Famous Last Wordsby Ed de la Cour on December 30, 2015
Acts 20: 25 – 32
December 27, 2015
“FAMOUS LAST WORDS”
The last words you will hear today might not be the most profound ever spoken, but I wanted to leave you with a few final thoughts to consider as I retire from active pastoral ministry.
When I began back in 1974, I was not well prepared for the work of the ministry. I did go to seminary but I took a degree in cultural analysis. I didn’t learn anything about the ministry and that lack of preparation was my fault. I was unprepared because I was proud and arrogant and unteachable. I thought I had all the answers and it was a considerable shock for me to discover how little I actually knew. My pride forced the hand of God in my life. God had to school me through a number of hard and painful experiences over the course of many years. His aim was to create in me enough humility to allow me to be useful in any way for the sake of the Kingdom. What I have to say grows out of those hard experiences of life.
It may seem easy enough to say this, but I would strongly encourage you to allow God to purge away your pride and selfishness as soon and as completely as possible. You can do nothing of eternal value in your own strength. Your abilities are far too small. Your intelligence is seriously lacking. Only your pride is strong. Weak ability plus small intelligence plus great pride is a formula for disaster. I would encourage you to give God ultimate authority over your life. Let God speak into your life. Listen to what He has to say, and then let nothing stop you from obeying Him.
A lot of folks think they know what God wants of them. They think they are hearing from God, but in the end their behavior and the lack of fruit in their lives demonstrates they were deceived. They consider themselves to be free spirits who cannot be tied down to one church. It may sound trite to say this, but God will never lead you away from His Word. He will never lead you away from His church. You need the church. You need the body of Christ. Jesus died for the church, and that is the strongest statement possible about what God considers to be important. Bill Hybels is right: “The local church is the best hope for the world.” The church of God, filled with and anointed by Holy Spirit, working together and committed to be obedient to God is an incredible force for blessing in our world.
In these few verses in Acts 20, Paul was saying good-bye to the leaders of the Ephesian church. It was not an easy farewell. Prophets had spoken clearly about what lay ahead for Paul and he was not ignorant of the risks he was taking. Still, he was determined to press on. Before he embarked on the last leg of his journey back to Jerusalem, Paul spoke briefly, and after they prayed together, he boarded the ship.
There are several points I’d like to make as I go. The first is that one of the saddest times in the life of any pastor is watching people wander away from God. Some folks wander, some drift away, and others slam the door on the way out. You deceive yourself if you think this is a minor problem. People will say, “I need a break from church. I am going for a walk. I’ll be back; I promise.” The number of spiritually disenfranchised people on Cape Cod alone is immense, and around the nation the growth in this segment of the population is staggering. There are several common factors found among those who leave the fellowship of believers. Although they attend church, they are not discipled to serve. They are consumers. They don’t take seriously the threat of the enemy’s action against them, and they do not believe that any consequences will be felt in their own lives.
If you want to stay strong in the Lord, then it is an absolute truth that you must remain in the Word and thereby stay rooted in Christ. In John 15: 4 Jesus said,“Remain in me and I will remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.” So many people who call themselves Christians make these poor decisions that prove to be fatal choices and their undoing. Sometimes I think people believe Jesus was joking when He said those words.
The next point is closely related. Paul cautioned his listeners to know that “savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock.” The wolf is a predator. The wolf lives and prospers off the death and destruction of those it hunts. You need to know that. In 1 Peter 5: 8, Peter warned his readers about the “roaring lion looking for someone to devour.” The lion is also a predator that feeds off the weaker animals it finds. It’s been pointed out that the word used for roaring lion meant the beast was toothless and roared because it had lost its ability to hunt. Nevertheless, that lion may be old, but he is still ferocious, still prowling, and is still destroying those who are not firm in their faith. Both the wolf and the lion know how to beat the system. They prowl, which means they are careful to avoid detection. They seek out the weak. They look for those who are wandering apart from the herd. Such are the easy prey and require little or no effort to take down.
In John 10: 10, Jesus warned about the thief who “comes only to steal, kill and destroy.” The thief is also a predator. The thief also prowls about looking for easy targets. He looks for homes that are unlocked and unguarded. The enemy of your soul looks for people who are lax in their walk with God. He looks for people who harbor bitterness and resentments and who won’t forgive. The thief is good at his job. Just like the wolf and just like the lion, the thief is not encumbered by ethics, not encumbered by a desire to play fair. There are no rules for a fair fight with a predator. Thieves, wolves, and lions are merciless. They are ruthless, unfair, and cruel. You need to be on your guard. You need to stay strong in your walk with God because that is the only way to stay spiritually alive.
Do you know why do pastors and those with a heart for the church pray so much? We know we are powerless by ourselves to keep you safe. We are desperate for the Holy Spirit to intervene and deliver you from the attack of your enemy. Some of us are very prone to being attacked because we simply do not take the necessary steps to grow strong. We are naïve and foolish and we are wide-open to attack. We even invite attack by our disregard for the Truth.
How would weekly participation in worship and daily attendance to Bible study and prayer help you? You’ll notice I said participating in worship, not just showing up. Taking part means a personal investment, not just coming to church to get your ticket punched. The Word of God is strong nourishment because scripture is God’s food for your soul. The Bible really is the breakfast of champions! When you read the Word, don’t simply read it and let the words drift by your eyeballs. Listen for what God is applying to your life and obey Him. When you pray, don’t just talk to God; listen to God. Let His voice direct your steps. Let His Spirit encourage you and give you His strength. Remember how David strengthened himself in the Lord when he was distressed. Remember that Jesus did not come to save you in order to drop you and lose you. He came to give you a life that is abundant and full. Please know it is not God’s will for you to succumb to weakness or to fall away from the truth.
The most important thing for you to take from this message is for you to take responsibility for your own walk with God. The pastor can point you in the direction of where to find food and water, but if you don’t learn how to feed yourself, if you cannot learn how to receive the living bread and the living water for your own life, you will not be able to survive in this jungle. You will fall prey to the wolf, or to the lion, or to the thief. The result will be the same.
Next, Paul urged his listeners to “keep watch over yourselves and all the flock.” Being part of a church is a great privilege but there is also a responsibility and you need to know that responsibility does not fall on the pastor alone, nor does it rest solely upon those in leadership. Learn how to keep watch over your own soul, how not to fall into the devil’s trap.
We have often spoken of the fact that one of the pictures in the Bible of the church is that of a family. A family is a group of people who are related by blood. In this case, you and I are related by blood because Jesus shed His blood for us. We are one family because of Christ. A family that functions well is a group of related people who care for each other. They watch out for one another because they love one another. A family will not sit back and watch one of its members fall apart without coming to the rescue. If you are part of this church, you are part of the family of God. Let yourself be a family member. In the family of God, we watch out for each other. We welcome one another. We forgive each other. We have mercy for the weak and the broken among us. Remember that God has called this church to be a safe harbor. As such, we react with such love because we know the strategy of the predator, how he seeks to attack and destroy the flock.
Paul also said in verse 29 that the wolves would “come in among you.” Those words allude to the particularly successful strategy of the wolf in sheep’s clothing. It’s a successful strategy because sheep that are not wise in the ways of God cannot believe that such a nice person could possibly be a wolf! The wolf is able to gain entrance into the church because he or she says the right words and makes all the appropriate spiritual sounds. It’s easy to learn the secret handshake! These wolves seem peaceful and very pleasant, but the effect of their lives over the long term weakens the resolve of those who are not strong. Paul spoke of them again in 2 Timothy 3: 5 - 6, as people “having a form of godliness but denying its power,” who worm their way into peoples’ homes and gain control over those who are weak. Remember what I said about pride. It does no good to insist that you are not weak and you can easily avoid the wolf in sheep’s clothing. You’re not as smart as you look.
Keep watch over each other. Be shepherds. Be aware of the plans the enemy has to take advantage of the weak, the lonely, and those who think they are too strong to fail. The shepherd knows the thief is on the prowl and that he cannot afford to sleep on the job. He has to be vigilant, but vigilance is very tiring. It is wearing to always be on the alert for wolves and lions and thieves. It is easy to find we are being lulled to sleep. That is why we are a fellowship of believers and why we are the family of God. We bear each other’s burdens.
In Men’s Ministry last week, we concluded our study in the book of Hosea. We were struck by the last verse on the book in Hosea 14: 9, which says, “Who is the wise? He will realize these things. Who is discerning? He will understand them. The ways of the Lord are right; the righteous walk in them, but the rebellious stumble in them.”
I encourage you to take Paul’s warning seriously – not just today because I am here to urge you, but to make it a priority for your life. Seek to be wise in God’s sight. Understand that while it may be fun to wander about and to play the games Satan places before you, you cannot play those games and win. You can only play and lose. People who insist on being rebellious have a destiny that is at once awful and at the same time clearly forecasted in Scripture. God has mercy for the arrogant. I know that to be true because God had mercy on me.
Here’s a hard truth you might not want to hear: You stumble constantly in your life, not because the obstacles are big, but because you want to stumble. It is not God’s desire that you be rebellious. God does not want you to stumble. But then, you insist that you will choose for yourself whom you will serve, and you persistently and stubbornly choose to be rebellious. In Hosea we see a reiterated word from the Lord that was repeated over and over in which God spoke to the sin of His people, identifying where they were wrong. He urged them to repent, but they were stubborn. Learn from the mistake of my pridefulness, and allow God to humble you, that in due time He may raise you up. God cannot use a prideful person.
The verse that speaks to what we are doing today is the last verse in the section we read, Acts 20: 32. It is with those words, and without further comment, that I leave you:
“Now I commit you to God and to the word of His grace, which can build you up and give you an inheritance among all those who are sanctified.”
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