Faithfulness Is Better Than Life
And now, behold, I am going to Jerusalem, bound in the Spirit, not knowing what shall befall 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 accomplish my course and the ministry which I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God. And now, behold, I know that all you among whom I have gone preaching the kingdom will see my face no more.
You recall what the situation is: Paul had spent three years in Ephesus teaching and building up the church and evangelizing so successfully that all the surrounding province of Asia heard the word of the Lord (Acts 19:10). He left and spent the winter in Corinth and is now on his way to Jerusalem, hurrying to get back by Pentecost probably in the year AD 56. His boat puts in at Miletus some 20 miles south of Ephesus and he sends for the elders of the church (20:17). And in 20:18–35 he gives them his last words and tells them he will never see them again.
So what we have here is a kind of last will and testament of the great apostle to a church where he seems to have worked longer than anywhere else. This is what he wants the elders to hear most of all. He chose not to talk to the whole church. There wasn't time (20:16). But he could not pass by without talking to the elders. This shows the tremendous importance Paul put on the eldership in the church. And the fact that Luke pauses in his account to give us the message shows that under the inspiration of God this message is important for us to hear as well. As the elders go, so goes the church.
So I repeat what I said last week: if you are an elder at Bethlehem, or aspire to be one some day, listen with all your heart and build these things into your lives. If you are not, do two things: learn these things that you may pray them into your elders; and take them for yourself as they apply, and imitate those who come closest to fulfilling this vision (Hebrews 13:7).
Paul's Future Commitment as a Model
Last week (morning and evening) we looked at verses 18–21. Today we will look at verses 22–25. One of the differences between the two texts is that last week in verses 18–21 Paul was looking back and today in verses 22–25 he is looking forward. Last week he described his past ministry as a model for them to follow (see v. 35). This week he describes his future commitment a model for them to follow.
It's as though he said, "You know what I was like over the last three or four years as we worked together. All right, let me show you what I am like today as I face the future, and what really matters to me in the years to come."
Paul is not rambling on aimlessly about himself. He is building his own heart and his life and commitment into the elders. And that is just as important as his doctrine (which we will focus on next week).
So today in verses 22–25 Paul talks about his future. And what he chooses to say is a powerful inspiration for the elders of the church. I can say as one of the elders of this church that this testimony of Paul makes me want to sell everything and follow Jesus. Every time I come back to the radical words of Paul, the chills of obedience go up and down my back and I long to be utterly un-American and utterly out of step with my secular age and utterly abandoned to the cause of Christ no matter what!
I have tried to sum up the message of these four verses with the words, FAITHFULNESS IS BETTER THAN LIFE. I hope you will agree that this is a fair summary of verse 24: "I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may accomplish my course and the ministry which I received from the Lord Jesus . . . " Faithfulness to my call is far more important than whether I live—live at all, not to mention whether I live comfortably!
Two Questions About Paul's Message
So what I would like to do is answer two questions using these verses as the basis for the answers:
- What does it mean that faithfulness is better than life?
- Why is faithfulness better than life?
This is Paul's message to the elders of Ephesus in these verses and to us today: FAITHFULNESS IS BETTER THAN LIFE. Especially elders—but everyone else also—should count faithfulness to the calling of Christ as better than the comforts of life and as better than staying alive.
1. What Does It Mean?
What does it mean that faithfulness is better than life?
1.1. Bound by the Spirit to the Will of God
It means being bound by the Holy Spirit to the will of God.
Verse 22: "And now, behold I am going to Jerusalem, bound in the Spirit . . . " What does that mean: " . . . bound in the Spirit"?
You can't tell from the word "Spirit" whether it means Paul's spirit (bound in the spirit = "feeling a constraint in my spirit") or God's Spirit (bound by God's Spirit = "constrained and driven by him"). You have to decide on the basis of context. NASB decides one way (Paul's: little "s") and the RSV and NIV decide the other way (God's: big "S"). I think the RSV and NIV are right (see the instrumental dative with "bound" in 12:6 as well as the use of "bound" in 9:2; 21:11).
But there may be no big difference in reality, because if you ask, who is binding Paul's spirit? or, who is constraining him in this way? the answer would surely be the Spirit of God. So the point is that Paul is a man under strong conviction and constraint: his spirit is held captive by the Spirit of God to do the will of God.
And so here's the first thing to say: believing that faithfulness is better than life means being bound by the Spirit to the will of God. Your spirit is gripped. God's Spirit has a hold of you. And so the will of God is your passion.
1.2. Content Not to Know Tomorrow in Detail
Second, FAITHFULNESS IS BETTER THAN LIFE means that you are content not to know in detail what tomorrow will bring.
Verse 22: "And now, behold, I am going to Jerusalem, bound in the Spirit, not knowing what shall befall me there . . . " The reason Paul says this is to show us that when "faithfulness is better than life," you don't need to know about tomorrow's details.
This is tremendously freeing. If you are a pessimist, you probably dream of a dozen things a day that may go wrong tomorrow that will make you miserable. "I may not be able to keep my spouse from leaving. I may not be able to keep my kid out of trouble. I may not be able to keep my job. I may not be able to close this sale. I may not be able to win my father to Christ." But this text means that what God requires of you tomorrow is not that you have to make things work. Success in human ventures is not the measure of God on your life. What God requires of you tomorrow is that you be faithful to him and let the chips fall where he wills. That is very freeing. And it leads to a third thing:
1.3. Not Forsaking Christ in Affliction
FAITHFULNESS IS BETTER THAN LIFE means you do not forsake Christ when faithfulness means affliction.
In verse 23 Paul goes on and says that there is one thing he does know about tomorrow: " . . . that the Holy Spirit testifies to me in every city that imprisonment and afflictions await me."
If you can honestly say with Paul that "faithfulness is better than life," it will mean not only that you can be content with ignorance about tomorrow; but you can also be content with the assurance that tomorrow is going to hurt. This is remarkable! Someone might counsel us to put out of our mind the high cost of following Jesus. But the Holy Spirit tells Paul in every city that bonds and afflictions await him.
Why does Paul tell these Ephesian elders this? To teach them that it doesn't matter. He's going forward anyway. And that's what the elders of Bethlehem Baptist Church should do too. The question is not whether there will be hardship and pain and trouble and affliction: there will be! Paul said to all the churches in Acts 14:22, "Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom." (Also see 2 Timothy 3:12.) The question is whether we believe that faithfulness is better than life.
1.4. Going Against the American Dream
So the final answer in these verses to the question, What does it mean that faithfulness is better than life? is this: it means set your face like flint against the American dream.
Verse 22: "And now, behold, I am going to Jerusalem." No matter what the cost! No matter what the impact on my safety and my standard of living.
But Paul, you're getting old. How 'bout a little cottage on the Aegean Sea? You've already done more in your ministry than most people could do in five lifetimes. It's time to rest. Let the last 20 years of your life be travel and golf and puttering around. Let Timothy have a chance. He's young. For goodness sake, don't go to Jerusalem. And don't go to Rome. And give up that crazy plan at your age to go to Spain. You could get yourself killed. It isn't . . . American! It's not the American dream of what to do with the last years of your life.
Faithfulness is better than life! Better than leisure life in retirement, better than leisure life in the middle years, and better than leisure life in youth. Do you want to hear some of the definitions of "retire" from my Webster's Collegiate Dictionary? "To withdraw from action or danger." "To fall back." "To go to bed." "To march away from the enemy." It may be the American dream, but it has no foundation in Scripture at all.
When your company or Uncle Sam tells you to retire (and of course they will, just like you may tell me to retire some day), here's what you should say, "You may call it retirement; but I call it a change of station. A new front in the warfare. A new assignment from the King, the Counselor in Chief. I am 'going to Jerusalem.' There is work to be done for the cause of Jesus Christ, and I will do what I can do while I have breath." Because faithfulness to the cause is better than a life of comfort.
2. Why Is It Better Than Life?
Why is FAITHFULNESS BETTER THAN LIFE? That's our second question.
There are at least two answers implied in verses 24 and 25.
2.1. Finishing the Race
First, "faithfulness is better than life" because faithfulness means finishing the race and the one who finishes the race will get the crown.
Paul says in verse 24 "I do not account my life of any value, nor as precious to myself, if only I may accomplish my course." The word "course" does not mean school course; it means race course. And "accomplish" means finish the race without dropping out from weariness or frustration or pain or pleasant detours.
There is one other place in the Bible where these two words come together like this, namely, in Paul's second letter to Timothy (4:7–8). At the end of his life, perhaps six or eight years after this meeting with the Ephesian elders, he writes, "I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race [same phrase!], 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 to all who loved his appearing."
In other words faithfulness is better than life because beyond this short life there is a great life of joy that stretches out forever into eternity. And those who are faithful here will enter that life and get a crown of righteousness.
- "He who endures to the end will be saved" (Matthew 24:13).
- "This slight momentary affliction is working for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison" (2 Corinthians 4:17).
- "Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven" (Matthew 5:11–12).
- "No one has left anything for my sake and the gospel's who will not receive back a hundred fold . . . " (Matthew 19:29).
- "He who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life" (John 12:25).
- "The gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few" (Matthew 7:13–14).
Why is faithfulness better than life? Because faithfulness means finishing the race, and finishing the race means unimaginable joy forever and ever and ever. And we know we are on the right track here because the very last thing Paul says at the end of this message in verse 35b is, "Remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he said, It is more blessed to give than to receive." That's the first reason why faithfulness is better than life.
That leaves one last question, namely, what was the basis of Paul's confidence that "faithfulness is better than life"? And what's the basis for his confidence and ours that faithfulness to God will bring a future of glory?
2.2. God Is Gracious and God Is King
The answer is found in two phrases: one at the end of verse 24 and one near the end of verse 25. The first phrase is "the gospel of the grace of God." The ministry Paul wants to be faithful to is the one he received from the Lord Jesus, namely, "to testify to the gospel of the grace of God."
The second phrase is the phrase "preaching the kingdom" in verse 25. "And now, behold, I know that all you among whom I have gone about preaching the kingdom will see my face no more."
So Paul sums up the content of his life's work with these two phrases. First: "testifying to the gospel of the grace of God"; and second, "preaching the kingdom." He lived to make known God's grace and God's kingdom.
So here's the answer to our question: the foundation of his life and his hope was that God is gracious and that God is King. And that's the basis of our confidence that FAITHFULNESS IS BETTER THAN LIFE: if God is King, then he can reward the faithful, and nothing can stop him in his kingly power. If God is gracious, then he will reward the faithful.
So the message stands firm today—as firm and sure as the sovereignty and grace of God in Jesus Christ: FAITHFULNESS IS BETTER THAN LIFE. So I urge you, let God's Word and not the word of the world determine what you feel is better in your life.