Refocusing Our Ministry at Immanuel with the Example of the Apostle Paul
Lord Jesus, I confess that my focus on You is oftentimes blurred by many things. I don’t always keep You as the center of my life, at times I act as if my salvation is a small gift (or even something I expect instead of a gift), and I frequently fail to testify to Your name as well or as often as I could and ought. Forgive my sins. Lead me to an ever greater appreciation of Your grace. Oh, bless us all in worship today! Amen.
HE GRACE OF GOD AS TESTIFIED BY THE APOSTLE PAUL
The sermon text today is Paul’s farewell to the Ephesian elders. In his farewell, Paul summarizes his ministry while exhorting the Ephesians to continue faithfully in the same ministry. In the Scripture readings, we hear Paul’s own words testify to the Grace of God—the substance of His ministry.
While defending himself in Jerusalem and also before King Agrippa, Paul recounted the story of his conversion. How could a known persecutor of the church and enemy of Christ become an apostle of the very Lord whom he persecuted? There is no answer other than GRACE! The same grace changes us from lost sinners to beloved heirs of God.
The substance of Paul’s preaching was always Christ crucified. The salvation which Jesus brings changes our perspective so that we can even find glory in tribulation.
The former persecutor knew that to be called as an apostle was a gift from God, and he never forgot it. Paul did not become lethargic or careless in the ministry of the Gospel because he always remembered the gift that it truly was. The joy of proclaiming the Gospel belongs also to us!
TEXT: Acts 20:17-38
From Miletus he sent to Ephesus and called for the elders of the church. And when they had come to him, he said to them: "You know, from the first day that I came to Asia, in what manner I always lived among you, serving the Lord with all humility, with many tears and trials which happened to me by the plotting of the Jews; how I kept back nothing that was helpful, but proclaimed it to you, and taught you publicly and from house to house, testifying to Jews, and also to Greeks, repentance toward God and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ. And see, now I go bound in the spirit to Jerusalem, not knowing the things that will happen to me there, except that the Holy Spirit testifies in every city, saying that chains and tribulations await me. But none of these things move me; nor do I count my life dear to myself, so that I may finish my race with joy, and the ministry which I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God. And indeed, now I know that you all, among whom I have gone preaching the kingdom of God, will see my face no more. Therefore I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all men. For I have not shunned to declare to you the whole counsel of God. Therefore take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood. For I know this, that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock. Also from among yourselves men will rise up, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after themselves. Therefore watch, and remember that for three years I did not cease to warn everyone night and day with tears. So now, brethren, I commend you to God and to the word of His grace, which is able to build you up and give you an inheritance among all those who are sanctified. I have coveted no one’s silver or gold or apparel. Yes, you yourselves know that these hands have provided for my necessities, and for those who were with me. I have shown you in every way, by laboring like this, that you must support the weak. And remember the words of the Lord Jesus, that He said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’ " And when he had said these things, he knelt down and prayed with them all. Then they all wept freely, and fell on Paul’s neck and kissed him, sorrowing most of all for the words which he spoke, that they would see his face no more. And they accompanied him to the ship.
In Christ Jesus upon whom our faith is founded, whose name we proclaim, and to whom our focus turns in the work of God’s Kingdom – dear fellow redeemed:
There were two very exciting seasons as my brothers and I grew up on our family farm. One was planting-time in the spring and the other was harvest-time in the fall. Perhaps these were the most exciting because they involved the most work we were able to do and especially because it included driving the tractors and the truck!
During these exciting seasons, as we would drive out in the field with our old farm truck or perhaps be plowing with the tractor that had a radio, there was a bit of a problem. We would turn up the radio to pass the time but going through the field was bumpy and the bumpy ride would knock the radio out of "tune" and the reception would become poor and the sound would be full of static. So we would stop and carefully with precision tune the radio to bring the reception back to clarity.
When a radio’s "tuning" goes "out" you can still hear the station, you can still make out the words, but it just isn’t as clear as it could be. If someone has been listening to the radio for a while he might not even realize how far "out of tuning" it has become because he has been deceived by its gradual decline. However, once the reception is brought back to its true space on the radio dial, all of a sudden everything becomes clear, it sounds more full, and is sharp once again.
Life in church and the work of the ministry is in some ways the same. If we were to forsake the Gospel, then the tuning and the focus is totally gone and that’s not what we’re talking about. But it can occur that as we go about our Gospel ministry, as we’re using the Gospel in our day-to-day lives that we begin to lose focus. We still have the Gospel, we’re still proclaiming the truth of the Gospel, but we need to take the time to "sharpen" everything up, to refocus, to make everything clear and crisp once again.
We are on the frontier of another educational season. Our Christian Day School begins in a couple of weeks, Sunday School begins after Labor Day, and everyone gets back to business after summer vacation…NOW is GOOD TIME to refocus, to sharpen our ministry again. This morning we use these words of Paul to the Ephesian elders in REFOCUSING OUR MINISTRY AT IMMANUEL WITH THE EXAMPLE OF THE APOSTLE PAUL I. Focus on the message we proclaim II. Focus on the shepherding of the flock.
During Paul’s second missionary trip he had stopped for a short time in Ephesus. The words we have read were spoken during Paul’s 3rdmissionary journey. Early in the third journey, Paul had stopped in Ephesus and was at the center of a riot. As Paul preached Christ and the people in Ephesus began to turn away from their worship of the false god, Diana, the silversmiths who made shrines for Diana became angry because they were losing profit. One thing led to another and a riot erupted but was quieted by the city clerk after which Paul and his fellow missionaries were sent on their way.
From Ephesus, Paul’s journey took him to Greece. Now, Paul was returning to Jerusalem and passing by Ephesus. He wanted to speak to the Ephesian elders to give instruction and encouragement, but did not wish to spend time in Ephesus because he was hurrying in an effort to return to Jerusalem by Pentecost. So, as Paul passed in the vicinity of Ephesus, he sent for the elders (the leaders in the church) asking them to meet him in Miletus.
As Paul met with the Ephesian leaders he said, “…You know, from the first day that I came to Asia, in what manner I always lived among you, serving the Lord with all humility, with many tears and trials which happened to me by the plotting of the Jews; how I kept back nothing that was helpful, but proclaimed it to you, and taught you publicly and from house to house testifying to Jews, and also to Greeks, repentance toward God and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ.” (vv. 18-21)
Paul reviewed for the Ephesian elders (in very brief form) the "core," the substance of his ministry. The substance of Paul’s ministry was the MESSAGE. Paul focused his attention on the message of "Christ Crucified" (cf also: 1 Corinthians 1:17ff). Paul was now encouraging the Ephesian elders to likewise keep their focus on that message.
Paul proclaimed the message of God’s Word, he said, and HELD NOTHING BACK that was helpful. A little later, Paul told the Ephesians that he proclaimed the WHOLE COUNSEL OF GOD." [v. 27] It was so important for the apostle Paul’s ministry and so important for our own that we proclaim the FULL message of God’s Word.
The fullness of God’s Word, our message, includes God’s expectations. It includes His law which says these are the things that I expect and if you sin against them you shall surely die! This is part of our ministry. We need to hear what God expects! We need to hear and to know and understand what He says is right, and what He says is wrong. We need to hear that Word! That word of God’s Law condemns us, makes us feel very guilty, and at times makes us feel rebellious because we don’t want to hear that we sin or that God has a direction for our lives different from where our flesh takes us. Nevertheless, this was part of Paul’s message when he told the people everything that was helpful.
The main part of Paul’s message was the GOSPEL because that is what works faith in the heart of a sinner and produces a believer—a child of God; BUT when it was needful, Paul also spoke and proclaimed the LAW.
When Paul proclaimed the Gospel, he taught of "repentance toward God and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ.” [v.21] As we heard in the Scripture readings, Paul’s message was that by one man sin entered into the world and death by sin, but through the righteousness of one Man—Jesus Christ—we also have full redemption (cf: Romans 5)! Jesus’ obedience and holy life, and also His suffering and death on the cross pays the debt of our sins and washes them away so that we do have life. Therefore, all the things that the Law exposes—all the sins of thought, word, and deed—are taken away by Christ, our Savior. This too was the message that Paul proclaimed, keeping nothing back.
That message was the important thing and it didn’t matter how Paul brought it to the people. The most important thing was that he DID bring it to the people. Paul said that he proclaimed this message publicly and also privately from house-to-house. [v.20] Whether Paul was preaching out in the streets or ministering individually in people’s homes, the message was the same. Paul brought that message to the individual sinner’s needs.
As we keep our focus on the message of the Gospel, we need to see Paul’s example and do the same. It’s one thing to proclaim in general terms: "Jesus died for our sins." That’s good, we NEED to proclaim that Gospel message! But we also need to tell people what that means! We need to take all the truths that we learn from God’s Word and apply them to our own individual circumstances.
As our Christian Day school begins, our students will go to religion classes and they will hear about God’s love. They will go to their other classes and will hear how God’s hand is in every part of this world and they will learn these subjects within the light of God’s Word. But if this is all they learn, if our Christian Day School children get on the bus (or Sunday School students get in their family vehicle) thinking that their instruction in God’s Word is done until the next time they come to class, then they are missing a very important truth. The message of the Gospel is for day-to-day living!It is for our lives from the moment we wake up to the moment we go to sleep EVERY DAY, and even while we sleep because God assures us that He never sleeps and His watchfulness never ends (cf: Psalm 121).
Whether publicly in a congregational setting or privately in our homes; whether it’s a general proclamation such as "we are all sinners and all need the salvation of Christ;" or whether each of us applies the Gospel to that one particular thing in my life that is hurting me so badly; or whether I take that Gospel comfort and apply it to that one thing about which I worry so much; or whether I take that rebuke of God’s Law and apply it to my pet sins; whether so specific as ourselves, or so broad as the whole Christian congregation, we need to FOCUS ON THE MESSAGE -- the truth of God’s word, the Gospel of forgiveness through our Savior Christ!
As Paul reminded the Ephesians of his message, he also told them that now hew as going “…bound in the spirit to Jerusalem, not knowing the things that will happen to me there, except that the Holy Spirit testifies in every city, saying that chains and tribulations await me. But none of these things move me; nor do I count my life dear to myself, so that I may finish my race with joy, and the ministry which I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God.” [vv.22-24]
Paul’s future was very uncertain. The only thing he knew was that God had revealed to him that he would face chains and persecution; and he knew that he would not see the Ephesians ever again on this earth (though he would write a letter which we have in the New Testament). In the face of all this, Paul said, "It doesn’t matter. Those things are questions, those things may be concerns for this life, but they don’t matter because my goal is to preach the message of the Gospel! As long as I can complete my race with joy and complete this ministry of proclaiming God’s Word, everything else can fall by the wayside." Paul declared to his hearers the "whole counsel of God." That message was the reason for which he lived.
Paul’s conduct also tied into the message of the Gospel. He told the Ephesians: “I have coveted no one’s silver or gold or apparel. Yes, you yourselves know that these hands have provided for my necessities, and for those who were with me. I have shown you in every way, by laboring like this, that you must support the weak. And remember the words of the Lord Jesus, that He said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’ ” [vv.33-35]
As Paul proclaimed the Word of God, his focus was so much on the message that he didn’t covet the Ephesians silver and gold. He didn’t preach the message of the Gospel to get more of anything on the earth. Paul preached the message for the sake of the message. His focus was, "I need to get this Gospel of salvation out to the world! Everything else will be provided by God and I don’t need to worry about it." So Paul was willing to work to provide for his own necessities rather than expect or seek those things from the Ephesians. So great was Paul’s focus on the proclamation of the Gospel that everything else faded to the background and he went forward in his ministry.
These truths from Paul’s ministry have a great deal of application for our own ministry right here. Our priority individually in every part of our lives, and as a congregation is not the world. Our priority is the WORD. It may be a little painful at times, but consider your own life and your involvement in our ministry at Immanuel and ask yourself, "Are there times when the world is my priority and the Word becomes secondary?" As one of your called pastors, working in the Word is the work that I do—and yet, when I examine my life and myself and my conduct I have to admit (more times than I care to admit) that the world has been my focus and not the Word.
We have that same message as Paul. We have the same reasons to spread that Word as did Paul. We have even more opportunity than Paul because we are living in this modern age with so much more advantage than he ever had or could dream. But is our focus on the Word and using the world to spread that Word…or is the Word secondary and the world priority?
It is easy as a Christian congregation to go along in "auto-pilot" mode. We have our set programs. The school year comes every Fall just like clock-work. Sunday School begins every September as always. Sunday morning services take place each week at 9:30 a.m. except for the occasional snowstorm or other catastrophe. So we go forward, very orderly very much by rote. We need to shake ourselves up. We need to refocus. We need to have that energy and zeal of the Apostle Paul that says, "There’s the message of the Gospel and THAT’S what I’m all about! That message of the Gospel and salvation is what I’m living for! That message of the Gospel and salvation is what I want to tell everybody. That’s what I want to reflect in every part of my life. I don’t want to be bogged down with all the things of this world. I don’t want to be bogged down with all the worries and concerns…I want to live with the Message as my focus! And I want to get that message out!"
So too, it can also become rather "auto-pilot" as we teach the message to our children. "I’ll send them to Sunday School, maybe even Christian Day School. I’ll tell them a Bible Story here and there…" and that is perhaps at times all the further it goes. Again, shake yourself up! Refocus and realize that when you tell your children the precious truths of God’s Word, when you show them how that truth applies to even their young lives; you are focused on the message and you are giving your children a gift beyond anything else you could give.
Stop and consider, refocus. In order to be able to proclaim the message we ourselves need to know the message. It needs to be clear in our own minds and hearts, so we study daily and diligently to learn, know, and remember God’s Truth.
We cannot forget our purpose or our message. The Devil is always working at distracting us. Think about all the tools that the Devil has at his disposal. There are so, so many ways the Devil can pull us away…distract us. Not necessarily pull us away from the faith altogether (though that too happens), but to get us out of tune so that we’re not hearing it quite so clearly or we’re not proclaiming it quite so fully. Refocus on the Message. It is a glorious message indeed and one which we, like Paul, have the privilege to proclaim.
Paul also encouraged the Ephesian elders to “…take heed to yourselves and to all the flock over which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His blood.” [v.28]
Paul felt a very keen responsibility in taking care of the flocks to which the Lord had called him to minister. For this reason, he did not hold back anything from them, he told them what they needed to hear, preaching the whole counsel of God. Paul understood and appreciated the responsibility that God had laid upon the Old Testament prophet Ezekiel when He said: “If the watchman sees the sword coming and does not blow the trumpet, and the people are not warned, and the sword comes and takes any person from among them, he is taken away in his iniquity; but his blood I will require at the watchman’s hand.’ So you, son of man: I have made you a watchman for the house of Israel; therefore you shall hear a word from My mouth and warn them for Me. When I say to the wicked, ‘O wicked man, you shall surely die!’ and you do not speak to warn the wicked from his way, that wicked man shall die in his iniquity; but his blood I will require at your hand. Nevertheless if you warn the wicked to turn from his way, and he does not turn from his way, he shall die in his iniquity; but you have delivered your soul” (Ezekiel 33:6-9).
God lays upon His people the responsibility to declare the message, to shepherd the church of God, to bring that message to those who need it. Paul felt that responsibility and so too do we also need to feel it. Knowing that your fellow sheep in the flock of Christ look to you to serve them as a fellow believer. You have a responsibility to your fellow believers to uphold them, to help them, correct them. This responsibility also extends to those in the sinful world around you, to declare to them the true message of God’s Word.
As we go about this work of shepherding and helping one another, we also wish to understand the proper attitude and atmosphere in which to do this. Paul told the Ephesian elders that he had served the Lord with all humility (cf. v. 19). Peter told the leaders in the congregations to whom he was writing, “Shepherd the flock of God which is among you, serving as overseers, not by compulsion but willingly, not for dishonest gain but eagerly; nor as being lords over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock; and when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that does not fade away” (1 Peter 5:2-4).
Peter and Paul’s words were specifically directed to leaders in the respective congregations. Pastors, teachers, Council members, and others are called to be leaders and shepherds of the flock, but the truth that applies to those "called shepherds" applies to each of you as well because you too are called to the same Gospel ministry.
“Take heed to yourselves and to all the flock over which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers." The Holy Spirit is the one who calls and puts pastors, teachers, and leaders in the congregation, but the Holy Spirit is also the one who has also made YOU part of that flock. So yes, those who are overseers have a responsibility to fulfill their calling, to serve the flock and to do it not as lords over them but as shepherds. But you too, as part of that flock also take heed to yourselves and to the others within the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you a part. Paul’s words to the young pastor Timothy apply also to each one of us, “Take heed to yourself and to the doctrine. Continue in them, for in doing this you will save both yourself and those who hear you” (1 Timothy 4:16). You too have a responsibility to be part of this shepherding, to look out for one another.
When Paul called the elders to meet with him, it was plural—elders—the different leaders in the congregation. In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul wrote, “He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ” (Ephesians 4:11-12). The leaders whom God calls and appoints in a Christian congregation are there to equip all the members of the flock for the work of the ministry, to equip the saints—the believers—for edifying one another in the body of Christ. Thus, the responsibility and the joy of shepherding, also belongs to YOU.
A very important part of shepherding is warning about danger. Paul did not shirk this responsibility either. He told the Ephesians: “For I know this, that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock. Also from among yourselves men will rise up, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after themselves.” [vv.29-30] These words of Paul echo Jesus’ warning about false prophets who come in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves (Matthew 7:15). Paul WARNS the people, BEWARE of those on the outside who arise as savage wolves; and yes, even those from the inside.
We have to be on guard at all times! Stand guard against those on the "outside" who might bring false doctrine or who might try to pull us away with every temptation and allurement of our flesh. Beware of those who want you to run with the world, who want you to forsake the truth of God, those who want us to compromise what God says. These and so many others are all savage wolves who want to destroy us.
It is possible that, at times, even one of our Christian brothers or sisters might say something or lead us in such a way that it would be dangerous to follow…wrong, sinful to follow. We need to stand guard against this as well. We stand guard against danger not only for our own souls to protect our faith, but also to rebuke and (we pray) bring the erring brother or sister back to the truth.
WARN one another of the dangers! Don’t assume, "Oh, he knows that. He knows that is dangerous for his soul. Don’t assume that she knows better that it is just a one time thing and it will be OK. If you ever see danger in the spiritual life of a fellow child of God, WARN that person…it’s your responsibility! It’s part of shepherding the church of God. If you see danger in your own path, GET OUT! It’s dangerous, turn away!
We might suppose that the work of shepherding and of the church’s ministry is someone else’s job. There’s a property committee to take care of property, a finance committee to take care of the finances, teachers to teach in the schools, etc.…it’ll all take care of itself. No it won’t. There are those people who are called to be leaders, but we are all part of this flock. Shepherding, taking an active role with one another in the ministry of the Gospel, belongs to each one of us.
There is the tendency to, perhaps, assume that there is nothing I can do. This too is a false assumption. There is a possibility that the world can infiltrate into our own lives and into congregational life, and it almost assuredly will because we are sinners. We will face the things of this world, so…STAND GUARD! WATCH! SHEPHERD ONE ANOTHER by correcting and removing that worldly offense.
Also pray for those who are in called positions of leadership and shepherding. Aid them, help them in their work, assist them, focus on shepherding.
Focus on shepherding one another to strengthen one another. Focus on shepherding by getting the word out to others and bringing them into the flock. Focus on shepherding and the work of the ministry, NOT on "where I’ve been wronged…I’m not going to have anything to do with that anymore!" Don’t separate yourselves from the ministry even if some things have gone wrong, rather find repentance with one another, forgiveness with one another, and GO ON shepherding the church of God. It is not a matter of "I get my way or else I leave! It’s not a matter of "My way is the best way." It’s not a matter of "ME" at all!! It’s a matter of the message and using that message to shepherd one another’s faith.
All of this is rather weighty responsibility. Not even the apostle Paul could fulfill it. So when Paul finished describing all of these things to the Ephesian elders “he knelt down and prayed with them all.” [v. 36] When it was all said and done, Paul and his fellow believers from Ephesus knelt in prayer. WEcan’t do it. Who are we to fulfill such a great ministry? We are earthen vessels given this great treasure (cf: 2 Corinthians 4).
Jesus says, "I am with you always. All power is Mine. I will aid you and give you what you need to complete this work and run this race" (Cf: Matthew 28:18-20). For this reason, Paul also told the Ephesian elders, "“So now, brethren, I commend you to God and to the word of His grace, which is able to build you up and give you an inheritance among all those who are sanctified….” [v.32]
We have a message. We seek to use that to shepherd the church of God. We seek to correct ourselves when we aren’t using that fully, and then we commend everything to God’s care knowing that His Word has the power to accomplish great things and His grace will continue to bless us in ways we would never imagine on our own.
Ours is a blessed ministry—called by God to proclaim the message of salvation: "HERE AM I SEND ME!" (cf: Isaiah 6:8). Amen.
—Pastor Wayne C. Eichstadt