I love Acts 20! As a shepherd entrusted with the care of a local church, I get a lot of mileage out of these farewell words of the Apostle Paul to the church leaders in Ephesus. Paul spent three years shepherding and building the church in Ephesus – longer than he spent with any other church. He poured out his life as he invested in theirs.
As he prepared to depart from them, Paul left the elders with important words for all who would shepherd God’s people.
Paul reminded them that he had never hesitated to preach or teach anything that would be helpful to them. I get the sense here that Paul did not focus on their felt needs, but instead, ministered to their actual needs.
What sorts of things would be included in a list of actual needs? Well, the “10,000 mile high” answer would be, “the whole counsel of God.” Here are a few particulars: The character and will of God. The person and work of Jesus Christ. Our sin and need for Christ’s Gospel. The person and work of the Holy Spirit who comforts, ministers, and guides us – who molds and shapes us into the likeness of Jesus Christ. How to live godly lives in a fallen world. How to bear witness for Christ. All we have to do is read Paul’s epistles and the Book of Acts and we get a pretty good idea of what Paul covered in his preaching and teaching.
Furthermore, Paul didn’t preach only from a pulpit to the masses. Like the pastoral giant, Richard Baxter, who would use Acts 20 as one of the foundations of his ministry some 1,600 years later, Paul went from house to house – teaching both Jews and Greeks that they must turn to God in repentance as well as place their faith in the Lord Jesus Christ if they would be saved.
His work in communicating this message was the cornerstone of his ministry in Ephesus. He said in verse 24,
However, 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.
His faithfulness to this blessed task was what enabled him to say in verse 26 that he was, “innocent of the blood of all men.” For he did not hesitate “to proclaim to [the church at Ephesus] the whole will (counsel) of God.” In other words, there were no essential doctrines of the Christian faith omitted. Paul covered everything that would build them up in their faith and bring glory to God – when his words were popular and even when they were not.
I’ve always admired Paul, or any pastor, who ministers so faithfully. Preaching and teaching the whole counsel of God can be hard, especially when it’s what a person would rather not hear. Yet it’s part of a shepherd’s call – whether that shepherd watches over and leads a congregation, a family, a small group, Sunday school class, or a Christian friend.
I’ve heard it put this way before: If you knew you only had five years to minister to someone, what would you want to make sure they heard, understood, and began to put into practice before they left your influence? Paul had only three years. And we don’t have to guess what he spent every minute preaching and teaching. We need only read the Book of Acts and his epistles to know the heart of Paul’s focus.
The Question for Us
That leaves us with this question: What are we teaching the people entrusted to our care during the time we’ve been given? That is a question that is not only for pastors, but also for parents, Sunday school teachers, small group leaders, and mentors, just to name a few.
We could apply the question to any of us who have Christian influence in the lives of others. In that sense, we are all shepherds who need to ask ourselves that penetrating question. We are all called to pass on the whole counsel of God to this generation of followers and would-be followers of Christ, as well as the next. It’s what Christ meant in his Great Commission when he told us to make disciples by teaching others to obey everything he commanded. He also said in John 8:32, that if we would hold to his teaching, then we are really his disciples.
God’s Word, the “whole counsel” to which Paul referred, will soothe the wearied soul. It will be a balm to the hurting. For others it will encourage, build up, lead, guide, correct and convict. For the rebellious and hopeless it can present inexpressibly good news. For others it will prick the conscience and even stir up anger. Yet we can be assured it will accomplish what God desires for those whom God has entrusted to our care, to our spheres of influence. And that, along with the joy of obeying God in such things, should be all the motive and affirmation we need.