2017/08/20 SERMON: “Elders Who Shepherd God’s Church”「神の教会を牧会する長老」
TEXT: Titus 1:1-5
I. INTRODUCTION The Important Mission Entrusted to Titus
When the apostle Paul spoke to the elders of the church in Ephesus, on what he expected would be his last opportunity to visit them, he gave them this command: “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” (Acts 20:28). How important is the work of elders in the church of Jesus Christ? It is so important that only God the Holy Spirit can place a man in that office. It is not people, but God Himself, who makes elders or “overseers.” To these men God entrusts the care of the church that He bought with His own blood! By His own blood Jesus, God’s Son, paid for our sins and set us free to live for Him. But the world is a dangerous place for followers of Jesus. Christ’s church must somehow be planted and grow in a dark world that is self-centered and proud, that despises the holy and true God. This world is the place where we who follow the Lord Jesus must live and work. Jesus once said to His followers, “Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves” (Matt. 10:16). How can the church survive, let alone thrive, in such a dangerous world? One way that Christ has provided for the protection and nurture of His church is through the gift of elders. As we take up Paul’s letter to Titus, I want to think about this gift—the gift of elders—that the Lord Jesus provides for His church. The primary purpose for this letter is to instruct Titus and the churches he serves about the selection of elders. Because our church is planning an election for elder and deacons this fall, we must think carefully about this subject.
In the very beginning of this letter Paul emphasizes, first of all, how important elders are for the health and safety of the churches. Secondly, Paul explains how to recognize the elders God has given to every church. Let’s take a look at what Paul writes to Titus in these first five verses.
II. THE NECESSITY OF ELDERS AND HOW TO FIND THEM (1:1-5)
Churches that are planning to elect elders frequently skip over the opening verses of Paul’s letter in order to take up the specific qualifications Paul has listed for the “overseer” in verses 6-9. But even in Paul’s greeting to Titus we can learn something about the importance of elders. First, Paul tells us that what he says about choosing elders is not merely his own personal opinion or advice. This is God’s express command; and faithful churches will obey. Notice how Paul introduces himself: “Paul, a servant (actually ‘slave’) of God and an apostle of Jesus Christ.” We should realize that this letter was not intended only for Titus himself, but for the churches to read also. Titus was Paul’s close friend and companion in the gospel ministry. I do not think that Titus needed to be reminded of Paul’s authority; but the churches to which Titus was sent did need to be reminded. And churches today also need to be reminded that Paul writes his letters with God’s authority. Paul is God’s slave! A slave must do his master’s will, not his own will. But Paul is also an “apostle of Jesus Christ.” An “apostle” is a messenger who is sent with authority from the one who sent him. An apostle was like an ambassador who has authority to speak in the name of a nation or a ruler. An apostle was an official “delegate” who has authority to represent someone else. Paul says he is the official representative of the Lord Jesus Christ! As God’s servant and as Christ’s personal representative, Paul does not speak from himself, but from God.
Paul also tells us that he writes these things as Christ’s apostle in order to build up God’s chosen people in faith and knowledge of the truth. This is one reason why the church must faithfully follow God’s instructions for choosing elders. The elders God has given will be men like Paul who build up the church in faith and knowledge of the truth. They must lead the church to greater godliness, both by their example and by their teaching.
Paul says that his apostleship is based on his hope of eternal life, which God “promised before the beginning of time.” Paul knows that God is completely dependable; God does not lie. Paul’s preaching declares that God’s word is true. God has kept His promise of eternal life through Jesus Christ. This is the message God has entrusted to the apostle Paul. But you may say, “What does the choice of elders have to do with the message of the gospel or the hope of eternal life?” The answer is simple: the elders whom God gives to His churches will be men like Paul who cherish that same hope. God’s elders will be men who trust God’s word and who live by it. Like Paul, they can say, “For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Phil. 1:21). And like the apostle, God’s elders will labor to carry out the ministry that God has entrusted to them. They will work diligently to equip the saints to live with a confident hope in eternal life. Such elders will lead God’s people to set their hope, not on the things of this world, but on the world to come.
The church needs elders who, above all, will faithfully lead us to trust and to obey God’s word! For this reason, Paul commits God’s instructions about elders to his faithful friend and co-worker Titus. These instructions are extremely important for the life of the churches in Crete. Paul knows that he and Titus share the same faith and serve the same Savior. Titus is a tested and trusted co-worker in the gospel mission. Therefore, Paul left Titus on the island of Crete “to put in order what was left unfinished and to appoint elders in every town,” just as Paul had instructed him. Under Titus’ leadership, and following the apostle’s instructions, the groups of Christians meeting together in Crete would be “set in order.” That is, believers in every city would be effectively “organized” as churches, each with its own body of elders to shepherd it. One of the principles of Presbyterian church government is that each organized church must have more than one elder. That principle is shown in Paul’s instructions to Titus. In each city there must be “elders” appointed to shepherd God’s church. There is no rule about the specific number of elders for each church. But Paul says that just one elder for each church is not enough. God’s elders are essential for the health and safety of each congregation, so those churches must be diligent to find the men that God has prepared to lead them. Until God’s elders are found, churches cannot be properly “set in order,” according to the Lord’s command.
Each church must find those elders whom the Holy Spirit has prepared to shepherd them. How will Titus recognize the elders God has given to every church? In verses 6-9, Paul tells Titus how he must recognize God’s elders. Next week we will begin to consider those “qualifications.” But today I want to notice two things Paul says in v. 5. First, Paul says he has previously directed Titus how to appoint the elders. The word translated “appoint” in Greek does not mean “choose,” but rather “to put in charge.” The same verb is used in Hebrews 8:3. It says, “Every high priest is appointed to offer both gifts and sacrifices.” Paul seems to be telling Titus that he must “ordain” and “install” elders to their special “office” in the churches. Some churches have assumed that Titus is the “bishop” that Paul has sent to ordain the elders in each church. But that is a misunderstanding of his role. Titus is neither a “pastor” of any one church, nor a “bishop” who rules over a group of churches. Titus, like Paul, is a “missionary.” On this occasion, Titus is Paul’s special representative to oversee the election of elders in the cities of Crete. After his important work of ordaining elders and organizing the churches is completed, Paul wants Titus to join him and return to missionary work in Nicopolis in northern Greece (3:12). So we cannot think that Titus is “bishop of Crete” in the sense of the later Roman Catholic or Episcopal church office.
In vv. 6-9 Paul gives a list of qualifications for elders, but as I mentioned earlier, this list is not just for Titus. It is for the church members to study and to think about carefully. That is because it was Paul’s practice to ask each church to choose its own elders, following God’s instructions. Paul did not simply choose whomever he wished. Two scriptural examples show how Paul chose God’s elders for each church. The first passage is Acts 14:23. During Paul’s first missionary journey, he preached the good news of salvation through faith in Christ in the cities of Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey). Verse 23 says, “Paul and Barnabas appointed elders for them in each church and, with prayer and fasting, committed them to the Lord, in whom they had put their trust.” Wherever people turned to God and believed in Jesus Christ, Paul and Barnabas appointed elders for each church. But the word translated “appointed” (選び) is an unusual Greek word. It means “to choose by raising the hands” (xeirotoneo). In other words, Paul and Barnabas held an “election” so that each congregation could choose its own elders, according to God’s instructions. This word is also used in 2 Corinthians 8:19. In this passage Paul says that Timothy was “chosen by the churches to accompany us as we carry the offering.” Here it is clear that Timothy was chosen by the congregations, rather than by Paul. Of course, it is not an election for elder in this case, but the word’s meaning is obviously “to elect by vote of the church,” and not simply “to appoint.” It also shows the way God’s elders were chosen under the apostle’s oversight. The important thing we should notice is that even the apostle Paul did not assert his own authority to select the elders in any church. He asked the members in each church to choose their own elders, according to the standards or qualifications that God had given them. That is still an important principle which we follow today in Presbyterian churches. God has not given the responsibility and the guidance of the Holy Spirit to recognize God’s elders to just one “bishop,” or even to one “session.” This responsibility and guidance God has given to the entire body of believers.
We can understand the wisdom of following this principle. People will not trust and follow the guidance of an elder if they have not personally recognized his spiritual gifts. But if they have come to know him and have tested his spiritual character and recognize his qualifications, then they can wholeheartedly elect and follow him as their elder. In Titus’ situation, it was impossible for him personally to judge the qualifications of every man in every church he visited in Crete. How much wiser it is to teach the members of every church to recognize the qualities of a godly elder! Then the members of each church will be able to recognize and elect God’s elders according to the standards that God Himself has established.
As we conclude our brief examination of the opening verses of this apostolic letter, I want to repeat some of the principles of biblical Presbyterianism which we must not forget. First, churches that are carefully “put in order” according to God’s plan should have more than one elder to shepherd the flock of God. Plurality of elders is one fundamental principle. The church should never become the dominion of a single leader, because the temptation for one leader to become a “dictator” is too great. As Peter says in 1 Peter 5:3, God’s elder will not “lord it over those entrusted” to his care, but rather “be an example to the flock.” Second, all of the elders who serve the church are equal in authority. There is no hierarchy of elders, pastors, and bishops. In fact, as we shall see next week, the elder and the “bishop” are the same office, according to the Scriptures. Third, when our church chooses elders, we must choose according to the standards that God has established. For elders are not made by men, but by the Holy Spirit. Let us pray for wisdom, so that God will be honored in this election.