As I’ve been studying the Book of Acts, it’s been interesting to see pictures of Paul’s leadership fleshed out in various five fold ministry expressions. We get snapshots of him as apostle, prophet, evangelist, pastor, and teacher. Often we see Paul the evangelist; but here in Acts 20, we get a unique picture of Paul the pastor. We glean what was important to him as a leader and shepherd of God’s people.
Study notes from (Acts 20:17-38 ESV)
Now from Miletus he sent to Ephesus and called the elders of the church to come to him. 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, 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. And now, behold, I am going to Jerusalem, constrained by the Spirit, not knowing what will happen to me there, except that the Holy Spirit testifies to me in every city that imprisonment and afflictions await me. 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.
And now, behold, I know that none of you among whom I have gone about proclaiming the kingdom will see my face again. 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. Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood. I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them. Therefore be alert, remembering that 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. 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. 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.’”
And when he 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.
Paul calls ministry leaders together to encourage them as he prepares for a transition in his missional direction. He is about to depart and understands that where the Holy Spirit is leading him means that there is a good chance he might never see some of his friends again. It’s a bitter-sweet time of bidding farewell.
Paul first calls attention to himself as an example. Not an example instead of Jesus, but an example as he followed Jesus. Paul didn’t act like a religious celebrity and expect people to serve and honor him; he simply gave of himself to serve the Lord with all humility. He poured himself out, investing in the lives of others.
Paul could confidently say with a clear conscience that he had preached and taught the whole counsel of God without holding anything back. He didn’t preach what was going to draw a crowd, but what was going to build people up and grow mature followers of Christ. He didn’t only teach the topics that pleased him. He proclaimed it all. As he continued on his missionary journey, he could boldly say that he was faithful in this particular context.
Then we get a glimpse into what I refer to as Paul’s “Spirit-filled uncertainty” (v22-24). Paul didn’t know what was ahead of him and had reason to believe it was going to be exceedingly difficult. But this doesn’t trouble him. He could give it all over to God even when he didn’t know what would happen. There should always be more Christ-followers who will faithfully declare, “none of these things move me.” (KJV)
Paul recognized the dangerous road ahead of him; apparently he had received many words of prophecy telling him of this danger already. Yet he was not set off the track by danger, but was willing to lay down his life for the gospel of the grace of God.
Paul thought of himself as an accountant, weighing carefully the credits and the expenses; and in the end, he does not count his own life dear to him, compared to his God and how he can serve him.
Paul thought of himself as a runner who had a race to finish, and nothing would keep Paul from finishing the race with joy. Additionally, Paul speaks of my race – he had his race to run, we have our own – but God calls us to finish it with joy.
This shows that even at this point, Paul had his death in mind. It would be many years until he actually died, but he considered that what he did with his life now was worth dying for. In the words of Spurgeon, he preached a gospel worth dying for. It is a worthy challenge to any preacher: Is the gospel you preach worth dying for?
A gospel of political correctness is not worth dying for. A gospel of feel-goodism that only entertains and breeds more spiritual consumers is not worth dying for. A gospel of spiritual hipness or social acceptance is not worth dying for. Only the Gospel of Jesus Christ is worth dying for. And unless you have counted the cost of following Jesus fully, you haven’t truly owned this Gospel. If you will only do for Jesus what is safe, convenient, and comfortable for you, you haven’t truly owned this Gospel. Because the true Gospel of Jesus Christ will cause you to embrace a different aim in life than merely playing it safe. It will lead you to a cross where you are expected to lay down your very life and be crucified of every ambition that doesn’t have His glory as its chief aim.
Many of Paul’s friends didn’t want him going to where it was dangerous. But Paul understood that he wasn’t called to a place called safe; but to an altar where our lives are laid down for the sake of His Gospel.
Charles Spurgeon once said:
“Yet there used to be a gospel in the world which consisted of facts which Christians never questioned. There was once in the church a gospel which believers hugged to their hearts as if it were their soul’s life. There used to be a gospel in the world, which provoked enthusiasm and commanded sacrifice. Tens of thousands have met together to hear this gospel at peril of their lives. Men, to the teeth of tyrants, have proclaimed it, and have suffered the loss of all things, and gone to prison and to death for it, singing psalms all the while. Is there not such a gospel remaining?”
It’s been said that many preachers today simply use a Bible text as a launching pad, and then go on to say what they want – what the people want to hear. Others throw in Bible quotations to illustrate their points, or to illustrate their stories. Yet the real calling of a preacher is to simply let the Bible speak for itself and let it declare its own power. Paul was confident he had done this.
For Paul, one chapter is closing. It is saddening that he must move on from these deep bonds he has built. But a new chapter is about to be written. As he moves out into faithfulness to God’s missionary calling on his life, the apostle can transition with incredible peace. Because:
1. He had served the Lord faithfully in this missional context, with great humility, with many tears, and through many trials. He had loved people and poured into these relationships with everything he had. (v18-19)
2. He was faithful to the true Gospel of Jesus Christ. Instead of preaching a feely-good gospel, he didn’t shrink back from declaring what it would really cost them to follow Jesus. Paul had great peace in his work because he didn’t compromise God’s Word. (v20-21)
3. His life was constrained by the Spirit, or “Spirit-filled.” He had great peace because he was led by the Holy Spirit even when the Holy Spirit told him that his obedience would be met with danger and hardship ahead. (v22-23)
4. He was more concerned with following God into the unknown than trying to get God to fit into his own little comfort zone. Let that statement resonate for a moment.(v24)
5. He could commend his work and his friends to God. Paul knew that it was very likely that after his departure “fierce wolves” would come in, even “from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them.” He warned them to be alert and to remember that he had served them faithfully for three years with many tears, but ultimately he knew that God alone was the only One Who could be trusted with their fate. They wouldn’t be better suited because of Paul’s presence, but because they were in God’s hand. God could be trusted, as only He can, with their continual process of sanctification. (v29-30)
Paul lived with a “Spirit-filled uncertainty.” What does that look like for you right now?