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Acts 20:17-38 (part 1) 31.05.20
I am now reading the book “The Rise of Christianity” by sociologist Rodney Stark. He says that 300 years after Jesus, 30 million of the Roman world’s 60 million people were Christians. More than half.
Reading the story of the book of Acts, that would be no surprise. What begins with a handful of men in a backroom in a back street in the backwater of Jerusalem soon explodes.
3,000 more a few weeks later. Than 2,000 more. Then people in other parts of Judea. Then Samaria, Syria, Africa. Then Cyprus, and Turkey. Then into Europe, to Greece. Within 25 years, churches in most major cities, and dozens of towns. Spearheaded by this man Paul.
The flag of Jesus is flying in churches all over the place. There are even Christians in Caesar’s own palace in Rome.
Getting churches started is only the start. What will these churches be like, 5, 10, 40 years after they have been planted, if the flag of Jesus is to fly powerfully in all these places?
We get a good picture of that in Acts 20:17-38. Paul is with elders from the church of Ephesus. This is the last time they will ever hear his voice. You don’t waste final words. What do these men really need to hear?
What do we really need to hear at Trinity Church, as we re-launch after the coronavirus lockdown? As we come to the end of our first 40 years in August, and renew ourselves for the next 40?
What is written here is so important, we want to take 2 Sundays to learn from them. Here’s the plan.
If you had to describe what marriage is, you could talk about its shape or form – it is the union of one man and woman for life. Or you could talk its inside DNA – it is the loving commitment in head and heart of a man and a woman.
Today we are talking about the church from the outside. Next week, the DNA of the church, church from the inside.
What does a church look like?
This is the shortest and simplest of our 4 features about what a church looks like. Gatherings gather. Assemblies assemble.
That’s the plain meaning of the word ‘church’. You may remember when Paul came to Ephesus, there was a riot stirred up by the idol-makers there. People rushed together into that beautiful arena in Ephesus. How shall you describe that mass of people? Luke uses the word ‘church’ because it was an assembly or gathering of people.
When the town clerk was trying to quieten the mob, he promised that charges against Paul could be held in “the regular assembly” (19:39) … at the next meeting or gathering of the city council.
That is why there is no such thing as the Anglican Church, or the Presbyterian Church of Australia … or ‘the Australian church’. There are Australian churches, and Presbyterian Churches, which meet or assemble. If it doesn’t gather, it’s not church.
Just words? No, because if we don’t know what church is, then we’ll give honour to the wrong thing. We’ll prioritise something that is an organisation or unreal, rather than the gathering of the people of God.
Gathering is at the heart of what we do as church. That is why in this time of coronavirus lockdown, we know in our heads that something is seriously wrong with not being able to meet. That is why in our hearts we are so keen to be together again, because assembling, or meeting is an essential part of the shape of the church.
These men meeting with Paul at Miletus, 12 kilometres from their home in Ephesus are elders in the church there. Not officials of a denomination. Not part of “the Turkish church”. They care for the gathering that physically meets in a physical place.
Verse 28 is the key sentence in his sermon to them. “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.”
Paul calls that little gathering of believers in Ephesus “the church of God”? Not part of the church of God, not something less than the church of God. It IS the church of God. Does it have its faults? Yes. Without the high flying leaders other churches have? Yes. Without a grand history? Yes. That assembly in Ephesus is “the church of God”.
Rotary Clubs, sporting teams and the Boy Scouts gather. What makes the church of God more than just one more hobby group?
The church of Jesus belongs to God in a special way. It alone is paid for, redeemed and secured “with his own blood”.
If you’ve got $150 million, you might be able to buy you the Pink Diamond. $20 billion might buy you Woolworths, and $700 billion Facebook. What price on the church of Jesus? The life of Jesus. The life of inestimable worth, the blood of the eternal God.
If that’s the out-of-this world-price, then this gathering in the name of Jesus is of inestimable worth and because it is bought by God, the Lord Jesus, with his own blood, he owns it in a unique way. It is the “church OF GOD”.
That is why it is a deadly serious mistake for leaders to use a church for their own financial benefit, or for fame. Or for any group of people in the church to imagine they can form the church their way, or set its agenda. It doesn’t belong to any of us, for us to use.
That is why it is a deadly serious mistake when people outside try to belittle or destroy any redeemed church. They are poking a stick at “the church of God”, “the apple of his eye”.
In our world everything belongs to Jesus by creation. The church of God however, belongs to him by redemption. It is bought in a way that nothing else is, and belongs to him in a way that nothing else does.
So, God gathers the church … and he owns it.
We don’t know any of these elders from the church of God in Ephesus by name. What can we say about them?
As well as being called ‘elders’, which is the most commonly used word in the New Testament to describe church leaders, they are called also by two other words in verse 28.
Paul refers to them as “overseers” of the flock – it’s the Greek word we usually translate as ‘bishops’. He says they are to “care for” the church – the word is they are to “pasture” or ‘pastor’ the flock.
So do we call them elders, bishops or pastors? Take your pick, or use a different word, if you like.
What matters is knowing that churches are not pastored and cared for and protected by a guy in a denominational office somewhere. They are not led by a state assembly or convention. Each church is to be led by men who are part of that church. These men, appointed by the Holy Spirit, set the pace and care for the church.
I guess Paul or someone else appointed them. How did he know who the Holy Spirit was making elders? They were like Paul.
Was Paul perfect? Of course not, but he got enough right that he can hold himself as a pattern of what matters for church leaders: integrity of character, industrious and inventive, a servant of the revealed Word of God, focussed on Jesus.
Trinity Church has never had a perfect elder but Jesus has given us some wonderful men to lead us in the past – and now. Look at Neil and Peter and Warwick and Ross. Givers, not takers. Committed to the whole word of God. Inventive, industrious and insightful. Not big noting themselves, but knowing they serve in GOD’S church.
Shall we call new elders? I hope so. They had better be men seeking to be like Paul. They are the ones the Holy Spirit appoints.
Elders in churches like ours do a hundred things. Along with others, they welcome visitors, pick up litter, stack chairs, ensure the safety of little kids, and organise things. It’s part of being in the family.
During the coronavirus lockdown, church leaders have done some new things, from trying to livestream sermons and put other things on line, and work out ways to hold people together – and now to work out what we are going to look like from here on.
None of those things, however, is front and centre. What was the big deal for Paul in Syria, Cyprus, Turkey and Greece? He was a preacher, a talker, an explainer, a debater, a declarer of what he calls here “the gospel of the grace of God” and “the whole counsel of God”.
That’s what he always did wherever he could. In market places, private homes, public halls, synagogues … at night and by day.
Why? Because apart from the serious teaching of the Word of God, whatever else is planted, it is not “the church of God”. Whatever else church leaders do, if they do not do that, they are not overseeing the flock or feeding the sheep.
Brothers and sisters, we live in a wider culture which would be happy if we focussed on looking after homeless kids or making people feel good. Majoring on a 2,000 year old book – speaking values that just don’t fit in the world of 2020? You’ve got to be kidding. Why don’t your leaders do something useful?
It’s God’s church, remember. Redeemed at the highest price possible. He sets the agenda. Not the leaders. Not the members. Not the culture. What is that agenda in a real church? The teaching and the hearing of God’s Word is front and centre.
Maybe you are thinking that was okay for Paul who was just a little obsessive. In any case, isn’t he simply describing what he did? Yes, he is, but he is saying what he did so that Tom, Dick and Harry, elders at the Ephesus assembly, will know what they should be and do.
There are some things that only an apostle does. But there are parts to the life and work of this apostle, that are a pattern for every church leader in every real church everywhere.
What will our Church look like from outside, if members and elders, take seriously what God has written here for us? Let me finish off with a checklist, against which you can test where you are:
The church, this church, belong to Jesus, for he bought it with his blood. By giving us bishops/pastors/elders, he cares for and feeds and oversees us. How? Primarily as those men press the whole counsel of God upon us.
Is there more to the shape of a gospel church? Yes. But there is not less – and nothing else that is more important.
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