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"Marks of Gospel Ministry"

MESSAGE FOR AUGUST 7, 2011 FROM ACTS 20:1-16

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Read: Acts 20:1-16

This week, we move into chapter 20 of Luke’s record of the early church in Acts. 

Last week, as we studied the account of Paul’s visit to the occult capital of the Roman Empire, Ephesus, we noticed several truths about the nature of Satan’s attacks. This week, as Paul makes his way in and out of Macedonia and travels hundreds of miles visiting churches he had planted, we get a good look at some characteristics of gospel ministry.  What is the difference between ministry that honors God and is rooted and shaped by the gospel, and a ministry that is done in the flesh and, though perhaps looking good on the inside—is more about bringing honor to us than to God? The goal this morning is, from Paul’s example to answer that question and by God’s grace apply it to our ministries--and we all have ministries.  As we study this account of Luke’s I want us to think about four marks of Paul’s gospel ministry that apply to all of us as we serve the Lord and each other.

 

The first mark of apostolic gospel ministry is found in verses one and two.  Luke writes, “1 After the uproar [in Ephesus] ceased, Paul sent for the disciples, and after encouraging them, he said farewell and departed for Macedonia. 2 When he had gone through those regions and had given them much encouragement, he came to Greece.  The common denominator between Paul’s ministry in Ephesus and Macedonia and everywhere he went is encouragement.  Paul’s ministry was marked by—the encouragement of believers. This is a mark of gospel ministry essential for God’s blessing and empowerment. Paul tells the Thessalonians in his first letter to them after a section on the second coming of Christ, “18 Therefore encourage one another with these words.”  A few verses later, after reminding them of the gospel he says in 5:11, “11 Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing.”  Even though they were already encouraging one another, Paul tells, “Do it even more.”  Ministry that is shaped by the gospel ministry is by its very nature, encouraging—it builds up believers.

 

We must however understand what Paul means by “encourage.”  I fear that many in the church today have a very shallow understanding of the ministry of encouragement.  For many, encouragement means someone with a wide grin slapping us on the back and saying, “`Atta, boy!” or, “`Atta girl!” or “Fantastic!” or “You are so gifted in that area!” or some other statement intended to make us feel good. Though those kinds of statements can qualify as Biblical encouragement, they are actually only a very small part of it.  Let me give some more frequent ways New Testament authors use this word translated “encourage.”   In Acts 14:21, Luke writes about the ministry of Paul and Barnabas and says, 21 When they had preached the gospel to that city and had made many disciples, they returned to Lystra and to Iconium and to Antioch, 22 strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith, and saying that through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.”  

Luke tells us that part of this ministry of encouragement Paul and Barnabas brought to these churches included telling them that “…through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.”  That is—“Tribulation—hardship—trials are not only a possibility for the believer—they are an absolutely essential–a non-negotiable necessity to enter God’s kingdom.”  Many people would not consider that very “encouraging.”  If however, you are suffering for your faith, wondering why this is happening when all you are doing is trying to be faithful and someone sits down with you and says, “Don’t be surprised by these trials—this doesn’t mean that you’ve done something wrong, its just part of being a follower of Christ—keep going!” that can be very encouraging. That truth can give us the strength to live faithfully in a world that is hostile to Jesus and all who follow him.  In First Corinthians 14:3 Paul is speaking of prophets and we know that prophets can bring hard words of correction to the church. Listen, however to what he says here about prophecy.  3 On the other hand, the one who prophesies speaks to people for their upbuilding and encouragement and consolation.” 

Biblical encouragement can very well include words of rebuke as long as they are shaped by the gospel which means they are given for our good and not to condemn us.  If you are gently rebuked for a sin you have been committing, you may not feel very encouraged at that moment, but you have just been encouraged from a Biblical perspective.  We see this specifically in Acts 15:32 where Luke says, “32 And Judas and Silas, who were themselves prophets, encouraged and strengthened the brothers with many words.”  Not all those words of prophetic encouragement were “You’re doing great!”  In our text for last week, when Paul hears that his friends are being abused by the mob in Ephesus and he wants to rescue them, Luke tells us in 19:31, “31 … some of the Asiarchs, who were friends of his, sent to him and were urging him not to venture into the theater.”  The word translated “urging” is the same one in the other verses for “encourage.”  There’s no “`Atta, boy” here.  They are strongly urging him to stay out of the theatre.  There is a sense of urgency to their encouragement. 

You can hear that the range of meaning of this word is much broader than you might have thought.  For Luke and Paul, the most common method of encouraging fellow believers is to exhort them.  In fact, in the NASB version of the Bible, they translate verse one of chapter 20, “1 After the uproar had ceased, Paul sent for the disciples, and when he had exhorted them and taken his leave of them, he left to go to Macedonia.”  That’s probably a more precise rendering of this Greek verb.  To exhort someone means “to incite by argument or advice: urge strongly--to give warnings or advice: make urgent appeals.”  There’s no back-slapping here, but instead words intended to incite you or motivate you to obey God. 

For Paul and Luke, Biblical encouragement is not generally intended to make you feel something, but is given to help you do something. Warnings and advice and urgent appeals are all under the rubric of encouragement and that’s a huge part of Paul’s ministry to the churches.  He was constantly exhorting them what it means to follow Christ in various contexts and why—what are the implications of his counsel and how to best do it.  If there were a church where an apostolic understanding of encouragement is regularly practiced by all the people, more often than not you would be encouraged through correction, advice or warning—NOT to condemn you or destroy you, but to strengthen you in the gospel.  There certainly is a place for consolation to help those who are down or suffering, and that is part of what encouragement means in the New Testament as well. However, that is not the predominant way Paul and Luke use that term.  A mark of gospel ministry is the ministry of Biblical encouragement.

A second mark of gospel ministry is a strong confidence in and ravenous hunger for God’s word. The believers in Troas implicitly show their confidence in the Word by the sacrificial amount of time they were willing to devote to being taught God’s Word.  You don’t sacrifice like that if you are not confident in the message.  But this text is also a rich source of confidence in the Word for us.  In verses 3-6 we read, “3 There he spent three months, and when a plot was made against him by the Jews as he was about to set sail for Syria, he decided to return through Macedonia. 4 Sopater the Berean, son of Pyrrhus, accompanied him; and of the Thessalonians, Aristarchus and Secundus; and Gaius of Derbe, and Timothy; and the Asians, Tychicus and Trophimus. 5 These went on ahead and were waiting for us at Troas, 6 but we sailed away from Philippi after the days of Unleavened Bread, and in five days we came to them at Troas, where we stayed for seven days.”  Notice the detail here.  Luke tells us how long Paul spent in Greece and he lists seven men by name, their cities of origin and where they were traveling in relationship to Paul. 

We see the same dynamic in verse 13-15, “13 But going ahead to the ship, we set sail for Assos, intending to take Paul aboard there, for so he had arranged, intending himself to go by land. 14 And when he met us at Assos, we took him on board and went to Mitylene. 15 And sailing from there we came the following day opposite Chios; the next day we touched at Samos; and the day after that we went to Miletus.”  This sounds like a report from a ship’s log.  Again, the detail is intense.  Why is Luke so detailed here in comparatively small things—the names of ports where Paul never even ministered—when in so many other texts, he is so selective in what he says?  In chapter 19, he compresses three years of ministry in Ephesus into 41 verses.  But here he lists seven names of people and their cities of origin, most of whom play no significant role in the rest of Acts and he lists the names of ports that Paul stayed in for only one night. Why the detail there?  Two reasons—the first is practical, the second builds confidence in the Word.

The most obvious reason for the extra detail here is because Luke was physically present during this part of Paul’s missionary journey.  He uses words like “us” and “we” that he only uses in those accounts where he is present and can refer to himself as part of the group.  The fact that Luke was present meant he was an eyewitness to these activities and he would have been able to provide this kind of detail. The reason for the detail that’s important in building our confidence in the Word of God is simply this:  a detailed account like this one would have been easy to disprove if it were not accurate.  We must remember that this letter was ultimately read by people who could have challenged many of these facts if they weren’t true.  If you knew Paul’s ministry well and there was no Gaius from Derbe travelling with Paul—if you knew that those last six ports of call were not on the traditional trade routes a ship would have visited in this part of the Mediterranean Sea, that would cast doubt on the historical accuracy of all of Luke’s account.

The more detailed a historical account is—when it is read by people contemporary to the author, the easier it is to be proven inaccurate.  For instance, (as Tim Keller illustrates) if you’re a historian and you were to tell me that on the campus of Western Illinois University in the year 1985 a gunman took over the president’s office and shot six people, I would be able to call a lousy historian because I was on that campus in 85 and no such thing occurred.  Likewise, this very detailed account would have been very easy to debunk as fiction if the events were not true because there were people alive who would have known what happened here.  The same can be said for the four gospels.  When the gospels were originally circulated, there were many people who were present during Jesus’ ministry in places like Jerusalem and Capernaum who would have been able to completely discredit for instance, the account of the raising of Lazarus or the resurrection of Jesus if they had not occurred. That didn’t happen but instead the eyewitnesses attested to the truthfulness of the accounts.  This speaks powerfully to the historical accuracy of Scripture and increases our confidence in it.  

Gospel ministry that is apostolic is also marked by a ravenous hunger for God’s Word.  This account gives a powerful example of this hunger in verses seven through nine.  Paul is in Troas and he has only one more night to spend there before he leaves.  Verse seven says, “7 On the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread, Paul talked with them, intending to depart on the next day, and he prolonged his speech until midnight. 8 There were many lamps in the upper room where we were gathered. 9 And a young man named Eutychus, sitting at the window, sank into a deep sleep as Paul talked still longer…”   We’ll talk more about Eutychus and his very brief encounter with gravity in a moment, but for now let’s focus on the hunger for the Word these people had.  They met together for the breaking of bread.  They would have gathered around sunset and Luke tells us that Paul spoke with them until midnight.  Verse nine said he talked “still longer.”  Finally, after the Eutychus miracle, verse 11 tells us, “11 And when Paul had gone up and had broken bread and eaten, he conversed with them a long while, until daybreak, and so departed. “ 

Remember, this is in an upper room filled with the strong scent of lamp oil because Luke tells us in verse eight, “There were many lamps in the upper room where we were gathered.” The air quality would have been poor and there would have been no children’s church or toddler time—kids would have been present for at least a few hours of this.  The verbs that Luke uses to describe Paul’s ministry of the Word indicate that some of this would have been lecture and some would have been a dialogue—probably question and answers.  This went on from sunset to sunrise when all the men had to go to work and the women had to labor hard in the homes with no sleep.  Why would they intentionally lose a night’s sleep?  Because they were desperate to hear the Word of God. 

They could say with Psalm 119, “Your testimonies are my delight; they are my counselors.”[v.24] “…I find delight in your commandments, which I love.”[v.47]  The law of your mouth is better to me than thousands of gold and silver pieces.” [v.72] “How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth.”  Do those truths express your affection for God’s Word?  If that is your disposition to the Word of God, then staying up all night in a suet-filled room to hear the Word is no hardship—it is a privilege—a joy.  Think about it—which would have the biggest impact on you.  If all the Bibles were removed from your home, or all your televisions?  One mark of a gospel ministry God will always bless is a deep confidence in and hunger for the Word of God. A third mark is in verses nine through 12. 

Luke writes, “9 And a young man named Eutychus, sitting at the window, sank into a deep sleep as Paul talked still longer. And being overcome by sleep, he fell down from the third story and was taken up dead. 10 But Paul went down and bent over him, and taking him in his arms, said, “Do not be alarmed, for his life is in him.” 11 And when Paul had gone up and had broken bread and eaten, he conversed with them a long while, until daybreak, and so departed. 12 And they took the youth away alive, and were not a little comforted.”  A third mark of gospel ministry is—Crises that are intended by God to bring him great glory.  One of the refreshing things about this first half of chapter 20, except for Paul escaping a plot by the Jews in Corinth is—this is a fairly calm period of Paul’s ministry. However, even in this context of the peaceful encouragement of believers, Paul can’t seem to get out of Troas without a crisis.

This crisis is the death of Eutychus, a young man between eight and 14 years old based on the word Luke uses to describe him.  It’s well past his bedtime, the lamp fumes and probably the warm air start to get to him and eventually he is (literally) “overcome by sleep” and plummets out of this three-story window to his death.  Luke the physician is clear about this in verse nine when he tells us that he “was taken up dead.”  Think about what a train wreck this could have been. If Eutychus would have remained dead, HIS DEATH would have shaped Paul’s entire ministry in Troas and certainly this evening of teaching.  This visit would have become known as “the one where Eutychus fell to his death while Paul was teaching.  As it turned out, this crisis was transformed into a validation of Paul’s ministry when, like Elijah and Elisha in the Old Testament, he hovers over Eutychus and life re-entered this young man. What could have been a disaster for these people at Troas and Paul’s ministry there, instead becomes another proof of the glory of God.

We see this all the time in Paul’s ministry.  At one point, he is put in prison--probably in Rome. That’s a bad thing--yet in that prison cell Paul composed his letters to the Philippians, Ephesians, Colossians and Philemon that are now sacred Scripture.  A few years later he is again imprisoned and he writes Second Timothy.  Several of Paul’s New Testament letters that have strengthened, instructed, corrected and trained in righteousness countless believers were written during what would have been seen as two crises in Paul’s ministry—his imprisonments. God brings inestimable good out of these crises.  Another example--Paul is horribly persecuted during his ministry—beaten, left for dead, in multiple dangers. This was horrific suffering and Paul scars attested to how bad it was.  Yet from that wretched persecution, generations of persecuted believers since then have drawn strength to remain steadfast.  Also, we know from Second Corinthians that it was those times of horrific suffering that indelibly set Paul apart and validated his apostolic status because the false apostles who were a great threat to the early church but by contrast would never suffer for their false gospel.

The truth is—if you are serious about gospel ministry—you will suffer.  Second Timothy 3:12 says, “12 Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted,” If you want to live a godly life in Christ, you will, because of your faith, stick your neck out for him and someone will take a whack at it—maybe several some ones. That is a certainty because as we saw before from Acts 14, “…through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.  But just as certain as the crises that await you as a believer, is the truth that God will redeem those crises for his glory and the spread of the gospel.  We must think about it from a God-centered perspective.  What brings God more glory—a believer who he only blesses and protects and who lives a pain-free life, or a believer who endures great suffering and trials and who steadfastly clings to Christ?  What brings God more glory—a believer who is protected from all crises, or a believer who endures crises and God takes the crisis and transforms it into something wonderful?  Only God can redeem horrible trials and transform them into God-glorifying ministry. A third mark of apostolic gospel ministry is crises intended by God to bring him much glory.

Finally, we see one more mark of gospel ministry in verse 16.  “…Paul had decided to sail past Ephesus, so that he might not have to spend time in Asia, for he was hastening to be at Jerusalem, if possible, on the day of Pentecost.”  Gospel ministry is marked by wisdom in rejecting the good in order to accomplish the best.  Paul had spent three years in Ephesus and had a ton of friends and contact there that, if he were to visit, would make his stay a lengthy one.  So he makes a decision that better serves God’s agenda.  He sailed past Ephesus to Miletus. That doesn’t mean he didn’t have ministry to the Ephesians because as we’ll see next time, in Miletus, Paul meets with the elders in the Ephesian church to exhort them—warn them and equip them for their ministry in Ephesus.  We know from his epistles that Paul was in a hurry to get to Jerusalem before Pentecost because he wanted to give the Jewish saints in Jerusalem a very generous collection he had taken from his Gentile churches.  So, he wisely maximizes his limited time by spending it with the elders and not the entire church.  It would have been a good thing to go to Ephesus and would have doubtless been very gratifying to Paul, but he rejects that good thing in order to accomplish the best thing which was, as quickly as possible, to get the offering to the Jewish saints in Jerusalem who were very needy due to a prolonged famine.

It’s an axiom that we must surrender the good in favor of the best, but so few of us do that. It takes discipline and self-denial to turn away from a good thing you really enjoy in favor of the best that God is calling you to and which required faith.  There are lots of good ministry opportunities that God in no way intends for us which means that much or all of it will be done in the power of the flesh because it wasn’t God’s idea.  It takes discernment and a believer who seeks good counsel from others and walks under the control of the Holy Spirit in order to know the difference between good and best, but we must make those judgments if the gospel is to be spread rapidly.  Satan likes nothing better than to get us involved in things that may be good, but are not God’s will—they are not the best.  He can distract a saint for years that way and no lasting impact will come of his/her ministry because ultimately—although it was good,  it wasn’t God.  God can certainly use things we do in the flesh—our sin doesn’t paralyze him--but he is not inclined to bless good but fleshly ministry like those directed and controlled by his Spirit.

Now as we close--some application.  First, if we want to have genuine gospel ministry in our lives, churches and homes, we must be willing to give and receive Biblical encouragement.  This includes telling someone that has blessed you—“Thanks for being such a blessing to me.”  But it also and more often means being bold enough to give godly counsel or advice to believers who may not want to hear it because they have their own selfish agenda.  It means a willingness to warn someone who is flirting with sin.  It means a willingness to bring correction to someone who is not obeying God.  Ephesians 4:15 says this “speaking the truth in love” causes us to grow into Christ-likeness. In Northern Minnesota the fallen cultural value is not making waves and not confronting people to their face, but roasting them when they are not around. That lack of Biblical encouragement in favor of slander is a lethal enemy of the church because, among other reasons, it deprives the church of a crucial part of gospel ministry that is required for the church to grow to be like Christ.

Second, we must desperately hunger for the Word of God.  The church today has very little if any of the ravenous hunger for the Word the early church had.  A study I read from Barna this week bears sad testimony to this fact.  Barna finds that in 1991, 61% of Protestants believed that the Bible is completely accurate in all of the principles it teaches; today, 56% hold that belief.  That means the only 56% of Protestants can be confident in the Word of God.  Second, Protestant churches has fallen below 50% attendance at a church service in any given week since 1991 and in Duluth that figure hovers around 14%. That means there is very little hunger for the Word.  Finally, less than 18% now attend Sunday school during a typical week—down from 26% just 20 years ago.[1]  Do you have a genuine and desperate hunger for God’s Word and if so, what evidence can you provide to prove it?  Do you long to spend more time reading and meditating on Scripture, or do you find it a struggle to have regular times in God’s Word?  Do you start looking at your watch 15 minutes into a sermon?  Believers who don’t hunger for God’s Word are not normal.  That is—they don’t fit the norm of Scripture.  And the norm is a ravenous hunger for the Word.

Third, we must be willing to face trials and persecution for the gospel, believing that God will redeem them for his glory.  Are you taking any risks for God that include the likelihood of trial and persecution?  If we are not suffering persecution, First Timothy three says that means we don’t even desire to live a godly life in Christ.  Finally, we must exhibit wisdom and self-control to reject good ministries in favor of the best.  Ministry to family is good, but it’s just plain wrong to hold that family should always take precedence—sometimes God calls us to leave our family for other ministries that, at that moment are his best.  Do we give critical reflection to how much time we spend in our current lives and ministries to determine if we are substituting good things for God’s best?  Or, are we just satisfied if we are busy in ministry?  Paul wasn’t just busy—he was led by the Spirit.  God blesses gospel ministry bearing these marks.  If we genuinely want his glory and our joy and blessing in our minstry, we will seek to integrate them.  Does your life and ministry reflect them?  May God give us the grace to earnestly seek to give our lives to gospel ministries for God’s glory and our joy.


[1] http://www.barna.org/faith-spirituality/514-barna-study-of-religious-change-since-1991-shows-significant-changes-by-faith-group


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