Final words are cherished. On November 5, 1994, President Reagan wrote a farewell address to the nation, announcing the onset of Alzheimer’s disease. He characterized the diagnosis by saying, “I now begin the journey that will lead me into the sunset of my life.” Sometimes, we don’t have the chance to say goodbye.
Contemplate your life. What would you say to your Christian family if you had reason to believe that you would never meet again this side of heaven?
Paul’s meeting with the Ephesian elders at Miletus was a moment like that.
At the center of Paul’s farewell was the importance of the church. The Holy Spirit had made these elders overseers of it; Christ had purchased the church with his blood. These facts moved Paul to stress the necessity of spiritual shepherding for the flock.
The keynote of his final remarks was supported by the recollection of Paul’s own life and work when he lived in Ephesus. His example should be followed; his encouragement was credible.
Paul reminded them of how he lived. For about three years (Acts 20:31), Paul worked in Ephesus—first in the synagogue for three months and then in the school of Tyrannus. He lived “among them.” They knew how Paul behaved. They saw him frequently for several years. His life was consistent, for his spiritual interest in them was evident from the first day and all the time he was in Ephesus. Paul did not get on a spiritual hot streak only to cool off when wind blew another direction. He was solid as a rock—consistent.
Paul rehearsed how he served the Lord. The apostle knew that his teaching to the Ephesians was a service to Christ. He discharged his apostolic duties with humility, with tears, and with trials. These three traits are worthy of elaboration.
Paul served with humility. This was no boast. It was a true statement. Paul’s former life kept him from boasting (1 Tim. 1:12-16). His thorn in the flesh kept him from inappropriate pride (2 Cor. 12:7). And Paul’s understanding of the gospel of grace helped him stay humble, having a proper view of himself, others, and God (Eph. 3:7-12).
Paul served with tears. The apostle agonized for the lost and for his stubborn kinsmen (Rom. 9:2-3). He wept at the sins of brethren and the spiritual apathy of some churches (2 Cor. 2:4). Paul lamented because of insincere preachers (Phil. 3:18). He cried when he departed from Miletus as well (Acts 20:37). Paul served with tears because he loved the souls of men, especially those of the household of faith. One who is more concerned about his own skin, rather than the souls of men and women, is a mere hireling (cf. Jn. 10:12-13).
Paul served in spite of trials from the Jews. Paul was a wanted man, hounded by the Jews much of the time. The unbelieving Jews pursued him in Damascus, after his conversion (Acts 9:23), in Iconium (14:5), in Lystra where he was stoned (14:19), in Thessalonica (17:5), in Berea (17:13), in Corinth (18:12), and also in Ephesus (20:18-19; cf. 2 Cor. 1:8-10). And more persecution was on the way (20:23).
Paul’s success and timeless influence were not the results of a problem-free ministry. We learn that faithfulness cannot be postponed until we have all our problems sorted out. We need to glorify God by serving him in good times and bad, like the beloved apostle.
Paul also reminded them of what he never did. “I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable ...” (Acts 20:20). The term “shrink” was used of lowering the sails—a term that Paul no doubt heard when sailing on the Mediterranean. Paul never lowered the sails in his spiritual work with people. In other words, Paul did not make decisions about what to preach or promote based upon personal interests. He did not fail to preach things out of fear of loosing support. He did not fail to encourage congregations to give to the needy in Jerusalem, fearing that they would “not take care of him first.”
He did not view the work of the church as an “us” against “them” mentality, as if congregations were in competition. Paul knew what was profitable for them to hear and do, and he encouraged what was right—not what was personally convenient or self serving. Such a spiritual disposition needs to be resurrected in many preachers, elders, and congregations.
With souls in the balance, Paul declared what was profitable. He preached useful information. He taught publicly—a matter of necessity and worship. He taught from house to house—not a substitute for the public proclamation of God’s word, but a necessity for helping people grow. He testified to Jews and Greeks the requirements of the gospel. He never lowered the sails, compromised the truth, or hindered the church through his personal conduct.
With a consistent example and sincere dedication, Paul offered credible encouragement to the Ephesians in this timeless farewell—stay the course and lead with love.