Elders are charged with "watch-care" over the local group of believers. Paul commands the Ephesian elders:
Keep watch over yourselves1 and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood. I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them. So be on your guard! Remember that for three years I never stopped warning each of you night and day with tears. (Acts 20:28-31 NIV emphasis mine)
I was reminded of this the other day as my wife, Becky, and I were out on the lake in our little inflatable boat. The boat has a very thin vinyl skin between us and the lake. I was quite conscious of the various dangerous projections that would occasionally come into view as we lazily floated along. There were semi-submerged logs with branches that would run out under the water with jagged broken ends. I could just imagine what one of those could do to our dinghy. But with the various reflections on the water it was sometimes not easy to see these logs. Surrounding colors and shapes danced and flashed on the ripples of the lake making seeing anything beneath the surface a considerable challenge. Even though it was supposed to be a relaxing, lazy day out on the lake I had to keep a sharp eye open. I dared not relax my watchfulness or risk the consequences of a long swim.
Drifting was another subtlety of the lake of which I had to be aware. There was only a gentle breeze that morning – which added to the sense calm, peacefulness, but that touch of a zephyr wind had its own set of dangers. I found that I could not let down my guard in terms of knowing where we were at all times. Our little dinghy was very susceptible to the slightest movement of air and would begin to go in directions that I had not intended – often toward the very logs I was trying to avoid. I found it helpful to keep a visual reference of where I was in relation to my surroundings. At one point we floated around a large log that extended a considerable distance out into the water. It was an enchanting spot with shady, overhanging branches and so we paused to look around. I also pulled out the snacks we had brought along. It didn’t take much inattention before we had begun to drift toward some rather ominous looking projections from the log. I found that I had to keep one eye on exactly where our little boat was in reference to the log. So I visually marked a reference point and using the oars kept us a safe distance away.
Then there were the rocks. This lake had some magnificent bluffs that were exciting to explore from the vantage point of a boat. There were little grottoes, ledges and scree beaches all of which enticed and drew us toward them. It was very easy to become so engrossed with the entrancing beauty that I would neglect to keep watch. However, just below the surface of the water near those ledges and cliffs were often jagged rocks. Some were far enough down that the shallow drought of our inflatable cleared them easily. Others rose up from the bottom to lurk just below the surface of the water. Often they were dark and blended into the shadows of the cliffs. Sometimes the wisest move was to just move out of those shadows and into the sunlight so that I could see better what lay ahead of us.
As I was writing this article Becky reminded me that vigilance takes nothing for granted. The very things one counts on to remain constant just might not. Twice during my rowing that day, my one oar fell apart and the paddle end of it was left floating in our wake with me holding only the handle. The one thing that I had not expected to happen – did! It happened at that one time when I had been forced to row into a bit of a stiffer wind. I think Becky had a few anxious moments there as I frantically rowed with one oar to retrieve our rapidly drifting other oar.
As we floated there, enjoying a limpid summer day on the lake, my mind went to Paul’s admonition to the Ephesian elders. He uses words like "keep watch" and "be on your guard". I was reminded of these things as I became aware of how important it was for me to do those very things while simply relaxing. The lake offered no outward warnings to me that there might be hidden dangers. The weather was not stormy, there were no large waves or driving wind or rain. There were no crashing waves against jagged, storm-swept rocks. It was an idyllic summer day but I still had to be vigilant and keep watch. Sometimes it seems to be easier to "be alert" and to "keep watch" when things are stormy and rough but we let down our guard when things seem to be sunny and calm. Paul, in his instructions to the Ephesian elders, gives no opportunity to relax. Elders are to be vigilant at all times.
A few years after Paul charged the Ephesian elders to watchfulness he appointed Timothy to follow up with this same concern. It seems that the wolves of which he had warned these elders had indeed appeared. False doctrines were being taught and the Gospel was being jeopardized. We find record of this in Paul’s first letter to Timothy.
Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the command of God our Savior and of Christ Jesus our hope, To Timothy my true son in the faith: Grace, mercy and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord. As I urged you when I went into Macedonia, stay there in Ephesus so that you may command certain men not to teach false doctrines any longer nor to devote themselves to myths and endless genealogies. These promote controversies rather than God’s work–which is by faith. The goal of this command is love, which comes from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith. Some have wandered away from these and turned to meaningless talk. They want to be teachers of the law, but they do not know what they are talking about or what they so confidently affirm. We know that the law is good if one uses it properly. We also know that law is made not for the righteous but for lawbreakers and rebels, the ungodly and sinful, the unholy and irreligious; for those who kill their fathers or mothers, for murderers, for adulterers and perverts, for slave traders and liars and perjurers–and for whatever else is contrary to the sound doctrine that conforms to the glorious gospel of the blessed God, which he entrusted to me. (1Timothy 1:1-11 NIV emphasis mine)
Maybe the elders in the Ephesian church had not been sufficiently vigilant in their watch-keeping. Maybe the enemy had come in so strongly that these elders needed Timothy’s additional help and reminder. What ever the case, it points to the fact that the struggle is real and that New Testament elders do need to keep watch. The following are some reminders that I see in this for elders today.
- As New Testament elders, we must keep our eyes fixed on our point of reference – lest we drift. Throughout the book of Hebrews the writer is quite concerned about the dangers of drifting. He enjoins his readers, "Fix your thoughts on Jesus…" (3:1) and "Let us fix our eyes on Jesus…" (12:2). In order to do this he points us to the Scriptures (4:12). This is our navigational chart. As elders, how much time do we spend in the Scriptures – looking to Jesus? How much time do we spend in developing our understanding of His ways and His thoughts?
- We must be vigilant always – no matter how calm and idyllic things may seem to be. For the New Testament elder vigilance involves keeping current on theological and cultural trends (winds and currents) that there may be. Vigilance requires checking and double checking. Never assume that the enemy is not active.
- Get out into the sunlight – avoid the shadows. To the New Testament elder confession, repentance, humility and unsullied fellowship are the compass bearings to living in the light. John the apostle gives us some instruction here (1 John 1:7 to 2:2). Keeping short accounts, living and speaking truth, these are the shafts of sunlight that we must constantly seek.
May God grant us the wisdom and grace to be alert and watchful as we diligently serve the flock that has been given to our care (1 Peter 5:2)
- 1I hope to write an article shortly about the New Testament elder’s responsibility to keep watch over his own life.