A Call to Serve (Acts 20:17-27)

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With the help of our maintenance guy at the church, I re-hung a picture in my office of an Ethiopian shepherd, one that I had purchased in 1999 on my first trip to Addis Ababa. As I travelled in different places around Ethiopia I had the opportunity to observe various shepherds tending their flocks. I came to appreciate for the first time that shepherding is hard work. It is also considered the work of the marginalised. It is considered essential—yet lowly, despised and menial—labour. These were some lessons that I needed to keep in mind about my own shepherding task. The picture serves as a helpful reminder.

The drawing is a tender one, which shows a shepherd surrounded by sheep that are feeding while he carries a staff in his hand. But what intrigued me was that, around his neck, he is carrying a lamb. At first I did not notice this until my friend and fellow pastor, Berhanu, pointed it out to me. I immediately purchased the picture to serve as a reminder of what I am called by God to do. Shepherds feed, lead and give heed to the flock of God. Sometimes it can be very burdensome, as burdensome as carrying a lamb on one’s shoulders. (In my picture, it looks like a very full grown lamb!) Being a shepherd of the flock of God is all too often romanticised and even idolised. This is healthy neither for the flock nor for the shepherd.

If you want a clear picture of what it means to be a shepherd of God’s flock, there is a far better one than that hanging on my wall. It is right here in Acts 20:17-38. Erdman comments, “The farewell address of Paul to the Ephesian elders, more than any other passage of The Acts, reveals the heart of the great apostle, his tenderness, his sympathy, his affection, and his tears. No other paragraph contains more direct and practical advice for Christian ministers and missionaries.”1 Indeed.

In this classic text Luke records Paul’s farewell address to the elders (pastors, shepherds) of the church in Ephesus. This passage has served the church well for nearly two thousand years when it has lost its way and has needed the reminder of what a shepherd of God’s flock is to be and to do. It is an inspired picture to be hung in the hearts and minds of everyone called by God to serve as an elder. It is one that I often return to when I need the reminder and sometimes when I need the encouragement of what I am to be doing, why I am to be doing it, and how I am to carry out this privileged task.

As we several studies to work through this passage, may the Lord teach us as His sheep what to expect of His shepherds. May shepherds (who are also sheep) be admonished, equipped and affirmed by God the Holy Spirit that this is a noble work, which demands the most noble effort. But may it also serve to teach us all that is required to be fruitful as we answer God’s call to serve.


We saw previously that Paul was making a beeline to Jerusalem. He wanted to be there on the Day of Pentecost as he anticipated the joy that his presence would bring—particularly as he carried with him the love gift from Gentile believers for their beleaguered Christian brothers and sisters in Jerusalem.

Because of this single-mindedness, Paul had made the decision to bypass Ephesus lest he be delayed by a potentially protracted stay with this church; one to which he had grown so close.

But before leaving the region, he was burdened to meet with the elders of the church, and so he called for them to meet him in Miletus. Miletus was some 50-60 kilometres from Ephesus.

When these elders are gathered, Paul recounted his story of his time spent in Ephesus ministering the Word. He was recounting his shepherding story. But one needs to ask, why?

First, perhaps part of the biographical reason was to remind them of his great affection for the church. This would be the last time that they would see him and so, lest anyone might doubt his love for them (after all, word doubtless would get out that Paul had deliberately bypassed them, v. 16), he wanted to declare it to their leaders who could then pass on his message.

Second, Paul wanted to let the church know, through its representative leadership, that he was well aware of the dangers he would face, and they must not be overly concerned for him. He was trusting the Lord and they should not be discouraged upon any reports that they might hear concerning his potential troubles. Such a display of faith, of course, would also go a long way towards encouraging them to faithfulness.

Third, Paul no doubt wanted to give practical instruction to these leaders based on his own experience as a church leader. He was concerned that this precious flock must be protected.

Fourth, the biographical testimony was no doubt to serve as a template for these fellow shepherds. Paul wanted them to be reminded of all that he had taught them concerning what it means to shepherd the flock of God, including the cost and the consequences of doing so.

Without question, this is one of the richest passages revealing what the local church should look for in its shepherds. It reveals to would-be shepherds what God requires of them. Robertson points out that Paul, “will probably not see them again and so the outlook and attitude is similar to the farewell discourse of Jesus to the disciples in the upper room (John 13—17). He warns them about future perils as Jesus had done. Paul’s words here will repay any preacher’s study today.”2

Let’s examine some of these requirements as revealed in this passage.

The Shepherds are to be Several

The first (somewhat technical) thing that we should note is that Paul “called for the elders”—plural—of the church of Ephesus (v. 17). The biblical pattern is consistently that of a plurality of shepherds (see 11:30; 14:23; 15:2, 4, 6, 22, 23; 16:4; 1 Timothy 5:17; Titus 1:5). Rarely do you find “elder” (singular) in the New Testament.

In fact the plural—“elders”—is found over 170 times in the Bible. There was a plurality of shepherds in the old covenant and there is a plurality of shepherds in the new covenant. A plurality of godly leadership, as defined by God, is His plan for the well-being of His flock. Such a plurality provides built-in protection against one man running things according to his own whims. It provides a mechanism for the development of people, both within the eldership and without it. And it also provides a diversity of gifts with attendant blessings.

The Shepherds are to be Servants

We see in vv. 18-21 that the shepherds of the church are to be servants.

And when they had come to him, he said to them: “You know, from the first day that I came to Asia, in what manner I always lived among you, serving the Lord with all humility, with many tears and trials which happened to me by the plotting of the Jews; how I kept back nothing that was helpful, but proclaimed it to you, and taught you publicly and from house to house, testifying to Jews, and also to Greeks, repentance toward God and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ.”

(Acts 20:18-21)

This is the only speech in the book of Acts that is addressed to Christians. And it is interesting that it is reserved for an audience of elders. What Luke records here is therefore of great importance.

It should be noted that Paul had been away from the church in Ephesus for over a year, perhaps some 15-18 months. And it would appear from v. 18 that, while he was gone, some bad men had come to the region. I conclude is because of the way that Paul made a bit of “self-defence” in his opening words. This is reminiscent of how he addressed the Thessalonians, in his first letter, particularly in chapter 2.

Enemies of Paul and of the gospel had followed Paul to Thessalonica and had questioned his commitment to them. After all, he had been smuggled out of the city when his life was threatened.

Paul could live with criticism and even slander, on a personal level, but he knew that if the church in Thessalonica believed these malicious lies then they would not pay heed to his teaching ministry. So, out of concern for their well-being, he writes and reminds them of his affection for them and the proof that he displayed this love before them.

It certainly seems from what he says here to the Ephesian elders that perhaps the same scenario was being repeated in Ephesus. And perhaps it was for this reason that Paul had chosen to sail past Ephesus (v. 16). He did not wish to cause a scene. It was far wiser to get the leadership together and to sort out the problem with them. After all, if they believed the lies then his apostolic ministry would not be carried on by them in the church. It is for this reason that he kept repeating the refrain “you know” or something similar. They were eyewitnesses of his ministry and they should be the last ones to believe and promote the slander (though he does seem to be aware of this very real possibility, vv. 29-30).

Having noted this, let us now unpack these verses. We will do so by noting three marks of the shepherd who serves.

Focused—Serving the Lord

The key to this passage is the phrase “serving the Lord.” Paul reminds the elders that they were eyewitnesses of his lifestyle over the three years he spent with the church. He says, in a nutshell, that it was characterised by “serving the Lord.” The word that he uses here is related to the noun doulas, which means “bondservant” or “slave.” Without getting into a debate with some well-known teachers, I think that the concept of an old covenant bondservant is the idea here rather than that of a Roman concept of a slave.

The bondservant, as seen in Exodus 21, was an indentured servant because of debt. A compassionate Hebrew would buy the man’s debt in exchange for service. He was to be released in the seventh year. But if the servant chose to remain a bondservant for life then he became the man’s personal property. But more than this, he was now considered a part of his family. From that point on, the labour would not be that driven by debt but rather by love.

Paul saw himself as the bondservant of Jesus Christ; as forever in His family. His service was out of love for Him. Paul served the church because he served Christ. And this is always how it is to be for the shepherds of God’s flock. It is to be a labour of love.

This is an amazing statement, and one that obviously Paul did not think made him vulnerable. He was convinced that these men would affirm his testimony that his life among them was characterised by loving labour for the Lord. Not for himself, but for the Lord Jesus.

Men can enter the ministry for several different motives. The ones, however, who will do the most good are those who see themselves as bondservants who lovingly serve their Master. Only such will joyfully and productively persevere. Though such will not be immune from criticism and enemies (Paul is a case in point), nevertheless the sincere will see this.

Fearless—Suffering for the Lord

Paul recounts that these men knew that when he was with them he served the Lord with “humility.” From anyone else this might sound arrogant—the opposite of humility!—but it rings true when Paul says it.

The word carries the idea of a person who has a right estimation of himself. Paul served as a bondservant of Christ—and therefore served His church—precisely because he had a right estimation of himself. Paul was not looking for honour, position and glory, for he knew that he was the chief of sinners (1 Timothy 1:15). His right estimation of himself enabled him to think clearly about what to expect from others. He was therefore willing to pour himself out for the church.

It is essential that church leaders have this same humility of mind. As they have a true estimation of themselves—biblically evaluated—they will lose all desire to lord it over the congregation (1 Peter 5:1-5). They will be on guard against growing bitter due to a lack of appreciation and affirmation. After all, bondservants don’t expect to be served; rather they expect to serve.

Practically, the only way to maintain such a mindset is by being focused on serving the Lord. When your greatest desire is to the please Him, there is wonderful freedom from being an approval junkie. In the words of Jesus, those who lose their lives for His sake will find them. You don’t find life in the applause of others; you find it in the applause of heaven.

The rest of v. 19 helps us to see more of what this “humility” looked like.

Paul next mentions “the tears and trials which happened to me by the plotting of the Jews.” You will recall that Paul was forced out of the synagogue after about a three-month ministry there. In other New Testament writings, he speaks of the “beasts” that he fought in Ephesus. Paul had a difficult time there. In fact, it may even be that Jews had a hand in the Ephesian riot (19:33). Regardless, Paul suffered for the Lord as he served the Lord. He served the church and suffered for the church. And this was connected to his right estimation of himself.

Some would in fact translate the word “humility” as “humiliation.” The concept is certainly present. Paul was often humiliated in his ministry but he kept serving the Lord because of this right estimation.

I have profound respect for pastors who persevere in the midst of great suffering, particularly suffering caused by the mistreatment of others. Those who joyfully persevere display a right self-estimation. If you do not have this then the hurts will turn to hates and the tears will morph into tantrums and even into tyranny. But when one sees himself as the beloved, saved and secured servant of the Lord, this will go a long way towards perseverance. But further, when the servant sees himself as a great sinner, this will temper his expectation as to what he should receive in this world. The sense of entitlement is a horribly debilitating vice. Servants, beware!

Don’t be surprised by suffering. Be sanctified by it.

Faithful—Speaking for the Lord

Paul not only served the Lord and suffered for the Lord but also spoke for the Lord. Of course, this was the primary way in which he served the Lord, and this is precisely why he suffered for the Lord! Speaking he served, and speaking he suffered.

Paul reminds these brothers that he “solemnly declared” the command of God for both Jews and Gentiles to repent and to believe (Acts 17:30-31). Specifically, Paul declared to all and sundry, that they are to exercise repentance toward God and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ. He was faithful to speak for the Lord; he was faithful to speak what the Lord told him to speak. This is no small task.

To preach the gospel is a glorious calling, but a difficult one as well, for even though the gospel is the greatest news on the planet, most do not see it this way. And the reason is because it is preceded by some really bad news and with some demanding requirements.

The bad news, of course, is that we are sinners; the good news is that God has provided a Saviour. The demanding news is that to have this Saviour requires that we confess the bad news about ourselves with a commitment to turn from this badness. The Bible calls this repentance.

But there is another piece of demanding news: We must turn from self and sin as we turn to trust Jesus alone for forgiveness and reconciliation. That comes across as bad news for those who want to trust themselves and their own worldview as to how to be right with God. And so, apart from the grace of God in granting such repentance and faith, the one proclaiming this becomes the object of ridicule, scorn and even persecution. In fact, the people called to proclaim the most relevant message on the planet are, by and large, deemed to be the most irrelevant. Nevertheless, like Paul, they must be faithful to do so.

Those called to serve the Lord by serving His church as leaders are called to the glorious and yet often risky task of speaking for God. Bruce Theilman has said concerning this ministry, “The pulpit calls those anointed to it as the sea calls its sailors. And like the sea it batters and bruises and does not rest. To preach, to really preach, is to die naked a little at a time, and to know each time you do it that you must do it again.”3 There is a lot of insight in that observation.

We need to flee the lie that evangelism is easy. Jesus warned, over and over, that to testify on His behalf will put you on a collision course with the world. One only needs to remember the crucifixion and how there the disciples failed in their testifying on His behalf. They forsook Him and fled. Identifying with Christ and His gospel is not always easy. But if we have a right estimation of ourselves then we will do it, come hell or high water—or hatred.

I understand that this passage has particular relevance to elders. Nevertheless, all of us are called to witness for Christ. We have been called to salvation and to serve the one who saved us. And a part of this service is to speak for Him. So, in spite of the unpopular nature of our message, speak up.

The Shepherds are to be Single-Minded

In vv. 22-24 we come across a rather remarkable and moving passage of Scripture. Paul says,

And see, now I go bound in the spirit to Jerusalem, not knowing the things that will happen to me there, except that the Holy Spirit testifies in every city, saying that chains and tribulations await me. But none of these things move me; nor do I count my life dear to myself, so that I may finish my race with joy, and the ministry which I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God.

(Acts 20:22-24)

Paul has just told these elders of his “tears and temptations” in service to the Lord, and now he reveals that he is ready for even more of them. As Barclay notes, “What lay ahead he did not know, but he knew that he must face it and he knew that he could face it.”4

Truly Paul was indefatigable when it came to his service for the Lord. In fact, this passage once again highlights just why he put up with what he put up with! In a word, Paul was singleminded. He was single-minded about his service to the Lord. He was a living example of what it means to be a devoted bondservant of Jesus Christ.

Paul tells them in vv. 22-23 that he is compelled in his spirit to go to Jerusalem, though he is fully aware that difficulties await him. Without digressing I want to simply highlight that Paul was a Spirit-filled man, and therefore when he said that he was going “bound in the spirit” he was testifying that this was God’s will for him. “Both compulsion and warning were evidently involved in the Spirit’s direction, with both being impressed upon Paul by the Spirit at various times as he journeyed—probably through Christian prophets he met along the way.”5

Those who serve the Lord must not think that their life will be one of comfort. They must never plan on having a normal existence. If you are going to serve the Shepherd by shepherding His sheep, then count on a difficult life. Count on being criticised. Count on others trying to persuade you to avoid the difficulties. Count on those who, though well-meaning, nonetheless will do the devil’s work of seeking to detour you from the cross (Matthew 16:21-23). But also count on great joy!

Shepherds must be single-minded and because of this they are often misunderstood. They are often misidentified as “killjoys,” or as “strict,” or as “unreasonable.” But it is awfully hard for someone to adopt the comfortable reasoning of others when they are convinced of a higher reasoning: the revelation of God. God’s Word makes you different and often God’s Word makes shepherds look strange. But that is par for the course. That is just how it is. Shepherds are different. And sometimes this means that shepherds are despised.

I love Paul’s resolve as articulated in v. 24: “none of these things move me.” Paul was indomitable and unmoveable. Literally, this phrase means “I don’t even take this into account.” As Harrison observes, “He was ready and willing to lay down his life if need be. But he could not come to terms with the idea that he should stop short of finishing the race and completing the task God had given him. . . . The ministry he had received from the Lord Jesus was a sacred trust, so He alone must determine how it should be conducted and when it should be concluded.”6

Paul paid no heed to the bottom line when it came to what it cost him to serve the Lord. That is a powerful testimony.

I fear that far too many men are too calculating when it comes to what it will cost them to serve the Lord. They seem to misunderstand what the Lord meant when He calls us to count the cost. Jesus never meant that we should calculate the pluses and minuses. What he meant was for us to see that, in the end, there is really no cost to serve Him. He paid the price and we enjoy the benefits. What an insult to our Redeemer if we calculate the cost of our time, treasures and talents and then turn down the opportunity to serve Him. God forbid!

Shepherds know that they really are shepherds when, after counting the cost, they respond with David Livingston who said (on more than one occasion), “Sacrifice? It was never a sacrifice to serve the Lord.”

Paul went on to say that he did not hold his soul precious to himself. He was willing to die for the Lord Jesus. He was willing to lay down His life because Jesus had other sheep that needed to be reached. Paul’s supreme desire was to hear, “Well done, good and faithful servant; enter into the joy of your Lord.”

Imagine yourself as one of the elders hearing these words. I would imagine that you would be motivated to a new zeal as a shepherd of God’s flock. Well, you were not there, but you do have these words recorded for you. So let me ask you—whether you are an elder or whether you aspire to be one or whether you have no such desire—are you not challenged to serve the Lord more single-mindedly and with more abandon? This is where joy is found. This is why you were created and why you were then recreated in Christ Jesus.

Paul learned by experience that his ministry of testifying the grace of God required the grace of God, and by the grace of God he experienced this! So can you.

The Shepherds are to be Sincere

Finally, we learn in vv. 25-27 that shepherds are to be sincere. Paul continues,

And indeed, now I know that you all, among whom I have gone preaching the kingdom of God, will see my face no more. Therefore I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all men. For I have not shunned to declare to you the whole counsel of God.

(Acts 20:25-27)

The word “sincere” drives from a word which means “without wax.” It was used to describe a piece of china that had passed the test of not having flaws that were hidden, literally, by wax. To be declared “sincere” meant that, when held up to examination, there was no fault exposed. It carried the idea of integrity. This is precisely the kind of ministry that Paul had in Ephesus. He gave of himself one hundred percent. He could therefore claim that he was innocent of the blood of all men. Paul fulfilled the ministry that the Lord gave him. Those called to serve are called to the same level of sincerity.

Paul brings the first part of his speech to an end by telling them that he will not see them again. He had some good reason, I am sure, for saying this, and indeed he would be proven correct.

Paul reminds them of his faithful ministry of proclaiming the kingdom of God (like His Master—Mark 1:15, etc.). And because of this faithfulness he can boldly say, “I am innocent of the blood of all men,” because he had not “shunned to declare to you the whole counsel of God.” “He was as concerned to reach the whole population of Ephesus as he was to teach the whole purpose of God. He wanted to teach everything to everybody! . . . He shared all possible truth with all possible people in all possible ways. He taught the whole gospel to the whole city with his whole strength.”7 He served as a faithful watchman (see Ezekiel 3:16-27).

I doubt this means that Paul expounded every verse of the Old Testament, but he was faithful in declaring all that was connected to the kingdom of God; all the facets of the gospel message on which they could build their lives. And he did it so faithfully so that if anyone in that region failed to respond favourably to the gospel then the blame was entirely their own.

As we bring this study to a close let me apply some important lessons.

First, with particular reference to the eldership, we must take the example of this servant of God to heart. We are called to serve the Shepherd as shepherds of His sheep. To do so fruitfully we must inculcate the lessons from this servant. We must be faithfully focused servants. We must be willing to suffer. We must be willing to speak. We must be sincere.

Second, let me appeal to you, the congregation, to try and understand the hearts of your shepherds. Understand what we are called to do and support us in this—for your good and ultimately for God’s glory.

Finally, though you may not be an elder, and though you may never be an elder, you are nevertheless called to serve the Lord. There is much that we can learn from Paul’s life in this regard. Paul was a fruitful servant of Christ and so we would be wise to emulate example. As he told the Corinthians, follow him as he followed Christ (1 Corinthians 4:16; 11:1).

Show 7 footnotes

  1. Charles R. Erdman, The Acts: An Exposition (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1966), 156.
  2. A. T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament, 6 vols. (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1930), 3:347.
  3. John F. MacArthur, Jr., James: The MacArthur New Testament Commentary (Chicago: Moody Press, 1998), 150.
  4. William Barclay, The Acts of the Apostles: The Daily Study Bible Series (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1955), 166.
  5. Richard N. Longnecker, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 12 vols. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan 1981), 9:512.
  6. Everett F. Harrison, Interpreting Acts: The Expanding Church (Grand Rapids: Academie Books, 1986), 333.
  7. John R. W. Stott, The Message of Acts: The Bible Speaks Today (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1990), 328.