The Whole Counsel of God – Acts 20:13-38

by Roger McCay
18 October 2020
Sermon Passage: Acts 20:13-38
Link to Audio Version

You may have heard the story one pastor has shared about how once, in a sermon, he told the old joke about Biblical ignorance where someone asks, “What are the epistles?” And the answer received is, “They were the wives of the apostles.” After the sermon, however, a woman asked him, “Pastor, I didn’t get the joke. If they weren’t the wives of the apostles, whose wives were they?” [1]

Biblical illiteracy is a scourge in the church. One man has called it a pandemic.[2] Numerous studies and surveys have been done on the problem over the years, with the most recent one coming out just a few months ago.[3] Without going into all the numbers, these studies have consistently shown that a disturbing amount of self-identifying Christians are not grounded in God’s Word and are largely ignorant of the Bible’s teachings (even basic teachings), or they just don’t believe them. You do find some positive numbers in these studies, indicating many Christians are, indeed, in the Word daily and weekly, holding to sound biblical teachings. But the surveys confirm there are vast swaths of people identifying as Christians, claiming affiliation with established churches, who are “biblically illiterate,” if not (in some cases) straight up obstinate unbelievers. They just don’t know, understand, or believe basic biblical teachings concerning the Lord, his work, and how his Word applies to their lives and the world around them.

Unsurprisingly, the surveys indicate the culture is leading such folks around by the nose. They are being tossed to-and-fro in the fickle winds of the whatever the current, popular sentiment of the day might be. A report put out by Arizona Christian University sums it up:

The American Worldview Inventory 2020, conducted by CRC Director of Research Dr. George Barna, surveyed 51 beliefs and behaviors among Christian groups and found that rather than transforming the culture around them with biblical truth, the opposite is happening. American Christianity is rapidly conforming to the values of the post-Christian secular culture.[4]

Detached from the foundation of truth revealed and laid out in the Bible, the whole counsel of God, such a sad and dangerous state is inevitable. The church was long ago warned of this in the Bible itself. Indeed, it was a serious concern of the Apostle Paul, as expressed in our passage today—his address to the elders of the Ephesian church.

After the Eutychus incident in Troas, Paul and his crew started making their way to Jerusalem, driven by Paul’s agenda (what he refers to as “bound” or “constrained” in “the” (or “my”) spirit” in v. 22), in order to get there before Pentecost. He wanted to have a last word with the elders from the church in Ephesus, before he left the region, as he likely had heard of some going-ons there that needed addressing. Knowing that if he made a visit to Ephesus, it would be difficult for him to move out quickly, Paul stopped in Miletus and sent for the elders of the church in Ephesus to come to him, so that he might have a word.

Once the elders arrived, Paul addressed them with his concerns and a reminder of their duties towards God as shepherds of the Lord’s flock. He leads off by reminding them of his own example, which they had witnessed. He reminded them of his character of service and ministry, which might be described as faithful, whole-Bible ministry. Paul’s words and deeds were in harmony, as he ministered the whole counsel of God to them. With that picture in mind, Paul then charges these elders to likewise minister (both in word and deed), feeding, nurturing, and protecting the flock. At the core of this task, as we’ll see, lay the faithful teaching, preaching, and application of the Word of God in the lives of the church and their community.

In v. 19 Paul reminds them of his character of service to the Lord. His service was a constant example of self-giving love, done, as he says, “with all humility and with tears and with trials that happened to me through the plots of the Jews.” How did Paul do this? Well, he describes his overall mindset, what drove him and continued to drive him in v. 24:

24 But I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God.

Paul’s love for Jesus and his passion to carry out his calling was such that, to him, his life was of no consequence. He would do whatever it took, no matter the circumstances, to accomplish the call the Lord had put on his life, testifying to the gospel of the grace of God in both word and deed.

Hence, Paul drove on serving the Lord, ministering the Word in utter humility. What did this look like? In verses 33-35 he puts forward an example. In contrast to motivations of selfish gain, Paul didn’t want to be a burden on anyone, refusing to take from them what he was due for his labor for them. So, he worked while giving and giving. As a result, this self-giving, humble-ministry lifestyle further reinforced the gospel he was proclaiming, rooted in Jesus’ own words, “‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’”

Paul wasn’t just going through the motions of ministry, either. He didn’t hold himself at arm’s length. He invested himself in the people, filled with empathy and love for them, showing them the love of Christ through his acts. Ministering the gospel of the grace of God in the midst of broken lives and an idolatrous society, showing them how the gospel, God’s Word, applied directly to their life situation, Paul was often brought to tears. It was not (I think) that Paul was a crier, a weepy sort of guy (you know the type). Rather, Paul threw himself fully into the lives of the people to whom he was ministering. He knew their joys and rejoiced with them. He also felt their pain and brokenness. He knew their troubles, temptations, and weaknesses. He saw the enemy circling, not only to attack him (as experienced in the trials of suffering that happened to him due to the plots of the Jews) but seeking to attack the church. And all this weighed on him, as it was no easy task. As to the danger within and without, he mentions, in v. 31, how day and night he ministered the Word by admonishing, warning, and instructing “every one with tears.”

Consequently, having lived the gospel before them, in the love of Christ, bonds of love bound Paul tightly to the elders and church of Ephesus. Aptly, the emotional farewell that took place, as he and the elders parted ways, in vv. 36-38, was a heartfelt expression of that love.

In the midst of his observable Christ-like deeds of humility; invested, self-giving love; and endured suffering, Paul steadfastly ministered God’s Word through proclamation. This was the substance of his ministry woven through his whole ministry. His word to the elders there at Miletus touches on many of the topics he had expounded upon in Ephesus over the years. Many of these themes are also prominent in Paul’s epistles, and are found throughout the whole Bible (both Old and New Testament). Accordingly, John Stott provides a summary list:

Themes … which he touches on in his speech are the grace of God (24, 32), the kingdom of God (25), the purpose … of God (27), the redeeming blood of Christ (28), repentance and faith (21), the church of God and its edification (28, 32), the inevitability of suffering (23–24), the danger of false teachers (29–30), the need for vigilance (28, 31), running the race (24) and our final inheritance (32).[5]

Clearly, we won’t be able to unpack all those themes today. Over the years, though, I’ve preached or taught on these themes here at MPC to one extent or another, as we’ve worked our way through the Scriptures in our various forums. Even more, the elders and other Bible teachers in this church have likewise done so. As we continue along in the Word, Lord willing, I expect us to cover them again and again, as part of our deliberate effort to proclaim the whole counsel of God, in harmony with the charge Paul gives the elders in our passage today.

But before getting to that charge, let’s take a moment to examine Paul’s example of method in his proclamation of the Word. Verses 20-21:

I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, and teaching you in public and from house to house, 21 testifying both to Jews and to Greeks of repentance toward God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.

Now, Paul was not declaring, teaching, and testifying random ideas and philosophies.

What he was expounding upon was the Word of God, the Scriptures, as he states in v. 27: “I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God.” Why is it important that Paul highlights this? Well, too often teachers and preachers have their pet topics, or avoid certain topics because they don’t like them, or they just don’t believe them.

I ran across this when I was the senior chaplain at a certain chapel, back in my Army days. My policy was that we chaplains, as part of the traditional protestant service, coming from different denominations and rotating through the pulpit, would preach the passage that came after whatever was preached the Sunday before. My intent was for us to preach the whole counsel of God by working our way through whole books of the Bible, which we did.

Now, in the course of time, there was this one chaplain who approached me, asking if we could skip a certain passage in the Scriptures, one he was scheduled to preach. I was like, hunh? What on earth!? Why? Was it too difficult a passage for him? I mean, if that was the case, I would have encouraged him to give it his best shot. But that wasn’t the case. It wasn’t humility that kept him from it. Rather, he told me that he and his wife, along with his denomination, had a different view of things than what that passage taught. So, he wanted to skip it. The passage was 1 Cor. 14:26-40, by the way, if you want to look it up. As it was, I told him no way would we skip it. It would be preached as part of the whole counsel of God. He bowed out. So, I ended up preaching the passage, while he and his wife skipped that service.

This was an ordained minister, my friends. And from what I’ve seen, his position is not as uncommon as you might think. Such pastors typically don’t announce, however, what they’re doing to their churches—covertly depriving God’s people of God’s counsel.

Paul could never be accused of this. This is why he could boldly claim in v. 26, “Therefore I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all.” Like the faithful watchman of Ezekiel 3 and Ezekiel 33, Paul had proclaimed the danger of iniquity and the hope of salvation in Jesus Christ. He had proclaimed Christ from first to last in the Scriptures. He had done his duty towards the wicked and the righteous. He had proclaimed God’s whole counsel, avoiding nothing, not the hard parts, not anything, even if it enraged them. His conscience before God was clear. Their blood was on their own hands if they failed to heed God’s Word.

In his declaration, Paul provided new information for those in Ephesus, opening their eyes to a biblical worldview. He declared things they’d never heard before, things taught in the Scriptures, things taught by Jesus, relayed and explained in the teachings of the apostles, of whom Paul was one. His declaration was “anything that was profitable,” meaning everything God’s Word spoke to them directly related to their lives and condition—the grace of God in Christ towards their good, the gospel. He taught publicly, first in the synagogue on the Sabbath, and later at the school of Tyrannus for hours each day. He taught privately in homes, with gatherings of Christians, much like we saw in his teaching in Troas in the upper room, and, likely, in one-on-one instruction. His teaching included proclamation and application. It was also proclaimed to everybody (both Jews and Greeks), as he testified to the gospel of grace, including both repentance toward God and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.

So often faith is preached and taught, but the need to repent is not. Paul did not suffer that lack.

Therefore, Paul’s service and ministry was such that he set down a solid biblical foundation of life and faith for the church in Ephesus. It was whole, without cracks. It was laid down in both word and deed. Its scope was complete, leaving out nothing of God’s counsel. Its range was to all people, both making and equipping disciples of Christ from all races, socioeconomic levels, and so forth. Its integrity was sound, faithful to God’s intended meaning and application to their lives.

Now, please understand, Paul tells the elders of the Ephesian church all this not just to toot his own horn. He was laying out for them his example to follow. God’s Word, the whole counsel of God, was the foundation upon which the elders were to work, in word and deed, in their own service to the Lord and ministry to the church of Christ. Verses 28-31:

28 Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood. 29 I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; 30 and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them. 31 Therefore be alert, remembering that for three years I did not cease night or day to admonish every one with tears.

In vv. 28-31, Paul charges the elders with their duty, warns them of potential dangers, restates their call to duty, while giving his own example of whole-Bible word and deed ministry as motivation and instruction on how to go about their duty.

The primary duty of the elders (as they are named in v. 17–from πρεσβύτερος), is (as Paul lays it out here in v. 28) to “care for the flock,” “the church of God,” as pastors, being overseers (also translated as “bishops, from ἐπίσκοπος).

The Lord Jesus obtained his church by his sacrifice on the cross, he redeemed the lives of his people through his blood, shed for them. The Lord called the elders from his people to care for and guard over his people towards whom he (the Lord) has shown such unfathomable love. As such, there is no way to overstate the weightiness of this task.

To fulfill their calling, the elders must be alert, paying attention to their own lives along with the lives of the flock. They (we, and I’ll use “we” as this applies to us elders today) … We are not to be hypocritical. We are to live the word we preach and teach, being careful to do so. We are to nurture, feed, and watch over the flock, seeing that the Word is taking root and producing fruit in your lives. We are to serve the Lord and minister the Word, as illustrated for us in the Scriptures, even as Paul demonstrated in his own actions, continually maintaining the foundation of the whole counsel of God in word and deed. This is why it is so important for elders to know God’s Word and doctrines, and not only be able to teach (1 Tim. 3:2), but to actually teach the Lord’s truths, not shrinking from any of God’s whole counsel. For, if we don’t know and teach the whole counsel of God, how can we recognize and fight against its corruptions?

God’s preached and taught Word is a primary means (along with prayer, v. 36) that God has given his people to fight the dangers that threaten the flock, the church of God. These dangers are quite real. There is a real enemy who attacks from without and within the church. Thus, elders are to watch out for these dangers, particularly false teachers and false teachings that would worm their way in, twisting the truth of God’s Word, leading members of the flock along dangerous paths of destruction.

And notice how sometimes these dangers can come even from among the leaders of the church (v. 30)! Paul’s charge is that elders are to not only police themselves (individually), but to police other elders and other teachers of the Word in the church. Otherwise you might end up with pastors and teachers who (for their own selfish reasons), lead individuals, then congregations, eventually leading denominations along a path to where God’s whole counsel is not proclaimed. Thus, these churches do not know God’s whole counsel, his word and will, much less possess a consistent Christian worldview. Led astray by wolves from the foundation of God’s truth, set adrift in a state of Biblical illiteracy, cast into the winds of shifting uncertainty of the world, these poor souls are deprived of God’s blessing.

For this reason, our denomination, the PCA, has a national General Assembly made up of elders from each presbytery. Each presbytery is made up of elders from each church in a designated region (in our case the Southeast Alabama Presbytery). These bodies provide overwatch over all the churches, and we who are teaching elders and ruling elders in each local church session, not only do we participate in both GA and presbytery, but we are held responsible by them. So, we police ourselves for false teachers and teachings.

But who watches the watchmen? The Lord God, of course. The Lord Jesus is the head of the church (Col. 1:18).  Thus, v. 32:

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.

The Lord God is over his church. He died for it, redeemed it, blessed it, and stays active in it. He is directly involved in the moment by moment lives of every single one of the elect, those who are sanctified, made holy, inheriting all the blessings of his grace—his people. Thus, Paul confidently commended the Ephesian elders to God, who watches over all of his people, building them up through the power of his Spirit, on the foundation of his Word and work. Paul could say farewell with confidence, knowing the church was in the Lord’s hands.

My friends, in America we have no shortage of Bibles. Yet, Biblical illiteracy is a serious problem among so many who identify as Christian. The failure of pastors to preach and teach the whole counsel of God faithfully and accurately is a major reason for this. Knowing this, we work hard to keep that from being a problem at MPC, which I hope is blatantly obvious to you.

Likewise, the problem of Biblical illiteracy is owed to a dearth of personal study of the Word. Don’t let that be you! Many of you are regularly in the Word; this is true, and praise God! Whatever the case may be, in addition to your own study, I invite you, urge you, to take advantages of the opportunities to study the Word provided by the church—such as the evening service, Sunday school, and Bible studies. You can’t deny the benefits of such faithfulness. It’s hard to get led astray by false teaching; it’s hard to be swayed by the lies of the world, which lead to confusion and despair, when you are grounded in the truth.

My friends, hold those of us called to leadership, your elders and other teachers of the Word in the church, hold us to the high standards the Scriptures set for us. Be like the Bereans (remember them in Acts 17?) and keep us in check. Insist upon receiving the faithfully and accurately preached and taught whole counsel of God. Hold the elders to our calling as overseers, demanding with loving grace that we do our duty before God protecting, nurturing, and feeding the flock of God.

No less important, like Paul prayed for the elders of the Ephesian church in v. 36, please pray for us, the elders of MPC. Keep us in your prayers. Help us to stay faithful. We cannot carry out our duties of whole-Bible service to the Lord and ministry to the church in our own strength and power. We just can’t. We can only shepherd the Lord’s flock, in word and deed, by the strength and grace of God.

Because the Lord provides his foundation of truth in the Bible, Christians must insist on its whole proclamation.


[1] Chuck Swindoll, Ultimate Book of Illustrations (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 1998), 48, quoting Albert Stauderman, Let Me Illustrate.

[2] Taigen Joos, “The Global Pandemic of Biblical Illiteracy,”

[3] Heather Clark, “Survey Shows Many Professing Christians Being Shaped by Culture Rather Than Biblical Truth,”; Ed Stetzer, “Biblical Illiteracy by the Numbers Part 1: The Challenge,”; cf. Albert Mohler, Jr., “The Scandal of Biblical Illiteracy,”; Russell Moore, “The Media’s Biblical Illiteracy Is Not Our Biggest Problem,”

[4] “American Worldview Inventory 2020 – At a Glance,”

[5] John R. W. Stott, The Message of Acts: The Spirit, the Church & the World, The Bible Speaks Today (Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1994), 324.