Our text today could be approached in a variety of ways. The dullest and most useless would be merely to explore the travelogue Luke gives of the final stages of Paul’s second missionary journey on his way to Jerusalem! Maps aren’t terribly stimulating.
One that some of you might enjoy would be a sermon about your soul‑mate. Or about Eutychus. Remember him? He’s the bored little boy who had to listen to a long‑winded sermon by Paul in a hot third‑story room and went to sleep on a windowsill and fell out of the window.
I think it would be more profitable for you and safer for me for us to focus on the prominent theme of leadership in this chapter.
The Leadership Issue in Acts of the Apostles
The subject of leadership has comes up several times in the book of Acts. For example, we have the seven deacons who were appointed at Jerusalem. When a potential problem arose over a ministry to care for the widows in that first congregation, the apostles wisely challenged the church to seek out some leaders who could see that the job got done. The apostles already had a ministry, didn’t think they had to be in charge of everything, and were willing for the joy of service to the Lord to be shared with others.
Here is Luke’s record of what happened:
"So the Twelve gathered all the disciples together and said, >It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables. Brothers, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word’" (Acts 6:2‑4).
There are three basic qualifications that should be in everyone’s job description that leads worship, teaches Sunday school, greets visitors, or is a church leader.
First, he or she must have a good reputation within the believing community and before outsiders "Choose seven . . . who are known . . .").
Second, that person must be "full of the Spirit" and exhibiting the fruit of the Spirit in his or her daily behavior.
And, third, a leader must be "full of . . . wisdom."
This qualification has less to do with education and quoting Bible verses than with godly insight about how to apply the truth to real‑life situations and how to treat people with respect. These are fundamental principles to leadership in the kingdom of God. Those of us who exercise leadership in the church in any setting must hold one another accountable to these three things.
This text brings us back to the subject of leadership in a very direct way. It is counsel to a specific order of church leaders (i.e., elders) about their work. Before looking at that counsel, let’s think about the broader issue of being a spiritual leader.
Who Is a "Leader"?
A leader is someone going somewhere who is able to share such a compelling vision of the destination that others are persuaded to go there too.
This definition is important enough that I want us to work with it briefly before going to the issues Paul raised with the shepherds of the church at Ephesus. Did you hear the definition carefully? It offers two significant insights.
"A leader is someone going somewhere . . ." There are lots of confused and aimless people in this world. Lives are being wasted because those people have not discovered the reason God put them on Planet Earth.
Let’s see how you do with this one. Will you answer a few questions to yourself?
Who are you? What is your life calling? What is the guiding ambition of your life?
Somebody answers, "I’m John Doe, and I’m a lawyer. My ambition is to further the establishment of justice in our social order and to make an honest and good living from my work."
Somebody else says, "I’m Sue Smith, and I’m a teacher. The passion of my life is to teach children to use the English language to communicate well."
Still another says, "I’m Betty Brown, and I’m a mother. My purpose in living is to make my child healthy, get him a good education, and teach him how to be a responsible adult."
Or Pastor Henry says, "I’m Richard Henry, and I’m a preacher. My ambition is to make our church the biggest church in the area."
Those are all pretty lame answers. Buddhists, Christians, New Agers, Mormons, Jehovah Witnesses, and atheists - any of them could give essentially the same answers. The atheist wouldn’t be too interested in helping a church do anything, but he could say that he wants his plant or office or neighborhood to be the biggest or best something‑or‑other.
There’s not one of those answers that is distinctly Christian. There are gazillions of people who have given these answers in good faith at some time in the past who are today despondent and suicidal over their lives, who consume alcohol and drugs, lives a promiscuous life, or seeks wealth to dull their unbearable pain, or who have switched jobs, towns, and marriages several times already trying to "find happiness."
These people can’t be leaders. They don’t even know where they are going. They sure can’t guide somebody else into finding the meaning of life, a sense of personal well‑being, and spiritual peace.
Christians know who they are - We are the Father’s beloved sons and daughters, We are the Son’s blood‑bought kingdom of priests, We are the Holy Spirit’s living temple in whom He lives to strengthen, enable, and make us victorious in the face of life’s challenges.
Christians have a life calling - to know God, to experience him in all they do, and to use their skills, talents, and achievements for his honor.
Christians have an ambition that guides everything they do - to move forward toward the heavenly prize to which God has called them in Christ Jesus.
So let’s go back to those people who spoke before and hear them answer the questions put to them - this time answering as Christians.
John Doe says something like this:
"I am a sinner saved by God’s marvelous grace whose calling in life is to practice law to his glory. My ambition in life is to model the truth, integrity, and justice of God’s holy being as a member of the bar."
Or Sue Smith answers:
"I am a servant of the Lord Jesus Christ whose mission field is middle school students. The thing that thrills me every day is the chance to touch the heart and mold the character of some boy or girl who thought I was only going to try to teach English grammar in my classroom."
Or Betty Brown replies:
"Oh, I am the instrument of God’s Holy Spirit to lead my little boy to be a godly man who knows how to take his place confidently in the world. The prayer I pray a dozen times every day is that Jesus Christ will capture his heart through the home my husband and I are making for him."
And Pastor Henry better be able to say:
"I’m the fortunate man that God chose to teach the Word of God to the Family of God at our church. My prayerful concern every day I live is to teach the gospel fully and faithfully to this church and to do all within my power to model the message I preach by serving the congregation with all the strength God gives me."
The world doesn’t have a great quantity of people who know who they are and where they are going. Most people live such short‑sighted existences that they go berserk if they lose their money, lose their looks, lose their car, lose their health - as if any or all of those things were the meaning of their lives. Well, maybe they have been! And that’s why they come undone when they lose them.
But people who live 20,40,70, or 90 years of life here with the long‑term outlook of eternity and for the sake of holiness to the Lord keep their aim and wits.
So long as they have Christ, they have everything they need.
Anybody that clear about life’s meaning can say with Paul:
Acts 20:24 However, I consider my life worth nothing to me, if only I may finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me the task of testifying to the gospel of God's grace. (NIV)
Anybody that clear about their reason for being in the world is capable of leading because they knows where they are going. What did Paul say on this same subject - in jail and about to die for his faith at Rome - in the last epistle he wrote?
2 Timothy 1:12 That is why I am suffering as I am. Yet I am not ashamed, because I know whom I have believed, and am convinced that he is able to guard what I have entrusted to him for that day. (NIV)
Anybody that clear about himself will get a following, for the world wants to see someone who is walking with a confident stride.
"A leader is someone going somewhere who is able to share such a compelling vision of the destination that others are persuaded to go there too."
Lawyers, schoolteachers, mothers, preachers, teacher, individuals - anyone can be a leader for Jesus Christ. The person who lives with a clear confidence in God’s love and Christ’s blood and the Spirit’s daily presence will have people tagging along behind just to smell the sweet aroma of such a life.
Then they will begin to duplicate it in specific ways. Finally they will discover that the person’s secret is not self‑contained, and they will embrace the cross, accept eternal life, and have a reason for their own existence in the world.
Now that they know where they are going, they begin to lead others. Then those lead others . . . Well, you get the point. The process duplicates itself until the Lord comes back.
These leaders are like cities set on hills to guide pilgrims in the dark night. They are the salt of the earth. Their presence in any home or office or neighborhood or classroom is like leaven in a lump of dough. And that is how God does his work in the world.
Paul’s Charge to Leaders
Paul was rushing to get to Jerusalem before the Feast of Pentecost, so he
Acts 20:16 . . . sailed past Ephesus to avoid spending time in the province of Asia, for he was in a hurry to reach Jerusalem, if possible, by the day of Pentecost. (NIV)
He loved and was loved by so many in Ephesus that he knew he could not keep his schedule and go there. Yet he did want one final contact with the church with which he had invested three years of his life. So he sent a messenger from Miletus to Ephesus - about thirty‑five miles away - to ask the church’s elders to come to him. It wasn’t simply that he wanted to see them for a social visit.
He wanted to encourage them in their role as church overseers, models, and protectors. He wanted to lead them through a short "leadership seminar" before leaving the region for Jerusalem.
First, Paul admonished them to feed the church with sound and consistent teaching of the gospel. Using his own history among them for instructive purposes, he reminded them that he had taught repentance toward God and faith in the Lord Jesus to the Ephesians
Acts 20:21 I have declared to both Jews and Greeks that they must turn to God in repentance and have faith in our Lord Jesus. (NIV)
Churches don’t need leaders with personal agendas, hobbyhorses, or imbalance in their theology. They need leaders who feed a "balanced diet" from the Word of God that will produce growth and maturity among the hearers.
Second, he solemnly charged them to guard the flock of God’s people under their pastoral oversight. He warned of "savage wolves" that would come in and try to subvert the work of God among them (Acts 20:28‑29).
Acts 20:28-29 Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood. 29 I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. 30 Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them.
And he said to them:
31 So be on your guard! Remember that for three years I never stopped warning each of you night and day with tears. (NIV)
These false teachers might be motivated by a variety of motives. Some were simply false teachers spreading heresy in the church. Certainly the Judaizers who tended to trail Paul with their message of legalistic righteousness were distorting the truth. Even before he spoke to the elders from Ephesus, Paul had written to the churches of Galatia about those false teachers to say their message was another gospel from his that brought condemnation rather than life (Gal. 1:8‑9).
Galatians 1:8-9 But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned! 9 As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let him be eternally condemned! (NIV)
Later there would be other doctrinal dangers Paul saw for the church:
"The Spirit clearly says that in later times some will abandon the faith . . . They forbid people to marry and order them to abstain from certain foods, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and who know the truth" (1 Tim. 4:1‑5; cf. 2 Tim. 4:3‑4).
Others would subvert the gospel for the sake of money and ego (i.e., power). The tentmaker‑apostle reminded these church shepherds that he had never "coveted anyone’s silver or gold or clothing" and had, instead, worked to support himself and his co‑workers who helped in establishing the church at Ephesus.
Third, Paul urged the elders from Ephesus to model unselfish service among their fellow‑believers. "In everything I did," he reminded them, "I showed you that by this kind of hard work we must help the weak, remembering the words the Lord Jesus himself said: >It is more blessed to give than to receive’" (Acts 20:35).
Although the world’s model is different, the Christian leadership model says that people can lead only to the degree they are willing to serve others. Servant leadership is the only kind of leadership there is or can be in the kingdom of God.
Fourth, Paul surely left no doubt in the minds of these men that it was their duty to replace themselves in the Ephesians’ church. These men did not constitute a "closed club" within the church. Their leadership was not to be exercised by making decisions behind locked doors but by modeling and mentoring others in the habits of Christ.
Buildings deteriorate, programs lose effectiveness, and circumstances change needs. But investing in the spiritual growth and development of other believers is always the right things for leaders to do. Paul would later write this to Timothy:
"The things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable men who will also be qualified to teach other" (2 Tim. 2:2).
Good leaders are always training others to take their place in leadership.
True leaders entrust others with responsibility and the right to make decisions. They multiply their effectiveness by spotting and training others who can be leaders. And they don’t feel threatened by people who have even greater ability than them. They affirm and nurture those people for the sake of the kingdom. They understand that "a leader’s first duty is to train more leaders."
In your home, your workplace, or in this church, be someone who is going somewhere and whose confident stride is in a direction that will inspire others to go along with you. Walk in the light. Travel the highway of holiness. Move determined in the direction of the heavenly calling you have received. I can guarantee that others will want to walk with you.
No home, workplace, or church can rise above the spiritual level of its leaders. That is the way things are because God has arranged it so. It is his plan to accomplish his kingdom through human leadership. The Holy Spirit ministers his spiritual gifts to people through people. And you dear brothers and sister are those people.
A little church-yard in France where a beautiful statue of Jesus with outstretched arms once stood. During World War II, a bomb struck nearby and broke the statue to pieces. When the fighting had passed the village, members of the little church set about to find the pieces of the statue and to reconstruct it.
As they patiently set about their task, even the scars seemed to add to its beauty in their eyes. But, to their dismay, the fragile hands had been pulverized. "A Christ without hands is no Christ at all!" someone said sadly. Indeed, we want Christ’s tender, ministering hands outstretched to us! So someone suggested that they try to get a new statue. Then another person in the group came up with the idea that prevailed. He suggested that a brass plaque be attached to the statue’s base that would read: "I have no hands but yours." Years later someone saw that statue and its inscription and wrote these lines:
I have no hands but your hands to do my work today.
I have no feet but your feet to lead men on the way.
I have no tongues but your tongue to tell men how I died.
I have no help but your help to bring men to God’s side.
So clear your own head on this point, and resolve to follow God’s leadership by honoring those among us he raises up to be our leaders. Get your personal bearings. Know where you are headed. Carry through in your personal devotion to the Lord. Be his hands, feet, and tongue to bring people to God’s side. And do not be surprised to find that you are leading now! That is God’s plan, and you have become part of his purpose in the world.