As you age and you think back more and more in retrospect about the preceding years, so many warm memories remain of people you have known along the race of life. For those of us who have lived in several different places, many of those friends were only intimately a part of our lives for a season. The rise of social media has been a wonderful tool for maintaining even a distant connection with people from earlier periods of life.
I recently reconnected with a friend from childhood and all through high school that I had not seen in several decades. It was immediately like old times when we got together, as we had previously shared so much of life and experiences.
It is great to have friends from a ball team from the past, or people you have known for many years from your place of employment. We often become long-term friends with others who have children who are the same age as our own – seeing them growing up together and sharing common experiences.
But honestly, the very best friends we should have in life are those we have known from serving God together, particularly in the church context. These should be the deepest relationships – folks with whom we have together been in the throes of not only making a church work in practical ways, but also in spiritual combat together as fellow soldiers in the kingdom of light’s eternal cosmic conflict with the powers of darkness.
Paul had many such relationships, forged in challenging times of building the institution of the church while also combating the opposing forces in a dark world.
Our passage today begins with some travel itinerary details as Paul is hurrying toward Jerusalem to meet a deadline …
Acts 20:13 – We went on ahead to the ship and sailed for Assos, where we were going to take Paul aboard. He had made this arrangement because he was going there on foot. 14 When he met us at Assos, we took him aboard and went on to Mitylene. 15 The next day we set sail from there and arrived off Chios. The day after that we crossed over to Samos, and on the following day arrived at Miletus. 16 Paul had decided to sail past Ephesus to avoid spending time in the province of Asia, for he was in a hurry to reach Jerusalem, if possible, by the day of Pentecost. 17 From Miletus, Paul sent to Ephesus for the elders of the church.
Rather than take the time to travel to Ephesus, Paul asks the elder leadership of the church there to meet with him at the relatively nearby coastal town of Miletus. His words to them comprise what is essentially a farewell speech. Paul rehearses the events of their several years together in that place – recalling the persecutions, the extensive teaching ministry, and all the hard work that had brought them together in mutual association. In total, it was all very intense!!
Acts 20:18 – When they arrived, he said to them: “You know how I lived the whole time I was with you, from the first day I came into the province of Asia. 19 I served the Lord with great humility and with tears and in the midst of severe testing by the plots of my Jewish opponents. 20 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. 21 I have declared to both Jews and Greeks that they must turn to God in repentance and have faith in our Lord Jesus.
He also warns them of the inevitability of the work of the kingdom of darkness to infiltrate, as he pictorially speaks of such as savage wolves ravaging a flock. He reminds these leaders that they must be vigilant about preserving in the timeless truth, knowing that error would arise from within. These exhortations continue to this day to be wise counsel for leaders of churches.
Acts 20:22 – “And now, compelled by the Spirit, I am going to Jerusalem, not knowing what will happen to me there. 23 I only know that in every city the Holy Spirit warns me that prison and hardships are facing me. 24 However, I consider my life worth nothing to me; my only aim is to finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me—the task of testifying to the good news of God’s grace.
25 “Now I know that none of you among whom I have gone about preaching the kingdom will ever see me again. 26 Therefore, I declare to you today that I am innocent of the blood of any of you. 27 For I have not hesitated to proclaim to you the whole will of God. 28 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. 29 I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. 30 Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them. 31 So be on your guard! Remember that for three years I never stopped warning each of you night and day with tears.
But grieving the Ephesians most is the word from Paul that, as he heads toward inevitable persecution in Jerusalem and beyond, they will never see him again – in this world. They knell and pray (as always in the book of Acts), as Paul commits them to God and his care. The scene becomes very emotional, as the Ephesians accompany Paul to the very last steps of boarding the ship.
Acts 20:32 – “Now I commit you to God and to the word of his grace, which can build you up and give you an inheritance among all those who are sanctified. 33 I have not coveted anyone’s silver or gold or clothing. 34 You yourselves know that these hands of mine have supplied my own needs and the needs of my companions. 35 In everything I did, I showed you that by this kind of hard work we must help the weak, remembering the words the Lord Jesus himself said: ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’ ”
36 When Paul had finished speaking, he knelt down with all of them and prayed. 37 They all wept as they embraced him and kissed him. 38 What grieved them most was his statement that they would never see his face again. Then they accompanied him to the ship.
Relationships in Christ are indeed often very deep, especially when forged together in the inevitable challenges of mutual service – a sort of spiritual warfare in a dark world under the power of the Evil One. We are combat veterans together. Over 35 years ago as minister of music in a large Dallas church, I was especially close to the senior pastor. And when I parted from that place to serve back home on the east coast, we were both much affected at the departure. Though he continues, even as an elderly man now, to serve God as the retired Chaplain at Dallas Theological Seminary, when I see him on rare occasions or speak to him, it is as if no time has passed at all. And I can say similar things about many with whom I’ve served over the years. Just this week I have been invited to return and preach at my previous church in NJ – will be the first time in 21 years, and I am very much looking forward to celebrating the 125th anniversary of the church and the beginning of the ministry of a new, young pastor there.
Dallas, New Jersey, Hagerstown … wherever we are in Christ … we are comrades together in an eternal, cosmic conflict – co-workers for the King of Kings.
Friends, if you are not committed at a deep inter-personal level, but are only casually a part of the life of the church, you are missing the depths of relationships and service that is at once both required of you and personally beneficial for your well-being. Please bring both hands, both feet, your heart, your mind, and your soul. We need you; you need us.