Watch Out for the Wolves Within

Take heed 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 the blood of his own Son. I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them. Therefore be alert, remembering that for three years I did not cease night or day to admonish every one with tears.

One way to summarize the first part of Paul's message to the Ephesian elders is this: he is emphasizing that he has done all he can do for their salvation. He has lived a life of lowliness and labor and tears and trials and utter dedication. And he has taught them the whole counsel of God. He didn't shrink back from any demand or any danger or any doctrine. He has done all he can do to deliver them from the destruction of unbelief and disobedience and lead them to everlasting life and joy.

Perseverance and the Role of Elders 

But Paul knows well that in order to be saved in the end—in order to inherit the kingdom and enter life—a believer has to persevere. For example, in 1 Corinthians 15:1–2 Paul said, "I preached to you the gospel, which you received, in which you stand, by which you are saved, if you hold it fast—unless you believed in vain." Paul knew that there was such a thing as believing in vain—false starts in the Christian life.

That means very practically that once you've poured part of your life into a ministry—into a group of people—you can't ever walk away and glibly say, "Well, I've taught them all they need to know. They accepted it. So they are now safe and secure. Onto a new work."

The reason you can't say that is because God has ordained that his people persevere to the end through the faithful ministry of teaching, prayer, and care. And so when Paul is done with his three-year investment in the church of Ephesus—teaching, praying, caring day and night with tears—he does NOT say, "So long, hope you make it." He makes sure that there are elders who will stay behind and who will pick up where he left off and teach and pray and care the way he did. Because if they don't, the church will not survive. And many would-be saints will perish. (See Revelation 2:5–7.)

So in this next section of his message to the elders of Ephesus (verses 28–31) Paul tells them how utterly crucial their role is in the survival and health of the church when he is gone. He gives them a general command. Then he applies the command to themselves and to the flock. Then he gives them four incentives to throw themselves into this work with the same dedication he did.

As far as I can tell, virtually nothing has changed between the day this was written and today that would change the teaching at all for our own elders. So let's listen very carefully to what this means for Bethlehem.

The General Command for Vigilance

First, let's notice the general command.

Verse 28 starts, "Take heed . . . " Or: "Be on guard . . . " Then verse 31 (at the end of this paragraph) starts, "Therefore, be alert . . . " Or: "Be on your guard . . . " So the paragraph begins and ends with a call to vigilance. Elders must be alert, awake, open-eyed, watchful.

This is Paul's way of saying that the church is always a threatened church. Satan never takes vacations. Sin lurks at the door waiting for the moment of doctrinal or moral carelessness. The command for the elders, therefore, is: Stay awake. Be alert. Watch.

But watch what? Paul applies our vigilance in two ways: Elders must watch themselves; and the elders must watch the church.

Verse 28 starts, "Take heed to yourselves." Now that could mean two things. It could mean, "Elders, take head of each other's needs and weaknesses and faults." Or it could mean, "Elders, each of you take heed to his own heart and doctrine and behavior." Probably it means both.

It's not surprising that Paul says this first, is it? He spent half his message talking about his own life and work. The point was: it matters what kind of person the elder is, not just what he believes. So the first command to the elders is to watch over themselves. Robert Murray McCheyne said, "What my people need most from me is my personal holiness." I think Paul agrees. That's why it comes first: "Elders, take heed to yourselves. Your first duty to the church is to be a certain kind of person."

Application to the Elders' Oversight of the Flock 

Then Paul applies the command for vigilance to the elders' oversight of the flock. Verse 28 goes on, "Take heed to yourselves and to all the flock." Notice three things here that are very important for our life as a church.

  1. First, the church is like a flock of sheep in need of shepherds.
  2. Second, the elders are the shepherds.
  3. Third, it is the duty of shepherds to care for the sheep.

All of this is set out in verse 28: "Take heed to yourselves and to all the flock [so the church is like a flock], in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers [so the elders are the overseers or shepherds of the flock], to care for the church of God [so it is the duty of the overseers or shepherds to care for, or tend, the sheep—to see that they have food, like Jesus said: "Feed my sheep," and to see that they are protected from wolves, as we will see in a moment]."

If we had the time we could show from other passages (e.g., 1 Peter 5:1–3; Titus 1:5, 7; and 1 Timothy 3:1; 5:17; Philippians 1:1; Acts 15:22; etc.) that this was not just the way things were organized at Ephesus but in virtually all the New Testament churches.

Pastors/Elders in the New Testament 

If you ask, Where does the title "pastor" fit into this, the answer is that the word "pastor" is based on a Latin word that simply means shepherd. Pastors are the shepherds being spoken of here. The New Testament does not distinguish between elders and pastors and overseers—they are all the same. The term "Elder" highlights their maturity and respect in the church. The term "Shepherd" or "Pastor" highlights the responsibility to the church as a flock. And the term "Overseer" makes that same role even clearer without using the image of sheep and shepherd. In summary then, "elder," "pastor," "shepherd," and "overseer" (sometimes translated "bishop," 1 Timothy 3:1) all refer to the same person in the New Testament church. They aren't separate people or separate rolls.

And in the New Testament, churches always had more than one elder or pastor or overseer. A one-pastor church is unknown in the New Testament. This is true whether the churches are small and new or older and large. In Acts 14:23, as Paul and Barnabas returned from their first missionary journey, it says, "And when they had appointed elders [plural] for them in every church, with prayer and fasting, they committed them to the Lord in whom they believed."

The Duty of Caring for All the Flock 

I point this out because the duty of elders is to "take heed to all the flock." Notice: ALL the flock. Not just the healthy sheep, but also the sick. Not just the strong, but also the weak. Not just the responsive, but also the unresponsive. Not just the faithful, but also the wayward.

If you want to feel how overwhelming that is, listen to Richard Baxter, in his book on this text entitled The Reformed Pastor (1656):

It is you see, all the flock, or every individual member of our charge. To this end it is necessary, that we should know every person that belongs to our charge; for how can we take heed to them, if we do not know them? . . . Doth not a careful shepherd look after every individual sheep? a good schoolmaster after every individual [student]? a good physician after every particular patient? . . . Paul taught his hearers not only "publicly but from house to house": and in another place he tells us, that he "warned every one, and taught every one, in all wisdom, that he might present every one perfect in Christ Jesus." Many other passages of Scripture make it evident that it is our duty to take heed to every individual of our flock. (pp. 90f.)

What would he say of Bethlehem? And of my ministry? You can see perhaps why a text like this, along with the struggle to think through the future staffing configuration of the church, has caused a great deal of heart searching for Noël and me.

The Number of Elders Proportionate to the Flock

Of course, one answer in a church this size is to have enough elders (that is, overseers or pastors) so that every single church member is known by name and is fed and helped and disciplined according to his or her own particular need.

Baxter says, rightly I think,

O happy Church of Christ, were the laborers . . . proportioned in number to the number of the souls; so that the pastors were so many, or the particular churches so small, that we might be able to "take heed to all the flock." (p. 90)

So we have seen so far that Paul gives the elders a general command to be alert and awake and on guard—to be vigilant in their spiritual life and ministry. Then he applies that general command specifically to the elders themselves—they should take heed to themselves, their doctrine and their life—and then to the flock of God—ALL the flock.

Four Incentives for Shepherding the Flock

Now what Paul does is to give four incentives, or motivations or encouragements to the elders to do their work with great diligence and seriousness. It is not merely a job. It is not a profession among other professions like lawyer, doctor, engineer, etc. There is laid upon the elders of the church of Christ a responsibility unique in all the world. And Paul really stresses how high the stakes are in this work.

1. The Flock Purchased by the Blood of God's Son

The first incentive for the elders is that the flock they are to serve cost God the blood of his Son. Notice the end of verse 28: "to care for the church of God which he obtained with the blood of his own Son."

It's clear that Paul wants the elders to be shocked by this. The argument is plain: if God almighty—sinless and free and high above all things—was willing to shed the blood of his Son for a sinful, messed up, unworthy church, then the shepherds must be willing to pour out blood, sweat, and tears in season and out of season for the flock of God.

Suppose I am a single dad with four sons. And you and your spouse and my family are deep-sea fishing off the Florida coast. My youngest son gets too close to the edge, and when a wave tilts the boat, he loses his balance and falls into the water and disappears beneath the surface. In a split second I dive in after him. After about ten seconds of breathless suspense I burst out of the water and I've got him. I hand him up over the side and just as I am getting into the boat a shark cuts out of nowhere and hits me from behind and takes away half my side. You pull me into the boat and just before I bleed to death I look up into your face and say, "Take care of the boy for me."

That's a pretty strong incentive. Jesus "loved the church and gave himself for her" (Ephesians 5:25). An elder who is not willing to pour out blood, sweat, and tears for the faith and holiness of the church of Christ does not know the worth of the blood of the Son of God.

2. Shepherds Chosen by God for This Work

The second incentive Paul gives to the elders is that they have been chosen for this work by God not themselves. Verse 28 says, "Take heed to yourselves and to all the flock in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers." The Holy Spirit chooses who should be the elders in the church.

It's hard to imagine incentives that are more gigantic, more powerful, and more awesome in scope than these two. The sheep are gathered by the blood of God's Son. And the shepherds are given by the call of God's Spirit. How can they not pour themselves out with every ounce of energy and life that they have for the faith and holiness of the church!

3. Great Danger Always Awaits the Church

The third incentive Paul gives to the elders is that great danger always awaits the church. Verse 29–30, "I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them."

The incentive for vigilance here is the danger that inside the church men will aspire to the eldership who are wolves in sheep's clothing (Matthew 7:15). They will slowly begin to speak twisted and distorted things about Scripture. And unless the elders are spiritually alert and thoroughly biblical in their vigilance, the wolves may decimate the flock.

Let me just mention one feature to watch out for in the recognition of wolves. As I have watched the movement from biblical faithfulness to liberalism in persons and institutions that I have known over the years, this feature stands out: An emotional disenchantment with faithfulness to what is old and fixed, and an emotional preoccupation with what is new or fashionable or relevant in the eyes of the world.

Let's try to say it another way: when this feature is prevalent, you don't get the impression that a person really longs to bring his mind and heart into conformity to fixed biblical truth. Instead you see the desire to picture biblical truth as unfixed, fluid, indefinable, distant, inaccessible, and so open to the trends of the day.

So what marks a possible wolf-in-the-making is not simply that he rejects or accepts any particular biblical truth, but that he isn't deeply oriented on the Bible. He is more oriented on experience. He isn't captured by the great old faith once for all delivered to the saints. Instead he's enamored by what is new and innovative.

A good elder can be creative. But the indispensable mark when it comes to doctrinal fitness is faithfulness to what is fixed in Scripture—disciplined, humble submission to the particular affirmations of the Bible—carefully and reverently studied and explained and cherished. When that spirit begins to go, there's a wolf-in-the-making.

So the third incentive for elders is the ever-present danger of wolves in sheep's clothing who twist the truth and lead the people away to destruction.

4. Paul's Personal Example

The last incentive for elders to be vigilant is Paul's personal example. Verse 31: "Therefore, be alert, remembering that for three years I did not cease night or day to admonish everyone with tears."

If the great apostle worked night and day; if he worked with everyone; if he worked with tears; then how much more should little peons like me and the other elders of Bethlehem pour out our lives day and night with tears for this church!