On Acts 20:28

Acts 20:28
Having thus solemnly set before them his own ministry, he now turns to the elders and their work. “Take heed1 to yourselves and to all the flock in which the Holy Ghost set you overseers to tend the assembly of God, which He purchased with His own blood” [or, the blood of His own one] (Acts 20:2828Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood. (Acts 20:28)).
The first of all duties is to take heed to our own selves, whatever may be our position; and this an overseer is more particularly to weigh. For what can be more dangerous than activity with others and where there is carelessness as to ourselves? It is not from the word abstractedly, but from its shining on the path of our own experience, that most is learned practically. Undoubtedly we may learn from others, and through others; but how can there be reality, unless we take heed “unto ourselves”?
Still the object in appointing elders was to oversee the flock and all the flock. There might be, and in general were, several overseers; but the duty of the overseer is to take head “to all the flock” where he lives. This is the more important, as it humbles the spirit while it enlarges the heart; for who is sufficient for these things? It tends to neutralize the self-importance of “my people,” as well as the rivalry when one thinks of another, and “his people.” It was a new thing then; it is absolutely unheard of in modern Christianity. The saints had to learn that God had but one flock here below. There was unity whether in each place or all over the world. Yet the elders had to do with all the flock where they resided, not elsewhere. Eldership was a local charge. In this the elders are wholly distinct from “the gifts” (Eph. 4), which are in the unity of the body of Christ. They themselves of course were members like others, and as such consequently belonged not to “a body,” but to “the body.” But the office of eldership was within definite limits; the charge did not run beyond the particular assembly or city wherein they were appointed. It is admitted, nay pressed, that no one could claim to be an elder unless he were duly appointed; and it is plain from scripture that none could appoint save the apostles, or one positively commissioned by an apostle for the purpose. In other words the bishops, or elders (for they are identical in God’s word), depended for their due installation on an apostle, directly or indirectly; but when thus appointed, it could be said, as here, that the Holy Spirit set them as bishops or overseers; His sanction accompanied apostolic nomination.
The A. V. has gone a little beyond what the inspired word really says, “Over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers.” It is rightly rendered in the R.V., “in the which.” They were thus made to feel that they were in and of the flock of God like every other saint. Nevertheless no one ought to deny that the responsibility of every elder was to rule. For, as the apostle says to Timothy, “Let the elders that rule well be accounted worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in the word and in teaching” (1 Tim. 5:1717Let the elders that rule well be counted worthy of double honor, especially they who labor in the word and doctrine. (1 Timothy 5:17)). They might not all labor in teaching; but they were all set to “rule,” or preside, and they were responsible to rule “well.” They were expressly appointed to the lead, as that which pertained to their office. They were in the flock, but in the Lord they were over their brethren, though they were by no means the only persons who were. This in no way interfered with the gifts in the body. Some may be pastors and teachers, others evangelists; but both were on a quite different footing from the elders. The business of the gifted men was the ministry of the word, whether to those within or to those without; and they were accordingly to labor entirely apart from designated charge over any circumscribed or particular spot. Ephesians 4 is decisive for this principle and fact. It is not only that apostles and prophets had all unrestricted field of work; the lesser gifts, who were the fruit of Christ’s grace to the church, had a similar title, though in a humbler way. Thus all gifts as such are in the unity of Christ’s body; none of them is merely a local official (as we have seen the elder to be); though he might also be appointed to a charge, his gift otherwise goes beyond it.
The overseers then are exhorted by the apostle to tend or shepherd the assembly of God. Here again we see how strong is the contrast of scriptural truth with the system, which reigns to day, of this congregation for one “minister” and that for another. For of old the elders were all as overseers to tend the assembly; and here the whole of it in Ephesus. No doubt their duty was to carry on oversight where they resided; but it was to shepherd the church of God there, and not each one a part of it only.2 The largeness of the scriptural truth is as evident as the contractedness of men’s arrangements ever since apostolic days. Men, in their wisdom, may have judged it necessary to allot a portion to this one, and another to that one in the same city; but earthly prudence, however respectable and useful for present interests, is ever to be distrusted in divine things. When in fact the breakup of the flock of God came to pass, the clerical order which had crept in could not but pave the way for not schisms only, but sects, each with their governing functionaries. So completely are the children of God fallen from His mind that the various denominations of Christendom are now supposed even by saints to be a providential arrangement, which only enthusiasts could wish to disturb. But as this is not the word of the Lord, so it is far from the path of faith. Human reason can never overthrow the plain, sure, and abiding revelation of God’s will as we have it in scripture, the especial safeguard in the difficult times of the last days (2 Tim. 3), as the apostle tells us. Difficulties may be enormous, dangers increase, the trials be immense; but obedience is of all things the most lowly for man and the most acceptable to God. Let every believer weigh these things as in His sight: His will should be dear to all the children of God.
The apostle gives the more seriousness to the task which the overseers had before them, by the consideration not only that the assembly was God’s rather than theirs, which it is never said to be (however common may be the word in man’s mouth), but “which He acquired to Himself with” &c. “His own blood” is beyond controversy a difficult expression, and especially in the best representation of the text, which deserves careful examination. It is not meant that there is the least cloud over the truth that He Who shed His blood for us was God. If the Savior here was not God, His purchase would have only a creature’s value, and must be wholly insufficient to acquire on God’s part the assembly as it was, yea, is. Being a divine person, His gaining it to Himself by blood has an infinite and eternal efficacy.
But the expression, as it stands in the A. and R. Versions, is unexampled in scripture; and what is more, as already remarked, it is peculiarly embarrassing for the Christian scholar, because the form of it, now most approved on the best grounds, is extremely emphatic, instead of being general. Indeed it would be easier to understand the sense as commonly understood, if the form had been, as in the vulgar reading, τοῦ ἰδίου αἵματος. The critical reading, though at first sight it may add to the difficulty, seems however the right one, τοῦ αἵματος τοῦ ἰδίου. But it is suggested that we should take τοῖ ἰδίου in government rather than in concord. The meaning that results from this would be “the blood of His own One,” that is, of Christ, His Son, rather than “His own blood.” This if certain would make all plain.
It was in all probability the perplexity here felt which led some copyists in early days to substitute the church “of the Lord,” for that “of God.” But this reading, though externally well supported (A C D E, and more) is at issue with New Testament usage, and thus on the whole inferior to that of the common text, though as far as “God” goes no one need be surprised that Wetstein and Griesbach adopted it; but it is not so intelligible why Lachmann, Tischendorf, and Tregelles are not here found rather with Mill, Wolf, Bengel, Scholz, Alford (in all his Edd. since his 1st and 2nd), Wordsworth, Westcott, and Hort, who hold to τοῦ θεοῦ. It is Alford’s mistake that Matthäi prefers the same; for in both his editions he follows his Moscow copies, and has the same conflate reading as the Complutensian, τοῦ κυρίου καὶ θεοῦ; (C3HLP, some 110 or more cursives). Other varieties there are scarce worth noticing on any ground, as τ. κ. θ. (3. and more), τ. θ. κ. κ. (47.). Some ancient versions represent τοῦ χπιστοῦ, one old Latin “Jesu Christi,” and the Georgian—του κυρίου του χριστου.
Dr. Scrivener therefore fairly enough says that our choice evidently lies between κυρίου and θεοῦ, though Patristic testimony may slightly incline to the latter, as he does himself. But why he should consider that the usus loguendi of the apostle, though incontrovertibly sustaining θεοῦ against κυπίου, “appears little relevant to the case of either,” is to my mind unintelligible. For the utmost that can be said for its immense weight on one side is that it may not have been impossible to have said the other in this sole instance. Scripture beyond doubt is larger than man’s mind; but assuredly he is rather bold or careless who could slight an expression invariably found for one never found elsewhere, and here easily understood to be a change in order to escape a sentiment extremely harsh and unexampled if taken as it commonly is.
It may not be without profit to conceive how the discovery of the Sinai MS., and a clearer knowledge, not only of the Vatican copy, but of other weighty authorities, must have modified, if not revolutionized, the judgment of Griesbach.
“Ex his omnibus luculenter apparet, pro lectione θεοῦ ne unicum quidem militare codicem, qui siv vetustate sive interna bonitate sua testis idonei et incorrupti laude ornari queat. Non reperitur, nisi in libris recentioribus iisdemque vel penitus contemnendis, vel misere, multis saltem in locis, interpolatis. Sednec versionum anctoritate tueri se potest. Nulla enim translatio habet θεοῦ praeter Vulgatam recentiorem, (quam redarguunt antiquiores libri latini,) et Philoxenianam syriacam, &c. Tandem neque apud Patres certa lectionis istius vestigia deprehenduntur ante Epiphanium, & c. Quomodo igitur salvis criticae artis legibus lectio θεοῦ, utpote omni auctoritate justa destituta, defendi queat, equidem haud intelligo” (N. T. Gr. ed. sec. 2:115, Halae Sax. et Lond. 1806) It is now certified, not by Birch only, who might have been more heeded, notwithstanding the silence of the collation for Bentley, but by the personal and expressly minute examination of Tregelles, who rather looked for an erasure, but found no sign of it in B, but Bea, as also in N. Now no sober and intelligent mind can doubt that the weight of N and B is at least equal to A C D E. Among the cursives, as usual, some may be of slight account, but others are really valuable and undeserving of so sweeping a censure. As to Versions, none can be produced of greater value than the Vulgate, and the most ancient and excellent copies, such as the Amiatine, Fuldensian, Demid., Tol., &c., as well as the Clem. ed., have “Dei.” It is rather audacious to begin with Epiphani us among the Fathers with the well-known allusion of Ignatius (πρὸσ Ἐφ. i.) which this verse alone can account for. Greek and Latin Fathers cite the common text, or refer freely to it (as Tertullian ad Ux. ii. 3, Clem. Alex. ii. 3, 44), though no doubt there is a vacillation which answers to the various readings.
Griesbach also argues on the improbability that Athanasius could have read the text as it stands and deny as he does against Apollinarius that αἵμα θεοῦ occurs, ascribing such an expression to the Arians; indeed many besides Athanasius objected to such language. And it would have been truly impossible if διὰ τοῦ ἰδιόυ αἵματος had been the true reading. But it is not. The majority of later copies may support it, as they do the unquestionably wrong τ. κ. κ. θ., but all late critics agree to follow אA B C D E, &c. It would appear then that the great champion of orthodoxy must have understood τοῦ ἰδίου to be expressive of Christ, as God’s “own” One. Otherwise the emphasis, if we take τοῦ ἰδιόυ in concord, renders the phrase so intolerable that nothing but necessity could justify it. Is there any such need? In other words, if the true text were διὰ τοῦ ἰδιόυ αἴματος, we must translate it as in the Authorized Version and all others which were based on that reading now recognized as incorrect; and we could only then understand the phrase as predicated of Him Who is God by what theologians call κοινωνία ἰδιωμάτων. And Meyer considers that the true reading was changed to the common but incorrect one because τοῦ ἰδίου), as it ought to be, might be referred to Christ. Doederlein, Michaelis, and other moderns, when they so refer τοῦ ἰδιόυ, may have had low thoughts of Christ; but certainly not such was Athanasius, who, it seems, must have so understood the passage. Can it be questioned that the emphatic contrasting force, if we take it as God’s own blood, brings the phrase under what he calls the τολμήματα τῶν Ἀρειανῶν?
It is easy to ask for justification by Greek usage. This is exactly what from the nature of the case could hardly be; for in all the New Testament, as there is no other instance of a noun followed by τοῦ ἰδίου, there is no distinct matter for comparison. But it is to be noticed that, where Christ goes before, what follows is διὰ τοῦ ἰδίου αἵματος (Heb. 9:12; 13:1212Neither by the blood of goats and calves, but by his own blood he entered in once into the holy place, having obtained eternal redemption for us. (Hebrews 9:12)
12Wherefore Jesus also, that he might sanctify the people with his own blood, suffered without the gate. (Hebrews 13:12)
). It is reasonable therefore to infer that, as the emphatic contrast would be dogmatically extravagant, the rendering most entitled to our acceptance is “through the blood of His own One.” Dr. Hort indeed suggests “through the blood that was His own, that is, as being His Son’s” (The N. T. in Greek, 2. 99). It may be doubted whether this will commend itself more than Mr. Darby’s. The general truth is untouched. The question is how best to solve the very real difficulty. The suggested version seems ranch less objectionable than Dr. H.’s conjecture at the close of his note, that via may have dropped out of the τού ίδίον at some very early transcription affecting all existing documents. Conjectural emendation3 in New Testament scripture has never approached a proof of its need or value in a solitary example. He who gave us His word has watched over it; and we need not distrust Him here.
The reasoning of Bp. Middleton (Greek Article, Rose’s Ed. 291-5) is founded on the erroneous vulgar text, and directed mainly against Mr. G. Wakefield, whose version and notes are here as ever devoted to the confirmation of his heterodox views. But Michael is was not so ignorant as to translate the common text as the Bp. says he did; nor ought a writer on the Greek article to have overlooked an emphasis in the repeated article, as compared with the ordinary form, which would be hard indeed to predicate of God as such, when the unemphatic only is applied to Christ’s own blood. It is to be doubted therefore whether Bp. M., or those who cite him in this connection, did really comprehend or see the conditions of the true question. For on the one hand the common deduction involves us in thoughts and expressions wholly foreign to scripture; on the other hand, if the Greek can honestly mean by the blood of His own One, the balance of truth is at once restored, and the utmost that can be alleged against the construction is that its seeming ambiguity might be supposed improbable for the apostle’s mouth. That it is sound Greek to express this meaning will scarcely be disputed save by prejudiced persons, who do not sufficiently bear in mind the graver objections to the other version.
Returning then from the consideration of the passage, one may conclude that the Text. Rec. is right in reading church or assembly “of God,” but wrong in following that form of expression at the close of the verse which would compel us to translate, contrary to all the phraseology of scripture elsewhere, “through His own blood.” The reading of all critics with adequate information and judgment might, and ordinarily would, bear the same meaning with the force of a contrasting emphasis, which is never used even of our Lord: if said of God, it is wholly unaccountable. It seems that this moral improbability made Athanasius deny the phrase (found in Ignatius, Clement of Alexandria and Tertullian) to be in scripture; which nevertheless has it, and has it in the most pointed form, if we are bound to render διὰ τοῦ αἵματος τοῦ ἰδίου as scholars usually do, without speaking of the Oriental Versions, which cut the knot by giving “the Lord,” “the Lord and God,” and “Christ.” But it seems only prejudice to deny that τοῦ ἰδίου may be as legitimately in regimen as in concord; if in regimen, the sense would be “of His own One,” and the difficulty of the right text is at an end. In this case the apostle employs unusually touching terms to enforce on the elders to shepherd the assembly of God, which He acquired to Himself through the blood of His own One, special personality being merged in a purchase so beyond measure near and precious. That the Savior is the Son of the Father from everlasting to everlasting is certain to the believer; but the Book of the Acts habitually presents the truth from a broader point of view with which the apostolic charge would here coalesce.