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“Last Words Reveal the Heart”

Acts 20:1-38
Bob DeGray
May 29, 2005

Key Sentence

As Paul completes his ministry he reveals his sold out heart.


I. Sold out for the Gospel (Acts 20:17-24)
II. Sold out for the flock (Acts 20:25-31)
III. Sold out for the word and the work (Acts 20:32-38)


        Famous Last Words. You’ve heard that phrase. It’s used of a comment made in arrogance or ignorance that hindsight proves wrong. British scientist Lord Kelvin, while the Wright brothers were at work in Dayton, said flying machines are impossible. Western Union, examining a new technology in 1876 said “The 'telephone' has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication.” Decca Recording rejected an audition tape in 1962, saying “We don't like their sound, and guitar music is on the way out." The group was the Beatles.

        But famous last words can also be actual memorable quotes from people who are dying or just saying farewell. Robert Bruce, who freed Scotland from England in the 1300's, died with these classic words on his lips: “God be with you, my dear children. I have breakfasted with you and shall sup with my Lord Jesus.” John Quincy Adams, the sixth U. S. president said: “I inhabit a weak, frail, decayed tenement; battered by the winds and broken in on by the storms, and, from all I can learn, the landlord does not intend to repair.” George Washington had several great farewell addresses. In 1783, leaving the generalship of the revolutionary army, he said to his officers “With a heart full of love and gratitude, I now take leave of you. I most devoutly wish that your later days may be as prosperous and happy as your former ones have been glorious and honorable.”

        That last quote is the one I was reminded of as I read today’s text. Here Paul is saying farewell to those among whom he has ministered for years, and he’s pretty sure he’ll never be back. So in a sense he is speaking his last words, and they are worth listening to, because as Paul completes his ministry, he reveals how his heart has been and continues to be sold out for Jesus. And that’s a great model and a great goal for us, that to our dying day we would be sold out followers of Jesus.

Introduction: Completing the Ministry (Acts 20:1-16)

        Let’s begin with several verses of introduction, as we quickly move Paul toward the end of this third missionary journey. He’s been at Ephesus two years, but back in Acts 19 Paul had decided to go to Jerusalem by way of Macedonia, almost certainly with the idea of completing a collection of donations for the Jerusalem church. The riot in Ephesus delayed his departure, but now, in Chapter 20 verse 1, we read that When the uproar had ended, Paul sent for the disciples and, after encouraging them, said good-by and set out for Macedonia. He probably took a ship directly from Ephesus to Macedonia, on the other side of the Aegean. Luke summarizes the his work there very briefly. Verse 2: He traveled through that area, speaking many words of encouragement to the people, and finally arrived in Greece, 3where he stayed three months. Because the Jews made a plot against him just as he was about to sail for Syria, he decided to go back through Macedonia.

        4He was accompanied by Sopater son of Pyrrhus from Berea, Aristarchus and Secundus from Thessalonica, Gaius from Derbe, Timothy also, and Tychicus and Trophimus from the province of Asia. 5These men went on ahead and waited for us at Troas. 6But we sailed from Philippi after the Feast of Unleavened Bread, and five days later joined the others at Troas, where we stayed seven days. Notice how the pronouns shift from ‘they’ to ‘we’. Luke has rejoined the party, though he doesn’t mention himself by name, and he will be with Paul for the rest of Acts. So Paul re-visits the churches in Macedonia and Greece, but his goal is get back to Jerusalem.

         Verses 7 to 12 record a relatively humorous incident that happened while the group was in Troas: On the first day of the week we came together to break bread. Paul spoke to the people and, because he intended to leave the next day, kept on talking until midnight. 8There were many lamps in the upstairs room where we were meeting. 9Seated in a window was a young man named Eutychus, who was sinking into a deep sleep as Paul talked on and on. When he was sound asleep, he fell to the ground from the third story and was picked up dead. 10Paul went down, threw himself on the young man and put his arms around him. "Don't be alarmed," he said. "He's alive!" 11Then he went upstairs again and broke bread and ate. After talking until daylight, he left. 12The people took the young man home alive and were greatly comforted. This episode is used by preachers and laymen alike to discourage long sermons. Unless a preacher has Paul’s reliable gift of miracles, he should not talk on and on until after midnight, especially if the meeting is on the third floor.

        The next stage of the trip is recorded in verses 13 to 16. We went on ahead to the ship and sailed for Assos, where we were going to take Paul aboard. He had made this arrangement because he was going there on foot. 14When he met us at Assos, we took him aboard and went on to Mitylene. 15The next day we set sail from there and arrived off Kios. The day after that we crossed over to Samos, and on the following day arrived at Miletus. 16Paul had decided to sail past Ephesus to avoid spending time in the province of Asia, for he was in a hurry to reach Jerusalem, if possible, by the day of Pentecost. Notice the timing. The group sailed from Philippi, in Macedonia on the Feast of Unleavened bread and hoped to make it to Jerusalem by the day of Pentecost, that is, within fifty days. This is very reasonable by sailing ship across the Mediterranean - as long as Paul avoids the temptation to stop someplace for evangelization or discipleship. He evidently knows this, because he bypasses Ephesus, the center of his recent ministry, for the sake of speed.
I. Sold out for the Gospel (Acts 20:17-24)
II. Sold out for the flock (Acts 20:25-31)
III. Sold out for the word and the work (Acts 20:32-38)

        But he can’t pull it off. At Miletus, a little port down the coast from Ephesus, he decided that he had some last words, one more snapshot of his heart, for the elders of the church at Ephesus. Verses 17 to 24 17From Miletus, Paul sent to Ephesus for the elders of the church. 18When they arrived, he said to them: "You know how I lived the whole time I was with you, from the first day I came into the province of Asia. 19I served the Lord with great humility and with tears, although I was severely tested by the plots of the Jews. 20You know I have not hesitated to preach anything that would be helpful to you but have taught you publicly and from house to house. 21I have declared to both Jews and Greeks that they must turn to God in repentance and have faith in our Lord Jesus. And now, compelled by the Spirit, I am going to Jerusalem, not knowing what will happen to me there. 23I only know that in every city the Holy Spirit warns me that prison and hardships face me. 24However, I consider my life worth nothing to me, if only I may finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me--the task of testifying to the gospel of God's grace.

        Paul sends for the elders of the church: elders is plural, church is singular, meaning that a single church had multiple elders. This is consistently the New Testament model, and it’s the one we follow. These elders are called both elders and overseers, presbuteroi and episcopoi. The two words, obviously refer to the same group of people, not to a separate group called bishops with a higher standing in the authority pyramid. Also, we’re going to see that the task of these people is to shepherd. The church is not to be served by one shepherd, or even two, but by a number of qualified people who take this as their task.

        Paul speaks to them by pointing to his own example. In fact he will do that throughout. You almost get the impression that though he had been teaching them for two years, he had not used himself as an example before, but simply lived a godly life as their leader. But in this farewell message he wants to put words to what his actions had shown them, so as to be perfectly clear. He says “You know how I lived the whole time I was with you . . . I served the Lord with great humility and with tears, although I was severely tested by the plots of the Jews.” Paul says he served with humility - he was a humble servant. We always get a little uncomfortable when we hear someone call himself humble, but it was a bit less of a problem in Greek, where humility wasn’t so much evidence of what you thought of yourself, but of where you put yourself. To be humble was to make yourself a servant. Paul was a servant of God. His ministry was for their benefit but he was serving God. Sold out believers see themselves as intentional servants of God.

        Yet Paul’s service was of benefit to both believers and unbelievers. He says “I have not hesitated to preach anything that would be helpful to you but have taught you publicly and from house to house.” This was a focus on believers. He had discipled them in the public meetings of the church and in the small group meetings from house to house, preaching and teaching not only the good news, and the privileges of being believers, but also the responsibilities of the Christian life. He wanted to ground these young believers in the faith, and in the word of God. But he also wanted to share the Good News with those who did not yet believe. His heart was sold out for sharing the Gospel. He says “I have declared to both Jews and Greeks that they must turn to God in repentance and have faith in our Lord Jesus.”

        Paul never hesitated to tell people they were separated from God, that their sin had caused them be in rebellion against God. That’s the starting point for the gospel: recognizing that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and applying that truth to yourself - I’m in rebellion against God and I’m walking away from God and I need to turn from reliance on myself to reliance on God. Jesus is the answer to my greatest need - the need for forgiveness for my sin, cleansing and restoration to God - a new life. Jesus made that possible by paying the price for my sin on the cross, dying in my place, offering me forgiveness and eternal life and adoption into God’s family, and the presence and comfort of the Holy Spirit as a free gift to those who by faith believe. It is by faith in what Jesus has done and by dependance on him alone that I am rescued. This is what Paul has preached to both Jews and Gentiles in Ephesus. And it’s still the same truth we all need to teach and hear today. Have you really heard and believed this good news.

        Paul was sold out for the Gospel, so that in these verses, he was willing to take the Spirit’s leading, even to suffer and die if necessary for the sake of the Gospel. He says “I consider my life worth nothing to me, if only I may finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me--the task of testifying to the gospel of God's grace.” That’s Paul’s heart. Is it yours? Is it mine? Telling the story, the good news of God’s grace can and should be the desire and the joy of our hearts.

II. Sold out for the flock (Acts 20:25-31)

        But Paul’s farewell, his famous last words show us not only his heart for the Gospel, but also his heart for believers, his heart for the flock. Verses 25 to 31 "Now I know that none of you among whom I have gone about preaching the kingdom will ever see me again. 26Therefore, I declare to you today that I am innocent of the blood of all men. 27For I have not hesitated to proclaim to you the whole will of God. 28Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood. 29I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. 30Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them. 31So be on your guard! Remember that for three years I never stopped warning each of you night and day with tears.

        Paul is pretty convinced that he will never see this group of believers again. We know that the went to Jerusalem, was arrested there, suffered through years of postponed trials, and was eventually sent to Rome to be tried before the emperor. Because of evidence in his letters we think he was released at that time and continued to minister, but he probably never did get back to Ephesus. Instead he sent Timothy in subsequent years to build up the church there. But because of the scope of his Gospel sharing, and because of the years he has had to disciple these believers, proclaiming to them the whole counsel of God, he is now confident that his ministry to them is complete, and with only a little trepidation he can move on.

        But he is not Pollyanna about their prospects. His heart for God’s people leads him to warn these elders about their responsibilities: “Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood.” Notice that he begins with the shepherds themselves - ‘keep watch over yourselves.’ I. Howard Marshall says ‘it is only as the leaders themselves remain faithful to God that they can expect the church to do so.” Stott says ‘they cannot adequately care for others if they neglect the care and culture of their own souls. In the same way the elders of our church need to be guarding their hearts and accountable to one another for their spiritual lives - and you should pray for them if you expect them to shepherd the flock.

        Notice those words. The elders are told to shepherd - this is the action they are to do. You could translate it ‘pastor’ - they are to provide pastoral care, a shepherd’s care for the sheep, the flock, the people of the body of Christ. This is a familiar image in Scripture. God himself is pictured as a shepherd: ‘The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not be in want.’ Jesus is pictured as a shepherd in John 10 “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” And the leaders of God’s people are pictured as shepherds. In Ezekiel 34 God says “Woe to the shepherds of Israel who only take care of themselves! Should not shepherds take care of the flock?” In the New Testament elders are shepherds of God’s flock, not only here but also in 1st Peter 5:2 “Be shepherds of God's flock that is under your care, serving as overseers--not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not greedy for money, but eager to serve.” Both Paul and Peter use the word ‘episkopos’ for these elders, which carries with it a sense of being guardians - protecting the flock just as David went out at his own peril to protect his father’s flock against the bear and the lion.

        But even shepherds need to realize that ultimately this is not their flock, it is ‘the church of God which he bought with his own blood.’ Paul commonly speaks of the church as belonging to God, but nowhere else is the act of redemption by which he bought it attributed to the Father. The redeemer, in the New Testament at least, is God the Son - Jesus. In fact the phrase could be translated and probably should be translated ‘the church of God, which he bought with the blood of his own’ - not his own blood but the blood of his own son. It is the blood of Jesus, shed on the cross which pays the price to redeem people and bring them into the flock, the church.

         Paul is concerned that this flock will soon be attacked, that fierce wolves will come and cause destruction. These are heretical teachers will come from the outside and lead people astray, especially after Paul is no longer there to defend them, but also people from within the church who take up perverse teaching. By distorting the truth they will induce people to forsake it and follow them instead. So the Ephesian elders must be on their guard, like shepherds keeping watch over their flocks at night, just as Paul constantly guarded for the three years he was with them.

        So what do we see here? In addition to being sold out for the Gospel, Paul was sold out for the care of the flock. He gave himself to the work; mind will and emotions were engaged in it. Ours ought to be as well. You may not be an elder, but that doesn’t free you from the responsibility to care for and guard those around you. If you are leading a small group or a class or a prayer meeting, you should know that this is where pastoring takes place. Mike and I, even devoting all our time to a relatively small group of people, cannot do all that a shepherd should do for even a fraction of you. We cannot adequately feed you or fully guard you. We cannot be there in all your hurts or comfort all your griefs or give you the rest you need. In a body like ours that responsibility lies with the elders, and with many others who are in formal or informal positions to care. In fact, as you provide care for one another, you enable the elders and pastors to do their shepherding better, to remain faithful to the Chief Shepherd. All of us need to be sold out for the care of the flock

III. Sold out for the word and the work (Acts 20:32-38)

        Finally, we need to be sold out for the Word and for the practical work of ministry. Listen to Paul’s final final comments. Verses 32 to 38: 32"Now I commit you to God and to the word of his grace, which can build you up and give you an inheritance among all those who are sanctified. 33I have not coveted anyone's silver or gold or clothing. 34You yourselves know that these hands of mine have supplied my own needs and the needs of my companions. 35In everything I did, I showed you that by this kind of hard work we must help the weak, remembering the words the Lord Jesus himself said: 'It is more blessed to give than to receive.'" 36When he had said this, he knelt down with all of them and prayed. 37They all wept as they embraced him and kissed him. 38What grieved them most was his statement that they would never see his face again. Then they accompanied him to the ship.

Paul’s last act is to hand over, or commit these leaders to the care of God. This is an act of dependence, as Paul consciously chooses to trust God to do directly for these people many of things that he had in the past used Paul’s sold out life to accomplish - specifically the propagation of the Gospel and the protection of the flock. But Paul doesn’t just hand them over to God in a general way; he adds that he is entrusting them to ‘the word of his grace’. For Paul the word was the message of Jesus Christ, as revealed in the Old Testament Scriptures, in the life and words of Jesus himself, and to the Apostles by the Holy Spirit. And all these words are about grace, that men did not deserve to be rescued by God, but that by grace he gives men and women the free gift of rescue through faith in Jesus Christ.

        The nature of the Word of grace is to build up. Paul says that as you are submitted to this word, as you live your life in response to this message, you’ll be edified. Like someone building a house, nail by nail, stick by stick, brick by brick, the word of God puts you together and makes you strong, and, Paul says, gives you an inheritance among the sanctified, which means it places you in the group that are being sanctified and thus receiving the full blessing and benefit of their salvation.

        You can’t grow much as a Christian, you can’t grow much in holiness without getting the Word of God into your life. Paul is sold out about the impact of the Word of God in the lives of these believers he’s farewelling. How much more should we be sold out for the Word, living as we do in an age when the Word of God, Old and New Testaments, is our sole authority for life, belief, and practice. These Ephesians will never see Paul again - they need to cling to the Word. But we never have seen Paul - all you get on Sunday morning is me. But if I am faithfully saying again what God has said through Paul and Jesus and the prophets, God’s Word will build you up.

        Next, Paul points again to his own example and encourages the leaders not to be a burden on those they serve, but a blessing to those in need. Paul himself has not taken a salary for his evangelistic and church planting work, though he has been supported by other churches. And in Ephesus he worked, probably as a tent maker to supply his needs and the needs of the missionaries. And he holds that work up as a model: by this kind of hard work we help the weak. We help the physically weak and needy by providing for them out of our hard work, and we help the morally weak by giving them no ground for accusation. We all know that it’s a temptation for leaders to take financial advantage of their flocks, and elders are warned about this in several places. Yet it still happens. I looked online and found articles reporting that people like Benny Hinn make over a million dollars a year in salary and benefits. They don’t consider that excessive, and maybe it’s not compared to your average baseball player or corporate CEO. But Billy Graham has avoided scandal for fifty years, partially by remaining on a fixed salary, set by his board, with fairly modest benefits. The whole package totals, now, about $200,000. That’s a lot, but considering the man’s impact it’s not excessive.

        But Paul doesn’t stop with encouragement to show restraint in taking from the flock. Instead he quotes Jesus to the effect that it’s better to give back to the flock - it’s more blessed to give than to receive. Paul doesn’t quote Jesus very often, but on ethical issues like this, he does, because Jesus speaks so clearly. Paul wants the leaders he leaves behind to model the ethics of Jesus, not those of natural men.

        The section ends with Paul leaving for Jerusalem - an emotional farewell, fueled by the fact that these folks expected never to see him again. They knelt, they prayed, they embraced, they kissed, they walked him out to the ship, with his farewell message and the example of his sold out life firmly planted in their hearts and minds. These were not Paul’s last words. You can find those in 2nd Timothy to some extent. But they were a farewell address, and they are great words for us: Be sold out for the spread of the Gospel. Be sold out for the care of the flock. Be sold out for the impact of God’s word and give yourself to his work. As Paul completes his ministry he reveals his sold out heart, and gives us a great model to imitate.