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Sunday, May 8, 2011

Three-Year Ministry (Acts 20.17-32)

Sermon by: Robert Austell
May 8, 2011
Some Music Used 
Prelude: "Word of God" (Bliss/Curry)
Song of Praise: "Ancient Words" (DeShazo)
Word in Music: "Come Now Almighty King" (Kauflin, Madan, Spiro)
Song of Response: "Fill Me Now" (Hansen, Peppin)
Piano Offertory: "I'll Tell the World" (Fox/Bock)
Hymn of Sending: "O Word of God Incarnate" (Walsham, MUNICH)
Postlude: "Revive Us Again" (Husband/Bock)

Three-Year Ministry
Text: Acts 20:17-32

(download) **Sermon audio is also accessible as a free podcast in iTunes - search for "Good Shepherd Sermons or Robert Austell"**

Today we continue looking at a case-study in being the Church, using a speech from the Apostle Paul to the elders of the Church in Ephesus. This speech is recorded in Acts 20, where Paul is traveling from Macedonia and Greece back to Jerusalem. He has previously spent significant time in Ephesus as pastor to the Christians there for some three years. But he is trying to get to Jerusalem by Pentecost and decides not to stop in Ephesus. Instead, he asks elders (church leaders) from Ephesus to meet him on the way and he speaks the words recorded in today’s scripture lesson.

I want to look at that speech with you because it offers a summary of one pastor’s ministry over three years. It also contains Paul’s challenge to the elders for the years to come. We will have an opportunity to follow the progress of the Church in Ephesus and see how they did and didn’t heed Paul’s words, where they thrived and where they struggled.

As a reminder, Ephesus was not an example of a “perfect church,” even with Paul as its first pastor. Rather, it is precisely in the real struggles of the Ephesian Christians that we learn something about our own struggles and potential failures. I should note, too, that though Paul talks about preaching “the whole purpose of God,” that is not spelled out for us here. Nonetheless, let’s see what he does say in this speech to the Ephesian church leaders. 

The Whole Purpose of God (v. 27)

I’d like to start with what may be the strangest verse in this whole text. That is verse 26: “Therefore, I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all men.” I didn’t understand that when I read it, and finally I just had to look it up. The next verse gives a clue what it means, but what really explains it is an Old Testament passage from Ezekiel. Ezekiel 33:1-6 describes the watchman’s duty to warn of approaching danger. The passage goes on to say that if the watchman does his job and sounds the trumpet, and if those he is warning hear the warning, then it is on their head if they choose to ignore the warning. On the other hand, if the watchman doesn’t sound adequate warning, and knows of the danger, then the people’s blood will be on his hands.

So, when Paul goes on to say, “For I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole purpose of God,” (v. 27) he is saying that he has adequately sounded the trumpet. So having heard that, note that this is the second time he has said “I did not shrink from.” In verse 20-21, he also says, “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.” And we also find out in verse 31 that Paul was ministering in Ephesus for three years.

So the picture we have is of Paul the pastor moving on to his next calling, but telling the church leaders that he has done and said all that God had called him to do. He put in the time, he lived among them, and he held nothing back, even when it was unpopular. He has adequately sounded the trumpet and now the continuation of ministry and obedience to God’s plans is in their hands.

Not only has he taught all he knew to teach, but he has also guarded his flock like a shepherd. It is perhaps because of this whole context of having sounded an adequate warning that Paul sounds it one last time before the elders. 

Truth to Guard (v. 28)

He warns them twice: “be on guard” (v. 28) and “be on the alert” (v. 31). Why?... because “after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves men will arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them.” (vv. 29-30) His use of “savage wolves” reminds me of the “wild beasts in Ephesus” that we read about last week in 1 Corinthians.

Paul exhorts these church leaders after his own example of diligence. Not only did he teach the whole counsel of God; he also “night and day for a period of three years … did not cease to admonish each one with tears.” This admonishment was part of his watchfulness and now he is charging the elders to do the same.

I would note, too, that the danger is from without and within. He says that wolves will “come in” (v. 29) but also that they will “arise from among you” (v. 30). In the coming weeks we will see specific examples of these dangers and how the Church in Ephesus dealt with the challenges. 

Grace to Build Up (v. 32)

Paul doesn’t only speak in warnings and cautions; he ends his words with a kind of benediction and prayer, commending the elders to God. It is in that context that he speaks of the “word of God’s grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance…” (v. 32) This grace that builds up the church is the subject of much of Ephesians, which we will look at next week.

I highlight it here to point out the twin focus of Paul’s ministry and teaching, at least so far as it is summarized in this one short passage. He emphasizes both truth and grace. Truth is what helps defend and protect the body from being torn apart and torn down. But it cannot build up. The Word of grace is what builds up the Church. That grace is received as described in v. 21 through “repentance toward God and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.” And it is a grace that it is offered to Jews and Greeks – this will be the major focus of Paul’s letter to the Romans, as well as Ephesians. 

Ministry in the Tension

We don’t see yet what happens downstream from Paul’s ministry and words here, but I can tell you what is coming. What is coming is the same thing that the modern church has struggled with, and that is the balance between truth and grace… or Law and Grace… or truth and love. There are a number of ways to describe the tension; but it is a real and challenging tension however you name it. God is interested in both building up His Church and in defending it from harm.

It is very, very hard to live in the tension between truth and grace. We want to veer toward one or the other, and history has proven that. The culture around us gets too scary – the wolves start to howl – and we hunker down and raise our defenses. Or when conflict arises within the church, we are quick to divide or separate. On the other side, we can so cheapen grace that just about anything goes, and the church begins to look just like the culture around it.

What is so hard is to be the Church that continues to follow Christ out into the world, get our hands dirty, extend extravagant grace, and yet guard against a twisting of the Gospel or a turning of the truth. And yet that is right where we need to be, day in and day out. Perhaps that’s why Paul found himself “admonishing each one with tears”… because speaking the truth in love and extending grace with… guts… is really, really hard.

But, as Paul said, it’s the “whole purpose of God” (v. 27).

What does this look like?

It’s Jesus, crouched by the woman caught in adultery, with the stones all around where the mob had dropped them, saying to her, “Neither do I condemn you (grace); go and don’t keep doing this (truth).”

It’s a conversation I remember with a friend long ago who confessed something to me. I said, “There is nothing you have done or will ever do that will change my love for you. (grace) In that context, know that this is not God’s best for you. (truth)”

Turned around towards us, it’s recognizing that God is a God of second chances… and third and fourth, and God will always welcome us home. (grace) But it’s also recognizing that God is holy and pure and has made us for so much more than serial disobedience and habitual sin. (truth)

A church is the people; may we be a people of truth and grace as we follow the Lord Jesus where he leads us. Amen.

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