Thoughts of a Pastor-Historian

“A Farewell Sermon” An Exposition of Acts 20:17-38

I think that the last ten weeks have been the longest goodbye in recorded history. Two and a half months ago, on Wednesday, January 30th, I first requested prayer regarding God’s leadership in my life in regard to moving to Kentucky and beginning the PhD program at Southern. I learned two things that day which prompted that request. One, that I had been invited to participate in the “Field Essays” which serve as entrance exams to the PhD program. I was also contacted that day by Farmdale Baptist Church of Frankfort, KY in regard to becoming their pastor. 74 days later I stand before you for the last time as your pastor.

As I thought about a month ago about what to preach in these last few Sundays, three texts came immediately and simultaneously to my mind. Matthew 16:13-19 “The King’s Authority Over His Church”, Ephesians 4:7-16 “Christ’s Gifts to His Church” and this morning’s text Acts 20:17-38 which contains the apostle Paul’s farewell address to the Ephesian elders and which I’ve simply titled “A Farewell Sermon”. I don’t think there is a more fitting text for a pastor’s final sermon to his congregation than this one.

Before we read the text, I need to make a couple of things clear. First, I’m not comparing myself to the apostle Paul. That would be both foolish and false. There are a number of key differences between our situation today and Paul’s, so don’t assume that as we read this text that I’m pretending to be Paul. There is a different relationship. Paul, an apostle, is addressing the elders of the church in Ephesus. I am an elder, or pastor, addressing a congregation. Paul was bidding farewell to the Ephesian elders on his way to a certain imprisonment in Jerusalem. I hope that there are no similarities in this regard. There is a different scenario: Paul laments and the elders weep at the thought of never seeing each other again. I plan, in God’s gracious providence, to see you all again. I hope to be invited back to preach from time to time, and if not, I will visit anyway! You can’t keep me away!

The reason for my choice of this text this morning then is in no way because I feel myself to be equal to the apostle Paul, or think that there is a one to one correspondence between this setting and our own. But rather because Paul says three important things to the Ephesian elders that I also want to say to you today. These are words which I believe that any faithful pastor would want to say to his congregation as a part of a farewell sermon.

He reminds them of the nature of his ministry among them, he warns them of the dangers they will soon face, and he commends them to God and His Word.

I. He Reminds Them of the Nature of His Ministry Among Them, vv. 17-27.

He reminds them of his life and teaching (vv. 18-21). These two things are inextricably linked for the minister of the gospel. It may be possible to be a wicked man and a good mechanic, but it is impossible for a wicked man to be a good minister of the gospel of Jesus Christ. This is why he exhorts the Ephesian elders in verse 28 to “take heed to yourselves and to all the flock”. A minister must not only watch for the souls of others, he must watch over his own soul. Paul tells Timothy in 1 Timothy 4:16,

Take heed to yourself and to the doctrine. Continue in them, for in doing this you will save both yourself and those who hear you.

The minister’s life is on public display for the whole world to see. This is why the qualification for a minister of the gospel are given in 1 Timothy 3:1-7 as follows:

This is a faithful saying: If a man desires the position of a bishop, he desires a good work. 2 A bishop then must be blameless, the husband of one wife, temperate, sober-minded, of good behavior, hospitable, able to teach; 3 not given to wine, not violent, not greedy for money, but gentle, not quarrelsome, not covetous; 4 one who rules his own house well, having his children in submission with all reverence 5 (for if a man does not know how to rule his own house, how will he take care of the church of God?); 6 not a novice, lest being puffed up with pride he fall into the same condemnation as the devil. 7 Moreover he must have a good testimony among those who are outside, lest he fall into reproach and the snare of the devil.

Do you hear the emphasis on the life and testimony of the pastor? He must not only be “able to teach”, that is almost assumed, “he must have a good testimony among those who are outside.” This is why it is so important in today’s world to do background checks on prospective pastors.

But not only does Paul remind them of his life, but also of his teaching. In verse 20 he makes the remarkable statement that he had “kept back nothing that was helpful”. The phrase “kept back nothing” has the idea of not drawing back or shrinking back out of fear or regard for another. Notice that Paul had a twofold venue “publicly and from house to house”, a twofold audience “testifying to Jews, and also to Greeks”, and a twofold message “repentance toward God and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ.” In other words Paul is saying that he preached everything, everywhere, to everyone!

What a great summary of biblical teaching: “repentance toward God and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ”! This is biblical conversion: turning away from our sin, toward God , and turning toward Christ in faith. These are two sides of the same coin which are the experience of every genuine Christian.

Paul says that he had “kept back nothing” in verse 20, but in verses 26 and 27 he says even more remarkably that he was “innocent of the blood of all men.” For he had “not shunned to declare to [them] the whole counsel of God.” Paul had faithfully preached to them from all of Scripture in the three years that he had been among them, therefore he could say that he was “innocent of the blood of all men”. The phrase “innocent of the blood of all men” is an allusion to the prophet Ezekiel’s words in Ezekiel 33:1-6,

Again the word of the LORD came to me, saying, 2 “Son of man, speak to the children of your people, and say to them: ‘When I bring the sword upon a land, and the people of the land take a man from their territory and make him their watchman, 3 when he sees the sword coming upon the land, if he blows the trumpet and warns the people, 4 then whoever hears the sound of the trumpet and does not take warning, if the sword comes and takes him away, his blood shall be on his own head. 5 He heard the sound of the trumpet, but did not take warning; his blood shall be upon himself. But he who takes warning will save his life. 6 But if the watchman sees the sword coming and does not blow the trumpet, and the people are not warned, and the sword comes and takes any person from among them, he is taken away in his iniquity; but his blood I will require at the watchman’s hand.’

If the watchman warned the people and they failed to respond, their blood was on their own hands. But if the watchman failed to warn, the blood of the people would be on his hands.

Paul had not held back anything, but had preached it all. Therefore he knew that he was innocent of the blood of all men. Not to beat a dead horse, but this is the last time you will hear this from me as pastor, but I don’t know anyway that Paul could have done this and certainly not anyway that any man could make this claim unless he was committed to the systematic verse by verse exposition of Scripture. Otherwise you will only preach the same sermons over and over with the same stories, and the same tired slogans. I’ve had to preach on difficult topics over the last eight years because I came hear committed to verse by verse exposition. I have preached on election and damnation, divorce and remarriage, heaven and hell, God and man, the first coming and the second coming, church discipline. I wouldn’t have preached on many of these topics were it not for the discipline of expository preaching. I did some math this week: 52x3x8=1,248. That means that I’ve probably stood in this pulpit and preached at least 1,000 times over the past eight years. I’ve preached, Genesis, Exodus, Ruth, Psalms 1-115, Jeremiah, Hosea, half of Matthew, John, Romans, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, Philemon, Hebrews, James, 1, 2, & 3 John. I’ve preached series on the “Story of the Bible”, “Church Membership”, “Statement of Faith”, “9 Marks of a Healthy Church”, “Overview of the Bible”, “Worship”, “In the World, But Not of It”, and “Spiritual Gifts”. I hope that I can join with the apostle Paul today and say that “I am innocent of the blood of all men. For I have not shunned to declare to you the whole counsel of God.”

But not only does Paul remind them of his ministry among them,

II. He Warns Them of the Dangers They Will Soon Face, vv. 28-31.

There are dangers ahead that this church needs to be aware of. First, let me address those of you who will be preaching and providing spiritual leadership to this church during this time of transition. “Take heed to yourselves” watch your lives. Stay in the Word yourselves and be men of prayer. Battle against sin, both inward and outward. “And to all the flock” the responsibility to care for this flock is one that I hope all of you take seriously. Paul is here addressing the elders of Ephesus and he tells this elders that God has made them “overseers” or bishops and that their function is “to shepherd” or pastor. This is a key text, along with 1 Peter 5:1-4, that tells us that the office of pastor/elder/bishop is one. There are different nuances of meaning between the terms but all three imply leadership. Elders rule, bishops provide oversight, shepherds guide, feed, and protect. Men, guide the flock, feed the flock, and protect the flock! This is a serious and solemn and serious matter that the apostle Paul emphasizes by calling the church at Ephesus “the church of God which He purchased with His own blood”. Brothers, the body of believers known as West Broadway Baptist Church is “the church of God which He purchased with His own blood.” Therefore, guide, feed, and protect the flock. And church, make sure that the next pastor that you call takes this solemn charge seriously.

Two dangers which the church needs be on guard against, one without and the other within. First, look for persecution from without. Don’t be surprised if the world hates you. Paul warns of “savage wolves” who would not spare the flock. This is why you need a pastor who will stand against both the intellectual and physical attacks upon the church. But not only will there be persecution from without, but beware of perversion from within. Paul warned the Ephesians that some men would rise up among their own number, seeking to draw people astray. It could be that some in this room this morning will show themselves to be false teachers, false Christians who need to be resisted. Be on guard (v. 31)!

Not only does Paul remind the Ephesian elders of the nature of his ministry among them, and warn them of dangers which will come, he finally . . .

III. He Commends Them to God and His Word, vv. 32ff.

I’m leaving today with sadness. But I do not sorrow as those who have no hope, because I know that I’m leaving you in good hands, God’s hands. Paul says that he commends them “to God and the word of His grace”. The word “commend” means “to entrust”. I’m so glad that I can entrust this church with God and His Word. The same God who has been with us these past eight years will continue to be with this church. The same Word which has been proclaimed in this church for the past eight years will continue to be proclaimed from this pulpit and God will continue to use it to build you up. God’s people will continue to grow because the work is God’s alone and is accomplished by His Word alone. This is why Paul could say in 1 Corinthians 3:4-11,

For when one says, “I am of Paul,” and another, “I am of Apollos,” are you not carnal? 5 Who then is Paul, and who is Apollos, but ministers through whom you believed, as the Lord gave to each one? 6 I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the increase. 7 So then neither he who plants is anything, nor he who waters, but God who gives the increase. 8 Now he who plants and he who waters are one, and each one will receive his own reward according to his own labor. 9 For we are God’s fellow workers; you are God’s field, you are God’s building. 10 According to the grace of God which was given to me, as a wise master builder I have laid the foundation, and another builds on it. But let each one take heed how he builds on it. 11 For no other foundation can anyone lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ.

The work will go on. God and His Word guarantee that. One other thing God and His Word will accomplish. He will “give you an inheritance among all those who are sanctified”. What does this mean? I think Paul is referring to the same inheritance here that Peter is talking about in 1 Peter 1:3-5,

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to His abundant mercy has begotten us again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, 4 to an inheritance incorruptible and undefiled and that does not fade away, reserved in heaven for you, 5 who are kept by the power of God through faith for salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.

This inheritance is in heaven. You will be kept by the power of God through the proclamation of His Word until you attain your inheritance in heaven and there we will all be joined together never to be parted again!

Before I read the final three verses of this text I want to say a word of thanks to this church. As I said already, I’ve had to preach some difficult things since I’ve been here because of my commitment to expository preaching. But I’ve often told other preacher friends that I’ve never taught anything from God’s Word during these past eight years and sought to lead this church to conform to it when you’ve refused to do so. This is a great testimony. Thank you for your love of and submission to the Word of God.

Now for the last three verses:

And when he had said these things, he knelt down and prayed with them all. 37 Then they all wept freely, and fell on Paul’s neck and kissed him, 38 sorrowing most of all for the words which he spoke, that they would see his face no more. And they accompanied him to the ship.