Now from Miletus he sent to Ephesus and called the elders of the church to come to him. 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, serving the Lord with all humility and with tears and with trials that happened to me through the plots of the Jews; how I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, and teaching you in public and from house to house, testifying both to Jews and to Greeks of repentance toward God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.
“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. 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.
“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, for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God. 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. I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them. Therefore be alert, remembering that for three years I did not cease night or day to admonish every one with tears.
“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. I coveted no one’s silver or gold or apparel. You yourselves know that these hands ministered to my necessities and to those who were with me. 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.’”
And when he had said these things, he knelt down and prayed with them all. And there was much weeping on the part of all; they embraced Paul and kissed him, 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. (Acts 20:17-38)
We won’t get through this entire passage today, but I wanted to read it in full before we begin.
As a pastor, I’ve often studied the ministry of Paul as an example for me to follow. And this speech, this sermon, in particular, has always stood out to me as one of the most important Bible passages that an elder in the church could learn from.
But interestingly enough, Paul says virtually nothing here concerning methodology. He doesn’t instruct the Ephesian elders to preach using a certain style or tell them to set up any kind of programs. He doesn’t offer a three-step guide to growing the church or having a successful ministry.
Instead, his primary focus is on the authenticity of a pastor’s character. Using himself as an example, he shows us that his success in Ephesus was simply the fruit of his personal commitment to God and his Word. There was no disconnect between Paul’s words and his behavior. He clearly believed what he preached, and he proved it by the way he lived his life.
Church Leaders Lead By Sincere Example
It’s not good enough for church pastors to get their theology right. I believe Paul makes the case here that sound doctrine is only one component of good leadership in the church. Not only must an elder get his theology right, but he must also get his life right. As a leader, he must do more than tell people what to believe; he must believe it himself. Furthermore, he must live it. There should be no gap between what he preaches and the way he lives.
It makes sense, doesn’t it? By definition, a leader will be the first to go. He’ll set the example for others. If he doesn’t go first, he’s not so much a leader as he is a dictator. And over and over again, the Bible affirms that church leaders are to be an example to others.
Jesus himself told his disciples, “For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you” (Jn 13:15). The book of Hebrews says, “Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith” (Heb 13:7). Peter told elders to be “examples to the flock” (1Pe 5:3).
Consider Paul’s list of qualifications for church elders in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1. When writing to Timothy, Paul gives an entire list of what qualifies a man to be an overseer or a pastor, and almost every item on that list relates to godly behavior. There is only one item that is specific to pastors, and that is where Paul said they must be “able to teach” (1Ti 3:2). We see the same thing in Titus. The only item specific to pastors is that they must “be able to give instruction in sound doctrine” (Tit 1:9). Otherwise, both lists read as though they were written to every Christian, not church leaders exclusively.
As Charles Spurgeon once said, “It is a terribly easy matter to be a minister of the gospel and a vile hypocrite at the same time.” Paul understood that. So when he addressed the Ephesian elders, he didn’t waste time talking about practical approaches to the ministry. He didn’t talk about how to choose your Bible text for Sunday morning or how many anecdotes to include in your sermons. He didn’t lay out a step-by-step formula for growing the church. He didn’t tell them how to solicit money for the church building fund or raise awareness in the community. No, he told them about character and attitude.
An effective ministry begins with the right perspective. It begins with godly character.
I’ve been involved in pastor searches before where the church is looking for candidates to become their pastor. And to be candid, they’re not always considering the right things. Rather than ask, “Is he self-controlled and gentle?” they ask, “Do you think he’d relocate?” Rather than ask, “What’s his attitude toward the lost?” they ask, “Is he young or old? We’d really like to have a young pastor, someone who can draw crowds.” Or, “We’d really like to have an older pastor, someone with experience.”
Let’s see what Paul had to say about the ministry.
Church Leaders Are Genuine and Transparent
You may remember that Paul had plans to leave Ephesus to return to Jerusalem. But he also wanted to take an out-of-the-way route to get there. Based on what he wrote in a few of his letters, I believe his intention was to visit several of the churches that he had previously planted and collect money from them for the Church in Jerusalem, which was in desperate need of financial help. Well, according to the first part of this chapter, he had already made his rounds and was on his way back east.
Now Paul doesn’t stop again in Ephesus. He came within about thirty miles, but he stops at the coast of Asia Minor in Miletus. From there, he sends a messenger to Ephesus to gather all of the elders and bring them back to the ship. And verse 16 tells us why he did that: “For Paul had decided to sail past Ephesus, so that he might not have to spend time in Asia, for he was hastening to be at Jerusalem, if possible, on the day of Pentecost” (Ac 20:16).
He has a deadline. He’s in a hurry. Even so, he couldn’t resist reaching out once more to this church that he spent three years of his life with. He loved these people and wanted to be sure that he was leaving them in good hands.
To be clear, when Luke says that Paul “called the elders of the church to come to him,” he is using a term that is virtually synonymous with “pastors” or “overseers” (Ac 20:17). It refers to the same role or function with a slightly different emphasis. In fact, in verse 28, Paul refers to them as “overseers” (Ac 20:28). One title emphasizes their role as leaders in the church, while the other term, “elder,” emphasizes their spiritual maturity. But it’s the same office or position.
Now once the elders arrived, Paul begins speaking to them, and what he says is clearly from the bottom of his heart. By the way, this sermon is the only speech in the book of Acts that Paul addressed specifically to Christians. In every other case, he was speaking to a broader audience of mostly unbelievers. So this discourse is unique. And you’ll find that much of what he says here mirrors what he wrote to the various churches. Many of these expressions are familiar if you’ve spent any time reading his epistles.
For instance, look at the first thing he says here: “You yourselves know how I lived among you the whole time from the first day that I set foot in Asia” (Ac 20:18). Now turn over the 1 Thessalonians 2. (You don’t actually need to turn there. I’ll just read it.) Paul writes, “For you yourselves know, brothers, that our coming to you was not in vain” (1Th 2:1).
From there, he proceeds to remind the Thessalonians that they have first-hand knowledge of his ministry. They don’t have to rely on the word of anyone else to confirm his credibility. They know him already. They spent time with him. And apparently, Paul was a transparent man. He had no secrets, and the churches that he served knew that about him.
But there’s also a distinct possibility that Paul was defending himself. Unbelievers and believers alike were constantly criticizing Paul, slandering him before others, attacking his credibility. Here’s what he told the Philippians:
Some indeed preach Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from good will. The latter do it out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. The former proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely but thinking to afflict me in my imprisonment. What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice. (Philippians 1:15-18)
Preachers of the gospel were slandering Paul. I think you can imagine the scenario. I mean, what would you think of me if I was arrested and put in prison? Would your default assumption be that I’m innocent? Or would you assume that the police got it right and that perhaps I was living a double-life that you didn’t know about? You know how it is. In the United States, you’re innocent until the media or public opinion says you’re guilty. Well, other preachers were already envious of Paul, so it became very easy to attack his credibility once he was arrested.
So Paul begins here by reminding the Ephesian elders that they know him. Despite what anyone says, they knew him, and they knew him well. He was their spiritual father if you will. He served and taught them for three years.
Church Leaders Humbly Serve God
More than that, he said, “I lived among you the whole time…serving the Lord with all humility and with tears and with trials that happened to me through the plots of the Jews” (Ac 20:18-19).
First and foremost, Paul served the Lord. He commonly referred to himself as “a servant of Christ Jesus” (Ro 1:1). For him, pleasing God was always the priority. He wrote to the Galatians, “Am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ” (Gal 1:10).
There is a vital difference between pleasing God and pleasing man. And a servant of Jesus Christ cannot strive to do both. What happens when church leaders make it their mission to please the masses? In many cases, God’s truth becomes the first casualty.
“For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching,” Paul wrote, “but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths” (2Ti 4:3-4). So Paul tells Timothy, “As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering [that is, suffering at the hands of those who oppose the truth], do the work of an evangelist [tell people the truth whether they like it or not], fulfill your ministry” (2Ti 4:5).
God has not called his servants to pander to unrepentant, unbelieving people. He has not called us to appease the carnality of man. He has called us to be faithful to him and his Word. Paul uses the word, “serving,” which implies obedience. You can’t serve the Lord of lords without submitting to his rule and authority.
Now Paul defines this service with two notable characteristics. The first is humility. Was Paul a humble man? Well, in 1 Corinthians 15, he called himself, “The least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle” (1Co 15:9). In Ephesians 3, he called himself, “The very least of all the saints” (Eph 3:8). And in 1 Timothy 1, he says, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost” (1Ti 1:15).
The last thing the church needs is arrogant leaders. Not only is pride something God hates, but it is also the anthesis of the character and spirit of Christ. How can a man preach the gospel, which says that Christ “humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death,” and yet remain proud (Php 2:8)? He makes himself a walking contradiction.
But it’s so easy for a minister to become proud. All eyes are on him. People hang on to his every word. He has a lot of influence over others. Of course, we now live in a culture filled with celebrity preachers so even the small church pastor might dream of seeing his smiling face on the cover of books sold all over the world. Suffice it to say, pride is a real spiritual threat to pastors. It’s dangerous, always lurking right around the corner, so we have to be careful. We have to be mindful of that ever-present temptation.
There is a second characteristic here. The first is humility, and the second is a willingness to suffer. Paul served not only with humility, but also “with tears and with trials” (Ac 20:19). He followed in the footsteps of his Savior who was, according to Isaiah, “despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief” (Isa 53:3). And what did Peter say? “To this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps” (1Pe 2:21).
Church Leaders Care Deeply About Others
But notice how Paul breaks down the causes of his suffering. Yes, he suffered “with trials that happened to [him] through the plots of the Jews” (Ac 20:19). Yes, he suffered hostility from the Jews in Ephesus, but he also suffered internally, emotionally. He suffered “with tears,” he said. Why? What caused Paul to experience this emotional anguish that reduced him to tears?
I’m convinced that a minister of the gospel can’t truly fulfill his calling without shedding a few tears along the way. How could he avoid it? How can he think about the lost sinners whom he hopes to reach without feeling a sense of grief?
Listen to the torment in Paul’s voice when he thought about the spiritual condition of Israel. In Romans 9, he said, “I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh” (Ro 9:2-3). In the very next chapter, he said, “My heart’s desire and prayer to God for them is that they may be saved” (Ro 10:1).
But it’s not only the lost that pastors weep for; there’s also the struggling believers among us. Paul told the Corinthians, “I wrote to you out of much affliction and anguish of heart and with many tears, not to cause you pain but to let you know the abundant love that I have for you” (2Co 2:4). Paul genuinely cared about the spiritual struggles of the Corinthians. He loved them like he would his own children.
To be candid, I have discovered that this aspect of the ministry is perhaps the greatest challenge of all. You can’t be an effective pastor without empathy. But empathy has its consequences. I believe it was Aristotle who said, “To perceive is to suffer.” Even the Bible says, “Weep with those who weep” (Ro 12:15). When you become a pastor, the upside is that your own problems seem to fade into the background. They become less important. The downside is that everyone else’s problems become your problems. Suddenly, you find yourself consumed by far more burdens than your own.
I don’t mean for that to sound like a complaint because it’s not. It’s just the reality of the situation. Leadership in the church comes with tears. Frankly, I wouldn’t want a pastor who didn’t weep with me. I want a pastor who cares enough about me and others to cry. I don’t want to make him cry, of course, but I do want an empathetic pastor, a man who is willing to share my burdens.
Now glance down at verses 29 through 31. The threat posed by false teachers was also something that caused Paul to weep. He said, “For three years I did not cease night or day to admonish every one with tears” (Ac 20:31). Even the responsibility of preaching and teaching can cause an elder to weep. If he truly knows what’s at stake here, he can’t help but pour his heart and soul into his ministry. After all, he’s an overseer. It’s his God-given responsibility to watch over the souls of God’s people.
Here in verse 28, Paul says, “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” (Ac 20:28). Hebrews 13 says, “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account” (Heb 13:17). It’s a weighty responsibility that requires diligence and sacrifice.
Listen, we’re prone to judge the success of a pastor by the size of his church or the reach of his ministry. But what we should look for is a sincere servant of God. We should look for a man who is “sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money” (1Ti 3:2-3). According to Peter, he should “shepherd the flock of God…exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly…not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering…but being [an example] to the flock” (1Pe 5:2-3).
The true measure of a minister cannot be determined by numbers or popularity. If that were the case, we’d have to call Noah a miserable failure along with most every prophet of the Old Testament. The Son of God himself left behind only 120 disciples in Jerusalem after a three-year ministry. While many pastors would love for there to be 120 people in their church, that’s not very many when you consider that God in the flesh was the one preaching.
No, the true measure of a minister is marked by his willingness to please and serve God. It’s marked by his willingness to serve with humility and perhaps suffering.
Church Leaders Boldly Preach the Word
But what else? Look at verse 20: “I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, and teaching you in public and from house to house, testifying both to Jews and to Greeks of repentance toward God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ” (Ac 20:20-21). Maybe we could label this one, courage.
Obviously, the primary function of church elders is to teach the Word of God. Pastors are “to equip the saints for the work of ministry” by teaching the Scriptures (Eph 4:12). And Paul realized that preaching the truth is not always easy.
Notice his language here: “I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable,” implying that there is a temptation to do just that. Why? Because the truth can hurt. Our flesh doesn’t want to hear the truth. And the temptation of pastors is to avoid preaching certain aspects of the truth for that reason.
But Paul didn’t share those fears. If you want proof of that, just read the book of Galatians. Paul did not pull his punches when he wrote to the churches of Galatia. Again, he told them, “If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ” (Gal 1:10). There’s no room for cowardice in the ministry. The church faces serious spiritual threats on a daily basis, and ministers of God need to have the boldness to address these things.
I love what David said in Psalm 40:
I have told the glad news of deliverance
in the great congregation;
behold, I have not restrained my lips,
as you know, O LORD.
I have not hidden your deliverance within my heart;
I have spoken of your faithfulness and your salvation;
I have not concealed your steadfast love and your faithfulness
from the great congregation. (Psalm 40:9-10)
David didn’t hesitate to preach the gospel. Of course, preaching the good news is a little easier than preaching the many warnings of Scripture, but the warnings are necessary. Consider what God told Ezekiel in Ezekiel chapter 33:
“So you, son of man, I have made a watchman for the house of Israel. Whenever you hear a word from my mouth, you shall give them warning from me. If I say to the wicked, O wicked one, you shall surely die, and you do not speak to warn the wicked to turn from his way, that wicked person shall die in his iniquity, but his blood I will require at your hand. But if you warn the wicked to turn from his way, and he does not turn from his way, that person shall die in his iniquity, but you will have delivered your soul.” (Ezekiel 33:7-9)
I believe Paul alludes to that passage here when he says, “I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all, for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God” (Ac 20:26-27). He warned the people. He did not withhold any part of the truth because he feared how they might react. He wasn’t concerned about tradition or even his own life. He taught the truth, and he wasn’t ashamed. After all, “a worker…has no need to be ashamed, [assuming he] rightly [handles] the word of truth” (2Ti 2:15).
Church Leaders Desire To Reach the Lost
But pay attention here. Paul did not consider his ministry complete just because he faithfully taught the church. He also testified “both to Jews and to Greeks of repentance toward God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ” (Ac 20:21). I am convinced that a man’s ministry should never be totally contained within the walls of the church sanctuary. If he doesn’t have a deep concern for the lost, something fundamental is missing.
Again, Paul serves as an excellent example for ministers today. Listen to what he said in 1 Corinthians 9:
Though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings. (1 Corinthians 9:19-23)
His desire to reach the lost was so profound that he cried out, “Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!” (1Co 9:16). And what did he mean by that? Well, he says here in Acts 20 that he was “testifying…of repentance toward God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.” In other words, he not only declared Christ and him crucified, but he also called unbelievers to repent and put their faith in Jesus Christ for salvation. As he said to the men of Athens, “[God] commands all people everywhere to repent” (Ac 17:30). And Paul understood his role as an ambassador for Christ.
It’s not easy to look a sinner in the eye, tell him that he’s a sinner in need of repentance, and compel him to put his trust in Christ. It can be a very fearful situation. But it’s necessary, and every church leader needs the courage and boldness to do so.
Quickly, let’s look at the next verses (verse 22):
“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. 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.” (Acts 20:22-24)
So Paul expresses a wonderful perspective here on himself. Frankly, he had the right perspective on everything. Concerning God, he knew that he needed to humbly serve the Lord. Christ was his utmost priority. Concerning the church, he knew that he needed to feed them with the Word of God. Concerning the lost, he knew that he needed to preach the gospel. And concerning himself, he knew that self is always the least important factor.
What does he say? “I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself.” All that mattered to Paul was that he fulfill the extent of the ministry that God had given to him. If that meant death when God was finished with him, so be it. And if you think that Paul changed his tune when death was right around the corner, think again. He told Timothy:
The time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing. (2 Timothy 4:6-8)
Every one of us has a ministry. We all have a calling. And no matter what it is, it will always center around “the gospel of the grace of God.” And it’s on us as it was on Paul and the Ephesian elders to get busy doing the work that God has called us to do. We have limited time, and everyone would love to say at the end, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.”
Preached at Joy Christian Church (Benson, NC) on April 23, 2017.