“But I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God. And now, behold, I know that none of you among whom I have gone about proclaiming the kingdom will see my face again. Therefore I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all, for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God. 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. 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 twisted 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. 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. I coveted no one’s silver or gold or apparel. You yourselves know that these hands ministered to my necessities and to those who were with me. In all things I have shown you that by working hard in this way we must help the weak and remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’ ” And when he had said these things, he knelt down and prayed with them all. And there was much weeping on the part of all; they embraced Paul and kissed him, being sorrowful most of all because of the word he had spoken, that they would not see his face again. And they accompanied him to the ship.” (Acts 20:24-38 ESV)
Last week, we looked at the admonition that Paul gave to the Ephesian elders about finishing strong. He was headed to Jerusalem for the Feast of Pentecost and he wanted to give them some last words of encouragement, advice and direction because the Holy Spirit had told him that he would not be returning to Ephesus and he wanted them to remain faithful and to finish strong in his absence. After those words of encouragement, Paul gave them words of warning and his warning needs to be heard and heeded by the church, today. Paul warns them of the danger of predatory wolves among the flock of Christ’s sheep.
Paul is not the only one who warns that the church needs to be aware of wolves. In fact, Jesus said that He was sending us out as “sheep among wolves” with the message of the gospel and the ministry that He’s given the church (see Luke 10:3). However, Paul’s warning is slightly different and is more about how wolves will slip into the church in sheep’s clothing and ravage the flock. Paul’s warning comes with an admonition to the church elders or shepherds to keep watch and to protect or care for the flock that God had put under their care. In other words, we aren’t in the midst of wolves (the world) the wolves (worldly, false teachers and lay leaders) have infiltrated the church and are in our midst.
Paul seems to have some specific situations in mind, but it is unclear whether he is referencing situations that he’s encountered previously (like those in Corinth) or whether he is relating concerns that the Holy Spirit is bringing to his mind or spirit. Either way, the threat is real and the church needs to be aware of the risks and the leaders need to be on guard against potential false teachers. So, I want us to spend a few minutes looking at how Paul cautions the Ephesian elders and at the threats we currently face from false teachers in the modern church.
First, notice that these wolves can come into the flock as both sheep and as shepherds. The threat is not just from wayward members who may start down some false path or take a wrong turn and lead others to do the same (sheep), but the threat also comes in the form of false teachers who intentionally mislead the people of God (shepherds). In Paul’s day, these false teachers generally circled around two primary issues: 1) legalistic requirements imposed upon Gentile believers by traditional Jewish preachers/teachers; 2) new philosophical and religious ideas being syncretized into the fledgling Christian belief system.
Some of these issues are much easier to spot than others, but they are still difficult to dig up and kill the root. In the early church, the challenge of Jewish legalism on non-Jewish Christians was very real. Paul faced it in almost every town he visited and he verbally fought against it in almost every New Testament letter he wrote. To be honest, we will still struggle with the grip of legalism in our churches. We must recognize that God’s grace is NOT the result of our efforts, but is the result of His love. Obedience doesn’t earn salvation but obedience does flow out of salvation by grace.
In today’s church, the false teaching of the prosperity gospel (health and wealth) is, generally, easy to spot but very hard to eradicate. It has taken deep root in our culture due to our consumerist and materialistic approach to life and it is hard to uproot because it taps into our personal desires and aspirations. But, there’s little doubt that it has led many a sheep astray chasing after false promises of materialistic blessings from God. In our corrupted hearts and minds we take Jesus’ radical teachings on giving (like Luke 6:37-38) and turn them into selfish promises of “getting.” While the Bible never speaks directly against wealth, it does teach that the love of money is the root of all evil and that it is always better to give than to receive. However, Jesus did say that it is difficult (though not impossible) for the wealthy to enter heaven by implying that they tend to rely on their wealth and not God’s grace.
There are also issues that are more difficult to spot and, perhaps, even more difficult to eradicate. For example, there is a growing move among some churches to be “progressive.” They attempt to “stay relevant” with modern cultural trends and beliefs in order to remain “attractive” to people of our culture. To do this, they drop any offensive beliefs and behavioral expectations. Many mainline churches today are embracing a new universal gospel that makes Jesus just one of many ways “to find” God and sheds any “old-fashioned” moral obligations of the traditional church.
In all honesty and fairness, there is an issue here that we do need to address regarding moral obligations. The church has often used moral behavior and obligation as a gate-keeper to church attendance, and that’s simply wrong. In other words, we’ve acted as though (even if we haven’t outright said it) that you need to “get your act together” BEFORE you will be welcomed in our churches. We seem to expect them to do something that, biblically speaking, is impossible for them to do – get your life cleaned up before you come to Christ. The church is really supposed to be a hospital for the hurting and not a “trophy case” of perfected sainthood or “holier-than-thou” snobs.
However, we do have an issue with some who want to abandon traditional Christian morality because it is “out of step” with our culture. The mantra that is most often touted is “don’t judge” and that results in a declaration that traditional Christian beliefs and moral axioms are old fashioned and no longer binding on modern 21st century believers. In fact, some even go so far as to say that Jesus never condemned homosexuality and then they try and perform some linguistic and interpretive gymnastics and declare that Paul’s admonition in Romans 1 is not against homosexuality in general but that he is speaking against non-consensual homosexual actions.
First, Jesus’ supposed silence on a subject is not approval of said subject or related actions. Jesus didn’t directly condemn slavery, rape or child pornography either (among a host of other moral actions he didn’t directly address), but nobody takes that to mean he was in favor of them. By the way, I said “supposed silence” intentionally because Jesus DID speak out in favor of the moral demands of the Mosaic law, the creation of male and female, the worth of a child and the traditional view of marriage between one man and one woman so he wasn’t really silent on those subjects, including modern views regarding homosexuality and gender identity.
Next, I’d like to address the issue of “do not judge” in the context of the church and Christians. I would like to emphasize and make the distinction of judging those inside and those outside the church because scripture also makes that distinction. First, the church is not called to pass judgement on those outside the church, that’s God’s right and responsibility (see 1 Cor. 5:9-15). They are outside the grace of God and He will be the one who will judge them, their actions, their thoughts and the intents of their hearts.
However, the church does have the right and responsibility to “judge” those inside the church or who claim faith in Jesus Christ. The verse most often cited in opposition to this stance is, “Judge not, that you be not judged.” (Matthew 7:1 ESV) The problem is that this verse is generally taken out of context and grossly misinterpreted (you should go read the entire paragraph, here). In context, this verse is condemning hypocrisy in the judgment that is being passed. We are told, “first take the log out of your own eye” before you attempt to take the speck out of your brother’s eye. In other words, don’t come in here talking to me about my sexuality when you’re sleeping around on your wife. In reality, Jesus was condemning the religious elite for their judgment of the common man when they were just as guilty. Now, that’s a lesson we DO need to hear.
Finally, after Paul addresses his concerns regarding the very real danger of wolves disguised as church leaders and internal threats from members of the church, he ends his time with the Ephesian elders by “commending” them to God and the word of His grace. The idea in this phrase is that Paul is depending on God and His Word of grace to bring to completion what God had already begun among the Ephesian Elders. In essence He is saying, “I’m leaving and I won’t be back, so I want you to faithfully pursue and follow God while clinging to the truth and authority of His Word.” He then gives them several brief reminders that they, obviously, needed to hear and we need to hear:
1) God’s Word is sufficient to build us up and ensure that we receive our inheritance as saints;
2) We should work hard not so that we can become wealthy, but so that we can help those who are weak and be obedient to Christ by giving to others.
God’s Word is sufficient, just as Paul told Timothy… “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” (2 Timothy 3:16-17 ESV)
Breathed out by God. Scripture is the very breath of God. Do you remember what it was that gave life to the clay God formed with His own hands in Genesis? He breathed into it the breath of life (see Genesis 2:7) and it became a living soul. Scripture is the very breath of God and it gives life to the soul of man. Paul says the scriptures teach us, convince us, correct us, and they train us for right living so that we may be properly equipped to fulfill God’s purpose in our lives. Do you spend time in God’s Word like you should? We should read it, meditate on it, pray through it, sing it, and speak it. The Word of God should not be something we open only on Sundays. It should be a daily staple in the life of a Christian. If we would approach God’s Word as that which gives us life, it would dramatically change how we act towards others and interact with God.
Lastly, we should work hard but not for personal gain or a life of leisure but so that we can be obedient to Christ and be a giving people. John 3:16 begins by saying, “God so loved the world that He gave…” and he wants us to imitate His actions. Most of us work hard, but we tend to do so for the wrong reasons. Now, don’t get me wrong. God intends that we should care for and provide for our families, but the focus of our work should be, indeed it must be, to glorify God and be obedient to Him. So for us, the phrase should read: “We loved God so much that we gave…” When we become a giving church we model Christ and we begin to fulfill our purpose.
In fact, I will end by quoting the very words that Paul wrote back to the Ephesian church just a short time later:
“For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” (Ephesians 2:8-10 ESV)
We were created in Christ for good works. Go, walk in them…