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BE SHEPHERDS OF THE CHURCH OF GOD

Acts 20:13-20:38
Key Verse: 20:28

We again thank and praise God for the resurrection of our Lord Jesus. May his resurrection be alive in our own lives. Today’s passage is Paul’s farewell speech to the elders of the church in Ephesus. It is written repeatedly that they would not see Paul’s face again (25, 38), for at that time there was no Skype or video camera. It meant they would see Paul again only in the kingdom of God. So this passage is Paul’s final words on earth to the elders of the Ephesian church like Jesus’ upper room discourse to his disciples (Miletus beach discourse). And this is the only speech in the Acts which is addressed to a Christian audience. All the others are either evangelistic sermons, whether preached to Jewish people (2:14ff.; 3:12ff.; 13:16ff.) or Gentiles (10:34ff.; 14:14ff.; 17:22 ff.); or legal defences, whether made before the Sanherdrin in the early days of the church (4:8ff.; 5:29ff.; 7:1ff.) or the five speeches before the Jewish and Roman authorities near the end of the book (22-26). May we be able to hear Paul’s heartfelt message.

First, serving the Lord with great humility (13-21). Look at verse 13. “We went on ahead to the ship and sailed for Assos, where we were going to take Paul aboard. He made this arrangement because he was going there on foot.” Assos was a port on the Asian mainland about twenty miles (32 km) south of Troas. Paul walked this long distance alone, probably meditating on what he was going to say to the elders in Ephesus and how to overcome the upcoming hardships. Look at verse 14. “When he met us, we took him aboard and went on to Mitylene.” Paul reached to Assos earlier, though had left for it later and met the others. (Travel along the coastal road would be quicker than a sea voyage round the cape.) In verse 15, “The next day we set sail from there and arrived off Kios. The day after that we crossed over to Samos, and on the following day arrived at Miletus.” This verse records the 3-day journey. (Luke must be drawing on his own daily log of events.) Look at verse 16. “Paul had decided to sail past Ephesus to avoid spending time in the province of Asia, for he was in a hurry to reach Jerusalem, if possible, by the day of Pentecost.” He had really enjoyed the happy Easter at Troas and wanted to have Pentecost (Feast of Weeks) by giving the offering of the Gentiles to the Jewish believers. It was a beautiful schedule of traveling in God.

Look at verse 17. “From Miletus, Paul sent to Ephesus for the elders of the church.” Ephesus was thirty miles (48 km) north of Miletus. It must have taken about three days for a messenger to travel to Ephesus and bring the elders back to Miletus. In verse 18, “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.’” Evidently, some critics had accused Paul of his life in Ephesus. So Paul began his address in this way, saying, “You know…the whole time…from the first day.” We learn later on that Luke himself was present and heard this speech (21:1). Then what did Paul say? Look at verse 19. “I served the Lord with great humility and with tears, although I was severely tested by the plots of the Jews.” It is certain that Paul served the people in Ephesus. We remember that at first he entered into the synagogue and reasoned with the Jews at the end of his 2nd missionary journey. On his 3rd missionary journey he baptized about twelve disciples who only knew the baptism of John the baptism into the name of the Lord Jesus and helped them to receive the Holy Spirit. Then he entered into the synagogue and spoke boldly there for three months, arguing persuasively about the kingdom of God. But when some of them became obstinate, he took the disciples with him and had discussions daily in the lecture hall of Tyrannus for two years. In this way he served the people. Yet, he said, “I served the Lord.” He served the Lord by serving the Lord’s people. This shows that in serving the people he always had the Lord in his heart. In other words he served the people in the name of the Lord Jesus. His serving the people was not in the direct touch with them, but in the Lord or through the Lord. There were people who left him. Yet, it was also his service of the Lord. That service was not gone, but remained before God. Regardless of people’s leaving or staying, it was all his serving the Lord. How important this understanding is when we serve the people! It protects us from disappointment and from trying to obtain recognition from people. [Otherwise it is easy to be hurt or become slaves of human approval or human honour in serving. ]this sentence may not be necessary.

Paul said, “I served the Lord with great humility and with tears. This showed it was not easy for him to serve the people. It required great humility. In the course of doing the work of God, he was not recognized by the people. Rather, he was rejected and despised and misunderstood time and again. He had to shed many tears. Still, he served the Lord, learning the humility of Jesus. Even when he was attacked and severely tested by the plots of his own people, it could not stop him from serving the Lord. Paul wrote "test", not "persecuted". Difficult situations, oppositions can be tests for us to check our hearts. Are we disappointed when people reject us? If so, what does this reveal about us? Are we truly serving the Lord, or are we serving people? Paul was so much learn of Jesus’ humility that he said in Philippians 2, “In your relationship with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: “Who, being in very nature God…he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness…he humbled himself and became obedient to death—even death on a cross!” (2:6-8).

Look at verse 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.” He had no hesitation in preaching and teaching the word of God to help God’s flock of sheep. He preached and taught in any place and at any time for the sake of God’s flock, warning them night and day (31).

Look 21. “I have declared to both Jews and Greeks that they must turn to God in repentance and have faith in our Lord Jesus.” This showed that in serving and helping the people he had a clear direction. It was to lead them to repentance and faith in Jesus. Helping people to turn to God in repentance is hard, but is absolutely required. Without repentance people perish in their sins, sin of pride and self-righteousness and blindness and unbelief. Repentance is to admit one’s sins and grieve over it before God. And faith in Jesus is to take a positive step, to put our faith in Jesus who took upon himself all our sins and died on the cross for the forgiveness. Faith in the Lord Jesus lifts us to the love of God, his perfect salvation and the rich inheritance for his children. All people of the world need repentance and faith in the Lord Jesus. Repentance and faith in Jesus is the way of life for all people.

Second, completing the task of testifying to the gospel of God’s grace (22-24). In the previous part Paul talked about how he lived while he was in Ephesus. Now he speaksabout his present situation and future direction. Look at verse 22. “And now, compelled by the Spirit, I am going to Jerusalem, not knowing what will happen to me there.” Humanly speaking, it was an insecure journey for him to go to Jerusalem. Yet, he was going there compelled by the Spirit. Then he continues, “I only know that in every city the Holy Spirit warns me that prison and hardships are facing me.” Nobody likes prison and hardships. No parents want their children to have such a suffering. But the Father in heaven was leading Paul to undergo such sufferings in his divine will. Look at verse 24. “However, I consider my life worth nothing to me, if only I may finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me—” Here we see that Paul accepted prison and hardships as a part of the course he had to run in his race and a part of the task he had to do. His goal was to finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus had given him. One's own life is the most precious thing. Yet, as for Paul even his life would be considered nothing if only he would finish the race and complete the task. In reality nobody could know whether he would have finished the race. It was not like obtaining a gold medal or degree or title or position in the world. And nobody could know if he had done the task 80% or 90% or 100%. No one would be bothered by whether he would have finished the race and completed the task. It seems to be have no part with his salvation. But it would be a serious matter to him and more importantly to God. So great was his sense of finishing the race and completing the task!

And he said, “…the task of testifying to the gospel of God’s grace.” Here we see that Paul knew that the gospel is God’s grace. The gospel of Christ’s death and resurrection is God’s grace to undeserving sinners. He said in 1 Timothy 1:14, “The grace of our Lord was poured out on me abundantly.” Some people may have felt that the grace of Jesus came to them appropriately [or: in appropriate measure]. But as for Paul the grace of Jesus was poured out on him abundantly. And then he said in 1 Timothy 1:15, “Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst.” This shows why he could say that the grace of Jesus was poured out on him. It was because he truly knew that he was undeserving. For him to receive the grace of God through his Son Jesus was a miracle. He knew that without the grace of God he would have been the worst, the most miserable person in the world. In realizing the grace of God upon him he knew that everyone in the world is deserved to receive this grace of God and must receive it. And it could be done through him. So he wanted to complete the task of testifying to the gospel of God’s grace. May we learn such an attitude!

Third, be shepherds of the church of God (25-38). Look at verse 25. “Now I know that none of you among whom I have gone about preaching the kingdom will ever see me again.” He said this because he would have no time to come back to Ephesus because of his mission in many other places while alive. And when he said this, he also meant that those who accepted the message about the kingdom would see him in the kingdom of God, but those who did not would not see him forever. Paul did his duty as a watchman (Eze 33:7-9). So Paul said in verses 26 and 27, “Therefore, I declare to you today that I am innocent of the blood of all men. For I have not hesitated to proclaim to you the whole will of God.”

Now as Paul would leave God’s flock in Ephesus, he could not take care of them anymore. He had to raise up shepherds for them. This can be the main reason Paul called the elders of the church.

However, before saying to them, “Be shepherds…” he said, “Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers.” Here we see that shepherds must watch over themselves first. Without watching over oneself, no one can shepherd others. It is very easy to compromise with oneself. Not others but myself, my sinful nature is the greatest enemy in our spiritual warfare. So Paul said in 1 Corinthians 15, “I die every day” (1 Cor 15:31). Jesus said in his high priestly prayer, “Holy Father, for them I sanctify myself, that they too may be truly sanctified” (Jn 17:19). Some may wonder why Jesus needed to sanctify himself. Yet we see in the gospel story Jesus’ struggle to obey the will of God. It was likely that even Jesus also watched over himself to shepherd his disciples. And then Paul said, “Watch over God’s flock.” If a shepherd does not watch over God’s flock, wolves will easily come and attack them. Those who watch over God’s flock can know how weak and vulnerable they are and so pray for them. Also, without watching over God’s flock, shepherds cannot know what’s going on in their lives and so cannot know how to help them. The shepherds become like mute dogs that cannot bark (Isa 56:10).

Now Paul says, “Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood.” This is Paul’s earnest plea to the elders of the church in Ephesus. He pleaded with them to be shepherds of God’s flock in the church. When Paul thought about his situation that he would not see and take care of them anymore, there had to be shepherds for them in his place. We are reminded of Jesus, who had been the good shepherd (Jn 10:11) and who just before leaving the world said to Peter, “Do you truly love me?...Feed my lambs…take care of my sheep…Feed my sheep” (Jn 21:15-17). Peter also said to the elders before his departure from this world, “Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care…” (1 Pe 5:2). When Moses was allowed to enter the promised land, he was not sorry over himself but his people. So he asked God to appoint a man over the community so that the LORD’s people would not be like sheep without a shepherd (Num 27:17).

Paul said, “Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood.” In NET and NRSV, it is translated into “…with the blood of his own Son.” To God the Father the blood of his own Son was none other than his own blood. So it is quite understandable even when it is written, “… the church of God, which he bought with his own blood.” This shows how precious the church of God is. Each of God’s flock of sheep was bought by the blood of Jesus. To God the Father nothing was more precious than his Son’s life in the whole universe. But God was willing to pay the price of his own Son’s life to purchase each of his flock. So each soul redeemed by the blood of Jesus is more precious than the whole universe. Then how about the church of God, the congregation of the redeemed souls? The church of God is the most precious and beautiful gathering in the world. The church of God must be protected and preserved whatever happens in the world. That’s why Paul said, “Be shepherds of the church of God.”

Look at verse 29. “I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock.” Paul was not merely optimistic about the church of God in Ephesus. He was realistic because he knew the spiritual reality with the existence of the evil one. Savage wolves, false teachers would sneak into the church and attack the flock with various kinds of teachings that aim to deny the gospel and the whole will of God. And then he said, “Even from you own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them.” How could Paul say this at the farewell? The elders must have felt uncomfortable upon hearing this. Yet, we can understand it when we think about Jesus’ twelve disciples of whom one remained unrepentant and betrayed Jesus prompted by the devil. Unrepentant sinners distort the truth and draw away disciples after them. So Paul said, “Be be on your guard! Remember that for three years I never stopped warning each of you night and day with tears.” Each of the elders had to be on his guard to be watchful over themselves and God’s flock of sheep and against vicious wolves, various kinds of deceptive teachings of the world.

Finally, Paul committed them to God and to the word of his grace, which could build them up and give them an inheritance among all those who are sanctified. He believed that God would lead them through his word planted in their hearts and lives. Then he concluded his address by telling them about how he had practically lived: he supplied the needs of himself and his companions with his own hands, and by encouraging them to live in the same way working hard to help the weak, remembering Jesus’ words, “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” Paul prayed together with them all and it was a heart-breaking moment in God’s love.

Thank God for his grace through his Son Jesus Christ. Christ Jesus came into this world and died to save sinners. He gave his life to purchase us. Indeed the grace of God was poured upon us abundantly through his son. In this grace may God we be shepherds of God’s flock and the church of God serving the Lord with humility and testifying to the gospel of God’s grace in our times.

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