Can a man really be truly alive who has forgotten how to weep? Can a man of God, or a minister of Christ, truly claim to be fully awake without tears? These are questions, uncomfortable questions, I have been asking myself.
These considerations, dry as my eyes have been, do not originate with me. I consider them somewhat reluctantly. I had studied (and even memorized) the parting speech from Paul to the Ephesian elders before I beheld the apostle’s wet face.
Paul, anchored briefly on the seacoast of Miletus, sends a message forty miles south to Ephesus. He bids the elders come immediately. When they arrive, he tells them what breaks their hearts: “Now, behold, I know that none of you among whom I have gone about proclaiming the kingdom will see my face again” (Acts 20:25, 37–38). Paul was resolved to board a ship sailing into dark providences. “I am going to Jerusalem, constrained by the Spirit, not knowing what will happen to me there, except that the Holy Spirit testifies to me in every city that imprisonment and afflictions await me” (Acts 20:22–23).
“Can a man really be truly alive who has forgotten how to weep?”
Three years he had spent with them in Ephesus, tending their souls “day and night.” This is their last meeting in this life. His words fell as bricks of gold. Of all the things to say and recall, to encourage and to warn, with so few characters left to compose his final message, are you surprised that Paul mentions twice, of all things, his tears?
Serve the Lord with Tears
He begins his final words to these dear friends,
You yourselves know how I lived among you the whole time from the first day that I set foot in Asia, serving the Lord with all humility and with tears and with trials that happened to me through the plots of the Jews. (Acts 20:18–19)
Paul mentions his crying as a matter of fact — you yourselves know. The Ephesian elders remembered how the dew of his affections fell unashamedly. They saw him cry the “whole time” he lived among them. What an oft neglected picture of the mighty apostle.
If I could, I would try and paint it, entitled, “The Lord’s Lion, Crying.” It is good for me to see this. Paul, in his ministry, lost composure at times. At times — and it appears at many times — his passion for Christ and his pity for souls undid his seeming poise. “Do you remember my tears?” he asks these now elders of the church. Can you see those gracious rains watering my sermons, indeed, those sermon exclamation points from my soul to yours, servants of your eternal good and my gracious Lord?
The scene causes me to ask, Do I serve the Lord with such tears? Do I even want to? Do you?
Warnings Through the Blur
When Paul mentions his tears the second time, he says more. After telling the men to pay careful attention to themselves and to all the flock in which the Holy Spirit made them overseers, he tells them that vicious wolves will attack from without, and false teachers will creep up from within (Acts 20:29–30) — stay alert, he pleads. But notice what accompanies his appeal:
Therefore be alert, remembering that for three years I did not cease night or day to admonish every one with tears. (Acts 20:31)
“Admonish” means to warn. For three years he did not stop warning them, or weeping for them. What a sight. What a perplexity. Ponder this weeping warrior with me.
This man of industry and blood-earnestness warns them of sin and judgment and the wrath to come — while he weeps warm tears over their souls. As a sentinel, he held up his hands and declared himself free of their blood. He tells them twice he did not shrink back in cowardice from telling them all of God’s truth. He said the hard and unpopular word; he warned and called sin what it is. People did not like what he said — in fact, they were trying to kill him.
Still this soldier wept while warning: Turn from your ruin, flee from the coming wrath, repent toward God and place all of your faith in Jesus Christ! Believe in the good news of the grace of God. Keep believing in the crucified — now risen and soon returning — Christ!
Power of Tearful Pleading
Imagine standing across from such a man.
Your fallen heart has often been on its guard against arguments and criticisms. Your armor is well-clad, and your sin is well-protected. Heartless disputes and playing with words is your sport. But who is this foe striking from horseback? What kind of warrior sheds tears for the man he wishes to conquer? Steel meeting cold steel — this is the battlefield’s familiar soundtrack. Grunts and yells and trumpet blasts you relish, but not these soft and unnerving cries from the enemy — tears for you. This is more than mere truth; it’s love.
You see his redness of eye. You hear the arresting stoppings and startings in his speech. Here is no enemy, no hired hand, no mere debater of this age. He is earnest, to be sure, but earnest for more than an argument. He’s earnest for souls — my soul. He may discard my opinions, yet he bears me upon his heart. He tells me hard things but seems to want good for me. Perhaps more than I want for myself.
Admonitions for Two Men
What a corrective to both tearless stridency and weepy willows today — to the ones like me who have taught on the lake of fire while seldom shedding a tear beside it, and to those crying who would never dare mention hell.
“What a nuisance warnings can become when given without this holy moisture. All lightening, no rain.”
What a nuisance warnings can become when given without this holy moisture. All lightening, no rain. Such repeated scolding gives off dry, hot air and leaves hearts cracked. Bellowings Paul knew too well, “Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord” (Acts 9:1). In his now-wet eyes, the tearless can find hope that grace may not be done with us just yet.
But neither can we long tolerate the convictionless crier, whose tears have no deep well. Men ever on the verge of crying over trifles need reminding that they should quit themselves like men and be strong. Good tears serve a higher ambition. They serve the Lord Jesus. But above these rise the cries in Ephesus. How that weeping earnestness confounded sinners as Paul pled with the dead to turn and live. The Lord’s Lion — Crying, Warning, Pleading.
Such a one — I am only left to imagine — was hard to argue with for long, and even harder to forget. When is the last time, dear Christian reader, you warned a faithless brother, an apostate mother, a lustful son, a deceived friend through blurred vision?
Should not the truly living, in such a world as this, find times to weep? Do not many live despising mercy and rejecting Christ? Are not souls lost to that eternal place of gnashing and weeping every hour — our friends, classmates, and neighbors — many not knowing a Christian who shed a single tear over their souls? We come with glad tidings; we need not always cry. But is our danger too much tearful pleas for souls?
Weep into Their Souls
A final word, then, for fellow pastor-elders, men like those Paul spoke to that day. Do you have a tear to shed for the lost sinner and threatened saint? Do you serve your Lord with tears? I do not pretend to instruct you in these matters. These are but my sermon notes as I overhear the weeping lion.
Charles Spurgeon said it was a blessed thing for a minister to “weep his way into men’s souls,” a quality he had admired in George Whitefield.
Hear how Whitefield preached, and never dare to be lethargic again. [Cornelius] Winter says of him that “sometimes he exceedingly wept, and was frequently so overcome, that for a few seconds you would suspect he never would recover; and when he did, nature required some little time to compose herself. I hardly ever knew him go through a sermon without weeping more or less. His voice was often interrupted by his affections; and I have heard him say in the pulpit, ‘You blame me for weeping; but how can I help it, when you will not weep for yourselves, although your own immortal souls are on the verge of destruction, and, for aught I know, you are, hearing your last sermon, and may never more have an opportunity to have Christ, offered to you?’” (Lectures to My Students, 307)
Let us all pray for holy tears. Not for their own sake, not to make a vain show that draws attention to ourselves, or tries to manipulate. But let us seek life, full life, abundant life in Christ — a life fully alive, fully awake, fully compassionate within a cursed world of evil times and immortal souls. Lord, raise a generation of lionhearted men and women for Christ who serve you with all their hearts and minds and souls and strength — and tears.