Today I preached my final sermon as pastor of Metro East Baptist Church. I struggled with what to preach. Ultimately, however, I did not have to look far. Paul's farewell to the Ephesian elders recorded by Luke in Acts 20:17-38 seemed to be the most appropriate text. It is a moving scene. Clearly, after three years of ministry Paul had come to love this congregation as they loved him.
"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."
Paul is going to Jerusalem where his future safety is very much in question. This is not an unusual situation for Paul. The Holy Spirit has warned him about coming hardships. We know that Paul suffered various imprisonments, beatings, lashings, stonings, shipwrecks, and slander. He was persecuted from outsiders and betrayed by insiders. And to top it all off he dealt daily with the pressure and the heart break of overseeing the churches.
And now the same Spirit who warns him of these realities also compels him to journey toward Jerusalem. (So much for “Your Best Life Now.”) How do you hold up in the midst of this? How do you keep going when it would be so much easier to give up? One of the keys for Paul was the attitude he had toward his life. How different Paul’s attitude was about himself from what we are taught today. We are told to esteem ourselves, value ourselves, love ourselves. The biblical testimony however which is confirmed through experience is that we are born loving, valuing and esteeming ourselves quite highly.
Notice the attitude that Paul expresses in verse 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."
It is this compelling aim that keeps Paul going through hardships. It the same vision that kept William Carey in India. It is the aim that sent John G. Paton to the New Hebrides. It is the aim that enabled Charles Simeon to preach to locked pews for twelve years. And it is the aim that will keep us faithful even when the road is painful.
Commenting on verse 24 John Stott writes, “[Paul’s] overriding concern is not at all costs to survive, but rather that he may finish the race and complete his Christ-given task of bearing witness to the good news of God’s grace.” This is the aim that kept Paul. It “owned” him, so to speak.
When I read those words I am confronted by how often my life is driven along by small aims. What is the aim of my life? Is there a compelling vision that will keep me buoyant even through the most difficult of trials? If my aim in life is anything less than to finish the course and the ministry of advancing the Gospel then it is too small.
"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 of you, for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God."
There is a great sadness in verse 25. Paul is telling very dear people that they will never see him again. He knows that he will never have occasion to pass their way again. But he knows that there is nothing lacking in his ministry among them that he will have to complete later or make up for. And this is true because Paul never seems to lose sight of his calling. He never seems to be confused about what he is supposed to do.
He speaks with great clarity to the Corinthian church. “For I determined to nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” And now to the Ephesian elders he says, “I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God.” Paul’s calling was not to declare Paul. It wasn’t to make for himself a great reputation or build an impressive ministry. Paul was not called to declare his opinions or give people a lift on Sunday mornings. He was charged under God to declare God’s Word, God’s purposes, God’s counsel.
Sometimes God’s Word is received enthusiastically. Sometimes it is rejected and even hated. But the way in which God’s counsel is received is not ultimately the concern of the shepherd. The calling of the shepherd is to make known the Word of God. We know from I Corinthians that it was Christ and his atoning work on the cross that was the center-piece of Paul’s preaching. And this is not something unique to Paul. This is the calling of all those who proclaim the Word of God.
Christ is at the center of God’s Word and so he must be at the center of all our proclamation. Charles Spurgeon wrote, “I received some years ago orders from my Master to stand at the foot of the Cross until He comes again. He has not come yet, but I mean to stand there until He does.” Notice how Paul casts this calling to proclaim God’s Word faithfully and comprehensively. “I am innocent of your blood.” In other words, “If you are ignorant of or unfaithful to God’s Word it is not because I failed to proclaim it to you.”
Paul rightly identifies this calling as a matter of life and death. Scripture says that few of us should be teachers because we will incur a stricter judgment. Those who teach and preach should tremble a bit at that calling. We have an accountability that will end either in our commendation or our shame. The shepherd is not called to be an ecclesiastical entrepreneur. A shepherd who is unable or unwilling to declare the whole counsel of God may be a nice fellow but he is not a good shepherd.