Be on guard for yourselves (20:28a)
The first priority for anyone involved in spiritual leadership is his own relationship with God. Effective ministry is not mere outward activity; it is the overflow of a rich, deep relationship with God. As John Owen wisely observed,
A minister may fill his pews, his communion roll, the mouths of the public, but what that minister is on his knees in secret before God Almighty, that he is and no more. (Cited in I. D. E. Thomas, A Puritan Golden Treasury [Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1977], 192)
No one is ready to face the pressures and responsibilities of ministry who is not right with God. Those pressures, as well as the demand to set the example, require that leaders constantly be on guard (Mark 13:9; Luke 21:34).
The first step in being on guard is self-examination. After a whole chapter of exhortation to the young preacher (1 Tim. 4:1–15), Paul summed up what he had said by calling Timothy to examine himself (verse 16): “Pay close attention to yourself and to your teaching; persevere in these things; for as you do this you will insure salvation both for yourself and for those who hear you.” He charged Timothy to scrutinize his life and doctrine to make sure both honored God. Such was crucial to his own perseverance and to the salvation and perseverance of others. Paul expressed that same truth in his second letter to Timothy:
Now in a large house there are not only gold and silver vessels, but also vessels of wood and of earthenware, and some to honor and some to dishonor. Therefore, if a man cleanses himself from these things, he will be a vessel for honor, sanctified, useful to the Master, prepared for every good work. (2 Tim. 2:20–21)
In a house there were vessels for dishonorable uses, such as garbage and other waste. There were also vessels for honorable uses, such as food and drink. Only clean ones of high quality were fit for honor. Since God uses clean and holy instruments, vessels of honor, self-examination and forsaking sin are essential for leaders. Although God does bless His truth in spite of the preacher, He does not bless the unholy leader, no matter what title, position, or office he might hold.
In a powerful passage from his classic work The Reformed Pastor, Richard Baxter gives a stirring call for pastors to examine themselves:
Take heed to yourselves, lest you live in those sins which you preach against in others, and lest you be guilty of that which daily you condemn. Will you make it your work to magnify God, and, when you have done, dishonour him as much as others? Will you proclaim Christ’s governing power, and yet contemn it, and rebel yourselves? Will you preach his laws, and wilfully break them? If sin be evil, why do you live in it? if it be not, why do you dissuade men from it? If it be dangerous, how dare you venture on it? if it be not, why do you tell men so? If God’s threatenings be true, why do you not fear them? if they be false, why do you needlessly trouble men with them, and put them into such frights without a cause? Do you “know the judgment of God, that they who commit such things are worthy of death”; and yet will you do them? “Thou that teachest another, teachest thou not thyself?” Thou that sayest a man should not commit adultery, or be drunk, or covetous, art thou such thyself? “Thou that makest thy boast of the law, through breaking the law dishonourest thou God?” What! shall the same tongue speak evil that speakest against evil? Shall those lips censure, and slander, and backbite your neighbour, that cry down these and the like things in others? Take heed to yourselves, lest you cry down sin, and yet do not overcome it; lest, while you seek to bring it down in others, you bow to it, and become its slaves yourselves: “For of whom a man is overcome, of the same is he brought into bondage.” “To whom ye yield yourselves servants to obey, his servants ye are to whom ye obey, whether of sin unto death, or of obedience unto righteousness.” O brethren! it is easier to chide at sin, than to overcome it. ( The Reformed Pastor [Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1979], 67–68)
Personal holiness is the requirement of true and powerful spiritual leadership. God calls for holiness that is not just outward, in the eyes of men. Paul had that outward virtue even before his salvation, when he described himself as blameless as to the law (Phil. 3:6). But he called it “rubbish” (v. 8) compared to true righteousness. True holiness is inward, so that one can say with Paul, “For our proud confidence is this, the testimony of our conscience, that in holiness and godly sincerity, not in fleshly wisdom but in the grace of God, we have conducted ourselves in the world, and especially toward you” (2 Cor. 1:12).
Shepherd the Flock
and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood. (20:28b)
After making sure that his own life (and consequently that of his family, 1Tim. 3:4–5) is in order, a leader’s second priority is the spiritual care of his flock. Positively, that care involves the feeding and leading of all the flock. The metaphor of a flock and a shepherd is often used to describe God’s relationship to His people. It is an apt one, since sheep are helpless, timid, dirty, and in need of constant protection and care. The Old Testament frequently describes Israel as God’s flock (Pss. 77:20; 78:52; 80:1; Isa. 40:11; 63:11; Jer. 13:17; 23:2–3; 31:10; Ezek. 34:2ff.; Mic. 2:12; 5:4; 7:14; Zech. 10:3), and the New Testament pictures the church as a flock with the Lord Jesus Christ as its Shepherd (John 10:1ff.; Heb. 13:20; 1 Pet. 2:25; 5:2–4).
Jesus Christ, the Chief Shepherd (1 Pet. 5:4), has taken His flock and divided it into many smaller flocks (cf. 1 Pet. 5:2, “the flock of God among [or apportioned to] you”; 1 Pet. 5:3, “those allotted to your charge”). The Holy Spirit sovereignly raises up overseers, or undershepherds, who are responsible to shepherd their flocks. Shepherd is from poimainō, a comprehensive term encompassing the entire task of a shepherd. The most important part of that task, however, is to feed. In John 21:15–17, Jesus three times instructed Peter to care for His sheep. The second time He used poimainō, but the first and third times boskō, which has the more restricted meaning of “to feed.” Obviously, then, the primary task of an undershepherd of the Lord’s flock is to feed the sheep. Sadly, many undershepherds today fail to do that, seemingly content to lead their sheep from one barren wasteland to another. The tragic result is a spiritually weak flock, ready to eat the poisonous weeds of false doctrine, or to follow false shepherds who deceitfully promise them greener pastures, while leading them to barren desert.
Since sheep are followers, the shepherds’ task also involves leading the flock. They must set the direction for the sheep to follow. The New Testament knows nothing of congregational rule; instead it commands believers to “obey your leaders, and submit to them” (Heb. 13:17). Paul reminded the Thessalonians that their pastors were given “charge over you in the Lord” and were to be appreciated, esteemed, loved, and followed without conflict (1 Thess. 5:12–13). God has committed the leadership of the church to the overseers (elders, pastors). Those who serve faithfully are to be doubly honored (1 Tim. 5:17); those who fall into sin are to be publicly rebuked (1 Tim. 5:20). It is a sobering realization that elders will someday give an account to God for how they lead those committed to their charge (Heb. 13:17).
The motive for such high standards of leadership lies in the fact that the church belongs not to men, but to God (cf. 1 Pet. 5:2). Church leaders have a stewardship over His property and must discharge that stewardship faithfully (cf. 1 Cor. 4:2). Further, the church is the most precious reality on earth, since the ultimate price was paid for it when the Lord Jesus Christ purchased it with His own blood (cf. 1 Pet. 1:18–19). That demands that every leader treat the church as the precious fellowship that it is. God is a spirit and has no body, hence no blood. Yet Paul can say that God as much as purchased the church with His own blood because he “believed so strongly in the deity of Jesus Christ and His essential unity with the Father that [he] hesitated not to speak of His sacrifice on Calvary as a shedding of the blood of God” (G. T. Stokes, “The Acts of the Apostles,” in W. Robertson Nicoll, ed., The Expositor’s Bible [New York: A. C. Armstrong and Son, 1903], 2:419).
The Lord Jesus Christ set the example of loving concern for the church that all leaders must follow. In Ephesians 5:25–27, Paul describes Christ’s sacrificial love for the church:
Christ …loved the church and gave Himself up for her; that He might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, that He might present to Himself the church in all her glory, having no spot or wrinkle or any such thing; but that she should be holy and blameless.
The undershepherd must have the same concern for the purity of the church as did the Great Shepherd. Paul certainly did. To the Corinthians he wrote, “I am jealous for you with a godly jealousy; for I betrothed you to one husband, that to Christ I might present you as a pure virgin” (2 Cor. 11:2). Those undershepherds who truly value the church will shepherd their flocks by feeding them the Word of God and faithfully leading them.
28. “Keep watch over yourselves and the entire flock over which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers to shepherd God’s church which he purchased with his own blood.”
- “Keep watch over yourselves and the entire flock.” Paul gives a charge to the Ephesian elders, who must assume pastoral responsibilities in the local church. He begins by telling them to keep watch over themselves; that is, they have to be spiritual examples for the members of the church. He exhorts them to put their minds to work in watching themselves (compare 1 Tim. 4:16).
In addition, the elders have the task of caring for the spiritual needs of “the entire flock.” Paul uses imagery borrowed from the agricultural society of his day. This is rather unusual for Paul, whose educational training kept him from any intimate knowledge of sheepherding. Yet he knew that Jesus had frequently alluded to the shepherd and the sheep.42 And when Peter wrote his epistle, he called Jesus the Chief Shepherd under whom elders serve as overseers and shepherds of God’s flock (1 Peter 5:1–4).
- “Over which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers.” This clause introduces two significant points. First, Paul states that the Holy Spirit has appointed the elders as overseers. Perhaps Paul is referring to a specific ceremony that marked their appointment (compare 14:23). Next, he uses the term overseers as a synonym for “elders” (see v. 17). The task of the overseer is to be a shepherd (compare Num. 27:16–17) like Jesus Christ:
Oversight means loving care and concern, a responsibility willingly shouldered; it must never be used for personal aggrandisement. Its meaning is to be seen in Christ’s selfless service which was moved by concern for the salvation of men.
Both Paul and Peter describe the responsibilities of an overseer in their respective epistles. Paul lists a number of qualifications for anyone who aspires to the office of elder/overseer (1 Tim. 3:1–7; Titus 1:6–9), and Peter similarly specifies the duties of an elder (1 Peter 5:1–4). Both apostles use the terms elder and overseer interchangeably.
- “To shepherd God’s church which he purchased with his own blood.” This clause presents difficulties, for the expression God’s church can be translated “church of God/Christ” or “church of the Lord.” The first expression is common in the New Testament; it occurs twelve times apart from Acts 20:28. Conversely, although the reading the Lord’s church does appear in a number of excellent Greek manuscripts, that reading occurs nowhere else in the New Testament and only seven times in the Septuagint. On the basis of the scriptural evidence, I am inclined to adopt the reading the church of God.
Another difficulty, however, remains. What is the meaning of the literal translation with the blood of his own? If we translate the phrase “with his own blood,” which most translations have adopted, we confuse the meaning of the sentence. The context mentions the Holy Spirit and God, to whom the word blood fails to apply. Perhaps the suggestion to say that “his own” is a variant of “his beloved” or “his one and only [Son]” is a step toward solving the matter.
- “God’s church which he purchased.” God bought his universal church with the blood of his Son. He paid an incalculable price to save a people for himself through Christ’s death on the cross. Writes Donald Guthrie, “The idea of the death of Christ being a purchase price is a distinctive emphasis in Paul’s epistles.” Indeed, Paul tells the Corinthians, “You were bought at a price” (1 Cor. 6:20; 7:23; and see Ps. 74:2; Rev. 5:9).
 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1994). Acts (p. 326). Chicago: Moody Press.
 Kistemaker, S. J., & Hendriksen, W. (1953–2001). Exposition of the Acts of the Apostles (Vol. 17, pp. 732–733). Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.