“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. 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 20:32-38 ESV)
Last week we looked at the concerns Paul had about wolves infiltrating the flock or the church at Ephesus. We considered how those wolves attack, not just from the perimeter, but also from within the flock itself. We considered some of the modern issues that wolves use to attack and lead others astray in our churches and we closed with the Paul’s charge as he “commends you to God and to the word of his grace.” We must learn to trust God and depend on His Word to guide and lead us in the proper way to live in relationship with Him and with one another. This week I’d like to expand on that last part and how it relates to our personal lives, our churches and our ministries, and then end with a look at the blessing of Christ in sacrificial giving.
With the threat of wolves lurking and watching for a chance to pounce on the “sheep-like” church members, Paul commends them to God and to the Gospel (word of his grace = gospel, scriptures). We often misunderstand the real message of the gospel. We tend to focus on the end result (eternal life) without an understanding that “eternal” is not just about length but includes content and quality. Don’t misunderstand, I’m NOT saying that eternal life isn’t eternal but just that we wouldn’t want to live eternally in our current state, so eternal life also carries with it an expectation that life will be what it was meant to be, life the way God intended. In other words, life that is truly satisfying, complete and fulfilled.
The problem is that we tend to think we can achieve this goal of “life as it was meant to be” without input or direction from God. If I can just achieve this goal, reach this accomplishment, attain this income level or job status then I’ll have “made it.” We work, strive, sweat, save, and struggle to get there only to discover that it really didn’t give us what we wanted and life is still, essentially, missing something. That ideal life seems to be just beyond our grasp, or just around the next corner, maybe it is found in that next personal achievement BUT we never quite seem to make it. That’s because we keep looking in the wrong place for fulfillment and satisfaction.
Jesus told us: “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.” (John 10:10 ESV)
So, notice the two things that Paul specifically mentions that he desires for the Ephesian elders to experience through their relationship with God and His Word, 1) it is able to build you up; 2) and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified.
First, God and His Word is able to build you up. The idea of building you up is not to give you an “ego boost” so that you will feel better about yourself but it is the process by which God is “building you up” into the person He has designed you to be and that He intends for you to become. This “building up” process that God pursues is not easy and it is certainly not painless. For God to properly build us up into His people there are some things that might need to be torn down, first. For example, to properly follow Christ we must learn to deny ourselves (see Luke 9:23). It is not hard to see the paradox in these words. To be built up into the person God intends for you to be, you must first tear down the desires and dreams that pull you in the wrong direction, the ones that pull you away from God. So, to be built up we must tear down some things to make room for God…
I once saw someone illustrate how we limit our capacity for God’s overflowing presence in our lives. He started out with an empty jar full of water. This jar full of water represented our lives filled to the rim with the presence of God’s Spirit. Life as God meant for it to be. He then took a bag full or large river rock and poured as many as he could into the jar. Quite a bit of the water overflowed and ran out, but not all of it. He stated that we often live with ungodly desires in our lives and these were represented by the river rocks. He then pulled out another bag of smaller stones. He proceeded to pour, shake and pour some more until quite a few of these smaller stones had worked into the jar and displaced even more of the water. He stated that we often pursue ungodly dreams and goals in our lives and they are represented by the smaller stones. He then pulled out a small bag of sand, which he began to pour into the jar. It was shocking how much sand he was able to pour into the jar and how much more water it displaced. He then stated that the sand represented the sin we still cling to in our lives. He then asked if we thought there was any water remaining in the jar. Most thought the sand had displaced the last of the water, but he placed a mesh cloth over the mouth of the jar and turned it over and small, small trickle of water came out. Not much, but some. That’s how we often strive to live in relation to God, but something’s wrong.
I suspect that most of us who call ourselves disciples of Jesus, believe that we have a large capacity for God’s presence and power in our lives. But the ungodly desires we harbor, the ungodly goals and dreams we pursue, and the small but pervasive sins that we cling to in our lives leave little room for God’s Spirit within us. We have capacity, but no spare room. The only way to know the real presence and power of God in our lives is to begin to deal with the small but pervasive sin in our lives, address the misleading dreams and goals we pursue and, finally, crucify the worldly desires that dominate our attention. Then and only then, will we be capable of truly experiencing the true power of God’s Spirit in our lives.
There’s a common misunderstanding among many Christians that we must pound the throne of God with tearful prayers beseeching God to grant us His Spirit. God is not withholding His Spirit from us like a stingy parents holding back treats from their children’s Halloween bag of candy so they can eat them after their children go to bed. He longs for us to crucify our desires, to focus our attention and desires on Him and to confess and abandon those pervasive sins that plague us each day. Once that happens, His Spirit will come rushing in to fill our lives with His power and presence.
Next, Paul tells the Ephesian elders that God and the word of His grace will give them an inheritance among the sanctified. An inheritance. Imagine that. An inheritance is what a father has planned for his child to receive upon the father’s death. In this instance, the inheritance God the Father intends for us to receive is the one that God had planned upon the death of His Son and that we will receive upon the death of our own selfish desires. Paul tells us that… “if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.” (Romans 8:13 ESV) He goes on to say, “The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.” (Romans 8:16-17 ESV)
To receive the glorious inheritance God has planned, we must walk the path that our Lord walked. Jesus said we must “take up our cross” and follow Him. The path of the cross is not a path of pleasure, leisure, material comfort and financial blessing. It is a path of service, obedience and sacrifice. “Therefore, put to death what belongs to your worldly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desire, and greed, which is idolatry.” (Colossians 3:5 HCSB) Paul would later tell these same Ephesians, “He [the Holy Spirit] is the down payment of our inheritance, for the redemption of the possession, to the praise of His glory.” (Ephesians 1:14 HCSB)
There is a sense in which we receive a small portion of our inheritance now, but the full blessing of our Godly inheritance will come when we stand in God’s presence. “But, as it is written, “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him”— these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit…” (1 Corinthians 2:9-10 ESV) Have you ever wished that you had a long lost uncle who left you a fortune and that his lawyer just hasn’t located you, yet? Maybe I’m the only one who has ever thought that, but I doubt it. I’m just waiting on that letter with the cryptic instructions on how to collect my inheritance… Ok, enough fantasy. Back to reality.
God really has left us instructions that tell us what to do and how to proceed to receive our inheritance from Him. It isn’t fantasy, it is real. As I reminded you above, He has given us His Spirit as a guarantee or “down payment” of our anticipated inheritance. He hasn’t left us without evidence or proof of His intentions. What if that imaginary long, lost uncle had left instructions you must follow to receive your inheritance. Would you follow them? Maybe… I don’t know, they seem a little strange even paradoxical, really. What if he had also left a small token of his intentions, maybe an expensive gold pocket watch. Would that inspire you to follow those difficult, strange, even paradoxical instructions? Isn’t that what God has done? He has given us His Spirit as a token or “down payment” of our inheritance. Now, Just follow the instructions and receive the promised inheritance.
What applies to our personal walk with Christ also applies to our ministry. God pours His Spirit out upon those ministries that follow His instructions and seek to make disciples who lovingly and obediently follow Christ. God doesn’t withhold His Spirit and His blessings in a stingy way, He longs to pour out His Spirit upon us but we must be a people who seek Him in the same manner I outlined, above, regarding our passions, pursuits, dreams and sinful desires.
Notice in the next few verses of our story how Paul addresses these very concerns. He reminds these Ephesian elders that he gave them an example of selfless sacrifice as he ministered among them. He didn’t seek personal benefit from them but he worked to provide for his own necessities and also for those who were ministering with him. He then says, “I have shown you” that by working hard we minister to those who are weak and we teach them the lesson that Jesus taught us, “it is more blessed to give than to receive.” Now, don’t read too much into that statement about Paul providing for his own necessities. He isn’t stating that the pastor shouldn’t receive support from the church he serves, he’s trying to teach them a lesson regarding financial gain and personal treasure.
While we don’t know the details regarding the financial stability of the Ephesian church, it appears that Paul may have been addressing a specific issue. Notice that he’s not addressing the church, in general, but the church leadership, specifically. It would appear that Paul might have sensed a need to lead these elders to be more sacrificial and dependent upon God in their personal finances. So, let me address this issue from the perspective of the church and the pastor since it seems both are needed.
First, the pastor must be an example of financial stewardship and sacrificial giving to the people he leads. God has called the church leadership to model Christian obedience and biblical stewardship to the people they lead. This includes our personal finances along with obvious and transparent trust in the principles God’s Word teaches regarding stewardship. We are to work hard and provide for our family’s necessities and those whom God has placed under our care (extended family and those in need).
As James says, when we see someone in need then we should respond according to our abilities and not just offer up vain, empty words of encouragement and prayers of God’s blessing (see James 2:14-17). My childhood pastor used to say that we often, “get all we can, can all we get, and then sit on our cans.” In other words, we do everything we “can” to become financially well off then we take those things and hoard them in a “can” and then we sit down (on our cans, so to speak) and ignore the needs of others. But Paul is teaching and demonstrating to these church leaders that God’s Word is reliable and trustworthy and that we must practice obedience and recognize the truth of Christ’s words, “it is more blessed to GIVE than it is to receive.”
In closing, Paul wasn’t teaching this principle to these church leaders just for for their personal Christian growth. He was teaching them so that they would, in turn, teach others the powerful truth and exponential blessing of giving. God has taught me the truth of this principle and I have, in turn, taught it to those whom I teach. While I desperately need to continue learning this principle, even more deeply (I know my own heart – I still struggle with this issue), I am seeing this principle lived out among those whom I lead and love. I have watched our church members give sacrificially, but I know we can give even more. I have also watched my own children and grandchildren give sacrificially to the needs of others, but giving more is always possible.
How about you? Do you know this principle of giving? Do you practice it, regularly? Just remember, your inheritance in Christ is ALWAYS greater than anything you give in obedience to Christ.