Acts 20:17-38 Paul Speaks to the Ephesian Elders
17 Now from Miletus he [Paul] 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.
God gave us the book of Acts to show his vision of worldwide gospel expansion. It’s his explanation of the Spiritual reality we can’t see laying on top of the visible reality we can see. Most of the book is written to explain how the gospel got to unbelievers. But this passage in Acts 20 is given to an entirely Christian audience. It’s Paul’s handoff of ministry responsibility to the Ephesian elders before he departs for Jerusalem. And though he speaks to elders here, I think it speaks to all of us because we’re all involved in ministry at some level. It shows us that God gave Paul a message and a mission that created a ministry. So, we can break it down this way.
- Paul’s Message (vv.17-21)
- Paul’s Mission (vv. 22-27)
- Our Ministry (vv. 28-35)
Paul’s Message (vv. 17-21)
Paul’s saying his final goodbye to the elders. He’s spent three hard and wonderful years with them. But now he’s heading to Jerusalem, and he wants to exhort them one last time. So, he calls them to him at Miletus, about a day’s journey away.
Paul begins his speech in verse 18, and he uses how he lived with them as the example of how to minister. He’s not boasting. He’s explaining. And in verses 19-21, he explains what he means. Ministering means serving the Lord with all humility and with tears and with trials, boldly teaching everyone publicly and privately of repentance and faith.
This is a holistic ministry. It wasn’t only what Paul said when he preached the gospel, but also the life he lived that proved the truth of the gospel. When he was with them, the Ephesian elders didn’t see an inconsistency in his message compared to his life. That means how we preach the gospel matters. What we believe matters, and what we do with what we believe matters because it’s possible to unsay with our actions what we preach with our mouths. Paul fought hard not to do that. He rested in Christ and humbled himself.
Now, Paul wasn’t always humble. Before his conversion, he served the Lord in pride, not humility. He never wept over his lack of righteousness. He believed he was righteous for keeping the law. He was free from the trials Christians faced because he was the one persecuting them! Then, Jesus saved him, and his life changed forever.
Jesus sent Paul out to preach and plant churches, and Paul obeyed with intensity, investing to the point of tears. And Paul doesn’t regret these tears. He speaks of them as a proof of his ministry. It sounds strange, but one sign of a vibrant ministry is the presence—not absence—of tears, because gospel ministry doesn’t harden our hearts. It cracks our heart open to God and to others. We begin to feel what others feel and weep with those who weep. It means our heart’s being transformed, that God’s doing work of restoration and healing. So, as Refuge Church grows, don’t be surprised to shed tears. Don’t be surprised if it seems like we’re getting worse—it means God is making us better!
Tears are a result of trials, and Paul faced plenty. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:32 that the Ephesians were like beasts to him, the verses before this passage tell us of a riot over Paul’s message, and the Jews opposed him as he preached the Gospel. But he endured. He embraced it for the sake of Christ because everything good and worthwhile is also hard and trying. That’s ok. When we’re serving the Lord, we embrace tears and trials because Jesus is worth it.
But why is he worth it? Because the gospel is true! Jesus saves, and everyone needs to know it! That’s why Paul preached the gospel all the time, as he says in verse 21, preaching repentance toward God and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. Repentance and faith are the two pillars of Christian belief. To repent means to change our mind, to turn from sin to God. Faith is looking to Christ for righteousness. We can’t separate these two. We can’t repent without faith, and faith reveals itself in the fruit of repentance.
Here’s how it works. When God shares himself with us in the gospel, we come face to face with our own sin, and we feel the emptiness inside. Our guilt and shame sits on our heart like a lump of steel. When we’re exposed to God’s holiness, we see our need for a righteousness we don’t have and can’t achieve. We see that we actually deserve the wrath of God. We deserve hell. But the gospel tells us that everything we’re seeing in that moment can be taken away in Christ. Our failure can be replaced with Christ's success. Hell can be replaced with heaven. Guilt and shame can be replaced with peace and joy. When we see ourselves as sinful as we really are, we’re finally ready to accept the love God gives. So, our sinfulness leads us to repentance, and God’s love leads us to faith. Then we see that God saves sinners by the power of the Holy Spirit testifying to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
But believing this isn’t easy for us. That’s why we need lots of exposure to the gospel in lots of places over lots of time. We need the safety to re-think our lives and see God in new ways. That’s why we want Refuge Church to be a church where anyone can grow. We believe the Bible’s message is the only message that really changes us. So, we have all kinds of ways to learn the Bible, both publicly and privately. From one-on-one discipleship to community groups to Sunday sermons.
These verses show us that Paul believed the gospel was the only hope for the world. So, he gave all he had. Do you believe that? Or do you hold the gospel dear to your heart in some sentimental way but don’t feel the urgency of it for others? Paul felt the urgency, and not because he worked it up within himself. He looked to God and God sent him into the world because the gospel message always creates a gospel mission.
Paul’s Mission (vv. 22-27)
When God chose to use Paul in his gospel mission, Paul forsook all earthly achievements to reach for what only God could do. He tells the elders he’s going to Jerusalem, constrained by the Spirit, not knowing what will happen, only that imprisonment and afflictions await. But it’s worth it to him because he’s running his race for the Lord. It’s just another leg of his mission.
Paul had a holy ambition to spread the gospel, whatever the cost. He preached the whole counsel of God, even the parts that might offend others, because it’s better to be offended by God’s word for what it says than arrive ignorant at the end of our life. He says he was “constrained by the Spirit,” meaning he didn’t wake up in the morning asking himself, “What do I want to do today?” He woke up in the morning asking the Lord, “What do you want me to do today?” Paul allowed God to lead him because he loved and trusted him. That’s all it really takes to live in spiritual reality with God: to love and trust him. Do you love and trust God? Or is your hope placed in other gods?
Every day you and I face an ambush of other gods wooing us to worship them instead of Jesus. And they look appealing because they offer ease and comfort and power and importance. But their promises don’t come through. They work us to the bone without any lasting reward. God, on the other hand, promises us his kingdom if only we’ll stick with him. But we face one of two obstacles within, where other gods can jump in front of Jesus. We think we’re either too good for him or too bad for him. So, we follow idols of pride or idols of pity rather than Jesus. Who we follow will determine the mission we’re on.
Sometimes we think we’re too good to need Jesus. We have enough good grades on the spiritual scorecard. That was Paul’s pre-conversion problem—he was too religiously successful. So, his mission became self-focused. When we fail to see our need for Jesus, thinking we’ve attained righteousness on our own, we become people who don’t see others’ need for Jesus. But the path to spiritual reality with God is in forsaking our self-righteousness. We don’t reach up and grab hold of God, God bends down and grabs hold of us. That’s what Paul experienced and that’s what he’s asking us to experience along with him. Have you given up your record for Jesus’? Or are you still clinging to your own righteousness, presenting your achievements as qualifications? Only when we see that our self-righteousness is not an entry fee, but a barrier to Jesus’ grace will we become the kind of Christians that set the world on fire because only then will see others’ need of Christ because we finally see our need of him.
Some of us don’t have a bag of achievements to bring to Christ. We only have failures. We feel so inadequate and disqualified. We wonder how God could ever love us. But when you expose yourself to God as you really are, he won’t say no to you because he’s already said yes to Christ. Your sin is no longer an obstacle to his love, it’s a reason for him to love you because Jesus died to make you clean. Isn’t that how you know someone loves you—when you expose yourself in all that you are and they don’t say no to you? Satan comes and says we’re too weak for God’s power but Jesus comes and says he makes his power perfect in our weakness. It was when Paul was knocked to the ground at the sight of Jesus’ glory and lost all his earthly medals that he became useful to God. So, you’re weak. Big deal! God uses weak people for his glory!
When we feel the love of God, our life changes. We start obeying him. But that doesn’t mean what God asks of us will be easy. We’ll talk about this more next week, but let me just say this. God the Holy Spirit tells Paul to go to Jerusalem but only tells him enough to know it’ll be hard. I wondered about this. How many of us long to know the details of our trials? But God doesn’t tell us. Why do you think that is? Because if we knew what God knows we’d need God less. If he were to tell us, we’d think, “there’s no way I can do that!” We’d hesitate and make excuses. So, God in his grace reveals the details step by step as we trust him. And when we’ve walked the hard road, we’ll look back in amazement at what he’s done in and through us, and he gets all the glory and we get all the joy.
When we throw ourselves into God’s mission because we believe with all our heart God’s message, we find that we can say, along with Paul, verse 24: “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.” This is the glue that holds this whole passage together. Jesus is not asking us to give our lives to him when we feel like it. He’s asking us to give our lives to him right now and trust him for the sanctifying adventure that awaits. And if we’ll learn to follow God in this way, we’ll come to the end of our lives and think, “Man, it was hard, and it cost something, but I didn’t waste my life. I felt God’s love. I served Jesus, and I shared the gospel, and I saw him save and change people. I saw his glory in this world!” When we become all-in Christians, we find that God brings us in and cleans us up and sends us out with his power residing within. He uses us in ways we could never imagine.
Paul didn’t waste his life. He believed the gospel and was relentless, never shrinking from the responsibility the Lord gave him. And he’s urging the Ephesian elders, and us today, to follow his example. We are not our own. We were bought with a price. Let’s live like it.
Our Ministry (vv. 28-35)
In verse 28, Paul stops talking about his ministry and begins talking about ours. When the gospel message creates gospel mission it leads to gospel ministries. The church is not some random group of people who have joined together for a good cause. It’s a family of believers who have been purchased by the blood of Jesus. They’re set apart for his work in the world, showing what God’s kingdom will look like in the future. But every ministry flock faces the danger of a wolf attack. Wolves come in the front door and the back door. Some come into the church from outside and some rise up from inside to twist God’s words and draw people away. So, we have to pay attention to the gospel we believe and the mission we’re on. We have to keep a close watch on how we think about God. Let’s not let wolves in and let’s not become wolves ourselves. Let’s stick to what the Bible says and follow God there, laying aside our preference for his word.
This requires alertness. Paul uses hyperbole to communicate the urgency of gospel ministry, saying he didn’t cease day or night to admonish everyone with tears. We are so frail, so fragile, prone to wander from God. We need the gospel all the time, and we need one another to remind us of it. But we must do it in the right way: with urgency but with tenderness, pleading. It’s hard to be a rigid religious beast with tears. Paul was a tender father, watching out for his children in the faith, ensuring they have everything they need. He protected the flock with his rod, and led them with his staff.
How can we do this? The same way Paul did. In verse 32, Paul commends the elders to the person of God and to the Word of God. Though Paul is leaving, they’re left with the same resources Paul had: God and his word. Earthly ministers come and go, but God remains forever. They need to hear this because God is asking them to pour themselves out for his flock. That’s why Paul reminds them of Jesus’ words, “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” It’s interesting: Jesus doesn’t say this in any of the gospels, but it’s something that Paul remembers and attributes to Jesus. And didn’t Jesus prove the truth of it?
Last Sunday, my four-year-old went to his bookshelf and pulled out The Giving Tree. Do you know it? It’s a story of a boy’s life-long relationship with a tree. The tree loved the boy. He’d gather her leaves and climb and eat apples. The boy grew up and he left, coming back only when he needed something. First, he wanted money to buy things and have fun. The tree didn’t have money, so she gave her apples for him to sell. Then, the boy wanted a house. The tree didn’t have a house but gave him her branches to build one. Then, the boy wanted a boat to sail away and be happy. The tree didn’t have one, but she gave her trunk. Then, one last time, the boy came back, but he was too old and tired for anything. The tree was only a stump. She had given him all of herself. “I don’t need very much now,” said the boy. “Just a quiet place to sit and rest. I am very tired.” “Well,” said the tree, straightening herself up as much as she could, “Well, an old stump is good for sitting and resting. Come, Boy, sit down. Sit down and rest.” And the boy did. And the tree was happy.
The tree gave her life to the boy, and the last word is “happy.” It’s more blessed to give than to receive. Jesus said this because Jesus lived this. He came down from heaven for this very purpose: to give his life to you. Do you know how much God loves to give? Do you sometimes have the thought that maybe he doesn’t want to hear from you again—not this sinner, not this screw-up? Listen, he doesn’t sigh when you come to him; he rejoices when you come to him. Why? Because Jesus is the giving tree. Your need makes him happy. What did he not give for you? He allowed himself to be cut down to bring us to God. And when we get too tired to carry on, he doesn’t look at us as poor excuses for a Christian, he looks at us like the tree looked at the boy: with gladness in his heart. Jesus doesn’t expect us to be powerful and smart and wise. He is powerful and smart and wise for us. All he expects of us is to have a great need for him. So, if you have a great need for Jesus then you are perfect for him. He dances when you come walking up because he can’t wait to give you what he has. He gave his life on the cross, but he rose from the grave, so he still has more to give, and his giving doesn’t deplete him, it energizes him. So, go to him as often as you need. Use up all the grace you can. There’s always more!
Our giving God creates gospel givers. That’s what ministry is, and he’s calling all of us into ministry. So, what is God calling you to? There are no unemployed Christians. Every one of us has a ministry from God to someone.
At the end of The Giving Tree, we get the sense that the Boy isn’t happy. Why? Because all he’s ever done is take. But the tree is happy as a stump because all she’s ever done is give. Doesn’t that say something to us about the truth of giving? The difference between happiness and sadness is in giving. We tend to think that giving will exhaust us, and in some sense, it will, but we need to see how, really, it fill us. As we give our lives over to God’s message and mission, we share in the ministry of happiness in Christ. Life with Jesus is happier the more we give, because as we give, we experience more of his grace. When we run low, he fills us up with new blessing. His mercies are new every day. Haven’t you experienced that? When you’re at your lowest, your most tired, most depleted—isn’t that when Jesus is most real to you? And when Jesus is most real to you isn’t that when you’re happiest?
Paul closes his speech by kneeling in prayer, and they all cry. Why? Because they’ve formed a spiritual friendship. They realize they will never see one another again on this earth, and that’s a sad reality. Luke uses a word here—sorrowful—in verse 38. That’s a very graphic word. It means to experience deep pain—he uses that word when Mary and Joseph can’t find Jesus on their trip home from Jerusalem in Luke 2. Ministry is painful. All life-giving things are. But there’s a beauty in it that nothing else provides. There’s a rawness and realness to it that brings tears. Did you notice that tears are mentioned three times in this passage? Isn’t that something? Life is filled with tears. They are nothing to be ashamed of. They are the sign that something meaningful has taken place. Jesus wept. We too weep. But no matter how many tears we shed here on earth, God will one day wipe them all from our face. We give ourselves to God, entrust our lives to him, and wait for him to set it all right. In between, we labor and love and serve and give, and as we do, we experience what only God can do inside of us, inside our community, and, we pray, outside in the world around us.
And one day, we’ll stand in glory, looking with a smile and say, “it was all worth it.” And we will be happy.