This article is an edited transcript of an address given at the 2014 Nexus conference in Sydney.
And when [Paul] had said these things, he knelt down and prayed with them all. And there was much weeping on the part of all; they embraced Paul and kissed him, being sorrowful most of all because of the word he had spoken, that they would not see his face again. And they accompanied him to the ship. (Acts 20:36-38)
As Paul prepared to leave the church elders in Ephesus, his love for the church, anxiety about what would come, and sorrow at his departure brought forth tears. Presumably he was leaving a tiny group of people behind, a small boat afloat in a sea of paganism.
Paul obviously believed that God was doing a great work there, but that’s not what it may have looked like. In this group of people, God’s great work in gospelling the world and bringing them to salvation was going ahead—but if you were to look at the actual people and what actually occurred, it must have seemed like a balsa wood boat adrift on a sea that was threatening to swallow it up.
If you ever get the chance to do ‘last words’, you generally choose significant ones. The last words of the apostle to the eldership of the Ephesian church are no different. They are addressed to a fragile church—and to us now. Humanly speaking, it’s never been any different. We’re the same as that fragile church today. Western Christianity is in disarray. The old mainstream denominations are collapsing, not only numerically and in terms of influence, but also theologically; they’re in retreat and despair. The situation in the UK is grim; the situation in the USA is nowhere near as good as it may look to the outsider; in New Zealand, Australia, and elsewhere in the Western world, we see the mainstream denominations that have carried the gospel hitherto in retreat and despair. In my own lifetime, the ‘honoured profession’ of being a minister of the gospel has become despised and reviled. So too has the attitude of people to Christians and to ‘the church’ changed—whatever they understand ‘the church’ to be.
Recently Ross Douthat, a Roman Catholic employed by The New York Times, has written a book on American Christianity, called Bad Religion. As you know, when America sneezes, the whole world catches cold. In a chapter entitled ‘The God Within’, he describes how many people who call themselves Christians really worship an inner god. They’ve been overtaken by the characteristic Pelagianism of American thinking:
The result is a nation where gurus and therapists have filled the roles once occupied by spouses and friends, and where professional caregivers minister, like seraphim around the throne, to the needs of people taught from infancy to look inside themselves for God. Therapeutic religion promises contentment, but in many cases it seems to deliver a sort of isolation that’s at once comfortable and terrible—leaving us alone with the universe, alone with the God Within.1
The main attack on Christianity at this stage is not the deployment of scientific materialists; the main attack is superstition. I guess, after a fashion, materialism gives a form of permission for people to invent their own religion, which is inevitably the god within.
We must remember that we’re in a world where these things are happening, because we can’t minister effectively in that world or in the churches unless we understand the culture in which we live. Whatever world we’re living in, however, the apostle takes us in these last words to foundational truths we must not forget. These are worth reading and re-reading in order to be reminded, refreshed and reassured, and to refocus our ministry of the word of God and prayer around the essentials.
I’ve been struck by how often the first person singular pronoun occurs in this speech. As he’s giving his final address to the elders, it’s all about Paul! He even starts out by declaring how humble he is:
“You yourselves know how I lived among you the whole time from the first day that I set foot in Asia, serving the Lord with all humility and with tears and with trials that happened to me through the plots of the Jews; how I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, and teaching you in public and from house to house, testifying both to Jews and to Greeks of repentance toward God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Acts 20:18-21)
Has it never struck you before how self-centered this passage is? That’s because it isn’t; it’s an observation that turns out not to disclose the truth. What the apostle is doing is to use the enormous power of the model. He doesn’t want them simply to remember his teaching; he wants them to remember him. He modeled to them both in speech and behaviour because he wanted them to do the same.
Does it work for you? You bet. One of the great gifts that the late John ‘Chappo’ Chapman gave to us here in Sydney was the model of what it is to be a Christian minister. I can see him now: he’d come to a meeting and eagerly engage with what was happening (even if it was not so good from the front). He’d be strengthening us, admonishing us, testifying to us, and witnessing to us. When he came into the room your heart lifted—because if Chappo could keep going, why couldn’t you? Don’t ever underestimate the importance of the model.
On a practical note for pastoral ministry: theological colleges and seminaries can do what they like in preparing ministers of the gospel, but it’s really the senior minister with whom they work first—if that’s the way your life works out—who has the greatest impact. So if you occupy that senior minister role, then recognize that your model is incredibly important to your colleagues (even if it doesn’t work as effectively as it should).
What we see here in Paul could be summarized as, “Look, here I am, watch who I am, watch what I’ve done, hear what I’ve said, and do likewise”. In other words, it’s those three famous things: character, commitment, conviction.
We see Paul’s character as a Christian minister: he’s not a guru or a fraud; he speaks the truth. The integrity of his whole life is on display:
You yourselves know how I lived among you the whole time from the first day that I set foot in Asia, serving the Lord with all humility and with tears… (Acts 20:18-19)
One thing you could indisputably say about Paul was that he was a servant of the Lord Jesus Christ. I trust the same could be said about you. Whatever role you occupy, I trust you are a servant of the Lord, and everybody knows that.
This is the key to humility. Paul serves the Lord with humility because the heart of service is faith, dependence. He can say he serves the Lord with humility, because he trusts the Lord in his ministry. If the opposite statement is more true of you—“I serve in my own strength; I serve with my wonderful character; I serve with the gifts I’ve been given”—there’s something wrong. First and foremost you serve the Lord in trusting in him.
This is a lesson I learned again in Nairobi last year, at the GAFCON meeting concerning the future of Anglicanism around the world. There were times where, not in an irresponsible way, we simply had to trust the Lord in the processes and meetings we were having. I testify before you that the Lord blessed us in our confidence in him. It was not misplaced.
Notice too that Paul mentions humility with tears. We go through phases sometimes in thinking of ministry in terms of a detached role, like a client-lawyer or patient-doctor relationship, where we don’t ourselves become too attached to the people with whom God has blessed us. I don’t think that is the picture we see in the New Testament. We see a picture of a man who laboured over the congregation and the people he was seeking to win for Christ. His emotions were fully engaged. His love drove him to tears, along with his concern for them in the midst of their trials.
Any ministry that’s worth doing generates opposition like that in Ephesus, and trials for the church. So too there will be rejection of your ministry. I’m sure you know how hard it is to say, “Christ is the only way”. That feeling you have is the result of the world pushing in on us. You may know how hard it is to say, even from the pulpit, “Jesus is the only way; all other gods are nonsense”. It feels impolite, even amongst believers. Whatever you do in commending Christ, you will find opposition and antagonism both from inside and out.
One point of opposition is the general milieu in which we find ourselves, encouraging us to believe we have a whole list of rights. This current sense of entitlement is extraordinary. Several doctors have told me the same story: people come into the surgery expecting to be cured. They believe in science, and they believe they have a right to be healed. They don’t recognize the limitations of the body, the limitations of science, or the limitations of life itself. If they aren’t cured, they get angry with the medical practitioner and they go off looking for gurus in superstition or, worse, Dr Google.
This revolt against expertise and flight into superstition is occurring all around us. One tempting remedy can be for us to believe that because of the training, knowledge, and expertise ministers possess, they can arrest this using something they themselves offer. Look at how differently Paul speaks:
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. (Acts 20:24)
Paul isn’t just saying this just to butter them up. His extraordinary selflessness is an invitation to them and us to say the same words and live the same life. We’re not professionals. We’re maniacs. We’re fools for Christ. That’s who we are. Then he raises a matter of very great relevance to all:
I coveted no-one’s silver or gold or apparel. You yourselves know that these hands ministered to my necessities and to those who were with me. (Acts 20:33-34)
His character was such that in recognizing that his life was totally Jesus Christ’s and nothing to him, he had no covetousness towards the wealth of others. I raise this because money is a very great temptation to us. I take it you deal with this in yourself, and recognize your temptations and faults in this area. You and the apostle Paul should share the same attitude—namely, your life counts as nothing to you. You do not covet. Indeed, he worked with his own hands so that he would not burden others.
Notice too how he finishes: “In all things I have shown you that by working hard in this way we must help the weak and remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive’” (v. 35). The ministers of the gospel are those to whom the poor of this world come when they need something. I’ve been living in a rectory for the last few weeks looking after my grandchildren, and the people who greet me in the area are the needy people. They seem to know instinctively that I’m connected to the church: “Hello minister. Hello Reverend.” This is because of the reputation the ministry has even now of looking after the weak, the poor and the sick. That’s the reputation, but should it not be a reality? Are we not for the poor? Is that not the care of our hearts?
I’ve already touched upon Paul’s commitment. He was clearly not a professional—by which I mean a member of a guild with certain standards—he was an ideologue. He was possessed with the gospel, and his life was utterly committed in all of its parts to that gospel and the sharing of that gospel. Workers clock in and clock out, but we have been set free to be missionaries, just as Paul was.
Exactly what he was so committed to he describes in verses 26-27: “Therefore I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all, for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God”.
I once heard a man notoriously liberal in his Christian beliefs interviewed on television. I was very pleased to hear him talk engagingly about Jesus. But then I noticed what it wasn’t about: it wasn’t about sin, judgement, death or hell. But that wasn’t Paul’s preaching: Paul proclaimed all the purposes (counsel) of God, the whole Scriptures with Christ at the centre. He declared, taught, testified, proclaimed, admonished. Because of this proclamation of the plans and purposes of God from the beginning of creation, focused on Christ, he can say that he is innocent of their blood. That is, he is cleared of any guilt that those to whom he spoke wouldn’t have heard the truth. Again I challenge you with Paul’s challenge: in your ministry have you delivered the truth of God, not your own insights, clearing yourself of guilt? Do those who have heard you know the truth? Wouldn’t it be awful if those around you were to say “But you never told me that”, because something crucial had been omitted from your teaching?
Admonition is a good word for us to think about. Many of our sermons have an exegetical section, and then we think, “What’s the application here?” Can you imagine the apostle Paul preaching a sermon and thinking this? His sermon was application. He didn’t give a lecture with a segment tacked on. He was bringing the word of God home with admonition, rebuke, and encouragement to the hearts and lives of those over whom he was weeping. Now that’s preaching.
Paul called the message he preached “the gospel of the grace of God” (v. 24), which was a declaration of the whole counsel of God. I take it he preached sin. He preached that evil desire can grab us from the depths of sin; that we are hopelessly badly off. I take it he preached the law, because I don’t understand how you can preach sin without the law. He preached the cross as the only way of salvation, the only possible way that people can be forgiven. He preached justification by faith alone. He preached the sovereignty of God, which provided the way of justification. He preached the holiness of life that flows out of faith in Christ. He preached the sufficiency of Scripture as the whole counsel of God. This was what you may call ‘application’—although it’s such a pallid word! He preached the whole counsel of God; he preached the gospel of the grace of God, in all its parts. You can’t preach the gospel of the grace of God without preaching sin, justification, the cross, faith and election. You can’t be a coward and preach the gospel—you simply won’t be able to do it.
Interestingly, as he models what they are to do, he does not mention the way in which his ministry is accompanied by miracles (David Cook makes this point).2 That’s not on the agenda. What’s on the agenda is for the elders to preach, testify, admonish and witness to the gospel of the grace of God, and to do so in a way in which they themselves are no longer important but rather are extolling and exhorting others to put their trust in the Lord Jesus.
Now, how about us? Ought we be modelling ourselves on Paul? Or is there someone else?
If you look at what he says, you’ll see he models himself on Christ. This passage is deeply Christological. We follow Paul because he followed Christ. That is why he can use ‘I’ so frequently, because what you see here is Christ. He followed Christ in his foot-washing humility, Christ who lived amongst them, Christ who wept over Jerusalem, Christ who preached repentance and faith (Mark 1:15), Christ who was also the victim of plots by the Jews and others against him, Christ who also counted his life of no value, Christ who also cared for the flock of God and spoke of the wolves in sheep’s clothing who were to come, Christ who also had a certain attitude towards money (quoted here by Paul), and Christ who also makes the promise of inheritance. The Lord Jesus is in almost every statement of this passage by Paul, and unless you understand that you won’t get to its heart. The convictions of the apostle Paul, demonstrated in his life and teaching, are all about Christ.
Pay careful attention to yourselves… (Acts 20:28)
This comment is a bit of a shocker: with such self-forgetfulness you wouldn’t have thought Paul would say something like this. But he does: pay attention to your character, your convictions, your commitment, so that you will be a worthy gospel messenger of the Lord Jesus Christ.
It’s not only to themselves that they must pay careful attention. It is also to the flock, over which the Holy Spirit has made these elders overseers. Please notice that the overseer—the word ‘shepherd’ comes to mind instantly because of the ‘flock’ of God—is the pastor-shepherd. The pastor is not someone remote, detached, but one who weeps, who has given himself, who labours night and day over the flock. You can’t draw a distinction between the teaching of the pastor and his life. He is the one God gives to the flock and through whom God ministers to the flock. For God cares deeply and bestows infinite dignity on this flock, the church he obtained with the blood of his own Son.
I sometimes regret ever having been a minister of the gospel. I say to myself, “What an awesome responsibility”. How many have I damaged and broken and hurt in the exercise of my sinful human ministry? Some of you reading this, no doubt. What a responsibility we have as ministers of the gospel to care for the church for which Christ gave himself in his atoning sacrifice on the cross. With great pain the pastor must protect the flock. We have the task of protecting the church from the wolves who come from without: bad and worldly religion, and those who speak horrible, twisted things to draw away disciples after them. This is the mark of this twisted message: the (false) pastor will try to make disciples for himself. Here we’re not seeing differences of opinion that sometimes occur between the brethren on this subject or that, so much as the attempt to create a guru status and draw people after them with false teaching.
One of our dangers is the danger of disunity. I see it internationally with my GAFCON work; I see it more locally as well. The Lord tells us to maintain the unity of the Spirit with the bond of peace. Sometimes, in a world where we can get to know each others’ thoughts instantly (or Facebook statuses, at least), there is a grave danger of gospel ministers being disunited. When this happens the world looks on with wonder, and the evil one looks on with pleasure. Love and cherish unity. Maintain unity with the bond of peace.
That being said, it is not unity at all costs. There are moments where we must take a stand for the gospel on the doctrine of sin, on the cross, on justification by faith, on holiness of life, and on the sufficiency of Scripture. There are moments where we must guard the sheep by speaking the truth.
We live in an age of personal entitlement where even Christians are prone to insist upon their way. It is an awkward age to live in, but it is one where we are called as part of our suffering for Christ to love one another, to maintain unity, to stand for the truth of the gospel.
…for three years I did not cease night or day to admonish every one with tears. And now I commend you to God and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified. (Acts 20:31-32)
This is a prayer, isn’t it? If I were Paul, I would be desperately worried about this frail little boat of a church. Instead, he casts his burdens on the Lord and commends them to God and (a point made by David Peterson)4 to the word of his grace. It’s not as if there are two things here: it’s God working through the word of his grace. As he does this he works to build you up and give you an inheritance amongst those who are saved. In other words, the world is full of dangers, and at times it makes you wonder just how this movement can go on. But it’s a world in which we have the word of God’s grace, the gospel, and that gospel is the power of God.
Our business is to preach the awesomeness of the grace of God. We need to proclaim the awfulness and pervasiveness of sin (it’s the lack of that doctrine in itself that has created the bad religion referred to by Ross Douthat), the cross of Christ, the sovereignty of God, the sufficiency of Scripture, and the great old doctrines of the word of God focused on the cross of Christ. It’s our business so to preach the gospel of God’s grace that we will build up the church and build up ourselves, so that in the end we have the assurance from God that we will and do indeed have an inheritance among the saints. Don’t despair: if God took what was such a little beginning in the early church and created what has happened in the history of the world, he is certainly able to care for you.
What God calls on you to do is to preach the true gospel and the grace of God. Especially those of you who have people entrusted to your care: you are to defend it and defend those people, with tears. May God do that through your life and ministry, and may we see God keeping all of us in the grace of the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ.