Of the eight speeches by Paul detailed by Luke in the book of Acts, the address in Acts 20 to the Ephesian elders is the only pastoral one. In fact, it is the only public discourse recorded in Acts that is addressed to a Christian audience—which clearly indicates how purposeful and proactive the early church was in reaching out to the unbelieving world with the gospel! And even as Paul reviews his ministry and message with the elders from Ephesus, he makes it plain that evangelism is still his great priority.

Serving the Lord

As Paul opens his exhortations to these fellow-laborers, he reminds them of the manner of ministry he has consistently exampled for them, “serving the Lord with all humility” (Acts 20:19). What a helpful re-centering even this simple statement provides! Christian ministers are not primarily called in order to serve themselves, or the community, or even the church. They are called to serve Jesus Christ as their Lord.

The same is true, of course, of every Christian believer. Every saint is described as and called to be a servant of Christ. Jesus himself tells us, “If anyone serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there will my servant be also. If anyone serves me, the Father will honor him” (John 12:26). Paul exhorted the believers in Colossae , “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ” (Colossians 3:23-24). And Paul told the believers in Thessalonica the way he knew they were God’s elect is that they had received the gospel and “turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God” (1 Thessalonians 1:9).

Paul is himself a leader—in fact, in Acts 20 he is a leader of leaders—yet he clearly sees himself first as a servant. The first quality he highlights for the Ephesian elders is that of humble service. It is difficult to speak of one’s one humility effectively, as Paul does here – unless of course, it is so unmistakable and undeniable that it is plainly true! Paul is primarily speaking in context of humility in relation to Christ. Paul’s life had been so submitted to Christ, so utterly at Christ’s disposal, that none would deny that he had served the Lord with humility.

Yet, as Paul himself will go on to illustrate, humility toward Christ results in humility toward others. In fact, it led Paul to think of himself as being indebted to others, for Christ’s sake. He asserted to the church at Rome that this is why he felt a burden to minister there as well: “I am under obligation both to Greeks and to barbarians, both to the wise and to the foolish. So I am eager to preach the gospel to you also who are in Rome” (Romans 1:14-15).

Is there any people or group that you don’t see yourself indebted to for Christ’s sake? Paul saw himself as being indebted to share the gospel with the educated and uneducated, with those of his same ethnicity and those with whom he had nothing in common naturally. He saw himself as a humble servant of Jesus Christ, and therefore as a humble servant of the gospel to all peoples.

Keeping Back Nothing

Paul practiced a no-holds-barred ministry. He kept back nothing!

Would it cost him emotionally and physically? Paul was willing to labor faithfully “with tears and with trials.” This was not a silly weepiness—Paul experienced real sorrow and pain, real joy and victory, and real empathy and love as he served his Lord and others for his Lord. Jesus made it clear that there is no following him without suffering for him. In verse 31 Paul describes his ministry in Ephesus as involving tears day and night, because of the urgency and importance of his message. This was not unique to the challenges in Ephesus. Paul wrote to the Corinthians “out of much affliction and anguish of heart” and “with many tears.” To the church in Philippi Paul would warn, “Many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, walk as enemies of the cross of Christ” (Philippians 3:18).

In fact, if there are no tears in our day-to-day ministry—whether as a pastor, or an evangelist, or a husband, or a wife, or a church member—it might suggest that we do not have a proper appreciation of the seriousness of the work in which we are engaged.

This sense of urgency and importance is what led Paul not to hold back anything in his ministry, including any teaching that could be “profitable.” Of course, all truth is profitable, and therefore all the truth of God’s Word should be shared with others, whether we are pastoring or parenting, preaching publicly or discipling privately. And the necessary corollary is that we must be willing ourselves to receive a thorough, no-holds-barred ministry as well!

Testifying Repentance and Faith

Paul’s also describes his ministry in terms of an uncompromising message, that is for everyone. In other words, Paul was as thorough in the scope of his ministry as he was in his message and methodology. Paul was determined to be “testifying both to Jews and to Greeks of repentance toward God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ” (Acts 20:21). As John Stott helpfully summarizes, Paul “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.”

Paul’s ministry was characterized by a universal call to repentance toward God and faith toward Christ. This, of course, had already been displayed in Paul’s bold address to the pagans in Athens, in which he informed them that “God … commands all people everywhere to repent” (Acts 17:30). And of course, Paul’s message was in agreement with Peter’s, who had declared that “to [Jesus Christ] all the prophets bear witness that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name” (Acts 10:43).

It is striking and informative that while Paul in verse 21 describes his testimony in terms of repentance and faith, he calls the same message “the gospel of the grace of God” in verse 24. Clearly, in Paul’s mind, testifying repentance toward God and faith toward Jesus Christ as Lord was one and the same as testifying the gospel of God’s grace. And indeed it is, for as Paul had already preached in the synagogue in Antioch Pisidia, “Let it be known to you therefore, brothers, that through this man forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you, and by him everyone who believes is freed from everything from which you could not be freed by the law of Moses” (Acts 13:38-39).

The Christian message, which Paul proclaimed everywhere and to everyone, is that through Jesus believers are forgiven of sins and justified from all things—which we could never have accomplished by our own good works or law service. And so, like Paul, we have become—instead of servants to the law—joyful servants of Jesus Christ as our Lord.