sheep have no hope.
- Secondly, Paul reminds the elders that is was the Holy Spirit who made them to be overseers. The office of an overseer in the Church is first and foremost an office of Spiritual Care, and those who are called to serve are to be filled with the Holy Spirit, and must rest in the Spirit’s continual provision for ministry. This is not a worldly office, where having the right degree, the necessary personality and skill sets, will bring success. It is, rather, the Spirit who equips and qualifies Elders for their service, and their service will thus be marked by spiritual qualities: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Gal 5: . The role of the elder, while one of authority, is ministerial and declarative, that is, any authority we have is in the proclamation of the gospel and calling others to repentance and faith in Jesus Christ. We begin the ministry of the elder in the call of the Spirit, and we never advance beyond our need for the Holy Spirit’s continued guidance and provision.
- Finally, Paul reminds the elders that they are serving God’s Church, obtained with the precious blood of Christ Jesus our Savior. The Church the overseer serves is not his Church. The pastor may stay 3 years or 30, but it is not his Church. The elder may be been born and raised in the Church, invested hours of service and generous contributions, but the Church is still God’s Church. The Church, the flock, God’s people were purchased with the blood of Christ, who died upon the cross to atone for their sins and to save them from the wrath they deserved under God’s righteous judgment. They have been set apart as His people, His particular possession (Ex 19:5; 1 Pet 2:9), as the bride who is awaiting the bridegroom (Eph 5:27). The overseers do not have ownership of the Church, but are to serve as stewards, caretakers, awaiting the arrival of the groom.
Many Churches, like the one I serve, have elections for their new officers at the beginning of the year. As the President is sworn into office, pledging to protect and defend the constitution of our nation, let us pray that God would grant the President the grace and strength to execute the calling of his office. May we also pray that God would continue to raise up elders who will faithfully and carefully tend to themselves and to God’s Church, led by the Spirit to declare the whole counsel of God through the gospel of grace in Jesus Christ.