An Alert Church
As we examine, this morning, what it means to be an "alert church", we will see that being alert means far more than staying awake during a sermon. We will soon see that being alert must be our constant disposition, and that, the health of our church depends on this.
When I think of people who need to be particularly alert, I immediately think of police officers and security guards. The police officer needs to be alert enough to recognize potential threats to public safety. And, in a similar manner, a security guard is usually assigned to guard something of tremendous value.
I confess to you, that when I think of people who need to be alert, I do not immediately think of church leaders. Yet, on more than one occasion, the apostle Paul admonishes church leaders to be on the alert.
In his farewell speech to the church at Ephesus, the apostle Paul exhorted the leaders to "Be on guard" for themselves and "for all the flock"(Acts 20:28). And, in his final letter to Timothy, Paul wrote "Guard, through the Holy Spirit . . . the treasure which has been entrusted to you"(2Tim.1:14).
In these admonitions we see a two-pronged threat to guard against. There is the threat against "the flock" and, there is the threat against the gospel. There is a threat against the people, and there is a threat against what the people possess. And, as we will soon see, these two threats are related.
In Acts 20, if I were to take you to the beginning of Paul's farewell speech to the Ephesians, you would see that Paul's focus was on what he had taught them. In verse 24, Paul says to the Ephesians, "the ministry which I received from the Lord Jesus" was to "testify solemnly of the gospel of the grace of God". Paul goes on to remind them of his work of "preaching the kingdom (of God)"(v.25) and that "(he) did not shrink from declaring to (them) the whole purpose of God"(v.27).
It is important that we notice that the admonition to "be on guard" for the flock immediately follows Paul's reminding the Ephesians of his gospel-preaching ministry. A safe inference then is that the danger to the flock is directly related to the handling of the gospel.
We see this also in Paul's second letter to Timothy, when Paul exhorts Timothy, "Retain the standard of sound words which you have heard from me" and "Guard, through the Holy Spirit . . . the treasure which has been entrusted to you"(2Tim. 1:13,14).
What are these "sound words" which need retaining? What is this treasure we must guard? Surely, the reference here is to the gospel. If the church is to be in good health, if the flock is to enjoy safety, the gospel of Jesus Christ must be guarded at all cost.
Commenting on Paul's exhortation, John Calvin writes, "the corruption of doctrine is a most deadly plague to the sheep".
We should also notice, in these exhortations to be alert, what Paul does not warn us about. Notice that Paul does not warn them about balancing the budget. Paul does not warn them about how the church building might be decorated in his absence, and he does not warn them about those who might try to introduce contemporary choruses. No, Paul's greatest concern is doctrine--specifically the gospel of Jesus Christ.
What breaks my heart is not the fact that people within the Christian Church fight and argue. What breaks my heart is that people in the Christian Church fight and argue about the wrong things. What breaks my heart is that we tend to guard the things that are not treasures and we leave unguarded the things of greatest value.
How shall we guard this treasure? How shall we defend the gospel from danger? I once read that defending the gospel was like defending a lion, "But who ever heard of defending a lion? Just turn it loose; it will defend itself."
The way we guard the gospel is by putting it on display and setting it loose. This is very different from the way we guard most things. If we possess something of great value, we usually guard it by hiding it or locking it away. But we are not called to hide the gospel, rather, we are called to set it loose.
This will help us apply Paul's statement in Acts 20:28, "Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock". The reason we have to guard against ourselves is because of our tendency to stand in front of the gospel. It too often happens that, in the church--in our decision making--we tend to suppress the gospel and we allow ourselves to be governed, instead, by human wisdom.
I hope you will not misunderstand me---I am not suggesting that we throw reason and pragmatism out the window. But we must guard against replacing the gospel with human wisdom.
Notice that Paul begins by addressing the elders here. Speaking to the elders, Paul says "Be on guard for yourselves" and then "for all the flock". If our minister and elders allow themselves to be ruled by human wisdom, how can we expect anything else from the rest of the church?
The minister and elders must be examples of individuals who will guard against the tendency to be ruled by human wisdom. The minister and elders must be examples of individuals who let the gospel loose to govern their lives.
Friends, there is a real temptation to suppress the gospel. There is a real temptation to want to cage the gospel. We must guard against ourselves doing this and we must guard against letting others do it in our midst. For the suppression of the gospel is not some anomaly, but something Paul expected the church to be constantly fighting against. In verse 29 and following, Paul says, "I know that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among our own selves men will arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them. Therefore, be on the alert"(Acts 20:29-31).
Paul's fear is that, after labouring to faithfully preach the gospel of Christ, opponents would come forth "speaking perverse things" and lead the people away. Paul knew that if the gospel was caged, perverse teachings would prevail.
At first reading, I found this talk of "savage wolves" among us to be quite unsettling. But the truth is, it does not have to be this way.
Paul is not describing a present reality here. Paul is describing the condition of a church that has suppressed the gospel.
While Paul was in Ephesus, he preached the gospel--he declared to them "the whole counsel of God". But now, Paul's departure created the possibility that the gospel might not continue to be faithfully proclaimed. And, Paul, not wanting this to be the case, warns the Ephesians of what could potentially lie ahead. If the gospel was not set loose, perverse doctrines would be free to roam.
Friends, we do not want strange doctrines to reign in this church. Let us, therefore, "be on guard". Let us "be on the alert" for the sake of the gospel. Let us be comfortable without being sleepy. For the opposite of an "alert church" is a "sleepy church". I have seen sleepy churches. I have seen the strange doctrines that make inroads in sleepy congregations.
Thankfully, not only has Paul provided ample warning, but he has reminded us of our motivation for being on the alert. Our motivation is provided in Acts 20:28 when we are reminded that God has purchased the Church with His blood.
We guard our valuables closely because of what they are worth and what it cost us to obtain them. And here, we learn how precious the Church is to God--so precious, that silver and gold could not redeem us. Surely there is no greater motivation to serve God joyfully than the consideration that the Church has been purchased by the blood of Christ.
The Church has been purchased by the blood of Christ, and the deed of the purchase is the gospel. We must, therefore, guard this deed at all cost. Yet, we must not guard the deed by locking it up, but we must set it loose upon our community. We must set it against human wisdom. For the gospel, and the gospel alone, is the power of God unto salvation (Rom. 1:16). Amen.