On April 3, 1968, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered what would be his final speech, before a crowd of hundreds who had come to hear the great orator speak. As if prophetically, Dr. King closed his speech with these now hauntingly immortal words. He said:
“We've got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn't matter with me now. Because I've been to the mountaintop. And I don't mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. And I'm happy, tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.
These were the final words of the final speech delivered by the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The following day, King would be assassinated on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel. Did he know this would be his final speech? Did he have a feeling, deep down? A premonition? Or did he just know of the threats and the ongoing danger that would face him as he carried out his mission? By this point he had already survived a stabbing, a shooting, even a bombing attempt! Is that what he meant when he said “We’ve got some difficult days ahead?” More persecution awaits? More strife? With foreshadowing statements like “I would like to live a long life, but I’m not concerned about that now... I just want to do God’s will” and “I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you...” His tone on this night sounded more like that of a final goodbye. Multiple witnesses said King had tears in his eyes as he took his seat that night. Among those witnesses was the Reverend James Jordan, a close friend of Dr. King’s who recalled, “This time it just seemed like he was just saying, ‘Goodbye, I hate to leave.’”
You see, Rev. Jordan had had a dire premonition just 6 days earlier. He had a terrible nightmare that woke him up in tears. He said “Dr. King’s picture came before me. I saw the Lord had shown me Dr. King’s death.”
In the end, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s final speech would famously become his farewell address. He used his final words to encourage his listeners. He said
“I may not get there with you, but I want YOU to know tonight, that we, as a people WILL GET to the promised land!”
He’s saying, you all,‘you can do this! You are equipped to do this work, and carry on the mission of God. And you WILL get to the promised land. Keep going! Keep going!’ Dr. King was effectively passing the baton that night. Saying “Keep going! Keep going!”
In just a moment we’ll be taking a look back at another farewell address, another passing of the baton, the Apostle Paul’s farewell speech to the leaders of the Church of Ephesus. Like that of Dr. King, Paul’s somber farewell is equally ominous, and foreshadowing in it’s tone. But it is also full of encouragement! It’s Paul’s way of saying ‘you can do this! You are equipped to carry on the mission of God.’ Grab the baton and keep going! Keep going!
So if you have a Bible with you, you can turn to Acts chapter 20. And as you turn there, I want to say hello to those of you who are joining us online. We are glad you’re here! Thank you for being a vital part of this church! And welcome to those of you who were able to make it in person today! It’s good to see your faces and it’s wonderful to worship together and be together in this space. And (tonight)(last night) we say one final hello to our Fishers ‘campus’ - who after today will no longer be a ‘campus’ of Grace Church, but rather, they will officially be an independent church plant! Today we are celebrating what God has done, what God is doing, and what God will do! (Fishers, I love you. My family and I are so deeply grateful for you. And tonight we are all celebrating with all of you. Grace Fishers, you can do this! You are equipped to carry on the mission of God! So keep going! Keep going!)
And today we also say farewell to our 9 week series all about the book of Acts. All summer long we’ve been taking a look back at the early church or - ‘How it started’- as well as looking at the church as we know it today, or - ‘How it’s going.
• We kicked off this summer with a look at the birth of the church! a community filled with awe and wonder, full of the Holy Spirit, and growing daily! The gospel of Jesus was beginning to spread!
• But not everyone was welcoming of this new Church movement. Some saw these Christ followers as a threat to their way of life. And they would do anything they could to stop the spread of the gospel, even if it meant persecuting these new Christians to the point of death. But despite intense persecution, the gospel continued to spread.
• It spread to a man named Saul of Tarsus who, after persecuting the Church, had his own dramatic life-changing encounter with the voice of the resurrected Jesus. He became known as the Apostle ‘Paul’ and he would carry the good news of the gospel even further, deep into the gentile world, the non-Jewish world, proving that the good news of salvation is for everyone, that is, EVERYONE who would believe.
• This meant that the gospel was now beginning to spread to those outside the Jewish faith. It was spreading to the nations! For the first time, the gospel is heard in Europe! And it begins to spread there.
• It seems that nothing, not imprisonment, or beatings, or riots or threats of violence could stop the good news from spreading.
The Light of the gospel was piercing the darkness, but the darkness would not go quietly without a fight.
And we pick up here. Right here in Acts chapter 20. This passage comes right after the massive riot in Ephesus. In case you missed it, Barry spoke last week about what happened in Ephesus, when the gospel of Jesus began to pierce through the darkness there, and change the spiritual dynamics of that city. When some of the idol worshipping locals perceived that their way of life was being threatened, they started a riot! And as their anger boiled over, the whole city was thrown into confusion. The riot was so intense, that the mayor of Ephesus had to step in and settle everyone down, and that’s where Acts 20 picks up.
The riot had just ended, so Paul summoned the local believers to encourage them before he left Ephesus for the next leg of his journey. From there, he traveled for a few months and eventually ended up in a town called MILL-A-TOSS. And in order to get there he and his missionary partners had to sail right past Ephesus. But Luke tells that Paul decided not to stop there this time, but to sail on by.
Have you ever decided to drive past a town, and keep on going, even though you know you have friends there who would love to see you? And you’d love to see them! But you just don’t have time, so you keep it moving? It happens to me every time I drive up to see my family in Chicago. I have to drive right past so many friends in different parts of Northwest Indiana and the south suburbs. And it’s hard because I want to see all of them! I just don’t have the time it would take to stop and visit with everyone individually. Sometimes in the interest of time I just have to keep going.
That could be what’s happening here with Paul. After all, he was in a hurry to get to Jerusalem in time for the Festival of Pentecost. He just didn’t have the time to stop and visit everyone he knew in Ephesus if he wanted to get to Jerusalem on time! He had to keep it moving. Maybe that’s why he sailed on by.
Or maybe it’s because the last time he was there, a massive riot broke out! Paul knew he faced some serious opposition in that town. If he had stopped to visit his friends, he likely would've been recognized immediately, and more trouble may have broken out. Trouble that could’ve prevented him from ever getting to Jerusalem.
So for whatever reason, Paul sailed on by, but he DID want to meet with his Ephesian church leader friends one last time. So he had a plan - gather them all to one location, so he could talk to them all at once! And gather them outside of Ephesus, where it would be safer.
So when he landed at Milatos, he sent a message to the elders of the Ephesian church, asking them to come and meet him. And when these elders arrive, Paul delivers a passionate and heartfelt farewell address. This is the one record we have in Acts of Paul giving a speech to a group of people who were already Christians. Everywhere else, it’s a speech to the gentiles, or a speech to the Jews, but here he’s speaking directly to the leaders of his beloved Ephesian church plant. Paul had served them for nearly 3 years. And now it’s goodbye. It’s time to pass the baton.
Read with me down in Verse 18, it says
18 When they arrived he declared, “You know that from the day I set foot in the province of Asia until now 19 I have done the Lord’s work humbly and with many tears. I have endured the trials that came to me from the plots of the Jews. 20 I never shrank back from telling you what you needed to hear, either publicly or in your homes. 21 I have had one message for Jews and Greeks alike—the necessity of repenting from sin and turning to God, and of having faith in our Lord Jesus.
Paul opened his farewell address, with a reminder of the example he had lived out before them. For nearly 3 years Paul had modeled for these leaders: how to be humble, how to endure hardship, and how to boldly declare the good news of Jesus - to everyone, Jewish and non-Jewish! For 3 years he equipped them, by his example of life. He showed them how to live as a servant shepherd - how to live like Jesus lived. And now he’s passing the baton. He’s saying ‘I showed you how, and now: You can do this! You are equipped to carry on the mission of God. My dear Ephesian friends, keep going! Keep going!
He continues in verse 22:
22 “And now I am bound by the Spirit to go to Jerusalem. I don’t know what awaits me, 23 except that the Holy Spirit tells me in city after city that jail and suffering lie ahead. 24 But my life is worth nothing to me unless I use it for finishing the work assigned me by the Lord Jesus—the work of telling others the Good News about the wonderful grace of God.
25 “And now I know that none of you to whom I have preached the Kingdom will ever see me again. 26 I declare today that I have been faithful. If anyone suffers eternal death, it’s not my fault, 27 for I didn’t shrink from declaring all that God wants you to know.
OK, we gotta stop there. That sounds a little harsh, coming from Paul, at least it does to me: “if anyone suffers eternal death, it’s not my fault…” Like, ‘don’t look at me, I showed you the path to eternal life. Eternal death? That’s on you!’ Is that what he’s saying? Is Paul copping an attitude here? Well, no. I don’t think he’s being dismissive. I think he’s using strong language to basically say, ‘look, I put it all out there! I never held back. I told you all that God wants you to know - AND NOW YOU KNOW IT! You ARE equipped. In Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, he describes the role of leaders in the church. Every church leader has the responsibility of equipping the people of God to do the work of the ministry. So with these words, he is passing the baton. He’s saying I’ve done my job. My leg of the race here is over. I’ve equipped you, and now you can equip others! You can do this! You are equipped to carry on the mission of God.’ So keep going! Keep going!
In a final admonition down in verse 28 he says:
28 “So guard yourselves and God’s people. Feed and shepherd God’s flock—his church, purchased with his own blood —over which the Holy Spirit has appointed you as leaders.
Guard yourselves. GUARD GOD’S PEOPLE! Feed and shepherd them. Never forget that you are equipped, because you have been appointed by the Holy Spirit! Paul is reminding these Elders of the gravity, and the nobleness of their calling. They shepherd the Church, ‘God’s flock.’ The Church belongs to God. It doesn’t belong to them, because they could never afford the price that Christ paid, when he purchased His flock with His own blood! The Good Shepherd laid down His life for His sheep. The Church is that precious to God. It cost Him everything. And these Elders from Ephesus, and subsequently every other church leader appointed by the Holy Spirit throughout history, have been given the charge of shepherding - that is - guarding, protecting, and nurturing God’s most precious flock, His Church, bought by His blood!
And with the final admonition from Paul comes a warning:
29 I know that false teachers, like vicious wolves, will come in among you after I leave, not sparing the flock. 30 Even some men from your own group will rise up and distort the truth in order to draw a following. 31 Watch out! Remember the three years I was with you—my constant watch and care over you night and day, and my many tears for you.
It’s hard to say goodbye. It’s hard to let go of something you love so much! Paul loved this church to tears! And he speaks like a loving shepherd here, warning them about the danger of false teachers - like vicious wolves- he calls them. He says they’ll take the truth of the gospel and distort it just to gain a following! In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul warns that these false teachers would try to trick them with lies so clever, they sound like truth! They are wolves, in sheep’s clothing! So stay vigilant! Keep watch! He says ‘remember how I watched over you, day and night? The way a shepherd lives among his flock and cares for them 24/7? That’s how vigilant you must be in caring for God’s people! And I’m not gonna lie, this is not easy. At times it will break your heart. I’ve shed many tears for you. But now… Now
32 “ ...I entrust you to God and the message of his grace that is able to build you up and give you an inheritance with all those he has set apart for himself.
33 “I have never coveted anyone’s silver or gold or fine clothes. 34 You know that these hands of mine have worked to supply my own needs and even the needs of those who were with me. 35 And I have been a constant example of how you can help those in need by working hard. You should remember the words of the Lord Jesus: ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’”
36 When he had finished speaking, he knelt and prayed with them. 37 They all cried as they embraced and kissed him good-bye. 38 They were sad most of all because he had said that they would never see him again. Then they escorted him down to the ship.
This marks the beginning of the end for Paul. With these words, Paul brings to a close His missionary work as a free man. And for our purposes today, our story ends here. But this is by no means where the story ends for Paul! There are 8 more chapters left in the book of Acts! And they are full of adventure! After Paul says goodbye to the Ephesian elders, he hits a few more stops on his way down to Jerusalem. And all along the way his friends beg him not to go there! They knew his life would be in grave danger. One his friends even had a dire premonition. He prophesied that Paul will be bound with chains and imprisoned by the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem, before being turned over to the Gentiles. But Paul reassures his friends that not only is he ready to be jailed for the sake of the Lord Jesus, but he is even prepared to die. Like Dr. King, I’m sure he desires to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But he’s not concerned about that now. He only wants to do God’s will.
And so He gets to Jerusalem. And guess what happens there? Another angry mob. Another riot. And the dire prophecy comes true. Paul is arrested by the Jewish leaders. And he DOES get turned over to the Gentiles! He gets shipped off to Rome to stand trial before Caesar. But on his way there he gets shipwrecked on an island! And while he’s there, shipwrecked, he gets bitten by a venomous snake! It’s like, how much worse could it possibly get?! You’re a prisoner (that’s bad), who’s now been shipwrecked (that’s potentially worse), and oh yeah, now there’s a venomous snake dangling from your hand! Seriously, these last 8 chapters read like the screenplay of an action movie! Read it! Or do what I do and have your phone read it out loud to you while you're cooking dinner or something!
Luke’s point in recording all of this drama here at the end of Acts is to emphasize the fact that through it all, no matter the circumstances, the gospel continues to spread! It can’t be stopped!
Because of that awful shipwreck, the Islanders heard the good news of Jesus. And eventually Paul, the prisoner, does reach Rome, where he is placed under house arrest. But that hardly slows him down, because Luke tells us that he had visitors. Paul boldly proclaimed the Kingdom of God and taught about Jesus to everyone who came to see him during his incarceration.
And he wrote letters! Letters we still read today: Philippians, Ephesians, Colossians, and Philemon! That’s how it started, and that is how it’s going! Because through these letters, Paul continues to encourage the church today, his voice echoes down through the ages and ENCOURAGES US NOW, just as it did the early church!
Now, we don’t know the exact circumstances surrounding when and how Paul was martyred. But we do know this: Nothing, from then until now has ever been able to stop the advancement of the Gospel of Jesus! Good news spreads like wild-fire! That’s how it started, and friends, that’s how it’s going!
And we know that the gospel of Jesus will continue to spread, only now, it spreads through us! In his farewell address, Paul wanted us to know that
We can do this! We are equipped to carry on the mission of God! So grab the baton! Go and equip others! Spread the good news, and keep going! Keep going!
At the end of his second letter to Timothy, Paul says,
“You must remain faithful to the things you have been taught... All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful to teach us what is true and to make us realize what is wrong in our lives. It corrects us when we are wrong and teaches us to do what is right. 17 God uses it to prepare and equip his people to do every good work.” 2 Timothy 3:14-16
God uses scripture to teach us to do right, to correct us where we’ve gone wrong, and to equip us to carry on His mission! That’s how it started and that is how it’s going! At Grace Church, we will continue to deepen our understanding of scripture, and humbly pursue God’s truth together. This is how we equip ourselves! This is how we equip each other! We utilize what God has already given us! His Word! His Holy Spirit, whom Jesus promised would help guide us to all truth! This is how God strengthens and prepares us for the work ahead. We can do this! We are equipped to carry on the mission of God! Grab the baton and keep going!! Keep going!!
The Church is alive! And she is still precious to God! You are the Church! And you are precious to God! You are ‘how it’s going!’ So Guard yourselves. And guard each other. Protect yourselves, and protect each other! Don’t try to go it alone! There are wolves out there! That was true with the early church, and it’s true for us today! The wolf not only threatens to destroy the individual, but threatens to scatter the entire flock and drive it into chaos! Let me echo what Pastor Dave and Pastor Barry said a few weeks ago:
We hear the voice of the God, The Good Shepherd most clearly, when we discern it together in community! My friends, don’t go it alone! We need each other! Shepherd - feed and nurture each other! Listen for the Holy Spirit together!
Here’s what I believe: For the church today, for Grace Church, I believe God is calling us to be family. And I know how cliche that can sound, but don’t tune me out just yet. Because when I say God’s calling us to be family, I see a picture in my mind that looks like this:
I see Him gathering His people to himself. I see Him gathering. And it’s already happening here at Grace Church. He’s gathering people of different cultural backgrounds and socio-economic backgrounds. He’s gathering people of all ages, from students to parents to grandparents. He’s gathering the lonely and placing them in families. We saw it a few weeks ago, as young children, and grown adults went under the waters of baptism, publicly declaring their faith in Jesus. And over here, we saw individuals, and entire families lighting candles and re-dedicating their lives to following Christ. We saw that, together, and as I watched, I heard the words: ‘It’s happening… It’s happening… I am with you. Keep going!”
Young and old and in between. He’s making us a family. He is unifying us by His love!
Now this image is warm and pastural. It’s nice. Every stalk of wheat is laying neatly, and orderly, in a tight, tidy little bundle. It’s perfect. But it’s a little too perfect, because in my mind, the image of God gathering his children unto Himself and unifying us with his love - looks a little more like this:
It’s wild. It’s a bit more untamed. It’s gritty and raw. And it isn’t an oil painting of some idealistic scene. It’s a picture of real life. Some stalks are bent, some are broken, some maybe prickly and unruly. And they’re definitely not all uniform. This isn’t about perfection. But in our wild imperfection, God bends down, God comes near, and gathers all his broken children into His arms, like a big fatherly bear hug! And there we are gathered as a family safe in our Father’s arms, never alone, and all we have to do is remain in His love, together. That’s how it started, and that is how it’s going! We can do this, Church! We are equipped by Christ’s unifying love to carry on the mission of God, together! Keep going, Church! Together! Keep going!
So let’s get practical. Is this a message to Church leaders? Well, yes, Paul was addressing the Elders of the church, telling them to guard themselves and guard the flock. He was saying, “ You are the shepherds now. You watched how I cared for you, now care for others in the same way.” And he passed the baton.
But what about the rest of us? Where are we in this story? Was Paul only talking to church leaders? Where do we fit in? Well guess what? Paul tells us in Ephesians 4:12 that it was the job of those elders, those church leaders, to go back to the church and equip the people of God to do the work of the ministry! Guess what that means? Who does the work of the ministry? You do! YOU, The family of God! God will appoint elders, pastors, and shepherds to equip YOU! SO THAT YOU CAN THEN GO AND carry on the mission of God, and do the work of the kingdom! THIS IS HOW IT STARTED, AND THIS IS HOW IT’S GOING! The baton has been passed from Paul, to the leaders of the early church, down through the centuries, to the leaders of the church today, to YOU. You can do this! You are equipped to carry on the mission of God.’ Grab the baton and Keep! Going! Keep going!
How can we do this? How can we live into this? What does it mean to carry on the mission of God? Well,
• Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul and mind, and LOVE your neighbor as yourself! Carry on the mission of God! That’s how it started. Grab the baton and keep going!
• Share your bread with the hungry! Share your resources with the poor! Carry on the mission of God! That’s how it started. Grab the baton and keep going!
• Proclaim the good news of the gospel of Jesus! Let your light shine. Pierce the darkness with the light of Christ. Let the hope that is within you spread like wildfire to those around you! Carry on the mission of God! That’s how it started. Grab the baton and keep going!
• And don’t be afraid, for the Lord is with you! Don’t be discouraged! Don’t allow yourself to grow weary. Stop, rest and eat! Be still in the presence of the Lord and let Him refresh you with his word, and with His Holy Spirit, so that you can carry on the mission of God! That’s how it started. Now grab the baton and keep going! Keep going!
The story of Paul’s final goodbye is a reminder of what really matters for us in the Church, and how beautiful it is to serve and love together in unity!
Grace Church, we can do this. By the power of the Holy Spirit within us, and in the safety of the loving arms of our Father, we are equipped to carry on the mission of God! So grab the baton and keep going! Keep going! Keep going!