Bill Mounce

For an Informed Love of God

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Monday, January 29, 2024

Commas and Meaning, and are Your Elders Biblical? (Acts 20:28)

Pete wrote me the other day about commas and how they can affect the meaning of a passage. Acts 20:28 does have a lot of phrases, and the commas are the translators’ way of trying to help convey the meaning of the verse. But what modifies what? And perhaps, more importantly, are your elders appointed by the Holy Spirit or by people?

Here is the verse. “Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock (προσέχετε ἑαυτοῖς καὶ παντὶ τῷ ποιμνίῳ) of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers (ἐν ᾧ ὑμᾶς τὸ πνεῦμα τὸ ἅγιον ἔθετο ἐπισκόπους). Be shepherds of the church of God (ποιμαίνειν τὴν ἐκκλησίαν τοῦ θεοῦ), which he bought with his own blood (ἣν περιεποιήσατο διὰ τοῦ αἵματος τοῦ ἰδίου” (NIV).

The translations are in basic agreement as to how to translate this sentence. Surprisingly, the ESV misses the metaphor of the elders’ role as “shepherding” the church of God (“to care for the church of God”). The NLT also misses it when they write, “So guard yourselves and God’s people.” Luke provides a nice play on words when he says they should watch over the flock (ποιμνίῳ) and shepherd (ποιμαίνειν) the church.

Part of the answer is that the original text did not have commas, and punctuation was not added until hundreds of years later. What we have in Greek are a series of dependent clauses with internal connectors indicating what modifies what. The elders are the subject of the main verb, “Keep watch.” The prepositional phrase “of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers” modifies “flock.” The infinitive “be shepherds” gives the purpose for which they were appointed as leaders, and the relative clause “which he bought with his own blood“ tells you something about the church and why the elders should do their jobs well.

The process of appointing elders is a significantly difficult process, which is why we are working on a leadership track at The elders are to watch over their own attitudes and actions, recognizing that the church is a flock of sheep that are so important to God because they were purchased by Christ's blood. The elders are appointed not by the elders or the church but by the Holy Spirit, and they are called not to control the church but to shepherd the people.

If you've been in church leadership very long, you will know that these requirements are rarely reflected in the leadership structure of a church. Creating a leadership culture in which leaders are raised up and nurtured is extremely difficult and time-consuming. How many elders really see the church as something so precious that Jesus died for it and something that should be cared for and not ruled over or a place to advance their own agenda? Most churches don’t understand Paul’s view of church leadership in which God gave “pastors and teachers to equip his people for works of service” (Eph 4:11) but rather expect the staff to do the work of ministry, which of course means there is not sufficient time or energy for the pastors and teachers to equip the people for works of service. What you tend to end up with is an unbiblical church that is unable to truly advance the cause of Christ.

If anyone out there knows how to identify future elders who have been appointed by the Holy Spirit, please let me know.