Serving the Lord with Humility, Tears, and Trials
And from Miletus he sent to Ephesus and called to him the elders of the church. And when they came to him, he said to them: "You yourselves know how I lived among you all the time from the first day that I set foot in Asia, serving the Lord with all humility and with tears and with trials which befell 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 to God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.
The book of Acts is a fast moving account of the spread of the gospel through the Roman Empire in the first 30 years after Christ's resurrection. But now and then Luke stops his fast moving story and let's us hear a sermon. So he inspires us with the spread of the gospel from Jerusalem to Judea to Samaria to the reaches of the empire. But he also stops to teach us what kind of doctrine and preaching and leadership was behind this wonderful advance of the kingdom.
Paul's Third Missionary Journey
In Acts 18:23 Paul sets out from Antioch on his third and final missionary journey. He travels up through Galatia and Phrygia (today's Turkey) strengthening the disciples that he had made on his first journey.
In Acts 19:1 he arrives in Ephesus. Verses 8 says that he spent the first three months arguing and pleading with the Jewish community about the kingdom of God. But the opposition became so intense Paul moved out of the synagogue and for two years argued daily in the Hall of Tyrannus. During these two years amazing things happened.
God did many miracles of healing and exorcism through Paul. People were delivered from the occult and burned books worth 50,000 pieces of silver. Paul's success in evangelism was so great that the silversmiths who made silver shrines for the goddess Artemis feared their business and even the temple of Artemis itself was in danger of being ruined. So they stirred up a riot. Paul leaves town then after more than two years of ministry. He calls it three years in Acts 20:31.
He goes up through Macedonia, and down into Greece and spends three winter months probably in Corinth (20:3). Then he heads back up through Macedonia in the spring, crosses over to Troas, where he preaches all night long and Eutychus fell asleep and fell out of the window (20:9). He sails on south and passes Ephesus in the boat because he is in a hurry to get to Jerusalem by Pentecost (20:16).
Heading Back to Jerusalem, Stopping at Miletus
But he puts in at Miletus about 20 miles south of Ephesus and sends for the Elders of the church in Ephesus (v. 17). This helps put Paul's words here in the right light. He is in a hurry to get to Jerusalem by Pentecost and is cutting it close. He is in a boat well out to sea. He seems to be in charge of the itinerary (20:16—he is the one who decides to sail past Ephesus). And he orders the captain to navigate into the Miletus harbor, sends a messenger over the 20-some miles back up to Ephesus, and waits for the elders of the church so that he can say to them what we read in Acts 20:17–35.
The fact that Paul would go to this much trouble to give this message to the elders of the church personally and the fact that Luke would pause in his story and record the words for us make them very wonderful words to me. I am deeply moved by this speech. They show us so much of Paul's heart as well as his theology and his view of leadership. The ending of this message is heart wrenching as he weeps with these friends and kisses them because he will never see them again until heaven.
Now Why Were These Words So Important?
One answer—the one that we focus on today—is that the future of the Ephesian church hangs on how its elders serve the Lord, and that's what Paul talks about here. No doubt Paul would have loved to see the whole church in Ephesus. But his strength and schedule dictated that he limit himself to the one thing that was indispensable—talking to the church elders. As the elders go, so goes the church in Ephesus.
So before Paul gives any instruction or warnings in verses 28–31, he simply reminds them how he served the Lord in those three years they had together. That's what we want to look at today.
It's plain from verse 35 that Paul's aim in reminding them about his own ministry was to instruct them about theirs: "In all things I have shown you that by so toiling one must help the weak . . . " Note: "I have shown you!" My life has been my lesson for how to lead the flock of God.
So when we read verses 18–21, we ought not think that these are just interesting reminiscences. They are much more than that. They are Paul's way of saying, here's how to serve the Lord for the good of the church. Here's what you elders need to do. Here is what Bethlehem's elders need to be like, and what the people at Bethlehem need to pray into their leaders. Indeed, what you all should imitate as it applies to you (Hebrews 13:17).
So let's look at what Paul says about his ministry. Keep in mind that he has to be honest, because these were the men who had watched him for three years. This is what you should look for: what are the marks of a good church elder? What kind of leadership does the church need? What does it mean to "serve the Lord" biblically?
Serving the Lord
Verse 19: "You yourselves know how I lived among you all the time from the first day that I set foot in Asia, serving the Lord . . . "
Servant-Leadership Under the Lord's Rule
The first thing that Paul wants to say about his work is that he was serving the Lord. Now that seems to be a simple idea—serving the Lord. But think about it a minute. "Serving"—what comes to your mind? Doing what you're told. Lowliness. Submissiveness. Compliance. Deference.
But now what comes to your mind when you say, "The Lord"? Not "A Lord" or "My Lord," but "The Lord!" Authority. Power. Rulership. Control. Majesty.
Now when you put these two together there is an unusual kind of leadership that is created. Some characteristics of this leadership come from the fact that the leader is first a servant. And some characteristics come from the fact that he serves "the Lord," and when the Lord tells him to say a thing or do a thing, he says it and does it with amazing confidence and authority. Now can you put those two things together? Can you picture what that would look like in the elders of the church?
How Does Paul Spell Out This Service?
I certainly would not trust myself to spell out what that would look like without more help from the Bible. This is why I have very little confidence in people who claim to be speaking biblically when they simply take a biblical theme (say "justice" or "peace" or "servanthood" or "equality") and, having seen the theme, they shut their Bibles and start talking about the theme as though what they were saying had the authority of the Bible behind it.
Well, the Bible is so full of surprises and unexpected notions and strange ideas of reality that we must be very careful. For example, right here instead of thinking that we know what serving the Lord would look like, we ought to slow down and get very serious about focusing on just what Paul says about his service. That's what I want to do in the time we have left.
Everything that follows from verse 18 through 21 is one sentence in the original. It's Paul's way of spelling out how he served the Lord. In fact there are at least thirteen characteristics of serving the Lord mentioned here. What a shame if we were to just say, "Elders should serve the Lord," and then close our Bibles and tell stories about what that might mean in our experience.
Let's keep our Bibles open and look at three of Paul's illustrations this morning, and the rest tonight.
Verse 19a: Serving the Lord means LOWLINESS. "Serving the Lord with all lowliness [humility]."
The first thing Paul has to say is that being a servant of the Lord means being humble and lowly. Lowliness or humility is, first, a feeling toward God that he has absolute rights over your life—that he can do with you as he pleases and that he has absolute authority to tell you what is best for you—and that's just fine with you. It is a spirit of utter yieldedness and submissiveness to the Lord as master. Clay in the Potter's hands.
Second, lowliness means feeling indebted to all people because of how graciously God has treated us. It's the opposite of feeling that everybody owes you something—owes you an ear or owes you strokes or owes you time. Now, of course, there are relationships in which those things may be true—someone may in fact owe you something. But the more you are driven by what others owe you rather than by what you owe them in love and service, the less lowly you are.
Lowliness says, I am a debtor to Greeks and barbarians, to wise and foolish, to friend and foe. Lowliness does not think in terms of its rights. It empties itself and takes the form a servant and becomes obedient unto death, even death on a cross.
The first thing that serving the Lord means is lowliness.
Verse 19a: Serving the Lord means TEARS. "Serving the Lord with all humility and with tears."
Tears can come from physical pain or from heart-rending loss or from unbearable frustrations and discouragements or from intense yearning or from overwhelming joy. I don't know which Paul had in mind here. In verse 31 he says, "I did not cease night or day to admonish everyone with tears." So in that case his tears were the tears of intense yearning for their faith and holiness.
But he doesn't say here in verse 19 why he cried so often. What should we learn then? If these tears were simply owing to a kind of emotional weakness in Paul, they wouldn't have too much meaning. He wouldn't mention them as part of his credentials. No, I think what we should learn is that serving the Lord means getting so intensely involved in people's struggles that you cry over them.
Now I am a Christian Hedonist. Okay? So you won't take what I am about to say wrongly—as though I were bellyaching or pleading for pity that I happen to be in the greatest work in the world. But between the time I left home as a teenager in 1964 and the time I became a teaching elder—a pastor—of this church in 1980, I think I could have counted on one hand the number of times I cried (in 16 years!). But since I became one of the shepherds of this flock I cry a lot more. And it doesn't get less as the years go by.
So a text like this gives me a great deal of comfort. I am not an apostle Paul. Verse 31 says he admonished with tears day and night! Maybe that will come someday. I think I have some growing to do yet before that privilege will be granted.
So the second mark of service is this: Serving the Lord as an elder in the church of God will mean tears, because it will mean getting involved in people's struggles for faith and hope and truth and holiness.
Verse 19b: Serving the Lord means TRIALS. "Serving the Lord with all lowliness and with tears and with trials which befell me through the plots of the Jews."
Now why does Paul remind the elders about these dangers that he went through? The answer is that they will have to go through them too. Consider this: in 1 Corinthians 15:32 Paul said, "Humanly speaking I fought with beasts at Ephesus." What did he mean? Well compare Acts 20:29, "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 perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them. Therefore, be alert . . . "
Paul said he had to fight with beasts in Ephesus. And he says that the Ephesian elders will have to fight with fierce wolves. The point is the same in both cases, and its the same thing Jesus meant when he said, "Behold I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves" (Matthew 10:16). There are people who when they hear the absolute claims of Jesus Christ become so angry they are like animals.
And the tragic thing is that in Acts 20:29 Paul says that these wolves will even come from among their own number! In other words some elders themselves in the church at Ephesus will become the enemies of truth and righteousness. They will speak perverse things about the message and life of the other elders. They may even plot against them like Paul's kinsmen plotted against him (20:3; 19:9). And Paul says this is a great trial.
So we have seen that serving the Lord means three things. It means humility, tears, and trials. And I want to call you to serve the Lord in these ways in your particular sphere.
- HUMILITY: Be utterly yielded to the Lord. Be submissive to his absolute rights to control your life. Be willing clay in the Potter's hands. And be a debtor to all people. Don't dwell on what people owe you. Think about how the grace of God makes you a debtor to all.
- TEARS: If you are shedding them, be comforted. You are in good company with Paul. And if you are not, perhaps you should look for someone who needs you. Or perhaps pray that God would help you see what is at stake in the battle for faith and hope and holiness.
- TRIALS: If you are being tried, then hear the word of James: "Count it all joy, brothers, when you fall into various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing."
(Continuing the morning message of 4-2-89.)
On the first three see the morning message:
- Serving the Lord means humility (verse 19).
- Serving the Lord means tears (verse 19).
- Serving the Lord means trials (verse 19).
Verse 20: Serving the Lord means COURAGE. "How I did not shrink back from . . . "
See Acts 20:27 (not shrink back from declaring the whole counsel of God); Galatians 2:12 (Peter shrinks back from eating with Gentiles because of fear); Hebrews 10:38f. (shrinking back from a persevering life of faith and obedience).
Putting vv. 20 and 27 together it seems that there are parts to the whole counsel of God that are profitable but evidently not easy to teach about. Just like some medicine is good for you but may not go down easily.
A good elder does not decide what to teach by what is popular or easily accepted. If it is part of God's counsel, it ought to be taught because it will be profitable. This takes courage.
It also takes study and thought. See Titus 1:9 where the elders are to "hold firm to the sure word as taught, so that [you] may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to confute those who contradict it." If something is going to be controversial and encounter those who contradict it, the elders must do their homework and be able to give reasonable answers.
Not shrinking back implies courage to give something less than popular and confidence that enough study and insight will provide reasonable answers to those who question it.
5. Sometimes Proclaiming
Verse 20: Serving the Lord means sometimes PROCLAIMING. "How I did not shrink from declaring to you . . . "
The Greek word anaggello means something different from "teach" which follows. It is what you do when you announce or proclaim or report or herald. In other words the emphasis does not fall on explaining the meaning or the implications of a passage of Scripture; the emphasis falls on bringing news or announcing a happening or heralding some coming event or proclaiming a victory.
There is a difference between explaining to someone how to play hockey and bringing the news that Minnesota beat Harvard. There is a difference between what the announcer does during the game and what happens at halftime when an analyst comes on with diagrams.
There is a place and a need for both proclamation and teaching, because Christian truth is not just knowledge to be analyzed and understood; it is a vision of reality to be savored and enjoyed. We need to hear a kind of announcement of the truth of Scripture that corresponds to the emotional weight of the truth. This is the difference between preaching and teaching in my understanding of the two words.
Not all elders need to be good proclaimers, or preachers. But all should have a heart to announce the good news when appropriate and should have a love of having it announced as well as analyzed.
6. Living for What Profits the Church
Verse 20: Serving the Lord means LIVING FOR WHAT PROFITS THE CHURCH. "How I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable . . . "
A good "proclaiming elder" does not make decisions about his preaching merely on the basis of what he finds easy or familiar; he asks, what will profit the people?
And here he has to know what profit is. Is it self-esteem? Is it money? Is it soothed consciences? Jeremiah spoke against prophets and priests who "healed the wound of my people lightly, saying Peace, Peace, when there was no peace" (6:14; 8:11).
True, eternal profit is the goal, not temporary peace and comfort. 'What will do the people everlasting good?' is the constant question of the faithful elders.
7. Being Apt to Teach
Verse 20: Serving the Lord means BEING APT TO TEACH. "How I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, and teaching you . . . "
In the list of qualifications for elders in 1 Timothy 3:2 it says that he should be "an apt teacher." He should have the gift of teaching. The reason for this is that the elders are charged with being the doctrinal guardians of the flock, to preserve true doctrine and defend it and build it into the people. In Titus 1:9 elders are to "hold firm to the sure word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to confute those who contradict it."
Teaching is different from "proclaiming" in that it takes the word proclaimed, or a portion of Scripture, and more or less methodically explains it. Teaching emphasizes making the sense plain. Nehemiah 8:8, "And they read from the book, from the law of God, clearly; and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading."
Good teaching and good proclaiming will generally include some of the other.
A strong church must be a taught church. God wills for there to be pastor-teachers in the body of Christ (Ephesians 4:11). Two years or more he taught the disciples as well as proclaiming to newcomers.
8. A Public Ministry
Verse 20: Serving the Lord means A PUBLIC MINISTRY. "How I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, and teaching you in public . . . "
Demosia in Greek seems to mean having to do with the populace in general ("public prison," Acts 5:18) or having to do with being out in the open for all to see ("they have beaten us publicly," Acts 16:37).
So Paul is emphasizing that his ministry to the disciples and elders was not all private. It was often open to everyone. There was free access—probably referring to the Hall of Tyrannus (Acts 19:9).
The point may be that Christian truth is public truth. It is nothing to be ashamed of. It is nothing to hide. It is not like the Gnostic rites then or like the Masonic rites today. It is open and above board.
All elders ought to be that way. No teaching that has to be kept secret.
9. A Personal Ministry
Verse 20: Serving the Lord means A PERSONAL MINISTRY. "How I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, and teaching you in public and from house to house . . . "
Here is where we got the name of our small group ministry, "The 20:20 Vision."
Paul was not content to always be speaking to a large public crowd where things necessarily were somewhat more impersonal. He evidently divided the church into house groups and went to those groups. Or it may mean going to visit particular families.
Since he is teaching, however, the focus is not so much on socializing, but on smaller times when the Word could be more closely applied and perhaps more detailed and personal questions could be asked.
Compare Acts 5:42—same phrase: the apostles "in the temple and from house to house [kat' oikon] they did not cease teaching and proclaiming [euaggelizomenoi] the Christ, Jesus."
This implies the need for elders to not only be gifted teachers but gifted in the ability to explain and apply the Word personally and helpfully in a variety of personal settings.
10. Spiritual Intensity
Verse 21: Serving the Lord means SPIRITUAL INTENSITY. "How I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, and teaching you in public and from house to house, (21) testifying . . . "
The Greek word diamarturomenos sometimes means bear witness, in the sense of taking an oath in court and testifying of what you know of an event. But it has come to mean charge or warn or tell with a gravity or solemnity because the matter is very serious.
So Paul's use of the word here and in verse 24 implies that he was in dead earnest about this matter of repentance and faith.
Earnestness and seriousness and spiritual intensity are crucial in the leadership of the church. It's the opposite of levity and it's the opposite of a kind of official churchy talk that has no sense of ultimate reality in it. Elders need to communicate the greatness of the eternal things they are dealing with in the Word of God and prayer and people's souls.
11. Being Impartial
Verse 21: Serving the Lord means BEING IMPARTIAL. "How I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, and teaching you in public and from house to house, (21) testifying both to Jews and Greeks . . . "
Elders should not be partial to one group of people over another in the sense that he belittles one. An elder may be assigned to give special attention to the youth or to the elderly or to families or to single people. That open and delegated responsibility is not partiality.
But an elder who slights a group in the church because he dislikes them is contrary to Paul's example here. The spiritual welfare of all in the community should be the concern of a Christlike elder.
12. Urging Repentance to God
Serving the Lord means URGING REPENTANCE TO GOD.
See on #13.
13. Urging Faith in Jesus
Verse 21: Serving the Lord means URGING FAITH IN JESUS. "How I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, and teaching you in public and from house to house, (21) testifying both to Jews and Greeks of repentance to God and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ."
Finally we get to the content of what Paul was proclaiming and teaching and testifying—repentance to God and faith in Jesus.
Repentance and Faith Necessary for Salvation
Both are necessary for salvation.
Acts 3:19, "Repent therefore, and turn again, that your sins may be blotted out." (See 2:38.)
Acts 5:31, "God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins."
Acts 8:22, "Repent therefore of this wickedness of yours, and pray to the Lord that, if possible, the intent of your heart may be forgiven you."
Acts 11:18, "When they heard this they were silenced. And they glorified God, saying, 'Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance unto life.'"
Acts 17:30, "The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all men everywhere to repent."
Acts 26: 17–20 (this is first Paul's commission from the risen Lord Jesus and then how Paul preached from it): "'I will appear to you (17) delivering you from the people and from the Gentiles—to whom I send you (18) to open their eyes, that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.' (19) Wherefore, O King Agrippa, I was not disobedient to the heavenly vision, (20) but declared first to those at Damascus, then at Jerusalem and throughout all the country of Judea, and also to the Gentiles, that they should repent and turn to God and perform deeds worthy of their repentance."
Note the bridge to faith from repentance in 26:18!
Acts 14:27, "And when they arrived, they gathered the church together and declared all that God had done with them, and how he had opened a door of faith to the Gentiles." (Compare 11:18.)
Acts 15:9, "And he made no distinction between us and them, but cleansed their hearts by faith."
Acts 24:24–25, "After some days Felix came with his wife Drusilla, who was a Jewess; and he sent for Paul and heard him speak upon faith in Christ Jesus. (25) And as he argued about justice and self-control and future judgment, Felix was alarmed . . . "
© Desiring God Foundation. Distribution Guidelines
Share the Joy! You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in physical form, in its entirety or in unaltered excerpts, as long as you do not charge a fee. For posting online, please use only unaltered excerpts (not the content in its entirety) and provide a hyperlink to this page. For videos, please embed from the original source. Any exceptions to the above must be approved by Desiring God.
Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: By John Piper. © Desiring God Foundation. Website: desiringGod.org