To anybody who has an interest in Paul as a person, the twentieth chapter of Acts is a delight. This is because we see him in two different but very important lights. We see him in public at Troas, leading the worship of the church. Then we see him in a private setting, meeting with the Ephesian elders at Miletus, a little town about twenty or thirty miles south of the Asian capital. The section is known as “Paul’s farewell to the Ephesian elders,” and it has three parts. The first concerns Paul himself. It contains Paul’s personal testimony before the elders. The second part is his specific charge to them. Finally, at the very end of the chapter and in much briefer language, we have a reference to his prayer on their behalf.
Paul’s personal testimony is found in verses 18-24 and 33-35. It is in two parts, because it is interrupted by his charge to the elders to be faithful shepherds of the church. The testimony which precedes and follows this charge is an inspiring passage for any pastor to read.
It is helpful, too, because it is a case of Paul toward the end of his time of ministry among these people looking back and pointing out, not in any boastful manner but rather in an honest way, what he considered to have been the important features of his work, those which were blessed by God and for which he praised God. Clearly, these are characteristics that ought be present in the life of any Christian minister and, for that matter, of all Christians.
The first thing Paul mentions is his humble approach to Christian work, for he reminds the elders that while he was with them he “served the Lord with great humility” (v. 19). It is interesting he should mention this, because when Paul comes to write about the qualifications of an elder, as he does later in 1 Timothy and Titus, two of the pastoral epistles, and although he touches on subjects that might be said to have bearing on the matter of humility, he does not mention humility there. Moreover, he never says that he was himself humble, except here. Humility is important, of course, because the opposite of humility is pride, and pride is a great danger for those who are in prominent positions of church leadership. It is a danger for anyone, but it is particularly dangerous for those who stand up and talk—at least if they are effective doing it. Because people will always come up afterward to say, no doubt meaning well, “Oh, that was a wonderful message” or “I was greatly blessed by that.” The situation is dangerous, because the minister may come to believe that he is indeed rather wonderful because, after all, he has been a source of such great blessing to so many people, forgetting that any blessing that comes is from the Lord.
A minister has to learn early on how to deal with that and actually grow in humility rather than in pride. I do not think this means that ministers will always be talking about humility. Paul did not. But humility has to be present in their ministry.
George Whitefield, the great eighteenth century evangelist, developed a technique for handling such compliments. He was the most popular preacher of his day and probably the most popular of all speakers of whatever type, whether political or otherwise. He was a spellbinder, brilliant. Everybody talked about his mastery of language and his control over the emotions of an audience. He spoke to thousands upon thousands in his day, as many as 20,000 to 25,000 people at a time.
You can imagine that if a man like that preached effectively, as he did, and large numbers of people were blessed, when he was finished preaching people would flock around him and say, “Mr. Whitefield, you were wonderful. Your words were eloquent.” Whenever anybody would say that to him Whitefield would reply, “I know it, the devil told me that just as I was stepping down from the pulpit.”
Paul had obviously bowed low before God, and as a result he knew that he was no different from anyone else. He was only a sinner saved by grace. If he had gifts that had been used in the ministry, well, they were gifts that had been given him by God. He had applied to himself what he had said earlier to the Corinthians, “Who makes you different from anyone else? What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not?” (1 Cor. 4:7). It would make a great difference in the lives of many workers if they could only learn to think of their gifts like that.