Sometimes I’m asked to speak to a group of ministers, and it’s hard to describe how I feel. I love the thought of encouraging them, because ministry is hard. I often need encouragement myself. Yet I often feel inadequate to help them, because everyone’s situation is so different. Why should I be speaking to them? Why shouldn’t they be speaking to me? To be a pastor speaking to pastors—well, that’s a challenge and it can be intimidating; but it’s also a great privilege and opportunity.
Now, think about this. Hypothetically.
If you were asked to prepare and preach a message of instruction to all of the pastors on earth, to all of the church leaders in the world – what would you say? Suppose it was going to be streamed onto the phone or laptop of every Christian worker on earth, of every group and denomination?
Now, imagine your message could also travel across time and speak to all the pastors and all the Christian workers who had ever lived? All the pastors and priests and missionaries and staff members and Sunday School teachers who have ever—or will ever—live.
And one more thing. You have to do all of this using no more than 400 words, which is a very brief sermon.
What would you say? What advice would you give to all the leaders of all the churches in all the world through all the ages, in only 400 words?
Well, I know exactly what I would say. I would open my Bible to Ephesians 20 and read the sermon of the apostle Paul to the Ephesians elders.
In Acts 19, Paul spent three years establishing a church – or a network of house churches – in the city of Ephesus. Then he left, traveled around some, and then came back into the area. He didn’t want to return to Ephesus, but he stopped in the port of Miletus and sent word for the elders of the church to join him. They traveled 30 miles to meet him. It was a minister’s retreat with the apostle Paul.
He spoke to them, and in so doing he was giving a Spirit-inspired message to every church leader in Christian history. Luke records it in about 400 words. I suspect that Paul used a lot more words than that. He may have spoken for several hours, but Luke gives us a digest of it in Acts 20.
Luke was a remarkable writer. For example, just consider this. In his book of Acts, Luke records three missionary trips made by Paul the apostle. We call them Paul’s three missionary journeys. During each of these journeys, Paul spoke and preached and taught many times. But Luke only gives us an account of three sermons.
On Paul’s first missionary tour, Luke tells us what Paul said to an audience of unsaved Jews. On his second missionary tour, Luke tells us what he said to an audience of unsaved Gentiles. And on Paul’s third missionary tour, Luke tells us what he said to the saved church—to the leaders of the church in the city of Ephesus.
We have three samples of Paul’s preaching—to the Jews, to the Gentiles, and to the Christians—one message from each of his three journeys. Well, the one we’re coming to is the message to the Ephesian elders, and let’s begin by reading these 400 words, beginning in Acts 20:18:
You know how I lived the whole time I was with you, from the first day I came into the province of Asia. I served the Lord with great humility and with tears and in the midst of severe testing by the plots of my Jewish opponents. You know that I have not hesitated to preach anything that would be helpful to you but have taught you publicly and from house to house. I have declared to both Jews and Greeks that they must turn to God in repentance and have faith in our Lord Jesus.
And now, compelled by the Spirit, I am going to Jerusalem, not knowing what will happen to me there. I only know that in every city the Holy Spirit warns me that prison and hardships are facing me. However, I consider my life worth nothing to me; my only aim is to finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me—the task of testifying to the good news of God’s grace.
Now I know that none of you among whom I have gone about preaching the kingdom will ever see me again. Therefore, I declare to you today that I am innocent of the blood of any of you. For I have not hesitated to proclaim to you the whole will of God. Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood. I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them. So be on your guard! Remember that for three years I never stopped warning each of you night and day with tears.
Now I commit you to God and to the word of his grace, which can build you up and give you an inheritance among all those who are sanctified. I have not coveted anyone’s silver or gold or clothing. You yourselves know that these hands of mine have supplied my own needs and the needs of my companions. In everything I did, I showed you that by this kind of hard work we must help the weak, remembering the words the Lord Jesus himself said: ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’”
Scholars would put this into the category of a farewell speech. If you’re a student of American history, you know that many of our presidents have given farewell speeches as they left office. It started with George Washington, who wrote his farewell address to the nation when he left office and returned to his farm at Mount Vernon. I remember listening to Ronald Reagan’s farewell message, given from the Oval Office on the last night of his presidency. It was so moving I wished he could stay another term.
Well, the Bible contains a number of very moving farewell speeches.
- Jacob gave one in Genesis 49.
- Moses did so at the end of Deuteronomy.
- Samuel had a dramatic farewell address, which is recorded in 1 Samuel 12.
- Joshua did so at the end of the book that bears his name.
- Jesus gave a farewell address in the Upper Room in John 13-17.
Well, here in Acts 20, we have Paul’s farewell address to the Ephesians. It’s emotional and personal and not tightly organized or outlined. But it contains seven layers that I want to show you. As I’ve studied this message, I’ve come away with seven lessons.
First, we must serve the Lord with emotion.
Let’s go back to verse 17: From Miletus, Paul sent to Ephesus for the elders of the church. When they arrived, he said to them: “You know how I lived the whole time I was with you, from the first day I came into the province of Asia. I served the Lord with great humility and with tears and in the midst of severe testing by the plots of my Jewish opponents.”
It’s interesting that Paul talked about preaching with tears. I want to talk for a moment about the tears of Paul.
- Here in Acts 20:17, Paul said that he came to Ephesus and served the Lord with tears. And in verse 31, he added this: “Remember that for three years I never stopped warning each of you night and day with tears.”
- And in verse 37 we learn that the entire group was in tears by the end of his message. They all wept as they embraced him and kissed him.
- In Romans 12:15, he told us to rejoice with those who rejoice and to weep with those who weep.
- In 2 Corinthians 2:4, he said that he wrote to the Corinthians with “great distress and anguish of heart and with many tears.”
- In Philippians 3:18, he said, “For, as I have often told you before and now tell you again even with tears, many live as enemies of the cross of Christ.”
- In his last letter, he wrote to Timothy saying, “I remember your tears….”
If Jeremiah was the weeping prophet, Paul was the weeping apostle.
Now, all of us are made with a different emotional complexion. When I was a young person, my pastor, Winford R. Floyd, often wept during his sermons. I sometimes wonder if something is wrong with me because I seldom do that. If I’m tired, I may get emotional and a little choked up. But we are all made differently.
For me, the takeaway is that ministry is emotional. It should be emotional. The old word for it was zeal. We should be zealous. Most younger ministers use the words passion and passionate. But even newer translations retain the old word zeal.
- In the New International Version, we learn that Phinehas the priest was zealous for the honor of God. In fact, God said, “Phinehas son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron…was as zealous for My honor among the Israelites as I am” (Numbers 25:11). God made a lasting covenant with Phinehas’ descendants because of his zeal (Numbers 25:13).
- The prophet Elijah described himself as being “very zealous for the Lord God Almighty” (1 Kings 19:10).
- The Psalmist said, “…for zeal for your house consumes me.” And that statement was later applied to Jesus Christ (Psalm 69:9; John 2:17).
- Proverbs 23:17 says, “…always be zealous for the fear of the Lord.”
- Romans 12:11 says, “Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord.”
Whatever we do for the Lord should be done with all our hearts. If we lose the enthusiasm and passion and zeal, we’ll end up going through the motions until we burn out.
We must serve with emotion.
Second, we must teach with thoroughness.
Paul went on to say: 20 You know that I have not hesitated to preach anything that would be helpful to you but have taught you publicly and from house to house. 21 I have declared to both Jews and Greeks that they must turn to God in repentance and have faith in our Lord Jesus.
And down in verse 27, he said that he had proclaimed to them the whole counsel of God.
First and primarily, we must teach expositionally, through books of the Bible. The reason is very simple. That’s the way God gave us His Word, so that every word has the context of a sentence; every sentence has the context of a paragraph; every paragraph has the context of a section; and every section progresses from one to the other to give us a full understanding of what God wants us to know in, say, Malachi or 2 Timothy.
Now, many pastors are reluctant to do that. They say, “People want topics. They don’t want book studies; they want topics.”
But what do you think about book study? The Bible deals with 66 different topics. In other words, each of the books of the Bible had its own message.
I had a professor once who challenged us to name each book of the Bible. You know, most of the books of the Bible do not have a title. Take the book of 1 Thessalonians. That title is simply the designation of the original recipients. It was the first of two books addressed to the Christians of Thessalonica. But what if you were an editor in a publishing company, and someone gave you this brief booklet that we call 1 Thessalonians. It had no title. You had the contents, but you had to study it out and come up with a title that described what the book was about.
I might call 1 Thessalonians, “Living a Better Life—Through and Through.”
Paul wrote this letter to tell the Thessalonians how to grow in their newfound Christian experience. The key verse is in chapter 4, verse 1: “…we instructed you how to live in order to please God. Now we ask you and urge you in the Lord Jesus to do this more and more.” He said in verse 3: “It is God’s will that you should be sanctified.” And he ended the book by saying, “May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through.”
Now, the word “sanctify” would require some explanation as you dealt with it in the text, but the broader idea is Living a Better Life—Through and Through.
Who doesn’t want to do that?
I believe there is tremendous power in preaching expositionally, while marketing topically. In other words, you don’t have to tell people you’re going to start a series of sermons from 1 Thessalonians. Announce the topic and make it sound as relevant as it really is. And then as you go through the book, paragraph by paragraph, amazing things happen.
I recently met a man and asked him how he came to Christ. He said he started attending a church where the pastor said he was going to devote a year to preaching through the book of Romans. The man said, “I received Christ when we got to chapter 3.”
Never hesitate to preach or teach or share anything that would be helpful. Preach and teach and share the whole counsel of God.
Third, we must finish the work.
22 “And now, compelled by the Spirit, I am going to Jerusalem, not knowing what will happen to me there. 23 I only know that in every city the Holy Spirit warns me that prison and hardships are facing me. 24 However, I consider my life worth nothing to me; my only aim is to finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me—the task of testifying to the good news of God’s grace.
Dr. David Jeremiah’s half century of ministry, including thousands of sermons and millions of books sold, has been built on one sentence, found in Colossians 3:23- “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters.” There is a great challenge to successful ministers to resist the temptation of pride and seek only to glorify the Lord in all of their work. But there is also great reward in it, giving everything that they have for the Lord and trusting Him to accomplish all that He desires to come from our works. Though Dr. Jeremiah could seek to boast in his accomplishments, or cater to earthly pressures, he seeks to truly live only for His master in Heaven. And in this, he works with an ethic of excelling in his work for the glory of God.
The great Billy Graham’s life verse was Galatians 6:14- “May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.” This verse shaped his approach to ministry, as well as his life as a whole. In all that he did, and the plethora of earthly accomplishments in which he could boast, he sought to give glory solely to Jesus, knowing that he had died to the world and was alive only by the grace of Christ, and for the glory of Christ. A heaven-focused work ethic seeks not just to provide results, but to have a humble heart eagerly excelling in earthly work for the sake of God’s glory, knowing that He desires not only works done in His name but a working spirit joyfully carrying out His will.
For many years I myself didn’t have a life verse, but as of late I’ve come to take on Acts 20:24 as my life verse, a rallying cry to serve the Lord well and always be focused on His will and the work laid before me. Through this I stay anchored to His will for my life, and encouraged in times of distress. We do our best in every area: raising our kids, succeeding in school, finishing our work, and working diligently in all the Lord leads us to do. At the end of the day we must commit all our work to the Lord and trust that he will bring results from it. Paul committed Ephesus to the Lord when he left, and there is something wonderful about our inability to do it all on our own; we do our best, and commit it to the Lord who is able to do much more than we can.
Fourth, we must proclaim with audacity.
25 “Now I know that none of you among whom I have gone about preaching the kingdom will ever see me again. 26 Therefore, I declare to you today that I am innocent of the blood of any of you. 27 For I have not hesitated to proclaim to you the whole will of God.
Ezekiel 3:17-21: 17 “Son of man, I have made you a watchman for the people of Israel; so hear the word I speak and give them warning from me. 18 When I say to a wicked person, ‘You will surely die,’ and you do not warn them or speak out to dissuade them from their evil ways in order to save their life, that wicked person will die for their sin, and I will hold you accountable for their blood. 19 But if you do warn the wicked person and they do not turn from their wickedness or from their evil ways, they will die for their sin; but you will have saved yourself.”
We must have courage to share the Gospel and to speak truth to people, truth to culture, and truth to power. We cannot hesitate. We must proclaim the message with audacity.
I’ve been reading the memoirs of a preacher named Stuart Briscoe, who has been a favorite of mine for over a half-century. His ministry, especially when I was a young adult, had a powerful effect on me. One day, Stuart said, he was asked to speak at a youth club in England, in Yorkshire. When he arrived, a group of kids was playing a furious game of basketball, and the youth club organizer hurried over to Stuart and said, “I’ve been in youth group work for years, and this is the worst group I’ve ever had to deal with. And he,” pointing to one fellow, “is the worst of the bunch.”
Stuart thought of his long trip and his homesickness for his family and he wondered why he had even come. But after his talk, the young man who was the worst of the bunch approached him and told him he was moved to enroll in Bible School. Stuart didn’t believe him, but he did.
The young man’s name was Graham Stamford, and he was not a conventional student. He didn’t have much of an aptitude for study. He loved sports. But he knew how to reach young people. He got a job working in road repair, and every day at lunch he would gather men around him and read a sermon from evangelist D. L. Moody.
One day Graham forgot his book of Moody’s sermons. The men asked him to preach to them one of his own. He didn’t have a sermon, but he began telling them about Hell. They’d never heard about Hell, and he started winning them to Christ.
Graham Stamford went on to speak all around the world, and to organize sports events that featured the Gospel. He’s actually still at it. He was the worst of the bunch, but thought he was the pick of the crop.
We just have to find and take every opportunity we can to proclaim the word with audacity.
Fifth, we must guard with watchfulness.
28 Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood. 29 I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. 30 Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them. 31 So be on your guard! Remember that for three years I never stopped warning each of you night and day with tears.
I don’t have time to deal with this at length, but Paul is telling these leaders to guard their flocks and their families against the false philosophies and heretical teachers who seem to show up everywhere.
But notice verse 28 – keep watch over yourselves…. Take heed to yourself, and to all the flock. This has been a big help to me over the years. If I don’t take care of myself, I can’t take care of others.
Sixth, we must depend on God.
32 “Now I commit you to God and to the word of his grace, which can build you up and give you an inheritance among all those who are sanctified.
Paul left the Ephesian elders with the difficult task of leading the church. And he knew that on their own power they would be totally incapable of doing so. But his confidence was not in his instruction, nor in the Ephesian elders themselves. Rather, he chose them and instructed them in order that they might rely on God’s Word and on the working of His spirit through continual grace given to them. In this I find one of the most wonderful principles a follower of God can have: We are not enough, and that is quite alright. Were we to have the ability to minister on our own strength, we would not need to rely on the power of God. Luckily, I have never found this to be the case. Rather, we find our greatest strength in acknowledging our inadequacy and praying for God to work in us and through us for His glory.
Paul similarly instructs Timothy in 2 Timothy 1:11-12- “For this gospel I was appointed a herald, apostle, and teacher, 12 and that is why I suffer these things. But I am not ashamed, because I know the One I have believed in and am persuaded that He is able to guard what has been entrusted to me until that day.”
He is able to guard what has been entrusted to me. What a wonderful promise that is! We can have confidence in God, knowing that he is able to cultivate the instruction we have received and sustain us in our daily lives and ministry. We are living in the time between Christ’s self-revelation to the world and His return. The present day will become increasingly daunting, and the world around us has already become hostile to the Gospel. Furthermore, there are forces both in our world and in the spiritual realm actively working against us to deter us from our calling. But in all this, we have Paul’s promise that the Lord will guard His truth in us, and until his return will aid us as we seek to glorify Him in everything that we do.
As Proverbs 3:5-6 says: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding; 6 in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight.”
Depend on the Lord, and He will sustain you.
Finally, we must strive for generosity.
33 I have not coveted anyone’s silver or gold or clothing. 34 You yourselves know that these hands of mine have supplied my own needs and the needs of my companions. 35 In everything I did, I showed you that by this kind of hard work we must help the weak, remembering the words the Lord Jesus himself said: ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’ ”
36 When Paul had finished speaking, he knelt down with all of them and prayed. 37 They all wept as they embraced him and kissed him. 38 What grieved them most was his statement that they would never see his face again. Then they accompanied him to the ship.
By following these seven guiding principles from Acts 20, we can seek to truly live and minister in the methods of the Apostle Paul himself:
- Serve God with emotion
- Preach with thoroughness
- Finish the work assigned to you
- Proclaim the truth with audacity
- Guard the flock with watchfulness
- Depend on God for the results
- And strive for generosity.
And I’m going to leave it at that. After all, I’ve taken over 3000 words to say what the apostle Paul said in 400.