THE ACTS OF THE APOSTLES | PART 5 Acts 20:17-38
A Sermon by Pastor Chico Martin
Paul has served the Lord in Ephesus “with great humility and with tears.” He has preached to the heart with reason everything “helpful” to the church, and he has taught “publicly and from house to house” to “Jews and Greeks” the twofold basis of Christian salvation: repentance and belief in Jesus. The gospel is the good news about Jesus Christ, the Messiah, and what has done, and The Acts is emphatically Gospel, because The Acts continues Luke’s narration of what Jesus Christ has done, specifically, what he has done after his Ascension. Jesus has founded his church.
The church, we see, is indeed Good News, for what would have become of us without the church? Would we not be inconsolable? Would not our memories have failed us? Would we not be without hope? Everything, in fact, would be black: the sky in mourning, the grass in mourning, the birds in mourning. Our houses would be draped in black. Jesus, through the Father’s graciousness, sent his Spirit to be with us, so we would not be alone and without our teacher. And we are not alone! We live! We live in Jesus and Jesus lives in us, sharing with us his life and his truth and his way, so we can follow in his way, and call ourselves followers, followers of the Risen Lord. And we can find ourselves in his church, living as his spouse, his very body – the flesh of him. Alleluia!
Can we not see what an awesome thing God has done for us? How can we keep silent? Are we not dead to ourselves, so that Christ may live within us? Can we not say, as Paul did, “I am compelled by the Spirit,” not knowing what befalls us next? Our lives stretch out before us only as far as God has tasks for us, and Paul’s one task is also ours: “the task of testifying to the good news of God’s grace” which is “preaching the Kingdom.”
We are adults now; we were not just converted. We are responsible for safeguarding the Gospel and its story of Jesus; we are responsible for hearing the Gospel, learning the Gospel, and teaching the Gospel. We are responsible for doing what it takes to pass the Gospel on to our youth and our children and the unborn, watchful of God’s church in public and in private. Our message is a message for the world, and we are called to go into the world, so we can proclaim the Gospel and bring the world with us into our sanctuaries. We are called to be hospitable and invite joining. We are called to make an example of our righteousness and to persuade the world that truth can be found only in the church. We are called to walk the way of discipleship, feeding, clothing, and sheltering the church, and loving our neighbors. We are called to put God before everything: our work, our families, and our fun. For if we did not, how could we call ourselves Christians, knowing God has broken his body and shed his blood for us, so the Spirit could abide within us, and we could do His will? Did God save us to exercise our own power and authority for selfish gain and the satisfaction of selfish desire and forsake the Kingdom of God? Surely brothers and sisters, God did not save us for this, for we are meant to serve the Lord.
Paul’s ministry is evangelistic and focused on cities; the early church “was largely an urban movement.”[i] In Acts 17, Paul goes to Athens, the intellectual center of the Hellenized world. In Acts 18, Paul goes to Corinth, the commercial center. In Acts 19, Paul goes to Ephesus, a Roman religious center. Acts will conclude when Paul goes to Rome, the military and political center of the world. Christianity was preached and people were converted in cities, while the rural world stayed pagan. John Stott says, “It seems to have been Paul’s deliberate policy to move purposefully from one strategic center to the next…These visits followed a similar pattern, namely the evangelization of Jews, their opposition to the gospel, the apostle’s deliberate turn to the Gentiles, and the multiple vindication of his dramatic decision.”[ii]
Ephesus was located at a crossroads, “the market of Asia.”[iii] Apollos, a native of Alexandria and a learned man, was erudite and enthusiastic. He “instructed in the way of the Lord,” but had only the baptism of John. Two women, Priscilla and Aquila, invite him to their home, where they teach him further (18:26). Christians are known as “people of the way” because they walked the path of discipleship.[iv]
Apollos, encouraged by the assembly, will have a preaching ministry, “proving from Scriptures that Jesus was the Christ” (18:28). He is preaching in Corinth, when Paul, after a year’s absence, makes his way overland and arrives back at Ephesus (19:1). More of John’s disciples have arrived, also without baptism, and “when Paul placed his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied” (19:6). The order here is first, a born-again conversion, as evidence of faith, and second, baptism by the Holy Spirit. Then the men, by speaking in tongues, re-enact the Pentecost event.
Paul rents a secular school hall and preaches about the Kingdom of God daily for five hours over a two-year period, “so that all the Jews and Greeks who lived in the province of Asia heard the word of the Lord” (19:10). Paul’s preaching is accompanied by signs and wonders of the divine power of Jesus acting through him, so that “illnesses were cured and evil spirits left” the sick and the demon-possessed. Converted sorcerers burned their scrolls of magic spells. The word spread with such power that craftsmen who made their living fashioning souvenirs for visitors to the city’s temples rioted.
Paul’s stay in Ephesus provides us with a model that continues in use. We learn 1) to take the gospel out of the church and preach it to non-believers in the context of their everyday lives; 2) to argue and persuade, using reason, about the Kingdom of God; and 3) to plan on evangelism taking years, as did Paul’s stays in Corinth and Ephesus.
Paul has just returned from traveling to Jerusalem, and visiting the areas of northern and southern Greece, Troas, and Miletus, when he leaves final instructions with the elders in Ephesus, before once again setting off for Jerusalem. Paul maintains the connection between the Jewish and Gentile churches. His final speech to the Ephesian elders is “the only speech in Acts which addresses to a Christian audience.”[v]
Luke is present with the elders who are also called pastors (28a) and overseers (28b), terms which in Greek refer to the same people and call attention to their shared role in the pastoral care of the church. The terms were not used to distinguish hierarchical authority. Paul exhorts the Ephesian pastors to “watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers,” because the flock which is the church is bought with the blood of God. The value of the church cannot be reckoned in any other way. Pastors need to be on guard for false teachers, who behave like wolves around sheep. The pastor’s strength comes from God and his word of grace (20:32), not from Mammon’s coinage.[vi] Paul has provided the elders with an model for their lives (20:36-38), taking nothing he could earn on his own. His thoroughness is exemplary; in Ephesus, Paul taught everything to everyone everywhere. Lastly, he prayed a farewell prayer with the elders. Let us, too, in our ministries, be thorough. Amen.
[i] Timothy J Keller, Center Church, 149
[ii] John Stott, The Bible Speaks Today, Acts 18:1 ebook
[iii] ibid, quoting Barclay
[iv] Acts 9:2; 19:23; 22:4; 24:14; 24:22.
[v] Andy Chambers, Exemplary Life
[vi] John Stott, The Bible Speaks Today, Acts 20:17-38