Written by Joel R. Beeke |
Sunday, February 20, 2022
We must serve the Lord with humility, for we are sinners saved only by the grace of our Lord Jesus. We also have good reason to serve with tears of compassion, for we ourselves are brands plucked from the burning by the pierced hands of our Savior. The frailty of our own human nature compels us to be watchful, to examine ourselves, and, by grace, to keep ourselves in the faith of Christ and the love of God.
Ye know, from the first day that I came into Asia, after what manner I have been with you at all seasons, serving the Lord with all humility of mind, and with many tears, and temptations.—Acts 20:18–19, KJV
In 1688 conflict erupted between the city authorities of Rotterdam in the Netherlands and the Reformed minister Wilhelmus á Brakel (1635–1711). The government paid the salary of ministers and had a role in confirming their calls. 1When the civil magistrate refused to approve an otherwise duly called pastor, Brakel preached a sermon titled “The Lord Jesus Declared to be the Only Sovereign King of His Church.”
The government responded by prohibiting Brakel from preaching and suspending his salary. Brakel believed the government had no right to exercise such control over the ministers of Christ, so he ignored his suspension and kept on preaching. For some weeks he lived outside the city, commuting to Rotterdam to fulfill his ministerial duties. He said he would rather face exile, and even death, than stop preaching the Word of Christ. However, when Brakel’s consistory asked his permission to let another minister preach until the controversy cooled, Brakel submitted to the authority of the elders. In so doing, he demonstrated that he was not a revolutionary. Yet it took the influence of William of Orange (Willem III) to prevent Brakel from being sent into exile.2
Brakel later said of the ministry: “There must be self-denial, that is, a willingness to sacrifice one’s honor, goods—yes, even one’s life. . . . The servant of Christ . . . should let Paul be his example.”3 Today we can learn from Paul’s description of his ministry in Acts 20:19 that the Lord calls pastors to do His will with lowliness of mind and heart, compassion, and faithfulness.
Just as Jesus Christ set His face toward Jerusalem to fulfill His Father’s will (Luke 9:51), the Apostle Paul knew that he, too, must go to Jerusalem, and he knew what it would cost him (Acts 20:22–23).4 He gathered the Ephesian elders, his dear friends, for one last meeting (Acts 20:17, 25, 38). Luke refers to Paul’s audience as elders and overseers, the men called to shepherd the flock of God (Acts 20:17, 28).
Paul spoke to the elders as a veteran minister addressing fellow servants in the Lord. He bid them to follow him as he followed the Lord (1 Cor. 11:1).5 The first thing he said about his ministry in Acts 20:19 is that he served the Lord “with all humility of mind, and with many tears, and temptations.”
The heart of this Scripture is “serving the Lord.” Literally the Greek text says “serving as a slave of the Lord.”6 “Slave” and “Lord” indicate a relationship of authority and submission, or one man doing the will of another. We do not serve according to our own will; rather, the Lord calls pastors to do His will in a life of obedience to His holy Word. We are not masters or owners, only stewards entrusted with the revealed mysteries of God and the care of the blood-bought church of Christ. Matthew Henry (1662–1714) said of Paul: “He had made it his business to serve the Lord, to promote the honor of God and the interest of Christ and his kingdom among them. He never served himself, nor made himself the servant of men, of their lusts and humors . . . but he made it his business to serve the Lord.”7
Paul gives us three words about authentic ministry: humility, tears, and temptations. Let us examine what it means to serve Christ in these three ways, drawing from Paul’s entire speech in Acts 20:18–35.
Serving God in Humility
Humility is not an outward show of wearing old clothes or walking around with eyes on the ground. Humility is “lowliness of mind.”8 It is a quality of the heart, a mindset, an attitude, and a perspective. Ministers in particular need to hear Paul’s words in Romans 12:1–3:
I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service. And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God. For I say, through the grace given unto me, to every man that is among you, not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think; but to think soberly, according as God hath dealt to every man the measure of faith.
True humility is giving all you are to doing the will of your Savior, having a sober and just estimate of yourself and your abilities as a minister, while remembering that anything you have of real value or use is a gift from God. John Dick wrote of Paul, “Elevated to the highest rank in the Christian Church, more learned than any of his brethren, and possessed of great natural talents, and of miraculous powers, he was not elated with an idea of his superiority, nor haughty and overbearing in his intercourse with others.”9 Paul is a model for us all, for humility is the heartbeat of service in the kingdom of God (Matt. 18:1–4). Augustine (354–430) said the first thing in the Christian life is humility; the second, humility; and the third, humility.10 The humility of Christ’s slave is evident in Acts 20 in the following ways:
1. He loves obedience more than life. Rather than being puffed up with his own importance, the slave of Christ is satisfied to do his Master’s will. Paul says in Acts 20:22–24: “And now, behold, I go bound in the spirit unto Jerusalem, not knowing the things that shall befall me there: Save that the Holy Ghost witnesseth in every city, saying that bonds and afflictions abide me. But none of these things move me, neither count I my life dear unto myself, so that I might finish my course with joy, and the ministry, which I have received of the Lord Jesus, to testify the gospel of the grace of God.”
Paul did not consider his life as precious or “of great value.”11 When he understood that it was necessary for him to go to Jerusalem to glorify God, he did not protest, saying: “But Lord, they want to kill me there. I have an important ministry among the gentiles. The churches in Asia and Greece need my theological wisdom and my practical guidance. Surely someone else could go.” Instead, Paul saw himself as a servant “for Jesus’ sake” (2 Cor. 4:5). Nothing was more precious to him than to submit to the will of God. Nothing was more important than completing the work that the Lord Jesus gave to him. Thomas Manton (1620–77) said, “Life is only then worth the having when we may honor Christ by it. . . . Paul loved his work more than his life, and preferred obedience before safety.”12
In this way Paul denied himself, took up his cross and followed Christ, who, “being found in fashion as a man, . . . humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross” (Phil. 2:8). Christ is God; yet Christ is also God’s servant par excellence. If He, whom we rightly call Lord and Master, washed the feet of His disciples, how much more should we be willing to undertake lowly and difficult tasks? Henry wrote of Paul, “He was willing to stoop to any service, and to make himself and his labors as cheap as they could desire.”13
Gisbertus Voetius (1589–1676), a leading theologian of the Dutch Further Reformation, wrote voluminous theological disputations in Latin while seeking to reform the church and society of the Netherlands. Voetius has been compared to the English Puritan John Owen in stature and influence, yet Voetius took time every week to teach catechism to orphaned children.14 He did not regard that work as something too lowly for someone of his standing but gladly obeyed the Bible’s call to care for widows and orphans (James 1:27).
2. He delights in giving more than in receiving. Paul says in Acts 20:33–34, “I have coveted no man’s silver, or gold, or apparel. Yea, ye yourselves know, that these hands have ministered unto my necessities, and to them that were with me.” As Apostle to the gentiles, Paul started many churches in centers of wealth, but not with the idea of making himself rich in the process. He gladly preached the gospel for free, earning his own way as a tentmaker if no one was able or willing to support him. He was willing to spend his own money on these churches, much as parents support their children (2 Cor. 12:14–15). So, Paul could say to the Ephesian elders, “I have shewed you all things, how that so labouring ye ought to support the weak, and to remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he said, It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35, KJV). How precious these words are from Christ’s earthly ministry, “It is more blessed to give than to receive.”
Proud people are like black holes in outer space. They think they deserve glory, honor, and power for what they do, but whatever they manage to get simply disappears into their darkness, for they are never satisfied. They are like Haman, who was a great prince in the Persian Empire but was “full of wrath” when one man refused to bow to him (Est. 3:1–5). By contrast, people of humility are like the sun. They constantly shine forth light and warmth, blessing those around them. They do not covet glory and honor for themselves; they give freely, willing to “spend and be spent” for Christ’s sake. In doing so, they attract people as the sun attracts objects with its gravitational pull, and they create beautiful, ordered families, churches, and societies.
Are you the man in Jesus’ parable who tries to get the best seat at a banquet? Or do you try to honor others rather than seek it for yourself? Do you preach against this world while still coveting what’s in it? Does your heart lust after praise and recognition, wealth and riches, or any other form of glory or praise from men? Beware, for the love of the world will leave you groveling at the feet of the devil. Rather, “let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 2:5)—that is, the true humility, or lowliness of mind, of one who is the slave of God.
The Tears of the Slave of the Lord
It may seem strange to hear Paul talking about tears in ministry as an essential component of serving the Lord. Aren’t we supposed to be serving the Lord in the strength of His might? God call us to be men of valor, not crybabies, right? First Corinthians 16:13 commands us to “stand fast in the faith, quit you like men, be strong.” So, what does biblical masculinity look like?
There are times when life’s pain wrenches tears from our eyes and groans from our souls. Christ Himself “offered up prayers and supplications with strong crying and tears unto him that was able to save him from death” (Heb. 5:7). What’s more, the Holy Spirit groans within us as we await our redemption from all evil (Rom. 8:23, 26).
However, the Bible does not condone pity parties or self-centered whining for sympathy. Paul was far from saying: “Poor me. I’m going to Jerusalem. Isn’t it horrible?” In Acts 20:24, Paul says, “But none of these things move me, neither count I my life dear unto myself, so that I might finish my course with joy, and the ministry, which I have received of the Lord Jesus, to testify the gospel of the grace of God.”