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.