Acts20v17to38: PAUL'S FAREWELL MESSAGE TO THE EPHESIAN ELDERS.

(A) Introduction (Read the reference)

Paul's farewell address to the Ephesian elders is a rich vein. It must have made a strong impression on Luke because he has recorded it in the language of Paul. In other passages of Acts Luke summarises the teaching of others in his own style. Here the author's prose faithfully reflects the passionate rhetoric of Paul's epistles.

(A) Paul's review of his three year ministry to the Ephesians.

(1) Why did he do this?
I can remember a rather choleric member of our congregation saying after a visiting preacher had spent a long time talking about the work he was doing, "He knows how to beat his own drum." The British are not happy about a man beating his own drum! So why did Paul do it?

Paul reviewed his ministry for the sake of the Ephesian church. He reminded the elders of his commitment to the Ephesian fellowship so that they would take his warnings with the utmost seriousness.

If my own small cause had an influx of young Christians who wished to introduce changes my fellow elder, Edward, considered detrimental to the church he would be justified in warning against them. He might give weight to his warning by providing evidence of his commitment to the church over many, many years.

(2) The characteristics of Paul's ministry.

    (a) His life was an open book.
    Paul said, "You know how I lived the whole time I was with you from the first day I came into the province of Asia." v18.

    He could be found every day, except the Sabbath, at his place of work. Paul did not spend most of his time in the study! All and sundry could go and speak to him as he plied his needle mending and making leather goods. He reminds me of Mr Earnest Pawsey, an itinerant Grace Baptist preacher, who was also the Brockley village blacksmith. Anyone could wander into the smithy whilst Erny was at work on his anvil and chat. Old Jack Finch would often be there discussing his strange religious ideas. If Erny disapproved the tempo of his hammering noticeably increased!

    Paul also stated that he had taught publicly from house to house. v20. He did not restrict himself to the homes of a few favourites but spoke in those houses open to him. The meetings were not private affairs; anyone could attend. He was among the most accessible of religious leaders.

    The leaders of the local church are well advised to act impartially. It is very bad practice to spend a lot more time with some than others. Some sensitive souls find neglect very hard to bear.

    I am a great believer in openness. Some Christians are very secretive. We need to let people know what we are doing and what we are thinking. It is good to share our problems with praying Christian brethren. There are some unedifying matters that should be kept secret but otherwise we do well to follow the example of Paul. He had a big heart and he wore it on his sleeve.

    (b) It revealed his character.
    He served the Lord with:

    (I) Great humility. v19.
    It is easy to claim this but was it true? Humility is not a virtue particularly common amongst Christian leaders! Indeed humility is like a rare bird; we catch but fleeting glimpses of it.

    I think it is very significant that From Miletus, Paul sent to Ephesus for the elders of the church. v17. Paul did not lord it over the Ephesians - right from the start local men were appointed as leaders. It is still comparatively rare for churches to have a plurality of elders who exercise authority collectively. This was the norm in the early church. It was a system that Paul implemented. He did not rule the Ephesus church. Authority was in the hands of a group of elders.

    Almost every day Paul was at work among his fellow craftsmen. Anyone could bring their sandals to Paul for repair and expect a good job. Paul did not live in a bishop's palace, he was not a lord of the realm - he mended tents. The apostle to the Gentiles enjoyed no privileges save the privilege of knowing Christ.

    I must say that arrogance is not a characteristic of the believers in my small fellowship. Some are quite talented by they get on and serve the Lord without drawing attention to the fact. I suppose the most arrogant member is me - and I am more humble than I was!

    (II) Tears.
    Paul was a very caring man; a passionate earnest man. Twice he mentions his tears. On the second occasion he says: Remember that for 3 years I never stopped warning each of you night and day with tears. v31.

    Paul loved the truth but he also loved his fellow believers. We see this in all his epistles. It is impossible to read his short letter to Philemon without seeing how much Paul cared about Onesimus the run away slave. He writes: I am sending him - who is my very heart - back to you. v12. But Paul also cares about Philemon. He is so anxious that his friend will do the right thing: I did not want to do anything without your consent, so that any favour you do will be spontaneous and not forced. v14.

    I wonder if we weep over our fellow Christians. Are they precious to us? Paul urges the Ephesian elders: Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood. v28. That is something to remember - believers are a blood bought people. Jesus shed his blood to redeem us.

    The church is vitally important to the family, the community, the world at large and especially to lost sinners. Jesus looks down upon it from heaven with joy - it is his treasured possession - his comely bride. We can best show our estimation of the worth of the church by supporting fellow believers.

    A couple of weeks ago my brother brought a party from his church down into Suffolk for a meeting. I said they could all come to my house for tea. I happened to mention this to a lady who attends our chapel and she immediately made me a tin full of mince pies and another tin full of buns. She showed that she cared and it did my heart good.

    (III) Fortitude.
    Paul reminds the elders that he served the Lord: although I was severely tested by the plots of the Jews. He was in constant danger from his Jewish enemies. Such was their hatred that the Jews schemed unceasingly to assassinate him.

    On Easter Saturday, April 10th 2004, A.N. Wilson wrote an article in the Daily Telegraph entitled: Three reasons to stay an Anglican, for all its follies. He described how his mother, aged 91, died clutching her worn old copy of the Book of Common Prayer. He goes on: She wondered ..... whether there was any truth in it all, the whole extraordinary Christian story ...... she wondered whether it was still sincere to receive Communion when she believed so little..... It is, of course, a question any honest person asks at every church going.

    I strongly object to that last line. Genuine Christians might have doubts when they look at creation, human history, God's providence or the worst in the best of us; they do not entertain doubts about Jesus Christ. They believe the extraordinary Christian story. They have absolute confidence in Jesus as Saviour and Lord.

    The church would NEVER have survived for 2000 years if Christians hadn't possessed a faith strong enough to endure bitter persecution. Paul could not have suffered all he did if he had wondered whether there was any truth in it all. Let us hear what Paul had to bear: ... as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: in great endurance, in troubles, hardships and distresses; in beatings, imprisonments and riots; in hard work, sleep ness nights and hunger...... through glory and dishonour, bad report and good report; genuine, yet regarded as impostors; know, yet regarded as unknown; dying, yet we live on; beaten and yet not killed; sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; poor yet making many rich; having nothing, and yet possessing everything. 2Cor6v4 onwards.

    Was Paul dishonest because such was his faith in Jesus he could endure all this? He, like millions of other Christians, could suffer because he believed in the on-going life of a risen Saviour. It was the apostle who wrote:
    Where, O death, is your victory?
    Where, O death, is your sting?
    The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
    Therefore, my dear brothers, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labour is not in vain. 2Cor15v55to58.

    The posturing of A.N. Wilson makes me sick. Was Paul dishonest to claim that nothing could separate him from the love of Christ and that on the day of his appearing he would receive a crown of righteousness? Was he dishonest to assert near the end of his life: The Lord will rescue me from every evil attack and will bring me safely to his heavenly kingdom. 2Tim4v18.

    There is nothing heroic about A.N. Wilson's doubts but there is something heroic about Paul's faith.

    I have just finished reading the extraordinary story of Simon Zao. He was arrested in the 1950's on the frontier of N.W. China. He was on his way to take the gospel to the Muslim peoples beyond China's border. Simon Zao was accused of being a spy and sentenced to 45 years in prison. While he was in prison his wife and child died, the other four missionary leaders who accompanied him also died in different prisons. No-one in his home region far to the east knew what became of him. He had no Christian fellowship in prison. Most of the inmates were Muslim. There were no Christians who cared about him outside prison. For 30 years he was mistreated physically. For 40 years he was forced to do hard manual labour on a meagre diet. When Simon Zao was finally released from prison - 5 years early - he was still a Christian. He did not survive appalling isolation for 40 years because he believed so little! He was not kept true to Christ because he wondered whether there was any truth in the whole amazing Christian story.

    The writer to the Hebrews writes: Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grown weary and lose heart. Heb12v2and3. .

    (c) It was comprehensive in its scope.
    Paul describes the main thrust of his preaching in v21: I have declared to both Jews and Gentiles that they must turn to God in repentance and have faith in our Lord Jesus.

    We have to repent of whatever keeps us from God. In the case of A.N. Wilson it is his doubts! Others need to repent of their pride. More than a few say in their heart, "God must accept me as I am." They are a bit like the non-Christian boy with whom a Christian girl is dallying in the hope of getting him converted. The boy will resist conversion. He thinks to himself: "She should love me as I am - for myself." We all have something to repent of - coldness, self-sufficiency, half-heartedness, ignorance and prejudice.

    Positively, we need to exercise faith in Jesus. There is a submissive faith that depends upon him for forgiveness of sins and adoption into the family of God and there is an active faith that follows him and obeys.

    However, Paul's preaching was not narrow in scope. It was wide ranging. He says to his friends: "I have not hesitated to preach anything that would be helpful to you." v20. "For I have not hesitated to proclaim to you the whole will of God." We have only to read Paul's two epistles to the Corinthians to see what the great man is capable of.

    Some preachers deal with a small number of topics. Others hesitate to speak on controversial subjects for fear of upsetting someone. The best of us are probably braver in some churches than others. I must admit that although my own fellowship has had to listen to all of what is written on this website there are parts of it I would never take to some churches.

    Paul taught publicly from house to house. He would have tackled fearlessly any topic that was brought up and consequentially he had a clear conscience. "Therefore, I declare to you today that I am innocent of the blood of all men." He had done all he could to bring men and women to repentance and faith in Jesus Christ and to keep them there.

    We are not empowered by the Spirit as Paul was. He was chosen to take the gospel to the Gentiles and as such had numerous opportunities to bring others to Jesus. We will not be condemned for having few opportunities but for not taking the ones God gives us. The servant who was given one talent incurred the wrath of his Master for burying it.

    (d) Paul was an example of the virtue of honest toil.
    He says, "I have not coveted anyone's silver or gold or clothing. You yourselves know that these hands of mine have supplied my own needs and the needs of my companions. In everything I did, I showed that by this kind of hard work we must help the weak, remembering the words the Lord Jesus himself said: 'It is more blessed to give than to receive.'" vs34and35.

    I find this incredible. Paul taught from house to house just about every day but he also managed to support himself and his companions, with something left over for the poor, by plying his needle.

    I think Paul must have enjoyed practising his craft. He took a pride in it and was good at it. He must have been proficient to be able to support a team that included from time to time Timothy, Erastus, Gaius, Aristarchus and Titus. Paul also fed a few of the weak - old and destitute widows.

    I strongly believe that Christian craftsmen can do much good for the church. My father was very thankful when he finally managed to buy a motor car that his deacon, Mr Jack Bishop, serviced it free of charge. It meant an awful lot to him. We have a member, Mr Ron Moody, who is a very skilled engineer. He has used his expertise to do many useful jobs for the church. Recently my brother Paul, who lives in London, needed a plumber. The lowest call out charge was 70. How he could have done with a Christian plumber to help him in distress.

    Leather working was good for Paul. It was therapeutic. I do not agree that bodily exercise profits little. A bit of tough sewing did Paul the world of good. It relieved stress. He also met all sorts of people as he worked. It kept him touch with every strand in society. I am afraid that some full-time Christian workers lead a very sheltered existence. They have minimal contact with non-churchgoers. It is possible to spend too much time in the study and not enough time with people.

    One of Paul's motivations for manual work was to earn money to give away. This is a challenge to us all. It certainly is to me! What a man he was.

(C) Paul's future prospects.

(1) Permanent loss.
Paul told the Ephesian elders: "Now I know that none of you among whom I have gone about preaching the kingdom will ever see me again." v23. It was this that made the elders weep as they kissed and hugged him. What grieved them most was his statement that they would never see his face again. v38.

It was also a terrible loss for Paul. It is hard to part from family members and friends who love you. I always had a great sense loss when children left school. Many with whom I enjoyed an affectionate relationship died to me the day they left school. Recently I attended the wedding of a former pupil. Two of my old students were bridesmaids. After the service one of the bridesmaids soon came across for a kiss and began patting my hair in place as it blew about in the wind exposing my bald patch. It reminded me of what I had lost.

Simon Zao in N.W. China experienced cruel deprivation when the communists imprisoned him. He never saw his wife and child or, indeed, any Christian brother or sister he knew again. This was the sacrifice many old style missionaries made.

(2) An uncertain future at best - prison and hardships at worst.
Paul said: "I only know that in every city the Holy Spirit warns me that prison and hardships are facing me. v23.

Why did the Holy Spirit warn Paul of hardships ahead? It rather blights the present to be warned of imminent difficulties. To know that something very nasty is in the offing is most depressing. There are two possible reasons for the Holy Spirit's action. He could be giving Paul the opportunity to change his mind and turn away from Jerusalem. I will defer tackling this possibility until the next exposition. Secondly, the Spirit could be giving Paul time to prepare himself for a trying future.

Our doctor forewarned me of my mother's likely early death. This would create problems for me as my father was a chronic invalid. In the event of my mother's death I would need to abandon my career to care for him. I was grateful to Dr Green for being honest with me. It gave me time to get ready for the traumatic few years ahead. I prayed about it and when my mother died suddenly I was not caught unawares.

It is important to prepare our selves for the losses and hardships of old age. A day will come when death will part a happily married couple. A day will come, if we live long enough, when our contemporaries will die one by one. We had a wonderful hale old man in our church, Mr H. Cawston, who lived till he was 98. He attended literally hundreds of funerals. See exposition on Ecclesiastes12.

(3) His overriding ambition.
Paul sums up his remaining goal in life: "However, I consider my life worth nothing to me, if only I may finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me - the task of testifying to the gospel of God's grace." v24.

Paul wanted to go on to Rome and then to Spain to continue his calling of preaching Christ crucified to the Gentiles. He never fulfilled this ambition. Paul never reached Spain. However, the wonderful truth is that Paul has testified to God's grace all over the world through his letters. Little did he realise that his epistles would be translated into every major language under the sun. God honoured Paul's devotion to duty.

We need to finish the task that God has given us. It is impossible to assess the repercussions of working faithfuly where God has placed us. We may have only a minor role to play like Ananias but it may be crucial that we play it. See exposition on Acts9v10to19. Simon Zao, who was imprisoned for 40 years by the communists in China, may have despaired at the futility of his life. Since his release from prison he has been an inspiration to the, 'Back to Jerusalem' movement that seeks to evangelise the countries between China and Jerusalem.

ANY COMMENTS FOR JOHN REED: E-mail jfmreed@talktalk.net

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