Finishing Strong

“Now from Miletus, he sent to Ephesus and called for the elders of the church. And when they came to him, he said to them: “You know, from the first day I set foot in Asia, how I was with you the whole time — serving the Lord with all humility, with tears, and with the trials that came to me through the plots of the Jews — and that I did not shrink back from proclaiming to you anything that was profitable or from teaching it to you in public and from house to house. I testified to both Jews and Greeks about repentance toward God and faith in our Lord Jesus. “And now I am on my way to Jerusalem, bound in my spirit, not knowing what I will encounter there, except that in town after town the Holy Spirit testifies to me that chains and afflictions are waiting for me. But I count my life of no value to myself, so that I may finish my course and the ministry I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of God’s grace.” (Acts 20:17-24 HCSB)

If you thought today was the last time you would see someone you loved, what would you tell them? Final. Words. Maybe you’re young enough you’ve never thought about this possibility. I have, often. Almost thirty years ago, my father passed away very unexpectedly. I still remember that phone call from my mother. She simply said, “Gary, it’s your dad.” She didn’t have to say anything else, I knew immediately what she meant. We talked a few minutes more and after I hung up the phone, I sat on the edge of the bed and I couldn’t move. I just sat there. My wife had already begun getting the kids up and dressed for the two hour drive to my parent’s home. But, I was still in shock and just sat there. She came over and gently told me to get dressed.

Later that day, I was talking to my mother and I asked her about dad. She wasn’t home when he died and I asked her about what he was doing when she had last seen him. I guess I was just trying to make sense of what had happened. She told me, “He was sitting in the yard waiting for you to come. He was just sure you were coming up for the holiday.” Oh man, the last time she had seen him he was waiting on me to arrive and I didn’t come. I struggled with the guilt over those words for several years after that. I kept thinking that things might have been different had I gone to see him. Maybe he wouldn’t have died if we had made the trip to see him that hot July evening. Once I had worked through the false guilt I had felt, I began to wonder what we would have talked about that night. What would he have said to me if he had known it would be the last time he would talk to me?

I trusted my dad and he always gave good, wise advice. Now, I am the age my dad was when he died and my youngest son is about the same age I was when he died. I’m really not superstitious, but in some ways I really dreaded that birthday that would make me the same age my dad was when he died. It was almost like passing an exit on the highway that I needed to take and now I can’t get back there. I’m getting old and there’s no turning back. What do I need to do? How can I prepare my family? What do I need to say that I haven’t already said, what else do I need to teach them that I haven’t taught them?

I’m pretty sure similar thoughts are going through Paul’s head as he gathers the elders of Ephesus. He is trying to make his way back to Jerusalem in time for the Pentecost holiday celebration. He makes a brief stop in Miletus and sends for the church leaders from Ephesus to come and see him. He needs to talk to them because this will be the last time he will see them. The Holy Spirit has been telling him that this trip will result in “chains and afflictions” and he won’t be making a return trip to Ephesus. So, what will be his final words to the Ephesian church leaders? Let’s see…

First, he reminds them of his commitment and faithfulness. He stuck with them through the tears and the trials and he did so as a humble servant of Christ. Paul modeled Christ-like humility, service and endurance in the midst of the tears and trials that they faced together. These are qualities that he wants them to continue to develop and practice in their faith journey. As you walk with Christ, walk like Christ. Like a good father, he was teaching them how to live a life of faith and to live it well.

We often fail to prepare our families for the tears and trials of life. We want to protect them and we should, but we must also teach them about the realities of life that include tears and trials. We want life to go well, but it often goes awry and if we haven’t prepared our families for those times then they will struggle, question the goodness of God and, possibly, collapse under the load. While I don’t think children should be exposed to all of the drama and struggles of life, especially when they are very young, some parents shield them from everything, all of the struggles of life, and then they are ill equipped to handle these same issues when they do occur in their lives.

For example, many of us are very familiar with some financial mistakes we likely made early in our adult lives. Sometimes this might involve the abuse of credit cards, or, perhaps, just poor purchasing decisions. If we hide these things from our children, especially when they are old enough to understand the issues, the lessons and consequences, then we’ve failed to teach them the proper use of credit but, more importantly, how to be good stewards towards God of our financial resources.

Next, Paul reminds them of his faithful proclamation of the Gospel in the face of opposition. He tells them that he “didn’t shrink back” from teaching them anything that was beneficial, and he was willing to do so publicly or privately. This needs to be heard clearly by today’s churches as they face cultural opposition. Opposition not only to the gospel, but also to our core beliefs. As Paul faced opposition, he obviously considered the personal risk and the emotional and physical cost to his life but determined it was well worth it. He had faced prison in Philippi, opposition throughout Macedonia, and the results of the riot in Ephesus. Apparently, the opposition he faced in Ephesus didn’t fade into silence when he left. They simply switched their attention from Paul to the church he established and the leaders Paul had appointed to teach and guide them.

We often think that the only part of the church’s teaching that is offensive is related to those “hot button” topics that get so much attention on social media. Topics like sexual orientation, gender identity and abortion, to name just a few. But in reality, the gospel itself is the source of the real offensiveness. You see, without the truth of the gospel and, as Paul states it, “repentance toward God and faith in our Lord Jesus” these other issues would not really exist.

Tim Keller states it this way: “the preaching of the gospel is terribly offensive to the human heart. People find it insulting to be told that they are too weak and sinful to do anything to contribute to their salvation. The gospel is offensive to liberal-minded people, who charge the gospel with intolerance, because it states that the only way to be saved is through the cross. The gospel is offensive to conservative-minded people, because it states that, without the cross, ‘good’ people are in as much trouble as ‘bad’ people. Ultimately, the gospel is offensive because the cross stands against all schemes of self-salvation. The world appreciates ‘religion’ and ‘morality’ in general. The world thinks that moral religion is a good thing for society. But the world is offended by the cross. So people who love the cross are ‘persecuted.’ The cross is by nature offensive! And we can only grasp its sweetness if we first grapple with its offense. If someone understands the cross, it is either the greatest thing in their life, or it is repugnant to them. If it is neither of those two things, they haven’t understood it.

You see, as long as we present faith in Christ as a religious belief and a moral choice then it isn’t really offensive. However, when we present the gospel in its full and complete truth then it become deeply offensive. To call for personal repentance is an indictment of our personal “goodness” and it offended the deeply religious people of Ephesus and it offends the moralistic people of my culture. Ask almost anyone today what it means to be a Christian and they will talk about morality and how “good” most people really are, deep down inside. They’ll tell you, “I’m really a good person, and I think most people are.”

Many people today are willing to be tolerant of our “Christian” beliefs as long as we are willing to compromise on these offensive issues. Don’t go around preaching that Jesus is the ONLY way to God, that’s intolerant and offensive. Don’t call my actions sinful, that’s intolerant and offensive. In essence, these are the basic beliefs that most Americans hold: 1. “A god exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth.” 2. “God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.” 3. “The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about ones self.” 4. “God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.” 5. “Good people go to heaven when they die.” This has been labeled “therapeutic moralistic deism” by researchers and theologians. It is all about feeling good about yourself and about life.

But that isn’t biblical Christianity. The cross is offensive because it is a proclamation of our sinfulness and our rejection of God’s sovereignty and His law. It is a declaration of our moral failure and of our condemnation because of our need for faith or trust in the redeeming sacrifice of Jesus Christ. To put it simply, God’s goal isn’t to make you happy but to make you holy and that flies in the face of our culture’s focus on personal happiness and independence. At its heart, the gospel is the declaration of the Kingdom of God but most people associate that idea too narrowly as simply heaven. Really, the Kingdom of God is the rule or “kingdom” of God in absolutely every aspect and area of life and, therein, lies the root of the offensiveness of the gospel and the cross of Christ. In the Kingdom of God, He is king and we aren’t. He rules over our lives, we don’t. He defines who we truly are, our feelings don’t.

Finally, Paul assures the Ephesian church leaders that the opposition they will face and the struggles they will endure are a part of a larger vision, a plan includes Paul’s own life and eventual death for the sake of the gospel. The Holy Spirit is “testifying” or bearing witness to the fact that Paul will endure even more hardship for the sake of the gospel, hardship that includes “chains and afflictions.” If Paul knew this, why would he continue going down this path? Why would anyone choose to follow and obey Christ if they knew it would lead to “chains and afflictions?”

“For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.” (Romans 8:18 ESV)

Paul makes a very interesting statement, “I count my life of no value to myself.” That doesn’t mean that he considers himself worthless but rather that he considers his life to be of no value for his personal gain or benefit. In other words, if he tries to “save his life, he will just end up losing it.”

“For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?” (Mark 8:35-36 ESV)

What does a man truly gain if he spends his entire life on himself only to discover that he’s lost all of eternity in the process? What comparison is there in a few years of personal happiness and self-satisfaction in comparison to an eternity of regret and sorrow? Paul’s ultimate goal is to “finish” the course he’s been given by Christ. How can he be so confident? He’s seen the resurrected Jesus! He knows the truth and authority of what he’s proclaiming, thus, he can relegate these “chains and afflictions” to temporary status and keep his eyes upon the long term victory. Basically, Paul knows that spiritually speaking, “no pain, no gain.”

Do you? Are you living in and for the moment? Are you living your life for personal fulfillment and happiness without a consideration for eternity? Jesus said that foolish people build their lives on foundations of sand and wise people build on a solid foundation, a foundation stone. Remember: no pain, no gain. If you don’t take steps now to prepare for the storm that WILL come, your house (which is really, your life) will collapse because it has no foundation. And for those of you who have been building on a rock solid foundation of Christ, stay strong. Don’t quit. Finish Strong!

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