“And now, brethren, I commend you to God, and to the word of his grace, which Is able to build you up and to give you an inheritance among all them which are sanctified” (Acts 20:32).
The great Apostle of the Gentiles—than whom never has arisen a man on earth so close a follower of Christ, so ardent a lover of his Saviour, so decorated with the moral characteristics of Jesus, so devoted to the interests of his Master, so jealous of the honour of his Lord, so faithful to the sacred trust committed to his keeping, so rigidly separate from this world, so zealous a propagator of the gospel, so vigilant in his oversight of the flock of God, so hostile to corrupters of the truth, so severe in denunciation against any departure from the faith, so valiant on the field of battle, so truly a lover of peace, so self-sacrificing, and so patient in the tribulations which accompanied the proclamation and the defence of the testimony of our Lord—his address to the elders of the Ephesian Assembly, a company which had been by his means gathered out of the world to Christ (and among whom he had laboured with indefatigable zeal for three whole years, but which he was now leaving in the midst of a ruthless and God-hating world), commends them to God and to the Word of His grace.
His penetrating and prophetic vision could discern in the surrounding gloom the grievous wolves, who only waited his departure in order to make a merciless raid on the flock of God who were so dear to his soul. Cowards at heart they dare not attack while that man of God stood sentinel on the outpost of the territory claimed by the gospel of Christ, but waiting would not slake the passion of their blood-thirsty appetites; they could bide the time when the flock would be left without his protection, and the feeble opposition of his subordinates had for them but little terror.
He had, during the three years that he was with them, set these Ephesian elders a fine example in his manner of life they had seen livingly portrayed the Christ he had preached to them. For their sakes he had endured all things. Every saint in Ephesus had felt the pressure of his kindly hand. From his lips they had heard the encouraging word that strengthened the pulse of divine life in their souls. The gentle but firm reproof had fallen upon their ears, not as from one who had dominion over their faith, and who aped at lordship over God’s heritage, but as from one who was of like passions to themselves and who counted himself less than the least of all saints. From those same lips came the word of warning when the danger was to be taken account of, while the tears streamed over a face furrowed with anxiety and care in his concern for the churches.
And they had seen those tears, tribute of a heart divinely impressed with a sense of the infinite mercy that had been extended to himself, when the saints had been the victims of his insane wolfish malice, but who were now the objects of his most tender solicitude. His enmity against them because of Christ had been great, but now his affection for them far more than counter-balanced all fleshly malevolence.
In his service for his Master his earthly happiness was flung to the winds, the comforts of life were discarded, scorned was all worldly position, wealth was despised, friends forgotten, home abandoned, poverty embraced, hunger and nakedness welcomed, stripes and imprisonments patiently submitted to. How closely he followed in the footsteps of his Master, who said, “Foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has not where to lay His head.”
He worked with his own hands, earning his bread by the sweat of his brow. He preached to his own countrymen in their synagogues, he preached to the Gentiles the same Word of life in their public places of resort; he went from house to house where he could find an open door; he reproved, rebuked, comforted, edified, and fed the saints. He was at it night and day. His labours were Herculean and ceaseless, His enthusiasm boundless.
He upset ancient institutions in every city into which he entered. He made nothing of their religion, their idols were iniquity, the day of Judaism was over, God was going to judge the world by the Man that it had rejected and gibbeted, and He was commanding all men everywhere to repent. Greek philosophy was falling before the gospel, the shadows of the legal system were fading away in the presence of the substance. And there was much to encourage.
But the activity of the enemy knew no abatement. The cunning of the old serpent, the powers of the infernal regions, the hatred of the world: all these combined their energies together against the results of gospel activity on earth, and the sect of the Nazarenes was everywhere spoken against. Here and there the wall of separation between the assembly and the world bore traces of successful assault by the enemy, and in many instances the stealthy foe had taken the watchmen unawares and had found a foothold in the midst of the saints.
All this had a weakening effect upon the whole Christian community. One after another of Paul’s companions fell away from his side. The ecclesiastical edifice that he had set up as a wise master builder already bore traces of worthless material in its structure, and general decay spread itself over the whole profession of Christ.
And all this comes before the mind of the Apostle as he stands up in the presence of the Ephesian elderhood, and makes his voice for the last time to be heard in their ears. He foresees the ruin of that which, as far as the eye of man could see, was his life work. It had not come at that moment to the state described above, but it was fast approaching it, and the Apostle knew that no earthly power could stay its progress.
He knew the reality of the things of which he spoke. He had seen the Lord: he had tasted of His grace: he knew His terrors. How the human heart could deceive itself, serve the devil and all the time think it was serving God, he well understood; for he had been in that state himself.
Hence he trembled for the saints of God. He saw that out of the elderhood perverse men would arise to draw the disciples away after them. Not around Christ, but around themselves would they draw the people of God. He knew this, for he knew that the flesh was always bent on sect-forming. Even certain precious truths can be used in this way. When the Lord was here upon earth the Jews were formed into many sects: even the priests were a kind of sect among themselves. And now Christendom is filled with sects. And there are but few believers who are not firmly persuaded that they must join themselves to some one of the various denominations, and that it is even the right thing to do.
How far this was foreseen by our beloved Apostle I cannot say. This he does tell us, that perverse men would arise speaking perverse things to draw the disciples after themselves. And later on his sphere of vision is enlarged to such an extent that he makes known to Timothy the whole state of the profession until the close of the dispensation.
It was a black outlook, and beyond measure distressing to the tender heart of the Apostle. But through grace he is ready for it, for he has his panacea, which is more than a match for all the maladies that the people of God are liable to, He says: “And now, brethren, I COMMEND YOU TO GOD, AND TO THE WORD OF HIS GRACE, which is able to build you up, and to give you an inheritance among all them which are sanctified.”
Thank God, there is that which cannot fail; that which has never failed the trusting heart. Will there ever rise up a soul throughout all eternity that will be able to say, I trusted God, and He has failed me? These elders are not thrown back upon their own resources. They are not told to await the developments of science. They are not exhorted to help the world to work out its own salvation by the resources that lie in itself. They are not bidden to trust in man at all. Their trust is directed elsewhere.
I commend you to God! What more is wanted? It was just what his beloved Master did when leaving His disciples alone in this world. He commended them to the care of His holy Father (John 17). The disposal of His own person, His work, His disciples, His justification: all is committed to His Father. And so as regards Paul. He had coveted no man’s silver, gold, or apparel; his own hands had ministered to his necessities, and to them that were with him. He had ever kept in his memory, and desired others to do the same, the words of the Lord Jesus, how He said, “It is more blessed to give than to receive.”
He could not commend these elders to the church, for already decay had set in; and to whom were they to go! The wolves were only waiting to leap the barriers and spread havoc in that sacred enclosure. The perverse men would soon be the recognized teachers of theology. Soon there would be nothing here to rest in. The darkness of the world would soon be creeping over the only spot on earth where there was the light of God. To whom could saint or sinner direct his anxious gaze?
I commend you to God, and to the word of His grace. That will do. Let me turn to Him. There is none other fit to be trusted. There is none other needful. He is sufficient for the darkest and most difficult day that ever yet had to be faced, or that is yet to come. He was enough for Paul, He was enough for those elders of Ephesus, He is enough for reader and writer.
But we have also “The word of His Grace.” This we are told is able to build us up, and to give us an inheritance among all them that are sanctified. The word of His grace has reference to the revelation that has come to light in Christ. Timothy is directed to “all Scripture,” and is told that it is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: that the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works (2 Tim. 3:16-17). In Timothy the subject is light for his path in very difficult days, and all Scripture, both Old and New Testament, is referred to. But here in Paul’s address to the elders it is the word of His grace, and it is for our edification in the knowledge of God, and to make sure to us the inheritance that is ours in Christ.
Let us, then, turn to God and to this word of His grace, with all our hearts, and with all confidence, knowing that He will not fail us in this day of great difficulty. But let us also keep well in mind that which we have on record concerning the ways of the Apostle to whom under God we owe so much; for he has set us an example that has been set us by none other, except the Lord Himself.
No wonder the leave-taking from such a man was unspeakable distress to those who had reaped such advantage from his doctrine and his manner of life. His own sobs and tears were, we may be sure, mingled with theirs. It was a scene never to be forgotten, nor does the Spirit of God desire that it should be forgotten; and that we might have it in our remembrance He has caused a record of it to be made. May we not forget it, but in every difficulty may we hear him say to us, “I COMMEND YOU TO GOD, AND TO THE WORD OF HIS GRACE.”