by Brad Dupray
I was standing by my father’s bedside watching him slowly pass, his tired body worn down from years of fighting cancer and having suffered a debilitating stroke. He was virtually comatose. At the time I was just learning how to be an elder myself, as my Dad had been for my entire life.
Across from me stood one of Dad’s fellow elders, Don. He was just one of many elders and friends who came and went from the hospital to pray with Dad and our family. That day, Don was simply doing what elders do – shepherding God’s flock. As we stood there quietly talking, Dad opened his eyes for a moment, looked straight at Don and said, “I love you.”
Those were his final words.
If you suddenly woke to say your final words to someone at your bedside, what would you say? For Dad, it was to a fellow church leader, a brother elder. Paul had a similar experience, though he had plenty of time to gather his thoughts. Acts 20 records one of the greatest “final words” discourses we find in the Bible.
Paul spent three years in Ephesus leading the church, teaching the elders how to “eld.” On that day, he was en route to Jerusalem, anticipating a confrontation which would lead him to the emperor in Rome – and likely to his death. This was the day he would say his final words to elders he had grown to love, so he chose those words wisely.
He told them to “be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock … [because] savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock.” Having served as an elder for fourteen years myself, now, I have seen savage wolves. Sometimes they are passive-aggressive. Sometimes they are just aggressive. Paul’s warning to be “alert” was an homage to the work he had done, “declaring to you anything that was profitable, and teaching you publicly and from house to house.” When elders fulfill their responsibility to teach the whole counsel of God, they are protecting the flock.
Paul also told them, “In everything I showed you that … you must help the weak.” Jesus’ brother James said that “pure and undefiled religion … is this: to visit orphans and widows in their distress…” When trouble brewed in Acts 6 because the Greek widows “were being overlooked in the daily serving of food,” the Apostles (de-facto elders at the time) could have jumped in and handled the practical issue themselves. Instead, they delegated: “It is not desirable for us to neglect the word of God in order to serve tables.” Their appointment of fellow servant-leaders, “men of good reputation, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, [that they could] put in charge of this task,” ensured that the weak were provided-for. The overseers devoted themselves to the most important task, which was teaching the Word of God. Paul’s admonition reminded the Ephesian elders it was ultimately their responsibility to see that the vulnerable were helped.
Finally, Paul put to his friends a nugget of truth from the Master: “remember the words of the Lord Jesus, that He Himself said, `It is more blessed to give than to receive.’” As our culture shifts toward leadership by Millennials they want to know: how are we modeling compassion? As often is the case, the church can be a step behind the culture. What are we doing to reach out to the disenfranchised? What can elders do to lead their church in showing the community – and the world – that we aren’t trapped by our own four walls, that we’re generously compassionate?
Several elders at our church told me it was Dad’s custom to close each elders’ meeting by saying, “I love you guys.” It wasn’t trite; it came from the heart. We can learn a lot from final words. When Paul finished speaking to the Ephesian elders “he knelt down and prayed with them all. And they began to weep … grieving especially over the word which he had spoken, that they would not see his face again.”
But they would never forget his final words:
Protect the flock.
Help the weak.