On December 7, 1941, a sleeping giant awoke. At 7:50 a.m., Japanese fighter planes attacked Pearl Harbor. Eighteen ships were hit, 200 aircraft were destroyed or damaged, and over 2,400 Americans were killed. The attack on Pearl Harbor violently awoke the sleeping juggernaut and triggered its entrance into World War II.
On Monday morning, tens of thousands of Americans stood in enormously long lines at recruiting stations to join the army. Underaged teenagers and middle-aged men lied about their age so they could see combat. Grown men cried when they were told they were not physically fit enough to fight. Women joined the effort too, nearly 350,000 women served in uniform. It seemed like every American found a way to contribute to the allies’ victory.
Fast forward twenty-five years, and you find a radically different picture. America is again at war and soldiers are needed, but this time people aren’t into it. They’re not inspired to fight. Many didn’t think we should have even been in Vietnam. Almost no one volunteered to enlist. A military draft was needed, and many men did whatever they could to dodge the draft. Some lied about their age, this time to avoid combat. Some failed the physical fitness test on purpose, some outright burned their draft cards in protest, and some even left the country.
When it comes to serving in the church, there are both WWII soldiers and those who take the Vietnam War approach. Some Christians are eager to serve, even at personal cost, because they believe in the mission of the church. Yet sadly, there are other Christians who avoid serving altogether and will only get involved if “drafted” into service.
One man who compared ministry to war and called Christians to be spiritual soldiers was the Apostle Paul. In Acts 20, he stood on the shores of Miletus saying goodbye to the elders from the church in Ephesus. As he bid farewell to these men he had personally discipled and trained in ministry, he gave them one final charge. It was a strong one. In his goodbye, he didn’t tell them to get more involved in church. He didn’t tell them to give more time to the church. He didn’t tell them to disciple more people. His message was bigger, much bigger. It was this: give your life away.
In what he believed to be his final words to these elders (Acts 20:25), Paul didn’t hold back. He charged them to do no less than give their lives away to the church and to gospel ministry. In so doing, he called them to have a ministry marked by three characteristics: Scripture, sacrifice, and suffering.
In recounting his ministry to the Ephesian elders, Paul said that he “did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable” and that he “did not shrink from declaring to you the whole purpose of God” (Acts 20:20, 27). Evidently, there are elements of the whole purpose of God that are profitable, yet some ministers are afraid to proclaim them. There are truths contained in God’s Word that are not popular, easy to teach, or readily accepted. Nonetheless, Paul was bold to teach every part of the Word of God. He didn’t cower away from unpopular topics that may have made people upset at him. He taught God’s truth comprehensively because he knew it was the “pure milk of the Word” by which believers “grow in respect to salvation” (1 Peter 2:2). Thus, even though some truths may not have gone down easy, Paul was careful to feed them to his people because these truths were profitable, beneficial, and nourishing to their souls and faith.
Faithful servants of the church do not shrink back from declaring the whole counsel of God. If we are honest, there is something inside all of us that wants to minister in a way that will make people like us. We dream of a ministry where we are best of friends with our people, where all our conversations are uplifting and encouraging, and where we never have to say anything hard or rebuke our people because they love and obey God’s Word all the time. But no such ministry this side of heaven exists. Being faithful in ministry means that the time will come when we’re going to bring Scriptures into the conversation that are going to cause people to dislike us, frown at us, and in some cases, turn their backs on us. You’re not going to win the popularity contest when you talk about people’s sin and their need to repent, when you pry their fingers off of their favorite idol, or when you challenge their unbiblical belief system. Faithful servants of the church do not shrink back from declaring the whole counsel of God, even when it costs them popularity points.
Paul declared the whole purpose of God both in public and in private, and as prolific as his public ministry was, his private ministry may have been even more so. He went from house to house where “night and day for a period of three years I did not cease to admonish each one with tears” (Acts 20:31). Whether by sunlight or by candle light, Paul was with people, preaching and teaching God’s Word. For three years, he met with so many people that he could say that he admonished “each one” of them.
The best shepherds smell like sheep
If you couldn’t find Paul, your best bet was to look among the people.
A clear example of Paul’s sacrificial ministry is found in Acts 20:7–12. On his last day in the city of Troas, he chose to preach through the night instead of getting a good night’s sleep to rest for the long journey ahead of him. He prolonged his sermon all the way to midnight because of his heart to teach, serve, and edify. In fact, his message was so long that young Eutychus, sitting near a third-story window, started dozing off. Without a pew buddy to give him a nudge in the ribs, Eutychus completely knocked out, falling to his death. This passage should be a favorite of pastors, not just because they can read it to their congregations and say, “And that’s why you better stay awake in my sermons,” but mainly because it presents a model of how shepherds sacrifice for their people. After Eutychus’ impromptu resurrection service, it was well past midnight, and Paul still didn’t go to sleep. Instead, he ate a midnight snack with the people and talked with them all the way until daybreak (Acts 20:11). After preaching, Paul stayed up chatting and snacking with the people until they watched the sunrise together. This was the relentless, night-and-day, sacrificial ministry of the Apostle.
Paul also gave the reason he was willing to sacrifice so much for the ministry when he said, “But I do not consider my life of any account as dear to myself, so that I may finish my course and the ministry which I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify solemnly of the gospel of the grace of God” (Acts 20:24). This verse presses the reset button on ministry. If you’ve lost your way, if you’ve forgotten why you do ministry, what to do in ministry, or what matters most in ministry, this verse will be a north star to you. What is dear and precious to Paul wasn’t his own life; rather, what mattered most to him was to finish his course and the ministry which Jesus gave him. His life only mattered to him to the extent that he was able to use it to serve Jesus. He compared his ministry to running a race. He was the marathon runner in the twenty-sixth mile sprinting with his head down, straining forward toward the finish tape. He ran with all his might to “testify solemnly of the gospel of the grace of God” (Acts 20:24). What was dear and precious to Paul and what he was willing to sacrifice for the gospel of the grace of God until his dying breath. He sacrificed and gave his life away only to the noblest of causes: the preaching of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Paul’s Scripture-driven and sacrificial ministry was not without hardship. Acts 20 is soaked with tears. Paul recounted how he “served the Lord with all humility and with tears” (Acts 20:19) and how he “admonished each one with tears (Acts 20:31). Then when the time came to finally say goodbye to his friends at Miletus, “he knelt down and prayed with them all. And they began to weep aloud and embraced Paul, and repeatedly kissed him” (Acts 20:36–37).
Why was Paul crying so much? You could summarize it simply like this: he cared. He served with tears because he deeply loved the ones he served. He admonished with tears because he wanted so badly that his people walk in the truth. He cried because his heart was ripped to shreds at the thought that his flock would be attacked by savage wolves (Acts 20:28–30). And then when he finally had to leave this group of people and say goodbye, this group that he had spent the past three years with, these imperfect, immature sinners who had absolutely captured his heart, all he could do was weep with them on the shore.
As Paul’s life illustrates, ministry is risky. Tangling your heart up with other sinners is always risky and could result in tears. But there is a way to avoid this risk. There is a way to do church with no controversy, no drama, and no conflict. It is simply to avoid ministry. It is to avoid people. It is to be a private person. It is to attend church but to make sure your conversations consist of small talk exclusively. If ever the pastor preaches a sermon calling you to meet the needs of others, make sure you dodge the draft.
The suffering that Paul endured and the tears he shed are easy to avoid. However, the Christian who chooses the easy route of avoiding ministry is the Christian who will never experience the joy of ministry. If you avoid depth of relationship, you’ll avoid suffering, but you’ll never experience the heights of joy of true Christian friendship, deep and abiding fellowship, and being used of God to move someone along toward Christ-likeness. If you don’t cry the tears of hardship, service, and sacrifice like in verses 19 and 31, you won’t cry the tears of love like in verse 36–37. The reason Paul and the elders were soaking each other’s shoulders with tears is because they had been through so much together and were so invested in each other. They were brothers. They were soldiers who stood together on the front lines of the spiritual battle. That’s why they loved each other so much, and that’s why it was so hard to say goodbye.
Paul’s example speaks loud and clear. Go all in. Give your life away. Give your life away to “the church of God which He purchased with His own blood” (Acts 20:28). Jesus thought the church was so valuable that He laid His life down for her. He took nails in His hand and in His feet for the church. If Jesus thought the church was precious enough to die for, should we not think her precious enough to live for? Jesus gave His life away. Thus, in giving ours away, we not only follow in the footsteps of the Apostle Paul but also our Savior, who said of Himself, “even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45).