Acts 20:7-38 by Robert Dean
Why would any young man turn down a chance for fame and fortune to follow a path that leads to suffering and persecution? Listen as the Apostle Paul delivers a stirring farewell message to pastors encouraging them to communicate the Word of God and not go off course or give up. See how he lays out the way that the pastor must address people in terms of their thinking and strengthen them to face the challenges of life. Discover that there is a colossal future inheritance for those who produce divine good that far outweighs the rewards of any career path in this world.

Warning of Wolves
Acts 20:7-38

One thing about Christianity that is contrary to some of the popular presentations we have today is that God doesn't guarantee that we are going to have a life of ease, a life of comfort, a life without adversity and challenge, and even a life without persecution. In the 200 years of this nation's history, because of our freedom and a lack of persecution, that Christians have become very lax in terms of understanding the fact that in most of history in most of the world Christians have been in very hostile environments. If trends continue to accelerate the way they have in the past twenty or thirty years there are some of us here that may indeed see some real persecution. We already see indications of that in different things that are going around today. Most of us are aware of legislation related to hate speech, the hostility that comes against Christians because of our belief that homosexuality is sin, that homosexual marriage is sin, and because of various other positions that we take, and so we are often viewed as the enemy. As we become more and more of a minority in the USA this gives freedom to those who oppose us to be more and more vocal.

I have talked to a variety of legislators and others within politics who are committed, consistent Christians and have promoted legislation that is consistent with Christianity and they tell me horror stories about the death threats, the threats to their families, threats of horrible wicked things that come to them day in and day out because they take a stand for the truth. There is in many areas of this nation genuine antagonism and hostility to us simply because we are Christians. If that becomes known then we are the targets of these people.

The same thing was true in the ancient world. The apostle Paul met this same thing again and again. But one thing that gave a foundation to his whole life is stated very clearly in the principle behind Romans 12:1 NASB "Therefore I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, {which is} your spiritual service of worship." When Paul says that he tells us that we are to present our bodies, and what he means by that is not the body. He is talking about the whole person, because where your body goes you go. "Present our bodies" is an ongoing thing. It is not a one-shot decision; it emphasizes a priority. This has the idea of sacrifice. Some people get the wrong-headed notion that sacrifice always means that you feel like you're giving up something. I don't think the apostle Paul ever felt like he was giving up anything. The idea of sacrifice is giving something of value to God. It means you are giving yourself for His will, not your will. This is exactly where Paul goes in the next verse.

We are to give our lives to serve the Lord. That is the purpose for the Christian life—one of the many purposes, but that is the over-arching purpose. We are saved to serve God. We are not saved to serve our self-indulgent little whims and desires. We are not saved to live a comfortable life of prosperous life. We have been saved to serve God, whatever that involves. And whatever it involves it is going to be a life that is exciting. There may be times when we are a little overwhelmed by what is going on but if you talk to people who are missionaries, who are pastors, who are believers who have grown to spiritual maturity and are really involved in serving the Lord, they realize that their lives are vastly different from what they would have been like if they had taken another path. We are called for a purpose, and that purpose is to serve the Lord.

Romans 12:2 NASB "And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect." 

We are not to be pushed into the mold of the world system, the way of thinking of our neighbors and our friends and most of our families. We are to be transformed by the renewing of our mind. This is overhauling our thinking. That doesn't happen just by coming to church once a week. An hour on Sunday morning does not undo all of the influence of the world around us that is hitting us 24/7, except for that one hour or so on Sunday morning. We have to make it a priority to be completely overhauled in our thinking.

Then we have a purpose clause. What is the reason we do this? "That we may prove" means that we can demonstrate, a positive thing, demonstrating the value of something. What we are demonstrating is the will of God. The will of God is good and acceptable and perfect. That is what we do when we are living to serve the Lord.

The reason for going there is that this is a backdrop for understanding things that are about to happen for the apostle Paul. He relates that in our passage in Acts. Paul emphasizes this because he hears all these warnings from, the Holy Spirit and he knows that his intended plan to go to Jerusalem is one that is going to put him right in the bulls eye of opposition, hostility and hatred from a mass crowd that would like nothing more than to kill him because they hate what he has come to stand for.

We are at the end of his third missionary journey where he has stopped at Miletus and is giving some parting instruction to the elders—the pastors, the spiritual leaders of the church. In Acts 20:22 he says, "And now, behold, bound by the Spirit, I am on my way to Jerusalem, not knowing what will happen to me there." In other words, God the Holy Spirit has bound him in to a course and a destiny. [23] "except that the Holy Spirit solemnly testifies to me in every city, saying that bonds and afflictions await me." He is headed for serious opposition and persecution and it is not pleasant. It is not pleasant when the people you care about reject you, when the people that you wish to accept your message consider you to be the spawn of Satan, and when the people you wish to express the love of God to would rather see you dead in the streets, rather than accept the truth of what you are saying. That is what Paul is headed into.

Why would we choose a path like that? Why would any of us go in that direction when we could easily take a path of less resistance? The reason is what is stated in Romans 12:1, 2 that God has called each of us to serve Him no matter what the cost may be. We have to engage that opposition from the strength of our relationship with God the Holy Spirit and the application of God's Word.

Acts 20:25 NASB "And now, behold, I know that all of you, among whom I went about preaching the kingdom, will no longer see my face." Again we see this emphasis on the proclamation of the kingdom. What is he teaching about the kingdom? He is proclaiming the fact that the King has come, the King was rejected, and the kingdom is postponed and something new has entered into this interim period between the ascension of Christ and His future coming. But it is a proclamation, it is not a message that is based on a certain rhetorical style using very pleasing words, telling amusing little stories and giving people a feel-good message. He is proclaiming and announcing that some event is taking place, and then he is explaining the significance of that.

Preaching is not what most people think preaching is. Preaching is a proclamation of an event, and then teaching is an explanation of that event and an explanation of what the Word of God says about life. Several words that we have looked at before describe the nature of the pulpit ministry. The pulpit ministry is not designed to make everybody feel good. Sometimes we do because we are reminded of God's Word, reminded of God's grace. You are going through some difficult things in your life and when we come to Bible class we are reminded that God is faithful and God is going to sustain you just as He has all of these saints of God that we have studied in the Word.  

Acts 20:26 NASB "Therefore, I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all men." Testify means that he is functioning as a legal witness in a courtroom related to the truth of something. People ask how he can say he was innocent from the blood of all men when he was a murderer before he was saved? a) He was completely forgiven of all sins at the point of salvation, and b) he explains what he means by it in the next verse.

Acts 20:27 NASB "For I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole purpose of God." Because he has been completely honest about truth of God's Word and proclaiming the gospel to one and all it is not his fault if they reject it and end up going to the lake of fire and eternal judgment. He has performed his role. He has declared the whole counsel of God, as we saw last time. This is the role of the pastor: to teach everything from Genesis 1:1 to the last word in Revelation 21. We are to know the whole will of God, which comes from all 66 books of the Bible. 

Then he comes to the main point that he is driving home as a warning to the pastors from Ephesus.   

Acts 20:28 "Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood." 

They are to always be on guard. This is a present active imperative. Present imperatives are designed to communicate that something is to be done on a regular basis. It is a standard operating procedure, something we are to regularly and consistently do. They are to always be on their guard, to be watchful, to protect the sheep. How do they protect the sheep? By teaching the truth. That is how a pastor is to function. He not only teaches the truth as it comes from the Word of God but he has to teach the truth as it is related to the error of the day. Most people don't think critically about a lot of things and so the pastor has to really get into the specifics of views, because people need to understand the truth as it is contrasted to error. The only way sometimes you can tell the difference between different shades of white if it is not pure white and it has black in it then the only way you can see those shades of white—off-white, eggshell white, etc.—is if you contrast it to pure white. So when we get into areas where things look very much like truth, and they are not truth, then the pastor has to expose them. Unfortunately some people don't like that because that is also called apologetics.

Apologetics is the realm of teaching that is designed to expose error by giving a defense of the truth of Christianity. That is something that we are told in 1 Peter 3:15 to do. That is how that functions and it is part of this command to take heed, to guard against, to beware of certain things. And the pastor does it not just by teaching the truth but by teaching in contrast to various shades of error that are out there. For years it was a common illustration in a lot of cult books and some books on the evidence of Christianity that people would use an illustration related to counterfeit money. And the illustration went along the lines of the way the FBI agents or Treasury agents are trained to spot counterfeit and that they are trained by spending a tremendous amount of time handling the genuine article, knowing all of the characteristics of the genuine article, so that when they were so familiar with the true currency anything different would automatically stand out. But one day I asked an FBI agent if that were true, not at all. They have to know all the different nuances of counterfeiting because when counterfeiters are very good it is difficult to spot those differences. You have to know what you are looking for and know what those issues are and you have to know how counterfeiters are attempting to counterfeit the truth. That same thing is true in the pulpit.

That is what Paul is getting at here. One role of the pastor is to watch the congregation and to protect them. He does that through the truth.  

One of the reasons Paul says they should take heed to themselves is that in the next verse he is going to tell them: Acts 20:29 NASB "I know that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock …" That means they are going to come in from outside. But don't push the metaphor too far because they are wolves and of a different species than lambs. He is not making a point that they are not believers as opposed to the sheep that are believers. He is making a point in terms of their behavior, not in terms of their nature. He is not talking about whether they are saved or unsaved.

Acts 20:30 NASB "and from among your own selves men will arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them." From these very pastors that Paul has trained and taught there are those who are going to rise up and speak perverse things to draw away the disciples after themselves. It is discouraging when you are a pastor and have spent an enormous amount of time training young men and then to watch them go into doctrinal and theological error. But of you are going to train anybody to do something there are always going to be some who go off in their own way into error. And that is true probably in any profession. But it doesn't negate the fact that the responsibility of the pastor is to train men for the next generation of pulpit ministries. 

So he warns them to take heed to their own doctrine, to watch their teaching and to all the flock. Not just pastors, it is not just a problem in the professional ministry of the Word of God but it can impact any member of the congregation.

Paul says, "among the flock the Holy Spirit has made you overseers". It is the Holy Spirit who has elevated them to the position of being a pastor. Here the word "overseer" is the Greek word episkopos for bishop. The Holy Spirit is the one who distributes the gift of pastor-teacher at the moment of salvation. At salvation the Holy Spirit gives everyone a spiritual gift and there are many who have the spiritual gift of pastor-teacher. One of the sad things that I see is the number of men who have been sidetracked. In their teens, twenties and thirties they thought they were squared away studying the Word of God and all of a sudden they wake up when they are in their thirties, forties or fifties and realize they have the gift of pastor-teacher. And it is too late. They decide that suddenly they want to start taking some seminary courses because they think they have the gift of pastor-teacher.

I am not going to judge whether or not they do. They probably did and then rather than pursing it and presenting themselves as a living sacrifice (Romans 21:1) they decided to pursue family; they decided to purse another career; they decided to pursue something safe, comfortable and secure. And in some cases they did it because that's what their parents pushed them to do.

One of the problems we have today is an absolute dearth of young men in the next two generations after me to fill the pulpit. Churches come across all the time, doctrinal churches who have had seasoned pastors for years, and they can't find anybody to replace them. This is one of the problems we've had with Chafer Seminary and I know Tyndale Seminary has this problem as well. It is difficult to find young men who are willing to go through what it takes to become a pastor. It is also a sad commentary on the general apostasy and general weakness of the next couple of generations. There are a few wonderful examples that are contrary to that but they are contrary to that and it is really sad.  

It is the Holy Spirit who gives the spiritual gift but it is the individual believer who has to make the decision as to whether or not they are going to pursue it, whether or not they are going to pursue spiritual maturity. And in the course of pursuing spiritual maturity your spiritual gift will develop. Often today in classes on spiritual gifts people get it backwards: Go and develop your spiritual gift and then you will become spiritually mature. That is backwards. It should be develop your maturity and as a result of that your spiritual gift will develop.

So the Holy Spirit raises them up to be the leaders in the church, and to shepherd, which basically has the idea of feeding and protecting a flock. What does a shepherd do in terms of the flock? He identifies where the best pasture is. He takes them to the best pasture, and he protects them from eating the things that would make them sick. He leads them in relation to feeding them. That is the role of a pastor-teacher. He leads the congregation through his teaching of the congregation.

"shepherd the church of God"—it is God's church. It is very difficult if you come from a background like I have come from and like many of you have come from to go into a standard Bible church and sort of create an appetite for the teaching of the Word of God when they have never really had it. They are satisfied with pabulum and have convinced themselves that it is good steak and good mature nourishment. When I went to Preston City Bible Church I made a decision that I wasn't going to be concerned about the people who came to church or didn't come to church. Because the Word of God needed to be central and people were either going to come because they wanted to hear the Word of God of they would not come, in which case I would go find another job. But I wasn't going to be concerned one bit about who showed up and who didn't show up. It was my job to lead and feed the congregation and it was God's job to bring people who wanted the truth to be there.

What is remarkable is that in the first two congregations I pastored there were always undercurrents, always rumblings. There were always people who were dissatisfied and thought that things ought to go that way. Since I went to Preston City, from that point to the present, there hasn't been any of that because people understand what the issue is. The issue is that you are here in this church because you want to grow to spiritual maturity. And of you don't want to grow to spiritual maturity and you just want to hang around the edges, well that's fine, we are not going to run you off. But know this, the purpose for this church is to produce mature believers. That is our goal and our biblical directive; that is what we are all about. And people who don't want to get on that maturity train, it's amazing, they don't hang around very long; they go somewhere else.

So it is the church of God; it's God's church. He is the one who directs it. Jesus said to Peter that He would build His church. He didn't say Peter, you build the church and I'll worry about other things. Jesus said, "I will build the church and you feed the church." We have to get the priorities right there. The pastor's job is not to build the church, the pastor's job is to feed, lead and guide the church through the Word of God.

And this is further defined as that which God purchased with His own blood. The nearest reference to "He" is God. It is one of those uses of "God" that looks at God as the triune God and is not defining a specific role of the personhood of God. It is not looking at the Father, the Son or the Holy Spirit; it is looking at the triune God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It is in that sense God who died on the cross. It is Jesus, yes, but He is fully God. It is not inaccurate to refer to Him as God.

The word there for purchase is an interesting word. We might expect a word related to redeem which is usually translated with that idea of purchasing or buying something, but it is the word peripoieo which means to preserve, to keep save, to keep alive, or to purchase. It has to do with then fact that it is brought to life through the death of Christ. When we see that term "blood" it is always a metaphor representing the death of Christ. So we could translated this: "The church of God which He brought to life by means of His own death."  

Verse 29 begins with the first word "For" which is giving further explanation. "I know that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock." So there are going to be people who aren't in the congregation yet who will come in. Then he says, [30] "and from among your own selves men will arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them." The word perverse is the Greek word diastrepho which means to twist or to distort or to pervert. So they are twisting the truth, distorting the truth rather than teaching the truth. Sometimes this is extremely subtle. The purpose is to draw away disciples after themselves.

I never have understood this but in the church you attract a certain number of people who have a desire for approbation and a desire for power. Why people think that they're going to get power in a church I don't know, especially since the average church size in America is about 125 people. But this is what they want to do; they want to feed their approbation lust. They are not serving the Lord they are using the service of the Lord as a way to cloak their own selfish desires. 

Acts 20:31 NASB "Therefore be on the alert, remembering that night and day for a period of three years I did not cease to admonish each one with tears.

So Paul says again to watch. Again, this is a synonym for what we saw earlier in terms of taking heed. It is the Greek word gregoreo, a present imperative meaning a continuous action, standard operating procedure priority. He admonished them "night and day with tears", which means Paul got a little emotional about it. He was concerned about people. So this would bring him even to the point of weeping with them to stay true to the course and not to give up. He warns them to watch and to remember his own example, to follow that example and to do as he had done.

He admonished them. This is another word, noutheteo, which has the idea of warning, admonishing or advising. But it is addressed to the thinking of a person. The root of neoutheteo is that first part nou, from the noun nous meaning the brain, the mind. 

Acts 20:32 NASB "And now I commend you to God and to the word of His grace, which is able to build {you} up and to give {you} the inheritance among all those who are sanctified."

The word commend is from paratithemi, meaning to set before, to entrust or commit them to the charge of someone. He is committing them to God's protection. The "word of His grace" indicates the message of grace. This is the priority of the pastoral ministry, to teach the grace of God. It is that message of grace which the referent to the relative pronoun which—which describes the message. It is the message or the word of grace that is able to build us up. It is not hymns; it is not praise music; it is not fellowship. It is not that singing or fellowship are wrong; although they can be. They can be distractions if they are done wrong. But it is the Word of God. The essence of any congregational meeting of the church is to communicate the Word of God. Because that is what strengthens people.

When things get really rough it is the Word of God that sustains us. It is not all of the other things that are related to Christianity. It is great to have fellowship and it is great to have Christian friends, but they are not the ones who sustain us when we are in those dark times in our lives when things are really tough and we are dealing with major issues in life. It is the Word of God. That is what strengthens us and builds us up. It is the word oikodomeo which means to build or to edify, to build us up spiritually so that we are strong enough to face the challenges of life. And as a result the Word of God not only builds us up but when we apply it then what it produces in our life is divine good which is the basis for an inheritance. Inheritance is the idea of an eternal possession. It is related to the rewards we receive at the judgment seat of Christ.

Human good, that which we produce by the power of our own flesh, has no enduring value. Only divine good that is the result of walking by the Spirit has enduring value. And on the basis of that we are going to receive an inheritance, roles and responsibilities in the future kingdom. When we talk about inheritance this is a Christian life issue, so when Paul says "to give {you} the inheritance among all those who are sanctified" this isn't talking about positional sanctification, it is talking about experiential sanctification among those who are growing to spiritual maturity.

Then as Paul closes his message to the elders he relates again to his own personal example. He makes sure they understand and they know that he hasn't done this for personal gain. The whole time he was in Corinth he worked as a tent maker. He didn't take his living from the gospel, which in 1 Corinthians chapter nine he argues is perfectly legitimate. He says Peter and the other apostles brought their wives along and the churches supported them financially, but he worked on his own so as not to put a burden on the church. So he reminds them that he did the same thing in Ephesus.

Acts 20:33 "I have coveted no one's silver or gold or clothes." He was not motivated by material gain; he wasn't motivated by personal power or approbation. [34] "You yourselves know that these hands ministered to my {own} needs and to the men who were with me." So he not only made enough of an income to take care of himself but also to provide for the others who were travelling with him. [35] "In everything I showed you that by working hard in this manner you must help the weak and remember the words of the Lord Jesus, that He Himself said, 'It is more blessed to give than to receive.'" So he drives home the application that it is important for the individuals in the local congregation to support those who are weak. He has done the same kind of thing. This refers to those who are less capable. The word can refer to spiritual or physical weakness. In the context it is probably spiritual weakness.

This word "weak" in the Gospels refers in about 70 per cent of the time to those who were physically ill and the rest of the time to those who were spiritually weak—"the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak". But when we get over into the epistles the percentage is flip-flop, so that about 70 per cent of the time it is talking about being spiritually weak—"for many are weak and sickly among you." That is not a redundancy, he is talking about many are spiritually weak and physically sick.

" … He Himself said, 'It is more blessed to give than to receive.'" Jesus never said that where it is recorded in the Gospels. But there were many things that were known that Jesus said and taught outside of what is recorded in the Gospels. And remember that at this time probably only one Gospel had been written and that was the Gospel of Matthew. But Paul, especially under the ministry of the Holy Spirit, knew what Jesus had taught. So even though we can't find a source for this in the Gospels it is important. Here Paul is reminding them of the importance of putting others first and serving one another as we serve the Lord.

Acts 20:36 NASB "When he had said these things, he knelt down and prayed with them all. [37] And they {began} to weep aloud and embraced Paul, and repeatedly kissed him."

It was an emotional time. They knew they probably wouldn't see Paul again. They owed their spiritual lives to him. For many he was the one who had led them to eternal life. 

Acts 20:38 NASB "grieving especially over the word which he had spoken, that they would not see his face again. And they were accompanying him to the ship." It was a dire warning. There were going to be changes. Some of the people you trust now are going to become untrustworthy. Some of the leaders you trust now are going to lead you into error. There are going to be wolves who come in and destroy the congregation.