“I know that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves men will arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them. Therefore be on the alert, remembering that night and day for a period of three years I did not cease to admonish each one with tears. (Acts 20:28-31)”
Paul was clearly warning the elders at Ephesus that men bent on their own fame and agenda would come swooping in as soon as he left town to draw them away from the simplicity of the gospel. Paul broke down the gospel into two very simple principles a few verses earlier: “repentance toward God and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ”. Nothing more. Nothing less. This is a freedom bigger than many of us are prepared for. It’s so big, in fact, that in the flesh, it’s very easy to drift away from it. Enter, wolves.
Many had already picked up pieces of the gospel and tried to co-opt it for their agenda, taking grace alone and adding to it works. Some said that to follow Christ one would have to first become a Jew via rites and rituals including circumcision. This would have drawn them closer to men, not God (you’ve got to be one of us before you can be one of His). Paul outright condemns this practice and explains in later letters that it’s grace and grace alone via repentance and faith. Repentance turns us away from sin and faith knits us in to God.
Paul, by action, clearly established himself as passionate for the gospel rather than himself and ministered to all he could minister to at all costs. He didn’t ask them for money nor clothing (Acts 20:33) – just built them up, admonished them, and handed them over to deacons and elders who he here commands to “be on guard” on their behalf. Paul is clear that there is one true gospel and many false gospels that would be proclaimed by many savage wolves. He was there not to draw them to himself but to God. Good shepherds do that…
The Wolves Within
The gospel answers the greatest need we have: not a need for an earthly blessing, a bill to be paid, an illness to be mitigated, a breakthrough year, or even an addiction to drugs to be broken. God’s plan in sending Christ was far more far-sighted than any of those things. God desired to give us a blessing of freedom from sin and death, to pay the bill of eternal damnation, to cure us from the sickness of slavery to sin, to break us through the bondage of the flesh that calls out to us, to break our addiction to self. God desired in Christ to turn us away from sin and bring us back to Himself. This is the clearest characterization of the gospel – away from sin, back toward God.
But, here we are, in the temporary. And, we have bills to pay, addictions to break, years without breakthroughs, sicknesses that tire and distract us in the midst of our daily work, phone calls, conference calls, leads, meetings, Facebook… Is Paul saying that we need to overlook these things or downplay them? Not entirely, though he hints at that in Romans 8:18 and 2 Cor. 4:17.
His concern over the many distractions is that they do not lead us away from sincere and pure devotion to Christ. Repentance and faith, not works and self reliance. Repentance and faith, not fear and worry.
So, let me ask you to fill in the blank today or any day… “____ is distracting me from sincere and pure devotion to Christ.”
The way to tell a wolf is that it arises, speaks perverse things, and draws you away from the Shepherd to devour you. This word for “perverse” means to turn away from the right path. As you do your work, does the pressure to overcommit for whatever gain arise and draw you away from the simplicity of Christ? It could be an idol… It could be a wolf. Does your constant checking of Facebook/Twitter/Instagram/Pinterest press you into deeper intimacy with God or draw you away from sincere and pure devotion to Christ? Wolf or sheep?
Paul’s concern is that we know God more deeply in the midst of our trials and our victories. Anything less is idolatry of self. In suffering, worry or fear is just another form of self reliance and ruling out God’s sovereignty. In victory, pride and self confidence can be the wedge between us and our Savior. God desires our total worship – God without rivals – that includes any sheep that bites like a wolf.
Lord, let trial drive us to our knees in dependence on You and Your sustaining and empowering grace to get us through. Lord, let victory drive us to our knees in thanks for what You have done in and through us. Give us clean hands and pure hearts that worship You alone, free from the cunning of the wolves without and the wolves within.