Acts 20:17-38: Principles for Faithful Ministry
Topic: Default Passage: Acts 20:17–20:38
Acts 20:17-38: Principles for Faithful Ministry
We’ve been working our way passage by passage through the book of Acts, and today the next passage we come to is Acts 20:17-38. It says:
17 Now from Miletus he sent to Ephesus and called the elders of the church to come to him. 18 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, 19 serving the Lord with all humility and with tears and with trials that happened to me through the plots of the Jews; 20 how I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, and teaching you in public and from house to house, 21 testifying both to Jews and to Greeks of repentance toward God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. 22 And now, behold, I am going to Jerusalem, constrained by the Spirit, not knowing what will happen to me there, 23 except that the Holy Spirit testifies to me in every city that imprisonment and afflictions await me. 24 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. 25 And now, behold, I know that none of you among whom I have gone about proclaiming the kingdom will see my face again. 26 Therefore I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all, 27 for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God. 28 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. 29 I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; 30 and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them. 31 Therefore be alert, remembering that for three years I did not cease night or day to admonish every one with tears. 32 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. 33 I coveted no one’s silver or gold or apparel. 34 You yourselves know that these hands ministered to my necessities and to those who were with me. 35 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.’ ” 36 And when he had said these things, he knelt down and prayed with them all. 37 And there was much weeping on the part of all; they embraced Paul and kissed him, 38 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.
May God bless the reading of his Word.
Let’s pray: Father, we pray according to Isaiah 55 that as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so would your word be this morning—that it would not return to you empty but would accomplish that which you purpose and succeed in the thing for which you send it. In Jesus’ name we pray, amen.
It’s almost impossible to overstate the amount of damage that’s been done to the church and the church’s witness by ungodly leaders. To borrow from a biblical expression, celebrity atheists have turned away their thousands from God, while ungodly celebrity pastors have turned away their tens of thousands. The world is watching how Christians—and especially Christian leaders—conduct themselves. They notice when a celebrity pastor in New York City who famously baptized Justin Bieber is caught cheating on his wife. They notice when the pastor of a megachurch in Seattle resigns in disgrace because of a pattern of heavy-handed leadership and even emotional abuse toward staff members. They notice when the pastor of a Chicago megachurch who leads not just that church but a nationwide network of churches is fired for misappropriating church funds as well as several other notable character issues. People notice these things. I believe it’s even fair to say that the way these men and others like them have conducted themselves has done more damage to the church’s witness than perhaps any other single factor.
That’s why it’s so critical for us to appoint people to serve as leaders in the church who are biblically qualified and who have the character to support the ministry platform they’re given. Thankfully, I believe our church has been blessed with two incredibly godly men who were unanimously voted in as our church’s newest elders at our Members’ Meeting last Sunday. Those men are Jeremy Caskey and Rick Korey, whom we’d like to officially appoint as elders today.
Yet, even the best men can benefit from being reminded of what godly leadership in the church looks like. And that’s where our main passage of Acts 20:17-38 comes in. And who knows? We may even discover some teachings in this passage that are highly relevant not just to incoming church elders but to everyone who desires to have a meaningful ministry to those around them and make a difference in the lives of others.
Now, to remind you of the background here, Paul’s on his way back from what’s often known as his Third Missionary Journey and is on his way to Jerusalem. And on his trip to Jerusalem, he passes through a city called Miletus, which was near the city of Ephesus, where Paul had started a church and spent quite a bit of time. We then find this written in verse 17: “Now from Miletus he sent to Ephesus and called the elders of the church to come to him.” So Paul’s in Miletus but wants to talk to the church elders from Ephesus. So, as we see here, he sends for them, and the rest of the passage tells us what he says to them.
And, by the way, when you hear us talk about “elders” this morning, we’re not talking about those who are elderly in the congregation. The New Testament uses the term “elder” to refer to the highest leaders of a church with an emphasis not on their physical age but on their spiritual maturity. It’s also helpful to understand that the terms “elder,” “pastor,” and “overseer” are all synonymous in the New Testament. That means they all refer to the same office. In fact, as we’ll see, all three terms are used interchangeably in this very passage.
And Paul gathers these men together here in Miletus in order to explain to them five principles for faithful ministry. That’s the main idea of this passage. Paul explains to the Ephesian elders five principles for faithful ministry. And, again, these principles are relevant not just to elders but to everyone who desires to make a meaningful spiritual impact on those around them. So, let’s walk through these principles together, shall we?
Your Life Is the Greatest Teaching Tool You Have
First, your life is the greatest teaching tool you have. That’s the first and perhaps most important of the five principles. Your life is the greatest teaching tool you have. Verses 18-19 tell us, 18 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, 19 serving the Lord with all humility and with tears and with trials that happened to me through the plots of the Jews. That’s the very first thing recorded here that Paul says to these men. He tells them, “You know how I lived. You know the exemplary manner in which I served the Lord even in the midst of suffering.” And not only does Paul begin his speech with a reference to his exemplary conduct, he also ends it that way. He states in verses 33-35, 33 I coveted no one’s silver or gold or apparel. 34 You yourselves know that these hands ministered to my necessities and to those who were with me. 35 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.’” So, at both the beginning and the end of Paul’s address to these elders, he reminds them of the way he lived.
He also exhorts them in verse 28, “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers….” Now, it’s not surprising that Paul tells these men to pay careful attention to the flock—a metaphor, by the way, for the church. After all, that’s their job. Their job as elders is to be attentive to what’s going on in the church. Yet, as important as that is, there’s something else Paul tells them to do even prior to telling them to do that. He first tells them to “pay careful attention to yourselves.” That’s an elder’s first and most foundational priority. “Pay attention to yourselves.” In other words, before you even think about others in the church and how they’re doing spiritually and how they need to grow, think about your own life. How are you doing? How do you need to grow?
It reminds me of what flight attendants usually remind people to do when they’re flying on an airplane. In the safety speech before the plane takes off, the head flight attendant reminds everyone that, in the event of an emergency, oxygen masks will drop down from the top compartment. And, for those of you who fly frequently, what are you always supposed to do before you try to help others with their oxygen mask? Put on your own oxygen mask, right? And the reason for that is, if you try to help others first but then pass out before you’re able to do so, you’re not going to be of any help to anyone. If you really want to help others, make sure you first get into a position where you’re actually able to help them. Likewise, in ministry, Paul says, the first thing to do is to “pay careful attention to yourselves”—and only then, when your own life is what it needs to be, should you start thinking about other people.
As one author named Pete Scazzero writes, “Who you are as a person…will always have a larger and longer impact on those around you than what you do. Your being with God (or lack of being with God) will trump, eventually, your doing for God every time. We cannot give what we do not possess. We cannot help but give what we do possess. We can teach what we know, but we will reproduce who we are.” You see, there’s a reason why almost all of the qualifications for elders listed in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 relate to a man’s character. If you don’t have character, you don’t have anything. If you’re not walking with God yourself, how in the world could you expect to lead others in their walk with God? As we just heard, “We cannot give what we do not possess.” And, by the way, what a great thing for parents to keep in mind as well. “We can teach what we know, but we will reproduce who we are.” Quite true, generally speaking.
Ministry Is First and Foremost about Serving the Lord.
So that’s the first principle: your life is the greatest teaching tool you have. Second, ministry is first and foremost about serving the Lord. Ministry is first and foremost about serving the Lord. Again, verses 18-19: 18 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, 19 serving the Lord with all humility and with tears and with trials that happened to me through the plots of the Jews. So, who was Paul serving? Was he serving popular opinion? Was he serving what he thought to be the preferences of the people he was ministering to? No, he was serving “the Lord.”
It reminds me of Galatians 1:10, where Paul states with impressive boldness, “For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ.” You see, as Christians—and especially as Christian leaders—we have a choice between two mutually exclusive options: seeking man’s approval or seeking God’s approval. We can’t pursue both of them with the same degree of loyalty. And, as Paul says, to whatever degree we’re trying to please man, we’re not servants of Christ. Even though we want to be aware of the culture around us so that we can communicate to the culture effectively, we shouldn’t ever let the culture set our ministry agenda or take our cues from the culture. Our allegiance is to Christ and Christ alone.
The greatest ambition of our lives shouldn’t be to be popular but rather to be faithful—faithful to God’s Word and faithful to God’s call. Never forget, dear brothers, that, as Paul states back in our main passage in verse 28, it’s “the Holy Spirit [who] has made you overseers.” He’s the one who called you to this ministry and put you in this ministry. So he’s the one you should seek to please. Whatever else an elder is, he’s first and foremost a servant of the Lord.
You Have a Responsibility to Teach the Whole Bible
Then, moving forward, the third principle is that you have a responsibility to teach the whole Bible. You have a responsibility to teach the whole Bible. As Paul states in verses 20-21, 20 …I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, and teaching you in public and from house to house, 21 testifying both to Jews and to Greeks of repentance toward God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. Paul didn’t avoid the hard teachings of the Bible. He taught very directly about the need first for repentance—for people to abandon the sins they’d been embracing. And, not only that, but also for them to exercise faith in Christ to do for them what they could never do for themselves and rescue them from their sin. Paul says he didn’t “shrink” from declaring these things.
He then repeats that very same phrase about not shrinking back from teaching hard truths again later on in the passage. Verses 26-27: 26 Therefore I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all, 27 for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God. Paul didn’t just talk about the parts of the Bible that were comfortable for people to hear. He declared “the whole counsel of God.” And notice what he says is the result of that: “I am innocent of the blood of all,” he states. Think about that. What’s the implication of that statement? If Paul hadn’t obediently told people about the spiritual danger they were in as well as other biblical truths that were difficult but important for them to hear, there’s a sense in which their blood, so to speak, would be on his hands. I don’t think he’s saying he’d go to hell, but God would nevertheless hold him accountable in a very real way for his failure to tell people truths that were critical for them to know.
And, by the way, in saying this, Paul’s alluding to Ezekiel 33:7-9, where God compares Ezekiel to a watchman. A watchman, in ancient times, had the responsibility of being on the lookout and warning people in a city if an enemy army was approaching. And if the watchman sounded the alarm about an approaching enemy but some of the people didn’t listen, those people had no one to blame but themselves. But, if the watchman didn’t sound the alarm when an enemy army was approaching and people in the city ended up dying, whose fault was it? The watchman’s, of course. Likewise, God says, Ezekiel is a watchman.
And in our main passage, Paul takes that imagery and applies it to himself as well—and, I believe we can say, by implication, to all Christian leaders and even to all Christians. We have the responsibility of sharing with people gospel truths that they desperately need to hear. And that responsibility rests on the shoulders of Christian leaders to an even greater degree. Brothers, if we really love people, we’ll tell them not just what they want to hear but rather what they need to hear. It’s similar to the responsibility a doctor has. Any doctor who doesn’t tell a patient that he or she has cancer simply because the doctor doesn’t want to have an uncomfortable conversation is guilty of medical malpractice. Likewise, any elder—or any Christian, for that matter—who doesn’t share with someone information that’s of vital importance to their soul is guilty of spiritual malpractice as well.
Ministry Often Requires Significant Personal Sacrifice
Then the fourth principle for faithful ministry is this: ministry often requires significant personal sacrifice. Ministry often requires significant personal sacrifice. Back in verse 19, Paul reminded the Ephesian elders how he had served the Lord “with all humility and with tears and with trials that happened to me through the plots of the Jews.” That’s quite a bit different than many leaders today who try to use ministry to enrich themselves and exalt themselves. Rather, Paul served first with “humility”—renouncing all self-centered and self-exalting tendencies in order to live a Christ-centered and Christ-exalting life.
He also says that he served the Lord “with tears.” Undoubtedly, Paul was frequently brought to tears when he thought about the Jews whose hearts were hardened to the gospel. He says in Romans 9:2 that he has “great sorrow and unceasing anguish” in his heart for the sake of his Jewish kinsman and yearns more than anything for them to be saved. However, I believe Paul was also brought to tears by various things that were happening among Christians. When he saw false teachers wreaking havoc in churches, he was brought to tears. When he saw Christians embracing all kinds of harmful teachings and being ensnared by all kinds of sins, he was brought to tears. And when, at times, even his own ministry partners, such as Demas, departed from the faith in order to pursue worldly ambitions, Paul was brought to tears. So, be aware, dear brothers, that when you become an elder, that’s part of what you’re signing up for. Of course, there’s also plenty of joy and blessing, but there are tears at times. It’s impossible to truly love the people of God and care about their welfare without also opening your heart to them and thereby making yourself vulnerable to deep hurt and pain whenever some of them end up walking down a path toward spiritual destruction. It will happen from time to time, and it will be painful. Yet that’s part of the personal sacrifice that’s required in order to serve in this capacity.
I’m reminded of what Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 11 when he lists the ways in which he’s suffered. In verse 23, he talks about the imprisonments and beatings he frequently faced, along with the times when he came within inches of death. He then elaborates in verses 24-27: 24 Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. 25 Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; 26 on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; 27 in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. So, you get the picture of the extensive suffering this man faced in the course of his ministry.
Yet, what does he mention at the very end of his list of sufferings as if to top it all off? He says, in verse 28, “And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety [or concern] for all the churches.” When you become an elder, you’re taking on that burden. There’s a weight of responsibility that rests on your shoulders. Praise God that he’s sent us his Holy Spirit to dwell within us and help us carry that load faithfully. Yet, there’s still significant personal sacrifice involved in carrying that load—as Paul reminds us both in 2 Corinthians and back in Acts 20.
And then, of course, the other way in which Paul’s ministry required significant personal sacrifice is the external sufferings he endured. He describes these in verse 19 as the “trials that happened to me through the plots of the Jews” and also alludes to the additional trials that most likely awaited him in Jerusalem in verses 22-24. Yet, Paul was willing to endure them all for the sake of Jesus and the gospel. Because, let’s remember that any sacrifice we make pales in comparison to the sacrifice Jesus made for us on the cross.
Shepherding God’s Flock Is Central to Your Calling
Then, finally, the fifth principle for faithful ministry is that shepherding God’s flock is central to your calling. Shepherding God’s flock is central to your calling. Looking again at verse 28, Paul tells these men, “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for [literally, to shepherd] the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood.” That is our calling. We’re not called merely to be a board of directors or a team of organizational strategists. Our calling is “to care for [to shepherd] the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood.”
Notice two things about that statement. First, “the church” is said to be “of God” in the sense that it belongs not to us but to him. You know, when something belongs to you, you usually take pretty good care of it. But when you’re handling something that belongs to someone else, you take really good care of it. Imagine, for example, that your boss drives a Lamborghini, and, for whatever reason, a circumstance arises where he asks you to do him a favor and drive his Lamborghini from Point A to Point B. I’m guessing that you’d probably drive very carefully. Or, to give a more commonplace example, Becky and I instruct our kids to take good care of the books in our house. If they’re reading a book we’ve bought for them, we don’t want them ripping the pages or coloring on the cover. We want them to take care of our books. But when we get books from the library, it’s even more important that they take good care of them, right? Because those books don’t belong to us. Likewise, the church doesn’t belong to its leaders. It belongs to God. So that’s one reason we should care well for the church.
But, in addition to that, notice also what Paul goes on to say about the church. It’s the church not only “of God” but also “which he obtained with his own blood.” One of the most basic principles of economics is that something’s worth whatever someone will pay for it. And no higher price has ever been paid than the price that Jesus paid on the cross for his people. When we were sinful and condemned in our sin, Jesus suffered the punishment we deserved. He stood in for us as our substitute and shed his own blood to pay for our sins.
And to think that Jesus has entrusted the care of his church to us as elders is simply astounding. So, hopefully it goes without saying that we’d want to exercise the utmost diligence in fulfilling this calling of caring for and shepherding the flock of God. And as the metaphor of a shepherd implies, that involves the same kinds of activities that a literal shepherd was responsible for back in ancient times. The most basic of these activities is to make sure that the sheep receive proper nourishment—a responsibility we fulfill primarily by teaching the Bible. And secondly, as Paul emphasizes to the Ephesian elders in the subsequent verses—verses 29-31—that also involves protecting the sheep from wolves. It’s an elder’s job to warn people about the false teachings and false teachers that will devour them.
And if all of this makes you feel inadequate, that’s actually a good thing—because, in and of ourselves, we are inadequate. As Paul says in 2 Corinthians 2:16, “Who is sufficient for these things?” The answer, of course, is no one. Yet, it’s good for us to be aware of our inadequacy because that awareness drives us to rely on God for his grace and his empowerment as we engage in this ministry he’s given us. Because, again, the reality is that it’s not just us working but rather the Holy Spirit working through us in all that we do. I’m reminded of that exchange between the famed pastor Charles Spurgeon and the famed missionary David Livingstone. Livingstone once asked Spurgeon, “How can you accomplish so much in one day?” To which Spurgeon replied, “You forget, Mr. Livingstone, there are two of us working.” That’s the confidence we have in our ministry as well.
And what a privilege that we get to serve the Lord in this way! The more I think about it, the more amazed I am that the Lord would use me to do anything. He’s unbelievably gracious to give any of us any opportunity whatsoever to be a part of what he’s doing in this world. And, as if that weren’t enough, we who are elders are promised a special reward in heaven that we can’t even begin to comprehend. Listen to what Peter writes to church elders in 1 Peter 5:1-4. Like Paul, he uses the analogy of a shepherd to describe elder ministry. And he says, 1 So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: 2 shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; 3 not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock. 4 And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory. Doesn’t that sound good? “The unfading crown of glory.” So, yes, the responsibility of elder ministry is great, but the reward is even greater.