Paul’s Farewell Speech

Gotta love reading through the book of Acts again. It is jam-packed with spiritual treasures. Having just reread Paul’s farewell address to the Ephesian elders as found in Acts 20:17-38, I feel compelled to look at this amazing speech in more detail.

Comprising only around 400 words, it contains many vital biblical truths, and we learn much about the faith here. Paul had finished his period of ministry in Asia Minor and was heading to Jerusalem, so here he addresses the elders in this farewell sermon, entrusting them with the future of the church.

paul ephesus 4It is the only case in all of Acts of Paul giving a sermon to fellow Christians. As such, it is quite different from his other sermons. As Tom Wright says,

Here we see Paul in a different mode, vulnerable, meditative, steady in his faithful perseverance but with no hint of triumphalism, of carrying all before him in a blaze of glory. He is quiet, not combative; reflective, not argumentative. It is as though we have finally found him, no longer running around in a blur, but sitting for long enough to have his portrait painted. And what a portrait.

One can divide this segment into several parts: his personal testimony is recorded in vv. 18-24 and vv. 33-35. In between is his charge to the elders. In this short section of Scripture we come to understand so much about Paul – the man and the missionary. Let me first highlight a few bits from his testimony:

Twice he speaks about the tears shed as he ministered to these souls (vv. 19, 31). His love for the people was evident, and it was reciprocated when he left: “They all wept as they embraced him and kissed him” (v. 37). James Montgomery Boice said this about this aspect of Paul:

I think that when Paul says he served the Lord with tears he does not mean that he was given to frequent outbursts of emotion, except perhaps in prayer. He means that he was what we would call a man of great empathy. . . . Francis Schaeffer made a great deal of tears. He believed in the need to separate from unbelief, but he always said, ‘If we separate, it must be with tears. And if we speak truth that hurts, it must be with tears.’ He was right in that. He meant that we must empathize with others.

Just hours ago I sat in a cafe with a brave young Christian woman who is standing strong on the issue of homosexuality as a city councillor. She was in tears as she spoke of all the opposition and enmity she is getting for her stance. All her colleagues – even so-called Christian ones – are turning against her. I was nearly moved to tears as well, and I prayed for her on the spot.

I like what R. C. Sproul says in this regard:

That was Paul’s record. To the Corinthian congregation he wrote that he had been with them in tears, in their sufferings and afflictions (2 Cor. 2:4). Paul did not go to people simply as a scholar instructing them in theology; his heart was with them. He wept and prayed with them and endured all manner of attacks and suffering from hostile hands for their sakes.

Also, Paul did not shy away from proclaiming what was essential to them: “You know that I have not hesitated to preach anything that would be helpful to you but have taught you publicly and from house to house.” (v. 20). And repentance, as usual, was a core part of his message: “I have declared to both Jews and Greeks that they must turn to God in repentance and have faith in our Lord Jesus” (v. 21). David Peterson comments on this theme:

In an age when many are searching for different ways to attract people to church and make an impact on their society for Christ, it is salutary to recall Paul’s formula, both for evangelism and the nurture of believers (cf. Col. 1:28-29). His preaching and teaching consistently issued in a call for repentance and faith, in response to God’s gracious, saving initiative in Jesus Christ (cf. vv. 24, 28, 31, 32). Genuine faith demands repentance, and sincere repentance will continue to flow from saving faith.

Moreover, Paul realised that a constant part of his life and ministry was characterised by hardship and persecution (v. 23). Yet in spite of all the opposition, his aim was to “finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me” (v. 24).

In his exhortation to them he says a number of crucial things. He reminds them that he has not failed to ‘proclaim the whole will of God’ to them (v. 27). As Sproul writes: “I worry that when I stand before Christ at His judgment seat, He is going to say, ‘R.C. what did you keep back? What were you afraid to preach? How much of My counsel did you declare to the people under your care? It was your task when I consecrated you to hold nothing back, to proclaim the whole counsel of God’.”

Or as Wright comments: “Nobody will ever be able to say that he trimmed the message to make it easier to get it across or more palatable for his hearers. This was his commission from God, and he had been faithful to it.”

Paul also reminds the elders that they are to feed the flock and guard against wolves (vv. 28-31). John Stott comments:

So the shepherds of Christ’s flock have a double duty: to feed the sheep (by teaching the truth) and to protect them from wolves (by warning of error). As Paul put it to Titus, elders must hold firm the sure word according to the apostolic teaching, so that they would be able both “to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to confute those who contradict it” (Titus 1:9). This emphasis is unpopular today. We are frequently told always to be positive in our teaching, and never negative. But those who say this have either not read the New Testament or, having read it, they disagree with it. For the Lord Jesus and his apostles refuted error themselves and urged us to do the same. One wonders if it is the neglect of this obligation which is a major cause of today’s theological confusion. If, when false teaching arises, Christian leaders sit idly by and do nothing, or turn tail and flee, they will earn the terrible epithet ‘hirelings’ who care nothing for Christ’s flock (Jn 10:12ff). Then too it will be said of believers, as it was of Israel, that “they were scattered, because there was no shepherd, and…they became food for all the wild animals” (Ezek 34:5).

The final three verses of this episode are well worth sharing here: “When Paul had finished speaking, he knelt down with all of them and prayed. They all wept as they embraced him and kissed him. What grieved them most was his statement that they would never see his face again. Then they accompanied him to the ship” (vv. 36-38).

As Sproul notes, “It is amazing how many parallels there are between Paul’s message here to the Ephesians and Jesus’ message in the upper room to His disciples when he announced that in just a short while they would see Him no more although His departure would ultimately be to their benefit. In that regard, Paul echoed those words of Christ to his disciples.”

If you want to know what the heart of a pastor looks like, if you want to know what the heart of a missionary looks like, if you want to know what the heart of a Christian leader looks like, look no further than this amazing portion of Scripture.

Study it, meditate upon it, and ask God that you too might be raised up as another Paul.

[1327 words]

4 Replies to “Paul’s Farewell Speech”

  1. Reading this article reminds me this great portion of Scripture that really touched and moved my heart many years ago. The great Apostle Paul did have a heart of a good shepherd. We can’t be passionless pastors who are cold toward people of God whom we serve. We need to really love the people whom we serve and preach to. Someone said long ago, “People don’t care how much we know (just head-knowledge) but they want to know how much we care (heart-knowledge).” Thank you Bill I believe that this article will inspire servants of the Lord – pastors who will reach out to their people – saved and unsaved and love them as Christ loved us and gave Himself for us on the Cross of Calvary. The Apostle Paul wrote to the Roman Christians years ago, “Don’t just pretend to love others. Really love them. Hate what is wrong. Hold tightly to what is good. Love each other with genuine affection, and take delight in honouring each other. Never be lazy, but work hard and serve the Lord enthusiastically. Rejoice in our confident hope. Be patient in trouble, and keep on praying. When God’s people are in need, be ready to help them. Always be eager to practice hospitality” (Romans 12:10-13).
    May God the Holy Spirit give us a heart of a good shepherd like this great Apostle!

  2. Thanks, Bill – Paul is an amazing example of courage and faith. In Matthew Henry’s commentary it says that “He had struggled with many difficulties among them. He went on in his work in the face of much opposition, many temptations, trials of his patience and courage, such discouragements as perhaps were sometimes temptations to him, as to Jeremiah in a like case to say, I will not speak any more in the name of the Lord, Jer. 20:8, Jer. 20:9 . These befel him by the lying in wait of the Jews, who still were plotting some mischief or other against him. Note, Those are the faithful servants of the Lord that continue to serve him in the midst of troubles and perils, that care not what enemies they make, so that they can but approve themselves to their Master, and make him their friend.”


    Paul is here an example,(1.) Of holy courage and resolution in our work, notwithstanding the difficulties and oppositions we meet with in it; he saw them before him, but he made nothing of them: None of these things move me; oudenos logon poioumai —I make no account of them. He did not lay these things to heart, Christ and heaven lay there. None of these things moved him. [1.] They did not drive him off from his work; he did not tack about, and go back again, when he saw the storm rise, but went on resolutely, preaching there, where he knew how dearly it would cost him. [2.] They did not deprive him of his comfort, nor make him drive on heavily in his work. In the midst of troubles he was as one unconcerned. In his patience he possessed his soul, and, when he was as sorrowful, yet he was always rejoicing, and in all things more than a conqueror. Those that have their conversation in heaven can look down, not only upon the common troubles of this earth but upon the threatening rage and malice of hell itself, and say that none of these things moved them, as knowing that none of these things can hurt them.(2.) Of a holy contempt of life, and the continuance and comforts of it: Neither count I my life dear to myself. Life is sweet, and is naturally dear to us. All that a man has will he give for his life; but all that a man has, and life too, will he give who understands himself aright and his own interest, rather than lose the favour of God and hazard eternal life. Paul was of this mind.

  3. Thank you Bill for this article. It is a reminder to us all of what we Christians must do as believers towards those who are not yet saved and for our own good in Christ.
    It is also so easy to see today why the ‘true believers’ in Christ must cry tears of anguish over the lost souls around us as much as those Christians who avoid the truth of the Scriptures and refuse to bow their knees to God’s authoritative Word. We may also cry for the pain that we know we will have to possibly go through, because we stay true to God’s Word by the power of His Holy Spirit that we lean on, draw strength from. This is not a battle of our own, but a spiritual battle and we must shelter in God’s powerful over shadowing to get through the situation.
    My heart and prayers go to the woman councillor you mention too.

  4. It never ceases to astonish me that the doubters of our times set the Apostle Paul and our Lord Jesus at loggerheads with one another: Both preached repentance toward God – that major change of attitude and life direction. Both called for faith in the Son of Man, God’s Christ.

    Once he had been made a new creation in Christ, the love of Christ burned in Paul’s heart so potently that even 21st-Century readers of his letters are confronted by a holy compassion which makes their own best aspirations seem pallid and insipid by comparison.

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