In Acts 20, Paul calls the Ephesian elders – the ministry leaders – for a final goodbye. If we were able to look around Miletus that day, we’d see men crying – sobbing uncontrollably. We’d see a group of men gathered around a solitary individual hugging and kissing him goodbye. From our cultural paradigm, we might even feel uncomfortable! But if we were able to go back a few moments earlier in time and understand the context, we’d have great appreciation for the scene that’s unfolding.
Paul, the apostle, is charging these ministry leaders. He is providing sage counsel for them after his departure. He understands that he will not see their faces again this side of Heaven. Timothy and the other elders will be responsible for the health of the church at Ephesus. Paul knows these men. He had spent a good amount of time in Ephesus. He loves this church. Knowing that he will not be able to visit, to be a guest preacher, to be able to counsel and train these leaders in person again – what would his final words be to this group? The manner in which he counsels them is just as applicable for ministry leaders today.
Understand the INTERNAL factors
Paul challenges these leaders to take a personal inventory. “Take heed unto yourselves…” Leaders who forget to take time to nourish their own souls soon run dry. We cannot give out sustenance from an empty vessel. The spiritual disciplines we preach for others must be real in our own lives as well. Devotional time that is personal (rather than sermonic) is just as important for the preacher as it is the one sitting in the congregation.
Paul reminds these elders that the work they are doing in their church is because the Holy Ghost made them to be overseers. It is not “their” church – it is the church that God has purchased with His own blood. If the ministry in Ephesus was going to have a long-lasting impact beyond the first two generations, it would be partly due to the fact that the leaders weren’t afraid to take a personal inventory.
Understand the EXTERNAL factors
Paul then reminds these ministry leaders to not only “look within” but also to “look without.” They needed to lift their eyes up and take heed…unto the flock as well. Ministry leaders have a responsibility to feed the flock. The people entrusted to our care deserve better than junk food or warmed up leftovers. They need to “taste and see that the Lord is good.” They need to be given “the meat of the Word” and not just the milk.
While the enemy seeks to tear down, ministry leaders are called to build up.
In taking heed to the flock, there is also the responsibility to protect those entrusted to us as well. There are grievous wolves who want to come in subtly with the intent to destroy. While the enemy seeks to tear down, ministry leaders are called to build up. By taking heed to ourselves first, we ensure we have the heart of an under-shepherd, not that of a hireling. The hireling isn’t interested in protecting the sheep – he’s only interested in protecting himself.
If the ministry in Ephesus was going to have a long-lasting impact, it would be partly due to the fact that these leaders would care more about the flock than about their own selves. They would stand in the strength of the Lord and in the Word of His grace to encourage disciples who loved Jesus above all else.
Understand the ETERNAL factors
Paul concludes his charge to these ministry leaders by pointing them to “look ahead.” There is an inheritance that awaits the faithful believer. Again, he references the words of the great shepherd, Jesus and his statement: “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” Living with an eternal perspective allows us to be gracious, to be charitable, to be gentle, and to be faithful.
Living for the “successes” of today cannot provide a sustaining motivation. Living with the truth that one day we will see Jesus face-to-face and give Him an account of how we served His church keeps it all in perspective.
Paul’s final words to these Ephesian elders provides wise counsel for us today. Let’s remember to take heed to ourselves (the internal perspective), and to the flock (the external perspective), and to focus on our inheritance as believers (the eternal perspective). In so doing, may we make an impact for the kingdom.
Incidentally, when you consider the church at Ephesus, they have a very rich history! Paul was followed by Timothy. Shortly after Timothy, John the apostle led the work here. Church history records that John brought Mary, the mother of Jesus, back to Ephesus with him. The books 1-2 Timothy are written to the pastor of Ephesus. Of course, the book of Ephesians was connected here. The gospel of John and his three epistles were sent from Ephesus. The book of Revelation was sent to the seven churches of Asia Minor, with the church of Ephesus receiving the first copy.
Anecdotally, it appears like this group of ministry leaders heard Paul’s instruction and took it to heart. May we do the same today.