The Long Goodbye
Bible Text: Acts 20:1 – 38 | Speaker: Clayton Fopp | Series: Acts – What Kind of Church? | Acts 20
The Long Goodbye
Paul’s ministry plans and ministry team (v 1 – 12)
They say that Boxing Day, is the busiest day of the year, for air travel. I’m not sure if you’ve ever flown on Boxing Day,
I’ve never done it.
I’ve flown on Christmas Day. Kathy and I flew out for our honeymoon on Christmas Day, which was, perhaps unsurprisingly, pretty quiet in the airport!
But in the Jewish world of the first century AD, The festival of Pentecost, was the busiest day to fly,
Well, not fly of course, But city of Jerusalem, which had a population of perhaps around 50,000 people, at Pentecost, was filled with up to 2 million pilgrims, who poured in from around the known world, particularly the cities of the Roman empire around the Mediterranean.
So when Luke, the author of the book of Acts tells us in verse 16 of chapter 20, that Paul had decided to sail past Ephesus to avoid spending time in the province of Asia, for he was in a hurry to reach Jerusalem, if possible, by the day of Pentecost, we might just think that Paul wants to get to Jerusalem, and simply hopes to avoid getting delayed in the traffic of Pentecost, but it’s worth us noting his commitment to maintaining some of the Jewish practices and traditions he had followed throughout his life.
I think we often tend to imagine, that the very first Christians, who were all Jewish, we imagine that when they came to Christ, that they immediately abandoned all the outward and practical expressions of their Judaism, as if their Christian faith somehow contradicted all the Jewish traditions they had previously celebrated.
But of course, these Christians, like Paul, understood Christ to be the fulfilment of the religious practices they had celebrated under the Old Covenant, and so, at least until they were forced out of the temple and the synagogues, many of the early Christians continued to celebrate elements of their Jewish faith, but they celebrate them as fulfilled in Christ.
But in addition to that, Paul wants to get to Jerusalem by Pentecost, because he and his companions are carrying the collection that had been taken up among the Gentile churches of Macedonia, for the support of the Christians in Jerusalem.
Those men whose names are listed at the beginning of the chapter, are most likely representatives of the various churches who have contributed to this gift for their fellow Christians, and so each man is carrying the share of the gift that has come from his church.
There’s Sopater, from Berea,
Aristarchus and Secundus, from Thessalonica,
Gaius is from Derbe, in Galatia,
Timothy from Lystra,
And Tychicus and Trophimus from the province of Asia.
And no doubt Paul thinks that it would be particularly appropriate, for these gifts to be handed over to those in need, at Pentecost.
It was at a previous Pentecost, that the Christians were first, marked out by God as a distinct group, apart from the Jews, so perhaps Paul thinks that this expression of care within the Christian community, one part of the Body of Christ, generously and sacrificially caring for another, should be celebrated at this particular time.
But having said all that, even though he’s in such a hurry to make it to Jerusalem before Pentecost, Paul stops in Miletus and sends for the leaders of the Ephesian church to come him.
Some scholar has figured out that for Paul to arrive in Miletus,
Send off a messenger to Ephesus,
Gather up the leaders of the church there,
And bring them all back to Miletus to see Paul, would take around 5 days.
Of course, it’s not the first time we’ve seen Paul’s concern for wanting to encourage the church.
Right at the beginning of this chapter, Paul sets out for Syria, where his sending church was located, in Antioch,
And so he wants to return there and report back all the things that God’s been doing as the message of Jesus spreads and takes hold of people’s lives.
But instead of taking the shortest route back to Syria, he heads the wrong way through Macedonia and Asia, so he can support and encourage the churches that he had established previously.
So while this trip of Paul’s is usually called his 3rd missionary journey, it’s clear that in Paul’s mind, missionary work, the ministry that Christian people are involved in, is not just about telling people the gospel for the first time;, it’s about seeing people built to maturity in Christ over the long term.
But it’s in the second half of this section that we get an even clearer picture of just how Paul taught God’s Word, to see people built to maturity.
Paul’s ministry is a Word ministry 17 – 27
Significantly, this speech to the Ephesian elders, also called overseers or bishops, in verse 28, is the only speech recorded in Acts which is addressed to Christian people.
The other speeches in Acts are evangelistic, calling on people who aren’t Christian trust in Jesus for forgiveness and reconciliation with God,
Or they’re speeches made as a defence, before ruling authorities, and even those ones often have a bit of an evangelistic edge, as Peter or Stephen, or Paul, never really miss an opportunity to lay before people the incredible picture of what God has done for them in sending Jesus to die in their place.
So out of all the speeches in Acts, these are the words spoken to people, who are most like us!
Sure, not many of us are elders or overseers, in our church, although some are,
But probably most of us are involved in ministry in some way in the church here.
The Bible is clear that God expects all of us to be engaged in ministry, using the gifts that he’s given us for the building up of the church.
So when it comes to working out “What did Paul think Christian ministry looks like? What are the non-negotiables? These are questions for all of us at Trinity, not just for people who might hold a particular office.
And what we’ll see as we go through this section, is that Paul’s ministry is a Word ministry.
His pattern of ministry has been to bring the message of Jesus to bear on people’s lives.
Now, of course, Paul is speaking here about his ministry in Ephesus, but coming where it does at the end of Paul’s itinerant ministry, it serves as a summary, not just of his time in Ephesus, but of his ministry in general.
And so this section shows us, not just the pattern of Paul’s work in this one city, but the picture of Christian ministry, whatever the context,
Christian ministry, in any town,
Christian ministry, among those who have already responded to Christ, and among those who haven’t,
This is the picture of ministry, in God’s church.
So what does it look like?
Well Paul’s ministry is a ministry of bringing God’s Word to people, and 3 times he explains what the content of this Word ministry is.
Christian ministry is a message of repentance and faith v 21
In verse 21, he says he’s called for repentance and faith:, I have declared to both Jews and Greeks that they must turn to God in repentance and have faith in our Lord Jesus.
Sometimes, as we saw in Ephesus last week, it was actual physical idols, from which Paul called upon people to turn,
In other situations, to turn to God means turning away from other things,
From selfish priorities,
From things that get in the way of obedience and discipleship,
From patterns of behaviour, and relationships, that would hinder us coming to Jesus, and growing in Jesus.
And if Paul’s message is a message that calls for faith in our Lord Jesus, then that means people not trusting in other things, their own efforts, religious obedience, their own wisdom, or wealth, for a right standing before God.
Christian ministry is the message of grace v 24
Paul’s 2nd explanation of his message is that it’s the gospel of grace. See there at the end of verse 24, the task the Lord Jesus has given me, is, the task of testifying to the good news of God’s grace
Good news, that’s the word for gospel.
Paul’s gospel, is about God’s undeserved kindness. The kindness that God shows, in sending his only Son to die for people who are living as his enemies.
It wasn’t a message of self-improvement.
When I go into a bookshop, I like to go and see what they have in terms of “Christian” books. Sometimes there’s a “religious” section,
Sometimes books about Christianity get put in under philosophy, or something.
But every now and then I walk into a bookshop, and I discover that the Christian books, are in the self-help section, or the self-improvement section.
And it takes just about all of my self control, to stop myself grabbing the Christian books and throwing them off the bookshelf, so that they’re not in the self-help section any more.
I’d rather them be in a pile on the ground, than under that heading, “self-improvement.”
If you ever hear in the news about some lunatic going crazy in the self-help section of a bookshop, well, you’ll now know who it is, won’t you?!
Christianity is not self-help. If you want a label, it’s God help, for people who can’t do anything about their sin and separation from God themselves.
That’s Paul’s message, the good news that we deserve condemnation from God, but in his kindness he pours out not condemnation, but blessing.
Christian ministry is the message of the kingdom of God v 25
Paul’s third description of his message, is to say he has proclaimed the kingdom of God, God’s reign, through his Jesus, his chosen king.
See verse 25 there, I know that none of you, among whom I have gone about preaching the kingdom will ever see me again
It’s likely that Luke, who was an ear-witness of this speech, records this particular description, especially to remind his readers, that Paul’s message, was the same as that taught by Jesus.
In volume one of his work, his gospel account, Luke records Jesus teaching about the Kingdom of God 37 times.
It’s kind of popular in some circles today, to try and drive a wedge between Paul’s message and Jesus’ message.
“Sure, we might pay attention to what Jesus said, but Paul’s message was completely different, and therefore if it gets inconvenient, we can just ignore Paul!”
No, Paul defines his ministry here, in exactly the terms that Jesus used for his ministry.
A comprehensive Word ministry
But we’re not only given the content or the message of Paul’s ministry, we also see the character of Paul’s ministry, and because this is the character of ministry of which God approves, here is the pattern, for the character of our ministry.
And if we were looking for a descriptor, we’d have to say that Paul’s ministry is a comprehensive ministry of the Word of God.
Look at verses 20 and 21 with me. Paul says, You know that I have not hesitated to preach anything that would be helpful to you, but have taught you publicly and from house to house. 21 I have declared to both Jews and Greeks that they must turn to God in repentance and have faith in our Lord Jesus.
Has he just explained the easy bits, of God’s Word?
As travelling preachers sometimes do, when he was in Ephesus, did he just recycle a sermon that he’d already preached in Corinth?,
No, he brought exactly the message that the Ephesians had needed to hear.
He hadn’t held back any part of the gospel message, because it was inconvenient for him,
Or it would make life difficult for him, or would create opposition to his ministry.
In verse 27 he calls his message the whole will of God.
And notice also in verse 20, that Paul taught publicly, and from house to house.
When he considers his ministry, he doesn’t just mean great sermons, but he met 1 on 1 with people, teaching everything that would be helpful, the whole will of God.
Even the words used in verses 7 to 12, describing Paul’s preaching in Troas, the language is of discussion and dialogue, and obviously there were times when Paul thought that the best way to communicate what would be helpful to people, was to sit on their sofa, with a cup of tea and a biscuit, and to talk to them one on one, or him with the family gathered around.
Gifted preacher that he was, Paul didn’t think that his role was just with the big crowds, the high profile gigs,
He didn’t think it was below him, to visit someone in their home, to minister unseen.
I know a pastor, who recently published a list of requirements that he thinks need to be met, if you want him to speak in any context other than at his home church.
Coffee machine available between certain hours, and that kind of thing.
You can’t imagine Paul, who, verse 16, served the Lord with great humility and with tears and in the midst of severe testing, publishing a list of those kinds of requirements, can you?
If there was an opportunity to bring the Word of God to someone, Paul would take it,
To Jews, or to Greeks, That’s anything with legs!
Paul spoke God’s Word to them.
Now, rosters are great things aren’t they? Ministry rosters?! They tell me when I’m supposed to be doing something, playing my part in the team, but do you know in some ways, rosters are terrible things and I hate them!
Because they can, narrow the breadth of our ministry.
Rosters can make us think that those are the times when I’m engaged in ministry,
Those are the days when I speak the gospel to people,
It’s during these hours on a Sunday, that I testify to the good news of God’s grace.
Do you know what Paul’s ministry roster looked like?
Sunday: Proclaiming the whole will of God,
Monday: Proclaiming the whole will of God,
Tuesday : Proclaiming the whole will of God,
And so on
Back in 2011, a surfer in New Zealand, had a heart attack, and fell off his board.
On the second floor of a building, just above the beach, a senior lifeguard was at work, when he just happened to look out the window and see this man floating face down in the water.
He instantly knew that something was wrong, and raced downstairs, across the beach, into the water, and saved this surfer from drowning.
That lifeguard said later, “Lifeguards are never really off duty.”
Well, Paul would say the same of the Christian, wouldn’t he?
A Christian person is never really off duty,
And he’d add, that there’s no part of the Christian message that people don’t need to hear.
There is a real thoroughness to Paul’s ministry in this chapter, isn’t there?
I once heard someone say that the lesson for us in Acts 20, that preachers should just keep preaching until somebody dies!
Or at the very least I guess, until somebody falls asleep!
Paul didn’t shy away from long thorough teaching and discussion of the gospel of grace.
A friend of mine was a young Anglican minister, and when he arrived at the church that he had been assigned to, he was promptly told by the church leadership, he was to preach for no longer than 7 minutes on a Sunday.
How thorough, would Paul say, that kind of ministry is?
I don’t want to lay down a rule for what is or isn’t a good sermon length,
Or the right amount of time for a Bible study to run,
Or the correct number of minutes for an effective kids’ program,
But if the good news of God’s grace is being held out to us, surely we would carve out the time for that?
Surely we wouldn’t resent the fact, that the person leading Bible study, took a little longer,
That the preacher spoke for an extra 5 minutes,
In verse 7, Paul preaches from the time they sat down for the meal, maybe about 6 O clock, to midnight, when Eutychus nods off and falls out the window.
But notice verse 11, after brining Eutychus back to life, Paul went upstairs again and broke bread and ate., and continued talking until daylight!
And the scholars comment rather dryly, that Paul didn’t seem to think that this young man’s death, was in any way a hint that he ought to shorten the sermon.
Paul was committed to a comprehensive ministry of the Word of God, and so he took whatever opportunity God presented.
But what does it mean for us to proclaim, the whole will of God, or what some of the other translations call the whole counsel of God.
Well, the British Pastor John Stott once said that Paul “shared all possible truth, with all possible people, in all possible ways”
That’s not a bad summary, is it?
It’s not just talking about sermons, but conversations, life, all possible ways.
A few weeks ago, our friends at Trinity City church found themselves being picketed, by members of the group known as the street preachers.
You may have seen these guys in Rundle Mall.
But on this Sunday evening, when they were announcing, that Trinity City had abandoned the gospel, one of their objections, was that to their mind, Trinity City did not, proclaim, the whole will of God.
Because this group believe that that in every sermon, somehow everything of God’s revealed plans and purposes must be included! I have no idea how they think that’s even possible, but that was their objection;, “You don’t teach the whole will of God in every sermon, therefore you’ve got a sub-standard gospel.
But of course Paul doesn’t mean that in every sermon, or in every conversation,
In every chat at the school gate, and every time in the lunch room at work, that he said everything that God has made known about himself,
And about people,
And about sin,
And about grace,
About Jesus, his chosen king.
He means that over the 3 years of his ministry in Ephesus he hadn’t shrunk back from sharing any part of God’s plans and purposes.
He had faithfully preached, and taught, and argued, every facet of the gospel. There was no part that he had ignored because it was too difficult to explain,
He hadn’t left any bits out, because he thought that some people might object.
He didn’t try and change, or soften the Word of God, in order to get a better hearing, or to gain more converts.
He didn’t decide to skip over some bits of God’s message, because he was afraid that what God demanded of people was too much,
Too costly, .
Or politically incorrect.
And Paul says in verses 20 and 27, “I haven’t hesitated to do this, I haven’t done it reluctantly,
I haven’t thought that teaching the whole will of God is probably a bad idea, but I’ll do it anyway, because that’s what Christians do!”
I imagine, there will be situations when we are tempted to hesitate,
To doubt that the entirety of God’s plan of salvation is good news for people.
I expect that we will face the temptation to compromise the Christian message,
To downplay the elements of the gospel message that call for total allegiance to Jesus, and the costly leaving behind, of anything that would hinder us taking hold of Christ, and growing to maturity in him.
We might hesitate to ask of others the question we asked ourselves last week, “What do you need to burn, in order to live a life that honours Jesus?”
For most of us, there will be times when we’re tempted to hesitate, to not speak the truth, to remain silent when others promote a false gospel,
To hide some parts of the whole will of God that seem contrary to our culture and social norms,
And it can even happen within the church.
The song, “In Christ Alone”, we sing it here,
This year, the Presbyterian Church, USA voted to leave “In Christ Alone” out of their upcoming hymn book, because the authors, Keith Getty and Stuart Townend, refused to give their permission, for that denomination to change a line in the song that they didn’t like.
Getty and Townend wrote, “till on that cross, as Jesus died, the wrath of God was satisfied”
But the denomination felt that a picture of God who got angry at sin, was a picture, or a God, that has no place in modern theology or modern churches, and so they wanted to change the line to read, “as Jesus died, the love of God, was magnified.”
Other suggestions included,
“on the cross as Jesus died, the arms of love were opened wide”
“on the cross as Jesus died, the love of God was glorified”
“Till on the cross, God satisfied Himself, in justice, as Christ died, and the debt of sin was satisfied”, which would take quite some practice to fit in!
Now it’s not that any of those alternatives are wrong. They all contain true statements about what happened on the cross, but the Presbyterians have deliberately chosen to silence one part of the Christian message, because they think it’s not polite or popular!
And the message of God’s anger, at sin and rebellion in the world, and that anger being satisfied on the cross is part of the Christian message.
In Ephesians chapter 2, Paul, writing to these very people that he’s addressing here, says to them, we were, because of our sin and rebellion, by nature, deserving of wrath., But now in Christ Jesus, you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ
Friends, we must not hesitate, to proclaim the whole will of God.
Christian ministry, is a comprehensive Word ministry.
It is not about picking the easiest, most exciting parts of the Scriptures, and sharing them, but bringing the whole revelation of God’s Word into people’s lives.
If you want to have a Christian church, you need to teach the Bible.
You can have a church, without teaching the Bible, but it won’t be a Christian church, it won’t be Christ’s church.
Just this week, the global atheist movement Sunday Assembly launched their first gathering in Adelaide. It’s a church!, the word “church” simply means “assembly” or “gathering”, it’s just, somewhat obviously perhaps, not a Christian church!
That one’s easy to pick, but perhaps less easy to pick, are the churches that claim to be Christian churches, but where God’s Word isn’t taught.
I can remember being told once by the pastor of another church, “Well, at your church, you teach the Bible. We at our church do other things.”
If it’s this kind of ministry that gives Paul the confidence to say, verse 26, I am innocent of the blood of any of you, then what do you think he would say to the pastor of that church, and about that kind of ministry?
Christian ministry is an accountable Word ministry
So we see, that Paul considers himself accountable, for the way he has conducted his ministry, and he warns the Ephesian leaders that they are accountable before God, for their ministry.
Read with me from verse 26, I declare to you today that I am innocent of the blood of any of you. 27 For I have not hesitated to proclaim to you the whole will of God. 28 Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God
Paul is using the image of a watchman, from the book of Ezekiel, standing on the city walls, ready to sound his trumpet when danger approached.
Once he’d blown his trumpet, the watchman’s responsibilities were complete, he wasn’t obligated to go door to door waking people and dragging them out of bed,
In the same kind of way, the Ephesians were to call people to repentance in faith in Jesus, but they weren’t responsible for how people responded to the warning.
Their calling, was to proclaim the whole will of God, and it was for that task, that they would be held accountable.
Notice in verse 28 how Paul describes God’s relationship to the church, the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers,
It is the church of God, and he continues,
Bought with his own blood.
The church in Ephesus, is God’s church, as is the church in Littlehampton, and so it’s to God that those who lead the church must give account.
Christian ministry is Word ministry of guarding God’s flock 29 – 31
And this accountability is significant, since those who serve in Christian ministry must guard God’s flock from falsehood. Verse 29, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. 30 Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them. 31 So be on your guard! Remember that for three years I never stopped warning each of you night and day with tears.
Sadly there are some, who are not true shepherds of God’s flock, not true ministers of God’s Word.
Last year the Nobel Prize for Chemistry was awarded to the Israeli chemist Dan Schectman for his discovery of what are called “Quasi-crystals.”
For many years though, basically the rest of the scientific establishment rejected Schectman’s work, even denying existence of these quasi-crystals.
In fact Linus Pauling, one of the most influential chemists in the history of the world, famously said of Professor Schectman, “There is no such thing as quasi-crystals, only quasi-scientists.”
Well, the Apostle Paul knew for sure that there is such a thing as a quasi-shepherd, or a quasi-minister,
Actually a wolf, a false shepherd.
They might look and sound a bit like genuine shepherds,
They may even have an impeccable evangelical heritage and pedigree, Paul knew that some of these savage wolves would come from among the very people he was speaking to now, but the response of the church was to be on their guard, so that the distortions of the truth brought by these men, would not lead people away from Christ.
And the way to be on guard, was to recall Paul’s own comprehensive Word ministry, that of warning each of you night and day with tears.
The way to guard people against falsehood is to teach and model the truth, so that distortions can be seen for the pale shadow of truth that they are.
I like to watch Air Crash Investigations on TV, and I remember one episode about Aloha Airlines Flight 243, on April 28, 1988.
The aircraft had a massive decompression, and a whole section of the fuselage blew off the plane. Everyone on board thought they were going to die, and so they were frantically scribbling messages to their loved ones.
Except one man.
He didn’t write any last words.
And it wasn’t that he didn’t have anyone to write to, he had a family whom he loved very much, but he said afterwards, there was nothing that he needed to say in that moment.
There was nothing that he ought to have said, that he hadn’t already said.
Probably few of us will ever have this kind of farewell conversation with people that we’ve ministered amongst, and so I wonder if we should aim to be a bit more like guy on Aloha Airlines, and not, save up communicating these things for some final moment, but perhaps ensure that living this out becomes characteristic of all our lives.
How can people we know, come to understand that the Christian message is a message of repentance and faith, of the grace of God, of whole-hearted allegiance to God’s king Jesus?
By our lives,
By our words,
By our example of comprehensive Word ministry.
How will those among whom you serve, learn that Christian ministry is a comprehensive ministry of God’s Word, the testimony of the whole will of God?
Through your life,
Through your example of comprehensive Word ministry.
How will those whom you are training in ministry, either deliberately, or just because they’re watching you do it, how will they know, that they will need to give an account for their ministry.
Because of your life,
Because of your words,
Because of your example of comprehensive Word ministry,
How will the children in this community,
Our Kids’ club,
Our Kids’ Church
When will they learn, to be on their guard against falsehood,
To watch out for wolves, and false shepherds,
When will they learn that they need to test and approve everything they are taught, because so called Christian leaders will distort the truth?
They will learn, when they see it in your life,
In your words,
And in your example of comprehensive Word ministry.