A Model for Ministry

Charles E. Hill
Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity Emeritus
Reformed Theological Seminary, Orlando

RTS Chapel, 5 May 2021

Paul, as you will remember, on his third missionary journey had settled and ministered in Ephesus for nearly three years (ca. 54-56). When he left, he travelled by foot to visit churches in Macedonia and Achaia, and then he set sail for Palestine and eventually to Jerusalem. From Miletus on the rugged coast of Asia Minor, Paul summoned the elders from Ephesus, some thirty miles away, to hear him before he embarked. There, in Miletus, Paul delivered his famous charge to the Ephesian elders.

What I’m interested in today is not so much the charge itself — I hope you’ll have many opportunities to hear and contemplate his charge — but rather in the way in which Paul, now looking back, summarizes his three-year ministry in their midst. Particularly for our graduating seniors who are about to enter new fields of ministry, I thought it might be salutary to let Paul’s ministry in Ephesus stand before us as a model to contemplate. Of course, we can only touch on a number of things today. I simply want to note this morning the words he uses to describe his mode of verbal ministry; the way he sums up the content of that ministry of the word; and finally, how he describes the manner in which he carried out it ministry. All these things are very instructive to us.

Paul’s Mode of Communication

In this short speech Paul uses five different words to describe the mode of verbal communication, his oral ministry of the word among them. The variety is interesting and instructive.

  1. Declare, twice (vv.20, 27 ἀναγγέλλω). This word is often used in contexts where something bold or authoritative is being announced.
  2. Teach (v.20 διδάσκω). This is a very common word used in the New Testament in many different contexts, much like we use the word “teach.”
  3. Testify, twice (v.21, 24 διαμαρτύρομαι). This is the strengthened form of the more common word μαρτυρέω, to bear witness. Often this word means to charge or to warn; there might be some such connotation in verse 21, but most likely just an intensification, “to bear witness solemnly.”
  4. Preach (v.25 κηρύσσω). Again, a common verb used over 60 times in the New Testament.
  5. Admonish (v.31 νουθετέω). This word can be used for exhortation, in both public and in more private contexts like personal counseling.

The Content of Paul’s Ministry

There are five ways he sums up the content of his ministry of the word among them:

  1. Verse 20 “declaring to you what was profitable” (συμφέρω. In 1 Cor. 10:23 Paul pairs this word with the word for building up (οἰκοδομέω), where he says “all things are lawful, but not all things are profitable…not all things build up.” Paul didn’t occupy himself “with myths” and Twitter threads or “endless genealogies which promote speculation rather than divine training that is in faith” (1 Tim. 1.4).[1] I’ll come back to this in a moment.
  2. Verse 21 “testifying of repentance to God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.” Repentance and faith, often called two sides of the same coin. And I think that is right at least in this sense: that in some encounters in Acts, only Paul’s charge to repent is mentioned (as with the Athenians in Acts 17:30-31),[2] and in others, on his charge to believe is (as with the Philippian jailer in Acts 16.31). When only one is mentioned, the other is assumed.

As mentioned, Paul uses this word “testify” again in this passage:

  1. In verse 24, Paul says that the ministry he received from Jesus was to “testify to the gospel of the grace of God.” These two things, testifying “to the gospel of the grace of God” (v.24) and “testifying of repentance to God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ” (v.21), are probably mutually explicatory. One of these is God’s doing; the other, our response. And of course, even our right response is the gift of God. The Christian Jews in Jerusalem exclaimed when they heard of Peter’s encounter with Cornelius: “Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance unto life” (Acts 11.18). Repentance is a gift of God’s grace.

In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul speaks of “the gospel of your salvation” and explains, “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God – not because of works, lest any man should boast” (Eph. 2.8-9). Faith, too, is a gift.

I think it’s helpful that Paul stresses that he was called to testify to these things; not to engender them. That is the work of God. Even Jesus, when asked by Pilate, “so, you are a king?” answered, “You say that I am a king. For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world – to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice” (John 18:37).

Perhaps some level of pastoral burnout can be relieved when we rest in the assurance that our calling is simply to testify – it is God who grants repentance and faith. We may plant and water, but it is always God who gives the growth.

  1. The fourth way Paul describes his word-ministry among the Ephesians is “preaching the kingdom” (v.25). This seems very general, and almost sounds like the casual way we sometimes attach the word kingdom – or gospel – onto something we’re doing to give it a legit Christian flavor. But I think most likely Paul is alluding here to the eschatological character of his preaching – both to Jews (Acts 1.6; 19.8; 28.23) and to Gentiles, like the Athenians (Acts 17.32-33). To the lost, this is mainly manifested in the warning of the coming day of judgment. For believers, who have been “delivered from the domain of darkness and transferred … to the kingdom of his beloved Son” (Col. 1.13), it also includes the present life, as he told the Romans, the kingdom of God consists of “righteousness, and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit (Rom. 14:17).
  2. Finally, Paul once again says he did not shrink from declaring something to them. In verse 20 it was “what was profitable’; here it is, “the whole counsel of God” (πᾶσαν τὴν βουλὴν τοῦ θεοῦ, v.27). This means the whole purpose or plan or will of God, as revealed.

There are certainly rabbit-hole controversies – myths and endless genealogies, etc. – that a minister of the Gospel will avoid, and avoid because they are unprofitable. And surely, the way we know profitable from unprofitable is by knowing all the revealed purpose and will of God – which for us, means, all of Scripture.

The Manner of Paul’s Ministry

I find at least five ways Paul sums up for the Ephesian elders the manner of his ministry among them

  1. With courage: I say this because Paul says twice that he “did not shrink back” from declaring something to them: first, “what was profitable” (20.20), and again, “the whole counsel of God” (20.27). As a result of his not shrinking back, Paul could then say he was innocent of their blood. If they did not heed, their blood would be on their own heads.

This happened at the synagogue in Corinth, in chapter 18. Paul’s bold testimony there was rejected; there, he finally had to shake out his garments and say to his critics, “Your blood be on your own heads! I am innocent. From now on I will go to the Gentiles” (18.6).

This teaches us an important lesson that all Christians, clergy and laity, should remember. Things that are “profitable” are not always pleasant to hear (v.20). As Paul will say to Timothy, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training (παιδεία) in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16). Reproof, correction, and training, at the time we receive them, can be painful rather than pleasant. But afterwards, as Hebrews says, they can yield the peaceful fruit of righteousness (Heb. 12.11).

  1. With humility and with tears and trials (20.19; tears 20.31). I would throw in here also what Paul says in verse 33, “I coveted no one’s silver or gold or apparel.” Gospel ministry is not about self-enrichment, self-aggrandizement – or celebrity. And how painfully often it seems we are reminded of this by well-publicized moral failures of those in who are placed where they never should be, on pedestals.

Paul’s trials for the gospel are, because of the NT, well-known. Most pastors’ trials will not be. You will have to bear them quietly.

During my seminary internship a pastor in a small-town church told me how for months he had worked with a couple in his church, meeting for long hours, counseling, instructing, pleading with them, weeping with them. In the end, they divorced anyway. One day in the coffee shop the pastor heard two men behind him talking and one said to the other, “You know, if that preacher hadn’t gotten involved, that couple would still be together.”

  1. Both publicly and privately: Verse 20, “teaching you in public (δημοσίᾳ) and from house to house.” Just a reminder here that gospel ministry takes us the variety of venues. And, a plug for home visitation.
  2. With loving, tireless persistence: In verse 31 Paul says, “for three years I did not cease night or day to admonish every one with tears’. I know you’ve been told this before, but get ready for odd hours, and for working well into the night. I trust you know that your Greek Exegesis assignments were designed for this purpose, to prepared you for this aspect of ministry. So, you are welcome.

Related to this is Paul’s reminder in verse 35 of how he acted among them: “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.’” (Acts 20:35).

The ideal of “hard work” is not an oppressive tool of a particular race. But hard work, remember, is also not simply for our own gain. How else can the able help the weak or disabled? As Paul reiterates in his letter to the Ephesians, “Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need” (Eph. 4:28).

  1. Without discrimination: Finally, Paul mentions testifying to both Jews and Greeks in verse 21, and admonishing “everyone” in verse 31. Elsewhere we learn that Paul ministered to both sexes: to Lydia and to a demon-possessed slave girl at Philippi (ch. 16). His letters demonstrate this point abundantly.

Always be aware that our natural inclination is to minister to those most like ourselves – whether that is in terms of sex, or race, or economic condition – or college football conference allegiance. (It is not easy to stretch yourself and care for those who feel entitled; but SEC people still need the Lord!)

My point is, it doesn’t appear that Paul passed off all “women’s ministry” to Euodia and Syntyche; all mercy ministry to Philip or to Dorcas; nor did he to whom Jesus gave an apostleship to Gentiles relinquish to Peter, James, and John all ministry to Jews. The gospel is a universal message and you may be surprised at whom God may put in your path to receive it. I recently spoke with one of our graduates, a man of European descent, who has been led to start a ministry among native Americans – which was certainly not what he was thinking when he graduated from Reformed Theological Seminary.

Well, there is much more to be said from this wonderful passage. But our time today is spent. My parting words to you are those of Paul to the Ephesian elders in Acts 20.32: “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.” Amen.

[1] Also 2 Tim. 4.4; Tit. 1.10-16, etc.

[2] Also 26.20, where again only repentance is mentioned.