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Serving the Lord with

Humility, Tears,
and Trials
 Resource by
John Piper

 Scripture: Acts 20:17–21 Topic: Pastoral Ministry

And from Miletus he sent to Ephesus and called to him the elders of the
church. And when they came to him, he said to them: "You yourselves know
how I lived among you all the time from the first day that I set foot in Asia,
serving the Lord with all humility and with tears and with trials which befell
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 to God and of faith
in our Lord Jesus Christ.

The book of Acts is a fast moving account of the spread of the gospel through
the Roman Empire in the first 30 years after Christ's resurrection. But now
and then Luke stops his fast moving story and let's us hear a sermon. So he
inspires us with the spread of the gospel from Jerusalem to Judea to Samaria
to the reaches of the empire. But he also stops to teach us what kind of
doctrine and preaching and leadership was behind this wonderful advance of
the kingdom.

Paul's Third Missionary Journey

In Acts 18:23 Paul sets out from Antioch on his third and final missionary
journey. He travels up through Galatia and Phrygia (today's Turkey)
strengthening the disciples that he had made on his first journey.
In Acts 19:1 he arrives in Ephesus. Verses 8 says that he spent the first three
months arguing and pleading with the Jewish community about the kingdom
of God. But the opposition became so intense Paul moved out of the
synagogue and for two years argued daily in the Hall of Tyrannus. During
these two years amazing things happened.
God did many miracles of healing and exorcism through Paul. People were
delivered from the occult and burned books worth 50,000 pieces of silver.
Paul's success in evangelism was so great that the silversmiths who made
silver shrines for the goddess Artemis feared their business and even the
temple of Artemis itself was in danger of being ruined. So they stirred up a
riot. Paul leaves town then after more than two years of ministry. He calls it
three years in Acts 20:31.
He goes up through Macedonia, and down into Greece and spends three
winter months probably in Corinth (20:3). Then he heads back up through
Macedonia in the spring, crosses over to Troas, where he preaches all night
long and Eutychus fell asleep and fell out of the window (20:9). He sails on
south and passes Ephesus in the boat because he is in a hurry to get to
Jerusalem by Pentecost (20:16).

Heading Back to Jerusalem, Stopping at

But he puts in at Miletus about 20 miles south of Ephesus and sends for the
Elders of the church in Ephesus (v. 17). This helps put Paul's words here in
the right light. He is in a hurry to get to Jerusalem by Pentecost and is cutting
it close. He is in a boat well out to sea. He seems to be in charge of the
itinerary (20:16—he is the one who decides to sail past Ephesus). And he
orders the captain to navigate into the Miletus harbor, sends a messenger over
the 20-some miles back up to Ephesus, and waits for the elders of the church
so that he can say to them what we read in Acts 20:17–35.
The fact that Paul would go to this much trouble to give this message to the
elders of the church personally and the fact that Luke would pause in his story
and record the words for us make them very wonderful words to me. I am
deeply moved by this speech. They show us so much of Paul's heart as well as
his theology and his view of leadership. The ending of this message is heart
wrenching as he weeps with these friends and kisses them because he will
never see them again until heaven.

Now Why Were These Words So

One answer—the one that we focus on today—is that the future of the
Ephesian church hangs on how its elders serve the Lord, and that's what Paul
talks about here. No doubt Paul would have loved to see the whole church in
Ephesus. But his strength and schedule dictated that he limit himself to the
one thing that was indispensable—talking to the church elders. As the elders
go, so goes the church in Ephesus.

So before Paul gives any instruction or warnings in verses 28–31, he simply

reminds them how he served the Lord in those three years they had together.
That's what we want to look at today.

It's plain from verse 35 that Paul's aim in reminding them about his own
ministry was to instruct them about theirs: "In all things I have shown you that
by so toiling one must help the weak . . . " Note: "I have shown you!" My life
has been my lesson for how to lead the flock of God.

So when we read verses 18–21, we ought not think that these are just
interesting reminiscences. They are much more than that. They are Paul's way
of saying, here's how to serve the Lord for the good of the church. Here's what
you elders need to do. Here is what Bethlehem's elders need to be like, and
what the people at Bethlehem need to pray into their leaders. Indeed, what you
all should imitate as it applies to you (Hebrews 13:17).
So let's look at what Paul says about his ministry. Keep in mind that he has to
be honest, because these were the men who had watched him for three years.
This is what you should look for: what are the marks of a good church elder?
What kind of leadership does the church need? What does it mean to "serve
the Lord" biblically?

Serving the Lord

Verse 19: "You yourselves know how I lived among you all the time from the
first day that I set foot in Asia, serving the Lord . . . "

Servant-Leadership Under the Lord's Rule

The first thing that Paul wants to say about his work is that he was serving the
Lord. Now that seems to be a simple idea—serving the Lord. But think about
it a minute. "Serving"—what comes to your mind? Doing what you're told.
Lowliness. Submissiveness. Compliance. Deference.

But now what comes to your mind when you say, "The Lord"? Not "A Lord"
or "My Lord," but "The Lord!" Authority. Power. Rulership. Control.
Now when you put these two together there is an unusual kind of leadership
that is created. Some characteristics of this leadership come from the fact that
the leader is first a servant. And some characteristics come from the fact that
he serves "the Lord," and when the Lord tells him to say a thing or do a thing,
he says it and does it with amazing confidence and authority. Now can you
put those two things together? Can you picture what that would look like in
the elders of the church?

How Does Paul Spell Out This Service?

I certainly would not trust myself to spell out what that would look like
without more help from the Bible. This is why I have very little confidence in
people who claim to be speaking biblically when they simply take a biblical
theme (say "justice" or "peace" or "servanthood" or "equality") and, having
seen the theme, they shut their Bibles and start talking about the theme as
though what they were saying had the authority of the Bible behind it.

Well, the Bible is so full of surprises and unexpected notions and strange ideas
of reality that we must be very careful. For example, right here instead of
thinking that we know what serving the Lord would look like, we ought to
slow down and get very serious about focusing on just what Paul says about
his service. That's what I want to do in the time we have left.

Everything that follows from verse 18 through 21 is one sentence in the

original. It's Paul's way of spelling out how he served the Lord. In fact there
are at least thirteen characteristics of serving the Lord mentioned here. What a
shame if we were to just say, "Elders should serve the Lord," and then close
our Bibles and tell stories about what that might mean in our experience.

Three Characteristics of Serving the Lord

Let's keep our Bibles open and look at three of Paul's illustrations this
morning, and the rest tonight.
1. Lowliness
Verse 19a: Serving the Lord means LOWLINESS. "Serving the Lord with all
lowliness [humility]."

The first thing Paul has to say is that being a servant of the Lord means being
humble and lowly. Lowliness or humility is, first, a feeling toward God that he
has absolute rights over your life—that he can do with you as he pleases and
that he has absolute authority to tell you what is best for you—and that's just
fine with you. It is a spirit of utter yieldedness and submissiveness to the Lord
as master. Clay in the Potter's hands.

Second, lowliness means feeling indebted to all people because of how

graciously God has treated us. It's the opposite of feeling that everybody owes
you something—owes you an ear or owes you strokes or owes you time. Now,
of course, there are relationships in which those things may be true—someone
may in fact owe you something. But the more you are driven by what others
owe you rather than by what you owe them in love and service, the less lowly
you are.

Lowliness says, I am a debtor to Greeks and barbarians, to wise and foolish, to

friend and foe. Lowliness does not think in terms of its rights. It empties itself
and takes the form a servant and becomes obedient unto death, even death on
a cross.

The first thing that serving the Lord means is lowliness.

2. Tears
Verse 19a: Serving the Lord means TEARS. "Serving the Lord with all
humility and with tears."

Tears can come from physical pain or from heart-rending loss or from
unbearable frustrations and discouragements or from intense yearning or from
overwhelming joy. I don't know which Paul had in mind here. In verse 31 he
says, "I did not cease night or day to admonish everyone with tears." So in
that case his tears were the tears of intense yearning for their faith and

But he doesn't say here in verse 19 why he cried so often. What should we
learn then? If these tears were simply owing to a kind of emotional weakness
in Paul, they wouldn't have too much meaning. He wouldn't mention them as
part of his credentials. No, I think what we should learn is that serving the
Lord means getting so intensely involved in people's struggles that you cry
over them.

Now I am a Christian Hedonist. Okay? So you won't take what I am about to

say wrongly—as though I were bellyaching or pleading for pity that I happen
to be in the greatest work in the world. But between the time I left home as a
teenager in 1964 and the time I became a teaching elder—a pastor—of this
church in 1980, I think I could have counted on one hand the number of times
I cried (in 16 years!). But since I became one of the shepherds of this flock I
cry a lot more. And it doesn't get less as the years go by.

So a text like this gives me a great deal of comfort. I am not an apostle Paul.
Verse 31 says he admonished with tears day and night! Maybe that will come
someday. I think I have some growing to do yet before that privilege will be
So the second mark of service is this: Serving the Lord as an elder in the
church of God will mean tears, because it will mean getting involved in
people's struggles for faith and hope and truth and holiness.

3. Trials
Verse 19b: Serving the Lord means TRIALS. "Serving the Lord with all
lowliness and with tears and with trials which befell me through the plots of
the Jews."

Now why does Paul remind the elders about these dangers that he went
through? The answer is that they will have to go through them too. Consider
this: in 1 Corinthians 15:32 Paul said, "Humanly speaking I fought with beasts
at Ephesus." What did he mean? Well compare Acts 20:29, "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 perverse things, to
draw away the disciples after them. Therefore, be alert . . . "
Paul said he had to fight with beasts in Ephesus. And he says that the
Ephesian elders will have to fight with fierce wolves. The point is the same in
both cases, and its the same thing Jesus meant when he said, "Behold I send
you out as sheep in the midst of wolves" (Matthew 10:16). There are people
who when they hear the absolute claims of Jesus Christ become so angry they
are like animals.
And the tragic thing is that in Acts 20:29 Paul says that these wolves will even
come from among their own number! In other words some elders themselves
in the church at Ephesus will become the enemies of truth and righteousness.
They will speak perverse things about the message and life of the other elders.
They may even plot against them like Paul's kinsmen plotted against him
(20:3; 19:9). And Paul says this is a great trial.
So we have seen that serving the Lord means three things. It means humility,
tears, and trials. And I want to call you to serve the Lord in these ways in your
particular sphere.

 HUMILITY: Be utterly yielded to the Lord. Be submissive to his absolute

rights to control your life. Be willing clay in the Potter's hands. And be a
debtor to all people. Don't dwell on what people owe you. Think about how
the grace of God makes you a debtor to all.
 TEARS: If you are shedding them, be comforted. You are in good company
with Paul. And if you are not, perhaps you should look for someone who
needs you. Or perhaps pray that God would help you see what is at stake in
the battle for faith and hope and holiness.
 TRIALS: If you are being tried, then hear the word of James: "Count it all joy,
brothers, when you fall into various trials, knowing that the testing of your
faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you
may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing."

How to Serve the Lord as an Elder

(Continuing the morning message of 4-2-89.)

On the first three see the morning message:

1. Serving the Lord means humility (verse 19).
2. Serving the Lord means tears (verse 19).
3. Serving the Lord means trials (verse 19).
4. Courage
Verse 20: Serving the Lord means COURAGE. "How I did not shrink back
from . . . "
See Acts 20:27 (not shrink back from declaring the whole counsel of
God); Galatians 2:12 (Peter shrinks back from eating with Gentiles because of
fear); Hebrews 10:38f. (shrinking back from a persevering life of faith and
Putting vv. 20 and 27 together it seems that there are parts to the whole
counsel of God that are profitable but evidently not easy to teach about. Just
like some medicine is good for you but may not go down easily.

A good elder does not decide what to teach by what is popular or easily
accepted. If it is part of God's counsel, it ought to be taught because it will be
profitable. This takes courage.

It also takes study and thought. See Titus 1:9 where the elders are to "hold
firm to the sure word as taught, so that [you] may be able to give instruction in
sound doctrine and also to confute those who contradict it." If something is
going to be controversial and encounter those who contradict it, the elders
must do their homework and be able to give reasonable answers.
Not shrinking back implies courage to give something less than popular and
confidence that enough study and insight will provide reasonable answers to
those who question it.

5. Sometimes Proclaiming
Verse 20: Serving the Lord means sometimes PROCLAIMING. "How I did
not shrink from declaring to you . . . "

The Greek word anaggello means something different from "teach" which
follows. It is what you do when you announce or proclaim or report or herald.
In other words the emphasis does not fall on explaining the meaning or the
implications of a passage of Scripture; the emphasis falls on bringing news or
announcing a happening or heralding some coming event or proclaiming a
There is a difference between explaining to someone how to play hockey and
bringing the news that Minnesota beat Harvard. There is a difference between
what the announcer does during the game and what happens at halftime when
an analyst comes on with diagrams.

There is a place and a need for both proclamation and teaching, because
Christian truth is not just knowledge to be analyzed and understood; it is a
vision of reality to be savored and enjoyed. We need to hear a kind of
announcement of the truth of Scripture that corresponds to the emotional
weight of the truth. This is the difference between preaching and teaching in
my understanding of the two words.

Not all elders need to be good proclaimers, or preachers. But all should have a
heart to announce the good news when appropriate and should have a love of
having it announced as well as analyzed.

6. Living for What Profits the Church

Verse 20: Serving the Lord means LIVING FOR WHAT PROFITS THE
CHURCH. "How I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was
profitable . . . "

A good "proclaiming elder" does not make decisions about his preaching
merely on the basis of what he finds easy or familiar; he asks, what will profit
the people?

And here he has to know what profit is. Is it self-esteem? Is it money? Is it

soothed consciences? Jeremiah spoke against prophets and priests who
"healed the wound of my people lightly, saying Peace, Peace, when there was
no peace" (6:14; 8:11).

True, eternal profit is the goal, not temporary peace and comfort. 'What will
do the people everlasting good?' is the constant question of the faithful elders.

7. Being Apt to Teach

Verse 20: Serving the Lord means BEING APT TO TEACH. "How I did not
shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, and teaching you . .

In the list of qualifications for elders in 1 Timothy 3:2 it says that he should be
"an apt teacher." He should have the gift of teaching. The reason for this is
that the elders are charged with being the doctrinal guardians of the flock, to
preserve true doctrine and defend it and build it into the people. In Titus
1:9elders are to "hold firm to the sure word as taught, so that he may be able
to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to confute those who contradict
Teaching is different from "proclaiming" in that it takes the word proclaimed,
or a portion of Scripture, and more or less methodically explains it. Teaching
emphasizes making the sense plain. Nehemiah 8:8, "And they read from the
book, from the law of God, clearly; and they gave the sense, so that the people
understood the reading."
Good teaching and good proclaiming will generally include some of the other.

A strong church must be a taught church. God wills for there to be pastor-
teachers in the body of Christ (Ephesians 4:11). Two years or more he taught
the disciples as well as proclaiming to newcomers.
8. A Public Ministry
Verse 20: Serving the Lord means A PUBLIC MINISTRY. "How I did not
shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, and teaching you in
public . . . "

Demosia in Greek seems to mean having to do with the populace in general

("public prison," Acts 5:18) or having to do with being out in the open for all
to see ("they have beaten us publicly," Acts 16:37).
So Paul is emphasizing that his ministry to the disciples and elders was not all
private. It was often open to everyone. There was free access—probably
referring to the Hall of Tyrannus (Acts 19:9).
The point may be that Christian truth is public truth. It is nothing to be
ashamed of. It is nothing to hide. It is not like the Gnostic rites then or like the
Masonic rites today. It is open and above board.

All elders ought to be that way. No teaching that has to be kept secret.

9. A Personal Ministry
Verse 20: Serving the Lord means A PERSONAL MINISTRY. "How I did
not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, and teaching
you in public and from house to house . . . "

Here is where we got the name of our small group ministry, "The 20:20

Paul was not content to always be speaking to a large public crowd where
things necessarily were somewhat more impersonal. He evidently divided the
church into house groups and went to those groups. Or it may mean going to
visit particular families.
Since he is teaching, however, the focus is not so much on socializing, but on
smaller times when the Word could be more closely applied and perhaps more
detailed and personal questions could be asked.

Compare Acts 5:42—same phrase: the apostles "in the temple and from house
to house [kat' oikon] they did not cease teaching and proclaiming
[euaggelizomenoi] the Christ, Jesus."
This implies the need for elders to not only be gifted teachers but gifted in the
ability to explain and apply the Word personally and helpfully in a variety of
personal settings.

10. Spiritual Intensity

Verse 21: Serving the Lord means SPIRITUAL INTENSITY. "How I did not
shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, and teaching you in
public and from house to house, (21) testifying . . . "

The Greek word diamarturomenos sometimes means bear witness, in the

sense of taking an oath in court and testifying of what you know of an event.
But it has come to mean charge or warn or tell with a gravity or solemnity
because the matter is very serious.
So Paul's use of the word here and in verse 24 implies that he was in dead
earnest about this matter of repentance and faith.

Earnestness and seriousness and spiritual intensity are crucial in the leadership
of the church. It's the opposite of levity and it's the opposite of a kind of
official churchy talk that has no sense of ultimate reality in it. Elders need to
communicate the greatness of the eternal things they are dealing with in the
Word of God and prayer and people's souls.

11. Being Impartial

Verse 21: Serving the Lord means BEING IMPARTIAL. "How I did not
shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, and teaching you in
public and from house to house, (21) testifying both to Jews and Greeks . . . "

Elders should not be partial to one group of people over another in the sense
that he belittles one. An elder may be assigned to give special attention to the
youth or to the elderly or to families or to single people. That open and
delegated responsibility is not partiality.

But an elder who slights a group in the church because he dislikes them is
contrary to Paul's example here. The spiritual welfare of all in the community
should be the concern of a Christlike elder.

12. Urging Repentance to God

Serving the Lord means URGING REPENTANCE TO GOD.

See on #13.

13. Urging Faith in Jesus

Verse 21: Serving the Lord means URGING FAITH IN JESUS. "How I did
not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, and teaching
you in public and from house to house, (21) testifying both to Jews and
Greeks of repentance to God and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ."

Finally we get to the content of what Paul was proclaiming and teaching and
testifying—repentance to God and faith in Jesus.

Repentance and Faith Necessary for

Both are necessary for salvation.
Acts 3:19, "Repent therefore, and turn again, that your sins may be blotted
out." (See 2:38.)
Acts 5:31, "God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior, to give
repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins."
Acts 8:22, "Repent therefore of this wickedness of yours, and pray to the Lord
that, if possible, the intent of your heart may be forgiven you."
Acts 11:18, "When they heard this they were silenced. And they glorified
God, saying, 'Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance unto life.'"
Acts 17:30, "The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands
all men everywhere to repent."
Acts 26: 17–20 (this is first Paul's commission from the risen Lord Jesus and
then how Paul preached from it): "'I will appear to you (17) delivering you
from the people and from the Gentiles—to whom I send you (18) to open their
eyes, that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to
God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who
are sanctified by faith in me.' (19) Wherefore, O King Agrippa, I was not
disobedient to the heavenly vision, (20) but declared first to those at
Damascus, then at Jerusalem and throughout all the country of Judea, and also
to the Gentiles, that they should repent and turn to God and perform deeds
worthy of their repentance."
Note the bridge to faith from repentance in 26:18!

Acts 14:27, "And when they arrived, they gathered the church together and
declared all that God had done with them, and how he had opened a door of
faith to the Gentiles." (Compare 11:18.)
Acts 15:9, "And he made no distinction between us and them, but cleansed
their hearts by faith."
Acts 24:24–25, "After some days Felix came with his wife Drusilla, who was
a Jewess; and he sent for Paul and heard him speak upon faith in Christ Jesus.
(25) And as he argued about justice and self-control and future judgment,
Felix was alarmed . . . "