A Mission Masterclass

Acts 20:17-38

30 October 2011

Woodley Baptist Church

Morning Reflective Service


What is our goal as a church? Where are we going? What kind of church do we want to be?

For once, easy questions! We've decided together that our goal is to "To see the church grow through people coming to faith in Jesus." You can see this statement on our website; it's on every page.

Now, if that truly is our goal, then we need to listen carefully to the Apostle Paul this morning, because, honestly speaking, we aren't yet very good at it. But Paul was a specialist in nurturing churches that grow through people coming to faith in Jesus.

In Acts chapter 20, we are cutting in near the end of the last of Paul's great missionary journeys recorded in the book of Acts.

The church at Ephesus seems to be particularly close to his heart, and he takes the opportunity to call the elders of the church to meet with him at Miletus—about a three-day round trip for them.

Eventually the elders arrive, and Paul begins in verse 18, You know how I lived the whole time I was with youref. Why does he begin like this? Is he trying to promote himself; does it spring from pride? Look at me, the great apostle! No, we know from elsewhere that Paul loathes boasting. What he wants to do is to set these elders, and through them the church, an example. "I began this church; I nurtured it; now it is over to you: learn from my example. Carry on doing what I did."

So, what can we learn from this master class from the master missionary, his last ever personal words to this church in Ephesus which he loved so dearly?

I've divided Paul's speech under four headings, following the paragraphs in the NIV. Each one revolves around the gospel.

Speak the Gospel!

Heading one, speak the gospel! Verses 17 to 21.

In verse 19, Paul reminds the elders of how he served the Lord, with tears, despite great opposition. But in what way was he serving the Lord? What was his main work?

Well, first and foremost he was speaking. Paul was speaking the gospel. Look at the ways he says it: verse 20, I have not hesitated to preachref; and I have taught you publicly and from house to houseref; verse 21, I have declared to both Jews and Greeksref. And further on: verse 24, he testifies; verse 25, he went about preaching the kingdom; verse 27, he proclaims.

The master missionary's principal act of service is in speaking the gospel.

[Pause] If we truly aspire to being a church with mission at its heart—a church that grows through people coming to faith in Christ, as we have said we do—then we need to devote ourselves to speaking the gospel.

I'm sure you know the catch-phrase often slanderously attributed to St Francis of Assisi— "Preach the gospel; if necessary use words!" Have you heard that? I think the devil rejoices when we quote this to one another.

I know what people are trying to say when they use this phrase, and we'll come to that later. But the problem is, it just doesn't make sense. The gospel is words; it is good news; faith comes from hearingref.

We might as well say, "Help the starving; if necessary use food!"

No, we will never be a church that sees people coming to faith in Jesus if we are not actively speaking the gospel. And I don't just mean from here; we need to share the gospel both publicly and from house to houseref, verse 20. All of us already are friends and relatives and colleagues of people who don't yet know Jesus. As a church we are blessed with so many contacts in our community. We need to pray for boldness, to pray for the opportunity, and then tell them. Tell them about the Jesus you know. Tell them how he died for you and for them. Tell them that there is a God they are separated from. Tell them that they need to turn to this God, to trust in Jesus. Tell them that he is risen from the dead and is Lord and King.

This is not just the apostle's job. It is not just the elders' job. It is the role of every one of us in the church who longs for people to come to faith in Jesus.

So, the first thing we learn from the master missionary is that we should be people who speak the gospel. Who will you pray for an opportunity to speak to this week?

Suffer for the Gospel!

Second, suffer for the Gospel!, verses 22 to 24.

Verse 24 is a verse that knocks me sideways every time I read it. I consider my life worth nothing to me, if only I may finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me—the task of testifying to the gospel of God's grace.ref

These are not empty words. Paul lived them completely. Look at verses 22 and 23, compelled by the Spirit, I am going to Jerusalem, not knowing what will happen to me there. I only know that in every city the Holy Spirit warns me that prison and hardships are facing me.ref

As an aside, it's interesting that when these days we seek a deeper experience of the Spirit, perhaps we expect it to be spectacular, fulfilling—an affirming experience. What did Paul find? The Spirit propels him again and again into suffering.

He recounts some of the reality of this elsewhere,

Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my own countrymen, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false brothers. I have laboured and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked. Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches.ref

Paul's passion for the church led him to suffer for the gospel.

Well, this is all very well for Paul. And it is all very well for people called to be missionaries, like Will and Judith Sawers for example, who at least twice have had to leave everything behind as they escaped from civil unrest in Africa. And it is all very well for the persecuted church around the world, for whom suffering like this is a daily reality.

But what has it got to say to us, here in nice comfortable, peaceful Woodley?

Once again, Paul is asking them, and us, to follow his example, as he follows Christ's.

I learnt verse 24 half my life ago in a different translation. I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may accomplish my course and the ministry which I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God.ref

I haven't made much progress, despite God relentlessly calling me back to these words year by year. I still think my life is pretty precious. I was reminded of this just a couple of days ago. I was in a hire car being driven by a colleague; we were late for a meeting and he was driving quite aggressively. I said to him, "could you calm down a bit, I don't want to die", to which he replied, "what do you care? You believe you are going to a better place, don't you?". That was humbling—maybe he'd understood it better than me! How precious I seem to consider my life, and how worthless I seem to consider the gospel by comparison.

You and I may not be called to suffer like Paul did for the sake of the gospel, but I believe that every one of us is called to consider our own lives rather less precious than we do. If we want to be a church that grows through people coming to faith in Christ, then we will have to learn better what it means to deny ourselves.

Our path of self-denial may start as gently as missing the Strictly Come Dancing results show in order to come and pray for our church's mission Sunday by Sunday at seven o' clock. Or it may be that we need to learn to live with changes that don't suit us particularly well—like strange layouts of the chairs, and various other changes that are being made as we seek better ways of reaching our community.

Such sacrifices are relatively trivial. But until we are prepared to make them—until we consider the gospel as more precious than our own lives and comfort—we will not become a church that grows through people coming to faith in Christ.

The second lesson from the master missionary: suffer for the gospel.

Guard the Gospel!

Third, guard the gospel!, verses 25 to 31.

I won't read the whole paragraph, but if you do you might say, hang on Ben, it doesn't say "guard the gospel", it more accurately says, "guard the church". In verse 28, Paul instructs the elders to Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood.ref

This is a direct command to the elders. We are looking after something so precious that God, in the form of Jesus, poured out his own blood for it: you, the church. That is some responsibility.

[Pause] Note, in passing, that Paul makes no distinction between the words, elders (presbuteros in Greek), overseers (episkopos in Greek) and shepherds or pastors. They all refer to the same role in the New Testament.

And the particular task of these elders/overseers/pastors is to guard the church. But how are they to do it? They are to do it by guarding the gospel.

You see, the threat to the church comes from people who will come from within and from without who will, verse 30, distort the truthref.

To counter this threat, the elders once again are to follow Paul's example. Verse 31, Remember that for three years I never stopped warning each of you night and day with tears.ref And verse 27, I have not hesitated to proclaim to you the whole will of God.ref

We are to guard the gospel. We are to teach the whole will of God, or, in old money, the whole counsel of God.

There are great temptations to miss bits out, and churches all over the world are doing so. Often they have the best of motives—they simply want to make the gospel easier to communicate to our modern world

It is attractive to believe that it would be easier to communicate a message that doesn't speak of judgement, and holiness, and denying ourselves. Of following the narrow way, of the devastating sinfulness of our hearts. That doesn't speak of God's wrath, of God's wrath poured out on Jesus. That doesn't mention—dare I say it?—hell.

It is so much easier to speak about a gospel in which God is only love, and that is his sole defining characteristic. But that is not the whole counsel of God. It is a dangerous distortion. If that is our whole message, then it will ultimately devastate the church, like a savage wolf in a sheep pen. The whole counsel of God is far, far richer than this.

So, it is the elders' responsibility to guard the church by guarding the gospel. We are to teach the whole will of God, and to do it constantly and relentlessly, night and day with tearsref.

As we begin the search for a new pastor/elder/overseer, please remember this—it is the single direct command Paul gives the elders here. Guard the gospel.

Live the Gospel!

Finally, verses 32 to 35, live the gospel!

I know I disparaged "preaching the gospel without words" earlier, but there is a sense in which we are called to live the gospel in the way we live our lives.

Paul talks about this as he finishes his speech. Look at verse 35, In everything I did, I showed you that by this kind of hard work we must help the weak, remembering the words the Lord Jesus himself said: 'It is more blessed to give than to receive.'ref.

Once again, we are to follow Paul in following Jesus, as we give ourselves to helping the weak.

The very heart of the gospel is the self-giving of God to help us, the weak. If we are not in turn giving of ourselves, then our words will be empty. Our lives will show that we don't really understand the gospel at all: why would anyone listen to us?

Sometimes these things are portrayed as being at odds with each other, aren't they?—We can either be a truth church, or we can be a love church; we can either be a head church or a heart church; we can either guard the gospel or we can help the weak.

But this is nonsense—we have to be both! To be sure, churches have sometimes veered one way or the other, but the Bible calls us to be both better at truth and better at love.

Truth and love always go hand-in-hand:

And so on. Love and truth belong intimately together, and we must be a church that strives relentlessly to do both better, never neglecting one at the expense of the other. Together, as a church, we need to do more and more of both: guarding the gospel; living the gospel.

It is sad to note that the church in Ephesus didn't manage to hold on to love and truth together time went on. It is not easy to do; we need to be constantly alert to emphasising one over the other, and always upping our game in both.

Don't turn to it, but recall that in Revelation chapter 2, the church at Ephesus is the first of the seven churches that the risen Jesus writes to, several decades after Paul meets the elders here.

First, Jesus congratulates them. They have indeed guarded the truth well: I know that you cannot tolerate wicked men, that you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them false.ref

But they had lost something too. Jesus continues, Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken your first love.ref

They had kept their truth, but they had lost their love.

Personally, I fear that the pressures on us are mainly the other way. The fact is that we need both to guard the gospel and live the gospel better than we do.


Speak the gospel; suffer for the gospel; guard the gospel; live the gospel. Sorry they don't alliterate, but these are my summary of Paul's final instructions to the church in Ephesus, and through them to us as we seek to be a church that grows through people coming to faith in Jesus.

What I want to ask you to do now is to pick one of these four where perhaps the Holy Spirit is prompting you that you need to work on.

Let's spend a some moments in reflection.