As we thank God for His faithfulness today, let us be reminded that God requires faithfulness from us. In fact, faithfulness is the most important quality needed in serving the Lord. This can be seen in the call which He gave to the church of Smyrna in Revelation 2:10 – “Be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life.” It is also seen in the commendation which the servants received from the Lord in Matthew 25:21– “Well done, thou good and faithful servant: thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things: enter thou into the joy of thy lord.”
This afternoon we will see how the apostle Paul highlights the need for faithfulness in God’s service to the Ephesian elders by his example and his exhortations. In our study of the Book of Acts we have been following his three great missionary journeys which took place over a period of 10 years, between the years 47 and 57 AD. During his third missionary journey, Paul spent most of his time in Ephesus, a city on the western coast of present-day Turkey.
During his ministry there, a thriving congregation developed and the Gospel was disseminated throughout the western part of Asia Minor. Paul then left Ephesus to visit all the churches he had planted in Macedonia and Achaia during his previous missionary journey. Then he decided to return by a merchant ship to Jerusalem, sailing southwards along the coastline of Asia Minor.
During the voyage one of the ports that the ship stopped at was Miletus. While he was there, Paul sent a messenger to Ephesus (which is about 40 km away) to call the elders of the church to come for a conference with him, as he believed that he would never see them again. Now we shall read what Paul said to them, as recorded in Acts 20:17-35. We have already read the first 11 verses of the passage during the responsive reading. Let us turn our Bibles now to Acts 20:28-35.
1. What Should We Be Faithful in?
The most important requirement is to be faithful to the Lord. This requirement is highlighted in the words which Paul spoke in v.19 – “Serving the Lord with all humility of mind, and with many tears, and temptations…” (v.19). Here Paul begins his discourse to the church elders in about the same way that he begins every epistle – by drawing attention to the Lord whom he served: the Lord Jesus Christ. Cf. Romans 1:1 – “Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ…”
This shows that Jesus was a very big part of Paul’s life. Paul would never think of himself apart from the Lord Jesus. Paul belonged to Him alone, and so he lived to do the will of the Lord Jesus. In v.24 he reveals how willing he was to deny self in serving the Lord. He said, “…neither count I my life dear unto myself, so that I might finish my course with joy, and the ministry, which I have received of the Lord Jesus…” In v.22,23 Paul says, “And now, behold, I go bound in the spirit unto Jerusalem, not knowing the things that shall befall me there: save that the Holy Ghost witnesseth in every city, saying that bonds and afflictions abide me.”
Paul was heading for Jerusalem in obedience to the Lord’s direction for him, despite knowing the awful trials he would have to face there. Doesn’t this remind us of what our Lord Himself did? Christ went to Jerusalem towards the end of His earthly ministry, despite knowing that He would be betrayed, condemned to death, humiliated and crucified there (Matthew 20:18,19). This then is what it means to“serve the Lord with all humility of mind.” The Lord’s interests must always come first. They must be placed well above our own personal pursuits and interests. Faithfulness to the Lord demands this attitude in our service: “He must increase, and we must decrease.”
It is sad that many who serve today are not interested in decreasing. They would rather increase in fame and fortune. They dream of living in the lap of luxury, and this makes them covet more silver and gold for themselves. Some use their service to God to upgrade themselves – they urge people to give and give sacrificially to support their ministry, but they fly business class or in their own private jet, they stay in the most expensive hotels, and they eat at the most expensive restaurants. They even say, “Surely God wants His servants to have the very best!”
The apostle Paul would have disagreed with them very strongly. Look at what he said in v.33,34– “I have coveted no man’s silver, or gold, or apparel. Yea, ye yourselves know, that these hands have ministered unto my necessities, and to them that were with me.” He worked as a tent-make, to provide not only for his own needs, but for the needs of others as well. When Paul wrote his epistle to the Philippians some time later, he said, “I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord: for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and do count them but dung, that I may win Christ.” (Philippians 3:8)
Let us therefore be faithful to Christ in all our service.
The apostle Paul is a good example of one who was very faithful to fulfill his role in life. Listen now to what he said at the end of v.24– “…so that I might finish my course with joy, and the ministry, which I have received of the Lord Jesus, to testify the gospel of the grace of God.” Paul knew exactly what role the Lord wanted him to fulfill: He was to testify of the Gospel of the grace of God. This was his role in serving the Lord, and he devoted himself to fulfill it faithfully wherever he went. He had been doing this to the Ephesians for three years (54-57 AD), as he said to them in vv.18 and 31– “Ye know, from the first day that I came into Asia, after what manner I have been with you at all seasons… Therefore watch, and remember, that by the space of three years I ceased not to warn every one night and day with tears.”
Three years was actually the longest time that Paul served in one city throughout all his missionary journeys – This was because of its strategic location in reaching out to the whole province of Asia. Within that time, Paul put in all his efforts to fulfill his role in several ways: Public teaching is mentioned in v.20 – “…and have taught you publickly, and from house to house.” “Testifying both to the Jews and also to the Greeks” is mentioned in v.21. In v.25 we see that Paul was also “preaching the kingdom of God” among them. Besides all that, Paul was also “warning every one night and day with tears.” in v.31. Through his faithful teaching, and testifying to Jews and Greeks, and preaching the kingdom of God, and warning the Christians against false teaching, the Ephesian church was firmly established on a strong foundation. Paul fulfilled his role well despite the many difficult challenges which he faced at Ephesus.
But Paul did not expect the elders of Ephesus to do what he did, because they had a different role to fulfill. In v.28 they are told to “feed the church of God.” In vv.29-31 they are told to keep watch against false teachings that may come into the church both from without and from within. The role of these church elders is basically to look after the flock of God as shepherds by providing them with spiritual food and protecting them from spiritual predators.
Did the Ephesian elders fulfill their role well? Yes they certainly did. Fast-forward now to a time about 40 years later, and we find this commendation that Christ gave to this church in Revelation 2:2– “I know thy works, and thy labour, and thy patience, and how thou canst not bear them which are evil: and thou hast tried them which say they are apostles, and are not, and hast found them liars.” The elders had faithfully kept watch over their flock and had exposed the false teachers who tried to subvert the flock.
Thus we have seen that Paul and the Ephesian elders were faithful in fulfilling their respective God-given roles. Paul was faithful in his role as a church-planter, testifying of the Gospel of the grace of God wherever he went. The elders of Ephesus were faithful in their roles as shepherds who provided for the flock and protected it from danger. There are many other roles of service in God’s kingdom besides these. In the earlier chapters of Acts we had seen that some are called to serve as deacons, some as evangelists, and some as teachers. Others have been blessed with spiritual gifts of faith, administration, discernment, hospitality, giving, mercy, or encouragement. It is fascinating to study these spiritual gifts, but that is not within the scope of this sermon.
But what needs to be impressed on us is that we all have a role to play in God’s kingdom. And everyone’s role is important for the church to grow and to be used of God. The Bible says that the church is like a human body. What happens when one organ in a person’s body is not functioning well? The whole body suffers! The same thing happens if one member is not fulfilling his or her role faithfully – The whole church suffers! It may just a sprained ankle or a runny nose or a toothache, but it hinders our performance The question we should ask ourselves today is: Are you fulfilling your God-given role in His kingdom?
Please do not think that there is no role for you at all in God’s kingdom. Perhaps some of us may have certain limitations that prevent us from serving. Perhaps you want to serve the Lord but you face certain challenges that come with age. There is one thing that everyone can do – that is to pray. And if praying is the only role that you can fulfill in God’s kingdom, then please make sure that you are a faithful prayer warrior pleading before God’s throne everyday. The church needs your effectual fervent prayers! Without prayer all that we do will lack God’s power and enablement. Do you know that prayer was the secret of success in Paul’s ministry? His praying is mentioned no less than seven times in the Book of Acts. One of them is found at the end of our passage,– “Acts 20:36 – “And when he had thus spoken, he kneeled down, and prayed with them all.”
Now, besides faithfulness to the Lord and faithfulness to fulfill our God-given roles, there is another area where faithfulness is required of us. It is faithfulness to the whole counsel of God. This is mentioned in vv.26,27 where Paul said, “Wherefore I take you to record this day, that I am pure from the blood of all men. For I have not shunned to declare unto you all the counsel of God.” The counsel of God here refers to the complete Word of God which we now have in the 66 books of the Bible. Paul did not withhold any teaching of God’s Word from the Ephesians. He said to them earlier on in v.20, “I kept back nothing that was profitable unto you…”
There is an important detail here which I want you to notice. Paul did not say, “I kept back nothing that was pleasant unto you.” Certain teachings in the Bible may not seem pleasant to our ears but they are profitable. According to 2 Timothy 3:16– “All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness.” All scripture is profitable – not just some of it or most of it, but All of it. And so, in order to be faithful to the Word, we need to declare all of it – the whole counsel of God. This means that we should not leave out any ‘unpleasant teaching’ like the wrath of God and the existence of hell. The whole counsel of God also includes the need to repent of one’s sins and to receive Christ not only as Saviour, but also as Lord. This is what Paul declared at Ephesus. Look at v.21 where Paul says that he was “…testifying both to the Jews, and also to the Greeks, repentance toward God, and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ.”
If anyone here is still unsaved, please listen to this carefully, because it is part of God’s whole counsel – If you are still outside Christ, you are still in your sins. There is no way that you can escape from the fires of hell, unless you repent of your sins and trust only in Jesus Christ to save you, submitting fully to His Lordship in your life. And since God’s awful judgment on this world is coming soon, you must not delay obeying His command any longer. Repent and believe right now!
Unfortunately many would rather listen to a message that makes no demands on them at all, but offers them all the blessings of God they could ever wish to receive, like good health and wealth. They see the ministry of the Word merely as a means to get what they want instead of what they need. These are so easy to obtain on-line.
If we want to be faithful to the Word we cannot pick and choose only what we love to hear from it, or what we love to think about all the time. To be faithful to the Word is to give our attention to thewhole counsel of God. Your soul needs the nourishment contained in every part of it, and not just from your favorite books or passages of the Bible. It is just like eating well-balanced meals that include every kind of food that your body needs to be strong and healthy. You may not enjoy having to eat more high-fiber, low-fat, low-sugar, low-salt meals regularly, but the long term benefits do make it all worthwhile. And so, as a point of application, please ask yourself: Are you faithful in learning and obeying the whole counsel of God?
Thus we have seen our need to be faithful to the Lord, faithful to fulfill our respective God-given roles, and faithful to the whole counsel of God. But now we come to the question…
2. How Can We Remain Faithful?
How do we keep doing all these things until we reach the end? Many who started out well have not finished well. They made pledges and promises which they had every intention to keep at the beginning, but sadly they did not keep them in the end. In Paul’s discourse we can see how greatly concerned he was that the Ephesian church should remain faithful. Let us look now at three exhortations which he gave to them elders from v.28 onwards to see how we can remain faithful.
The first exhortation is found in v.28: “Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock…” The Ephesian elders would already have known that they were to guard the flock, which is the church. After all, that’s their role as the elders of the church! But what do we see here? Paul was telling them to take heed unto themselves first, in order to remain fit to guard the flock.
There is always a temptation for those who serve the Lord to get so busy and involved with serving that they neglect their own walk with God. As a result of this they become spiritually weak, they fall into sin and become ineffective in their service. I hope that everyone who is serving in any ministry of Life Church will take this exhortation seriously – Guard yourself! The devil is always looking out for opportunities to gain a foothold in your heart and make you fall. And so as Proverbs 4:23 says, you must “Keep [your] heart with all diligence; for out of it are the issues of life.”
Unfortunately not everyone in Ephesus heeded Paul’s exhortation to guard themselves. About 10 years later when Timothy was pastoring the church at Ephesus, Paul wrote to him: “Holding faith, and a good conscience; which some having put away concerning faith have made shipwreck.” (1 Timothy 1:19) And so, not wanting this to happen to his young co-worker, Paul gave him the very same exhortation that he gave to the Ephesian elders. He wrote this 3 chapters later, “Take heed unto thyself, and unto the doctrine; continue in them: for in doing this thou shalt both save thyself, and them that hear thee.” (1 Timothy 4:16)
There is one good way to know whether you are spiritually well or not. Look at your love for the Lord. This is a spiritual thermometer. If your love for Him has grown cold, you are unwell and you need to rekindle that love before things get worse. This actually happened to the Ephesian church about 40 years later. Although the Lord Jesus commended them for guarding the flock well against false apostles, He also rebuked them: “Nevertheless I have somewhat against thee, because thou hast left thy first love.” (Revelation 2:4) Let us ask ourselves this question: Have you left your first love? Has your love for the Lord grown cold?
If it has, one way to restore it is build yourself up spiritually. You may be diligent in feeding others, but you also need to feed yourself. This exhortation is found in v.32 – “And now, brethren, I commend you to God, and to the word of His grace, which is able to build you up, and to give you an inheritance among all them which are sanctified.” (v.32) Paul said this because he had to leave the Ephesians, and would no longer be present to teach them as he had done before. But no matter what happens they would always have God’s Word with them to build them up, as long as they continued to study it. This would enable them to remain faithful to the end and to receive their eternal rewards in heaven.
If you want to remain faithful, you must give sufficient time to the study of God’s Word. Please take time to read your Bible each day, and let God speak to you through His Word. Remind yourself that this is “the word of His grace, which is able to build you up, and to give you an inheritance among all them which are sanctified.”
But having said all this, the question still remains– what if God’s people are somehow not diligent enough to guard themselves well and to build themselves up with God Word? We ought to do our best to remain faithful, but what if our best is not good enough? If the work of God’s kingdom depends entirely on our faithfulness what assurance is there that it will succeed? The answer to this is that our confidence must ultimately be placed in God. We must look to Him for all the help we need to remain faithful.
God was Paul’s confidence that the Ephesian church would remain faithful. That’s why his discourse ends by saying, “And now, brethren, I commend you to God…” (v.32a). After all, God had purchased them with His own blood, as Paul mentioned in v.28 (“…to feed the church of God, which He hath purchased with His own blood.”) This of course refers to God the Son who suffered and died on the cross for our sins.
If Christ has purchased His Church at such great cost to Himself, do you think He will leave its fate to be determined by the changing hearts of men? No! He will surely see to it that His Church will endure to the very end. That’s why Christ bestowed all the spiritual gifts which the Church needs for service. That’s why Christ also sent the Holy Spirit to work within each believer. And it is the Holy Spirit who made the elders fit for their role as overseers, so that the flock would be well fed. Tit was through all these works of God that the Ephesians had now grown into a thriving church within three years.
The same thing is true of Life Church. We must continue to work together to build a united church family that is committed to making disciples through Salvation, Sanctification and Service to the glory of God. Will we be able to do these things well? We don’t know for sure.
But this one thing we know: God is faithful! Let these closing words of Paul to the Church of Thessalonica be our constant source of encouragement: “And the very God of peace sanctify you wholly; and I pray God your whole spirit and soul and body be preserved blameless unto the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. Faithful is He that calleth you, who also will do it.” (1 Thessalonians 5:23-24) May we all be greatly challenged through this to serve faithfully, by remaining Faithful to the Lord, Faithful to fulfill our God-given roles of service, and Faithful to the whole counsel of God, until our Lord Jesus Christ returns!
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