August 3, 2014
When we consider what it might look like to live a life committed to the cause of the Gospel, the apostle Paul is an excellent example to follow. As Alistair Begg explains, what set Paul apart was not that he didn’t value the ordinary experiences of life but that he viewed them all in relationship to the purposes and care of God. When we live with the Gospel in view, we learn that the greatest value is in a life lived well for God’s glory.
Sermon Transcript: Print
“Now from Miletus”—that is, Paul—“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. And now, behold, I am going to Jerusalem, constrained by the Spirit, not knowing what will happen to me there, except that the Holy Spirit testifies to me in every city that imprisonment and afflictions await me. But I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God. And now, behold, I know that none of you among whom I have gone about proclaiming the kingdom will see my face again. Therefore I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all, for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God. 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. 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.”
Well, a brief prayer:
Gracious God, as we prepare to, in obedience to the word of your Son, gather around this table of remembrance, we pray that you will set your word firmly in our hearts in order that out of the fullness of our hearts we may—and out of gratitude of heart—that we may live lives of obedience. For we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.
Well, I just have one verse, really, that I want to draw your attention to, although my plan is not actually to expound the verse or even the passage around it. I don’t plan to do despite to either, but I think we would call this something like a Communion meditation, if you like.
Those of you who are reading through Murray M’Cheyne’s profile and program for Bible reading will, like me, have read this week from this section of Acts chapter 20. And my reading along with you in that vein was alongside the preparation that I was doing in 2 Timothy. And of course, the material in 2 Timothy that we considered this morning, in the call of Paul to Timothy to make sure that he was the kind of vessel that would be “useful to the Master” and so on—that he would be set apart and holy, as we have quite wonderfully been singing about tonight and reinforcing the truth, and ready to do the will of God—essentially, what he was issuing to Timothy was a call to a consecrated life. And we tried to set that this morning again by the singing of the hymn “Take my life and let it be consecrated, Lord, to thee,” in order that we might undergird what we were studying in the Bible.
Well, it was with all of that and more in mind that I was reading, then, in Acts chapter 20. And when I came to verse 24, I was struck quite forcibly by it. It’s not an unfamiliar verse. We know this passage, many of us, quite well. But it just, as sometimes happens, struck me in a way that I hadn’t really paid much attention to it where he says, “I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself.” Well, I had to stop at that and think about it for a moment or two. I said to myself, “I wonder why that is.” And then he goes on, and he says, “if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus.” And what is that? Well, it is “to testify to the gospel of the grace of God.”
So, really, this is my thinking: if in 2 Timothy you have Paul issuing a call to a consecrated life, here, in this brief statement, you have an example of a consecrated life—not the only example, in Paul’s case, but just one of them. And it comes, as we’ve noted in our reading, within the context of Paul’s farewell to the elders of the church in Ephesus. If you haven’t read this for some time, you could backtrack and read from the beginning of chapter 19 all the way through chapter 20 and get the flavor of all the wonderful things that had happened by the Holy Spirit through the ministry of Paul in Ephesus in the founding and establishing of the church, not in a moment of tranquility but actually with all kinds of strife and various animosities that were part and parcel of things.
His teaching ministry, he’s able to say to these elders, having assembled them, is a ministry that he has sought to exercise “with all humility.” That’s verse 19. He says, “I can tell you this, and I can say it unashamedly”—he must have been a remarkable fellow—“that I have, from the very first day I set foot in the place, I’ve served the Lord with all humility and with tears and with trials in all the things that have happened to me through the plots of the Jews.” And, of course, they were able to say, “Yes,” and nodding their heads, I’m sure, and saying to one another, “That is perfectly true.”
So, his ministry had been marked by humility and by clarity and by bravery. The fact that he was opposed in this way had not caused him to sidestep. And as you read on through the passage, you can see that he was able to exercise a teaching ministry that was really very plain, and it was one that “did not shrink,” in verse 27, “from declaring … the whole counsel of God.” He didn’t have hobby horses. He wasn’t trying to just drive them in a certain direction. I think he would have been happy to say to them, “The main things are the plain things, and the plain things are the main things, and I want you to make sure that you have these clearly now.”
And that ministry in his teaching that was plain was also profitable. In fact, he says that he “did[n’t] shrink” once again. So you get this picture of “I didn’t shrink; I didn’t shrink.” So clearly, the temptation was to shrink. The temptation was just to back off. “But I didn’t do it,” he said. “Even when people thought that it was too much, I kept going. And I didn’t shirk from declaring to you anything that was profitable.” So anything that was going to be of help and encouragement to them, he made it known. And he says, “And you know that that teaching ministry I exercised both in public and also privately from house to house.” And you will notice there verse 21, where we have one of the phrases that we use in our baptismal services, at least in one of our questions, in our “repentance toward[s] God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.” That is where that little phrase comes that we use when we baptize people.
That’s what he’s been doing. He hasn’t been involved in the politics of Ephesus. He hasn’t become a fanatic. He hasn’t led them down all kinds of rabbit trails that would be esoteric and of very great interest to them—especially those who loved word battles and so on. No, he didn’t do anything along those lines. He testified in public and in private. Whether they were Jews by background or Greeks, the same thing: repentance towards God and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.
And he says, “Now”—and this is verse 22—“now I’m heading off to Jerusalem.” And why is he going to Jerusalem? Well, he says—in the King James Version it says—“I [am] bound [by] the spirit.” “I am bound to go.” Here, what is the phrase that we use? “I am constrained by the Spirit.” So he has a deep sense of constraint upon him. Whether that came from external sources and drawing and pulling, whether it came from just his own subjective conviction, or a combination of the two, nevertheless, he is convinced that it is time for him to head to Jerusalem.
And then you will notice that he says, “And I’m going to Jerusalem. I know that I am to go to Jerusalem.” But then he tells us what he doesn’t know. He says, “I don’t know what will happen to me there.” And it’s interesting, because later on he’s able to say, “And I know that after my departure, these people will arise from among you.” So he’s very clear about what he knows. But he’s also clear about what he doesn’t know. Well, we might be tempted to think that somebody that was so in tune with God, he would know everything that was going on. He says, “No, specifically, I don’t know. I’m going up to Jerusalem. I know that,” he says, “not knowing what will happen to me there.”
Can I just pause and drive this home for us tonight? It is a happy providence of God that we do not know specifically what is going to happen to us. And some of us, I think, live with the illusion that if we would know everything that was going to unfold for us, we would be so much better off. But we wouldn’t. We would not. Think about how it would deprive us of all of the excitement and discovery of fresh joys. Think about how it would bring to us the problems and sufferings that will accompany the loss of life and the loss of loved ones and the disappointment and failure of our own rebellions and of our sins.
No, it is a happy providence that we do not know what lies ahead. The hymn writer puts it quite wonderfully in the hymn:
[God] holds the key of all unknown,
And I am glad;
If other hands should hold the key,
Or if he trusted it to me,
I might be sad.
And then he says,
What if tomorrow’s cares were here
Without its rest?
I’d rather he unlocked the day
And as the hours swing open say,
“My will is best.”
And then, in a wonderful stanza, it reads as follows:
The very dimness of my sight
Makes me secure;
For, groping in my misty way,
I feel his hand; [and] I hear him say,
“My help is sure.” …
I cannot read his future plans,
But this I know:
I have the smiling of his face,
And all the refuge of his grace,
While here below. …
Enough; this covers all my wants,
And so I rest;
For what I cannot, he can see,
And in his care I [saved] shall be,
So if you’ve been saying to yourself, “If only I knew,” the fact that you don’t is a providence of God.
“I’m going up to Jerusalem,” he says, “not knowing what will happen to me there”—at least specifically. But he does have a general idea of what’s ahead. And if he had been living in our era and listening to Creedence Clearwater, he might have put a little note in here:
I see [a] bad moon a-rising,
I see trouble on the way,
I see earthquakes and lightning,
I see [those] bad times today.
’Cause that’s what he says: “Specifically, I’m not knowing what’s going to happen to me there, except that I do have the testimony of the Holy Spirit”—verse 23—“that in every city, imprisonment and afflictions await me.”
So, he doesn’t know specifically, he does know generally, and he proceeds accordingly. It’s quite a tough deal, isn’t it? Here he is, an apostle of God, set apart, doing the will of God, in the will of God, serving the purpose of God, and what does he face? Temptations and difficulties and trials. He’s seeking to do what is right, to fulfill the purpose of God, and he faces imprisonment and afflictions.
Do you know of anyone else who was heading up to Jerusalem and who would face imprisonment and afflictions? Do you remember how he said, “If you would take this cup from me” three times? Do you remember how this apostle said, “If you would remove this thorn from my flesh” three times, and three times the Lord told him, “My grace is sufficient for you. My strength is made perfect in weakness”? And so Paul said, “Well then, fine. It will be in weakness that I continue to exercise my ministry.” We all do, to one degree or another.
And then verse 24. You say, “Well, hurry up and get to it.” Well, here I am. I’m at it. Don’t worry. We won’t spend long on it. Then comes verse 24. And it’s in that context that he says, “But I don’t account my life of any value nor as precious to myself.” This is not masochism. He’s not saying he doesn’t like life, that he doesn’t like hanging with his friends. We know that he does, and the end of Timothy tells us that even as he’s getting to the end of his life, he’s not just going, “Oh, whoop-de-do! I’m heading to heaven.” He knows that eventually, he’s going to join Jesus, but for the time being, he wants the company and companionship of Timothy, he wants the cloak so that he doesn’t freeze to death in the jolly jail, and he also wants his scroll so that he can read and enjoy himself while he’s waiting to finally die.
So when he says, “I don’t account my life of any value or precious to myself,” we have to understand it in the contrast of what he has actually gone on to say. Actually, the King James Version helped me here. Because what it says—it begins verse 24, “None of these things move me.” “None of these things move me.” In other words, “I’m not destabilized by the prospect of imprisonment and affliction, and I’m not destabilized by the fact that I don’t know specifically what’s going to happen to me. I’m not moved by that.” And the reason that he’s not moved by that is because of what he says: “I don’t actually regard my life as being of particular value or as particularly precious to myself.” In other words, he’s run the worst-case scenario. What is the worst-case scenario? He dies. “Okay,” he says, “so I die. I’ve got that part covered, so let’s go to Jerusalem.” It’s quite wonderful, isn’t it? I mean, I know my elders still think I’m crazy about this graveyard out here, but I’m not. I hope I don’t have to get buried before they even have it, but the fact of the matter is that it is an amazing thing, as Baxter said of his congregation: you’ve got to teach them how to die well, to die joyfully. You’ve got to say to society and to the culture, “Listen, one out of one dies. That is the one eventuality for all of us. And the way in which that is handled, that makes all the difference in the world, both now and then.”
And so Paul says… That’s what he’s saying: “I’ve got that part taken care.” He’s not living in dreamland. He saw all the difficulties; he just made nothing of them. It’s what we’ve seen in Timothy, I hope: that those who have lived with their eye on the then are better enabled to live in the now. It is the then that helps us with the now. “… who for the joy … set before him,” you know, “endured the cross, [scorning its] shame.” That was Jesus. Moses chose “to suffer affliction with the people of God” rather than “enjoy the pleasures of sin for a season.” And why was he given the opportunity to do this? Because his gaze was fixed on something else. He was looking to a city “whose builder and maker is God.” And when Martin Luther got ahold of this and wrote his hymn “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” he was able to write, not with bravado but with conviction,
And though they take our life,
Goods, honor, children, wife,
Yet is their profit small; …
The City of God remaineth!
So, here, I say to you is an amazing expression of consecration: “I don’t count my life of any value. I’m not consumed,” he says, “by an overriding concern for survival.” That’s really the way things are, isn’t it? Consumed with an overriding concern for survival. I mean, none of us are planning on just walking away or… But nevertheless, “That’s not it,” he says. “That’s not my overriding concern. No, what I’m really concerned about is that I might finish my course, that I might complete my assigned task.” In other words, he views his life as expendable. His concern is not so much to live long as it is to live well. Says Calvin, “It is dreadful to be so gripped by a blind desire to live that we lose life itself”—which makes sense of the words of Jesus: “If a man will save his life, he’ll lose it, but if he loses his life for my sake, he will find it.”
And that’s why when you read the Elisabeth Elliot book and you read again the description of Jim Elliot and Nate Saint and the others in the prospect of the encounter with those who eventually took their lives, the hymn that they sang was “We rest on thee, our Shield and our Defender. We go not forth alone.” “We go in with you.” And that’s Paul here too.
So, the prospect of suffering, of imprisonment, and of death is not enough, he says, to divert him from his course nor to deprive him of a security that is grounded in the will of God, that is experienced by the power of God, and that is lived out in the presence of God. And it is that strength of personal conviction and devotion that we find here in Paul that gives credibility to verses such as Romans 8, when we read Paul and he says, “Now, what about it when there’s nakedness or peril or sword or all of these things?” And then he says, “In all these things we are more than conquerors.” What is that? Where do you get that from, Paul? The only person that’s able to say that is somebody who has got here in his own life: “I don’t count my life as really that significant, in terms of the most precious thing in existence. No, it’s far more important that I finish the course, that I run the race, that I get this over with, that I do this. And when that is settled, then the rest falls in line.”
And what is his course? Well, he tells us: it’s “to testify to the gospel of the grace of God.” How wonderful to live our lives testifying to the gospel of the grace of God: tomorrow, as we go to work and people say, “Well, what did you do yesterday?” and you can tell them, “Well, I was reading my Bible and I was thinking about why it’s a great thing to be able to tell people of the gospel of the grace of God.” And they’ll say, “Excuse me, I just need to go and get a coffee.” And if they come back—if they come back intrigued at all—they might say, “What does that mouthful mean, ‘the gospel of the grace of God’?” And then you can tell them, “Well, acceptance with God is not as a result of our endeavors or our contriving or our striving or our trying to put ourselves in a right standing with God, but the story is of the grace of God, the riches of God at the expense of his Son. And that in itself is good news. And it’s that good news which has changed my life, and it’s that good news that I now want to share with you.”
That’s why when Paul says to Timothy, again in 2 Timothy, he says, “[I want you to] keep your head …, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, [and] discharge all the duties of your ministry,” it’s got great credibility to it, doesn’t it? Because that’s exactly what he’s doing. Here he is: “I’m going to Jerusalem. I don’t know what’s going to happen. I’m going to keep my head. I face imprisonments and afflictions. I’m going to endure hardship. What am I going to do when I get there? I’m going to testify about the grace of God. That’s evangelism. And what’s my big concern? That I might finish my course—that I might discharge all the duties of my ministry.”
So, a clear sense of call issuing in a life of absolute dedication to the Lord Jesus Christ is what is found, then, in this verse. And tonight, we’re a long way removed from Ephesus. We’re not apostles, not one of us. But we do serve the same Lord Jesus Christ. And we do continue our course, for as long as we’re given to serve, and we
do not know what lies ahead;
The way [we] cannot see,
[But] one stands near to be my guide;
He’ll show the way to me.
I know who holds the future,
… He’ll guide me with his hand;
With God things don’t just happen;
Everything by him is planned.
So as I face tomorrow,
With its problems large and small,
I’ll trust the God of miracles
[And] give to him my all.
A call to consecration in the morning. A wonderful illustration of consecration in the evening. Who better than Paul could say, “All the things that mattered most to me no longer matter the way they once did”? That’s, I guess, the apex of Christian discipleship.
 2 Timothy 2:21 (NIV 1984).
 Frances Ridley Havergal, “Take My Life, and Let It Be” (1874).
 Acts 20:22 (KJV).
 John Parker, “God Holds the Key” (1887).
 John Fogerty, “Bad Moon Rising” (1969).
 See Matthew 26:39–44; Mark 14:32–39; Luke 22:39–46.
 2 Corinthians 12:7–9 (paraphrased).
 See 2 Timothy 4:9.
 See 2 Timothy 4:13.
 Acts 20:24 (KJV).
 Richard Baxter, preface to The Reformed Pastor (1656).
 Hebrews 12:2 (KJV).
 Hebrews 11:25 (KJV).
 Hebrews 11:10 (KJV).
 Martin Luther, trans. Thomas Carlyle, “A Safe Stronghold Our God Is Still” (1529, 1831).
 John Calvin, Acts, The Crossway Classic Commentaries, ed. Alister McGrath and J. I. Packer (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1995), commentary on Acts 20:24.
 Matthew 10:39; 16:25; Mark 8:35; Luke 9:24; 17:33; John 12:25 (paraphrased).
 Edith G. Cherry, “We Rest on Thee, Our Shield and Our Defender” (1895).
 Romans 8:35 (paraphrased).
 Romans 8:37 (ESV).
 2 Timothy 4:5 (NIV).
 Alfred B. Smith, “I Do Not Know What Lies Ahead” (1958).
 Philippians 3:7–8 (paraphrased).
Copyright © 2023, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.