The Guilt of Giving Part of God's Counsel
In verses 18–21 of this chapter Paul looks back over the three years he spent working in Ephesus and he reminds the elders how he served the Lord with lowliness and tears and trials and how he testified about repentance toward God and faith in Jesus Christ.
Then in verses 22–25 Paul shifts and looks forward to his future which God says will include suffering and prison. And he says that all that really matters to him, as far as his own life is concerned, is not that he stay alive but that he finish what God has called him to do.
Looking Back to Paul's Faithfulness in Ministry
Now before he gives them any direct commands or warnings in verses 28ff. (next week), he pauses once more in verses 26–27 to say something very solemn. In a sense it's another look back to the faithfulness of his ministry among them. And on the basis of that past faithfulness he says something extremely serious about his present relationship to the elders.
26) Therefore I testify to you this day that I am innocent [or: clean] of the blood of all of you, 27) for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God.
And then, finally in verse 28 he begins his exhortation and warning to the elders.
This is remarkable isn't it? He's more than half way through his message before he finally, in verse 28, tells the elders to do something or believe something. More than half of this final message to the elders is biography—autobiography!
The Need for Testimony in Teaching and Preaching
Let me insert a parenthesis here about preaching and teaching. I love the preaching and the theology of Jonathan Edwards (who lived 250 years ago). But you can read the 1,200 sermons of Edwards that are stored at the Beinecke Library at Yale University today and find almost no references to Edwards' own personal life. He was so jealous of the centrality of God that he wanted to keep himself out of the message. That's one of the reasons I love him and go back to him rather than reading much of the experience-oriented stuff written today.
But I think Edwards made a mistake. I think he over-did it. If Paul's preaching is a pointer to how we ought to preach and teach, the fact is, there ought to be a significant personal dimension to preaching and teaching. Different situations and themes call for different proportions of personal references. But the biblical way seems to be that the "testimony dimension" of teaching and preaching is not only permitted but essential.
Over half of Paul's message is a testimony about God's work in his own life. I don't think this means that every message must be 50% autobiography (there are other sermons in Acts that are not). But surely it means that the personal life of the preacher or teacher cannot be separated from his preaching or teaching. This is why teachers in the church should be godly people, as well as good explainers and storytellers and information-givers.
And isn't there an implication too for how you share the gospel? If it's important for Paul to lay open his life before people who already know him well, how much more important might it be when sharing the gospel that we let people see who we really are, and what difference Christ has made in our lives.
Three Observations About Paul's Message
Paul is not rambling on aimlessly about himself. He is building his heart and his life into the elders. And he is trying to help them see the vindication of his message in his own life of service. And that life is just as important as the doctrine he teaches.
So today we look at it one more time before we turn to verse 28 next week. Specifically we look today at verses 26 and 27. Paul wants to remind them of one more thing.
Verse 26: "Therefore I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all of you."
Three observations about what this means and why Paul said it.
1. Paul Is Innocent of Their Blood—Eternal Life
"Blood" here stands for being lost eternally. In other words he is saying that I am innocent if any of you loses eternal life.
In some contexts blood might stand for physical death (e.g., Acts 5:38), but that would make no sense here because Paul's innocence is based on his teaching them the whole counsel of God. It doesn't make sense to say, I am not responsible if you get killed, because I have taught you the whole counsel of God. In fact, he might get killed precisely because he taught them the whole counsel of God.
You can see what blood really refers to when you look at a couple parallel texts in Acts. For example Acts 18:6 describes Paul's rejection by the Jewish community in Corinth: "And when they opposed and reviled him, he shook out his garments and said to them, 'Your blood be upon your heads! I am innocent. From now on I will go to the Gentiles.'"
So in this case Paul is innocent not because he had shared the whole counsel of God, but because they wouldn't let him share it. They wouldn't hear it. So their blood is on their own heads.
The very same thing happened back in Acts 13:46 when Paul preached in Antioch of Pisidia. The Jewish community reviled Paul and Barnabas and refused to hear the message any further. So verse 46 says, "Paul and Barnabas spoke out boldly saying, 'It was necessary that the word of God should be spoken first to you. Since you thrust it from you and judge yourselves unworthy of eternal life, behold, we turn to the Gentiles.'
So we have two parallel texts in Acts: in 18:6 the Jews reject Paul's message and he says, Your blood be on your own heads. In 13:46 the Jews reject Paul's message and he says, You judge yourselves unworthy of eternal life.
So I conclude that when your blood is on your own head, you forfeit eternal life, and it's your own fault. So here in Acts 20:26, when Paul says, "I am innocent of the blood of all of you," he means, "If any of you loses eternal life, it will not be my fault. It will be your own." What's at stake in this verse—and particularly in the word "blood"—is eternal life and eternal lostness.
2. The Possibility of Guilt
The second thing to notice from verse 26 is that it is possible for us to be guilty of another person's final lostness.
If this weren't the case, Paul's statement would be pointless, wouldn't it? He protests that he is not guilty of the blood of anyone among them. This means that it's possible that he might have been guilty of someone's blood. He might have been guilty for someone's not being saved. It is possible for us to be guilty of another person's final lostness.
Two questions come to mind immediately if this is true:
- Under what conditions would I be responsible for another person's not gaining eternal life?
- What would happen to me if I am guilty of another person's blood?
Under What Conditions?
I think the answer to the first question is that we are guilty of another person's blood if we do not tell them what they need to know even though the Spirit urges us (or the Scripture commands us) to do so. For example, back in Acts 16:6 Luke describes Paul's second missionary journey like this: "And they went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia."
Now, Asia is where Ephesus is. So on that missionary journey it was not the will of the Spirit for Paul to speak the word in Ephesus, even though they were not yet evangelized. I conclude that Paul would not have their blood on his head if any of them died without Christ at this time. Why? Because the Spirit was using Paul elsewhere and had not told him to go to Ephesus.
No one of us is responsible for every city or neighborhood or people group. God leads people in different ways. So my conclusion is that when he leads you—urges you—to tell a person what they need to know in order to be saved, then their blood is on your head if you go on neglecting to do it.
What Would Happen to One Who Is Guilty?
Now what does that mean? What happens to me if I have someone's blood on my head? We are not told here (see Ezekiel 33:6–9). But I think the language is serious enough to cause some deep soul-searching about our personal witness. In principle I would answer like this: Jesus Christ can cleanse us from all sin (1 John 1:9), even the sin of having another's blood on our own head—which of us doesn't!—but (as with other sins) if we go on hardening ourselves time after time to the voice of the Spirit (or to the command of Scripture), we may prove sooner or later that the Spirit of Christ is not really in us after all and we do not belong to him (Romans 5:9), and therefore his blood does not cleanse us from all unrighteousness and the lostness of all those we neglected will compound our own ruin and destruction.
That's the second thing to see in verse 26: it is possible for us to be guilty of another person's final loss of eternal life.
3. The Possibility of Innocence
The third thing to see is that it is possible to be innocent of another person's loss of eternal life. Paul said, "I am innocent of the blood of all of you."
Under what circumstances can we say that? Specifically, under what circumstances can an elder—a teaching elder like me—at Bethlehem say that? There are different levels of responsibility in the church in this regard. That's why James 3:1 says, "Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, for you know that we will receive the greater judgment." God will hold you accountable for the souls in this church up to a point—that you pray for them, that you exhort those you know, that you encourage, etc. But he will hold me more accountable (Hebrews 13:17). What must I do to be able to say with Paul when my work at Bethlehem is done, "I am innocent of the blood of all of you"?
Of all the things Paul could have said about his ministry at this point (his patience, his faith, his love, etc.), the one thing he chose to say in verse 27 is this: "For I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God." This is the answer: what I must do (along with the other teachers at Bethlehem) in order to be innocent of the blood of all of you is to declare the whole counsel of God.
I see three unmistakable implications from this verse:
1. Knowing the Whole Counsel of God
Knowing the whole counsel of God helps people get to heaven.
Look carefully at this and you'll see why I say it like that. You cannot say from verse 27 that a person has to know the whole counsel of God in order to be saved. A person doesn't have to know it! What you can say is that if an elder doesn't teach the whole counsel of God, he may be an accomplice in someone's destruction. And if a person MAY fall short of heaven because of an elder's neglect in teaching the whole counsel of God, then knowing the whole counsel of God helps people get to heaven. Hearing it is no guarantee that you will get to heaven. Not hearing it is no guarantee that you won't get to heaven. But knowing it is a great help in getting to heaven. Otherwise Paul would not be liable to their blood for not teaching it.
The implications of this, for the educational ministry of the church, are very great. For example, it implies the need for a unified vision among the teachers of the church of what the whole counsel of God is. This is one of the reasons why I put a very high premium on theological harmony among the leadership at Bethlehem. To the degree that a confused or incomplete or uncertain vision of the counsel of God is presented by the elders to the people, to that degree will we not be able to say, "We are innocent of your blood."
Another implication relates to the children. Our curriculum and our teaching should serve to build the whole counsel of God into the minds and hearts of our children in our homes and in our Sunday School and in our clubs. Every story, every teaching should serve to make clearer and more powerful the whole over-arching purpose or counsel of God in history.
Why did God elect his bride the church before the foundation of the world? Why did he create the universe, and mankind in his image? Why did he permit the fall into sin? Why did he choose the nation of Israel? Why did he give them a the law? Why did he have animal sacrifices and a tabernacle? Why did Jesus come into the world? Why did he preach the kingdom of God? Why did he die and rise again. Why did the Holy Spirit come? How is God fulfilling his purpose and counsel today by calling and regenerating and justifying and sanctifying a church from every people and tribe and tongue and nation? How will he bring this age to a close? How should we then live? What is the unified, whole counsel of God that holds all this together and gives it meaning?
That is what we ought to be teaching our children—faithfully, systematically, and with so much life and power that the beauty of it shines for them.
The first thing to say from verse 27, then, is that knowing the whole counsel of God helps people get to heaven. Otherwise Paul would not have said that he is innocent of their blood because he taught them this whole counsel.
2. Wanting to Learn the Whole Counsel of God
The second thing to say from verse 27 is that people should want to learn the whole counsel of God. Biblical Christians hunger to know the whole counsel of God.
This text clearly teaches that elders are deficient and may be guilty of someone's destruction to the degree that they do not declare the whole counsel of God. It must follow that the people of the church are also guilty to the degree that they are not interested in the whole counsel of God. If not teaching it is a sin, then not wanting to be taught it is a sin.
So the text clearly implies that Christians should long for the whole counsel of God the way a baby longs for milk. Once you understand this verse, disinterest in the whole counsel of God implies disinterest in the means of salvation. Because the text says that Paul will be innocent if someone fails to be saved, because he gave the fullest means of salvation—the whole counsel of God.
3. Courageously Teaching the Whole Counsel of God
Finally, the last thing to say about verse 27 is that elders should be courageous in teaching the whole counsel of God.
This idea of courage is implied in the phrase, "I did not shrink from declaring to you . . . " This means that there are parts of the whole, unified counsel of God that might make an elder want to shrink back from teaching them. They might be hard to understand. Or they might be uncomplimentary to human pride. Or they might demand radical obedience. And so the elders might be tempted to declare only part of God's counsel—the part that is easy and that they know people especially like. But that would be a shrinking back from declaring the whole counsel of God. It would be cowardice not courage.
And that brings us back to the point made at the beginning—obedient life—courageous life in this case—is just as important as accurate doctrine. For Paul the two were inseparable: I did not shrink back—that is, I am a certain kind of person. I declared the WHOLE counsel of God—that is, I taught a certain kind of doctrine. That's what we must aim at together: a courageously obedient kind of person, and a unified, whole counsel of God. May God help us as we labor together toward this great vision.