Unlike God, who is immutable, human beings experience change. It’s an integral element of our human experience. Recognizing our sinfulness, we’re grateful for the ability to change, as the sanctifying work of God’s Spirit is increasingly shaping and molding us to be more like Christ (2 Cor 3:18).
In addition, the Lord has designed our world to undergo perpetual change (Gen 8:22). For most of us, we’re no longer experiencing the warm evenings associated with summer. Instead, we’ve recently begun to feel the cool, crisp air of autumn. Looking around, we see the vibrant colors of leaves changing and falling. The breathtaking beauty of this convergence of seasons reminds us that our sovereign God orchestrates the timing of all things with profound precision. It also helps us to remember, even when life is challenging, that the seasons and circumstances of our lives are completely under his lordship and control. As the nineteenth-century Dutch theologian, Abraham Kuyper, so famously said:
There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is sovereign over all, does not cry, ‘Mine!’1Kuyper, Abraham. Abraham Kuyper: A Centennial Reader. United States: W.B. Eerdmans, 1998, 461.
This reality is especially comforting when we encounter life’s transitions. Whether we’re leaving one job and beginning another, moving from one community to another, or perhaps retiring from a career and preparing for a new season of life, transitions are inevitable. This concept is also true for pastoral and ministry assignments, as we see evidenced in the life of the Apostle Paul. Throughout Paul’s life as a minister of the gospel, the Lord was sovereignly directing his path every step of the way. Paul often had plans for ministry, but the changing circumstances providentially dictated when and where Paul would travel next (Acts 16:6).
In Acts 20, we find an example of how Paul navigated these ministry transitions. For context, while embarking on his third missionary journey, the Apostle spent time ministering in Ephesus and ran into a great deal of hostility. A riot broke out in Ephesus after Paul preached the gospel, which precipitated the need to leave Ephesus earlier than he had planned. Yet, through it all, even though the circumstances and seasons of Paul’s life were ever-changing and often unpredictable, what didn’t change, by God’s grace, was his Kingdom-centered perspective.
He Provides Encouragement
We see the Apostle’s approach in the first two verses of Acts 20. It says there:
After the uproar ceased, Paul sent for the disciples, and after encouraging them, he said farewell and departed for Macedonia. When he had gone through those regions and had given them much encouragement, he came to Greece (Acts 20:1-2)
Notice, first, that as God moves Paul around, from place to place, even very rapidly at times, the Apostle does not focus on personal rejection or allow himself to be swallowed up by self-pity. Instead, during these seasons of transition, Paul seeks to be an encouragement to others. He’s intentionally coming alongside the saints who are serving and ministering in various places, and he’s finding ways to build them up and strengthen them in their faith.
Why is this important? Well, because believers don’t always do a very good job of encouraging one another. In fact, discouragement comes quite naturally to us. We do that in a variety of ways:
- By being harsh or overly critical
- By disrespecting and offending
- By being envious and jealous
- By failing to show patience
- By gossiping
These are just a few of the ways believers can sometimes discourage one another, and they’re all like a poison to the health of the local church. Yet, encouragement is something we all need, especially during times of transition (Rom 1:11-12). So, regardless of the circumstances, rather than being self-focused, let’s be Kingdom-focused and fight for encouragement.
He Desires to be an Example
The leadership Paul displayed in this account is remarkable. Picking the text up at verse 17, it says:
Now from Miletus he sent to Ephesus and called the elders of the church to come to him. And when they came to him, he said to them: ‘You yourselves know how I lived among you the whole time from the first day that I set foot in Asia, serving the Lord with all humility and with tears and with trials that happened to me through the plots of the Jews; how I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, and teaching you in public and from house to house, testifying both to Jews and to Greeks of repentance toward God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ’ (Acts 20:17-21).
As Paul prepares to depart, notice that he’s still seeking to lead. At no point does he stop being concerned with the elders of the Ephesian church. He hasn’t simply moved on in his mind to the ministry that awaits him in Jerusalem. On the contrary, with a focus on the Kingdom, Paul wants to hold out, before these elders, his season of service and leadership as an example they can follow, after he’s gone. To be sure, Paul’s apostolic ministry was not one characterized by pride in his calling, worldly happiness in his circumstances, or confidence in his credentials. Living out the gospel before these elders, Paul’s ministry was marked by humility, tears, and trials.
Not only was Paul’s ministry a living example to the Ephesian elders, but it should be an example for us as well. When we, like Paul, come to understand that we do not deserve the goodness and kindness of God, which has been shown to us through the sacrificial death of his Son, then the weight of that grace humbles us, softens our hearts, and becomes the catalyst by which we seek to be an example to others. It’s that deep, faithful, transformative example that Paul was calling these pastors to follow.
He Offers an Exhortation
In one of my favorite passages in all of Scripture, Paul seeks to passionately exhort the Ephesian elders, saying:
Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood.I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them. Therefore be alert, remembering that for three years I did not cease night or day to admonish every one with tears. And now I commend you to God and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified (Acts 20:28-32).
The centrality of this exhortation is the price Jesus paid to purchase the Church. That infinitely valuable price, of course, was his own blood. To purchase the redemption of God’s people, Jesus willingly sacrificed his life on the cross, satisfied the fullness of God’s wrath, and ransomed every human being who would become a blood-bought believer. The reason that’s such a crucial truth to grasp for these Ephesian pastors, and for us, is because it points us to the weightiness and immensity of the treasure which God has entrusted to us. Christ paid too high a price for us to simply ignore his instructions.
Therefore, after looking back at his example and the legacy he’s leaving behind, Paul now looks ahead, and as he prepares to leave, he exhorts these elders to do two things. First, he calls them to pay careful attention to themselves. As those who have been purchased by the precious blood of Christ, Paul admonishes these men to pay close attention to their own souls. He calls them to persistently and consistently care for the health of their own souls so that they can properly care for the health of the church, which the Holy Spirit has gifted and called them to shepherd. As the 19th century Scottish pastor, Robert Murray McCheyne, once wrote:
My people’s greatest need is my personal holiness.2Packer, J. I.. Rediscovering Holiness: Know the Fullness of Life with God. United States: Baker Publishing Group, 2009, 32.
Secondly, Paul exhorts these pastors to pay careful attention to all the flock. Once again, the weightiness of this exhortation is found in the price that was paid. Pastors are called to protect the precious flock purchased by Christ. For the church of Ephesus, specifically, the Apostle knew that they were going to face some particularly serious attacks in the days ahead. Wolves, or false teachers, who would want nothing more than to use and abuse the sheep for their own selfish agendas, were going to infiltrate the church and teach false doctrine.
This is why the pastoral charge in verse 32 is so powerful. Paul commends these elders “to God and to the word of his grace, which is able to build (them) up and to give (them) the inheritance among all those who are sanctified.” What a word of encouragement! What a reminder for these pastors that while the charge is a weighty one, the power to accomplish it is not found in their own strength. Rather, the promises and the power needed to shepherd well is found in the presence of the great shepherd.
He Departs with an Embrace
With Paul’s final words, he conveys a mutual expression of genuine love and affection for these Ephesian elders, saying:
‘I coveted no one’s silver or gold or apparel. You yourselves know that these hands ministered to my necessities and to those who were with me. In all things I have shown you that by working hard in this way we must help the weak and remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’’ And when he had said these things, he knelt down and prayed with them all. And there was much weeping on the part of all; they embraced Paul and kissed him, being sorrowful most of all because of the word he had spoken, that they would not see his face again. And they accompanied him to the ship (Acts 20:33-38).
As Paul prepares to depart, he wants to remind the elders about the nature of spiritual leadership. He emphasizes that leadership is not about receiving, but rather, it’s about blessing those under our care. It’s not about taking, but about giving to those in need. And it’s not about being served; it’s about serving others. For Paul, in his final call to grace-motivated, gospel-generated generosity, he kneels down to have a final word of prayer with his brothers in Christ. Because of their great love for Paul, who had served them and taught them so well, these men begin to cry great tears of sorrow at the thought of never seeing him again. And Paul, likewise, begins to weep because of his love for them. What a beautiful demonstration of the sweet fellowship that is found in the gospel of Jesus Christ. Transitions in pastoral ministry are sometimes outside of our control. Regardless of the specific details, we must always remember to rest in the reality that God is sovereign. We may not be able to dictate the duration or our direction, but we can determine our actions. As we consider the example of Paul, whose life was purchased by the Savior and empowered by the Spirit, may we always seek to finish well.