The Heart of a Spiritual Leader
Paul charges the Ephesian elders– Acts 20:25-38
Saying goodbye can we sweet or sour–or a little of both. Sometimes goodbye is a blessed subtraction from your life. Other times it’s the loss of a true friend. That’s what Paul experienced with the Ephesian elders–the painful loss of good friends. Yet because Luke preserves some of this dialogue for us in Acts 20, we hear in Paul’s final farewell what is important.
Final words are not made up of trivial comments. And what you hear from Paul in this passage is the priority for all spiritual leaders to focus on their heart. Any form of true spiritual leadership emphasizes the heart. Lots of moms are working out home education for their kids–but the most important priority, ladies, is your heart. Many of you are seeking to disciple others, but your priority in the process is keeping your heart right. Dads, in order to lead, your heart must first be right. Ministry leaders, your priority is your heart before God.
You know what is happening in Acts–the Spirit has descended and now permanently indwells believers. As they depend on Him, He is working mightily through them to establish His Church in this world. It was promised in the theme verse of Acts 1:8, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be My witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth.”
By Acts 20, the Spirit of God is establishing the Church in the remotest part of the earth. The converted Christian killer, Paul, is wrapping up his third missionary journey. Now in chapter 20, the apostle is traveling from Corinth to Jerusalem. En route, preaching the Word and proclaiming the Gospel at every possible stop, he sails from Philippi to Troas, then Troas to Miletus. But here in Miletus, Paul meets up with the Ephesian elders who have traveled 50 miles on foot (a 3-day journey) to meet with the apostle Paul.
These are the same men Paul ministered to, and alongside of, for three years. Some of them were most likely converts under his ministry. All of them were comrades in the greatest labor in this world. They are brothers, friends, co-laborers–eternally bound to each other. And in the midst of his instruction to them, Paul drops this bomb in verse 25. “And now, behold, I know that all of you, among whom I went about preaching the kingdom, will no longer see my face” (Acts 20:25).
Paul reminds his brothers, “I have given my life to proclaim the rule of Christ over all. I have been heralding the Kingdom–Christ is Lord and will be Lord forever.” Christ is sovereign over the affairs of all men and all nations, and one day Christ will be the only government and physically rule this planet. The purpose of the Gospel is to establish the worthiness of the rule of Christ over all.
No one is a true Christian, who does not submit to God’s Word and follow Christ. You don’t accept Jesus in your heart—then go on living for yourself. Is Christ a resident in your life, or is Christ the president of your life? You don’t make a decision for Christ, then remain in continual unrepentant sin. You are not born again unless you want to obey God’s Word.
In verse 25, Paul went about preaching the Kingdom, the rule of the King over all. Paul reminds the guys they know all that–but now things are changing. Verse 25, “I went about”–I traveled freely preaching. But that is now done for Paul. They will no longer see Paul minister. Paul has about 4 to 5 years of jail time awaiting him. And the bomb Paul drops is this–Paul is saying goodbye. Verse 25, “You will no longer see my face.” Paul tells these close brothers, “My public ministry is coming to a close.” This rocks them.
Then he adds in verse 26, “Therefore, I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all men.” I solemnly assert–I have not nor did I intentionally cause the death of anyone in the process of my ministry. Yes, there’ve been riots and beatings, but I have not intentionally caused the death of any man. Since submitting to Christ, I’ve not been the cause of the shedding of blood or murder. Paul says, “I’m innocent, free from all guilt, not responsible, and clean from accusation.”
Why does Paul declare his innocence? Because verse 27, “For I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole purpose of God.” Paul’s ministry caused waves. He says, “I didn’t hold back on teaching any truth. I did not hesitate to teach you both Old Testament and New Testament. I taught you easy truth and tough truths from God’s Word. I declared [verse 27] to you the whole purpose of God. I preached all of it–everything in the plan of God. Every truth in God’s Word.” Implying what, Paul?
You, my elder brothers, better follow my example of preaching a complete Gospel that saves sinners and accurate doctrine that describes Christ—or you will face God’s discipline as influencers, as teachers. You have to tell people the whole truth. They are sinners in need of a Savior. You will not go to Heaven unless you are in Christ. You will not be saved unless you are sick of your sin and ask Christ to bear your punishment on the cross, trust He rose from the dead and are born again, so with your new heart you will want to follow Christ.
All spiritual leadership carries the double “J”–the potential for great JOY and also great Judgment. But what kind of heart do you need to raise kids, disciple a student or lead a ministry? Paul opens up six truths which shockingly all begin with the letter “L”. A true spiritual leader will cultivate . . .
#1 A heart to have your LIFE be the foundation of your ministry
Verse 28a, “Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock.” One of the main verbs in this chapter is “be on guard”. It is not your position or title, whether pastor, Doctor Mueller, or dad–it is your life. The basis of your ministry is first and foremost your life with the Lord. If you are right with God, then you’re cleared for ministry. If you are not right with the Lord, then you are not cleared for ministry.
“Guard for yourselves”—meaning, “I command you to continually pay attention to yourself.” Not morbid introspection, but ask the Lord to reveal anything in your heart that is wrong. Expose any sin needing repentance or confession. Ask about any heart desire which must be started or stopped. “Guard your heart.” Proverbs 4:23, “Watch over your heart with all diligence, for from it flow the springs of life.”
The first step of ministry is not them, but you. Not the sheep, but the shepherd. It is not others, but it is yourself. The most important question you can ask yourself when service to others becomes frustrating or difficult is this–where do I need to grow, where is my heart at, what am I doing wrong that might be contributing to the difficulty?
This is the most important dad question when your kids are being rude–have they learned that from you? When your kids are critical of others, is that what they heard from you? When your students are not thankful, have they learned gratitude from you? Paul says, “Guard your heart”–check your life by God’s Word, through God’s Spirit. Then you will know how to shepherd the flock of God, your flock at home and your disciple. All true ministry begins with your heart–being tender, submissive and up to date with the Lord, and . . .
#2 A heart to LOVE Christ’s people
Verse 28b, “Among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood.” You don’t choose to be a Christian, God chooses you. And you don’t choose to be an elder, God chooses you. When Paul says the Holy spirit makes overseers, he’s telling the Ephesian elders God assigned you to this duty, God gave you the responsibility, God is the one who appointed you to this task. And for everyone else, it is the Lord who gave you your kids, or that disciple, that community group–so fulfill your obligation. And look at their job description in verse 28.
First You are made overseers as elders together in plurality
Overseer is the word bishop–used synonymously with pastor or elder as the same position. It’s an overseer bishop is that aspect of a spiritual leader who watches over. These men together are the ones in charge as they direct, care for and are accountable together for a local church.
Second The elders together SHEPHERD God’s Church
Like caring for sheep, checking on sheep, keeping sheep safe from danger, cleaning, sheering and most importantly, regularly feeing the sheep the best possible food. Sheep can’t survive without healthy food. They can never grow healthy eating junk–like emotional stories from the pulpit, Feng Shui in the church, a perspective on politics, helpful principles plucked from the Bible to help your home. No, God’s sheep need God’s Word for food to grow to be like Christ.
Third Look at who OWNS the sheep
Verse 28, “to shepherd the church OF God.” It is the Church of God–the church belonging to God. The believers of the Church are God’s children–they are His sheep. They don’t belong to the pastor. It is not your community group, your disciple, and they are not your children. You serve, you teach, you disciple, you under-shepherd–but they are God’s sheep.
As Paul shares with the Ephesian elders, he reminds them the church is not theirs. Never treat a believer as if they were your disciple, or it’s your community group, or it’s your church. No–Christians belong to Christ and you are Christ’s servant. That’s why Paul reminds the elders . . .
Fourth Embrace the PRICE God paid for His sheep
Verse 28, “which He purchased with His own blood”—literally, Christ Himself purchased! You didn’t die for the people you serve, Christ died for them. Christ did not merely suffer for them, teach them, give to them, have compassion for them–but Christ died for them. Christ loves His children more than you. He loves your children, your disciple, your group and your church more than you could ever love them.
How many of you have counted the hairs of your disciple, your kids? Every one? Christ has–and His thoughts toward them are more than the sand of the seashore. And Christ proved His love by dying for their sins with His own blood. A spiritual leader will have a heart to love the people Christ died for. And a true spiritual leader has a heart for Christ’s children . . .
#3 A heart to LOOK out for spiritual danger
When you were sick, your mom took your temperature–the heart of a leader is to check your temperature. I see four questions in verses 29 to 31–do you see them? Acts 20:29 to 31, “I know that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; 30and from among your own selves men will arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them. 31Therefore be on the alert, remembering that night and day for a period of three years I did not cease to admonish each one with tears.”
Question 1 What are the enemies of Christ after?
Verse 29, “I know that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock.” Paul is predicting that whenever the truth is proclaimed, Satan will counter it with the lies of false doctrine in order to harm Christians. Because of the serious danger false teachers pose to the Church, the Scriptures condemn them with the strongest language–savage wolves sneaking into the flock.
And just as Paul predicted, false teachers did slip into the church at Ephesus, causing them all kinds of harm–like wolves, ripping apart sheep. They later lost their first love. These false teachers want to destroy the Church–they do it by moving believers away from sanctification, and by hindering make-believers away from salvation, from the Gospel, and from the Word of God. They want to keep real believers from obeying Christ and want to prevent make-believers from being born again. So . . .
Question 2 Where do they come from?
Verse 30, “and from among your own selves men will arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them.” They come from within. Look down your aisle–that’s them. Perverse means to distort or to twist. False teachers twist God’s truth for their own distorted ends–which is what? To draw away the disciples. In the Greek, draw away can mean drag away or tear away.
Paul warns, like an animal which grabs its prey by the neck to drag it away, the false teachers want to tear church attenders away from Christ and His Church in order to follow after themselves. Did you see the last two words in verse 30–see them? “After them”–to follow them, pull people away from the eldership to themselves.
Question 3 What must you do as a spiritual leader?
Verse 31, “Therefore be on the alert.” Paul commands his friends, this is an order. Remain alert, pay attention, look out for wolves–especially those who look like sheep. Paul commands his elder friends—“Guys, if you are not vigilant, the wolves who love to eat lamb, will drag your sheep away to devour them.” Paul is literally commanding them to not get comfortable, not rest, not sleep. But like a soldier guards his camp, you must guard the flock from doctrinal enemies.
Question 4 Admonish is to give counsel with a warning
How serious is it to remain alert? Paul has them recall his zeal with instructing them to make a point about how important it is to remain alert. Paul says in verse 31b, “Remembering that night and day for a period of three years I did not cease to admonish each one with tears.” The heart of a true spiritual leader will warn those he ministers to. Paul admonished the Ephesians for three years. Paul’s warnings were so compelling, he hardly had time to sleep, ministering night and day.
And Paul was not merely lecturing them on doctrine–this was no academic exercise, because Paul punctuated his warnings with tears. Paul wept, because he knew the harm that comes to God’s people when false teachers infiltrate in the Church. Paul exposes the true heart of those who minister to others. Only by following Paul’s example can the faithful protect Christ’s flock from the savage wolves or diseased sheep who constantly threaten it. A spiritual leader has a heart to look out for danger. A true spiritual leader has . . .
#4 A heart to LEARN the Word and LONG in prayer
Verse 32, “And now I commend you to God and to the word of His grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified.” By commending them to God, Paul is calling them to pray. And commending them to the word of His grace is Paul calling them to learn the Word of Grace, both of which will build them up. And assure you of eternity, verse 32, “give you the inheritance among all those who have already been sanctified.” When you are in Christ, you are so secure that your growth and maturity as a Christ-follower is often viewed as already completed. Philippians 1:6, “For I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus.”
The only way to maintain a healthy heart in leadership is to keep learning the Word of God and longing for intimacy with God in prayer. If you don’t have something to say from God’s Word, then you have nothing to say. Dads, moms, if you don’t have something fresh to say from God’s Word, then you have nothing to say to your kids. Your heart must be hot with truth you are applying to your heart first. Your heart must be fresh in prayer with Christ in order to have a true heart of ministry. A true spiritual leader has . . .
#5 A heart to think LESS about yourself
Verses 33 to 35 show Paul’s massive commitment to not be the issue. They show Paul’s desire to think less about himself and more about Christ. Philippians 2:3, “Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves.” As Jean and I get older, 1) she gets prettier, and I . . . not so much, 2) we both love the wisdom that comes with age, 3) we both struggle with increased self-maintenance.
Sadly, we have to do more to maintain average living. The sun on my skin gives me more cancer for my skin doctor to cut off, so I have to apply sunscreen all the time to keep my skin doctor happy. As we get older, we have to take more time on ourselves–and we really do not like that. In my heart I think, “Hey, my underwear is on, my hair is combed or under a hat–I’m good to go.” I don’t like increased self-maintenance. Why? Honestly, sincerely, cause we are not here for us–we are here for Him. I’m not going to primp for hours in the mirror, or spend time coloring my hair, or go for a massage to help the pain in my shoulder–cause it takes too much time. Self-maintenance takes us away from our true purpose.
Paul says something similar, just way more Spirit-filled, in verses 33 to 35. “I have coveted no one’s silver or gold or clothes. 34You yourselves know that these hands ministered to my own needs and to the men who were with me. 35In everything I showed you that by working hard in this manner you must help the weak and remember the words of the Lord Jesus, that He Himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’ ” Paul says, “This work is not about me. The ministry is not about me. This work is not about what I have and don’t have. This world is not my home. I don’t have to own the things of this world to be filled with joy.”
I don’t want more things materially–maybe a Tesla. I have my preferences–no cats, not to live in Hemet until the Kingdom. Simple things. And Paul says, “I have not desired your wealth or your awesome Armani robe and sandals. You saw me, so you experientially know I worked with my own hands in tentmaking in order to feed myself and those who were with me so we could minister to you without cost, without burden–and most importantly, without an agenda. I didn’t come to get from you, but to give to you.
And verse 35, I worked very long and hard–to the point of exhaustion, so that those who are not strong in the faith yet the weak will be cared for. Why? Because Jesus said it Himself–there is greater happiness in giving then getting. There is greater blessing in serving others than being served. There is more joy in giving a gift than in getting one yourself. Shoppers, it is better to give an item away than to buy one for yourself.
Spiritual ministry is pursuing a heart to think less about yourself, verses 33 to 35. Second Corinthians 5:15, “He died for all, so that they who live, might no longer live for themselves, but for Him who died and rose again on their behalf.” Are you cultivating a heart that thinks less about yourself and more about others? Finally, a true spiritual leader has . . .
#6 A heart free to be LEGIT
I heard an FBC student say, “That guy is legit”–and what he meant was the man he was referring to was sincere, genuine and real. And when you serve Christ, there will be genuineness and humble sincerity in how you live, how you talk, and how you minister. Which is exactly what Paul and the elders of Ephesus manifested as they said goodbye. Verses 36 to 38, “When he had said these things, he knelt down and prayed with them all. 37And they began to weep aloud and embraced Paul, and repeatedly kissed him, 38grieving [tormented] especially over the word which he had spoken, that they would not see his face again. And they were accompanying him to the ship.”
Paul and these elders were legit–they prayed to the Lord together because their relationship with Christ was legit. They cried together as men because they were legitimately sad not seeing Paul again. Their expression of affection as men was legit. Though most of the men in this gathering will punch you if you tried to kiss them–it is not our way of affection. They expressed their great love for Paul by kissing him manly-style (with a grunt, or like a punch). Their heartache–grieving, literally torment, was legit, because they wouldn’t see Paul now.
And their great care for him was legit as they traveled with him to his awaiting ship. Sadly, can you picture some Christians (not at our church) in this context? What would they do if they were there at Paul’s goodbye? “Stop crying, stop being sad, stop kissing on Paul, grow up, don’t feel that way.” Why? God is sovereign, He’s in control, He’s the one who is in charge. In fact—”what a massive lack of faith you elders have–what’s wrong with you?!”
Remember friends, a legit heart, genuine heart, knows you can trust God–you can believe God is sovereign, but also at the same time grieve, be sad, miss a friend, feel deeply about someone you massively love. As long as you don’t live there, or let it keep you from obedience. These men were not doubting God, they were loving their mentor. These men were not questioning God’s control, they were expressing their deep affection. They were comfortable with God’s sovereignty and our humanness, genuineness, realness.
They were comfortable with God being in control, but we being bound by sincere hearts of affection, thankfulness, care, and gratefulness. They didn’t live in their sorrow, but they expressed it. They were not forever hampered by their loss, but they felt it. They were not controlled by their emotions, but they showed them at that moment. Do you have a heart of service, a heart of leadership, a heart of ministry? Then pray in response to this passage.
Some of you need to pray, “Lord give me a new heart–let the reality of God becoming a man in Christ, dying on the cross for my sins, rising from the dead impact me so that I can become born again. And with that new heart, follow you with an internal desire to obey, one that can live out what I believe, show genuine love, watch out for error, focus less on myself and be legit.”
Others of you need to pray, “Lord, grow my heart so I can obey more, be more concerned about you working in my own life first over than those I minister to. Allow me to display continual sacrifices of love, be on the alert for error, focus more on Christ as my first love and work at having myself be my last love. And finally, be free to be genuine before all.” Take a moment of silent prayer and ask the Lord to give you a new heart or to grow your heart. Pray that now in silence.