A Personal Testimony of Faithful Ministry

Tom Nettles
| Acts 20:22–35 | January 30, 2018

I. A travelogue from Ephesus

A. Having encouraged the disciples in Ephesus, Paul went through Macedonia to visit with the disciples in Philippi, Thessalonica, and Berea. The text says that he gave them “much encouragement” or “exhortation.” Encouragement is not only saying “’Atta Boy, you can do it,” but includes a series of motivations for the pursuit of what is right and holy. How he encouraged them constitutes parts of the letters written to these churches: “Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself. … Do all things without complaining and disputing, that you may become blameless and harmless, children of God without fault in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation among whom you shine as lights in the world” (Philippians 2:3, 14, 15). “See that no one renders evil for evil to anyone, but always pursue what is good both for yourselves and for all” (1 Thessalonians 5:15).

B. He then returned to Greece (Athens and Corinth) for three months. When those who had been hostile to him in his first visit learned that he was there, they plotted to kill him. He left again for Macedonia. A nice sized company went with him, or ahead of him, to Troas. Companions included one from Berea, 2 from Thessalonica, one from Derbe, and three from Asia. They traveled for five days, arriving on Monday or Tuesday and stayed for 7 days.

C. On the last day, which was the first day of the week, the day on which the church gathered together for worship and the Lord’s Supper (Verse 7).

  1. Paul talked with them, and made such a long speech, that he went past midnight. The numerous lamps made the room warm, particularly in its higher parts. Salvation involves a radical alteration of life. Paul looked upon his stewardship of the gospel as giving instructions to the disciples concerning their new life in the world of worship of the true God and avoidance of the perversities of pagans and other unbelievers. He labored that Christ would be formed in them, that they would see the glory of the one true God, that they would, as it were, “attain the resurrection from the dead” (Philippians 3:11).
  2. A young man, Eutychus, fell into a deep sleep and fell from a window three stories high. He was dead, but Paul took him up in his arms, and his life was restored. He continued to converse with the disciples until daybreak.

D. Paul was determined to reach Jerusalem by Pentecost, and so sailed with his companions to Miletus and from there sent messenges to Ephesus, asking the elders from there to come to Miletus so he could see them again and encourage them in some vital matters concerning their responsibilities in the church.

 

II. Paul’s Speech to the elders of Ephesus. (verse 18-35) Throughout this speech we find Paul’s reflections moving within a framework bordered by divine grace, human opposition to truth and holiness, the necessity of unceasing stewardship, and the model that grace provides of giving.

A. Paul gives an account of his ministry among them during the two years he was there. (Verses 18-21)

  1. He served with humility in the midst of tears and trials. He came as an apostle but also as a man saved from the ravages of self-righteousness. He knew the subtle bondage of sin, the danger of falling short of the righteousness of the divine law, and yet continuing in life as if content with the present status. He urged them with experiential earnestness in every aspect of gospel truth. He served them in this ministry of the gospel even while his own life was on the verge of danger through plots from the Jews. They hated his gospel as blasphemy and they hated him for having forsaken his standing as a Pharisee, a Hebrew of the Hebrews.
  2. He declared everything that was profitable (Verses 20, 21).
  • Paul carefully trained himself in his public ministry to avoid silliness and superfluities in his speech. He did not waste time with worldly chatter. His mental energy and speech were occupied with determining all that was profitable. He spoke as he wrote the Colossians “Walk in wisdom toward those who are outside, redeeming the time. Let your speech always be with grace, seasoned with salt, that you may know how to answer each one” (Colossians 4:6). Every opportunity for speech with an “outsider” must be measured to have a portion of it provoke some interest in or question about the issues of sin, salvation, righteousness, and eternal life. We must learn to season our speech in such ways so as to redeem the time and always seek the spiritual profit of those to whom we speak.
  • In public he proclaimed the gospel to unbelievers among both the Jews and the Greeks. From “house to house” he went into the homes of believers who had gathered family, friends, and neighbors to hear Paul give instruction about the principles of a gospel life, a life now given, by grace, a knowledge of the true God. He would give increased instruction about biblical doctrine and the practical implications for living as light in a pagan society, honoring God in marriage and other family relations, and how to function conscionably as good citizens. H would instruct them as to how they should organize as the “household of God, the pillar and foundation of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15).
  • His message in public and in houses concerned the meaning of “repentance toward God and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.” This includes a statement of the condition of the entire world in all ages and all cultures in their relation to the Creator and final Judge. It also includes a very specific, exclusive, and effectual proposition as to how one gains a good standing with this God.
    • God is the Creator, Lawgiver, Judge, and the only true object of worship. Adam is the father of us all and in him all of the world, every human being, has fallen, come under condemnation, and functions as a morally corrupt person, oblivious to the glory and infinite prerogatives of God. Repentance, a turn of mind, heart, and conduct from sin and godlessness toward God as the true object of worship and affection is the most basic duty of all persons everywhere. As Peter preached at Pentecost, “Repent,” and as Paul preached at Athens, “God commands all men everywhere to repent,” So Paul began his gospel proclamation at Ephesus.
    • “Faith in our Lord Jesus Christ” sets forth the answer to our sin and worthiness of eternal death. Jesus Christ, Son of God and Son of Man, was tested in all points like as we but without sin and therefore has a perfect righteousness; though he was just, yet has born our sins in his own body on the tree, suffering the just for the unjust that he might bring us to God. “He hath made him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might be made the righteousness of God in him” (2 Corinthians 5:21). The universal problem of sin can be dealt with satisfactorily either in the eternal death of the sinner or by receiving Christ as our substitute under divine wrath and for the righteousness that merits eternal life.

B. Paul talked about the possible events in the immediate future. (Verses 22-27)

  1. He felt constraint by the Spirit to go to Jerusalem, but did not know how that would turn out. His desire eventually would be to go to Rome, but knew that in Jerusalem, enemies were present and probably would seek to interrupt his life and perhaps put it to an end.
  2. He did know that imprisonment and afflictions awaited him, for “in every city” the Spirit had testified to him that this would occur.
  3. In light of both these revelations, that he must go to Jerusalem and that imprisonment and affliction awaited him there, he resolved to go. On other occasions, he avoided the possibility of losing his life when he learned of Jewish plots against him, but he did not have a revealed mandate to put himself in harm’s way on those occasions.
  4. Even under the shroud of this mystery, with long term goals for the completion of his stewardship of the gospel, Paul knew that immediate obedience was his only option even if it meant death. What did his life mean to him if he gained it by disobedience to God? His life, therefore, in itself was not his ultimate value; he was governed by the Lord Jesus Christ who had personally commissioned him to spend his life suffering for the sake of preaching the gospel (Acts 9:5, 15-16). He must not shrink from the duty to go to Jerusalem even when chains and afflictions were awaiting. In some way, even that would press him on in his mission “received from the Lord Jesus, to testify solemnly of the gospel of the grace of God.”
  5. Given this future, Paul knew that he would not be able to come personally to Ephesus again and would see these dear friends and fellow workers no more. They would not see his face again. As a final moment of proclaiming his commitment to a faithful stewardship, in the hearing and seeing of those who were most knowledgeable of his teaching and conduct, he declared that he was innocent of their blood, for, without shrinking, with no reservations, with no apologies, he had declared to them “the whole counsel of God.” No part of God’s revealed message to him had been omitted in his ministry to them. The eternal decree of God including redemption, election, condemnation, creation, sin, incarnation, atonement, resurrection, second coming, judgment, heaven, hell, eternal life in the presence of the triune God was set forth with clarity and with joy in the perfect justice and infinite mercies of God.

C. He gives them admonitions concerning their duties as elders and presents his own ministry as a model (verse 28-35).

  1. They had a dual obligation.
  • They must watch themselves, that is as a personal responsibility for their own souls, and as a corporate duty to maintain purity among the elders. (see 1 Timothy 5:17-20).
  • Also, they must care for the flock. They watch themselves in order that they might more faithfully and purely care for the sheep of Christ (they were pastors). Not only their souls, but the souls of those over whom they watch were bound up in their ministry of truth and purity (Compare 1 Timothy 4:16).
    • They were responsible to the Holy Spirit for he had made them “overseers,” that is, bishops. Note that the three words most frequently used for those called to gospel ministry are used as functions of these men: pastors, elders, and bishops.
    • The church, this local assembly of believers, Paul called the church of God. It did not belong to them but to God himself.
    • Specifically, God the Son, in his chief work of the incarnation had shed his blood as an atoning sacrifice, in suffering of both body and soul for the remission of sins. God, in Christ, purchased the church with his own blood. This might seem like an awkward idea, that God shed his blood, but it is a powerful testimony to the singularity of the personhood of Christ, God and man, two distinct natures, in one person. The man who was God shed his blood.
  1. This calling meant protecting the flock from two directions.
  • From the outside, “savage wolves,” not shepherds, will come in from the outside to seek to destroy the faith of the people. Paul has in mind, not physical persecution at this point, but alien religions, world views, philosophies, and doctrines. They must not be moved from the clarity and simplicity of truth as it is present in Christ and his gospel (See Colossians 2:4-10). There has never been an age in which the Christian gospel has not been under attack from philosophical and intellectual forces. Elders are responsible to set forth the gospel of Christ with such clarity, biblical consistency, and comprehensive relevance that all other views of life, all other systems of value, all other attempts to formulate truth (or non-truth) will fall by their sheer inferiority to the glory, beauty, and fullness of the truth as it is in Jesus.
  • Also, from within the congregation, deceivers will arise seeking to divide the flock and draw away people to follow their own idiosyncratic views (see 2 Corinthians 11:12-15). Paul saw this happen in Corinth with the divisions into the parties of Paul, Apollos, Peter, and Jesus. He had to fight against Jews claiming to be followers of Christ who compromised the gospel through requirements of the ceremonial law (see Paul’s arguments in the book of Galatians).
  • The task of elder/pastor/bishop is daunting and filled with the reality of ultimacy in every part. It is not for the faint of heart, for those low in convictions about the truth of Scripture, for those who fear loss of face in the eyes of men, who curry favor with the world, or who have compromised understanding about the person of Christ and the absolute truthfulness of the gospel.
  • He pointed to his own fervor for close to three years as he ministered among them teaching and admonishing both night and day as a reminder of the personal cost of the task to which they were called.
  1. Paul not only demonstrated in his teaching how the pastors should be faithful to the gospel in its fullness, but by his personal life how they should pursue humility and generosity.
  • God and his word of truth were their sole sources of authority and ultimate assurance. God had personally invaded and changed their lives by his Spirit through the word of truth Paul had preached. This word had as its center the grace of God by which he had determined from eternity past to save sinners. This grace as contained in the covenant of redemption not only had brought them to faith but would build them up in their knowledge of God and take them finally to heaven where they will receive the inheritance God has promised to all who are set aside by him to holiness (Verse 32).
  • Paul had not used this transforming message of God’s grace to gain any personal worldly advantage. No, instead of taking advantages of his rights as an apostle (2 Corinthians 11:7-10; 12:14-18), he had supported himself and those who accompanied him by working with his own hands. He did the same thing among the Thessalonians (2 Thessalonians 3:8-12), though he also received help from Philippi while there (Philippians 4:14-16).
  • The goodness of real work and the goal of unselfish giving should be a result of a true understanding of the gospel. Though in his eternal state the Son of God was rich, yet for our sakes he became poor in taking on our nature and the burden of our cares and our sins that we through his poverty might be rich (2 Corinthians 8:8, 9). Paul consistently taught this as an outcome of a true grasp of the gospel and the stewardship of life that it provokes (Galatians 6:6-10; Ephesians 4:28; 1 Thessalonians 4:9-12; 1 Timothy 6:17-19; Titus 3:14).
  • The deepest of affection is introduced into life and sealed in our hearts through participation in the faith and truth of the gospel. They prayed, they wept, they embraced, they kissed, and they grieved over the words that they would not see his face again. The deepest grief in this life comes from a loss of those who are united to us in the gospel. That loss, however, is set in the context of the greatest hope, for together we will see the Lord and will be forever with him and in joyful worshipping fellowship with each other.