Paul - The Man And His Ministry (Acts 20. 17-38)
John Lightbody, Uddingston
We are glad to be able to make available to a wider circle a timely message which was much appreciated at the Aberdeen New Year Meetings.
In this passage we have recorded for us a concentrated account of the life and labours of the Apostle to the Gentiles. When we remember that he himself under the Spirit’s direction recounts an experience of almost 30 years, it is surely worthy of perusal by all who continue in “the work of the ministry.” We are given to understand the quality of the man and his ministry, and these matters may profitably occupy our attention for a little.
Paul - the Man
A Man of Consistency. Verse 18 commands our interest here. “Ye know, from the first day that I came into Asia, after what manner I have been with you at all seasons.” Such words are indicative of a life that was lived at a very even tenor. The apostle was not a man of change, there was a consistency of deportment and doctrine about him that would justify him saying to us in this matter as with others, “be ye imitators of me, even as I also am of Christ.” This excellent trait was evidently absent betimes with some of God’s best men, as for example Abraham on one occasion. What a strange picture of him is given to us in Gen. 12. 10-20! The “friend of God” is seen accommodating himself to the strange surroundings of Egypt, by assuming a relationship to his partner in life that resulted in her being found in Pharaoh’s house. This inconsistency of Abraham’s jeopardized his wife’s purity, was the means of Jehovah inflicting plagues upon the king’s household, and finally was the cause of a severe rebuke from the heathen monarch.
Was not David guilty of inconsistency on one occasion? See him before Achish king of Gath (1 Sam. 21. 10-15). What a picture of the ‘man after God’s own heart,’ changing his behaviour, feigning himself mad, scrabbling on the doors of the gate, and allowing his spittle to fall down upon his beard!
Peter likewise failed to maintain consistency of conduct. Notice what Paul writes in Gal. 2. 11-13: “But when Peter was come to Antioch, I withstood him to the face, because he was to be blamed. For before that certain came from James, he did eat with the Gentiles: but when they were come, he withdrew and separated himself, fearing them which were of the circumcision.”
It was a famine that sent Abraham to Egypt; it was fear that caused David to sojourn in Gath; it was favour that affected Peter in Antioch.
A Man of Humility. “Serving the Lord with all humility of mind” (v. 19). Speaking after the manner of men, Paul had much of which he might have felt very proud. Prior to conversion he was quite outstanding as a man in flesh. He details his pedigree in Phil. 3. 4-6; a list which any Jew might well have coveted. He was “a citizen of no mean city,” as he himself tells us in Acts 21. 39. His was no ordinary scholarship, having been brought up at the feet of Gamaliel (Acts 22. 3) and, unlike most of us, he was not confined to speaking in one language (Acts 21. 37).
Subsequent to conversion, he was marked out for special spiritual attainments. God gave him the honour of being His messenger to the Gentiles (Gal. 2. 7). He had particular revelations given to him, such as “the Lord’s Supper” (1 Cor. 11. 23); “the mystery” of Jew and Gentile being united in one body (Eph. 3. 3); “the rapture of the saints” (1 Thess. 4. 15). In 2 Cor. 12. 7 he speaks of the “abundance of the revelations” given unto him.
Although the foregoing words are all true of him, yet he was a man of humility. We may well ask why it was so, and the reasons come from his own pen. Paul never forgot that in his flesh “dwelleth no good thing” (Rom. 7. 18). A constant reminder to our hearts of what we are by nature is calculated to keep us humble. Then, again, he realized that any gift which he possessed, or knowledge of divine things of which he had become custodian, was really traceable to the Lord, the Giver of all (1 Cor. 4. 7). Not a few may need to be reminded of this; let us beware of adopting an air of superiority because we think that our spiritual attainments and qualifications far outstrip those of our brethren. He who gives these can just as quickly withdraw them and leave us poverty-stricken. Moreover, Paul never lost the sense of the sustaining grace of God: “But by the grace of God I am what I am” (1 Cor. 15. 10). Surely Paul was well suited to exhort the saints: “Put on therefore, as the elect of God, humbleness of mind” (Col. 3. 12).
A Man of Contentment. “I have coveted no man’s silver, or gold, or apparel” (v. 33). We live in an age of materialism, and the danger to saints is very real. Happy is the Christian who can use the apostle’s language. The spirit of covetousness can work like a canker, and it is significant to note that this sin was the first of which Israel were guilty when they entered Canaan. Shall we hear Achan make his confession: “When I saw among the spoils a goodly Babylonish garment, and two hundred shekels of silver, and a wedge of gold of fifty shekels weight, then I coveted them, and took them” (Josh. 7. 21). He coveted silver, gold, and apparel, the very things that held no charm for Paul. When writing to the Corinthians the apostle could say, “I seek not your’s but you.” He was interested not in their silver, but in their souls.
This covetousness. from which Paul was immune can be working undetected by others, but God knows the heart. Hence when the apostle appeals to the Thessalonians as to his deportment he could say: “For neither at any time used we flattering words, as ye know, nor a cloak of covetousness; God is witness” (1 Thess. 2. 5). He can appeal to the Thessalonians to judge in the matter of his speech, but when it comes to the condition of the heart, he can call God as his witness. Perhaps if we realized the serious view that God takes of this matter we would desire the more to be free from it. “Mortify therefore your members which are upon the earth, fornication, etc., and covetousness which is idolatry.” We deplore the heathen man with his idols of wood, stone, and the like, but we are classified with him if guilty of covetousness. Surely our Lord’s word is timely here: “Take heed, and beware of covetousness: for a man’s life consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he possesseth” (Lu. 12. 15).
A Man of Activity. “These hands of mine have ministered to my necessities, and to them that were with me” (v. 34). These words come from one. who was a reproduction of his own ministry. When writing to the saints at Ephesus he said, “Let him that stole steal no more; but rather let him labour, working with his own hands” (Eph. 4. '28), and again when writing to the Thessalonian church he refers to a similar exhortation as follows: “If any would not work, neither should he eat” (2 Thess. 3. 10).
This activity of the apostle’s is very appealing when we remember that, being an apostle, he was not obliged to engage in his former trade for material sustenance. He had a legitimate claim on the resources of the saints, as he states in 1 Cor. 9. 6: “Or I only and Barnabas, have not we authority to forbear working?” and further, “the Lord hath ordained that they which preach the gospel should live of the gospel” (1 Cor. 9. 14). Why then did he occupy himself with tent-making at Corinth as mentioned in Acts 18. 3? The answer to this query is given by himself: “Nevertheless we have not used this authority (claiming material support); but suffer all things, lest we should hinder the gospel of Christ” (1 Cor. 9. 12). This pattern given by Paul is surely worthy of emulation. It is no discredit to any servant of Christ who has given himself wholly to the furtherance of the gospel, to again turn his hand to his former occupation if circumstances require it. In fact it is more creditable to do so, than allow inactivity because of the lack of “engagements.”
It is very significant that “the full-time servant” under the old economy (the Levite) was forbidden of Jehovah to sell his field (Lev. 25. 34). The reason for this prohibition was Jehovah’s provision for him when he was not being sustained by tithes and offerings coming into the house of the Lord. He could resort to his field and, by means of his hands, “minister to his necessities.” For an example of this see Neh. 13. 10.
Paul - the Minister
We have observed some very pleasing features about Paul the man,- but as a minister of Christ he is just as noteworthy. Let those of us who preach the gospel or minister to the saints, examine our position in the light of the things we are about to consider.
“I kept back nothing that was profitable unto you” (v. 20). All ministry should have this character about it. The spiritual profit of the saints should be the objective of every servant. There is a danger to which all servants are exposed, that of accommodating their ministry to please their audience. Some companies of the Lord’s people have a preference for what is called “open” ministry; on the other hand some prefer “tight” or “narrow” ministry. I am not aware that either of these ministries are found in the Scriptures, and the expressions ought to be discontinued: the one is as repelling as the other. The danger however to the servant is that of catering in his ministry to any of these companies who have such an unhealthy complex. Paul did not have one line of doctrine for the saints in Asia, and another for the companies in Macedonia. Hear his words, “I sent unto you Timothy, who is my beloved child, and faithful in the Lord, who shall bring you into remembrance of my ways which be in Christ, as I teach every where in every church” (1 Cor. 4. 17). Whilst there is consistency of doctrine in his writings, the apostle used variety in his writings as the New Testament testifies. Think of the masterly doctrinal unfolding of the gospel in the Roman epistle; the letter to the Corinthians is quite different, he is constantly correcting throughout the epistle; in Galatians he is unflinching in his denunciation of Judaistic teaching being incorporated with the Cross of Christ; Ephesians is altogether different from the others—he is free to unfold to the saints the great purposes of God; Thessalonians is a letter of comfort; and so we may notice this delightful variety throughout his letters. It would seem that the determining factor in deciding the contents of his epistles was the circumstances existing among the believers to whom he wrote. It is still true that the saints need variety in ministry to suit a multiplicity of .needs in their individual and communal lives. The servant of Christ should imitate Paul in this matter, not submit his hearers to the painful experience of listening to his one pet theme.
“I have not shunned to declare unto you all the counsel of God ” (v. 27). One who can so speak is indeed a faithful man. To Paul much had been committed by the risen Christ, and indeed it was the Lord's foreknowledge of his suitability to stewardship, that was one of the factors in his being put into the ministry. “I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who hath enabled me, for that He counted me faithful, putting me into the ministry” (I Tim. 1. 12). Faithfulness is the necessary requisite for stewardship (1 Cor. 4. 2), and Paul gained full marks here. He imparted to the saints the wealth of divine truth of which the Lord had made him depositor, hence his word, “the whole counsel of God.” It is instructive to observe that in this final meeting with the Ephesian elders, he uses three terms, viz., “the gospel of the grace of God” (v. 24), “the kingdom of God” (v. 25), “the church of God” (v. 28). It may be that “the whole counsel of God” revolves around these three expressions. The apostle was evidently keen that each succeeding generation of saints should be acquainted with the truth as he taught it, so he writes to Timothy: “the things that thou hast heard from me among many witnesses, the same commit thou to faithful men, who shall be competent to teach others also” (2 Tim. 2. 2).
“I ceased not to warn every one night and day with tears” (v. 31). Paul saw danger ahead for the flock, and it was imminent, “after my departure” (v. 29). Firstly, he saw the coming danger from those who were without the flock, these he terms “grievous wolves.” The wolf is symbolic of destruction, and stealth. These men would gain entry to the assembly by seduction and, when in, would work havoc among the sheep. Of such men Jude says they “crept in”; the word means “to enter by the side.” Their method of entry enables us to identify their corrupt origin and ultimate destiny, “ungodly men” whose end is “destruction.” Perhaps we are not troubled with this menace at present so much as with the next danger to which he refers: “Of your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them” (v. 30). This was the danger from within the flock. Examples of such are found in 2 Tim. 2. 17: “Hymenaeus and Philetus; who concerning the truth have erred, saying that the resurrection is passed already; and overthrow the faith of some.” Paul puts the elders in the place of responsibility to guard the flock from these two evils and, although many centuries have gone since his charge to these men, the onus is just as binding on the elders of local churches today. The first attempt at teaching “perverse things” should be unhesitatingly challenged and the offender silenced; if not, it is sadly possible that irreparable damage may be done. The fact that the last days will be featured by some who will “not endure sound doctrine” should be a warning to all shepherds of the flock to be on the alert, for Satan will attempt inroads to all that has the stamp of God upon it.
“I commend you to God, and to the word of His grace ” (v. 32), Paul was conscious of this being a final meeting with these Ephesian elders, they would see his face no more. What a loss they would experience, and no wonder we read, “they all wept sore, and fell on Paul’s neck and kissed him, sorrowing most of all for the words which he spake, that they should see his face no more” (v. 38). Perhaps they had forebodings for future days when this stalwart of the faith would no longer be available. Perhaps many who read these lines have had similar apprehensive thoughts about the testimony of the Lord in their own locality. We fear the departure of good able men whose life and doctrine have been a bulwark to the testimony of God. Well, we must face facts, and remind our hearts that if the Lord does not come to remove His saints to the glory’', the ablest and most godly of men will be taken from us via death. What are we to do when they go? Let us give ear again to Paul's final word: “I commend you to God, and to the word of His grace” What resources are here, and who can estimate them! So we close this meditation on a note of praise to Him who has said: “I will never leave thee, nor forsake thee” (Heb. 13. 5), and whose word “endureth for ever” (1 Pet. 1. 25).