To be forewarned is to be forearmed - Acts 20:17-38
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If ever you want to get a straight biblical point, you would be hard pressed to do better than going to the 16th century German theologian, Martin Luther for help. He once wrote this: ‘The Church is maintained only by its preachers and they are made by God.’ He then went on to say, ‘it would have perished long ago had it depended on its bishops.’ Now he wasn’t being facetious in saying that. As we shall see in a moment, it is fundamentally true that the way God cares for and preserves the church he desperately loves and for which he sent his Son into the world to die is by nourishing it with his life giving Word through preachers. The thing is that by Luther’s day, and indeed our own, bishops had become something more akin to administrators and politicos rather than preachers with congregations. But one of the implications of this teaching is that as God’s people you have a solemn responsibility to ensure that you are cared for by people who will faithfully, persistently and joyfully nurture you with the Bible. And obviously to do that you need to know what sort of things you should be looking for in such people. Well, Paul in his Second letter to Timothy, which we shall be unpacking over the next few weeks, goes into some detail of the kind of ministry which helps a church and the kind of ministry which hinders a church as young Timothy had to deal with some pretty knotty problems in a place called Ephesus. And by way of preparation for that letter we hear Paul addressing the local ministers of the church of Ephesus (and we can say, Hull), forewarning and so forearming them for what lies ahead. So here is the question for us this morning: Just how is a church to be cared for? Well, this passage highlights three things.
First, we have what can be called the model of caring. In this emotionally charged atmosphere Paul reminds them how he has worked non-stop in Ephesus for three solid years. First of all he draws attention to his way of life-v 18-19 ‘You know how I lived the whole time I was with you from the first day I came to the Province of Asia.’ In other words, Paul was totally consistent from the beginning of his ministry to the end. He planted the church; he nurtured it and protected it. So this was no parachute in and get out of town evangelist. For Paul this was long term ministry. As we see in vv33-35 Paul was so concerned not to be a burden or even appear to be ‘on the take’ that he did a bit of moonlighting making tents to support himself and then gave money away so fulfilling Jesus saying ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’ There is honesty, he doesn’t sponge off people, there is industry-he works hard and there is generosity he gives well. In other words, he practised what he preached. He was genuine in his Christianity- he walked the walk and so his life was an advert for the Gospel, not just his teaching. Neither was it a matter of mere showmanship- Paul the omnicompetent minister exuding confidence and charisma, because in v19 he says, ‘I served (literally I slaved for) the Lord with great humility and with tears, although I was severely tested by the plots of the Jews.’ That is, although he may well have been tempted to take short cuts in his work and get out as quickly as possible because it was so uncomfortable for him, nonetheless he stuck it out. And this may well account for the tears of which Paul speaks, it was simply breaking his heart that his own people, the Jews had turned against him. However, he saw it as his duty and privilege to be ‘slaving for the Lord’. Could I gently ask: do you? Does you life tell the world that you are a slave of Christ? Is your life as authentic as the message you say you believe in? That’s the challenge.
The real test of genuine Gospel ministry is keeping on when the pressure to give up is so great because you can’t let go of the truth and the truth won’t let go of you. Let me tell you of one of the most influential clergyman of the early part of the 19th century, Charles Simeon of Cambridge. He was an extraordinary preacher of the Gospel. When he arrived as Vicar of Holy Trinity Church, the normal congregation, who didn’t want him anyway, simply didn’t turn up. The church wardens locked all the pews so that if anyone did turn up they would have nowhere to sit down! Eventually some started to come along and were converted but they had to stand in the isles throughout whole the service and even then Simeon was only allowed to have one service in the morning. And so at his own expense he brought some chairs and set up benches for people to sit on. These the wardens threw out into the churchyard. And this went on for five years. Can you imagine having to put up with that week after week? I don’t know about you but I think that I would have been busy packing my bags pretty early on. And yet he faithfully ministered in that church for a staggering 50 years. When he began he couldn’t find a single person who would even say ‘good morning’ to him in the street. But at his funeral the whole town turned out to pay tribute to a great and godly man. Gospel ministry involves tears and toils- so look after your pastors.
Now if that was Paul’s model, what about his method for caring? It is there in a nutshell in v 20: ‘You know that I did not shrink back from proclaiming anything that would be helpful to you but taught you publically and from house to house.’ Now let’s just pause for a moment and think about this imagery of the minister as shepherd which is taken up later in verse 28. One of the primary duties of a shepherd is of course to feed the sheep. Or to be more precise, to lead the sheep to the place where they can feed on good pasture. Well, so it is with God’s spiritual shepherds- preachers. Our task is not to entertain the flock but to feed the sheep from the nourishing pasture of God’s Word. So, first and foremost pastoral ministry is a teaching ministry. And this comes out in the verbs used by Paul to describe what he has been doing during his three years:‘preach’v20; ‘taught’v20, ’declared’v21;‘testified’v24; ‘preaching’v25; ‘proclaiming’v27: ‘warning’ v31. And it is perhaps significant that in Acts 19 which describes Paul in Ephesus loads of miracles were performed by him, they are everywhere, people were even touching him with their handkerchiefs and taken them to the sick so they could be healed. But here they don’t even get a mention. Have you wondered why? Well it seems to me that it is because while God still may perform miracles, performing miracles is not part of Gospel ministry which is what he is talking to these men about. If it was, they would have been encouraged to do that kind of stuff too, but they are not. You see exactly the same in 2 Timothy- teaching and preaching is expected as the norm, but not signs and wonders.
The true Christian minister who really cares for the sheep will always have two aims in mind. First, to lead to faith in Christ those who have no faith- v21 ‘I have declared to both Jews and Greeks that they must turn to God in repentance and have faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.’ And secondly to build up the faith in Christ those who do have faith-v27 ‘I did not shrink back from proclaiming to you the whole will of God.’ In other words, Paul wasn’t selective about what he taught and to whom he taught it. He didn’t hold back because some things were difficult or unpopular -questions of heaven and hell, divine sovereignty and human responsibility, sexual ethics, the exclusivity of Jesus as being the only way of salvation and so on. Paul was of the view that if God had revealed then he had to teach it. And you know what? So do we.
The upshot of this is that we must proclaim the whole will of God to the whole people of God- adults and children. That is why we at St John’s value what is called expository preaching, that is, working through a book or a passage in order to let the Bible speak believing that when that happens God speaks. It is the Word and not the World which sets the agenda for what is to be taught here. So the world raises certain questions-why is there suffering? But God wants to raise with us his questions too: Why are you so rebellious? We ask; why does God seem far away? God asks; why do you keep away? The Bible does address our questions in a way no other book does, but it also addresses us personally in a way no other book does because at the end of the day it is God who is personally addressing us. Isn’t that something?
But if the minister is to feed the sheep with the Word he is also to protect the sheep with that same Word for there are crooks as well as shepherds. You see, in vv25-29 Paul is looking forward to the future and speaks of dangers two sources of danger for God’s people: first dangers from without-v29 ‘After I leave savage wolves will come in and will not spare the flock.’ But secondly, dangers from within, ‘Even from among your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them. So be on your guard!’ Friends, the church is always an endangered species. There is never a moment when it is not under threat. Just as it is built up by the truth of God, it is torn down by the lies of Satan. Wolves have only one aim, to harm the sheep. Sheep are not always discerning creatures; they can wander off into all sorts of dangers- the worst being following after a false shepherd who is a wolf in disguise as he leads them to the slaughter house. But it is interesting that here Paul is not warning rank and file church members to be on their guard but ministers. It is the ministers who can be led astray and so in turn do the leading astray. And this happens not by denying the truth but by distorting it. And the motive can be as simple as wanting disciples; you could even say, in order to have a bigger congregation. Paul will deal with this more fully in his second letter to Timothy, but we can think of it like this. Are people offended by talk of judgement- a focus group says ‘yes’, so drop it. Are people drawn by promises of a better life, where God is there for me, and not me for him, then teach it. Are crowds gathered by entertainment and put off by exposition, then replace the latter with the former and you will have church growth- if you are good at it that is. But in every instance, a distortion of what God says in the Bible has taken place. We may not think that an alteration of a few degrees in direction will make that much difference. True, if it is just a matter of walking from one chair to the next a few feet away. But if it is a matter of travelling from earth to Mars in a space ship it will be a difference between arriving at your destination or missing it entirely, life or death. So it is here. Distorting God’s word by having other things at the heart of ministry may seem so inconsequential but will result in people ending up in hell instead of heaven-that is how serious it is and people matter too much to God for us as ministers to allow that to happen.
This brings us to the motivation for caring. What could possibly keep a person going through all the hard work, temptations, and disappointments which attend Word ministry-in the pulpit, in the homegroups, in the Sunday schools? Paul tells us in v28, ‘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.’ This is not my church, or even our church, it is God’s church. All three persons of the Trinity have invested themselves in gathering this flock at St John’s together. It is God the Father who planned to save you. It is God the Son who bled for you. It is God the Holy Spirit who lives in you and gives you ministers like us to take care of you. To know that he was caring for the precious children of God was all the motivation Paul needed. The great Puritan minister, Richard Baxter once urged his fellow ministers to imagine how they might behave if they literally had a spoonful of Christ’s blood in their possession. Can you picture that for a moment? A fragile glass vial which in it is some of Jesus’ blood which was caught at the cross and preserved. How would you treat it? You wouldn’t leave it lying around to be trodden on would you? You wouldn’t allow one of you kids to put in on eBay? No you would treat it for what it is- invaluable. You would look at it and think about its significance, this was blood shed for you! And then Baxter writes these words which are a constant challenge to me: ‘Let us then hear the words of Christ, whenever we feel the tendency growing in us to become dull and careless. “Did I die for them and you will not look after them? Were they worthy of my blood and yet they are not worthy of your labour? Did I come down from heaven to seek and save that which was lost, and you will not go next door or to the next street to seek after them? Compared with mine, how small is your labour and condescension? I debased myself to do this, but it is your honour to be so employed. Have I done and suffered so much for their salvation, and was I willing to make you a co-worker with me, and yet you refuse that little which lies within your hands.’ I tell you; those words get to me every time. But Paul had got this nailed, v 24, ‘However, I consider my life worth nothing to me, if only I may finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus Christ has given me- the task of testifying to the Gospel of God’s grace.’ Now that is what I want my prayer to be. The thing that really scares me is the thought of not finishing and giving up on the task of sharing the Gospel- that would be terrible and I need you to pray for me to make sure that doesn’t happen otherwise it just might.
It was Augustine who said that Christian ministry is about three things: prayer, preaching and weeping. Let me tell you, I do pray for you, most of you by name on a regular basis. I try and teach you from the Bible. I trust you appreciate that. But what many of you won’t know is that I have also wept for some of you and that is not because I am a particularly emotional person. But I have wept when I have seen some of you turn your back on the Lord Jesus and his people. I have wept when I have seen some of you going through difficulties which are heartbreaking. I have wept when some of you seem to be so casual about Christian things and have started to drift away. And the reason is that I really do believe you are this precious. And when I have failed to treat you as invaluable, when, for whatever reason, I have forgotten that, then I need your forgiveness and God’s and for him to put me right again-verse 31, ‘Remember that for three years I have never stopped warning each of you night and day with tears.’
I am now entering my twentieth year here- I can hardly believe it. But let me say this: if I thought for a moment that your spiritual well being and the growth of this church was all down to me, how good I am, how faithful I am, I would have to pack it all in tomorrow, because I am not good enough or faithful enough. It really is beyond me. But thankfully there is one who is good enough and faithful enough and who I can trust to take care of you better than me or anyone else, although he will do it through people like me and Scott, and Lee and Jake- and that is God himself. So let me end with these words which I want you to take home with you and ponder over the coming week and think how you are going to respond to them, they are the words of verse 32, ‘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.’
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