Why does a church need elders? How important are they to the life of the church? Acts 20:28–32 helps us see how God expects them to function, and how you and I benefit from their work.
Who are the elders? The office began in the Old Testament. Jethro sees his son-in-law, Moses, overwhelmed by his responsibility in leading and judging, and recommends selecting elders to judge the people. That practice was carried on in more or less formal ways throughout the Old Testament. The office became particularly important at the time of the exile as synagogue worship replaced temple worship—following the destruction of the temple. So when Paul on his missionary journeys planted churches, he soon arranged for the selection and establishment of elders in those churches, Acts 14:23. The Bible sometimes refers to them as overseers or bishops.
Elders are kingdom officers. At the time of Moses, God was establishing his people as a theocracy—God was the ultimate King. Elders were a crucial element in the Lord’s rule over his people. As you read on in the Pentateuch you read the laws and procedures that the elders and other leaders were to apply as they led God’s people in his ways. When priests and kings became corrupt and degenerated into false shepherds, the Lord promised to raise up good shepherds (Jeremiah 23:4–5), culminating in the Good Shepherd, to care for his flock. Here, in the context of exhorting the Ephesian elders, Paul refers to his own preaching of the kingdom, proclaiming the whole counsel of God. Read Paul’s pastoral epistles. As the time came for the apostles to pass on, God did not leave his church without guidance. He gave her the Word, the Scriptures, and he gave her godly elders and deacons, officers to teach, apply, and administer the Word of God.
“Jeremiah 23:4 predicts a plurality of faithful shepherds, replacing Israel’s unfaithful kings and priests. The fulfillment of this promise is the body of elders or overseers now given to the church, charged by Paul here and by Peter in 1 Peter 5:2 to shepherd the flock of God—to feed, protect, and discipline God’s people for their growth in grace. Through such shepherds, Jesus, the chief Shepherd, now cares for his sheep.” (Dennis E. Johnson, Let’s Study Acts, p. 255).Dennis E. Johnson, Let’s Study Acts, p. 255
And even in the heavenly scene in Revelation 4 we find elders around the throne. You have a voice in choosing your elders. You vote. But remember that they are not your representatives. Their authority come from King Jesus. Paul speaks of the Holy Spirit as having made the Ephesian elders overseers of the flock.
What should the elders do? Keep watch over yourselves. In Acts 20 Paul is eager to avoid delays on his way to Jerusalem—but he specifically asks the elders of the church in Ephesus to meet him on the beach. It is not only a moving farewell, but Paul is encouraging and strengthening them for their work. He begins by telling them to keep watch over each other. That’s not only personal self-examination, though that is included. It is a mutual shepherding of one another. It involves being accountable to one another. That’s one of the reasons for the plurality of elders. Elders, if you go astray, how can the flock be kept out of danger? Significantly, the elders have to beware of wolves coming from among themselves.
Keep watch over the flock. This flock is precious, because God purchased it with his own blood. (Paul touches on the mystery of the incarnation, the Good Shepherd who is both God and man, who is the Shepherd because he is also the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.) We are all sheep—and as pervasive as that imagery is in the Scriptures, remember that it is not a compliment to us. Sheep can be foolish, headstrong, wandering, tending to get lost. Elders, your work will be challenging at times—but your Shepherd, who is utterly faithful, calls you to be faithful. You are not exercising your own authority. You can only do what Paul did, proclaim the whole counsel of God as you teach and lead.
“While it is true that the imminent false teaching was to be a local problem, it is also implicit that the function of the overseers to guard the Ephesian church from error is a function also for elders in every church, since the reference to the Ephesian church is generalized by ‘the church of God which he purchases with his own blood’ (v. 28).” (G. K. Beale, A New Testament Biblical Theology, p. 823)(G. K. Beale, A New Testament Biblical Theology, p. 823)
What should the flock do? Pay attention to your elders. Respond positively, willingly, to what the Apostle told the elders to do. Listen to them. Christ speaking in his Word is the final authority, but as the elders apply that Word to you and your situation, pay attention. Hebrews 13:17 reminds you to make the work of the elders a joyful one—not just for their sake, but for yours as well.
Keep moving towards your goal. As Paul exhorts the Ephesian elders, he points them towards the goal. They, and the flock they are leading, are journeying towards the inheritance among all who are sanctified. And they reach it by the Word of God’s grace. God, by his powerful Holy Spirit, uses the Word to build you up, to preserve you, and to bring you to glory.
“And now he [Paul] was leaving them; they could no longer count upon his personal presence for such pastoral guidance and wise admonition. But, though Paul might go, God was ever with them, and so was God’s word which they had received—the word that proclaimed His grace in redeeming them and His grace in sanctifying them. To God, then, and to this word of His, Paul solemnly committed them.”F. F. Bruce, The Book of Acts, NICNT, p. 417
We know that Paul did not expect to see the Ephesians again. How that worked out we don’t know. But whether or not they ever saw Paul again, they were entrusted to the faithful God of grace. And as you, the church of Jesus Christ, move forward into an unknown and increasingly challenging world, you have the same faithful Good Shepherd watching over you.
To elders, watch over yourselves and over the flock which the Holy Spirit has entrusted to you. To you, the church of Jesus Christ, pay attention, respond joyfully, to the men the Lord is using to help you in your Christian walk. And together keep your eyes on the inheritance which the Lord has in store for all of those who love him.