Keep On Course
Acts 20: 17-25
By Paul Robison

Have you ever heard of the Strait of Gibraltar?  This is narrow passageway of water that connects the Atlantic Ocean to the Mediterranean Ocean which rests between Spain in Europe and Morocco in Africa.  It is 36 miles long and is only 9 miles wide at its most confining point.  For those gigantic tankers and cruise ships passing each other, that doesn't provide much wiggle room.  In fact, there are about a dozen accidents annually.  One must navigate carefully in order to avoid mishaps (Wikipedia).  Jesus told us that the path to heaven is strait, and this means that we must walk carefully to negotiate this passageway without mishaps.  An old hymn puts it this way: “Jesus, Savior, pilot me over life's tempestuous sea; unknown waves before me roll, hiding rock and treacherous shoal; chart and compass came from Thee; Jesus, Savior, pilot me” (Hopper).  Now if we can ask for Jesus' help to keep on course personally, shouldn't we also ask for His help to keep us on course as a congregation?  Our text that was read this morning in Acts 20:17-35 shows the apostle Paul visiting with the elders from Ephesus, and he provides them with much good advice from his own personal experiences while working with them as to how they can keep on course as a congregation.  There are many actions that we can put into practice. 
Let's read again verses 19-23 for the first three actions.  “You know from the first day that I came to Asia, in what manner I always lived among you, serving the Lord with all humility, with many tears and trials which happened to me by the plotting of the Jews; how I kept back nothing that was helpful but proclaimed it to you, and taught you publicly and from house to house, testifying to Jews, and also to Greeks, repentance toward God and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ.  And see, now I go bound in the spirit to Jerusalem, not knowing the things that will happen to me there, except that the Holy Spirit testifies in every city, saying that chains and tribulations await me.”  The first action is: Serve the Lord!  Paul said that he served the Lord with humility, tears, and trials.  What a devoted servant to Jesus he was!  How much do you love Jesus?  Do you love Him so much that you want to be His servant?  Do you listen to His teachings and live out His precepts as you go through each day?  When Jesus teaches you to avoid some sin, are you doing your best to stay away from it?  And when He teaches you to do a righteous behavior, are you doing your best to put it into practice?  Serve the Lord!  Remember, He is the vine, and we are the branches.  We only bear fruit when we abide in the Vine and live by His teachings.  What can we really hope to accomplish for God without Jesus' help?  A servant is not greater than his master.  “Ask the Savior to help you, comfort, strengthen, and keep you.  He is willing to aid you; He will carry you through” (Palmer).  Serve the Lord!  The next action is: Proclaim the truth!  Listen to Paul's actions: I proclaimed whatever was helpful; I taught you in worship services and in your homes; I testified about Jesus to all others, regardless of their race.  “Oh, but preacher, you're talking about the great apostle Paul, and I just don't have the training and the knowledge that he had!”  Then practice what you sing: “If cannot sing like angels, if you cannot preach like Paul, you can tell the love of Jesus, and say He died for all.”  Think about Bro. Robert.  Robert was a missionary in Lisbon, Portugal.  Bro. Robert was a paraplegic and confined to a wheelchair.  Bro. Robert had a speech impediment and couldn't talk clearly.  Bro. Robert would have his wife, Rosa, to wheel him to busy intersections in the city.  He called to people as they passed by, gave them a big smile, put a tract into their hand, and struggled to tell them to have a good day.  The tract had a phone number to the church building and to Robert's house.  Whenever there was a call, and they were frequent because Bro. Robert was faithfully out on the streets daily, the church secretary or Rosa would set up an appointment for someone else to study with the interested individual.  Now if Bro. Robert can proclaim the truth with all his limitations, you can do it too.  You know much more truth than most folks do.  If you feel limited in your Bible knowledge, then talk to them about your own conversion, about the good works of this congregation, or about how other Christians have influenced your life.  Don't believe Satan's lie that you have nothing to share concerning your faith?  You have more than you think!  Just give some thought to sharing what you can.  Proclaim the truth!  The next action is: Endure the opposition!  Paul admitted that he didn't know what would happen to him in Jerusalem, but it had been revealed to him that troubles were ahead.  Our opposition today may be a little more civil since most don't persecute us physically, but their ridicule, sarcasm, and jokes still can be painful.  Paul knew hardship was ahead, but he didn't let it stop him.  This should be our attitude as well.  Jesus never said that being His disciples would bring us fame and popularity.  In fact, since most of the world is under Satan's sway, we should expect that there will be persecution.  Jesus told us very plainly in John 15:18-19: “If the world hates you, you know that it hated Me before it hated you.  If you were of the world, the world would love its own.  Yet because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you.”  Let's just make up our minds to endure the opposition.  Paul told Timothy as well in 2 Timothy 3:12: “Yes, and all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution.”  Peter admonished his readers in 1 Peter 4:1-2: “Therefore, since Christ suffered for us in the flesh, arm yourselves also with the same mind, for he who has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin, that he no longer should live the rest of this time in the flesh for the lusts of men, but for the will of God.”  If we will make God's will supreme in our lives, then we will be given His strength to live above our persecutors.  Endure the opposition!
Now let's read from our text again, verses 24-30, for three more actions: “But none of these things move me; nor do I count my life dear to myself, so that I may finish my race with joy, and the ministry which I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God.  And indeed, now I know that you all, among whom I have gone preaching the kingdom of God, will see my face no more.  Therefore I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all men.  For I have not shunned to declare to you the whole counsel of God.  Therefore take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood.  For I know this, that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock.  Also from among yourselves men will rise up, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after themselves.”  The next action is this: Diminish the self!  Look at Paul's statement again in verse 24: “But none of these things move me [none of these warnings make me change my mind]; nor do I count my life dear to myself [my life is not the most important thing; there is a greater cause to which I am devoting my life and my energies].”  Jesus said that those who are His disciples should put loving Him above loving their own lives (Luke 14:26), and here, we see the apostle Paul doing exactly that!  His obedience to Jesus is more important to him than his own personal safety.  Notice what Paul says to a group of Christians in Acts 21:13: “What do you mean by weeping and breaking my heart?  For I am ready not only to be bound but also to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus.”  Now there a disciple who knew how to diminish the self.  How much are we willing to sacrifice for Jesus' sake and for this congregation?  There are four SOS work days planned for this next year.  Will you sacrifice your comfort on a Saturday to lend a helping hand?  There are two gospel meetings planned for this year.  Will you sacrifice your time to attend each evening?  There is a Ladies' Day planned for this year.  Will you sacrifice you plans to support it?  Diminish the self!  The next action is this: Finish the race!  Paul said that he was willing to suffer persecution and death in order to finish his race with joy and to fulfill his ministry of taking the Gospel to the Gentiles.  Paul knew that if he was obedient in doing what Jesus has assigned him to do, then he would die with joy.  Later in his life, he affirms triumphantly to Timothy: “I have finished the race.  I have kept the faith.”  And he looks forward to Jesus giving him and all the redeemed the crown the righteousness (2 Timothy 4:8-9)!  Finish the race!  Paul's race involved carrying the Gospel to the Gentiles, what does your race involve?  There are many ways to serve: some members are good encouragers, some are good comforters, some are good teachers, some are good givers, some are good listeners, some are good at visiting others, some are good at welcoming others, some are good at praying for others, some of you are good at helping others.  Whatever your race may be, determine like Paul to be obedient so that you can finish your Christian life with joy and victory!  “To the work!  To the work!  There is labor for all, for the kingdom of darkness and error shall fall!  With the balm of His counsel our strength to renew, let us do with our might what our hands find to do.  Let us hope, trust, watch, pray, and labor until our Master comes” (Crosby)!  The New Testament has no such concept as “a retired Christian”; it does speaks about “a tired Christian,” who then rests after death from his or her labors and good works (Revelation 14:13).  Don't give up!  Don't quit running!  Finish whatever race Jesus has called you to run!  Finish the race!  The next action is this: Protect the church!  Paul prophesied to these elders that difficult times were ahead, and there would be savage wolves that would devour the flock and lead people astray.  In spite of such hardships, these elders were to shepherd the church, to nurture, to heal, to encourage, and to protect the sheep.  But isn't the protection of the sheep an activity in which all members can participate?  Satan, false teachers, and evil people can still attack the church today.  The Spirit's Sword, the Bible, with its great truths, is our best weapon against these attacks.  Care for other members' spiritual welfare!  Protect the church!
Now let's read verse 31-34 for three more actions: “Therefore watch, and remember that for three years I did not cease to warn everyone night and day with tears.  So now, brethren, I commend you to God and to the word of His grace, which is able to build you up and give you an inheritance among all those who are sanctified.  I have coveted no one's silver or gold or apparel.  Yes, you yourselves know that these hands have provided for my necessities, and for those who were with me.”  The next action is this: Warn the brethren!  Paul said that he did this for over a thousand days, with many tears.  What was he warning them about?  Maybe it was the falling away of some church leaders that he foresaw on the horizon or maybe it was his foreseeing those weak members who would be duped into adopting Jewish customs.  We don't know what Paul said, but we do know that he said it often.  Warn the brethren!  You know, if there was a physical fire in this building, whose job would it be to warn others about the danger?  You see, this isn't limited just to church leaders.  When any member sees spiritual danger, he or she should act and not keep quiet.  Listen to Jude's instructions in verse 22 to all the members: “And on some have compassion, making a distinction; but others save with fear, pulling them out of the fire, hating even the garments defiled by the flesh.”  When you smell the smoke of rebellion, falsehood, or sinfulness, go to your Christian brother or sister and lovingly warn them about the dangerous state of their erring soul.  Warn the brethren!  The next action is this: Study the Word!  Paul commended these elders to God and to word of His grace, which can edify, can sanctify, and can fortify the disciple so that he or she can gain heaven.  That holy Word can do the same thing for us today!  Study the Word!  There is nothing that can strengthen you daily like reading and reflecting on God's Word!  If you haven't ever read the Bible through, then get on board this year with our Bible reading program.  Bro. Jim has worked up another schedule where we first get the New Testament read in about 3 months and then we read through the Old Testament in the next 9 months.  When you get to the end of 2013, Lord willing, you'll be glad that you nourished your spirit each day.  Study the Word!  The next action is this: Provide the necessities!  Paul said he did not take contributions, but he worked hard himself to provide the necessities of life, like food and clothing, for himself and for his companions.  Provide the necessities.  On this one, let's take this approach: why don't we give the necessities of this congregation priority in our personal giving?  Our elders, deacons, and Bobby Smith do an excellent job in preparing our church budget.  Our contributions cover a lot of bases and help many good works, both here and abroad.  What we give DOES make a difference!  Why not think about giving more in 2013?  My family will be giving more.  It is still true that God loves a cheerful giver (2 Corinthians 9:7).  Provide the necessities!
Now let's look at verse 35 for three more actions: “I have shown you in every way, by laboring like this, that you must support the weak.  And remember the words of the Lord Jesus, that He said, 'It is more blessed to give than to receive.'”  The next action is this: Work the job!  Paul was a tent-maker and knew how to cut, to soften, and to sew the leather.  Work the job!  You know, the way we work our jobs says much about who we are!  In fact, our work ethic preaches a sermon every day without any words.  “And whatever you do, do it heartily, as to the Lord, and not to men” (Colossians 3:23).  Paul also tells us in Ephesians 6:8 that if we sow good while on the job, we will reap good from Jesus as well!  Let your light shine for Jesus while on the job, whatever you job might be.  Work the job!  The next action is this: Help the weak!  Paul worked at tent-making not only to support himself but also to help the poor.  He commanded others to work so that they could help the needy too (Ephesians 4:28), and he practiced what he preached.  Help the weak!  We too can support the weak.  The Christian Relief Fund is a Christian organization that works nationally and internationally to help the needy and to help disaster victims.  My family has sent funds to them for 22 years, and we are happy to read their regular reports as to how others have been helped.  However you do it, give something to help the weak.  The next action is this: Obey the Lord!  Why did Paul give to support the weak?  He said that Jesus motivated him because He affirmed: “It is more blessed to give than to receive.”  Paul was practically applying Jesus' teaching.  That's called obedience.  Obey the Lord!  I know one preacher who always read the Gospels each day.  Sometimes his reading took a while, and at other times, it went quickly.  You see, he would read until he heard something Jesus taught or commanded, and then he figured out how he could put it into practice.  When he figured out what he should do, he acted and lived out Jesus' teaching during that day.  As you can imagine, his sermons had some interesting stories.  “Therefore whoever hears these sayings of Mine and does them, I will liken him to a wise man who built his house on the rock” (Matthew 5:24).  Obey the Lord!