Qualities of a Life Well-Spent – Part 2 – Acts 20:17-38
We are continuing our series in the book of Acts called, “Pulled In, Pushed Out: A Church on Mission.” The Gospel pulls us in to the heart of God only to push us out to pull others in to the heart of God. The final chapters of Acts here show us a glimpse into the heart of the Apostle Paul. And we said his was a life well spent. We looked at the difference between our lives that we feel are always drained to a life well spent. Drained is when you feel people have taken something from your life while “well spent” is when you have freely given your life. Anything, like a hose, will be draining if you are not connected to the water. Even ministry is draining if you are not serving Him but using ministry to get something out for yourself.
Paul’s life was well spent because he is walking in the shoes of his Savior and Lord who said, “No one takes my life. I give it away freely” (John 10:18). And the more we see that Jesus spent His life for us, the more we can spend our lives for others and for Him. In Acts 20, Paul is heading to Jerusalem and then to Rome. Before he heads east to Jerusalem, he goes west to collect an offering for the struggling church. He then heads back east and passes by Ephesus, where he feels a longing to speak to the believers there. He calls up the elders to meet him nearby at Miletus and then gives them a farewell speech. Through his speech, we see Paul is a man who’s poured out for the Gospel. So we are going to fly over the chapter and glean some truths about qualities of a life well spent. First of all, we said a life well-spent will be one where your life is about:
- I. Christ-imparting communication
Paul’s vocabulary and language in Acts 20 shows that he was very Gospel-centered. Whether he was preaching and teaching in the synagogues, proclaiming in the streets, eating with people in their homes, etc. he always talked about the Gospel. We said we must not give people “try harder” applications but more of pointing them to Christ who did what we cannot do and believing His work will help us do what we are asking them to do.
- II. Committed to Community
So a life well spent preaches and speaks the truth of the gospel everywhere, but here we also see where the truth is digested: in community. It is not enough to speak the truth of the Gospel to yourself and to others, but a life well spent will digest the truth in community.
Notice Paul says in v.18: “I lived AMONG you.” In v.20: “in public and FROM HOUSE TO HOUSE.” Paul didn’t preach on a stage and run to an office on top of a castle. He was among people. It was house-to-house and life-to-life ministry. Notice that Paul uses the verb to know to stress those matters, which they have in common (v.18, 22, 25, 29, and in v.34).  In other words, since I have lived closely with you and exposed all parts of my life with you, you know some things about me. A life well-spent is a life well-exposed, where all parts of your life are connected with others and that happens where? In community.
If you go to school or work, the professor or co-workers basically sees only one part of your life. If you go on social media, you control what others see. You can hide yourself. It’s getting easier and easier to hide. But face-to-face, life-on-life living is an opportunity for you to see that you can’t live life on your own that you need others to help you digest truth about you and the Gospel.
C.S. Lewis has an essay on friendship in his book The Four Loves. He used to hang out with two other guys. One was an author named Charles Williams and the other was J.R.R. Tolkien (of whom he called “Ronald), yes, of Lord of the Rings fare. One day Charles died suddenly and Lewis, reflecting on it, says this:
In each of my friends there is something that only some other friend can fully bring out. By myself I am not large enough to call the whole man into activity; I want other lights than my own to show all his facets. Now that Charles is dead, I shall never again see Ronald’s [Tolkien’s] reaction to a specifically [Charles] joke. Far from having more of Ronald, having him “to myself” now that Charles is away, I have less of Ronald. In this, Friendship exhibits a glorious “nearness by resemblance” to Heaven itself where the very multitude of the blessed (which no man can number) increases the fruition which each has of God.
Lewis’s point is that even a human being is too rich and multifaceted a being to be fully known one-on-one. You think you know someone, but you alone can’t bring out all that is in a person. You need to see the person with others. And if this is true with another human being, how much more so with the Lord? You can’t really know Jesus by yourself. You can attend church all you want, listen to podcasts, take good notes, but you cannot know Christ without community. Truth is digested only in community. If you don’t show up to small group, we miss an opportunity to see Christ through your life.
Tim Keller says, “Most often, growth happens through deep relationships and in communities where the implications of the gospel are worked out cognitively and worked in practically — in ways no other setting or venue can afford. The most formative experience in our lives is from being a member of our nuclear family. That relationship has shaped us. We are the sum of all those relationships. Likewise, the main way we grow in grace and holiness is through deep involvement in the family of God.
Notice even when Paul leaves the elders in v.36: “He knelt down and prayed with them all and there was much weeping.” These are not associates. They are friends. All the Greek tenses are imperfect, which would indicate that their parting was lengthy. There is deep love and affection here. A Jewish man hugging and kissing all these people, including Gentiles? The Gospel turns enemies into friends.
New Testament Scholar D.A. Carson says, “Ideally, however, the church itself is not made up of natural ‘friends.’ It is made up of natural enemies. What binds us together is not common education, common race, common income levels, common politics, common nationality, common accents, common jobs, or anything else of that sort. Christians come together, not because they form a natural collocation, but because they have all been saved by Jesus Christ and owe him a common allegiance. In the light of this common allegiance, in the light of the fact that they have all been loved by Jesus himself, they commit themselves to doing what he says—and he commands them to love one another. In this light, they are a band of natural enemies who love one another for Jesus’ sake.”
We hope that you make community a priority and not a commodity in your life. Now you can watch online services, give online, have a chat box where you can communicate with others and call it “fellowship.” That would be useful if you lived in North Korea. However, it does not make sense if you have a local church you can be part of.
Is Living Hope a community that we are committed to or a commodity we are consuming? Are you constantly doing a “cost vs value” analysis in your mind when you think about church or small group or any event at Living Hope? “It’s not worth it if…the service time fits and I like the topic for small group, the food is good and etc.” Paul does a cost vs. value analysis of his own life in v.20. His life is not about getting what he wants, but giving what he’s got. Another one in v.28: “Care for the church, which he obtained with his own blood.” So stop saying, “I have nothing in common with people here.” But the Gospel says “Yes you do! You have something in common with every single one of them!” We all are sinners who have been purchased by the precious blood of the only begotten Son of God.
The church is not a product to be consumed. She is the most valuable community on the planet because God is in a covenantal all-giving, all-consuming relationship with her. In fact, she came at the price of the death of the Son of God to purchase her. You and I are part of that community. He spent His life and poured it out for her. How can we treat her like a commodity?
A life well-spent imparts Christ through his communication, is committed to community and the third aspect of a life well-spent:
- III. Invested in Ministry
A life well spent is invested in ministry. It is not just for Christians with position who can do ministry. We are all called to make disciples. With any job, the world focuses on competence, expertise, being polished, presentable, etc. The scary thing about ministry is that you can learn to do it and mistake spiritual gifting for spiritual fruit. Let’s look at what the Scriptures teach in Acts 20 about what it means to be invested in ministry.
a) Redefined identity
Ministry is more about who you are becoming than what you are doing. Who are you becoming? Paul says first in v.19: “serving the Lord.” Paul is a servant. Every servant has a Master and for him it’s the Lord. Ministry can easily be used for us to become a servant of people’s approval. Gal. 1:10: “For am I now seeking the approval of man or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ.” Servants have no rights. May the bigness of the Gospel—of Christ’s love for us and who He is—free us to be small. The Gospel frees us from the need for people to discover us, because we have been discovered by Him.
Secondly, our identity is that of a steward. Look at v.24: “…the ministry I received from the Lord Jesus.” Not the ministry, I achieved from the Lord Jesus. We are not owners, just managers. Paul says, “What do we have that we have not received?” (1 Cor. 4:7). Everything is a gift. Thirdly, our identity is that of a runner: “that I may finish my course.” This reminds me that the goal is to finish MY course that God has set before me. Not to finish first. It reminds me that I am called to finish the race. It reminds me that I have not arrived until I see Jesus or I die. I am not done growing. It is not how far back I am or that I never fall off the track, but how quick I repent and get back in. Christ has already made me His prize and now I run making Him my prize. Fourthly, I am a witness: “to testify to the gospel of the grace of God.” A witness is not a judge, but just tells others what happened to him/her.
Fifthly, a shepherd. Notice a word in v.28 to the elders of Ephesus. By the way, the words, “elder,” “pastor,” “shepherd” and “overseer,” are all interchangeable in the New Testament. The elder’s job is threefold: direction of the church, doctrine of the church and discipline in the church. Paul calls them to vigilance about three things: inside their heart—pay careful attention to yourselves. Outside wolves: protect people from false teaching. Goats around: people within. In this we protect people. We don’t tear them down, but build them up in God’s word (v.32). Shepherds have authority, but shepherds also have to be tender and caring. Which leads me to say that being invested in ministry means to have:
b) Truth with tears
Paul is very concerned that the truth of the Gospel be communicated, digested in community and propagated in ministry. Truth must be protected and declared. You cannot have a community with truth—common beliefs. But you cannot have a true community without tears either—transparency and vulnerability and the ability to share your heart. Sharing truth without tears is deadly and oppressive and a hindrance to ministry. Notice the number of times “tears” or weeping is mentioned (v.19, 31, 37) in this chapter.
If a person walks into Living Hope church or small group, will they say: “These people are serious about the gospel, they preach it, they live it, they spread it and they don’t compromise about it. At the same time, when I bring my doubts and fears, they don’t jump down my throat. They share the truth with me in tears.” Notice Paul says, “in all humility” (v.19).
In community and serving, we can fall between two poles. We can either feel superior and overconfident (trying to prove ourselves as significant, our doctrinal rightness, trying to fix others problems) or we can feel inferior and under-confident (because at a deep level we feel guilty and insecure). Bonheoffer in Life Together observes that serving others is “blocked by our own ego.” We serve really not for people or for ministry, but to bolster our own self-image and to make us feel better about ourselves. So we go from trying to inflate our ego or from self-hating. The truth is that self-loathing and self-glorification really aren’t that different. They both share the same root, namely obsession with oneself. In fact, as I speak to you, part of me wants to impress you really badly. How do you free yourself from this?
The Gospel. The Gospel humbles us before people by telling us we are saved only by grace. This means there will be people, believers and unbelievers, who are far smarter than you, more patient than you, more loving than you, better parents and spouses than you, etc. God didn’t save you because you were all pulled together. We have a long way to go to be like Christ! And the older you get in Christ, the more sinful you see your heart to be. The church is a hospital in which nobody is completely well (Packer). At the same time, the Gospel not only makes us humble, but also gives us confidence because we realize we are loved and honored by the only eyes in the universe that really count. And so you can continually learn from all kinds of people, be realistic about your flaws and the mask can come off. No more sense of superiority or sense of inferiority. The church is a place of truth, but truth proclaimed with tears.
Seminary did not teach me this. When I graduated, I wrote some papers and got letters after my name. You think you know so much, but you know nothing. Even the title, “Master of Divinity,” reeks of pride and God has a way to humble you. I remember I had to write my positions on everything. This is not a bad thing…to have convictions, but I was oppressive to people. I was more about proving points rather than pointing to His proven work and love on the cross. I hid my flaws from people and didn’t relate to them to keep my image as a smart and godly pastor. And if someone didn’t agree with me, I was a Pharisee and ready to cast him off. When I am more preoccupied about what I don’t like about someone than my own need for God’s grace, this is when ministry becomes deadly.
Nowadays the Gospel keeps hitting me and really setting me free. I have a long way to go, but today I feel a little less anxious that people can see my anxiety. I feel a little less struggling in my heart that people can see my struggles. As a shepherd, I am learning to embrace my own sheepishness. I have tears now of joy and sorrow. Sorrow for my sins, but joy for the infinite balm and consolation of the love of God that refuses to let me go. An increasing Christ in your heart always leads to a decreasing self.
IV. Persevering through adversity
Lastly and quickly, a life well spent is one where you persevere through adversity. Paul knows people want him dead. He knows that more imprisonment awaits him (vv.19 and 23). Augustine said, “God had one Son on earth without sin, but never one without suffering.”
The symbol of Christianity is not a treadmill (legalism—where you’re working to prove something) or a couch (license—where you’re lazy and apathetic), but a blood-stained cross. But our joy in the Gospel is that not that we will never face adversity, but that our God has already faced our worst adversity in paying for our sin, a bigger cross than we will ever carry. Not only was He a Savior who entered into our deepest suffering and wept (a God who never wept cannot wipe away my tears)…He also guarantees us His love in the midst of it.
A life well-spent imparts Christ in his communication, is committed to community, invested in ministry and perseveres through adversity. How can all this happen? Most commentators realize that the author Luke, in this chapter, is carefully taking this speech of Paul and comparing it to Jesus. He wants to show how Paul is walking in His Savior’s footsteps. When you study the Gospel of Luke, Luke is all about Jesus getting to Jerusalem (Luke 9:53—Jesus set his face to go to Jerusalem). Here, Paul is like Jesus as he too sacrificially goes to Jerusalem, knowing he will be arrested by his own people the Jews and might even die.
But there is a huge difference here between Paul and Jesus. Unlike Jesus, Paul is surrounded by friends. In Acts 21 and 22, everywhere Paul goes he has friends. He was very much unlike Jesus in that sense. Jesus Christ, when He was facing death, goes into the garden to pray and takes His friends with them. Why? As fully man, He needed friends. Loneliness is a terrible thing and didn’t want to be alone as His hour approached. He says, “This is my hour of greatest need. Please stay one hour and pray with me. You are my friends. I don’t want to do this alone.” He says, “My soul is very sorrowful.” Great drops of sweat like blood fell down from his head (Luke 22:39-46).
He had poured out His life so far. His was a life well spent—speaking truth in love, committed to community, invested in ministry and now persevering through our adversity. And in the moment in the garden, in his hour of great need, his friends fall asleep on Him. They fall asleep on him. The next day, it gets even worse. Even His Father abandons Him: “My God, my God, why has thou forsaken me?” At that moment, Jesus Christ became the loneliest person in the universe. He experienced an infinite cosmic loneliness that we can only imagine.
Why did He do it? He became the loneliest man in history so we can be friends with God and with each other. Better yet, He lost family so we can have it. He became an orphan so us orphans can be adopted in His family. He died lonely so we can be together. Let us repent of our busyness for community and all the things that keep us from being a true community with people whose lives are well spent for you. He spent His life on us so we can now freely, willingly, lavishly, spend it on others being committed to community and invested in ministry.
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Keller, T. J. (2012). Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in your City.
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Keller, T. J. (2012). Ibid.
Polhill, J. B. (1995). Acts (Vol. 26, p. 430). Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers.
Carson, D.A. (2002). Love in Hard Places (61). Wheaton, IL: Crossway.
Bonheoffer, D. (1954). Life Together: The Classic Exploration of Christian Community (23). New York, NY: Harper Collins.
Craig, David P. [LifeCoach4God]. (10 October 2013). “To be more preoccupied with what you don’t like about someone, than humbled by your own need for God’s grace, is deadly.” Scotty Smith. [Tweet]. Retrieved from https://twitter.com/LifeCoach4God/status/388464096225415168.
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Smethurst, M. [MattSmethurst]. (22 October 2013). The symbol of Christianity is neither a treadmill (legalism) nor a couch (antimonianism), but a blood-soaked cross. [Tweet]. Retrieved from https://twitter.com/MattSmethurst/status/392686620870062081.