The Fourth Sunday in Easter
April 24-25 - Text: Acts 20:17-35
Dear Friends in Christ,
St. Paul, here at the end of his third missionary journey meets with the pastors from the city of Ephesus. This was a great and important city at the time. Paul had worked in Ephesus previously. But increasingly, Paul was finding Christians were already present in the places he was visiting. After this brief meeting, Paul would return to Jerusalem and be arrested. The book of Acts ends with Paul in Rome awaiting trial. However, later, when Paul is in prison in Rome he says he alludes being arrested in Ephesus or Troas. It is likely that Paul remained in Rome for two years. This would be the legal amount of time a citizen could be held under Roman law without a trial. It is likely that Paul was released in about 63 A.D., continued his travels and was arrested again about 67 A.D. The bulk of Paul’s work was behind him. The Church was flourishing throughout the Roman world. Paul was also no longer a young man. He was probably in his fifties and had been traveling for about fifteen years. He had earlier spent three years in Ephesus.
As he’s passing by, Paul asks the pastors in Ephesus to meet with him in Miletus. Miletus was the port city for Ephesus. So this was a short distance. But Paul is choosing to stay close by his ship. Perhaps he was ill or exhausted. Perhaps he feared being delayed if he remained in Ephesus. He makes it clear that it is God’s will that he return to Jerusalem.
I want you to take note of the words that are used here in our text for pastors. They are elders. This would be a continuation of the Jewish terminology. The elders were the leaders of the synagogue. The word itself implies older men who were considered wise. But another word is used later. They are overseers. The Greek word is episkopus. It could also be translated as bishop. “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you bishops...” Now these pastors served small churches which were converted from houses. In fact they might well have been mistaken for houses by those who passed by. This was because while they had not yet been persecuted by the Roman authorities, Christianity still had no legal standing. In other words it was illegal to be a Christian. So there was no effort to build very large, elegant buildings. So each congregation was about eighty people or so. There would have been a pastor or overseer for each of these groups.
The word overseer is interesting in a number of ways. It implies a ruling authority for pastors. This must never be denied. But it also must be understood. The pastor is not our prince. He does not rule over our lives in matters pertaining to the civil realm, unless he is also a civil official. This would be a rare thing, though not totally unheard of. The basis of the pastor’s authority is the Word of God. He has been given, by God, the authority to publically preach and to administer the sacraments. This what it teaches us here when it says that the Holy Spirit made them overseers. Dr. Walther confirms this in his book Church and Ministry where he states that the Church is ordinarily bound to the office of the ministry to the end of time. God gives the gift of forgiveness the to Church, but also gives to the Church stewards to administer that forgiveness on Christ’s behalf. So a pastor’s authority is the Word of God - Holy Scripture. His only sword is the Word. He cannot convert people to Christ at the point of a sword. He cannot compel anything in an earthly sense. A pastor must compel with the Word of God. This is done by teaching, preaching, exhorting, and admonishing. And yes, on occasion it also includes withholding forgiveness from the unrepentant as Scripture commands that we do. For the pastor’s ruling function is simply to teach and apply God’s Word.
What must be kept in mind is that this is the flock that Christ has purchased with His blood. Pastors are a gift from God to God’s people. But the people are also God’s people. He has bought them. Not the pastor. They belong to Christ. A pastor must respect this fact. We need to expect an attitude of love and respect from our pastor. It is also an attitude that we must have for one another. For we are not simply looking at other people when we look around. We are looking at fellow redeemed. We are looking at others whose sins have been forgiven by Christ. The fact of Christ’s forgiveness changes who we are. It also changes who other people are in relationship to us. Our lives and actions ought to reflect this reality.
St. Paul then gives us a warning. There will be false teachers among you. There will be those who are promoting themselves instead of Christ. These must be marked and avoided. We should pray that God would restrain false teachers. These men and women will try to make men into their disciples, rather then disciples of Jesus Christ. What is the defense? The Word of God. Remember what you were taught. Remember what is in the catechism. Remember what our good and faithful hymns like “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” teach us.
The Church properly speaking consists of flock and shepherd. In fact, Christ appointed pastors before their were local congregations. It is those first pastors, called by Christ, Himself, who established local congregations like those at Ephesus. We call those first pastors, apostles. It was the surviving eleven, Jesus’ brother James, and probably Mathias, who was chosen to replace Judas, and St. Paul. There may have been a few others. We cannot say for certain. These first pastors were given the task of organizing local congregations so that the Church could continue to function in each place. And so with the forming of each flock came also the appointment of a shepherd. Democracy, as we know it, was unknown to them. But there is a sense, even in those earliest days, that congregations along with the apostles and other clergy from the region, together selected the pastor for that place. The clergy assured the congregation that this man’s ministry would indeed be blessed by God. The congregation agreed to receive that man’s ministry. Two thousand years later, procedures have become more formal, but the same rules apply. A pastor is put in place by the approval of both the congregation and the clergy of Church. This includes theological professors who train and judge the fitness of the men. This includes church officials who oversee the processes of getting men to various places. This includes area clergy who bless the man’s ministry with prayer and Scripture at his installation.
The Holy Spirit has established men as overseers or bishops. Today we use the term pastor, which comes from the Latin word for shepherd. God gives these men to the Church as a gift. He gives them the authority to preach His Word and to administer the Sacraments according to His command. Such men are not free, but must do what God has given them to do. All of this is done, so that God’s gifts of forgiveness and life are properly distributed according to His command to His people.