There is an urgency about the matter of faithfulness. I am not just saying this to be dramatic or because I am now over fifty. Yes, I do realize that time is limited. More days are probably behind me than in front of me. But this isn't about my sense of finitude. Nor am I speaking about the condition of things in our world today, even though this is a cause for deep—and I mean deep—concern. Rather, there is a more basic issue related to this matter of faithfulness that confronts all of us. It is the giving of our attention to priority concerns and matters while we have the God-given time and opportunity to do so. We never know how much time we have in any given relationship, responsibility, ministry, or situation. And because of the awareness of the potential brevity of any season, we need to determine what really matters, what really counts, and what really must be done. We must be occupied faithfully with what God wants us to be and do in any given relationship or situation before we have to say, "Good-bye."
There is a sense in which faithfulness demands that we be ready to say a good "good-bye" at any moment. This may be said to friends, to associates, to a church, to a ministry, to a responsibility, to a season in life, or even to life itself. But it is wonderful if it can be said with the deep personal conviction that, by God's grace and according to His will, I was faithful to the Lord and to His will for me.
Take a few moments right now to do something. Imagine that God is calling you specifically and immediately to move away from where you are today in order to start a new phase of life, ministry, etc. Practically speaking, you will be disconnecting from the relationships and responsibilities that have been a major part of your life most recently. Let's say you were to meet with some close friends and share with them some parting words. What would you say? What would you cover in your "farewell address"? Go ahead. Write a few thoughts down. What would you like to say, especially about your own goals and activities that have been the "stuff" of your life?
The challenge before us in this chapter is to live each day in the light of our own "farewell address." When I speak of such an address, of course, I am not talking about some casual after-dinner speech, almost given without thinking. I am talking about the type of address that we hear all too rarely in our day. I'm talking about a solid statement and declaration of the God-given priorities and passions of our life. The address might remind those present of the key events and experiences you have shared together. Possibly you would share your personal goals and expectations for the future. Such an address might seek to exhort and empower those present to be faithful to the Lord themselves as they face the days ahead in your absence.
Talking about a farewell address may sound like the last chapter of a book rather than the first. But when you are thinking about faithfulness, you need to think backwards. Faithfulness has to do with the whole story, not just the beginning. It has to do with more than the start and more than the race. It especially has to do with the finish. Faithfulness is seen at the end of things and must be lived with the end of things in view. That is why I am encouraging you to live in light of your farewell address.
Acts 20:17-38 contains a God-given account of what can be viewed as a farewell address. To be accurate, when I use the phrase "farewell address," I am not presenting an argument for a specific rhetorical style in the technical sense. I am using this phrase to describe what is, in fact, an account of the apostle Paul's parting words on a very significant occasion.
Paul here is at a critical point in his life and ministry. He is "hurrying to be at Jerusalem, if possible, on the Day of Pentecost" (Acts 20:16). He is finishing his third missionary journey and is heading to Jerusalem with funds collected for "the poor among the saints who are in Jerusalem" (Rom. 15:26). According to his letter to the Romans, Paul saw a season of ministry coming to a close and a new phase of ministry ahead (15:22-33). No doubt, the collection project had significance beyond the funds themselves, as it represented the fruit of the Gentile mission and the concern of the Gentile believers for their Jewish brethren in need. This was important to Paul.
The apostle chose not to travel to Ephesus where he had ministered extensively a few years earlier. At the same time, he obviously felt compelled to make contact with the church leaders in Ephesus and speak to them. So he sent for them. We are not told explicitly what was involved in getting word to Ephesus. We are also not given the details of how the leaders made their way to Paul some thirty miles away in Miletus. Time and energy must have been expended for these elders to get there. But even though Luke does not give us many details about the arrangements for the meeting, he does give us details concerning what Paul said.
So here is the apostle, the one who had pioneered the mission in Ephesus and had founded the church there. He is entering a new phase of life and ministry, and only the Lord knows the details and detours of Paul's life that were to take place in coming years. The leaders, the elders of the church, come to see him at his request. Paul speaks to them. He speaks his mind and shares his heart. And in the middle of his address, he clearly reveals that these leaders will not see him again (Acts 20:25). As Luke concludes the narrative of this event, he paints a touching picture of prayer, tears, embraces, kisses, and sorrow. Then the group sees Paul to the ship to send him off. Luke's simple commentary is that at the heart of the sorrow was the fact that they were not going to see Paul again (v. 38).
Our focus is on what Paul said on this occasion and what we can learn from his words about faithfulness in ministry and leadership. The address itself is filled with reminders, examples, exhortations, warnings, goals, and personal remarks. Paul certainly defended his ministry record in Ephesus, explained his plans, and exhorted these leaders to be faithful in their appointed responsibilities. His words can be analyzed at many different levels and are worthy of such analysis and study. The address represents a distinct communication on the part of the apostle Paul in Acts because he is directly addressing believers in a church that he founded on the occasion of his departure. But at the risk of oversimplification, I want us to view Paul's words as an example and guide for us. Of course, there was a uniqueness to his ministry and to the specific context of ministry in Ephesus. But we can learn from Paul's address and his example.