Take heed to yourself and to all the flock

St_Paul_Preaching(Acts 20 : 6–18 ; 28–36)

Usually apostolic readings are directed from priests to the faithful people. The epistle is read so that the faithful people of God may learn and become closer to the Lord. But sometimes, you see, the holy epistle is dedicated to  the shepherds of the Lord’s flock, so that they may be reminded of the immense honour bestowed upon them and the even greater number of responsibilities that they have taken upon themselves.

The holy Apostle Paul is nearing the end of his earthly life. He is on his way to Jerusalem and is in a hurry to reach the holy city in time for the feast of the Pentecost (Acts 20:16). “From Miletus he sent to Ephesus and called for the elders of the church (Acts 20:17). And he said to them, “And see, now I go bound in the spirit to Jerusalem, not knowing the things that will happen to me there, except that the Holy Spirit testifies in every city, saying that chains and tribulations await me” (Acts 20:22-23).

The good Apostle most certainly did not know the details of the fate that awaited him, but he knew that the holy city was a stopping place for him on his way to Rome. He knew very well the trouble that he would encounter in Jerusalem and he rejoiced in the face of the fetters and sufferings that awaited him there. He even chides those who attempt to save him from persecution and advise him against stopping in Jerusalem. “What do you mean by weeping and breaking my heart? For I am ready not only to be bound, but to die at Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus” (Acts 21:13). And to the assembly of elders of the church, he says, “but none of these things move me; nor do I count my life dear to myself , so that I may finish my race with joy and the ministry which I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God” (Acts 20:24).

As we can see, the holy Apostle does not fear for his own life. His only measure for each step he takes and for each breath he draws is the Lord. His only concern was what would happen to his work and the church. This is why he called the assembly of elders from the churches he had founded to counsel them for the last time. “Therefore take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood. For I know this, that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock. Also from among yourselves men will rise up, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after themselves (Acts 20:28-30).

It immediately catches our eye that the Apostle instructs the church elders first to take heed to themselves and only then, to the flock (Acts 20:28).

A priest, and especially a bishop (this epistle is directed primarily at the bishops of the Church) loses the right to teach others if he loses his reputation and if he alienates himself from holiness by his sins, be they public or secret. He must always be ready, like the holy Apostle Paul, to be held accountable for all his deeds and actions, to look his people in the eye and to say, “Imitate me, just as I also imitate Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1).

What do the people except from a priest, let alone a bishop? Above all and before all – a life in holiness. “A good shepherd is true to his calling, for he himself holds fast to the values he teaches to others” (I. Mazuranic).

The holy Apostle tells the elders to “take heed to all the flock” (Acts 20:28), not only the healthy, but also the sick, not only the strong, but also the weak, not only the responsible but also the irresponsible and, finally, not only the faithful but also, and even more so, the non-believers.

Why does the Apostle care so much?

Of course, he knows the depth of time and can foresee the difficulties that lie ahead for the entire Church. There are times which are truly dangerous, such as the times we are living in now. All moral values and standards have dropped to the lowest possible level. It is a time when priests are not priests any more, neither are soldiers, nor national leaders. Through the prophet Ezekiel the Lord compares such lawlessness with an entire land, and says that in such a land the priests violate the law of the Lord and profane His holy things. “Neither have they shown difference between the clean and the unclean, the holy and the profane. The Lord says that He Himself is profaned among them. “Her princes in the midst thereof are like wolves ravening the prey, to shed blood, and to destroy souls, to get dishonest gain. And her prophets have daubed her with untempered mortar, seeing vanity and diving lies unto them, saying ‘Thus saith the Lord God’ when the lord had not spoken” (Ez. 22:26-28).

The holy Apostle Paul knew that such times were coming, and he told the assembled bishops that upon his departure, these things would come to pass in the local churches. “For I know this, that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock. And also from among yourselves men will rise up, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after themselves” (Acts 20:29-30). In the Revelation we read about the terrible consequences of the works of false prophets who come “in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves” (Mt. 7:15).

Just a few examples: the church in Ephesus showed labor and patience, and could not bear those who were evil. They tested those who said they were Apostles but were not. All this and more did the faithful of Ephesus do, but the Lord had this against them: that they had left their first love (Rev. 2:2-4). The Lord credits them with hating the works of the Nicolaitans, the heretics, which He also hated (Rev. 2:6). This was not the case with the church in Pergamos, because there the faithful still held on to the doctrine of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the children of Israel , to eat things sacrificed to idols, and to commit sexual immorality (Rev. 2:14). There were also those who followed the heresy of the Nicolaitans (Rev. 2:15). The Lord chastised the church in Thyatira saying that it allowed the woman Jezebel, who called herself a prophetess, to teach and seduce His servants (i.e. priests) to commit sexual immorality and to eat things sacrificed to idols” (Acts 2:20).

Among the church elders which Apostle Paul assembled were certainly the leaders of the church in Ephesus and, most probably the elders from other local churches, which are mentioned in the second chapter of the Revelation. Paul advised all of them very firmly to take heed to themselves and to all the flock (Acts 20:28), always bearing in mind their immense responsibility before the Lord, who is the true Shepherd of the flock. The Lord bought His flock for a dear price (1 Cor. 7:23), His own blood (Acts 20:28), a fact that they must never forget and think that they are the masters of the flock. They are the shepherds, and above them all is the Chief Shepherd. The Holy Apostle Peter agrees fully with St. Paul. Using almost identical words, he instructs the church elders to serve as overseers of the flock, “not by compulsion, but willingly, not for dishonest gain but eagerly, not as being lords over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock, and when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that does not fade away” (1 Pet. 5:2-4).

There were barren figs in the times of the Apostles – those who blasphemed about that which they knew nothing of. They were waterless clouds, blown around by the winds, withered, fruitless trees, twice dead and pulled up by the roots, raging waves of the sea, foaming up their own shame (Jude 1:10-13). These evil-minded people did not have internet so that, hidden away safely in their dens, they could slander the shepherds of their church. Nonetheless, with whatever means they did possess, they gave quite a lot of trouble to the holy men of God. St. Paul did not fear them because he had lived in all good conscience before God (Acts 23:1). However, he always kept an eye on them and was prepared to deal with their evil ways in every moment. This is why he always tried to ‘cut off the opportunity from those who desire an opportunity” (2 Cor. 11:12). He also says, “I have coveted no one’s silver or gold or apparel. You yourselves know,” he said to the church elders, “that these hands have provided for my necessities, and for those who were with me (Acts 20:33-34). He burdened no one (2 Cor. 12:16). He preached the Gospel for free. Although he lived in poverty, he never bothered anyone. He calls upon God as his witness when he says that “neither at any time did we use flattering words, nor a cloak for covetousness” (1 Thess. 2:5).

St. Paul did not write this to boast, but to encourage the church elders to do likewise, setting his own example before them. “I have shown you in every way, by laboring like this, that you must support the weak” (Acts 20:35).

And if they, the church elders, while caring for others, begin worrying who will take care of them, he commends them to God and to the word of His grace, which is able to build them up and give them an inheritance among all those who are sanctified (Acts 20:32)