The Heart of a Shepherd
Topic: English Passage: Acts 20:17-35
This morning, we’re going to start with a quiz. And it’s not a trick question. Who is in charge of the church? Who is the leader? I hope that the vast majority of you know the answer. The leader of the church is Jesus Christ.
Ephesians and Colossians both specifically tells us that Jesus Christ is the head of the church. Looking at it from a different perspective, we’re also told in various parts of the Bible that Jesus is the chief corner stone. He is the essential element of its foundation.
There is an old hymn, written in the 1860s, called “The Church’s One Foundation.” And the opening verse says this: “The Church’s one foundation is Jesus Christ her Lord. She is His new creation, by Spirit and the Word. From heaven He came and sought her to be His holy bride. With His own blood He bought her, and for her life He died.”
Jesus created the church. He established it. He died for it. And He is the church’s rightful king.
Jesus is the King of the global church, and He’s also the king of the local church. And along those lines, the question we have been addressing in this series on church leadership is: “How does Jesus rule his church? How does He intend His leadership to be expressed?”
A more specific question to ask would be: How is the leadership of the church supposed to be organized? Some of you might not care at all about question. Maybe others of you are more interested. This kind of discussion falls into the category of church government, which falls under the more general category of ecclesiology, the study of the church.
Over the course of time, there have been many different views on church leadership. And those have played a part in how we ended up with different denominations today.
In my own opinion, I think we can summarize the different views on church government with a couple questions. One of those questions is this: Should there be some human leadership outside of the local church itself? In other words, humanly speaking, is there a higher authority outside of the church? Is some person or group allowed to come into our church and order us around?
Some groups today believe the answer is “yes.” Local churches, they say, are supposed to answer to some authority outside of themselves.
The Roman Catholic Church, for example, has a hierarchy leading all the way to the Pope. And they justify that by saying that the bishop of Rome can trace a lineage to himself all the way back to the Apostle Peter, whom they claim was the first Pope. That is a serious twisting of Scripture.
Another view, which isn’t nearly as serious, is that the titles bishops and elders refer to two different office. The elders rule in the church, but a collection of churches should be ruled by the bishops.
Here at First Bilingual Baptist, and in many other churches around the country, we believe that churches do not have any human authority outside themselves. We say that, not because we don’t want to have an outside authority, but because that is not something we see supported in the Bible. There is no biblical support for the idea of an apostolic succession. And there is no biblical support that an overseer, or a bishop, is some kind of higher authority than an elder.
Once the Apostles are gone, what we see is that local churches that were established were placed under the leadership of elders who were part of that church, not outside of it. And Paul’s instruction to Timothy, as we saw a couple weeks ago, was that the elders should be trained for the task, but are then also to train others for the task. The authority of the church was kept inside the church.
Neither Paul nor any of the Apostles ever hinted at some idea that there was supposed to be some governing structure outside each local church. In theological terms, we call that autonomy. We believe that each local church should be free to make its own decisions and govern itself, without some outside hierarchy stepping in.
Now, that doesn’t mean churches should ignore one another. The Bible gives examples of churches working together. But when that happens, it’s voluntary. They do it out of their own love and desire. That’s what’s happening whenever I meet with pastors from other churches, or when we partner with another church for something.
A second question that I think helps summarize the difference in leadership structures is this: How many people should be involved in the leadership? And the possibilities there are zero, one, or more than one?
Those who think the answer is zero are basically advocating for no formal leadership, and those are churches that we don’t hear a lot from. From my understanding, it’s a little hard to get a group like that very organized.
On the other hand, many, many pastors and churches today say the best answer is “one.” And some pastors feel very strongly about this position. Others, I think, have just inherited that idea from the church before them. They’ve never been exposed to these kinds of questions in theology.
Here at First Bilingual Baptist, and in many other churches, we believe that the picture the Bible paints for us is that the leadership of the church should be a group. That’s what we think churches should be aiming for and praying for. Sometimes, that’s called a plurality.
Having more than one person in leadership has its advantages, and maybe some drawbacks, but again, the most important criteria we want to use is the Bible. And the pattern we see in the Bible is that there are no examples given to us of a local church being led by a single pastor.
In fact, the word “elder” or “overseer” for church leadership is almost always used in the plural. You can see it in the singular when an Apostle is referring to himself, or when it’s talking about a potential elder or an elder in sin, but other than that, it’s in the plural.
Acts 14 says that Paul appointed elders (plural) in every church (singular). James 5:14 does the same. It mentions the elders (plural) of the church (singular).
So, the pattern we follow here at our church is to have the church be under the leadership of a plurality of elders.
That doesn’t mean we all do the exact same things. Or that subjectively we all have the exact same impact in the church. But it means that we all share responsibility for the health and strength and direction of our church. And when we meet as elders, it means that no elder has authority over the other elders. It’s not one man making all the decisions, and the rest of us trying to make it happen.
I don’t think that a church with only one pastor is necessarily in sin, but I do think that it’s missing something of the joy and the effectiveness of having multiple leaders share that responsibility together.
First Peter 5:4 says that Jesus is the chief Shepherd of the church. He has full authority. And His desire, expressed by the Spirit, through the Apostles, is that the local church be led by a group of Shepherds, a group of pastors.
Now, all that is dealing primarily with the structure, or we could call it the method. How does Jesus intend His church to be led? By a group of elders. That’s the method.
But we could also answer that question, not just with the method, but with the manner, or, we could say, the attitude. How does Jesus intend His church to be led? What kind of attitude?
That’s what I want to focus on today. Last week was about the responsibilities of the elders. Today is going to focus on the heart of the elders.
And similar to last week, I want to say that these lessons aren’t just for elders. All of us are called to pursue and develop these kinds of attitudes in our lives. Whether you’re in leadership or not, we’re all called to reflect the heart of Jesus Christ. This is also a timely message for those of us who are going to be serving this year as FLG leaders. We want to have the proper heart.
Now, since we’re dealing specifically with elders, I want us to go back to Acts chapter 20. This is the same passage we looked at last week. Acts 20:18.
Just to remind you, this is a farewell message from the Apostle Paul to the elders (again, plural) of a singular church in Ephesus. And Paul sets himself as an example of a Christ-honoring shepherd.
We’re not going to work our way through the entire passage, but what I want to do is pick out the heart attitudes and just have us meditate on them. Let’s read verses 18 and 19—And when they came to him, he said to them: "You yourselves know how I lived among you the whole time from the first day that I set foot in Asia, 19serving the Lord with all humility and with tears and with trials that happened to me through the plots of the Jews;
The first quality we see is a humble compassion. A Christ-honoring shepherd, or leader, is a person marked by a humble compassion. Humble compassion. What does that mean?
Humility has to do with the way you see yourself and the way you present yourself. Humility means there is a kind of lowliness or modesty in the way you think about yourself and the way you present yourself.
One Greek-English dictionary says that humility is “a deep sense of one’s littleness.” How do you get that? You don’t get a deep sense of your littleness by comparing yourself to others. You get it by comparing yourself to God. A humble person recognizes their sinfulness before a holy God. They recognize that they don’t deserve the forgiveness they’ve been given. And they also recognize that they have been given a responsibility to carry out.
There is such a thing as a false humility. Jesus talked about the Pharisees putting on a distressed face whenever they fasted. But it was all a show. In the book of Colossians, Paul talks about a group devoted to asceticism or self-abasement. That’s talking about a false humility.
These were the people going around trying to make other people feel sorry for them, and hopefully it would also elevate them in the eyes of others. It’s like a flashing sign that says, “Pity me! Look how much I’m suffering for God!” That’s not true humility.
Another bad example of humility would be the opposite, which is pride or arrogance. We live in a culture where authority makes you feel entitled. “I’m in charge, so nobody better make me mad! You all better do exactly as I say!” That’s not humility, right?
Jesus condemned the Pharisees because, He said, they loved the place of honor at banquets. They loved the chief seats. They loved the elaborate and respectful greetings. And Jesus said, “Don’t do that… The greatest among you shall be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled; and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.”
He said the same thing about the Gentile rulers. They lord it over the rest.
The supreme example of humility and servitude was Jesus Christ. He said, “I did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give my life as a ransom for many.”
And that same humility that Jesus showed is exactly what we’re all called to show to one another. Philippians 2 describes how Jesus came down from heaven to be born as a baby, and to die on a cross. And Paul says, “Have that same attitude in yourselves. Don’t do anything from selfishness or conceit. Instead, with humility of mind, think of others as more important than yourself. Don’t just look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others.”
That applies to us parents, and it applies to us elders. Paul didn’t barge into a church saying: “Okay, everyone, I’m an Apostle of Jesus Christ. Listen to what I have to say!” No, he came as a slave. That’s how he saw himself.
Specifically, in First Peter 5, the Apostle Peter says to the elders of the church, “Shepherd the church, not in a domineering way, but serving as an example.”
The negative example would be a shepherd always standing behind the sheep, cracking the whip, making sure they all stay in line, barking at them.
One of my professors in seminary used to remind us, “Gentlemen, make sure you are a gentle shepherd, not a German Shepherd.”
What’s the heart of Jesus? Jesus had a heart of compassion. He walked among the sheep. And even when there’s some kind of discipline that needs to be done, it’s always done in love.
Speaking of the Messiah’s heart, Isaiah said: “A bruised reed he will not break, and a faintly burning wick he will not quench.”
Jesus has a tenderness for that which is delicate and fragile. He is not quick to put an end.
Following Jesus’ example Paul came into his churches, and even when the message was rejected, or when the people struggled to be obedient, it says there, he served the Lord with all humility and with tears. That’s a humble compassion, modeled after Jesus Christ.
A second characteristic for a Christ-honoring shepherd is a persevering stewardship. A persevering stewardship.
This is really an outflow of humility because it recognizes that we have been called to a task. We are slaves who have been sent. And no matter what the obstacles may be, we are called to accomplish the task.
The end of verse 19 talks about Paul’s tears and trials which came as a result of the plots of the Jews. Let’s keep reading in verses 20 and 21—I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, and teaching you in public and from house to house, 21testifying both to Jews and to Greeks of repentance toward God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.
Paul worked tirelessly. Everywhere he went, he gave them all he had. He taught in public. He taught in the houses. Sometimes, the people received the message. Other times, they rejected it. But he kept on teaching and preaching. That’s perseverance. He kept working hard.
How does your own life compare? How quickly do you give up when someone pushes back from the gospel? How easily do we all give up when we sense that a conversation is about to get awkward if we talk about Jesus, or our faith?
Paul didn’t seem to care what people thought of him. And that was because what he cared about was pleasing Jesus Christ. It didn’t matter if people rejected, and it didn’t matter if his own life was going to be in danger.
Verse 22—And now, behold, I am going to Jerusalem, constrained by the Spirit, not knowing what will happen to me there, 23except that the Holy Spirit testifies to me in every city that imprisonment and afflictions await me.
In other words, “I know that tough times are coming. I know I’m going to suffer if I proclaim the message of Jesus.” But, how does Paul combat those thoughts? Verse 24—[I’m going to suffer…] but I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God.
What does that mean? Paul wasn’t in charge of his own life. Who was in charge of his life? Jesus was! “All I want to do,” Paul says, “is compete the task Jesus has given me.” That’s called a stewardship. A steward is someone who is responsible to take care of something that doesn’t belong to them. They’re not the owner. But they are charged with doing whatever the owner wants.
We are all supposed to have that view in life. We are not the owners of our lives. Jesus made us. And if we’ve recognized our sin and the sacrifice Jesus paid for our sin, Jesus has redeemed us.
First Peter says “You were ransomed, not with silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ.” First Corinthians says “You have been bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body.”
For us Americans, this is a counter-cultural message. The American message is: “I’m in charge of my life. Give me liberty or give me death!” That’s part of the American Dream, right? “I can make my life what I want it to be!”
But whatever people imagine political or personal freedom to be, that is not what the Bible means when it says that we are free in Christ. I’ll tell you, I don’t consider myself to be anti-American or anti-military, but on occasion we will get bulletin covers from Lifeway, typically on Veteran’s Day or Memorial Day, and there’s a soldier or an American flag, and it has a verse like “For freedom, Christ set us free. Do not submit to a yoke of slavery.”
That verse is not talking about political freedom, or freedom from communism or any other kind of government. That’s talking about freedom from sin. Because of Jesus Christ, we are free from the penalty of sin and the power of sin in our life.
And that freedom from sin translates into a slavery for Jesus Christ. We are slaves of Christ, slaves for righteousness. And so, we are here to do what He wants, to pursue His mission.
And again, the perfect model of that attitude isn’t Paul. Paul was following Jesus. Jesus lived in dependency on the Father. And He said, “I only do what I see the Father doing. I only say what the Father tells me to say. I came to fulfill the mission for which the Father sent Me.” That was Jesus’ life.
He obeyed God all the way unto death. He is the Good Shepherd. In love and in obedience, He laid down His life. And we’re supposed to follow that example—as Christians, as parents, as husbands, and especially as elders.
Paul expressed the attitude of stewardship in First Corinthians 4 when he says, “We are servants of Christ. We are steward of the mysteries of God. And it is required of stewards that they be found faithful.” Do what the Lord has called you to do. And do it with a cheerful heart.
In First Peter 5, it says to the elders: “Don’t shepherd the church under compulsion. Don’t be a leader and a shepherd like it’s some kind of chore. Do it willingly! Do it with all your heart! Do it faithfully.” A Christ-honoring shepherd will be marked by a humble compassion and by a persevering stewardship.
Thirdly, a Christ-honoring shepherd will demonstrate a sharp watchfulness. A sharp watchfulness.
We looked at these verses last week, but let’s look at them again. Verses 28-31. And just notice the kind of attitude Paul is calling for—Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood. 29I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; 30and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them. 31Therefore be alert, remembering that for three years I did not cease night or day to admonish every one with tears.
Last week we said that the duty of the elders includes guarding the flock. Today, I just want to re-emphasize that by talking about the attitude of that watchfulness.
In verse 28, it says “Pay careful attention.” Verse 29 talks about fierce wolves. Verse 31 says “Be alert.”
How many times have you gone somewhere where there was a security guard? They’re at the grocery stores sometimes, or at the mall. Well, their job is to be vigilant, but it has its limits. They’re limited in how they can respond to some kind of a threat.
But compare the attitude of a run-of-the-mill security guard with a soldier posted at the front lines watching for the enemy. That’s a whole different level. That is life or death. You can’t afford to fall asleep there. Lives are at stake, or nations.
Jesus wants his elders to be vigilant, to be watchful. That doesn’t minimize their love or their compassion. In fact, it’s an extension of it.
I love my kids. So, if we’re ever in some crowded, public place, I watch them, right? I’m watching what’s going on. Because I love them.
Elders should be watching over their sheep, and the particular emphasis here is the threat of false doctrine. In other words, elders care what the sheep believe. We’re not just interested in behavior management. We’re interested in motives.
Maybe the most well-behaved sheep is actually some kind of a legalist, thinking their good behavior is earning them points for heaven. We don’t want that.
Or if someone is in some kind of distress, we want to make sure they have a good understanding of things like God’s sovereignty, or the true blessing of the Christian life. If you have a warped view on that, it’s going to really hurt you, and we don’t want that.
Sometimes, being a watchful shepherd will also mean being willing to have a sheep get upset with you. You might warn them about a potential problem with a habit, or with a friendship, or even with a teacher on the radio or TV. And they may not like what you have to say. Well, if our job is to protect the sheep, we need to be willing to be disliked sometimes, as long as we’re acting in love and are motivated by obedience to Christ and the best interest of the flock.
We’ve got one final quality for today, and then we’ll be done. And this will be brief because we’re about out of time. A Christ-honoring shepherd will be marked by a humble compassion, a persevering stewardship, a sharp watchfulness, and finally, a generous contentment. A generous contentment.
This is what Paul describes in verses 33-35—I coveted no one's silver or gold or apparel.  You yourselves know that these hands ministered to my necessities and to those who were with me.  In all things I have shown you that by working hard in this way we must help the weak and remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he himself said, 'It is more blessed to give than to receive.'
Paul was not in this for the money. Neither was Jesus, right? And in many churches, I’m pretty sure the elders aren’t in it for the money. But we should always examine our motives and ask ourselves, “Why are we in this? What are we after?”
Maybe we don’t do it for the money. But are we doing it for the prestige? Are we doing it for the notoriety? Are we doing it for the social status? Are we doing it because we like bossing other people around? Those are just different kinds of greed, different kinds of coveting.
The answer to greed is contentment. In Philippians 4, Paul says, “I have learned to be content in whatever situation. He learned contentment. Whether it was a time of abundance or a time of hunger, Paul was content. It’s in that context, that Paul says, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.”
True contentment is not found in being complacent. It’s found in Jesus Christ—the Son of Man who had nowhere to lay His head, but endured all things for the joy set before Him.
Paul’s heart in following after Jesus, was what he says in verse 35— to work hard and to help the weak. He made sure that the character of his ministry was: “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” That’s generosity. That’s the heart of Jesus.
We all need to learn this, but the elders are the one who set the pace. And our prayer is that God would grow us all in this area.
We can give money. We can give time. We can give energy. We can give a lot of things. But no matter what we’re giving, the heart of God is to give with generosity and contentment. “It is more blessed to give than to receive.”
For those of us who are elders, I hope this promise is a boost of encouragement and a boost of energy, when we’re struggling to give what we believe God would have us give. God will bless us. God will reward us.
Let me just close with one passage along those lines from First Peter chapter 5. You can turn there with me if you like. We’ve already mentioned a couple of the verses here, and you’ll see this idea of contentment as well.
Look with me at First Peter 5, verse 2. This is the charge to the elders—shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly;  not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock.  And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory.
If we do our job faithfully, not just in terms of the duties, but also in terms of our heart, our attitude, Jesus Christ will reward us. The purest heart of a shepherd is to lovingly serve the church as an expression of loving worship to Jesus Christ.