Acts 20:17-38 (click to display NIV text)
May 6, 2012
Pastor Dwight A. Nelson
The final chapters of Acts show us Paul at a time in his life when things changed for him. In his final days he lost his freedom. He was not able to carry out his calling by traveling city to city, proclaiming Christ in synagogues and public places and house to house. Now, at the end, he spent his days in Roman prisons, and when he traveled, he was being taken places that others had determined he should go. This narrative about Paul speaks to us about our final segments of life. I do not mean just the time of our death. Our final days can last thirty years or longer, or they can be much shorter. They can begin with retirement, or they can come along unexpectedly at any time. This time of life is often accompanied by a loss of freedom that can be caused by illness or injury, by financial constraints, by a move to a different type of living situation, or by any number of experiences of loss. It is not just about how old you are.
For Paul, his younger years were marked by a sense of calling from the Lord. He had clear goals and worked towards them with a life of faithfulness, perseverance, and hard work. Always foremost in his mind was “the task of testifying to the good news of God’s grace.” He carried out his calling by preaching Christ to Jews and Gentiles, calling them to repentance and faith in Jesus Christ. He started churches, gave correction and guidance to them and developed leaders. All this he did in times of constant opposition and persecution.
Then, when he was getting older, he was arrested in Jerusalem, and from then on the Romans took control of his life. The Roman governor, Felix, put him in prison for two years without any charge against him. When Festus took over as governor, he could find no guilt in Paul and would have set him free, but Paul had appealed to Caesar earlier, so he was compelled to send him to Rome. There he is put under house arrest for a few years, and Acts ends. It is not known what happened to Paul, but many assume he was put to death when Nero became emperor.
Paul helps us to understand how to live “in Christ” in our final years. He is realistic in showing us that life will most likely not go as you have planned or you have wished. These are days when loss and grief often come your way. There is a constraint on your life. There are fewer opportunities. For pastors like myself, there comes a day when “no one will ask you to preach.” Nor will they ask for your advice or think you should write a book, or invite you to be in charge of something. You have to find new roles to play, new ways to express your heart, new ways to carry out a calling, to run a race. It is largely uncharted water for most.
Part of our “final days” is learning the necessity of saying “goodbye.” Luke gives us this beautiful account of Paul’s last meeting with the Ephesian elders, people he dearly loved. He would have liked to spend his last days with them. It was hard for Paul to “tear himself away” (Chapter 21:1). I think Paul was quite content with his circle of communities that he visited on his missionary journeys. But the Spirit compelled him to go to Jerusalem. That was the way God chose to get him to Rome. Ephesus was no longer part of his race to run. Paul had to say “goodbye” to the elders in Ephesus.
So this final time of our lives becomes one of letting go, of searching out new ways to serve, of hearing a new call from God or sometimes by wisdom knowing when to close a chapter and when to begin a new opportunity. Sometimes our new type of service is not what we would choose, but it is given to us by circumstance. Sometimes a form of service that may appear to be “less,” by human standards, is really “more” in the Lord. This time of life may allow us to focus on one thing deeply rather than running faster and faster to cover “many things.” It requires us to listen carefully to the Lord and to be especially aware of what we have to give.
As Paul entered this new time in his life he did not have a clear picture of what might be ahead (verse 22, “not knowing what will happen to me there”). And “The Holy Spirit warms me that prison and hardships are facing me.” He knew he was entering a time when his circumstances would not be of his own choosing. But he does not have to know all that will happen. He knows he is “in Christ” and that he will continue to serve Christ in his new circumstance. What he has developed in his faith in the past will serve him well in the new day.
In verse 19 Paul reflects on his experience. “I served the Lord with humility and with tears.” He did not waste the opportunity given in his younger years. Lina Sandell’s hymn says it well:
“In the springtime fair but mortal, in the day of fragile flower,
Christ is waiting at your portal, faithful through the passing hours.
Open now before the autumn sweeps the summer’s flowers away.
Open while the sun is shining, all too brief our earthly day.”
Paul served the Lord with humility and with tears. He never thought of himself as being bigger or more important that the calling. Ajith Fernando writes that means Paul identified with the people. He brought the Gospel house to house. He cared about their sorrows and struggles. Paul was also a teacher, and so he shared with the people everything that would be helpful to them. And Paul was a witness to the Gospel. He called people to repentance and faith and told them the whole will of God.
When he came into a circumstance where he was not able to do what he had been doing, the call was still in him. Because he cared deeply for them when he was free, he continued to care for them when he was in prison. He wrote letters. He welcomed guests. He spoke to the guards. He understood that his call was open ended. You never complete a calling to testify to the Good News of God’s grace. For Paul to live is Christ, so it is never just a task to complete and be on the something else. If you live Christ, then the call is always being completed, and there is always a new way to carry it out. Whether you are in a new place in life or whether you are constrained in some way, the Lord is able to shape the call, and to shape your response.
Then he says in verse 24, “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.” Howard Marshall writes, “He did not regard his own life as a precious possession to be held on to at all costs.” There is a way of thinking these days that tries to create heaven on earth, so that we try to do everything in our lifetime that exalts us, fills us, enriches us and pleases us. This self-exalting life is gained by refusing the call of God or neglecting to finish the race God has given to us. We hesitate to live fully for God because that might causes us to miss out on something. But when we live for “my enjoyment,” “my reputation,” “my reward” and “my standing” we discover that all of those are very fragile, very temporary, and they do not deliver on what they promise in the end. We are to live all our days to finish the race the Lord has called us to run.
Finally, Paul says in verse 35 that what matters in the final part of life is what you can give to others. Paul talks about how important it is to work with your hands, to make a living, even to be prosperous. But the focus of work is not on what we can make for ourselves, it is on what we can gain to help the weak. Howard Marshall writes that Paul invites the people to “stand under God’s blessing and also to stand under the command of the Lord Jesus Christ to give freely and to help the weak.” Generosity is at the heart of the final stage of life. If we spend our most productive years working to acquire other people’s silver, gold or clothing then we develop a life that will leave us empty at the end. But if we understand that our work allows us to give and help others, then we develop hearts of generosity that bear fruit in our last days.
When we develop generosity in life we receive the blessing of Jesus and we are filled. When we say “this is what I have earned by my labor” we do not point to a picture of a house or a car or a life of ease, but we point to a picture of children fed, missionaries supported, the poor cared for, a vital church. The picture is one of blessing rather than personal prosperity.
The picture that Paul shows us of final days in Christ is one of bread broken and wine poured out; it is a picture of the forgiveness of sin and life eternal through faith in Jesus Christ.