One of my favorite Bible verses that deals with pastoral ministry is Acts 20:28: “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.” This verse is incredibly rich in meaning.
There are several takeaways from this verse in Paul’s speech to the elders at Miletus. Here are some of them.
First, pastors need to pay careful attention to their own spiritual lives if they are going to be spiritually useful to anyone else. “Spiritual leaders,” the ESV Study Bible footnote says, “need first of all to guard their own spiritual and moral purity.” Pastors first and foremost lead themselves. If pastors cannot spiritually watch over their own life, they will not be able to watch over anyone else’s life.
Paul doesn’t just say pay attention, but pay careful attention. The NASB translates the beginning part of this verse as “Be on guard” and the NIV says “Keep watch.” Far from a person who passively goes about his business, the image that comes to mind is a person in combat who is earnestly guarding something. The thing that pastors are earnestly called to guard is their own heart (Proverbs 4:23). Pastors are called to diligently watch over their souls.
What does this look like? A few questions to ask:
- Am I regularly reading my Bible and praying in private?
- Am I committing or am I on the verge of committing sexual sin?
- Am I stewarding my time, talents, and treasures wisely?
There are a host of diagnostic questions to ask. We need not belabor this point. But it’s important for every pastor to take seriously the command to vigorously watch over his own soul. You know what that looks like in your own life. You just have to actually do it.
But Paul doesn’t stop there. No, a pastor is not only called to watch over his own soul — and this is the second observation from this passage I want to highlight — but the pastor is also called to pay careful attention to the souls of his flock.
It goes without saying, but a pastor cannot pay careful attention to his flock if he doesn’t spend a lot of time with them. This means that a pastor needs to regularly spend time with his people. He needs to know their fears, dreams, and desires. He needs to know their strengths and weaknesses. He needs to build relational capital with them so the sheep will trust his judgment when he speaks into their life. The best shepherds smell like their sheep.
Third, God himself ordained that you would be at the church you now currently serve. That’s what it means when it says that “the Holy Spirit has made you overseers.” In a social media age, it can quickly become easy to grow discontent as a pastor when you compare your ministry to someone else’s. When things aren’t going well at church, it can be tempting to wonder if you should move on. But this part of the verse is a reminder that, at least for this season, God has you exactly where he wants you.
God specifically led you to be at the church you’re now pastoring. God makes no mistakes. His providence extends to all details of life, including the means by which he led you to your church. If this truth grips your heart — that the church you currently pastor and the church where God wants you are the same — it will provide immovable confidence in your present ministry assignment, even if things aren’t going well.
Fourth, pastors are to care for the church of God. I’m struck by the word “care.” It can be translated as “shepherd.” The shepherd-sheep metaphor helps me to better understand what I’m supposed to be doing all day. I’m a shepherd and my people are my sheep. Well, they’re God’s sheep, technically. But he has entrusted them to me to shepherd.
A shepherd feeds his sheep food; I feed my sheep by giving them preaching and teaching from the word of God. A shepherd protects his sheep from wolves; I protect my sheep from false doctrine and false prophets. A shepherd goes after sheep who have fallen away; I connect with Christians who have walked away from the church. A shepherd leads his sheep to green pastures; I lead my sheep through example, communication, and spiritual direction. A shepherd cares for his sheep; I care for my sheep by doing the most good I can for them, even if it means I have to use my proverbial rod. Pastors are called to care for their people like shepherds care for sheep.
Fifth, Jesus obtained the church with his own blood. If everything else isn’t already serious enough in this one verse, we remind ourselves that the Christians we serve are blood-bought people. They are utterly precious in God’s sight. God loves his sheep and will not tolerate abusive shepherds. He is an expert at demoting unqualified pastors. Knowing this, pastors should proceed in their callings with fear and trembling, but also with joy and enthusiasm.
The pastor needs to be one who pays careful attention — to himself, to his flock, and to his specific calling. As you faithfully serve as a shepherd, you can do so with great joy until that glorious day when the Chief shepherd appears and crowns you with the crown that never fades (1 Peter 5:4).
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