Please read Acts 20:17-38 in your Bible.
(Image by James Best, (C) 2019, https://www.behance.net/gallery/82544295/Sermon-Illustrations-2019.)
We must love one another deeply.
The CONTEXT of this passage is provided by verses sixteen and seventeen. Paul was making his way back to Jerusalem sailing along the coast of Asia Minor. His haste was so great he chose not to put into the harbor at Ephesus, but sent a message to the elders of the church at Ephesus to meet him at a place called Miletus. There were other factors in this decision, but the text reports only Paul’s desire to reach Jerusalem in time for the Feast of Pentecost (29 May 57).
Based on the reaction of the ELDERS, I wonder if Paul anticipated that the church would want to keep him and he wanted to avoid a long goodbye. In any case, Paul called the official leaders of the church to him and gave them a message to take back to the members.
- Paul’s departure provoked deep emotions. (vs. 36-38)
Their time together ended with prayer. As a demonstration of reverence for God, all of them KNELT DOWN. What Luke may be describing here in very few words, is a service of ordination. Kneeling and prayer have been part of ordinations from the beginning, along with the laying on hands. A group ordination fits with Paul’s purpose in meeting with the ELDERS, to prepare them for his absence.
In their culture embracing and kissing were typical greetings, so this doesn’t necessarily convey deep love. However, weeping and grieving do imply a deep love between Paul and the ELDERS. Verse 38 tells us they accompanied Paul to his ship. I assume this detail means they were reluctant to be parted from Paul and wanted to keep an eye on him as long as they could.
- The deepest love is founded on shared service to Christ. (18-35)
Paul’s focus was on Jesus Christ. Paul was a “WYSIWYG” (What You See Is What You Get) follower of Christ; there was no pretense in his exercise of faith and ministry. When he said “YOU KNOW HOW I LIVED…” (18) that was a completely accurate statement. Modern politicians like to talk about transparency, but Paul practiced it.
His statement in verse nineteen would sound self-contradictory if it were spoken by anyone else: I SERVED THE LORD WITH GREAT HUMILITY. Note the object of the sentence is THE LORD. Paul’s focus on Jesus did not allow room for selfish ambition, a vice he condemned four times in his letters (2 Corinthians 12:20; Galatians 5:20; Philippians 1:16; 2:3).
If you take time to look at it, Paul’s selflessness is indicated twice in this phrase alone. The word SERVED is used to indicate slavery. Paul identified himself as a slave of Jesus Christ more than a dozen times.
GREAT HUMILITY summarizes the details that will follow; all the aspects of selfless devotion and self-sacrifice Paul demonstrated over the years.
Verse 24 passionately states Paul’s devotion to Jesus and his determination to do what Christ commanded. He said, “I CONSIDER MY OWN LIFE WORTH NOTHING TO ME, IF ONLY I MAY FINISH THE RACE AND COMPLETE THE TASK THE LORD JESUS HAS GIVEN ME.” It is pretty easy to claim GREAT HUMILITY; here Paul gives evidence of it in his attitude. He does not consider his own life as valuable on its own, only as it gives him opportunity to work for Jesus.
The TASK Jesus assigned to him was to testify to the GOSPEL OF GOD’S GRACE. Paul had ambition, but it was grounded in faith. It was to FINISH THE RACE and COMPLETE THE TASK; Paul wanted no part of his calling left undone, no matter the cost.
What never motivated Paul was financial gain. He goes into some detail in verses 33-35 to prove this point.
First, he pointed out his attitude: I HAVE NOT COVETED (33). In contrast to false teachers whose major motive for church work was greed, Paul had no desire for material compensation of any kind.
Second, he pointed out his ambition: THESE HANDS OF MINE HAVE SUPPLIED MY OWN NEEDS AND THE NEEDS OF MY COMPANIONS (34).
Paul avoided all charges of greed by refusing all kinds of support. He supported himself and his associates by working his trade as a tentmaker. We know from 2 Corinthians 11:8-9 and Philippians 4:15-16 that Paul accepted gifts from churches after he’d left them, but observed a strict separation of finances. This was a decision Paul made for his own ministry; we have no evidence he was commanded to operate this way, nor did he command other pastors to work outside the church. Instead, he argued for a fair wage for full-time church workers (1 Corinthians 9:9; 1 Timothy 5:18).
Third, he pointed out his altruism: I SHOWED YOU THAT BY…HARD WORK WE MUST HELP THE WEAK (35). This was based on the teaching of Jesus whom Paul quoted as saying, “IT IS MORE BLESSED TO GIVE THAN TO RECEIVE.” In addition to teaching this truth, Paul set an example in his own service and in his leadership of the church’s service. Interestingly, these words of Jesus are not found in any of the Gospels. This may have been something Jesus said to Paul alone or just not reported in the Gospels.
The Apostle Paul clearly had a tender heart for the Ephesian church. He made two references to TEARS: “I SERVED THE LORD…WITH TEARS (19+31)”. He gave THE PLOTS OF THE JEWS as one of the reason for his tears. Their plotting did not prevent Paul from preaching to His native people as he made clear in v. 21. A simple fact of ministry to people is that TEARS are an occupational hazard. It is a sign of genuine love.
His tenderheartedness compelled Paul to tell the Ephesians the whole truth in his preaching and teaching. This is expressed in three statements.
“I WOULD NOT HAVE HESITATED TO PREACH ANYTHING THAT WOULD HAVE BEEN HELPFUL TO YOU (20).” This verse speaks to boldness in preaching; Paul did not avoid subjects because they would invite opposition. The content of his preaching was not limited to what was popular or easy. He preached everything that was HELPFUL to the church’s health and growth.
“I…TAUGHT PUBLICLY AND FROM HOUSE TO HOUSE (20).” Paul carried out both avenues of pastoral ministry; public and private. In our study of Acts we saw that Paul preached in the Jewish synagogues, in a lecture hall owned by Tyrannus, and in the marketplace; all public venues. The early church also met in homes, but these meetings were not limited to a single family, they were simply smaller venues into which the church gathered.
“I HAVE DECLARED TO BOTH JEWS AND GREEKS (21).” Paul presented the Gospel to all the people of Ephesus, not excluding or favoring either of these groups. His message to all of them was the same: THEY MUST TURN TO GOD IN REPENTANCE AND HAVE FAITH IN OUR LORD JESUS.
“FOR THREE YEARS I NEVER STOPPED WARNING YOU DAY AND NIGHT (v. 31).” Paul did not seek popularity in his messages, sticking to the truth even to the degree that his messages consisted of warnings.
The purpose of this meeting was for Paul to transfer his authority in leading the church to the ELDERS (25-32). They would lead the church from now on.
“NONE OF YOU…WILL EVER SEE ME AGAIN (25).” In v. 22 Paul declared his uncertainty about what would happen to him in Jerusalem but he was certain he would never return to Ephesus. That’s why he went to all this trouble to prepare the ELDERS to take over for him.
On the basis of the integrity of his service (27), Paul announced the church was no longer his responsibility: “I AM INNOCENT OF THE BLOOD OF ALL MEN (26).” This comment reflects Ezekiel 3:17-21 where the prophet was told his responsibility by the figure of the watchman on the wall is responsible to give a warning of danger. He is then not responsible for anyone who refuses to heed the warning and act appropriately. Because Paul DID NOT HESITATE to give this warning, his responsibility is ended. He can leave Ephesus and never return with a clear conscience.
Paul made the ELDERS responsible for the church in Ephesus (28). He called them OVERSEERS and SHEPHERDS, in charge and in care of the membership. He stated that the HOLY SPIRIT had put them in these positions. The value of the church (and thereby the seriousness of their responsibility) is not overstated when Paul reminded them that Christ bought the Church WITH HIS BLOOD. He warned them that their service would be fraught with trials (29-31); they would have occasion for tears of their own.
In light of these truths, Paul commanded them twice to be wary. In contrast to the SAVAGE WOLVES – the false teachers – the ELDERS are to carefully maintain their integrity.
The first warning is in verse 28: “KEEP WATCH OVER YOURSELVES.” This command is not limited to keeping their integrity but includes practicing what we might call “adequate self-care,” maintaining physical health and spiritual growth.
The second warning is in verse 30: “BE ON YOUR GUARD!” Compromising one’s integrity can be a slow process, one small step at a time. Only vigilance will keep any of these ELDERS from becoming one of the WOLVES that will arise from within the church (FROM YOUR OWN NUMBER).
He commissioned them in v. 32; urging them to rely on God’s GRACE. It is God alone who can build us up and secure for us AN INHERITANCE AMONG ALL THOSE WHO ARE SANCTIFIED. Faithful service is our part; fruitful labor is God’s blessing. God intends His Church to succeed in making disciples and extending His Kingdom in this world.
Paul endured opposition to his service. In verse nineteen Paul noted he was SEVERELY TESTED BY THE JEWS in Ephesus. He did not allow their opposition to silence his proclaiming the message. He continued to use their synagogues and other public places to preach about salvation in Christ. In fact, there was nothing that would make him hesitate (v. 19) from fulfilling that TASK Jesus had given him to do (v. 24).
The other thing Paul did not hesitate to do was go to Jerusalem (vs. 22-23). Paul was COMPELLED BY THE SPIRIT to go there and he was determined to be obedient to God, though he had been warned he would face PRISON and HARDSHIPS. Paul was not deterred by PRISON or HARDSHIPS in part because he considered his own life as being worth something only as it allowed him to FINISH and COMPLETE the TASK OF TESTIFYING that Jesus had given him.
We must love one another deeply.
The Apostle Peter shared this perspective. Under the Spirit’s direction he recorded these words in 1 Peter 4:8, ABOVE ALL, LOVE EACH OTHER DEEPLY, BECAUSE LOVE COVERS OVER A MULTITUDE OF SINS. This verse establishes both the priority of deep love (ABOVE ALL) and the effect of deep love (COVERS OVER A MULTITUDE OF SINS), that is, forgives offenses. This is the kind of love evidenced in our passage in Acts, the kind of love Paul demonstrated.
Love is not optional; it is a command and is a necessity. The church cannot be the church without the deep love that COVERS OVER offenses, allowing people to go forward in faith.
Love also feels better; it’s more fun to forgive and move forward than to nurse grudges. We all make mistakes and we’re all guilty of giving offense; we can’t avoid it all the time, so it’s necessary that we exercise deep love and overcome the offenses with forgiveness.
Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, Eckhard J. Schnabel.