“Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood.” Acts 20:28
We recently began a new year of history, another year in the life of the church and in the life of each congregation. For many congregations this has meant the installation into office of elders and deacons, who take the place of those who have finished their term of service. Throughout my years in the ministry I have been thankful to God for the faithful, committed men He has called to serve as elders and deacons. Officebearers who meet the qualifications of Scripture are of utmost importance in the church of Jesus Christ. The welfare of a congregation is largely dependent upon the elders who serve in it. Ministers come and go through the years, but elders are men who in some cases are members of a given congregation all their lives. They give stability and continuity to the congregation. Especially upon them falls the responsibility for the church over which the Lord has placed them.
In Acts 20 we have recorded one of the most beautiful and touching speeches of the apostle Paul. Paul and his companions had left Greece and were returning to Jerusalem. He desired to be there by Pentecost. But as the ship stopped over in Miletus, Paul sent to Ephesus and called for the elders of the church to meet him. In this farewell speech Paul reviewed his past labors among them. He announced to them that bonds and afflictions awaited him. And then he exhorted the elders of Ephesus to take heed to the flock. For the welfare of the church today it is urgent that this exhortation be heard and obeyed: Take heed to the flock!
Paul uses the very beautiful figure of “the flock.” The Lord Jesus Himself used this figure. In Luke 12:32 Jesus said, “Fear not, little flock; for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” The flock refers to the church. In the passage before us it refers particularly to the congregation at Ephesus. God’s people are often referred to as sheep in Scripture. The church is a flock, a body of sheep.
What characterizes a flock of sheep? Generally speaking, what is true of an individual sheep is also true of the flock itself. A flock is quite helpless, unable to care for itself. A flock of sheep is unable of itself to find proper pasture and water. It is unable properly to care for its young. A flock is incapable of protecting itself from various predators. Further, a flock of sheep is very inclined to follow. At times in their fright sheep will follow one another into harm’s way. But it is also true that a flock of sheep follows its shepherd. Sheep know the voice of their shepherd. Jesus says in John 10, “I am the good shepherd, and know my sheep, and am known of mine.” But of itself, a flock would get in all sorts of trouble and endanger itself.
These same things characterize the church. We as God’s people are unable to care for ourselves spiritually. We are unable of ourselves fully and completely to meet our needs and those of our children. We are unable to protect ourselves from enemies, wolves who would enter among us, not sparing the flock (v. 29). The church too is inclined to follow. At times we can follow each other, figuratively speaking, right over the edge of a cliff! But, by God’s grace, we follow our Shepherd—we hear His voice and we follow Him. But of ourselves, as a flock, we would get into all sorts of trouble. We would endanger ourselves; we would become lost in our wanderings; we would soon be consumed by wolves!
This means that we need—the church needs—shepherds, overseers, elders. As a congregation, we need faithful elders who know us and our needs. They must know the proper pasture for us where we shall receive the Bread of Life and the Living Water. They must know our enemies. They must be very patient and long- suffering. They must love us.
So the apostle Paul exhorts the elders to “take heed” to the flock. Literally, “turn your mind to, attend to, provide for” the flock. The elders must be devoted to meeting the needs of the flock. This involves taking proper oversight of the church. They are to exercise loving discipline. They are to see to it that all things are done decently and in good order, according to the Word of God. They must be sure that everything is directed to the edification of the church. They must guard against those who might come into the flock with strange doctrines.
The apostle insists that they must take heed to all the flock. It must be all the sheep of the flock, without distinction, without partiality, without neglect or omission of any. The apostle binds every sheep upon the hearts of the elders. They must concern themselves not merely with their relatives and friends, not with a faction that clings to them, not only with the wealthy while neglecting the poor and the unassuming. They must have hearts big enough to embrace “all the flock,” also the lambs.
But notice that before the apostle exhorts the elders to take heed to the flock, he exhorts them to take heed unto themselves. He who is to take heed to others must first take heed to himself. An elder must be sure that things in his own life and family are handled decently and in good order. This implies, too, that the elders take a mutual oversight of each other.
The purpose of this taking heed to the flock is “to feed the church of God.” The word used here for “feed” is a broader term that has the same root as the word for “flock.” It means to tend a flock, to shepherd. It includes the idea of oversight and guidance. The elders are not only to watch over the flock, but they are to provide for it. The elders must be ready always to exhort, instruct, comfort, and guide the sheep. To do this, the elders must know the members of the congregation—their character, their problems, their needs. They must know and guard against the enemies of the flock. They must see that the congregation is fed with proper spiritual food, that only the pure doctrine is preached and taught, the whole counsel of God. They as shepherds must guide the congregation, sometimes by admonition and always by example. They must endeavor to keep the sheep on the straight and narrow way. All this care of the church of God must be done with patience, out of the motive of love.
Elders are able to feed the flock of God because they are elders—they hold an office. They represent Christ. They are given the right to feed the church of God in Christ’s name. The power and authority to feed the church of God rests, then, in the Word. In so far as they speak their own word they have no power and authority to perform their labors. Christ places elders in the church with the express purpose of speaking His Word to His people. That Word is in itself a ruling, a feeding, a guiding power for the sheep.
Thus, by the Word of Christ the elders feed the church of God. That means that in all of their work they must come with the Word! When they have to admonish those who behave themselves disorderly, they must come with the admonitions of Scripture. When they visit the sick or the sorrowing, they come with words of comfort from the Scriptures. In all their care of the flock they must do so with the Word. Only as they come with the Word do they fulfill their office. Only by the Word of God can the elders feed the church of God. That implies too that as flock, and as sheep of the flock, we must receive the elders when they come with the Word.
The first reason why the elders must take heed unto the flock is that this is the flock “over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers.” The office of elder is bestowed by the Spirit. They are appointed and qualified by the Holy Spirit. Elders are not man-made, but God places a man in office. The Spirit places or sets the elder as an “overseer.” That word stresses the function or duties of the office. As an overseer in the church, the elder is called to exercise spiritual oversight of the flock.
Notice, too, that literally we read, “in or among which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers.” The point is that the Holy Ghost gives this special appointment without taking elders out of the flock or raising them above it. The elders are and remain sheep of the flock. And, of course, that is why he is called also to take heed both to himself and to the whole flock. Because he is placed among the flock by the Holy Ghost, he must take heed and feed the flock. He labors in the service of God. He seeks not to please men but to receive the approval of Christ whose servant he is. Both the elders and the congregation must be mindful of this. Then the elders will be careful that they do not sinfully lord it over the church. And then the congregation will humbly submit herself to the authority of Christ manifested through them. Because elders are made overseers by the Holy Ghost, they are bound to take heed to themselves and all the flock.
But, in addition, the elders must take heed to the flock because this flock was “purchased with his own blood.” The church was bought with the price of the blood of the very Son of God! Our Lord Jesus Christ, through His death upon the cross, has purchased the church. He owns us, having paid the price of our sin and guilt. The precious flock belongs to Christ.
What a calling! What an awesome responsibility it is to be made an overseer of God’s flock, to be responsible for feeding the church of God. That means that the elders labor as undershepherds to the Great Shepherd. As such, they are called to fulfill their office with zeal and in a spirit of humility. The flock is God’s church, purchased with an infinitely precious price—the blood of the Lamb of God. Because of this, elders labor with holy fear and trembling.
Then we ought to receive our elders with gratitude to God. We ought to labor with them knowing that their task is great. Let us pray for them. May we heed the exhortation, “Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves: for they watch for your souls, as they that must give account, that they may do it with joy, and not with grief: for that is unprofitable for you” (Heb. 13:17).