Under the city of Rome, there are an estimated 600 miles of catacombs, where for about 300 years of the early church the Christians buried 3 or 4 million of their own, in and around the spaces where they themselves met to worship in secret while being heavily persecuted. In addition to the graves, though, there are also many inscriptions on the walls, including this one: “The Word of God is not bound.”
Here were generations of poor and persecuted people—who had to worship in underground tombs in order to escape annihilation—and yet their testimony was this: we have been shackled, we have been imprisoned, we have been martyred – but the Word of God has never been bound, never been restrained, never been chained up! And that is Paul’s confidence as well as he heads into certain, impending bondage at Jerusalem. In fact, the catacomb inscription is a direct quote from Paul’s final letter from prison in Rome, as he anticipated his own martyrdom: “I am suffering, bound with chains as a criminal. But the word of God is not bound!” (2 Timothy 2:9).
And here, in Acts 20, Paul has been living out his own instruction to the church at Ephesus—to “redeem the time”—by addressing the Ephesian elders one last time. Certainly, it is a special occasion. It was about a 30-mile trip for the elders to travel from Ephesus to Miletus, where Paul’s speech takes place — probably three days round-trip to traverse. Also, as Paul informs them, it is his last opportunity to be with them in this life. And, in addition to this, Paul seems to be (and the Holy Spirit certainly is) aware of a much bigger audience than just these elders.
Of the addresses of Paul recorded by Luke in Acts, this is the only pastoral one. In fact, it is the only speech in Acts to a Christian audience! And Paul concludes his exhortation to the Ephesian elders by commending them to God, thus encouraging each of us to commend and commit ourselves to God as well.
Paul suggests at least three reasons why throwing your life, your hopes, your decisions, your all upon God is always a good idea:
Because He Is Able
As Paul and the elders say their tearful, final goodbye, what is the strongest benediction Paul can leave them with? What is the greatest blessing he can pray for them? In Acts 20:32 he states, “And now I commend you to God and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified.”
Paul wants these Christian leaders, and every Christian, to know that the God whom he worships, and the word of God that he teaches, is sufficient for their every need. God, through his gracious word, is able — able to build you up, able to give you an inheritance among all saints. Nothing else, and no other person can do this.
God and the word of his grace is abundantly, explosively powerful. This is the same confidence which Paul sought to instill in the Corinthian church, reminding them that “the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds” (2 Corinthians 10:4).
Paul knew that the Ephesian Christians, as well as Christians today, would wrestle with a temptation not to rely on the sufficiency of God and his Word. So many of the extreme public relations stunts in which churches in the West are tempted to engage, in order to draw a crowd or to equip the saints, are unnecessary and unhelpful. God, and the word of his grace can build you up, Paul says — as a church body, or individually.
Paul had written to the Ephesian church: “You may be sure of this, that everyone who is sexually immoral or impure, or who is covetous (that is, an idolater), has no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God” (Ephesians 5:5). In contrast to all these sinful means of obtaining security and satisfaction, Paul points them to the God who is able to give them inheritance among those who are sanctified. And so he prayed for them, that “having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints” (Ephesians 1:18).
Paul contends that God is able, through his word, to sanctify you in preparation for a great inheritance. Rather than letting Paul’s words terminate in the Ephesian elders only, ask yourself if you believe them. Is this just a fancy, feel-good talk from a man who wants his friends to be comforted in his absence? Or is the glowing report of an open-eyed man of God who wants you to rest in the sufficient strength and wisdom of God and his Word?
Because He Is Worth It
In verses 33 to 36 of his Acts 20 address, Paul suddenly and unexpectedly turns from the subject of God’s sufficiency to his own legacy, beginning with the contention that “I coveted no one’s silver or gold or apparel,” and continuing with the admonition that they should minister to others as he has.
Why this return to himself as an example, at the close of his speech? Paul’s intention is not just to briefly resume exhortation, but to illustrate the surpassing value of Christ and his Word. He wants them, and us, to grasp the fact that not coveting men’s money or stylish clothing flows naturally from coveting the heavenly inheritance of the sanctified! There is nothing you can give up in the service of Christ that is not abundantly worth it. Paul has already proclaimed, “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” (Acts 20:24), and now he wants them to see that this includes not only martyrdom but daily self-crucifixion to all the things this world has to offer.
And this is why, Paul says quoting Jesus, that it is always in the service of Christ “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35). Although this truism from Jesus is not recorded anywhere in the Gospels, it is passed on to us by Paul so that we see the surpassing worthiness of Christ Jesus.
“God’s Word is able to sanctify,” Paul says in effect, “and I am a living example of its effectiveness because the word of God’s grace has killed my desire for worldly wealth and has replaced it with a yearning to reach out and minister to others.”
Because He Is Always With You
Whereas Jesus said, “I am always with you” before leaving his disciples, Paul while saying farewell admits that “I will never see you again.” Doubtless, it is for this reason that he then kneels and prays to the God who will always see them, will always continue to watch over them.
We do not have the words of Paul’s prayer recorded for us by Luke, but we may very well guess at its contents by remembering what he described as his ceaseless prayer for this church (Ephesians 1:17-21):
“Oh, God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, give to these brethren and this church the spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of Christ: enlighten their understanding; that they may know the hope of Jesus Christ’s calling, and the wealth of the glory of his inheritance. And, Lord, open their eyes to be able see what is the super-abounding greatness of Christ’s power toward us who believe, according to the working of Your mighty power, which You worked in Christ, when You raised Him from the dead, and seated Him at Your own right hand in Heaven, far above all government, and power, and dominion, and every name that is named — not only in this world, but also in the one that is about to come.”
This contention of Paul — that God is able to build up through his Word, that Christ is worth whatever it will cost to serve him, and that God is always with us and available to us through prayer, was not a theoretical thing for Paul. It was a confidence he would literally seal with his life, declaring boldly, “I am not ashamed, for I know whom I have believed, and I am convinced that he is able to guard until that day what has been entrusted to me” (2 Timothy 1:12).
May we believe Paul’s confident assertion ourselves, and follow Paul’s admonition to selflessly, courageously, soberly serve Christ so that we also finish our course joyfully.
Charles Spurgeon’s last sermon, from the pulpit of the Metropolitan Tabernacle, was preached on June 7, 1891. And so his last public words were these, which echo beautifully Paul’s testimony:
“Every man must serve somebody: we have no choice as to that fact. Those who have no master are slaves to themselves. Depend upon it, you will either serve Satan or Christ. Either self, or the Savior. You will find sin, self, Satan, and the world to be hard masters; but if you wear the uniform of Christ, you will find Him so meek and lowly of heart that you will find rest unto your souls.
He is the most noble of captains. There never was one like Him among the greatest of princes. He is always to be found in the thickest part of the battle. When the wind blows cold He always takes the bleak side of the hill. The heaviest end of the cross lies ever on His shoulders.
These forty years and more have I served Him, blessed be His name! and I have had nothing but love from Him. I would be glad to continue yet another forty years in the same dear service here below, if so it pleased Him.
His service is life, peace, joy. Oh, that you would enter on it at once. God help you to enlist under the banner of Jesus even this day.”