MESSAGE FOR AUGUST 14, 2011 FROM ACTS 20:17-27
This week, we move into the second half of chapter 20 in Luke’s record of the expansion of the gospel in the book of Acts. As we heard read a few moments ago, Paul does not return to Ephesus where he had spent three years in ministry. Instead, he summons the Ephesian elders to come to him in Miletus where he addresses them pastor to pastors. This is the only recorded speech in Acts where Paul is addressing believers and it carries the same tone as his letters. He says that this is his last time these Ephesian pastors or elders or overseers— all those words are used in this chapter for the same office—they will never see his face again. That tells us that these final, parting truths are intensely important for Paul—especially as it relates to this group of men.
Today, we will move only through verse 27 because in these 11 verses Paul calls to memory those crucial truths for ministry that he himself had personally lived out before these Ephesian elders. He points to the manner in which he lived and ministered while he was among them as the example they should follow. Likewise, he tells the Corinthian believers in First Corinthians 11:1, “1 Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.” In other words, “if you are wondering how to do live for Christ and minister for him—pay close attention to how I live and minister that because that’s the way Christ does it.” So, this text like last week’s provides us with identifying marks of God-honoring ministry. These were those that Paul personally modeled for these Ephesian believers and which we all must imitate—not just pastors.
As I look at Paul’s exhortations to these elders, I find four marks of gospel ministry that we should add to the ones we saw last week from Paul’s ministry. The first one is in verse 18 where he says, “And when they came to him, he said to them: “You yourselves know how I lived among you the whole time from the first day that I set foot in Asia…” Probably one of the main reasons Paul wants to meet with these elders is because in the year since he left Ephesus, false teachers had come into the church and tried to undermine his ministry. They deceitfully cast doubt on his character and his ministry in Ephesus. This happened in other churches as well where Paul also feels compelled to defend himself against false charges. This would explain why he begins with “You yourselves know how I lived among you…” In other words, “You can’t put any faith in the false reports about what a fraud I am. You KNOW who I am because I lived among you.”
The first mark of gospel ministry that God honors is—Personal authenticity as a man or woman of God. The Ephesians knew who Paul really was because he didn’t just drop in on them as an occasional visitor. He was a resident. They got to know what Paul was like when he went to the market to buy food—when he went out to beat his dirty clothes on a rock—when he was sick and exhausted—when someone lied to him, cheated him, abandoned him or got red-faced mad at him. They knew from watching him that he spent significant time studying the Word and in prayer. Paul didn’t own a Christian “mask” that he fastened on for a few hours a week on Sunday morning to impress the believers. When you live among someone in that culture, there are no masks. In the Ancient Near East, you couldn’t closet yourself into an air-tight, air-conditioned home where no one can hear you screaming at your kids or the mailman. Your life was much more exposed and far fewer secrets were kept. If someone lived near you for three years, you got to know them very well as a person. These people would have known if Paul was a glutton or a drunkard or cheapskate or if he had a temper.
We can easily become deceived into thinking we are more spiritually mature than we really are because we listen to what people say about us who only see us a few hours a week in or around a church building. As we all know—a person is really who they are when they come home from church and she puts her skirt and dress shoes away and after he picks up the newspaper. As much as I would often hate to admit it, who we really are is who we are at home. Our maturity or lack thereof is manifest, NOT when we are behind the church mask, but when our team loses a big game, when our car breaks down, when our kids won’t obey us, when we drop the hot dish on the way to the dinner table, when the hot water runs out in the middle of our shower—when the printer cartridge you just bought is empty because someone decided to print out a comic book, when the dog soils the carpet, when the pot roast is burned, when the home improvement project goes south, when the customer service representative accuses us of lying about a transaction, when you make out your monthly budget or write out your check to the church or those in need around you. THAT’S who we really are—in the midst of those mundane situations of life. The Ephesians got to know Paul at that level of intimacy and they knew that Paul was the same person in his private life as he was in his public ministry life. His life was seamlessly authentic—no posing with Paul—what you saw is what you got.
A person’s message or teaching or admonition or advice or counsel is so much more powerful if you know it is coming from a man or woman of personal integrity—the walk matches the talk and these elders knew Paul was the real deal because he had lived among them. They knew him not only as an apostle, but as a neighbor, a fellow creature who slept, bathed, ate, drank and did all the other bodily functions. Paul is saying in his defense to these elders—“Compare what the false teachers are saying about me with your own, first-hand experience of me as I lived out my life in front of you for three years.” Personal authenticity is a mark of a God-honoring gospel ministry. It’s pretty hard to talk to your neighbor about the life transforming power of the gospel, when he hears you scream at your wife and kids several times a week. A second mark of God-honoring gospel ministry is: A servant heart for God. Paul says to these elders that he [v.19] “…set foot in Asia serving the Lord.” Paul didn’t come to Ephesus fundamentally to win converts or even plant churches—he came to Ephesus to serve. Like Jesus, he came as a servant—a slave—not be served but to serve.
Paul didn’t come to flaunt his apostleship or impress people with his theological expertise. He didn’t come so the Ephesians would esteem him highly or for his financial gain. He came to serve—he came as a bondservant—as a slave—owned by someone else. He was not his own, he had been bought with a price and his mission in life was to do his Master’s bidding and his Master was Jesus. He came to serve the Lord. He didn’t come fundamentally to serve the Ephesians—though he certainly did serve them. But the Ephesians weren’t directing his ministry—he wasn’t there to carry out their will. The Lord was his master and if he called him to do something the Ephesians didn’t like, he would do it anyway because his Master told him to do that.
He gives three characteristics of his service to Jesus. First, he served the Lord “with all humility.” We’ve already alluded to Paul’s humility when we described him as a servant. Being a humble servant means several things. It means that he understood that his role was not to make much of himself, but of Christ. His apostleship was not about him—nothing was about him. Like John the Baptist—he was to be continually decreasing among the Ephesians as Christ increased. Paul knew and cherished the fact that he was not the main attraction—he was simply a window pane through which people looked in order to see Christ. Humility also means that when God told him to do something that didn’t make sense to his way of thinking, he trusted the truth of Isaiah 55 that “God’s thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the LORD.” So he trusted in Christ and not his own wisdom.
People who aren’t humble seldom if ever hear anything from God that doesn’t make sense to them. The reason is because in their pride, they only do what they see to be wise and their arrogance deafens them to God’s voice. They aren’t risk takers because most of the time, risks—especially ones that could cost us a lot, seldom make sense to us. THEY are the final arbiters of what is wise and God’s will, not God—that’s pride and that’s not what Paul modeled. In verse 23, he tells the elders that “the Holy Spirit testifies to me in every city that imprisonment and afflictions await me.” That didn’t make any more sense to Paul than it does to you and me and many, if not most American believers would never believe that kind of word came from God. But Paul in his humility doesn’t question God, evade God, run away from God, pretend not to hear God or just plain disobey God. No, in humility—in each city he repeatedly walks right into the meat grinder, trusting God that he will be in there with him. In humility, when the Spirit says to travel somewhere by ship, he doesn’t say, “That can’t be God because God knows it quicker to travel by land and God would never tell me to waste that kind of time.” We get into trouble every time we assume God would never do something like that when in fact he does things that seem strange to us all the time in Scripture. The Master speaks and Paul obeys, period. That’s humility and humility is indispensable to being a slave of Christ.
Another characteristic of being God’s servant in a way that honors him is serving him is “with tears.” In verse 19 he says that he served God “with tears.” Paul had a habit of crying over churches. In 2 Corinthians 2:4 Paul writes to the church in Corinth, “4 For I wrote to you out of much affliction and anguish of heart and with many tears, not to cause you pain but to let you know the abundant love that I have for you.” In Philippians 3:18 he writes to the church at Philippi, “18 For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, walk as enemies of the cross of Christ.” Paul cried over these things, NOT because he was given to emotional outbursts but because he cared so deeply, so passionately about God being honored in these churches and about the people themselves. He cared deeply that Christ would not be clearly seen in churches when they were living like the world. He cried when he thought about those who lived as enemies of God—that tore him up inside. When you profoundly, intensely care about something, your emotions rush in to join your intellect in expressing your concern or love. What’s strange is not that Paul cried over these things, but that we so often don’t. He’s saying to these Ephesian elders, “Whatever the false teachers may have said about my heart towards God and you, you know that my concern, my passion among you was that God be honored in saving sinners and that you would be built up in Christ—many times you saw my tears over these things.”
Today, we cry over our kids when we see them headed in the wrong direction. We cry when we hear bad news or when someone we love hurts us. We cry when we are disappointed about any number of things. But how often do we weep over the state of our walk with God? How often do we weep because God is not honored in our lives, our families or our other ministries as he could be if we trusted him more? Those concerns are far more worthy of our tears than anything else. A third characteristic of Paul’s service to God in Ephesus is found in his “trials that happened to me through the plots of the Jews.” We’ve looked at this several times before so we will only touch on it here. His trials demonstrated that God’s name and fame among the Ephesians were more important than his personal safety or comfort. It’s one thing to say as the shepherd of a flock, “I would lay my life down for you.” That’s easy.
Paul didn’t just say it, he practiced it and he had the scars to prove the depth of his servant heart for God. The Jews hated Paul and he knew they would oppose him in every city. He went anyway. Second Corinthians 11 tells us in verse 24, “24 Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one.” If you do the arithmetic, that’s 195 lashes at the hands of the Jews. You would have needed a strong stomach to spend any time looking at Paul’s bare back. Again, his message to these Ephesians is, “Why are you listening to the false teachers tell you my ministry was self-serving. You know the trials I suffered for the gospel.” Paul had a servant heart for God as seen in his humility, his tears and his trials.
A third mark God-honoring gospel ministry is seen in verse 20. He says, “You know… 20 how I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, and teaching you in public and from house to house, 21 testifying both to Jews and to Greeks of repentance toward God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.” A third mark of God-honoring gospel ministry is: Boldly and comprehensively declaring the Word of God.” Paul is saying to these elders, “You know that I declared not just part of the Word of God, but anything I thought would be profitable for you. I didn’t cut any corners—I spent hundreds, thousands of hours teaching you. I taught you in public at the synagogue or the Hall of Tyrannus. But I didn’t just teach you publicly, I taught you in your homes. When I came to your homes, I didn’t waste time with small talk--discussing who made the best meat loaf in the church or your favorite wild flower—I gave you the Word of God in your homes—I personally discipled you.” As our own eldership fills out in the next several months, we will be doing more of the house to house discipleship.
There was an intensity—a purposefulness about equipping the church that was manifest in the comprehensive manner in which he taught it—he taught everything that was profitable and he taught it in both public and in private venues. The center of his teaching was the gospel which is why he says, “testifying to both Jews and to Greeks of repentance toward God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.” You may think, “That sound like evangelism, not discipleship. Its unsaved people that need to repent and believe in Jesus.” Unbelievers do need to hear that but the truth is—the lifestyle of the believer is one of ongoing repentance and renewed faith. If there is something wrong or unhealthy about my walk with God, the answer is always—I need to repent of something wrong and believe something right. Paul says in Colossians 2:6, “6 Therefore, as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him,”
How did you receive Christ?—through repentance and faith. How do you walk in Christ Jesus?—through repentance and faith. Growing toward spiritual maturity is wrapped up in repenting of the sin the Holy Spirit reveals to you and believing enough gospel truths to enable you to keep it out of your life. For instance, if you struggle with lust first, confess that as sin and seek to turn away from it toward God, but it must not stop there or you will fall right back into the sin. Next, attack and kill lust with gospel truth. One gospel truth with which you fight lust is the truth that spells out the consequences of unrepentant lust. So, a Scripture that communicates that is in Matthew 5:28—“28 But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29 If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell.”
The end result of a pattern of unrepentant lust in this life is damnation. That’s why Jesus says—do whatever it takes to be free of this—metaphorically rip your eye out, cut off your hand. Believe the truth that the ultimate consequences of lust are disastrous. Another gospel truth that is just as crucial is a particular application of faith. John Piper says, “...the fight of faith against lust is the fight to stay satisfied in God. By faith Moses… [forsook] the fleeting pleasures of sin…he looked to the reward” (Hebrews 11:24-26, RSV). Faith is not content with “fleeting pleasures.” It is ravenous for joy. And the Word of God says, “In thy presence is fullness of joy; in Thy right hand there are pleasures forever.” (Psalm 16:11). So faith will not be sidetracked into sin. It will not give up so easily in its quest for maximum joy.”
The burning temptation to lust can be extinguished with the cold water of the truth that, as you avoid lust, you can experience even greater pleasure in God. If you truly believe that the consequences of lust are ruinous and sexual lust in the end will diminish your much greater pleasure in God, lust will lose its power in your life. Repentance and faith—turn away from the sin and fill the void it left in your heart with gospel truth. That’s how you were converted and that is how you walk in faith. That’s how Paul taught these Ephesian believers to fight against sin again and again and again. He boldly and comprehensively declared the Word of God.
A final mark of gospel ministry in Paul is found in verses 22 and following. Paul says to these elders, “22 And now, behold, I am going to Jerusalem, constrained by the Spirit, not knowing what will happen to me there, 23 except that the Holy Spirit testifies to me in every city that imprisonment and afflictions await me. 24 But I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God.” A final mark of gospel ministry is: a Christ-centered, gospel-prizing motivation. The most revealing aspect of any ministry we perform is the motivation—WHY do I do what I do? The most remarkable truth I see in Paul is that his motivation has little to do with Paul. It wasn’t so he could have something to boast about—something that made him feel good about himself. He was not about building his legacy as a great missionary and church planter. It wasn’t about him at all. If his motivation was about his status or comfort, Paul was pretty stupid because every new city meant some form of imprisonment and persecution and the suffering that accompanies it.
Some might think—“Well, maybe Paul got some twisted pleasure in being renowned as someone who suffered much for Jesus.” That can’t be true because he says in verse 24 under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit which means it has to be true—that “I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God.” The reason Paul was willing to suffer was not because it brought him renowned as a martyr figure, but because his life meant nothing to him. That means that if the gospel ministry meant surrendering his life—that was just no big deal for Paul. The impulse for self-preservation is only as strong as the value you place on your life and Paul didn’t place any value on his life because he knew it didn’t belong to him—it belonged to God and was for his glory. Why would you place value on something you don’t own? He’s a slave, remember. In Philippians chapter one Paul writes, “…now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death. 21 For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” That’s Paul’s attitude toward his life. His life held value to him only in so far that his life or his death could bring glory to God and the reason it didn’t matter whether it was life or death is because death was gain for Paul. Do you hear how totally Christ-centered Paul is?
He’s also gospel-prizing. Paul’s ultimate goal was to “finish my course—his race—and the ministry I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God.” What mattered to Paul was not whether he lived or died, but that he testified to the gospel. The gospel and preaching it was far, far more important to Paul than his life. A few years later, as Paul sits in a Roman prison contemplating his imminent death he says this in Second Timothy chapter four, “6 For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come. 7 I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” Paul’s death was just a change of venue for him—a departure for some place better. What is important to him is that he fought the good fight, finished the race and kept the faith. His motive for self-preservation was displaced by his impassioned desire to be faithful to God and the gospel. Now that he had served the gospel—finished his race, his mission was over. There was no need for him to remain here. We must hear how his life was all wrapped up in preaching the gospel for Jesus. God is honored and God blesses by a ministry that is Christ-centered and gospel-prizing.
As we close, let’s think about some application. First, can we point to our own life as an example for others to follow? If you met a new believer and they said—“What is the Christian life all about—how do you live it out?” Would you in good conscience be able to say, “Why don’t you come and spend a few months living in our home and follow my example---imitate me as I imitate Christ.” If we have been in the Lord more than a few years, we should be able to say that without fear of defiling the new believer. Can we? Or would we secretly think, “If they followed my example, they would be “good Christians” about two hours a week on Sunday morning—the rest of the time—they would pretty much look like the world.”
A second question of application is do we have a servant heart for God? How does the notion of having God as your Master with you as his slave strike you? Is it more fearful or comforting to you? If you love and trust your Master it’s a good thing. If not—it’s not so good. Also, do we serve primarily to minister to God or to please people? The answer is easy to know—here’s the diagnostic question that exposes the truth. That is—how willing are you to follow God when you know it will make people you love upset with you? If you are willing to do that, then you are serving God. If not, then you are only serving people in the name of God. If we do hard things for God only when it won’t upset someone else—we are deceived if we think we are serving God.
A third question is do we live lives of ongoing repentance and renewed faith? Have we learned how to kill sin in our lives? When we see a pattern of sin in our lives—do we fight it by turning from it and claiming God’s promises to deflate its power? Are we intentional about killing our sin, or do we have the same unrepentant sins now that we had five or10 years ago? No repentance or faith.
Finally, why do we minister for Christ? Are we driven by an unyielding desire to glorify Christ and that his gospel be preached? Paul never got over the fact that Jesus saved him and that the truth of the gospel set him free from sin and death. In response to that, he spent the rest of his life pouring himself out for God for all Jesus had done for him. If that radical love for God borne of the gospel is what is driving us in life and ministry, then if we are met with a circumstance where serving Christ would mean our death, then the choice is already set in stone because we love and treasure Jesus and his gospel so much that by comparison, our lives hold precious little value to us. Is that where we are?
These are more marks of a gospel ministry that honor God. They are ones to which we should all aspire by God’s grace for his glory and our joy.
Page last modified on 9/4//2011
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