The New Testament is very aware that churches can end up with leaders who abuse their position. Paul reflects on this topic in our verses, as he gives his final speech to the elders from the church in Ephesus (Ac 20:17). He does so because he knows this key church will face some hard tests in the not-too-distant future. So Paul prepares her leaders with vital advice.
Seriousness is the first point to note from him. The apostle tells the elders to be vigilant in the task the Holy Spirit has given them (v28). In the time of Moses, some received the Spirit so they could build the tabernacle precisely to the Lord’s requirements (Ex 35:30-36:1). Now the church is the Lord’s temple (1Co 3:16) and so its leaders must take the work equally seriously, as Paul did (Ac 20:26). What is the nature of their work? To be overseers (sometimes translated as ‘bishop’ but not in the modern sense) who shepherd God’s highly valuable flock, purchased at a very high price: the blood of the Lord. But what does that mean? The OT can help us understand.
Israel’s worship was full of blood due to the many animal sacrifices she offered. But why did God build that practice into her culture? It was a ceremonial reminder of human rebellion – our sin – against God. Elsewhere, Paul says ‘the wages of sin is death’ (Ro 6:23) and Israel’s animal sacrificing worship shouted that out, all the time. Of course, for millennia human beings have survived by killing other creatures, whether for safety, land, clothing or food. Though we were made to rule the animals (Ge 1:28), our sin turned nature into a fearful and deadly place (Ge 6:12; 9:2,5,6). To restrain the violence, God permitted humanity to enjoy eating the animals, if it was done respectfully (Ge 9:3,4). But this was not how things were at the start. The killing came due to sin. Israel’s blood-stained worship solemnly remembered that as people approached God.
The animal sacrifices, however, also pointed towards God’s solution for sin. The sacrifices went on day after day because sin’s wages had to be constantly paid out (He 10:11). But could a sacrifice be found which completed the payment, bringing the deaths to an end? Yes: Jesus’ on the cross (He 10:10,12). Our sin brought the wages of death; Jesus said ‘pay me!’ So all the sin of all his people fell onto him, with deadly consequences, to save his people from death. Jesus’ sacrifice ended the relentless cycle of death, thus giving his people eternal life. But why could Jesus offer to do this? Because he’s the Son of God (He 1:1-3) who is without sin (1Jo 3:5). When Paul speaks, then, of God’s ‘own blood’ (v28) as being the price of His people, he is building upon all this to remind the elders how highly they must value the church.
So the elders have to take their work seriously. But what should that lead them do? Serve. All churches have unseen enemies (Ep 6:11-13), who often attack by bringing in trouble-makers and abusive leaders (v29, 30). The elders are to be the very opposite of such power-hungry charlatans. Church leaders are given to fulfil God’s plans (Ac 20:24,27) and so must guard their hearts against any inclinations to promote themselves (Lu 22:24-26). Their example is Jesus who (as God’s king) teaches, rebukes, warns, disciplines and commands, yet never in order to boost his own ego. Rather, his work is done to protect and feed the flock, so that his Father’s plans are brought to fruition. Paul certainly followed Jesus’ example, pouring himself out for the sake of the church (v31); the Ephesian leaders must do the same. Hence, Paul prays that they will focus upon God and all He has done for them (v32). If they do, then they will gain an ‘inheritance among [the] sanctified’, meaning that they will be made ready to live eternally in God’s home and family.
Paul’s advice isn’t finished, however, since to serve in this way the elders must be committed to self-denial (v33). With all his gifts, the apostles could have exploited his position to gain a comfortable lifestyle. He would not, however, let himself be pulled in that way. Though it is right for a church to support its leaders financially (1Co 9:11,12), Paul took no pay so as to resist all temptations, or even appearances, of evil. Instead, he undertook manual work (v34) and made himself an example of giving, which Jesus promised would bring delightful blessing (v35). Paul has found this to be true, as is visible at this meeting in the evident love the believers have for the apostle (v36-38). Such bonds of fellowship are what all church leaders should truly desire. The blessing of Christian love is truly a great reward (Lu 16:9) and pleasing to Christ (Jo 15:17).