Finishing the Course
Understanding and Appreciating the Trials and Triumphs of the Shepherds of the Flock
During his third missionary journey the Apostle Paul stopped to bid a brief, but poignant farewell to the Ephesian elders. (Acts 20:17-38) The tearful parting on the shores of the Mediterranean was the dramatic culmination of a stirring address that he gave regarding their labors for the Master. His plan had been to sail past Ephesus in order to be in Jerusalem for Pentecost and the opportunities that it provided for the Gospel. But being so close to the city where he had spent nearly three years establishing and strengthening the assembly, it was hard for him not to make a contact. While at Miletus he called for the elders of the church and gave them his own testimony of the toils and tears expended for the sake of the Gospel. Testifying how he had not shunned to declare unto them the whole counsel of God, he charged them to take heed to themselves and to the solemn responsibilities entrusted to them by the Lord. The address that he gave and the example that he exhibited not only provides elders today with a valuable blueprint for shepherding the flock, but it also gives the saints a unique perspective into the arduous, yet often unappreciated work of the oversight.
One of the very basic credentials required by any elder is the quality of consistency -- one that he exemplified in his own life. At no time did Paul vacillate in his convictions and his commitment to the truth, regardless of the situation or the "season". "You know, from the first day that I came into Asia, what manner I have been with you at all seasons" (v. 18). Whether he suffered or abounded, Paul never changed in his doctrine or his attitude. Later, writing from his prison cell in Rome and facing certain execution, he could write young Timothy and say unabashedly "I have fought a good fight, I have kept the faith..." (1 Tim 4.7). It was not that he kept his own faith, a matter that was in God's hands (John 10.28-29) but the faith -- the whole body of NT truth -- as it was revealed to him by the Lord. He could exhort Timothy from experience to preach the Word and to be instant in season and out of season. He could say with authority (as he did with the Corinthians) that he had "renounced the hidden things of dishonesty" (2 Cor. 4.2) and to the Thessalonians that the manner of entering in that he had unto them was not one of deceit, nor of uncleanness, nor in guile. (2 Thess 2.3) Paul's life certainly was a model of consistency as well as transparency as it should be with every elder.
Another quality that characterized the life of the apostle Paul was humility. Despite the tears and trials that he experienced in his ministry, he persisted in faithfulness to the Lord serving with all humility. (v. 19) When he was challenged many times regarding his qualification as an apostle he exercised a humble attitude, though his religious "achievements" prior to salvation had unquestionably exceeded his critics. (Phil. 3.5-6) When he was misunderstood and his motives maligned even by those who he had fathered in the faith, he endured the mistreatment, though not without heartache and tears. Such was his experience and an example to these Ephesian elders of what would be in store for them and others who would afterwards follow in their stead.
Fidelity also characterized the life of the Apostle Paul. . He was faithful to the Lord in proclaiming the gospel to both Jew and Greek, the message of repentance toward God and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. (v. 21) He was also faithful as he taught the Word of God to them -- keeping back nothing that was profitable in their lives. He proclaimed the truth to them not only in public (where it was to be expected) but also in private ("from house to house") which required a greater investment of time. He was an apostle with a true shepherd's heart desiring the best for the Lord's people whether they realized their need for it or not -- or even appreciated it. It helps to reminds us at that the work of an elder though taxing at times and requiring the wisdom of Solomon is nevertheless fraught with criticism and lack of respect from some within the Body of Christ. Due mainly to spiritual immaturity, ignorance or carnality, Paul knew this reality all too well as he had to deal with critical issues in the Corinthian, Colossian and Galatian assemblies.
But this did not deter nor dissuade him from his calling, knowing that this was one of the inherent aspects of this sphere of ministry. Confident that God's Word would ultimately triumph his labors in the midst of his service held the future prospect of commendation at the Judgment Seat of Christ. True to the Lord in every way, the pattern of his life is the pattern for every elder.
Paul's ministry for the Lord was also marked by intensity. He was aware of the dangers that awaited him in Jerusalem. (vv. 22-23) But that also did not deter or move him. He did not count his life dear to himself but placed his life fully on the altar of God's service. His desire was to finish his course with joy. Later, in writing to Timothy possibly on the eve of his execution, he could affirmed that he had achieved this goal by stating: "I have finished my course..." (2 Tim. 4.7) He clearly understood that he had received his ministry from the Lord Jesus and looked to Him alone for commendation on his labors. Such should be the aim and desire of all the under shepherds who are accountable to the Chief Shepherd. Paul's focus was to serve the Lord single-mindedly and wholeheartedly.
Upon concluding his own testimony, Paul exhorted this same group of elders to watch, taking heed both to themselves and to all the flock. He emphasized the need for personal vigilance -- an absolute imperative in the work of the oversight. The moral or doctrinal defection of spiritual leaders is not only disappointing, but absolutely devastating to some. He also urged them to take heed to all the flock. They were not to keep watch on the faithful, but especially those on the outskirts whose foolish straying makes them vulnerable targets for "wolves" who lie in wait. Paul later warned the Galatians about these false brethren who had been ignorantly brought into the assembly (Gal. 2.4) whereas Jude warned about the false brethren who secretly crept in (Jude 4) Either way, their initial targets are those within the flock who are not grounded in the Word, drawing away disciples after themselves and causing them to rise up and thus creating conflict. Hence the need for elders to look after the entire flock.
Linked to this watching, was the apostle's admonition to warn the flock. To simply watch was not enough. Warning was just as important. He cautioned them to remember his example during the three years that he was with them. Similarly, the elders' work is like that of a porter who guards the flock by warning of impending danger. It would be foolish for a sheep to disregard such a warning. Yet, those in the flock who have been influenced by a "watered-down" gospel or who adopted a contaminated view of the holiness of God and need for personal sanctification often take exception to this "negative preaching". By dissenting, they simply grandstand their ignorance of the Word and ignore the high view of biblical holiness. But the faithful elder in keeping true to the Lord must exercise his responsibilities regardless if it is popular or not.
Finally, Paul exhorted these elders (and all elders) to work in a very practical sense. Commending them to God and the word of His grace, he cited himself as an example of one who worked with his own hands providing for his necessities. He encouraged them to support the weak (v. 35) and to remember the words of the Lord Jesus who said on at least one occasion that it was more blessed to give than to receive. In other words, the work of the oversight is not done in an "ivory tower" or carried out solely in committee meetings, but is balanced by a "get-involved", "work with everyone else" attitude.
Kneeling down with them as he concluded his words, this great but humble servant of the Lord prayed with them. Unashamedly showing their affection to their co-laborer and fellow soldier in the faith, they kissed him and wept. (another mark of a deep investment in the cause of Christ) Accompanying him to the ship that awaited him for his journey to Jerusalem, they now bid a sorrowful farewell to him cognizant that they would probably see his face no more -- not in this life at least. But the example that he gave and the words that he spoke more than made up for this tearful good-bye. The pattern that he gave them and has given to the Church through the centuries is a pattern that delineates the key responsibilities of the work of the oversight and should deepen the respect of the saints for those involved in this very challenging work.