If you knew that you would never see your friends and your family ever again and you had one last time to say goodbye to them, what would you say? I am fairly certain that no one in this situation would choose to talk about the weather or politics or sports, even though we all spend a great deal of time talking about these things in our everyday lives (especially during football season). I am confident that on this kind of occasion, we would want to talk about something far more important and far more enduring.
The same was no doubt true for the Apostle Paul. In Acts 20:17–38, Paul faced saying goodbye to the elders of the church in Ephesus, men whom he loved dearly and who loved him dearly in return. We know that these elders loved Paul because they willingly traveled down from Ephesus to see him in Miletus, which would have been a journey of about thirty or forty miles. Now for most of us, that kind of journey would not seem like a tremendous burden. We regularly travel that far, or maybe even farther, to go to work or school. But these men were not driving. More than likely, they walked, and it likely took them two nine-hour days to cover that distance. That would be like you and me driving from Atlanta to Portland, Maine. And these men willingly did this in order to spend what was probably just a few hours with Paul, only to then turn around and travel home again. The fact that these men were willing to go to such lengths to see Paul for a relatively short period of time indicates that they must have loved him tremendously. Not only had Paul planted the church in Ephesus, but he had also stayed on for nearly three years ministering to the people and helping to establish the fledgling congregation. It is no great surprise, then, that these men were saddened to the point of tears when they learned that they would never see him again (vv. 37–38).
Acts 20:17–38 records for us Paul’s final words to these men. In reading them, we can see that something far more important and far more enduring than the weather or politics or even sports was on his heart and mind. Paul was concerned about Christian leadership, the kind that the Lord uses to build the church and to reach people with the gospel. Specifically, Paul was concerned about those traits that ought to characterize Christian leadership. While I do not have the time to discuss every trait that Paul mentions in this passage, I would like to focus in on one overarching trait that Paul highlighted.
But before we get to that trait, I would like to draw attention to the fact that Paul obviously believed that building a church and reaching a community with the gospel involves more than just one or two individuals. It involves a team of committed leaders who are invested and willing to sacrifice their time, talents, and treasure in the process. We see this in verse 17, when Paul called the “elders” (plural) of the “church” (singular) to come to him at Miletus and then challenged them to “pay careful attention . . . to care for the church of God” (v. 28). Paul apparently believed that if the Ephesian church was going to grow and reach the city of Ephesus, it would be because there was a committed team in place that was willing to work, sacrifice, give, and invest themselves. And the same is no doubt true today.
The one overarching trait of Christian leadership that Paul highlights in this passage can be seen in verse 18. Paul says, “You yourselves know how I lived among you the whole time from the first day that I set foot in Asia.” His point in this verse seems to be that Christian leadership is always transparent. The Ephesian people knew Paul. They knew him from the very beginning of his ministry among them. They knew him in the good times, and they knew him in the bad times. They saw him struggle. They saw him experience success. They saw him rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep. They saw him endure trials and face persecutions and respond with joy in Christ through them all. That seems to be the whole point of verse 19. Paul lived his life transparently before the people, and the result was that they knew how he had lived the whole time that he was among them.
It is oftentimes said that ministry is like living in a fishbowl: everything we do and every decision we make is on display for everyone to see. And when we say this, we usually mean it negatively. But Paul is saying here that that is exactly the way ministry ought to be. How else are we going to have an impact? God gives elders, and Christian leaders in general, the great privilege of living in a fishbowl and having every action and decision scrutinized. It is the opportunity to allow people to see us struggle for joy through the ups and downs of life. It is an opportunity for them to see that for us “to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Phil. 1:21). That is the way Paul lived among the Ephesians, and that is the way he encourages the leaders of the church to live as they follow his example.
In saying this, however, we must also acknowledge that transparency brings with it vulnerability. And if we do not handle that vulnerability well, it will lead us either to put up walls and to close ourselves off from others or to quit the ministry out of discouragement. John Piper has helpfully drawn a parallel between ministry and living in a hall of mirrors, the kind that used to be so popular at town carnivals. You look in one mirror, he says, and you are short and fat. You look in another mirror, and you are tall and thin. You look in yet another, and you are completely upside down. Piper says that is what the vulnerability of ministry is like. You look into one person’s eyes in the church, and you look one way. You look into someone else’s eyes, and you look another way. You look into yet another person’s eyes, and you look still another way.
It is easy in this kind of environment to lose our center and our focus in ministry. Pretty soon, we are either out of the ministry altogether because we are trying to be all things to all people and have lost our center, or we become relatively ineffective because we wall ourselves off from others in order to survive. The key is to hold fast to Christ and to strive to find our joy in Him rather than in the things of this world, things such as reputation, accomplishments, or the opinions of others. To do that, we must constantly remember that Jesus died for all our sins—for our lack of transparency and for our failures in handling vulnerability as well. We need to remind ourselves that if God is for us, there is no one and no thing that can be against us (Rom. 8:31), and that there really is “now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (v. 1). Then, we go and live transparently. That, according to Paul, is what Christian leadership is all about.