Its manner, method, and matter.
Part 1. Its manner.
In these words addressed to the Ephesian elders, we have an epitome of Paul's life, labours, and doctrine. As far as recorded in the Acts, the scene presented in this chapter closes the apostle's active service. From this point it only relates how he fell into the hands of the Jews, that he was detained a prisoner for two years in Cs area, and finally, how after an eventful voyage, he reached Rome. This lends a significance to the occasion, which it would not otherwise possess, and makes us feel what a deeply important moment it was when, through the Ephesian elders, the great apostle was addressing the Church for all time. And never was there greater need to keep in memory these last injunctions than at the present moment. Many of the professed exponents of Christianity today are not to be trusted, but here we can listen to the words of God's own chosen and inspired vessel. What it needed to transmit undimmed the revelation given to him, no one can conceive. Well might he exclaim, "Who is sufficient for these things?" But the apostle was a steward, and it is required in stewards that a man be found faithful. It was not merely what he taught, but, in his life and in his labours, l he was at once the embodiment and the exponent of the truths of Christianity.
The elders of Ephesus were selected to hear the parting admonition of the great apostle of the Gentiles. Ephesus seems to hold a special place. It was here that a great work had been wrought by the Spirit of God. (See chap. 19:1-20.) All that dwelt in Asia heard the word of the Lord Jesus. Ephesus is the first Church addressed in the Revelation; and finally, to the Ephesians was addressed that wonderful epistle, which unfolds the counsels and purposes of God, and wherein the truth as to the Church is the special subject. It may be added that it was at Ephesus Timothy was left to take the oversight. And now it is to the elders of this same church the apostle speaks of his own ministry, and also of what would happen after his departure. To us, who are witnesses that all he foretold has really come to pass, his words possess a special and peculiar interest.
It is the manner, method, and matter of Paul's ministry we have brought before us in this chapter, and which we desire to dwell upon. All these features deserve our careful consideration. It is not only necessary for us to preach, but what we preach, and the way we preach are quite as essential, if we are to commend ourselves to the Lord.
First, then, as to the manner. The apostle says, "Serving the Lord with all humility of mind, and with many tears, and temptations which befell me by the lying in wait of the Jews." (v. 19.) How much there is underlying these words, "serving the Lord." The Lord was his object in service. True, he would endure all things for the elect's sake, he would become all things to all men if by any means he might save some; he was content to be made as the filth of the world and as the offscouring of all things, but, it was as the Lord's servant. Writing to the Galatians, he says, "Paul an apostle, not of men, neither by man," and again, "for if I yet pleased men, I should not be the servant of Christ." He was the Lord's servant, and owed no allegiance to man but to serve. He was free from all, and therefore he could, and did, become servant of all. It is only as any of us are thus, that we can truly serve. But not only was he the servant of the Lord, he also had the Lord before him in all his service. If the first gave him liberty, the last gave him joy. If men received his word he could rejoice, and if they refused his message he could still rejoice, for he had served the Lord. (See 2 Cor. 2:14-16.) As servants, do we not need to remember these two things? What boldness it would give us, if we always had this for our motto, "Serving the Lord." There is immense encouragement too in it, for it means we are accountable only to Him. As the apostle could write to the Corinthians (1 Cor. 4:3-5), "With me it is a very small thing that I should be judged of you, or of man's judgment . . . but He that judgeth me is the Lord." And as we are accountable only to the Lord, so it is only to Him we are to look for reward. Is it not enough to think of His "well done"? What greater stimulus do we require? If we can honestly say we are "serving the Lord," then every other question may be left. Do not let us covet man's approbation. If it is the Lord we serve, it is the Lord who will recompense. Sometimes we may be flattered, at other times frowned upon, at times elated and at times depressed, success now crowning our efforts, and then seasons of barrenness, but through it all be it ours to serve the Lord. If through all his arduous labours, this sustained the apostle, it will be quite sufficient for us.
But we must not omit to notice the features of his service. First of all it was characterized by "humility of mind." Such strangely perverse creatures are we, that unless the flesh is kept under, service, instead of making us humble, is apt to puff us up. The publicity, which to a great extent is inseparable from service, the position it gives the servant, and the many inducements to make the servant think something of himself, arising from the very nature of the work - all these may tend to self-exaltation. If we have this example of the apostle continually before us, we shall be saved from many a pitfall. Humility in the apostle did not mean feebleness - when occasion called for it, he knew how to magnify his office, and he could write to another and say, "Let no man despise thy youth"; but of himself as a worker he could say, "Unto me who am less than the least of all saints is this grace given"; and on another occasion, "I am the least of the apostles, that am not meet to be called an apostle . . . but by the grace of God I am what I am." Humility has generally marked all the servants of Christ who have been especially owned of God. And in this quality they have resembled the Master Himself. Who so humble as He? He washed His disciples' feet, and said to them, "Know ye what I have done to you? . . . I have given you an example, that ye should do as I have done to you?" He told them, "I am among you as He that serveth." The apostle followed his Master in this, though of course at a distance. In the passage we are considering he puts humility above everything. Ah! do we? He does not speak of his success, he does not mention the number of souls that were converted under his ministry, but he speaks of humility. And others too, though of lower rank than the apostle, have been distinguished for the same grace. Whitefield was as conspicuous for humility as for his marvellous gift. Notwithstanding all that God wrought by him, besides his unequalled popularity with men, he ever remained a truly humble servant. An unfailing proof of his humility was, he always valued other servants of Christ, while he put himself low down.
There are several reasons why humility should characterize the servant of the Lord. One is given us in 1 Cor. 4:7, "For who maketh thee to differ from another? and what hast thou, that thou didst not receive? now, if thou didst receive it, why dost thou glory, as if thou hadst not received it?" And, again, in the previous chapter, verse 7, "So then neither is he that planteth anything, neither he that watereth; but God that giveth the increase." And 2 Cor. 4:5 affords an additional reason, "For we preach not ourselves, but Christ Jesus the Lord; and ourselves your servants for Jesus' sake." Here, then, we have three solid reasons why humility should characterize the servants of Christ. First, as to what they are, the Lord makes His servants to differ as to their qualifications, and all that they have, they received; secondly, as to what they do, it would come to nought unless God gave the increase; and, thirdly, as to what they preach, they exalt Christ, and Christ only.
But there was another thing that marked the apostle's service. He served the Lord "with many tears." Now, why does the apostle mention this fact? It is hardly too much to say that in a large measure it reveals the secret of his power. A man who weeps is alive to the importance of his mission, and is downright in earnest about it. If we are not moved ourselves, how can we expect to move others? The blessed Master is a pattern in this as in everything else. He wept over Jerusalem; He wept at the grave of Lazarus; He wept in the hour of His agony, when, with strong crying and tears, He offered up prayers and supplications unto Him that was able to save Him from death. Depend upon it, if there were more tears, there would be more conversions. Hearts would be touched. "How is it that your seed comes up so soon?" said one gardener to another. "Because I steep it," was the reply. Here is the reason why our preaching is often without effect - we have forgotten to steep it in tears. "He that goeth forth and weepeth, bearing precious seed, shall doubtless come again with rejoicing, bringing his sheaves with him." These are the conditions. Weeping in secret, when no eye sees us but God's, is, after all, the great thing.
The last thing we notice, and that briefly, in connection with the manner of the apostle's ministry, is "temptations." No doubt this word would also include all that is ranged under the head of trials. It has been well said, "Prayer and temptation, the Bible and meditation, make a good minister of Jesus Christ." Trial and temptation are the badges of service. They are incidental to the work. The servant is seeking to pull down the kingdom of Satan and establish the kingdom of God, and no wonder that the great adversary will not let him alone. He is in the forefront of the fight and must expect blows. An unusually large share fell to the apostle's lot. (Read 2 Cor. 11:23-28.) Moreover trials have a purifying effect. "When He hath tried me, I shall come forth as gold." They also have a mellowing effect. What a lack is discernable where there has been freedom from trial! Such a servant may have much gift, but hardly be as distinguished for grace. "If I am in sorrow," said one, "commend me to a bruised brother." Who is it has been made perfect through sufferings? Is it not the Lord Jesus? And is there any other road for His servant? In trial and temptation, the servant learns too the deceitfulness of his own heart, discovers his weakness and imperfections, and experiences his own emptiness. But, on the other hand, he grows in deeper acquaintance with Christ, tests the boundless resources of his Master, and learns experimentally that His "strength is made perfect in weakness." As a consequence he becomes better able to help others. Often when some message from one of the Lord's servants has been used to us, we have little thought of the suffering he has had to pass through to fit him to be such a channel of blessing. If it is true of believers generally, it is even more true of servants: "I have chosen thee in the furnace of affliction." No servant will ever distinguish himself who has not passed through the school of suffering. We might mention many of God's servants, whose history illustrates what has been said. Look at Joseph Think of his pathway! From his father's house to the pit, from the pit to the prison, and thence to the palace. Moses had to keep sheep at the backside of the desert, before he led forth the people of God; and David wandered as a fugitive, ere he was established on the throne of Israel. If any who read these lines are passing through special trial and temptation, let them remember it may be the needed preparation for future service.
It will be seen how much the servants of the Lord need the prayers of God's people. Weak in themselves, they need power from on high, and this is given only in answer to prayer.
Part 2. Its method.
The method as well as the manner of the apostle's ministry comes before us in Acts 20. They are doubtless interwoven, and yet distinct. The one reveals the man, the other the servant. In the one we see character, in the other ability. And both were combined in an eminent degree in this devoted servant. In whichever way we regard him, we see what a remarkable vessel he was, and how conspicuous was the grace of God in him. As a man he was humble, courageous and unselfish; as a servant he was gifted and devoted. He could say, "I laboured more abundantly than they all"; but truly adds, "yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me." (1 Cor. 15:10.)
First of all, in verse 20, he says, "I kept back nothing that was profitable unto you." The apostle thought of his hearers and of their profit. He knew very well that what he received he was bound to communicate; he was a steward "of the mysteries of God." (1 Cor. 4:1.) He was perfectly aware that all that was revealed to him must be for the profit of those to whom he ministered, and he faithfully delivered it. It was to this very assembly he afterwards wrote an epistle which unfolds the highest truth, the subject of which doubtless formed part of his oral instruction, and therefore the apostle considered it no less than the other parts of revelation - profitable to his hearers. The fact is, under the Spirit's guidance, it is impossible to turn to any part of revealed truth that is not profitable. "All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable," the same writer says in another epistle. (2 Tim. 3:16.) There is need to emphasize that word all. No doubt there are chapters in God's word - as well as doctrines - of special importance, but the point to be borne in mind is that all are necessary. A face with any feature lacking we should consider sadly deformed. The undue prominence of others would not make amends; and so not only should every truth find a place, but its right place, and that in proper proportion.
In the apostle Paul's writings there is no lack of variety; and even in the chapter before us we find his ministry comprised the following themes: repentance and faith, the grace of God, the kingdom of God, and the whole counsel of God. As Co ourselves, all scripture lies open before us. Over this vast field - every part of which in turn yields "meat in due season" - we are privileged to roam. The profit of his hearers was what the apostle ever had before him; and under the Spirit's guidance he seems to have known in a wonderful way just what was needed - like his blessed Master, who spake "the word unto them, as they were able to hear it." (Mark 4:33.)
Here lies the secret of successful ministry - to be so near the Lord as to know what He would have given out. It is one thing to be enjoying a truth ourselves; quite another, whether that will meet the special need of others. Someone has said, "Proclaim every atom of the truth so far as God has taught it you. Harmony requires that the voice of one doctrine shall not drown the rest, and it also demands that the gentler notes shall not be omitted because of the greater volume of other sounds. All revealed truth in harmonious proportion must be your theme. We would give every portion of Scripture its fair share in our heart and head. Let us abhor all one-sidedness, all exaggeration of one truth and disparagement of another." Such was the method of the apostle Paul; his teaching embraced repentance on the one hand, and the counsel of God on the other, and we may add, all that lies between those two extremes.
He proceeds, "but have showed you, and have taught you." This seems to give a further insight into his method. He was not content with shewing, he explained and enforced what he had shown. A master may be perfectly acquainted with a mathematical problem, and be able to demonstrate it on the blackboard; it is another thing to be able to impart his knowledge to his pupils. Now this is what the apostle, the "teacher of the Gentiles," sought to do. Hear what he writes to the Colossians (chap. 1:28, 29), "Whom we preach, warning every man, and teaching every man in all wisdom; that we may present every man perfect in Christ Jesus: whereunto I also labour, striving according to His working, which worketh in me mightily." To this end, the apostle, not content with public ministry, went from house to house. He doubtless found in his visits that much he had said in his public address had not been grasped. Is not this a most important branch of the work? Are we not often surprised when we question our hearers, to find how little they have retained? And what they do remember they only imperfectly understand. But in another way this visiting work is most important. Not only is the opportunity afforded of meeting difficulties in the minds of Christians, but the servant gains additional experience, which cannot fail to make his public utterances far more useful.
And the apostle warned as well as instructed. "I ceased not to warn every one night and day with tears," he says. Evidently this was done individually. What a watchful pastor he was! He not only fed the flock, but warned them of the dangers that threatened them. Little use would it be to feed a flock of sheep if the next moment they were to be eaten by wolves. If the apostle warned the saints at Ephesus of what was coming in, surely there is additional need for warning, now we are in the midst of it. Mark the apostle's words, "ceased not," "night and day," "with tears." May this faithfulness, zeal, and love be found in some measure in every true servant of the Lord.
The apostle warned with tears. What a noble example he presents! What a picture of a true servant! He not only preached publicly, he also visited from house to house; he not only taught, he also warned. He could speak to crowds, and he would care for souls individually. Nothing was too great for his mind, nothing too little for his heart. It was not merely preaching to multitudes that engaged his attention. On one occasion he could stand on Mars Hill, and address the learned Athenians, disputing with their ablest philosophers; and on another he could pen a letter of entreaty to a master on behalf of a fugitive slave.
Amidst all this he was constrained to remember that he was only a servant, and that he was passing off the scene. He could not continue, and so we find him commending these Ephesian elders "to God, and to the word of His grace." The most faithful, the most indefatigable servant must go, but God and His word remain. It is eighteen hundred years and more since the great apostle of the Gentiles went to his rest, and all that he predicted has come true; but God and His word are unchanged. What a comfort!
But the apostle had no regrets as regards his own service. While he had opportunity he did all he could. Let us think of what he was able to say in the closing moments of his active service. "I kept back nothing"; "I am pure from the blood of all men"; "I ceased not to warn every one night and day with tears"; "I have showed you all things."
And in addition to all his accumulated labour and the "care of all the churches," he could say, "These hands have ministered unto my necessities, and to them that were with me." To the Thessalonians he also writes, "For ye remember, brethren, our labour and travail: for labouring night and day, because we would not be chargeable unto any of you, we preached unto you the gospel of God." At the same time he fully recognised our Lord's maxim, "the labourer is worthy of his hire." (See 1 Cor. 9; Phil. 4; Gal. 6:6.) Why then, it may be asked, did not the apostle take more advantage of it? On the one hand, this devoted servant would not assert his rights, for fear he should be misunderstood; and on the other, he felt such was the state of some of his converts, who had only just been reclaimed from the grossest darkness, that they needed an object lesson in him, how to gain an honest living. He says to the Thessalonians, "Neither did we eat any man's bread for nought; but wrought with labour and travail night and day, that we might not be chargeable to any of you; not because we have not power, but to make ourselves an ensample unto you to follow us. For even when we were with you, this we commanded you, that if any would not work, neither should he eat." (2 Thess. 3:8-10.) These are the reasons, or some of them, why the apostle took this additional burden upon himself, and nobly did he sustain it. On the other hand, it must not be forgotten that there were occasions when he did receive, and he fully recognised that to be the divine order. "I robbed other churches," he wrote to the Corinthians, "taking wages of them, to do you service" (2 Cor. 11:8): and again to the Philippians (chap. 4:18), "Having received . . . the things which were sent from you, an odour of a sweet smell, a sacrifice acceptable, well-pleasing to God." What pure disinterestedness is thus observable in the apostle! What absolute forgetfulness of self! He was a great teacher, a most gifted servant. He could not have a more fitting epitaph than that provided by his own words, "Christ shall be magnified in my body, whether it be by life, or by death. For to me to live - Christ."
Well may he say to the Ephesian elders, "I have showed you all things." And well it is for every servant whose life is an exemplification of his own teaching.
And lastly, having spoken to men, he turns to God; "he kneeled down, and prayed with them all." Thus the curtain drops upon the scene, for the record of his active missionary labours closes here. It ends as it began. "Behold, he prayeth." (See Acts 9:11.)
Part 3. Its matter.
Having looked at the manner and method of the apostle's ministry, we have now to consider its matter. We have it indicated in the chapter before us.
1. Repentance toward God, and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ.
2. The gospel of the grace of God.
3. The kingdom of God.
4. The whole counsel of God.
The apostle naturally begins with man's side, "repentance toward God." He begins there, but he does not stop until he has declared the whole counsel of God.
The repentance spoken of is towards God. It is more than mere sorrow for sin, which may be found even in an unconverted person. We truly repent when we see our sins as God sees them. David knew what repentance meant when he exclaimed, "Against Thee, Thee only, have I sinned, and done this evil in Thy sight." Yes, when we realize what it is to have sinned against a God of holiness and love, we know what true repentance is.
And further, it involves justifying God, and condemning ourselves. In the same verse just quoted from, David continues, "that Thou mightest be justified when Thou speakest, and be clear when Thou judgest." And the next thing is, he entreats God to cleanse him. "Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean, wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow." So the next mark of true repentance is the felt need of a Saviour. This leads us to what the apostle connects with repentance, "faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ." Repentance and faith must go together. The bitter herbs were eaten with the flesh of the lamb roast with fire after the blood had been sprinkled outside. It is as we enter into what Christ endured, that repentance becomes more real. Not until there is repentance can there be a felt need of a Saviour, and the deeper the work of repentance, the greater the appreciation of the work of Christ, and the more ardent the love to the Person of Christ. True repentance and faith are connected.
In addition to testifying of repentance and faith, the apostle did not shun to declare all the counsel of God. This embraced both Jew and Gentile; if the Jew would not have it, Paul was pure from the blood of all men. We read that at Corinth, "When they opposed themselves and blasphemed, he shook his raiment, and said unto them, 'Your blood be upon your own heads, I am clean; from henceforth I will go unto the Gentiles.'" Thus, if the Jew refuses the salvation of God, it goes out to the Gentile - God's counsel must stand. And so we read, further on, in the same chapter, what the Lord says to Paul, adding, "for I have much people in this city."
There are two things presented here, - the responsibility of man, and the counsel of God. The endeavour to reconcile these apparently opposing principles has led to endless dispute. The fact is, we arrive at the truth, not by setting one against the other, but by accepting both. It is like a chain, of which both ends can be seen, but which passes out of sight in the centre. The chain is really one. Some have looked exclusively from one end, others exclusively from the other. One end, so to speak, begins from God, the other begins from the sinner; where they unite, God alone can decide. Our privilege is, without troubling ourselves with what really concerns God alone, to look from both ends in turn. If we read such scriptures as John 3:16, Rom. 3:22, Rev. 22:17, we are looking from man's side, but if we want to look from the other side, we have only to turn to Rom. 8:29, 30; Eph. 1:4, etc. The first is for sinners, the other is for saints. The first can be proclaimed everywhere, and to every one; the other is for those who become members of the family circle. Paul observed this distinction. He testified to the Jews and to the Greeks repentance toward God, and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ, but, he says, "I have not shunned to declare unto you all the counsel of God." (v. 27.)*
*It may be questioned whether this is an exact interpretation of the "counsel" of God, whether it does not refer rather to the whole scope of Paul's message as minister of the mystery. (See Colossians 1:24-28.) ED.
What was the gospel of the grace of God which Paul preached? It was that which is peculiar to this dispensation; and is not to be confounded with the gospel of the kingdom referred to by the Lord in Matt. 24:14. Paul preached the kingdom of God, but not the gospel of the kingdom. The gospel he preached was that of the "grace of God." It may be asked, what is the difference? The gospel of the "grace of God" is what He is pleased to do, on the ground of what Christ has accomplished, for those who in themselves deserve nothing but wrath and endless misery. Righteousness of God is now declared to all, because all have sinned and come short of His glory. It is unto all, but only upon all them that believe. Both Jews and Gentiles are shown to be "under sin," - equally deserving judgment - every mouth is stopped, and all subject to the judgment of God. But instead of judgment, grace flows out to all "through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus." "Christ has suffered for sins the Just for the unjust that He might bring us to God." Christ has ended the state in which man was, in death; He has been made sin, God has glorified Him, and now begins again from that. Therefore, all who believe see their old state ended in the cross, and every blessing the heart of God delights to bestow becomes theirs; because of the One who in His death was a sweet savour to God. Sin having been dealt with, God's grace is free to have full exercise, in accord with every attribute of His nature.
Having seen that the "gospel of the grace of God" is connected with Christ having been glorified at God's right hand, the answer to His having been made sin, it will help us to see the distinction between that and the "gospel of the kingdom," if we state that the latter is connected with his return to earth. We cannot enter into all the circumstances, but it is well known that after the Church's history on earth is closed, there will be a terrible upheaval, everything will be disorganized, the "man of sin" will be revealed, the Jews will have returned to their own land in unbelief; and it is during this period the "gospel of the kingdom" will be preached, announcing the coming King and a reign of righteousness. As the Lord said "Ye shall not have gone over the cities of Israel till the Son of Man be come."
If Paul did not preach the gospel of the kingdom, and yet preached the kingdom of God, what was it that he preached? He preached it in its moral aspects. "The kingdom of God is not meat and drink, but righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost." (Rom. 14:17.) He also declared that "no whore-monger, nor unclean person, nor covetous man, who is an idolater, hath any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God." (Eph. 5:5.) He taught them "that we must through much tribulation enter into the kingdom of God"; "That if we suffer we shall also reign with him"; and at the same time pointed out that the kingdom of God would be visibly established on earth at the Lord's second coming. (See 1 Cor. 15:24-28; 1 Tim. 6:14-15; 2 Tim. 2:12; 2 Thess. 1:5-10; 2:8.)
Another thing connected with the kingdom, is suffering. "That ye may be counted worthy of the kingdom of God, for which ye also suffer." (2 Thess. 1:5.) Of the apostle himself, it was said, "I will shew him how great things he must suffer, for My name's sake." We do not take kindly to suffering, but if we are faithful to Christ, in His absence, we cannot escape it. "Beloved, think it not strange concerning the fiery trial, which is to try you, as though some strange thing happened unto you, but rejoice, inasmuch as ye are partakers of Christ's sufferings; that, when His glory shall be revealed, ye may be glad also with exceeding joy." (1 Peter 4:12, 13.)
We are wonderful adepts at settling down. "This is not your rest," needs continually to be sounded in our ears, with the blast of a trumpet. How many are digging in the earth, and hiding their talent, or seeking their own things. Is this "loving His appearing"? Do not put it off, by saying, "All true Christians love His appearing." The question is, are we acting like those who do not? We have been considering the Apostle Paul's ministry; it will be well, at the close, if, for a moment, we consider him. Very soon, we shall be where he is, and with the One he loved so well; in the meantime, we are left here for a little season. May we make the most of present opportunities. May we serve as he served; that is, from the same motives. His motto was, "the love of Christ constraineth us." He loved Christ's appearing; he fought a good fight, he finished his course, he kept the faith. "Serving the Lord," as he himself says, "with all humility of mind, and with many tears and temptations." "Neither count I my life dear unto myself, so that I might finish my course with joy, and the ministry, which I have received of the Lord Jesus." R. E.