We live in a society increasingly more fit to create celebrities than leaders. After all, it’s much easier to raise up mere celebrities than it is to raise up true leaders.
Another way to say it is that we are prone to create faux leaders rather than real leaders. “Celebrities,” at least the way I’m using the term here, are people who garner mass attention as objects of our interest and entertainment, but don’t actually serve in any significant way to lead, guide, or help our lives.
- Celebrities make headlines. Leaders make sacrifices and hard decisions.
- Celebrities get rich. Leaders enrich the lives of others.
- Celebrities receive inordinate attention from those who “follow” them. Leaders are eager to give their attention to those whom they lead.
- Celebrities are in it for their own benefit. Leaders are in it for the benefit of others.
- Celebrities angle for the spotlight. Leaders spotlight the good in others and in some great, worthy cause.
Just because someone has many “followers” — whether it’s album sales, book sales, concert attendance, downloads, social media metrics — that does not mean they are truly a leader.
And when we come to the Bible, we find a world of difference between the substance of true leadership and the emptiness of twenty-first century celebrity. Yet even in the church, it’s very easy for us to be confused about the differences.
What’s remarkable about this passage in Acts 20 is that it pulls back the curtain on the nature of true leadership. Here we see the apostle Paul, perhaps the greatest leader in the history of the world, save only Jesus, in one of the most solemn and emotional moments in the story of the early church.
Paul gathers the leaders from the young church in one of the world’s leading cities, Ephesus. He had spent three years with them; now, like Jesus, he is headed to Jerusalem and anticipating that trouble awaits him there — perhaps, like his Lord, he is walking into the very jaws of the lion in coming to this city.
En route, Paul summons the leaders from the Ephesian church to the beach at Miletus. Ephesus is inland, about 30 miles from the port city of Miletus. There Paul meets them and gives them what is essentially his last will and testament for them. It is the only major speech in Acts that is addressed to Christians. “Of all Paul’s speeches in Acts, it has the most in common with his letters, which were addressed to Christians” (ESVSB).
Five Differences Between Celebrities and Leaders
As we come to this scene now, some two millennia later, it is remarkable to see the contrast between the true leadership on display in the instruction and life of the apostle Paul, and how such a vision contrasts with the prevailing notions of leadership — or better, celebrity — in our world today.
Our faux leaders today — our mere celebrities — are typically the rich and famous who are mainly receivers, not givers. They are not really one of us, but a cut above the masses in looks, smarts, skills, and access. They are not commoners, but pursued by their own paparazzi of whatever sort. They are typically at great pains not to offend — at least not to offend a certain group of people, the social elites and the scrupulously politically correct. They have learned to tell their followers what they want to hear. They typically are in it for personal benefit and comfort, not ready to endure whatever the cost. And many are even ready to have as much control of our lives as we’ll give them — ready to tell us exactly what to do and how to live our lives — because they are so manifestly successful that we should do what they’ve done.
But the biblical portrait, and the life and teaching of the apostle Paul here in Acts 20, provides a very different paradigm for leadership than the prevailing notions in our society today. In God’s common grace, there are some points of overlap, but also there are many stark contrasts. And Acts 20 helps illumine for us at least five that we should take note of and make sure are part of our framework for what true leadership is in our church, and in our families, and in our others spheres. We want our understanding and practice of leadership to be Christian, from the Scriptures, not imbibed from the world around us.
Let’s look, then, at five ways that true Christian leaders are different than today’s mere celebrities.
1) Christian leaders live among the people. (vv. 18–19)
“You yourselves know how I lived among you the whole time from the first day that I set foot in Asia, 19 serving the Lord with all humility and with tears and with trials that happened to me through the plots of the Jews . . .”
“Living among the people” is not only about accessibility, and not being removed from the commoners, but identity. Christian leaders identify with their people. Not above them; with them. They know deep down that they are first and foremost sheep, not shepherds. Jesus is the Great Shepherd; they serve him (“serving the Lord,” v. 19) as undershepherds, but there is no fundamental difference between church leaders and the average-Joe Christian.
As such influential teacher and missionary, Paul could have lived a cut above the people. He could have claimed apostolic privilege, kept largely to his generous accommodations, and descended on occasion to deliver his words of wisdom to the rank-and-file. Yet Paul “lived among” them from the first day, and his whole time in Ephesus. He was one of them. He never removed himself from the people, but identified with them — “with all humility and with tears.”
So it is with true leaders today. While celebrities separate themselves from the masses with privilege and fences and bodyguards, Christian leaders live among the people. They know they are first and foremost sheep. Their basic identity is being a sheep of the Good Shepherd, not in being his undersheperd. Their joy is not in being leaders, but in being saved. They are more excited about Jesus’s ministry than their own.
Which relates to what we see here in Acts 20. Here is Paul the apostle speaking to the leaders of the Ephesian church, and yet it is here in the Bible for all Christians to read and know.
Christian leadership is not a fraternity or moose lodge with clandestine initiation rights and top-secret information. It’s all out in the open. Here in Acts 20, for all to see, is the emotional final message Paul gave the Ephesians elders. And the Pastoral Epistles were written to Paul’s protégés Timothy and Titus, but for the whole church at Ephesus and Crete to hear. Because there is no fundamental difference between the official leader and the average-Joe Christian.
In some sense, all Christians are called to lead, as Hebrews grieves, “by this time you ought to be teachers” (Heb. 5:12). That’s why this chapter — and this sermon — is relevant for the whole church, not just formal officers. Yes, we do make a place for remembering our leaders (Heb. 13:7), and respecting and esteeming them (1 Thess. 5:12), and doing whatever we can to let them lead with joy (Heb. 13:17). But we don’t give them a pass on normal, human, Christian stuff. We hold them accountable as one of us, as sheep.
Which relates to one thing we should note briefly here in Acts 20. Look at verse 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 . . .”
Leaders must “pay careful attention” to themselves. They themselves are sinners. “Spiritual leaders need first of all to guard their own spiritual and moral purity” (ESVSB).
Note also that “pastor” and “elder” and “overseer” (or “bishop”) all refer to the same office in this chapter, and through the New Testament. Verse 17 says Paul gathered the “elders.” Verse 28 says these elders are “overseers” who “care for” — or literally “pastor” — “the church of God.”
There’s more to say about verse 28, which is Paul’s main charge to the Ephesians elders, and we’ll come back to that at the end.
So, number one, Christian leaders are not removed from the flock, or treated as a cut above the rest, or given fundamentally different treatment, but rather they live among the people, as first and foremost members of the flock.
2) Christian leaders tell the whole truth. (vv. 20–21, 26–27)
Not only is relationality essential (living among the flock), but they also intentionality in declaring to the flock “everything that was profitable,” that is, “the whole counsel of God.”
Look at verses 20–21, and then we’ll jump down to verses 26–27:
“. . . I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, and teaching you in public and from house to house, 21 testifying both to Jews and to Greeks of repentance toward God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. . . .
I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all, 27 for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God.”
So unlike our mere celebrities who carefully calibrate their words in half truths to tell their followers what they know they want to hear, Paul says twice that he “did not shrink from declaring . . .” The first time he says, “. . . anything that was profitable”; the second time he says, “. . . the whole counsel of God.” In other words, Paul unfolded for the people all of God’s words, all of God’s revelation, his whole counsel, all God has to say to humanity. And as Paul says in 2 Timothy 3:16, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness . . .” The “whole counsel” in verse 27 is what is “profitable” in verse 20.
Paul says he “did not shrink from declaring,” because in every generation there is pressure to silence something (typically many things) that God has revealed. Every generation pressures us to declare only part of God’s counsel.
Yes, yes, tell us all about the love of God, and mercy and forgiveness, but do not tell us that he has righteous wrath toward those who have rebelled against him, that he has laws we have broken, and that those who don’t embrace Jesus as the one shield from his wrath, will experience eternal, conscious justice in hell.
Don’t talk to us about our sin. Don’t talk to us about God being the designer and creator of human sexuality, that he is one who truly knows and reveals the purpose and context for sex, and that we cannot simply do as we consent and prefer.
Don’t tell us he is absolutely sovereign and that his rule and reign and prerogative are deeper and extend further than my seemingly free choices.
Say what you will to build my self-esteem, and prop up my sense of autonomy, but don’t preach to us the whole counsel of what God has revealed about himself and humanity and his world.
Mere celebrities will buckle under this pressure; they likely buckled long before they became well known. But true Christian leaders will not buckle. They will tell the whole truth, like Paul, and not shrink from declaring “the whole counsel of God” — which will not hurt people, but prove eternally “profitable.”
3) Christian leaders are not scared off by hardship. (vv. 22–25, 29–31)
“And now, behold, I am going to Jerusalem, constrained by the Spirit, not knowing what will happen to me there, 23 except that the Holy Spirit testifies to me in every city that imprisonment and afflictions await me. 24 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. 25 And now, behold, I know that none of you among whom I have gone about proclaiming the kingdom will see my face again. . . .
29 I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; 30 and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them. 31 Therefore be alert, remembering that for three years I did not cease night or day to admonish every one with tears.
Hear at least two types of hardship in these verses — and they are representative of the many types of hardships leaders will face and must endure: hardship for Paul, verse 23: “imprisonment and afflictions await me” hardship for the Ephesian elders, verse 29: “fierce wolves will come in”
Many celebrities are in as long as it’s easy; true leaders endure through hardship, whether the affliction of circumstances or the conflict of difficult relationships.
And here again is another place we see the shared fundamental identity of Christian leaders with every believer, as Paul taught every Christian, not just the leaders, in Acts 14:22, “through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.”
Christian leaders must not be scared away by affliction and conflict, because these are the precise times when the flock most needs leadership and care. Leaders aren’t mainly there for the good days and the easy times. The time the church most needs calm, firm, gracious, unflinching leadership (like admonishing with tears, v. 31) is when hardship comes. If the shepherds run, who will protect the flock from wolves — and from themselves?
4) Christian leaders know the joy of giving. (vv. 33–35)
This is no mere icing on the cake; this is an essential ingredient in the mixture of what true leadership is. This is at the very heart of what it means to be a leader, and what it means to be Christian. The best leadership training in the world is Christianity. No other vision of reality and everyday life so transcendently prepares so many diverse people for, and sustains them in, the true labor of leadership. The ultimate curriculum in leadership is the gospel.
Look at verses 33–35:
“I coveted no one’s silver or gold or apparel. 34 You yourselves know that these hands ministered to my necessities and to those who were with me. 35 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.’”
Christian leadership is fundamentally giving, not receiving. Unlike the modern notion of celebrity, it is not about receiving attention and status and money and benefits; it is fundamentally about giving yourself, your time, your energy — sacrificing yourself — for the good of others. Not fleecing the flock for its attention, but paying attention to the flock, for its good and protection and health. True Christian leadership is fundamentally self-sacrificial.
This is where Paul’s emotional farewell address here on the beach connects back to what’s going on in the first half of Acts 20 (verses 1–16). He is headed to Jerusalem, working hard to bring financial help from the Gentile churches to the weak and needy Jerusalem church. He left Ephesus in verse 1 to swing back to Macedonia and Greece to get the collection. Now he’s coming back through and is hurrying to get to Jerusalem by Pentecost, when perhaps the most worshipers have come in from out of town.
So, Paul’s life backs up his words here. He is living this when he says these essential words for leaders, “Remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’”
Knowing this and feeling this deep down — that it truly is happier to give than receive — is essential for leadership in the church. Pastors are to be “workers for your joy” (2 Cor. 1:24), who best labor for the true joy of their people when they themselves are joyful (Heb. 13:17).
5) Christian leaders trust God and his gospel. (v. 32)
Because God is who he is, and the message of the gospel is what it is, Christian leaders are free to be influencers, not controllers. We don’t commend our people to our own selves and our wisdom, but God and his gospel. We are happy to influence the flock and point them toward God, and trust them to the Holy Spirit, and not have the final control. Verse 32:
“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.”
Let’s make sure we know “the word of his grace” is. Just a few verses back, we saw Paul mention God’s grace in verse 24: “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.”
So, verse 24: “the gospel of the grace of God.” And now verse 32: “the word of his grace.” These are two ways of same thing. The very message which Paul gives his life to spread is the same message to which he entrusts these Ephesian elders whom he so dearly loves and anticipates never seeing again.
At first glance, this might seem like a leadership fail. “C’mon, Paul, can’t you do better than this. These are leaders in the church. Don’t you have some special word just for leaders? Don’t you have some unexpected insight or creative charge you can give them?”
But Paul knows that the same gospel to which he gives his life is the same gospel that not only brings us into the kingdom, but is the very message on which we live everyday of our lives, and will for all eternity. It is not some new, creative instruction or fresh leadership insight, but it is the gospel that “is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified.” Again we see the leader’s fundamental identify with the people.
And so Paul says farewell to these dearly loved Ephesian elders, with whom he invested three years of his life. He will not seek to control them from afar, but he leaves them to the wise hand and Spirit of God. And the message he commends to them is not some new leadership insight or counsel, but the very heart of Christianity, that Jesus saves sinners. This message gives new life to the lost — and is what builds up and sustains the found. Paul is no motivational speaker to the strong; he is a preacher of good news to the weak.
Which is why we so desperately want to be all about the gospel at Cities Church. We aim to be a gospel-loving, gospel-preoccupied church. And we believe that when a church is constantly gospel-minded and relentlessly gospel-occupied, that church is not shallow, but truly Christian.
To the Table
Let’s go back to verse 28 as we transition to the Table:
“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.”
Christian leaders care for the church as Jesus’s blood-bought bride. And as we said, Christian leaders are themselves first and foremost members of this blood-bought bride. We all eat together at the same Table. We are of the same flock, all sheep, not essentially different from the average-Joe Christian. Our great glory is not to be leaders, but to be saved. As Jesus said in Luke 10:20: “Do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” We rejoice not in fruitful ministry and seemingly successful leadership, but that Jesus has saved us from our sins, that we are his, and that he himself is the great treasure that truly satisfies our weary souls.