When a church suffers unresolved problems, the resulting chaos can often be traced back to defective leadership. In this study of Paul’s farewell to the Ephesian elders in Acts 20, Alistair Begg uses the apostle’s life to illustrate three essential factors of effective biblical leadership: transparency, integrity, and urgency. These virtues aren’t a magic bullet against difficulty, though. Even a ministry that is open, consistent, Gospel-centered, and Spirit-led will still face challenges that require steadfast faith and perseverance.
Sermon Transcript: Print
Now, we’re going to read from the Bible in Acts chapter 20. And we of course are engaged in a mini-series. In the same way as we followed Jesus all the way to Jerusalem, we’re now following Paul all the way to Jerusalem. And we this morning, along with Paul, find ourselves in the port city of Miletus, and it is from Miletus that he sends for the leaders of the church in Ephesus.
So we read from Acts 20:17:
“From Miletus, Paul sent to Ephesus for the elders of the church. When they arrived, he said to them: ‘You know how I lived the whole time I was with you, from the first day I came into the province of Asia. I served the Lord with great humility and with tears, although I was severely tested by the plots of the Jews. You know that I have not hesitated to preach anything that would be helpful to you but have taught you publicly and from house to house. I have declared to both Jews and Greeks that they must turn to God in repentance and have faith in our Lord Jesus.
“‘And now, compelled by the Spirit, I[’m] going to Jerusalem, not knowing what will happen to me there. I only know that in every city the Holy Spirit warns me that prison and hardships are facing me. However, I consider my life worth nothing to me, if only I may finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me—the task of testifying to the gospel of God’s grace.’”
Let’s pray before we study the Bible:
Father, what we have not, give us; what we know not, teach us; what we are not, make us. For Jesus’ sake. Amen.
In the middle of the last century—which is quite a long time ago now, I recognize—the Church of England commissioned a report which I think was entitled “On the Conversion of the Church in England.” They had set out to discover what was really taking place within the parishes of the Anglican communion of churches. And in that report, very, very quickly they got to one issue, which is actually the issue before us in this passage—namely, the issue of leadership. And I quote from the report: they wrote, “Conditions … vary … from parish to parish: the … determining factor being, apparently, the personality of the incumbent. More particularly is this the case in villages where a spiritual leader can often make an astonishing difference.” Now, I want you just to hold on to that phrase for just a moment, that thought: “A spiritual leader”—and the adjective is, of course, crucial—“a spiritual leader can … make an astonishing difference.” Because although we are distanced from that report by many years and by a considerable amount of geography, and although a lot has changed since then, the strategic necessity of leadership hasn’t changed. And the church of Jesus Christ doesn’t progress beyond the spiritual progress of its leaders.
Now, every team has its captain or its equivalent. And although each member of the team is equally valuable, nevertheless, someone has to be the leader. Without a captain, a team finds itself losing direction, will often be absent the kind of discipline that is needed. The same is true in an orchestra: without a conductor, an orchestra forfeits coordination and often a meaningful sense of harmony. Actually, some of the orchestras I’ve heard with a conductor also have a distinct lack of harmony. But I won’t mention where they were, because you know them. And it certainly wasn’t the great orchestras. I’m talking more about school orchestras, and I shouldn’t have really mentioned it. But so that… I mean, we should say that the presence of a conductor does not necessarily guarantee harmony, but the absence of a conductor forfeits some measure of harmonization and coordination.
Well, that is obviously true in every area of life, and it is with God’s people. Jesus was the leader of a group of twelve individuals. There were others beside him. When he ascended to heaven, Peter became the leader of the apostles. The apostles then established leadership in the local church. Paul was very concerned, writing to Titus, that he would get the matters of pastoral ministry right in the place of his appointing, and part and parcel of that was the establishing of leadership. So it’s straightforward but important to recognize that without good leadership, chaos easily follows. And I think that it would be accurate to say that most unsolved problems in the life of local churches can be traced back to defective leadership. Most problems in local churches that have resulted in chaos can be traced back to defective leadership.
Now, we mention all of this by way of introduction because what we have in the verses that we read is essentially a lesson in leadership. We could look at it from a number of vantage points, but I think this fits the text as good as any. And between verse 17 and the end of the chapter, Paul first of all illustrates from his own ministry, and then he exhorts those who are the leaders in Ephesus, and then, in the end, he gives to them a word of benediction. Our time frame this morning allows us only to look at the first of these, which is essentially the illustration from Paul’s life, and I’d like to suggest to you three factors that are essential if we’re going to grasp the leadership of Paul and what he’s saying here to these leaders in Ephesus. Three words; if you get these, then you’ve got largely what’s going on. The first word is transparency, the second word is integrity, and third word is urgency. Transparency, integrity, urgency. And we’re thinking about the nature of effective biblical leadership.
Now, it ought to be obvious to us by looking at the Bible that these words are valid points upon which to hang our thoughts. I get the word transparency from his use of the verb to know, first of all in verse 18, where he says, “You know how I lived the whole time I was with you,” and then from his use of the same verb in verse 20, where he says, “You know that I have not hesitated to preach anything that would be helpful to you.” In other words, what he says is “You know how I lived, and you know what I said.” In other words, there was a transparency about his leadership.
And he has identified in writing to the Corinthians, or would do, that he along with his colleagues—and I’m quoting from 2 Corinthians 4—has “renounced secret and shameful ways; we do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God. On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God.” See this notion of transparency. “By proclaiming the Bible,” he says, “we are actually commending ourselves to every man’s conscience, and we do so in the sight of God.” Because the nature of the preaching and teaching ministry is such that the Spirit of God brings the Word of God home to the lives of men and women in a way that uncovers them and in such a way that can be undermined if there is not that transparency on the part of the one bearing the good news.
So we can summarize the summary: the manner or the matter of his living and teaching has been open and aboveboard. Nothing of the sneaky politician. Nothing of the dishonest salesman trying to sell you a car that he has painted up and made it look as though it is immaculate, knowing all the time that the floorboards of the car are rusted and hoping desperately that you won’t lift up the carpet, hoping that he can get you off the forecourt before you actually begin to look at it in detail. “Well, there’s enough of that going on,” says Paul, “and we don’t want to be part of that.” He has already confirmed in Timothy the very great importance of this transparency. You remember he says to him when he writes to him, “Timothy, I want you to watch your life and your doctrine closely. I want you to take care of how you’re living, and I want you to make sure that you are seeking by God’s help to close the gap between how you’re living and what you’re saying.”
Now, the transparency of Paul is obvious here insofar as these folks would be able to confirm what it was he was saying. So if you look again at verse 18, he says, “You know how I lived the whole time I was with you, from the first day I came into the province of Asia.” Now, remember that he spent some three years in Ephesus, probably as long here as he spent anywhere else. This wasn’t a flying visit. This wasn’t the arrival of a traveling evangelist who shot into town, enamored himself to the people, and then left again. No, Paul had been here routinely. He’d been here consistently. The people had been seeing him in the streets. They’d observed him, if you like, in the marketplace. They had had occasion, perhaps—some of them, at least—to have private conversation with him. And so they knew that when he said that he served the Lord with great humility, that he was actually telling the truth, that his life and his ministry was marked by humility, that he wasn’t serving himself, that he wasn’t selling himself, and that he’s humble enough and transparent enough to admit that he even cried about things and that tears were part of his life. So there’s no suggestion from Paul that the privilege that he enjoys of serving is something that is a picnic—that is, if you like, a walk in the park, as we might say—but it is actually that which has drawn from his own heart and from his own life tears. And, in the end of verse 19, the plots of the Jews who were so opposed to his declaration of Jesus had resulted in him being “severely tested.”
Now, let’s just pause for a moment and acknowledge the place of this transparency. And acknowledge too that with transparency comes vulnerability. And the vulnerability that comes is a vulnerability that anyone in any form of leadership knows. Whether the person is a schoolteacher, whether they are running an office, whether they are responsible for a lab, whether they are the captain of a sports team, whether they’re running a company, whatever it might be, if there is any attempt to be straightforward, aboveboard, to live one’s life, to be clear in what one says, then there is a vulnerability which makes us not only privy to the fact that people misunderstand but which makes us aware of misunderstandings and which puts us on the receiving end of false accusations.
You know that I keep a file of all kinds of materials, and have done for thirty years, and commend the idea to those of you who can never find anything. Of course, you could lose the whole file, I suppose. But just this morning, as I was thinking about this in reviewing my notes, I thought that I remembered something under “Leadership.” And I went and found it. And this was actually an advertisement put out by the Cadillac car company in the 1920s. Course, I wasn’t around to enjoy it in the first instance. Some of you perhaps will remember this. But the reason that I tore it out from, I think, an old Life magazine was because it bore the title “The Penalty of Leadership.” “The Penalty of Leadership.” And I’ll just give you a quick quote from it:
In every field of human endeavor, he [or she, I suppose] that is first must perpetually live in the white light of publicity. Whether the leadership be vested in a man or in a manufactured product, emulation and envy are ever at work. In art, in literature, in music, in industry, the reward and the punishment are always the same. The reward is widespread recognition; the punishment, fierce denial and detraction. When a man’s work becomes a standard for the whole world, it also becomes a target for the shafts of the envious few. If his work be merely mediocre, he will be severely left alone—if he achieve[s] a masterpiece, it will set a million tongues a-wagging.
And, of course, what the skill in the advert is saying is “And, of course, the Cadillac car is not mediocrity, and that’s why some people love it, and that’s why some people criticize it!”
Well, we understand that if we’re involved in leadership at all. And Paul addresses that in 1 Corinthians 4. And I want you to turn to 1 Corinthians 4 so that you can see just exactly how he handles this issue. And I apologize in advance for spending longer on my first point than on the remaining two, but you know that’s a pattern that I’ve developed over the years. First Corinthians 4. We could actually cross-reference this with 2 Corinthians 10, 11, and 12, where he defends himself against the accusations of the false apostles. But you get special credit for reading 2 Corinthians 10, 11, and 12 this afternoon. And if you do it, let me know, and I’ll send you seven books. (Was that a Sunday, huh?)
Anyway, 1 Corinthians chapter 4. So then… Incidentally, the end of chapter 3, you’ll need to notice, he is addressing the fact that people were polarized behind various leaders. Somebody said, “Oh, I’m really big on Apollos.” Somebody said, “I like Cephas better.” Somebody said, “Paul’s my main man.” And, of course, if you know that—if you’re a doctor in a practice and there are ten or a dozen of you in the practice, it’s not been unusual for you to be going along to pick up something of a lab sample and hear that the three people that are waiting to see you actually desperately wish that they were waiting to see your colleague. And that is part and parcel of leadership.
Now, he says in verse 2, “It is required that those who have been given a trust must prove faithful.” Not successful but faithful. So the real test of leadership is faithfulness. The real test of servanthood, which is the mark of leadership, is faithfulness—not the personality, not the style, not apparent giftedness, not ability, not influence, not notoriety, but faithfulness. So, he says, if faithfulness is the issue—and it is—“I care very little if I[’m] judged by you or by any human court.” Now, he’s not suggesting that he is above evaluation in his words or in his life by those whom he serves. Indeed, he recognizes that that happens. But what he’s saying is “I’m not going to allow my life, my preaching, my teaching, my leadership to be carried along on the roller coaster of emotional response to undue compliments on the one hand or undue criticism on the other. I don’t care whether I’m judged by you or by a human court; indeed, I don’t even judge myself.” He says, “I can’t even trust myself to make an honest assessment of what I’m doing.”
There’s tremendous transparency in that as well, isn’t there? There’s honesty in that. If we got with him, he said, “You know, when I preached in Athens on the Areopagus, I wasn’t even sure whether I was doing that because I loved the buzz that came from it or whether I was doing it because I wanted to be the servant of the Lord Jesus. I don’t even judge myself.” He says, “However, I can sleep at night.” Verse 4: “My conscience is clear. Of course, that doesn’t make me innocent. I’m not saying that I’m innocent,” he said. “I’m just telling you that I can sleep.” And then notice the key sentence: “It is the Lord who judges me.”
You see, the people who would call in question his leadership as he exercised it, they may look at him telescopically, they may look at him microscopically, but he recognizes that God puts him through the CAT scan of his gaze—that the omniscience of God gazes into the very core of his servant Paul. And so he says, “If God is the one who judges me and God has established a day when he will judge, I’m just gonna have to keep going for now, and I can’t be distracted by the adulation on the one hand or by the envy or the detriment on the other.”
Now, you think about this in relationship to leadership. Think about inept leadership in a company, in a team, in a school, in a church, and you will find that you can trace the ineptitude in large measure to somebody who has asked the question “Do I want to lead these people, or do I want these people to like me?” and he answered the question by saying, “I want them to like me.” And as a result of wanting desperately to be liked by everyone, he lost his ability to lead them. Because if the touchstone is always on approval ratings, you’re not gonna be able to function.
When I looked this week at the approval rating of our president, I was sitting in Starbucks reading the New York Times, and I said, “Oh, look, the president’s approval rating is slipping.” And then I thought, “I bet he hasn’t lost one wink of sleep. I can’t imagine him in the White House, punching his pillow, saying, ‘Oh, the dreadful New York Times approval rating! I’m down three points on’ whatever it is.” Not that he doesn’t care, but that that can’t be the determining factor in leadership.
Transparency brings vulnerability. That vulnerability leaves us open to all kinds of responses. And here’s the fundamental issue, both in terms of our attempt to criticize others or to be on the receiving end of undue compliments or criticism of others; it is this, and what Paul is saying is this: because our knowledge and our understanding of the facts is imperfect and it always will be imperfect, because that is the case, our criticism and our compliments will also be imperfect. So, in humility and love, God’s servant—Paul, in this instance—can’t allow himself to be knocked off balance by premature and imperfect judgments. And, of course, sadly, many reputations have been ruined and many local churches have been devastated by such premature judgments.
Now, we must hasten on. If transparency marks his leadership, secondly, it is marked by integrity. And this integrity comes across in the whole tone of what he writes, but particularly if you notice the phrase there in verse 20: “I have not hesitated,” he says, “to preach anything that would be helpful to you.” He uses the same phraseology—we’ll find it next week—down in verse 27: “I have not hesitated to proclaim to you the whole will of God.” Now, of course, this is a matter of transparency again. People could verify this. And what he is saying is he has not succumbed to the temptation, which is a real temptation on the part of those who teach, to trim their message so as to appeal to people’s tastes or to avoid people’s prejudices or to tickle people’s fancies.
If we are going to be honest stewards of the information provided us in the Bible, then our teaching of the Bible needs to be marked by this kind of integrity—the kind of integrity that Paul displays—so that when we come to a passage of Scripture in the course of events, as we’ve come to this issue this morning, we teach on the issue that is there, even though it may seem to imply something that is not implied, even though it may appear to convey something that is not conveyed, even though it may ruffle feathers in a way that was unintended.
The contrast, remember, he told Timothy in 2 Timothy chapter 4, was where false teachers would arise, telling people what their itching ears wanted to hear. Two Timothy 4:: “For the time will come when men will not put up with sound [teaching].” They say, “I don’t want to hear that.” But “instead, … they will gather around them…” They won’t go for no teaching; they will go for other teaching. And they will seek out teachers who will reinforce their views. “They will gather around them … teachers” who will tell them “what their itching ears want to hear.” So the test of a good teacher is whether the teacher tickles their fancy. The test of a good sermon is whether the sermon reinforces their convictions. And Paul says, “If our leadership has been marked by anything in the three years at Ephesus, it surely has not been representative of that kind of thing.” And that is why he warns Timothy, his young lieutenant, against it too.
Now, the point is straightforward: namely, that his preaching and his teaching to which he refers… You will notice: “I have not hesitated to preach”—the word is, there, “to declare in a public forum”—“anything that would be helpful … but [I] have taught you” (didaskalía, or didaché, from which we get didactic, our teaching ministry). “I … have taught you.” Notice, he has done it… “I’ve done it in the public arena, and I’ve done it also privately from house to house.”
In other words, there has been a comprehensive approach to his proclaiming of the good news in a way that is pure, in a way that is open, and in a way that is straightforward. It doesn’t matter where he was, in the public arena or in the private arena. If you met him in a market, you would get the same information. If he came to your house, he would declare the same truth. And it doesn’t matter if you come from the background of Judaism, which was his background, or if you came from the pagan background of Greek materialism. He did the same with any audience and in any context.
It’s tremendous, tremendous test in this, isn’t there? And his message he summarized there in verse 21. What has he been declaring to the Jews and the Greeks? Well, that “they must turn to God in repentance and have faith in our Lord Jesus.” If someone had come from one of his addresses and had said, “Did you hear Paul today?” and someone said, “Yes, I did,” they would have said, “Well, what did he say?”
He said, “Well, we’re supposed to turn in repentance towards God. We’re supposed to forsake our sins, and we’re supposed to trust in Jesus as our only Savior for the sins from which we are turning.”
“Oh,” says somebody else, “well, actually, I heard him preaching, and he was preaching about the gospel of God’s grace.” Look down there in verse 24: “The gospel of God’s grace.”
Somebody else said, “Well, I heard him… I came on him. He had a small group of people at the local market, and someone had asked him a question, and there he was telling them,” verse 25, “about the kingdom of God.”
“Oh,” said somebody else, “well, I had occasion to be invited over to somebody’s house for a dinner party, and there he was actually speaking,” verse 32, “the word of God’s grace.”
All of these are various ways of saying the same thing. And what people would have very quickly understood was this: no matter where you meet him, no matter when you hear him—big group, middle-size group, or small group—he eventually always gets to the same issue: the good news of the Lord Jesus Christ, the importance of repenting of sin and of trusting in Jesus.
Without any sense of self-assertion or self-aggrandizement, I say to you: that is why I have chosen to stick with the passage of Scripture rather than to give a talk about how we could all be better fathers. Oh, I need to be such a better father, and so do you. But I thought about it. I even sketched something out. And I said, “Oh, it’s going to depress me dreadfully, and probably everybody else. And we’ll all go home bemoaning the fact that the seven points, we only got one out of seven on a good day.” And I said, “That’s not what the men need. And after all, what do we all need? We need to turn in repentance towards God and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. Maybe there will be a father there for whom this is the great need, a father who is believing everything in his head but has not turned in repentance towards God and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.” That’s the message that needs to be proclaimed.
And that, of course, is the matter of integrity. Paul’s life and his ministry was gospel-centered in a way that needs to be true of the leadership in a local church if it is to maintain any kind of effectiveness for the kingdom of God. I would be happy to die having it said of me, “He kept coming back to the same thing.”
Transparency, integrity, and finally, urgency. Urgency. Notice verse 22: having said “You know… you know,” he then says, “There’s a few things that I don’t know.” He says, “[I’m] compelled by the Spirit”—this urgent sense of propulsion going forward towards Jerusalem. He admits to being completely in the dark about what will happen to him when he gets there. He goes on to say that, however, he has a clear sense, prompted in him by the Holy Spirit, that when he gets to these various places on his route, he’s not going to be enjoying a picnic, but there will be hard times and imprisonment to face him. And then comes this great defining statement that staggers me, and I hope it staggers you: “However,” verse 24, “I consider my life worth nothing to me…” “I consider my life worth nothing to me…”
This is not masochism. This is not some strange abhorrence of the physical frame. No, he was a tentmaker. He enjoyed his food. He said, “The kingdom of God is not about food and drink. It’s a matter about righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” He was a man’s man. He engaged in all these things. What does he mean, “I consider my life worth nothing to me”? Well, simply this: that he does not regard his life as a precious possession to be held on to at all costs, the way that you and I, if we’re honest, do.
We may have said to someone even this week, “Well, as long as you’ve got your health, that’s all that matters,” or “As long as you get your feet over the bed, that’s what counts,” or “As long as you’re vertical, you know, it’s a great day.” Well, of course, we know what we mean by that. But that is not all that matters. For our very frame is a dying frame. We’re crumbling even as we go. And unless we’re able to say with Paul, “To me, to live is Christ,” we cannot legitimately affirm with Paul, “and to die is gain.” The only way that death can be gain is if Christ is everything. And if Christ is everything, as Paul says it is, then he’s able to say, “The ultimate issue is not my life.” He has a sneaking suspicion that his life is going to be taken from him.
He says, “But I don’t count my life worth anything in the ultimate sense.” Here’s the answer. Look at the conjunction: “if.” If what? “If only I may finish the race, [if only I may] complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me.” In other words, “What matters most to me,” says Paul, “and this is a matter of compelling urgency, is that I actually finish what God started.” And leaving us in no doubt as to the task, he tells us there: “the task of testifying to the gospel of God’s grace.” Or we might paraphrase it: “the task the Lord Jesus gave me of letting everyone I meet know all about the good news of God’s amazing grace.” “Letting everyone I meet know all about the good news of God’s amazing grace.”
Well, there’s a task. There’s a purpose. There’s significance. There’s an urgent agenda. There’s your calling! For surely we share this with him. For is this not the task that has been entrusted to all of us: the task of letting everyone we meet know the good news of God’s amazing grace? His compulsion he refers to here is a compulsion by the Spirit. In 2 Corinthians 5 he says, “I am compelled by Christ’s love.” This is what gives him his urgency. In his urgency, he manifests an integrity—an integrity that is open to investigation on account of his transparency.
Well, how then would it be possible to have such leadership, to be that kind of leader? How are we to live transparent lives of integrity and of urgency, and that we might keep going to the end?
You know the great story of one of the pilgrims of old who was notorious for getting up early in the morning and going about his devotional routine and expending himself. And deep into his eighties somebody said to him, said, “You know, you’ve done a terrific job. You ought to just sleep in in the mornings. You don’t need to keep this going, do you? I mean, you’ve done your fair share. Let the younger people come up now.” And he replied, “Shall I not run with all my might, now that I see the finishing line in view?”
You see, those of us who are older and who are running need to run right through the tape. How can we? Well, we need to be gripped by Christ’s love and energized by God’s Spirit and guided by God’s Word.
Father, I pray that the word of Christ may dwell in us richly. I pray that the words of my mouth and the meditation of each of our hearts may be found acceptable in your sight. I pray that our local church may be as gospel oriented as was the life and leadership of the apostle Paul. Save us from cloak-and-dagger stuff, distortion, deception—secret, shameful ways. Save us in leadership from always wanting to shine or always wanting to whine or using our leadership as an opportunity to recline. Compel us, Lord, with a holy sense of urgency as time passes through our fingers.
And may the grace of the Lord Jesus and the love of God our Father and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit rest upon and remain with each one, today and forevermore. Amen.
 Towards the Conversion of England (Toronto: J. M. Dent, 1946), 3.
 See Titus 1:5.
 2 Corinthians 4:2 (NIV 1984).
 1 Timothy 4:16 (paraphrased).
 See 1 Corinthians 3:4–5.
 1 Corinthians 4:4 (paraphrased).
 1 Corinthians 4:4 (NIV 1984).
 Romans 14:17 (paraphrased).
 Philippians 1:21 (NIV 1984).
 2 Corinthians 5:14 (paraphrased).
 Charles Simeon to W. H. Mitchell, Cambridge, July 28, 1828, in Memoirs of the Life of Rev. Charles Simeon […], ed. William Carus and Charles P. McIlvaine (New York: Robert Carter, 1847), 364. Paraphrased.
 See Colossians 3:16.
 See Psalm 19:14.
Copyright © 2022, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.