Having married a man called to full-time ministry, I’ve had a lot of practice at saying goodbye as we transition from one God-given “assignment” to the next. Inevitably, there’s a period of reflection, looking back to consider what we did well, what we could have done better, and what we wish we had more time to do. This is true for any transition; when we decided to sell our house and move recently, even though we know it was God’s timing, I had some regrets. I wished I had taken time to have my neighbors over more often or made more of an effort to get to know others. Time had run out and I wasn’t quite prepared.
In Acts 20, Paul is transitioning to his next assignment. While he doesn’t know all the details, the Holy Spirit has warned him that “bonds and afflictions” are ahead. He has taken a route toward Jerusalem that is allowing him to say his farewells to the people he has invested in for the past few years. In this chapter, we get an inside look at a very personal time with the elders from the church at Ephesus.
I wish I could say I was as confident as Paul was about his faithfulness to the ministry God had given him. We don’t hear any regrets or “I wish I had…” or “I should have…” Instead, Paul declares that he has done exactly what God called him to do and that he could move forward with a clear conscience and a sense of confidence that his work is done. Here are three things that were his priority as he served God at Ephesus.
#1 – He had a humble attitude.
Acts 20:18-19 – You yourselves know, from the first day that I set foot in Asia, how I was with you the whole time, serving the Lord with all humility and with tears and with trials which came upon me through the plots of the Jews.
Paul had no grandiose ideas of himself. He wasn’t “hired for a position;” he wasn’t looking for a corner office and a benefits package or a job description that catered to his “gifts.” He saw himself simply as a servant of Jesus, willing to suffer whatever came with grace and humility and a true love for the people he taught.
#2 – He taught the things that would benefit the people.
Acts 20:20-21,24b,31b – …how I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, and teaching you publicly and from house to house, solemnly testifying to both Jews and Greeks of repentance toward God and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. … For I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole purpose of God. … I did not cease to admonish each one with tears.
Paul did not sugarcoat the gospel because he knew its power to transform lives. We do people no favor when we excuse their sin out of “love” or a desire not to offend. True faith requires repentance (turning away from sin) and faith (not just believing intellectually but entrusting our entire selves completely into God’s hands). Paul taught the hard things in scripture as well as the pleasant ones. For example, I can’t see Paul supporting the idea that some people are destined to live as “same-sex attracted” for their entire lives, a popular “Christian” teaching. Paul knew the Holy Spirit living in a person brought new desires pleasing to God, a new nature, and a distaste for the old sinful ways of our past. He knew personally what it was to abhor the man he had been before meeting Jesus. Paul wanted those who followed Christ to know Him fully and enjoy the abundant life Jesus came to give us. To that end, he was willing to address the whole purpose of God, even admonishing those he loved with tears.
#3 – He kept his emphasis on the gospel.
Acts 20:24 – But I do not consider my life of any account as dear to myself, so that I may finish my course and the ministry which I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify solemnly of the gospel of the grace of God.
Paul was laser-focused on the gospel because it had so radically changed his own life. From personal experience, he knew that religious knowledge and legal adherence to the law fell short of the grace of the gospel that could transform a man from living by the flesh to walking in the Spirit. Paul preached Jesus crucified and risen, and taught a salvation that is by grace alone, through faith alone in Christ. While he cared for the poor and encouraged the believers to live out their faith in godliness and good deeds, his mission was to proclaim the gospel. He was never distracted by cultural issues, social justice, or the many worldly teachings that fill our churches and pulpits today.
The words recorded in Acts 20 were the last words Paul would be able to say in person to these dear men he loved so much. After testifying that he is innocent of the blood of all men because he has been faithful to preach the whole counsel of God, he includes a warning to be on guard against false teaching that would creep into the church. This teaching would not come from the outside, but from those inside – its own members speaking “perverse things to draw away the disciples.” As shepherds, they were to guard the flock from these savage wolves sent by the enemy to destroy.
So much wisdom for us! If you are a pastor or in full-time ministry, what a high standard Paul sets for those who preach and teach! For all of us, what a great lesson on how to live in such a way that we don’t have regrets about things undone or not done well, when God moves us from one mission field to the next.
We must see ourselves as humble servants.
We must teach the whole truth of God’s Word.
We must remain undistracted and focused on the gospel.
If we do these three things, we can move forward with confidence and trust God with the impact we’ve made on the lives of the people we’ve loved well.