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Paul’s Pattern & Plea for Selfless Shepherding (Part 1)

February 18, 2024 Preacher: Jeff Griffis Series: Acts of the Holy Spirit Through the Apostles

Scripture: Acts 20:17–27

Paul’s Pattern & Plea for Selfless Shepherding (Part 1) – Acts 20:17–27


[map - Acts 19 Paul’s ministry in Ephesus, Acts 20 is the last leg of Paul’s third missionary journey, with his eyes set on returning to Jerusalem but with an understanding and intentionality that in every place people are the ministry]

Try to stand in Paul’s sandals and imagine all that you have invested in service to Christ with the people and young but growing church in Ephesus. And imagine that, as far as you know, this is the last time you will be able to speak with the leaders, in person, to help them be the kind of servant shepherds that the Lord Jesus would have them be. What do you say, how do you guide them, what do you emphasize? 

[sermon title] Acts 20:17-38 contains Paul’s impassioned plea for the Ephesian elders to model their ministry after his own example.

Acts 20:17–27 ESV

17 Now from Miletus he sent to Ephesus and called the elders of the church to come to him. 18 And when they came to him, he said to them: “You yourselves know how I lived among you the whole time from the first day that I set foot in Asia, 19 serving the Lord with all humility and with tears and with trials that happened to me through the plots of the Jews; 20 how I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, and teaching you in public and from house to house, 21 testifying both to Jews and to Greeks of repentance toward God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. 22 And now, behold, I am going to Jerusalem, constrained by the Spirit, not knowing what will happen to me there, 23 except that the Holy Spirit testifies to me in every city that imprisonment and afflictions await me. 24 But I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God. 25 And now, behold, I know that none of you among whom I have gone about proclaiming the kingdom will see my face again. 26 Therefore I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all, 27for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God.

This speech from Paul is unique in Acts because it is the only one directly geared toward believers (giving it a more similar flavor to his letters). And he is addressing himself to the elders of the church (v. 17 - Gk. presbyteroi)), who are also called overseers at v. 28 (Gk. episkopoi), and who are responsible to “shepherd, to care for”… “the flock of God among” them, which means they are functioning in the role of “pastor” in our common terminology. This is one of several places that it seems evident in the NT that elders, overseers, pastors refers to the same office, the same role.

Paul has already made an effort to establish a plurality of elders at Ephesus who work together as a team to shepherd the church there (as under-shepherds to the Great Shepherd, even Jesus, who is the head of the church). The primary role of elders is to help a church family put into practice what God’s word says Christians are to be and to do.

Now, throughout this whole speech, but especially in the first half, Paul makes himself the example of what kind of shepherds they out to be.

If we would follow Paul’s example of selfless shepherding as he follows Christ, we must…

Just to be sure, let me state the obvious here that although you may not currently serve in the capacity of a church shepherd, the attitudes and postures and practices here apply to all of Christ’s people.

None of us has the role of Jesus as the head of the church, but we’re always trying to be like him. Just so, all of us should be following Paul’s example here of selfless service to others, following the example of Christ.

We must…

Live transparently in service to the Lord—serving others in humility, sincerity, and perseverance. (vv. 18b-19)

Live transparently before those around you as you serve the Lord - “You yourselves know how I lived among you the whole time from the first day…” - Paul says again in v. 34 “You yourselves know” that I worked with my hands to minister to my needs and those with me. There’s another good example from Paul of such language in his first letter to the Thessalonians, in chapter 2, where he repeats the refrain and the idea that “you yourselves know” &  “for you remember” how we lived among you. Paul lived transparently, in order that he might be a model of submission to Christ and dependence on Christ.

Even if you are younger than some of those you serve: 1 Tim 4:15 “Practice these things, immerse yourself in them, so that all may see your progress.”

We serve the Lord by serving others, and we must learn to do so more and more in a way that is consistent with Paul’s description of his own “serving the Lord” among them in Ephesus:

-with all humility - How does he manage to talk like this without bragging? - Paul seems never concerned for his own popularity, but imminently concerned to see people exalt Christ. Paul is not gathering a following for himself but for Jesus.

Humility is to make yourself low in status and rank. What’s funny is that as we come to know God as he really is, humility is just a true reflection of the reality of our place. We deserve no status or rank; only God does. So Christ’s example of humility was truly unique because he deserves to be exalted, because he is God. - So Paul can claim humility without bragging bc he actually doesn’t elevate himself, and in doing so he sets an example of Christlike humility.

-with tears - Tears are a mark of the sincerity of our hearts. These are tears of sadness when individuals reject Jesus, who offers to save them from themselves. These are tears of sympathy and compassion for those who are suffering, such as the loss of a loved one or are suffering mistreatment/injustice/hardship. (With tears and prayers we carry one another’s burdens.) And these are tears of joy with those who are accepting Christ, with those who are growing in Christ, exalting Christ, serving Christ for the good of others to the glory of God.

-with trials (the point is persevering through the plots of the Jews against him, and not just in Ephesus but in nearly every community where he was preaching Christ)

Selfless shepherding is to live transparently in service to the Lord, by serving others in a manner that is humble, sincere, and perseverant.

How else do we see that we can follow Paul’s model of selfless shepherding? (where he takes his cues from Christ)

Prioritize direct and persistent gospel proclamation through biblical teaching. (vv. 20-21, 27)

Not only is this theme evident in these verses here, but it’s probably the most prominent feature of all in Paul’s ministry. Preach the gospel to the lost and teach the believers how to apply the gospel to every facet of their lives.

Paul did not shrink back, so he boldly “declared anything profitable” for their salvation and growth, and he did this teaching in public (which had been in the synagogue for a while and then in the hall of Tyrannus for even longer), and now we learn that he also gladly went to follow up with more personal instruction in people’s homes—answering questions, applying God’s truth to their life situations. (We call this type of teaching counseling, and it’s the primary type of teaching from God’s word that nearly all of us are engaged in our should be engaged in.)

Whether in public or in private, what was the central emphasis of his teaching and proclamation? v. 21 With Jews and Greeks he testified of repentance toward God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, which is a summary of the right response to the gospel—repentance toward God of our sin and of faith specifically in the Lord Jesus Christ to be our propitiation and restoration to God, our atonement and our righteousness for forgiveness before God.

Now two more things, one implied and the second explicit.

  1. We ought never to think that the gospel only applies to the lost who need to be saved. That it certainly does, for you were saved only because of God’s grace to you through a response of faith in Jesus. But I was just having a conversation on Thursday with another friend in our family that the most significant and readily applicable answers for the struggles and need for growth in our lives correspond directly to aspects of the gospel itself. - Take the issue of our struggles at times with our own identity. Does not the gospel point you to an identity that is grounded in a God who created you, and if you are a believer, a God whose son paid to make you his own, in whom rests your true identity: I belong to God through Jesus. What is the single most important and foundational issue to your identity? I belong to God through Jesus Christ, my Savior and Lord. - Or say you are struggling with selfishness. What is most pertinent to changing your heart? Is it not the selfless love of God to give Jesus, and Christ’s own humility and selfless obedience? - I could literally go on and on. (Such is how we counsel ourselves and others, as it should be.)
  2. But there’s a second point. We do so only according to what God himself has said, and we do so most effectively when we are most closely aligned with the specificity of God’s own revealed word, Holy Scripture. And the fingerprint of God’s gospel is throughout Scripture, or as Paul says it in v. 27: he didn’t shrink (there’s that God-given boldness again) from declaring to them the whole counsel of God. In the context, is this not plainly a way of saying that throughout Scripture the threads of the gospel are woven together into the tapestry of God’s salvation—of creation, fall, redemption, and restoration? We apply the truths of the gospel from God’s word to the situations of our lives, and God the Holy Spirit takes his word and straightens our twisted hearts.

So what we’re saying is that this biblical teaching and gospel proclamation are inextricably intertwined, and that we must follow Paul’s example to make it our highest priority. It’s what God is using to save people, and it’s what he’s using to keep shaping us into the image of Christ.

Let’s come of our third emphasis of Paul’s living example before the Ephesian elders. He models…

Be sensitive and obedient to the Lord’s leading, and keep an eternal perspective on safety and ministry. (vv. 22-24a)

We’ve seen this numerous times in Acts with the Pauline missionary endeavor. Paul submits his plans and desires to the leading of the Spirit. The prayerfully seek God’s guidance and direction, and sometimes the Spirit guides or confirms their plans, and other times he changes there plans.

So vv. 22-23 reveal here that Paul is sensitive to the Spirit’s leading, and he’s unselfishly obedient to that God-given direction. He says he’s constrained (he’s tied, he’s bound, he’s compelled), not yet literally but because he is bound to obeying God even above his own safety. Paul doesn’t know the details (not knowing what will happen to me there), but he’s already received plenty of confirmation by the Spirit that what’s in store ahead is imprisonment and afflictions. It seems likely that since Paul says this confirmation is happening “in every city,” that with every stop there are fellow believers warning him. The warnings appear to be less explicit and detailed until Paul reaches Caesarea Maritima, where he meets a prophet names Agabus (Ac 21:10-11).

But why doesn’t this threat of impending suffering and even mortal danger stop Paul from going to Jerusalem? Again, the first reason is that he submits to and obeys the Spirit’s leading, and the second reason is that God is enabling him to keep his safety and his very life in perspective with the eternal purposes and trustworthiness of a good and sovereign God.

So Paul can say with all sincerity that he does not account his life any value nor as precious to himself, because his life belongs to God, to the Savior who purchased him. Paul knows that he’s always exactly as safe as God wants him to be, so he can focus on following God’s will.

Don’t we long to be like this? If we don’t, we’re not seeing our lives accurately. Christ purchased us to be set apart to him and to be his sent ones. And we trust in a God who is always sovereign and good. So you do not have to despair about the difficulties that he allows in your life, but only to cling more fervently and dependently on the God who has loved you so dearly.

My life is not my own. I have been bought by a perfectly benevolent Master. I am his child; Jesus calls me friend. So Paul will tell the Philippians in a letter (when he’s imprisoned under house arrest, awaiting trial, probably in Rome) that my one purpose for living is Christ. If he lets me die, I go to be with him (that’s the best option). If I live, I stay here to serve my Savior by serving you and others, so that’s good too, if God wants it.

We need that kind of trust and eternal perspective about our lives and safety and ministry so that we’ll gladly and humbly follow the Lord’s leading into whatever situations he’s calling us.

Now Paul will keep delving a bit further into this perspective, which focuses more on the ministry side and completing whatever God gives us right to the end. If we would follow Paul’s example, we too must…

Finish the race with a clear conscience that we withheld nothing of truth or selfless effort. (vv. 24b-26)

Paul talks about finishing his life and the ministry God has given him like finishing a trial-laden endurance race. Paul doesn’t gloss over the hard bits of suffering with Christ in service to him, of ministry being complicated (hear me saying relationships with people, because people are the ministry), of the heartache over those who reject Christ, or even the exhausted frustration of the ongoing battle against the flesh in our lives as we try to walk in the Spirit in the new life God has given us.

Read everything written by Paul, and you will not hear a single thing that sounds like Paul saying that God saved you so that you will now be comfortable in this life. Heaven is the time and place where you will enter into the joy of your Master forever, where there will be eternal feasting and worshipping of the goodness of the grace of God. On this earth, we’re fighting to worship God as we should, because Christ has made us his own, and we’re desperately depending on God to grow us and use us, to make us more set apart to him and to be his sent ones. Don’t buy any nonsense that if you’ll believe in Jesus and then just have enough faith in him that God wants to make everything just right for you in this life.

God has already offered you himself through Jesus Christ, and it is God himself who is more than enough. You don’t need everything just right, you need to be right with God. But God’s patience right now with sinners means that he’s still saving people for his possession, and you and I get to be a part of that.

Just so, do you hear again Paul’s focused priority? The ministry the Lord Jesus gave him is to “testify to the gospel of the grace of God.” What’s your ministry, what’s your life purpose until God takes you home? Is it not to testify to the gospel of the grace of God?

So Paul tells the Ephesians leaders, I don’t think I’ll see you face to face again (among whom I’ve gone about proclaiming the kingdom—ANOTHER reference to the gospel). That’s his honest expectation, that he won’t get to teach them again in person, whom he loves dearly in the Lord. But his prayer for himself is that he’ll get to the end of his race with a clear conscience that he’ll hear from His Lord, “Well done, my son.”

Along those lines, he can say truthfully to them that his conscience is clear regarding them (that’s what he means by being innocent of their blood; if they suffer judgment, it wasn’t because he didn’t warn them with the gospel). In fact, as we said, he came about it from every angle in God’s word (the whole counsel of God) to allow the Holy Spirit to do his work, to give them every chance to respond appropriately to Jesus.

Don’t you want to get to the end of your life, like Paul at the end of his, and be able to say truthfully…

2 Timothy 4:7 ESV

7 I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.

What will we do today with Paul’s example of selfless leadership?

Concluding Summary and Application: Living As Selfless Shepherds

Will you look to Jesus to be your model and will you humbly serve as an example for others to follow

Are we living transparently? Do you have accountability? Can others see your progress?

Are we depending on God to help us persevere in selfless ministry?

In daily living, are you prioritizing gospel proclamation from the word of God as the primary means to counsel yourself and others? What needs to change for that to be the focus?

Will you ask God to not only help you be sensitive to his leading, but to give you the comfort and courage of an eternal perspective on safety and ministry?

Are you daily pleading with and relying on the Lord to enable you to finish the endurance race of serving him with a clear conscience that you were not more focused on yourself than on serving him? 

Church of the Lord Jesus Christ, let us commit ourselves to being selfless like our Savior, and to depending on him to enable us to do so. Let us follow Paul’s example of following Jesus, and look to other examples of Christians abiding in Christ and letting him lead them and teach them to selflessly serve others.



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