By the Rev Lachlan MacLeod *
Preached at Inverness communion, on Monday, 27th January, 1992, and abridged and edited.
Text:“(17) And from Miletus he sent to Ephesus, and called the elders of the church. (18) And when they were come to him, he said unto them, Ye know, from the first day that I came into Asia, after what manner I have been with you at all seasons, (19) Serving the Lord with all humility of mind, and with many tears, and temptations, which befell me by the lying in wait of the Jews: (20) And how I kept nothing that was profitable unto you, but have shewed you, and have taught you publickly, and from house to house, (21) Testifying both to the Jews, and also to the Greeks, repentance toward God, and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ.” Acts 20: 17-21.
WE shall consider especially the words at the beginning of verse 19, “Serving the Lord with all humility of mind.” We see in the chapter that the apostle Paul, when he came to Miletus on his way from Macedonia to Jerusalem, sent to Ephesus and called the elders of the church at Ephesus to meet him at Miletus. It was to those elders that he addressed the words of these four verses. The apostle had preached the gospel in Ephesus, and had much success in that city. He met, of course, with much opposition, but he met with that in almost every place. From these words, “Serving the Lord with all humility of mind,” we may notice first, the servant who is speaking, that is, Paul himself; secondly, his service, which was service to the Lord; and thirdly, the manner in which he served the Lord: it was “with all humility of mind”.
I. First, then, we may notice the servant. The servant is Paul himself. As to what he had been in the past, it is as Saul of Tarsus that we meet him first Saul of Tarsus, an enemy of the Lord and of His people. And this is true concerning everyone as they are by nature. The testimony of the Word of God is that all the children of Adam are God’s enemies, whose hearts are enmity to God. “The carnal mind is enmity against God: for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be” (Romans 8:7). This is the testimony of God’s Word with regard to yourself and myself in a state of nature. Saul of Tarsus showed his enmity to God by opposing the Church with all his might, and in doing so he was just fulfilling what the Saviour Himself had warned His disciples about, as we read in John, chapter 16, verses one and two: “These things have I spoken unto you, that ye should not be offended. They shall put you out of the synagogues: yea, the time cometh, that whosoever killeth you will think that he doeth God service.” This, then, is what Paul was doing, and he thought that he was thus serving God.
The Saviour went on to say, “And these things will they do unto you, because they have not known the Father, nor me.” As long as Paul had been in ignorance of the true God and Jesus Christ, he was opposed to the cause of Christ. He himself said, “I verily thought with myself, that I ought to do many things contrary to the name of Jesus of Nazareth. Which thing I also did in Jerusalem: and many of the saints did I shut up in prison, having received authority from the chief priests; and when they were put to death, I gave my voice against them. And I punished them oft in every synagogue, and compelled them to blaspheme; and being exceedingly mad against them, I persecuted them even unto strange cities” (Acts 26: 9-11). This had been his wicked attitude to the cause of Christ and to the early church.
Of course, when he was opposed to the church he was opposed to the Lord. If one is the enemy of the Lord’s people, one is also the enemy of the Lord Himself. Saul persecuted the church; he persecuted those who worshipped the Saviour and who were true believers. Then, when the Lord met him on the road to Damascus, He said to him, “Why persecutest thou me.” Paul had never persecuted Jesus in person, but the Saviour says: “Why persecutest thou me.” This means that what Saul did to the followers of Christ, he did to Christ Himself. This shows us also the unity that exists between the Lord and His people. They are indeed one: as we see in John, chapter 17, where Christ says, “That they all may be one as thou Father art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us, that the world may believe that thou hast sent me.” “One in us!” Here we see the unity between the Lord and His church.
When Paul was a leader in opposing the church, he was greatly feared by the church. In chapter 9 we read that when Ananias, a follower of the Lord in Damascus, was called by the Lord in a vision to go to Saul of Tarsus, he said, “Lord, I have heard by many of this man, how much evil he hath done to thy saints at Jerusalem.” This was true, as Paul himself later said again and again, and his evil-doing went on until, as we see in chapter 26, the Lord dealt with him in mercy on the road to Damascus.
Although Saul of Tarsus was going on in his wicked opposition to the church, the Lord had His eye on him in a special way all the time, for he was a chosen vessel. He belonged to the election of grace not only in the same sense as all the elect are, but also in the sense that he was chosen to be an apostle and an ambassador of Jesus Christ. When Ananias, having been told by the Lord to go to Saul of Tarsus, spoke to the Lord about how much evil Saul had done to the saints at Jerusalem, and had authority from the chief priests to bind all that called on the name of the Lord, he was told by the Lord, “Go thy way: for he is a chosen vessel unto me, to bear my name before the Gentiles, and kings, and the children of Israel: for I will shew him how great things he must suffer for my name’s sake.” He was chosen to preach the gospel and to proclaim the Lord’s name to the Gentiles; he was chosen to be the great apostle of the Gentiles, and to suffer much for the Lord.
It was no wonder that poor Ananias was taken aback when he was instructed to go to Saul of Tarsus, a man who would probably have been the last person that Ananias himself would have chosen. Who would have thought that Saul, the persecutor, would one day serve the Lord in the gospel of His Son? Who would have thought that Luther and Calvin and Knox, when they were in the Roman Catholic church and had office there, would be used by God in connection with a glorious reformation? The Lord is sovereign. “My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways, my ways, saith the Lord.”
This, then, is what took place with regard to Saul of Tarsus, now Paul the Apostle. He was called effectually by the grace of God, he was called to be an apostle, and he was made a servant of the Lord. It was as a servant of the Lord that he said of the Lord, “Whose I am, and whom I serve.”
II. Now, secondly, as regards Paul’s service, it was service to God; he was “serving the Lord”. It is the greatest honour to serve the Lord. In writing to the Hebrew believers he said, “And no man taketh this honour unto himself, but he that is called of God, as was Aaron.” Paul, speaking of his call to be an apostle, said, “Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle;” and in another place: “Paul, called to be an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God.” He had been called by God to this honour; he did not take it to himself.
In the service of the Lord there are conditions to be observed. When a man joins the armed services of the Crown, be it the Army, Navy or Air Force, he comes under certain conditions. It is the same in the service of the Lord.
The Lord says that His servants are to follow Him. “If any man love me, let him follow me.” He says, as it were, “Let him follow me in the service, let him follow me no matter where that may lead.” The believer is called to follow the Lord through good and evil report. The Lord says, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them and they follow me.” Much more must this be so for the man who is called to serve the Lord in the ministry of the gospel.
The Lord also says, as it were, “Let him follow me in obedience.” One of the first things that is drummed into a man when he joins one of the services is obedience. The soldier has to carry out the order even although he cannot see the reason for it. Major MacLeod, who was an elder in the old Free Church in Skye, was at a question meeting in Raasay when some of the men were refusing to get up to speak to the question. When Major MacLeod was called he sprang to his feet and said, “We were trained to be obedient.” So, in the service of the Lord, one has to be obedient. It is one of the first rules in any service, and it is certainly of primary importance in the service of God. “To obey, is better than sacrifice” (1 Samuel 15:22).
Then there is this condition: self-denial. “Let him deny himself.” The disciples left all and followed Christ. Peter said, “We have left all and followed thee,” and Matthew “left all, rose up, and followed him,” that is, Christ. The servant of the Lord must be prepared to put the Lord and His cause first. “Seek ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you.” Of course, all believers must do so, but it is a call especially to those who serve the Lord in the ministry of the gospel of His grace. They are not to consider so much what will suit themselves, as what the Lord would have them to do. “Lord, what wilt thou have me to do?” was the question of Paul himself. And the promise of the Lord is,
the way that thou shalt go;
And, with mine eye upon thee set,
I will direction show” (Psalm 32:8, metrical).
Another requirement in the service of the Lord is faithfulness. The servant must be faithful to the Lord. The Lord’s servants are “stewards of the mysteries of God. . . Moreover it is required in stewards, that a man be found faithful” (1 Corinthians 4:1,2). The servant of God must be faithful to God by being faithful to His Word; faithful in declaring the whole counsel of God. Paul was able to say to the Ephesian elders, “I have not shunned to declare unto you all the counsel of God.” He was given a commission, and he kept nothing back. He was called to preach the Word of God, and he was faithful to that charge. Also, he could appeal to these witnesses from Ephesus that this was true. They knew full well that he had declared all the counsel of God. In our own day it is of vital importance that the ministers of the Word would be faithful to the Word, and not shun to declare the whole counsel of God.
Furthermore, ministers are to be faithful to those to whom they are sent. They are to be faithful to the souls of sinners, no matter how unpalatable to sinners may be the doctrine which they have to preach. The servant of the Lord is to preach the whole counsel of God, “whether they will hear, or whether they will forbear”. How necessary it is to be faithful to the souls of sinners.
John the Baptist, for example, was faithful to both the Word of God and to those to whom he was sent. Think of how faithful he was to King Herod. I am sure Satan would have been saying to John, “Don’t say to Herod that he should not have his brother’s wife. He will kill you.” Ah, but John the Baptist knew a higher authority than Herod. John the Baptist was under orders, as it were, to preach all the counsel of God, and to preach it to all to whom he was sent to King Herod as well as to the rest. And he was faithful to his commission. Of course, we know that cost him his life, but he was not the first, and he was not the last, to lose his life for speaking the truth and preaching the counsel of God. Cain murdered his brother Abel, and it was in connection with the truth and the worship of God that he did so. The fact of the servants of the Lord having to put up with opposition in being faithful has a long history.
Paul was faithful also to all to whom the Lord had sent him. In Ephesus he was “testifying both to the Jews and also to the Greeks, repentance toward God, and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ.” He was able to say to the elders of Ephesus, “Wherefore I take you to record this day, that I am pure from the blood of all men. For I have not shunned to declare unto you all the counsel of God.” Faithfulness, then, is of the greatest importance in serving the Lord. Ministers are not called to be popular this is not one of the conditions in the service. They are not even called to be successful, although, of course, they would like to be successful. They are called to be faithful. “Be ye faithful unto death, and I will give you a crown of life” this is the command and promise which the Lord gives to all His servants.
There is another promise given to His servants: “If any man serve me, him will my Father honour.” The servants of the Lord need not look for honour from the world. The world certainly gives honours to some who profess falsely to be the servants of the Lord. The closer these servants keep to the world, and the more they associate with the world, the more they will be honoured by the world. But the servant of the Lord is to come out from the world, and to be separate from it; and he is to be faithful in rebuking it. And when he does so, the world will not honour him. The world will love its own. The Saviour said, “Marvel not, my brethren, if the world hate you.” This hatred of the world to the Lord’s servants is seen throughout the history of the church. Although the faithful servants of the Lord will not be honoured by the world, they will not be without honour. They will surely be honoured. The promise is: “…him will my Father honour,” and this is the honour that they desire and seek.
They will be honoured by the Father even in this world itself. He honours them with His presence and favour, and fellowship with Himself. This is the highest honour; this is what they want above all else. Therefore their prayer is:
which thou to thine dost bear;
With thy salvation, O my God,
to visit me draw near” (Psl. 106:4, metrical).
He honours them in their work. He helps them, and that is an honour. He gives them His presence, and honours them with the unction of His Spirit, on occasions at least. This is a great blessing; it is the blessing they need, and it is the blessing they desire. The Lord honours them by enabling them, by His Spirit, to understand His Word; this is another honour that they seek.
And they will be honoured by being rewarded. The Word of God says, “Your work shall be rewarded,” and again, “Whatsoever ye do, do it heartily as unto the Lord, and not unto men, knowing that of the Lord, ye shall receive the reward of the inheritance, for ye serve the Lord Christ.” They shall be rewarded, and great shall be their reward in heaven.
The Lord’s servants will be honoured at last when they will be welcomed home by the Lord Himself; and welcomed with the commendation, “Well done, good and faithful servant, enter thou into the joy of thy Lord.” Who can estimate the honour of entering into that joy? And they will be entering into the joy of the Lord to all eternity: entering in, entering in, entering in.
III. Thirdly, we notice the manner in which Paul served the Lord. It was “with all humility of mind.” This too is absolutely necessary, in the service of the Lord. Humility is something that we do not have by nature; we are all proud creatures; this is part of the sin that is in our nature. Certainly, some are more proud than others, but we are all proud, and it is only the Lord Himself who can give us true humility. There can be a feigned humility. The Pharisees often had that. And the Pharisees of our own day have a feigned humility, an outward show to impress their fellow men, as they try to act humility while their heart is as proud as ever. Such a heart has not been humbled by the Lord. President Edwards, in his work On Religious Affections, says that humility is “one of the most essential things pertaining to true Christianity”, and that the most able hypocrite cannot be humble. Although he feigns it he cannot do so convincingly. He “commonly makes a bungling work of it”, says Edwards. That is true, I believe, because the humility of the Lord’s people is not just outward. It is inward especially. It has its root in the heart; it has been planted there by the Lord, and it will last. But feigned humility is an insult to the omniscient Jehovah, who tries the reins of the children of men, and who knows all things. God is not mocked. He knows whether humility is true or feigned.
Now, whether we are ministers, or elders, or communicants, this is how we should be seeking to serve the Lord: “with all humility of mind”. What reason we have to be humble when we think of what we were at one time, when we were going astray. And when we think of what we are even now, with regard to our sins, faults and shortcomings, we ought to take a low place before God. Also, when we think of how dependent on God we must be for wisdom day by day, have we not great reason to be humble? We lack wisdom. The apostle James says, “If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally and upbraideth not, and it shall be given him” (James 1:5). Those who are taught from heaven realise their need of wisdom. The older they grow, the more conscious they are of their need of wisdom for everything.
What reason we have to be humble when we think of how dependent we are on the Lord for His keeping. The prayer of the Lord’s servants is that they would be upheld and kept. “Hold up my goings in thy paths, that my footsteps slip not.” “Keep my feet from falling, keep my eyes from tears, keep the door of my lips.” The older the believer gets, the more conscious he is of his need of being kept. He knows that he has nothing but what he has received, and that his preservation is all from the Lord. He knows that he has no reason to be proud but much reason to have “all humility of mind”. When he thinks of all these things, he sees how far short he comes in being humble, but he knows that the Lord knows all things.
Paul knew the Lord, and Paul knew also that the Lord knew him. Because of this, Paul had much humility of mind. This fact is shown by the sense of his own unworthiness which he had. He described himself as the chief of sinners. He also said, “I am the least of the apostles, that am not meet to be called an apostle.” Later on we find him coming even lower when he said that he was “less than the least of all saints.” He could never forget what he was: and we ourselves should not forget what we were. Paul was being kept humble by the Lord in not being allowed to forget what he had been, for he said, “I am not meet to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.” Paul could not forget that he was a blasphemer, a persecutor and an injurious person, and the remembrance of it had a humbling effect upon him.
Paul, then, was enabled by grace to serve the Lord with all humility of mind. This fact comes across also in his giving all the glory to God with regard to success in the ministry of the gospel. He said about the ministry of himself and his fellow ministers, “Not that we are sufficient of ourselves to think anything as of ourselves; but our sufficiency is of God.” There we see humility. Happy is the servant who attains to this:
but do thou the glory take
Unto thy name, even for thy truth,
and for thy mercies sake” (Psl. 115:1, metrical).
Paul was kept humble by the Lord, in mercy. The Lord was showing him the corruption that yet remained in him. Romans chapter 7 shows that he had such views of that corruption that he had to cry, “O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death.”
He was also given a thorn in the flesh. We do not know what it was, but we know why it was given. It was to keep him from being exalted above measure, for he said, “And lest I should be exalted above measure . . . there was given to me a thorn in the flesh.” The thorn in the flesh was a blessing to Paul; it kept him from destroying himself, it kept him low. And what a blessing it was to the church of God also. I was thinking that Paul in heaven, in praising the Lord for all the blessings that he received in this world, will, I believe, be praising the Lord to all eternity for the thorn in the flesh which kept him from being exalted above measure a thorn that was blessed to him so that it helped him to serve the Lord with all humility of mind.
In connection with the thorn in the flesh, we know the precious promise that Paul got from the Lord: “My grace is sufficient for thee, for my strength is made perfect in weakness.” We leave that promise with you in Inverness today. Whatever your burden may be, or however great, and whatever your difficulty may be, the Lord knows it. No matter how difficult your situation may be, this is what the Lord is saying to you who are one of His people, “My grace is sufficient for thee; for my strength is made perfect in weakness.”
Well, may it be given to us to serve the Lord in this way. May it be given to us as a church, and as ministers and elders in particular, to serve the Lord with all humility of mind. May the Lord add His blessing.
*Minister of Uig congregation (1953-65), Greenock congregation (1965-1993), and now retired in Dingwall.