When the Apostle Paul was at Ephesus, he told the leaders of the church in his farewell message that he did not refrain from declaring the whole counsel of God to them (Acts 20:27). He was willing to tell it like it is, even if it meant he would be unpopular and his message would be rejected by many.
But Paul knew that he could not pick and choose those bits of the gospel message which would please his listeners. He had to proclaim the whole will of God, even if it meant delivering a hard word, an unpopular word, even an unpleasant word.
That is always the way it must be for believers. We dare not just offer a word that will please our hearers, but a word which reflects the whole mind and heart of God. Sometimes that word will be a word of comfort and succour. Sometimes it will be a word of judgment and rebuke. Both words are necessary.
Indeed, it is said that a good pastor or prophet will both comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. Paul, like the prophets of old, was not averse to doing both. He knew that both were required, and that both must be delivered.
Indeed, consider the context of Paul’s word to these leaders at Ephesus. In verse 26 he says he is innocent of the blood of all men. This is a clear allusion to Ezekiel 33. There Ezekiel speaks of being a watchman, warning and rebuking the people of Israel.
When God pronounces the sword of judgment upon his people, Ezekiel must not shy away from proclaiming that message, but he must sound the trumpet, warning of wrath to come. If he does this, says Yahweh, he will be innocent of their blood. If he does not provide the warning, blood will then be on his hands.
But even in this harsh passage, Yahweh reminds Ezekiel of his real heart: “I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live” (33:11). That must be our heart as well. It certainly was Paul’s.
Paul concludes his talk to the Ephesians with these words: “Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood. I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them. So be on your guard! Remember that for three years I never stopped warning each of you night and day with tears. (Acts 20: 28-31)
Several things stand out here. Again, Paul was not afraid to preach a hard word, and he here warns of the importance of sound doctrine, and the fact that false teachers and heretics will plague the church.
But of real import is his remark in verse 31. He characterises his three years of ministry there as one soaked in tears. Paul certainly could deliver some very strong words of rebuke. He never shied away from confronting heterodoxy and heteropraxis in the most forthright manner.
Yet he was ultimately a pastor who deeply loved his flock. He had God’s heart for his people, a heart of deep concern, compassion and warmth. While many want to contrast a harsh and unloving Paul with a meek and mild Jesus, the picture we find painted of Paul in the New Testament is of a man who loved deeply, and because of that love, he could rebuke sternly. The two go together. In that he is no different from his Lord Jesus Christ.
The Old Testament prophets also display this ability to reflect the whole mind and heart of God. Jeremiah is a good case in point. He is certainly known as a prophet of doom and judgment, but he is also known as the weeping prophet. Pronouncing judgment was no light task for Jeremiah. It broke his heart. That is because Jeremiah was in tune with his God, and God’s heart breaks as well when his people renounce him, betray him, and invite judgment upon themselves.
Consider an amazing passage in Jeremiah 4. The passage is one of strong judgment to come on a wayward people. Jeremiah must deliver this stern word. Yet it is not a word that leaves him untouched. In verse 19 Jeremiah pours out his heart: “Oh, my anguish, my anguish! I writhe in pain. Oh, the agony of my heart! My heart pounds within me, I cannot keep silent. For I have heard the sound of the trumpet; I have heard the battle cry.”
This is an amazing look at the inner workings of a prophet of God. He must proclaim the whole counsel of God, including his judgment. But it breaks his heart, just as it breaks the heart of God. One commentator wisely puts it this way:
“A public figure such as Jeremiah has two faces: that which is seen by the general public, and that of the private life. Jeremiah’s public face was a stern one, for he spoke of God’s coming judgment and the future devastation of his nation and land. But the private thoughts of a man cannot be read from the public face, nor can the internal anguish be discerned from the severity of external appearance. The preceding sections, describing the advance of God’s instrument of judgment, are stern and almost ruthless in substance. These verses of confession illuminate the internal torment of a man who is torn, precisely because he is himself so gripped by the urgency of his public preaching. He is not stern in public because he is heartless; it is because he loves his nation and people so dearly that he speaks the severe word, but it takes a terrible toll on his own emotional life.”
Those are wonderful words, well describing the torment any bearer of God’s word must go through. We may think we are doing God’s people a favour by giving them only what they want to hear, but we are not. God’s words are words of life, even the harsh words.
Jeremiah later mourns the fact that God’s people would much rather pay heed to the false prophets. That is because the false prophets told the people what they wanted to hear. But a true prophet tells the people what they need to hear. Usually the two could not be further apart.
We must do the same today if we are to have any hope of reviving the church and reforming the nations. Sugar-coated messages which feature only parts of the whole counsel of God will not suffice. We need to proclaim, and proclaim boldly, the entire counsel of God, whether or not people wish to hear it.
We are called to be watchmen. Will we carry out our appointed task, or will we, like the false prophets of old, succumb to the temptation to be popular, to be acceptable, to be liked? The Old Testament prophets and the New Testament disciples took their charges and responsibilities to be watchmen seriously. The question is, will we as well?