Commissioning Service

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Charles Dickens wrote in the opening of A Tale of Two Cities, "it was the best of times, it was the worst of times." That sums up the state of the Church in many parts of the world at the moment. On the one hand, for example, there is a claim by social scientists that there is a Fourth Great Awakening taking place in America. But on the other hand others don't think all is quite so rosy. William Bennett has written of America that it has become ... "... the kind of nation civilized nations sent missionaries to."

Things are similar in the UK. Here there often are two stories and both are true. One speaks of what the Holy Spirit is achieving through God's people as they seek to witness to Christ and to be faithful to his word. The other speaks of a rejection of God and then both moral decay in the world and heresy in the Church. God is working at JPC and, I believe, he will work, if we are faithful and obedient. There is a new responsiveness in the wider community. People are looking for guidance and answers. But also in the UK we are experiencing one of those famines predicted by Amos in the Old Testament ...

not a famine of food or a thirst for water, but a famine of hearing the words of the LORD (Amos 8.11)

You have churchmen denying the faith. You have the media giving little place to Christian views. And in state schools, in social services and in the NHS you have people trying to prevent the Christian voice being heard. How we all need to resist such opposition. But it was just the same in New Testament times. That is why tonight I want us to see what we can learn from our New Testament reading, Acts 20.13-38 - and Paul's last meeting with the Ephesian elders.

And my headings are first, THE CHALLENGE; secondly, THE CHARGE; and, thirdly, THE COMMITTAL.

First, THE CHALLENGE

Paul is on his way back to Jerusalem from his missionary journey. He was on a route that some of you may have travelled (verses 13-15) - the sea journey from Assos, to Mitylene, to Kios, to Samos and on to Miletus. Today it is called "Greek island hopping" and is part of a holiday. For Paul it was no holiday. He was on deadly serious business. When he arrived at Miletus, we read, verse 17:

Paul sent to Ephesus for the elders [or leaders] of the church.

And it was the last time Paul was going to be speaking to these elders - verse 25:

Now I know that none of you among whom I have gone about preaching the kingdom will ever see me again.

So what is he going to say as they face an uncertain future? Fundamentally, he summarizes his own ministry and his own goals in ministry to challenge them. And his great challenge is when he says that the gospel is worth dying for. Do you believe that - that the gospel of Jesus Christ is worth dying for? Many in the 20th century believed it. There were more martyrs for Christ in the past century than in all previous Christian history. Read Paul Marshall's book Their Blood Cries Out. And in some Muslim countries today converts still face the threat of execution. Look at verse 24:

I consider my life worth nothing to me, if only I may finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me - the task of testifying to the gospel of God's grace.

Is that the sort of goal you have in life? Oh! yes, you have other goals - to be a good nurse or doctor or businessman or lecturer or teacher or student or whatever. Paul in his very last words here referred to his tent making goals. He said in verses 34 & 35:

You yourselves know that these hands of mine have supplied my own needs and the needs of my companions. In everything I did, I showed you that by this kind of hard work we must help the weak, remembering the words the Lord Jesus himself said: 'It is more blessed to give than to receive.'

But his overarching goal was to testify "to the gospel of God's grace". One day this life will be over. You will face the judgment seat of Christ. Will you be able to say, as you look back, that (like Paul) you were willing to die, if necessary, to help get the gospel of God's grace out; and no sacrifice was too great? But what, you ask, is involved in testifying to the gospel? With Paul several things were involved.

First, he was bold - verse 20:

You know that I have not hesitated to preach anything that would be helpful to you.

And verse 27:

I have not hesitated to proclaim to you the whole will of God.

He did not hesitate to say what was uncomfortable. We know from his Ephesian letter written a little later from prison, that he was pretty blunt. He there tells the Ephesians they were not to be caught up in the sexual immorality that was going on around them. They were to be careful about their language. They were not to drink too much. And he taught about sexual roles in marriage. At that time in Ephesus, in the context of the Diana cult, it was politically incorrect to say, "wives, submit to you husbands as to the Lord"; and it was wimpish to say, "husbands love your wives, just as Christ loved the Church". But Paul did not "hesitate to proclaim ... the whole will of God" whether people liked it or not. Nor did he hesitate to preach about predestination and the sovereignty of God (as we also see from this letter), even though some wouldn't have liked that. But equally he didn't hesitate to preach about human freedom and responsibility, even though some wouldn't understand how both could be true - God's sovereignty and human freedom. So, first, Paul was bold. Of course, he was courteous and tactful. But he got round to saying what was necessary. And so must you. That is all part of Paul's challenge.

Secondly, Paul used every method to get the gospel out. He says, verses 20 & 21:

I have taught you publicly and from house to house. I have declared to both Jews and Greeks.

He preached everywhere and to everyone - he used the big meeting and the one to one situation or the small group opportunity; and he spoke to different types of people. Many of you are not called to address large meetings, but you can still be imaginative about the methods you use to communicate the gospel. And you can think about widening the circle of people you talk to about your faith. So, secondly, Paul used every method he could.

Thirdly, at the heart of Paul's message was, verse 21:

that [people] must turn to God in repentance and have faith in our Lord Jesus.

Literally translated that is "repentance towards God". But what does he mean by "repentance"? Let me say what he doesn't mean. He doesn't mean "feel shame". Some are merely sorry when they are found out, because of what others will think. Nor is it simply a deep regret at the result, whether now or in eternity, of wrong doing. No one likes bad things happening to them. But that is not Biblical repentance. Nor is it simply the memory of that occasion when you did something very wrong that still haunts you. You were dishonest in business. You had an abortion. Or, somehow, you ruined someone's life. But that, too, is not biblical repentance, for biblical repentance is not repentance in a vacuum, but "repentance towards God".

It is when, as the NIV translates it, "you turn to God in repentance." It is repentance of sin as sin. It is repentance for having rejected and rebelled against God. True repentance has God in mind all the time and not you and your feelings of shame, or your fear of the results of sin or your horror at what you have done. Those things can, and should, trigger true repentance. But true repentance is repentance for neglecting God. You may be honest, sexually moral, and very well thought of. But if you have been neglecting God for a life time (however short or however long), you have been robbing God of his due, just as much as an adulterer or a murderer. And true repentance acknowledges God's standards alone. You do not repent because you are not as good as a friend, but because you are not holy like God. It is repenting of the sin of your nature as well as of the sins you have committed. So you repent of your evil heart as well as your evil deeds. You repent of sin as sin against God. You "repent towards God."

And when you are at that point, you can understand how faith in Christ is "good news" or "the gospel of God's grace". You see the cross as the great statement of God's love. For Christ died for sin - the just for the unjust. He bore the judgment you deserved. He is your substitute and your mediator with God. Who needs to turn to God in repentance tonight and have faith in our Lord Jesus? And this is the "gospel of God's grace" because you receive God's forgiveness and acceptance freely. God doesn't say you must start doing some good first of all. No! He just asks you to accept what he freely gives by faith. God saves you by believing. Just a little before Paul was meeting these Ephesian elders, he told a Philippian gaoler:

Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved - you and your household (Acts 16.31)

So, thirdly, Paul declared that people "must turn to God in repentance and have faith in our Lord Jesus."

Fourthly, verse 19 tells us that Paul had an attitude of service - "I served the Lord." It was also an attitude of humility - "I served the Lord with great humility". He didn't work for the Lord to inflate his personal status.

Fifthly, Paul was not greedy. He was not in it for the money. Tragically some Christian workers can be greedy. So he says in verse 33:

I have not coveted anyone's silver or gold or clothing.

Sixthly, he saw results. These elders in front of him were proof that a church had been planted.

But, seventhly, on the other hand, all was not easy. Paul like any body could be sad and depressed when things went wrong. Verse 19:

I served the Lord with great humility and with tears.

There was opposition - verse 19 again:

I was severely tested by the plots of the Jews.

And verse 23:

I only know that in every city the Holy Spirit warns me that prison and hardships are facing me.

Paul has good news - the gospel of grace. But getting that gospel out is not necessarily going to be easy. There was opposition for him and there will be for us. So this is Paul's challenge. And that is why Paul then gives these elders his charge. That brings me to my second heading - and we must be more brief.

Secondly, THE CHARGE

Paul's charge is relevant to all Christian workers at all times and everywhere, as is self-evident. First, he says, verse 30:

keep watch over yourself.

So check yourself out against this example of Paul. But then, he says, verse 30, keep watch over "the flock". It doesn't matter if that "flock" is just a small sub-flock of another sub-flock - a class in the youth work or some other small group. Paul says,

keep watch over ... all the flock.

So that includes the young as well as the old or any other section of the Christian fellowship. And remember that the Christian fellowship (or the Church of God) in which the Holy Spirit has led you to be an under-shepherd is very precious to God. Why is it precious? Look at verse 28:

he bought [it] with his own blood.

And these elders must keep watch over all the flock, says Paul, because, verse 29:

after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock.

It is the same today. A good shepherd in New Testament times not only had to feed the sheep, he also had to protect them from attack. So who are these savage wolves? Answer: false teachers. Verse 30 tells us that these are men who "distort the truth". I read, in a collection of essays this week, an essay by a clergyman - a College Dean in Cambridge and a lecturer in Divinity. He is proposing that the Church should, (I quote): "abandon an undiscriminating opposition to pre-marital sexual intercourse."

And the Archbishop of Canterbury wrote a preface to this collection of essays admitting that some were controversial, but basically needed to be considered. He should have said that what you have in this essay is the work of a "savage wolf". The focus at present has to be on sex ethics because the world and fellow-travellers in the church are trying to "distort the truth" in this area particularly. Nor is this anything new as you can see if you read between the lines of Paul's letter to the Ephesians. And don't be surprised when it is parish or university clergymen and bishops and archbishops who are causing the trouble. Paul says (verse 30):

Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them.

And they do get disciples. Ignorant people say, "he is so clever" - "he is so charming" - "he sounds so spiritual". But Jesus would say that they are simply "wolves in sheep's clothing" because they contradict God's word. And Paul did say and would say, verse 31:

Be on your guard.

But what do you have to do in these situations - not least in these situations involving sexual ethics? How you deal with individuals caught up in a problem is very different to how you deal with church leaders and teachers. I dealt with dealing with individuals last Sunday Morning, when I preached on A Woman at a Well. But with regard to false teachers in the church, you simply have to warn constantly. You have to teach and explain why and how this teaching is false. And you do it with "tears". It does sadden you, as you see good people getting caught up in false teaching or being weak or failing themselves to fight the wolves who are these false teachers. Paul says, verse 31:

Remember that for three years I never stopped warning each of you night and day with tears.

This warning was unrelenting and it was hard work and it was to each individual. You say, "but I am not up to this sort of thing." No! you may not be asked to appear on a TV debate or speak at a public conference. But issues will come up at your work or in discussion with friends sooner or later. Most of your colleagues and friends will have been brainwashed by the media and their education. They will think you have come out of the Ark. You will be in a minority of one. But so was Jesus on the Cross. The question is: "are you going to be his follower, or are you going to go the way of the world?"Yes! Paul knew the task was daunting. That is why, finally, there are these words of committal - my third heading - and with this I close.

Thirdly, THE COMMITTAL

Verse 32:

Now I commit you to God and to the word of his grace, which can build you up and give you an inheritance among all those who are sanctified.

So commit yourself to God and to the word of his grace - to the God who is sovereign Lord of all; to the God who made you; to the God who knows what is best for you: and to the God who is not a mean, capricious, cruel God, but a God of grace who has given us his "word of grace". What he says is good and essential for spiritual health and strength. It "can build you up".

What is more, it can "give you an inheritance among all those who are sanctified" - it is the only true passport to heaven. This world is not all there is. So keep heaven in mind. And remember those challenging words of Paul:

I consider my life worth nothing to me, if only I may finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me - the task of testifying to the gospel of God's grace.

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