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The beating heart of faith.
There will never be a day when we can move on to something other than the gospel.
One of the most emotional scenes in the entire New Testament occurs in Acts chapter 20, where the apostle Paul bids farewell to the elders of the church at Ephesus. With tears welling in everyone’s eyes, Paul, for all intents and purposes, is closing the book on one chapter of his apostolic ministry (Acts 20:25, 38) as he sets his sights on another — specifically, that of Rome and beyond. If you recall, at approximately the midway point in his third missionary journey, Paul is struck with a strong determination to return to Jerusalem with the gospel (Acts 19:21). In all likelihood, he hadn’t been to that city since the days of the Jerusalem Council several years prior. On previous visits, though, he was chased out of town in the wake of numerous death threats (Acts 9:29), making this proposition more than a little precarious.
Jerusalem, you see, was still very much a hotbed of religious friction. As the apostles’ doctrine blossomed in every region surrounding the City of God, Jerusalem itself remained largely blind to the truth concerning the gospel of Jesus Christ. The religion of Jerusalem was, in many ways, still tethered to the old ways of Judaism, with the “New Way of Jesus” seen as a gross heresy that needed eradicating. Nevertheless, we might well imagine that as Paul saw the gospel of Christ thrive and change lives in communities far and wide, it dawned on him that his own community — the people of God, no less — was still ill-affected toward the grace of Jesus. Therefore, arising out of his own enthusiasm to see the Jews reconciled to God by Christ, and the prompting of the Holy Spirit, Paul determined to go to Jerusalem, come hell or high water.
Indeed, as he ventures from one congregation to the next, his thoughts always seem to return to Jerusalem, so much so that as he comes to the close of his travels he dispenses with visiting many of the churches he visited along the way so as not to be delayed in his mission to get to Jerusaelm by Pentecost (Acts 20:16). Instead, Paul summons the leaders from the church at Ephesus to come to him at Miletus, a port city roughly fifty miles south of Ephesus, where he intends to commit to them the charge of the gospel. Presumably, only the Ephesian elders are summoned both because of the level of influence that congregation had in that region as well as because of the amount of time Paul had spent with them (Acts 19:10). The stage is thus sufficiently set for our emotional farewell, where the apostle of grace reveals what the beating heart of faith looks like.
Paul’s tearful “farewell speech” answers a number of questions that many might’ve been thinking but had never had the gumption to ask out loud — not the least of which is, Why? Why are you doing this, Paul? What’s keeping you going? How are you still preaching the gospel of Jesus after so much hurt, turmoil, tribulation, and rejection? It’s the worst-kept secret that Paul’s “ministerial career” had not been a “walk in the park” up to that point. Case in point: he’s only a few months removed from a scene where his preaching served as a catalyst for a city-wide riot (Acts 19:28–34). Perhaps this is speculation, but I have to imagine that the incessant barrage of insults, death threats, and slander got to Paul on occasion. How could it not? After all, he’s only human.
Yet, despite the hatred and vitriol hurled his way, Paul kept on keeping on for the sake of the gospel of Christ. And, on top of that, he now had his sights set on journeying to the place where that hatred and vitriol was the thickest and strongest. What would inspire someone to do that? What would keep a man going through all of that resistance, controversy, and hostility? Well, he spells it out for us:
You yourselves know how I lived among you the whole time from the first day that I set foot in Asia, serving the Lord with all humility and with tears and with trials that happened to me through the plots of the Jews; how I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, and teaching you in public and from house to house, testifying both to Jews and to Greeks of repentance toward God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. And now, behold, I am going to Jerusalem, constrained by the Spirit, not knowing what will happen to me there, except that the Holy Spirit testifies to me in every city that imprisonment and afflictions await me. But I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus to testify to the gospel of the grace of God. (Acts 20:18–24)
Paul begins by reminding the elders of Ephesus what brought him to them in the first place — namely, an unrelenting desire to declare, teach, and testify the gospel “both to the Jews and to the Greeks.” For over two solid years, that desire was carried out, as Paul faithfully declared the word of the Lord to “all the residents of Asia” (Acts 19:10). Indeed, no matter the venue or the audience, he never shrank from declaring what “was profitable,” that is, most beneficial for their souls, which is nothing less than the “whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27). Even when persecuted or slandered or threatened with death itself, Paul never recoiled or hesitated in proclaiming the sound doctrine of God to every person he with whom he came in contact. Why? Because he knew that the only truth that mattered was the truth about Jesus.
Accordingly, with the same level of resolve, he articulates that his heart is set on “going to Jerusalem,” even though he doesn’t fully know what that might entail. “Behold,” Paul says, “I am going to Jerusalem, constrained by the Spirit, not knowing what will happen to me there” (Acts 20:22). Paul’s resolve is to faithfully follow the Lord wherever he is conducted by the Spirit, despite not always knowing what that might mean for him in the end. And this, in my estimation, is the quintessential example of what faith looks like. “Faith never knows where it is being led,” 20th-century theologian Oswald Chambers attests, “but it loves and knows the One who is leading.” This is the apostle Paul at this moment — he’s putting feet to what he’s proclaimed about living by faith rather than by sight (2 Cor. 5:7).
Paul’s future was murky, uncertain, and very precarious. Yes, it more than likely involved “imprisonment and affliction,” but despite all that, he was certain of one thing. He was certain of who was leading him: the Spirit of Christ. You see, believing in Jesus doesn’t mean having all the answers or knowing all the reasons “why.” Believing in Jesus just means you have put your life in much larger hands — in the nail-scarred hands that oversee all things. There is likely a day coming when you and I will face the same predicament — when we will be called to follow the Lord without knowing fully what that means, without knowing what’s in the cards for us when do. What can allow us to do that? What can enable us, like Paul, to “keep on keeping on” throughout all the harrowing days ahead? What is it that keeps us steady and certain when the “next steps” in life all seem so uncertain? Forever and always, it’s “the gospel of the grace of God” (Acts 20:24).
Even with “imprisonment and affliction” almost assuredly in his future, Paul says that all of that matters little to him. Paul’s life was not what was most important to him. The most important thing to him was being faithful to the ministry and calling given to him by the Lord Jesus Christ himself. His ministry and calling were entirely concerned with earnestly declaring “the gospel of the grace of God.” Nothing else mattered for Paul, nothing else even came close, because he owed all to grace. Even though he was all but guaranteed to face a future of chains and even death, he was undeterred in his resolve to boldly testify the good news of God’s grace. As long as there was breath in his lungs, Paul was going to be found announcing the gospel of forgiveness through Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection.
This type of courage strikes a chord with us. Hearing such words is inspiring, convicting, affecting, and challenging all at once. Paul almost sounds “super-human” — or “super-Christian” — when he says such things. I know my faith isn’t that strong. I know I don’t have that kind of courage. How can Paul say that? You see, we have a terrible tendency to think that we can never get to “Paul’s level” of faith. He’s “up here” while everyone else is “down there.” And there’s something to that, I suppose, at least in part. After all, he was an enemy of Christ who was turned into an apostle of Christ in order to further the kingdom and grow the church of Christ. But, even still, Paul was flesh and blood, just like you and me. This means that the faith Paul exhibited is a faith that you and I can have as well. How? By ceaselessly rehearsing the truth of “the gospel of the grace of God” to ourselves, all day, every day.
You and I are desperate to hear the good news every single day, and so was Paul, which is why he was so vocal about the fact his message was all about Jesus’s passion and death. “I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2). “Far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Gal. 6:14). Paul never moved on from the gospel, and nor should we. You not only need to hear the gospel when you first come to faith, you need to hear the gospel throughout your whole life of faith. Indeed, you and I will never graduate beyond our need to hear the good news about Jesus our Lord “who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification” (Rom. 4:25).
There will never be a day when we can move on to something else. It is only as the words of the gospel are repeated over and over again that the truth of the gospel is instilled in us as an objective fact. What gives us courageous faith like Paul’s is nothing more or less than the same gospel that Paul preached, and that gospel is the definitive message that your sins and mine have been put to death in the death of Jesus. Every atrocity you’ve committed or thought about committing has been canceled by the reconciliatory passion and resurrection of the Christ of God. This isn’t some theory, or dream, or a “wish upon a star.” This is the good news that stems from the blood of Jesus mixing with Jewish mud underneath a Roman cross.
Jesus died and rose again. Those are the objective facts of our faith, without which our faith is nothing (1 Cor. 15:14–19). The announcement of the good news is also an invitation given to the likes of you and me (that is, wretched sinners) to put our whole weight, to stake our whole lives on those facts. And the more those facts are repeated, the more our faith will be braced to withstand whatever the future might hold. Paul never tired of proclaiming those facts. Everywhere he went, he preached “Christ crucified” for the very worst of sinners precisely because he knew himself to be the very worst of sinners (1 Tim. 1:15). Paul was courageous in his announcement of the grace of the cross because that was his only hope. He had no other lifeline. Neither do I, and neither do you.
The reason why I am so stubborn about what I preach is because I am convinced that the only thing that delivers sinners from their sins is the unabated and unadulterated declaration of redemption that streams from the Savior’s severed side. Why would I want to give my congregation anything less? Why would I pretend that there’s something else that can prepare them to face the unpredictability of the future? Indeed, Christ alone is the prevailing necessity of the pulpit. As 19th-century British Protestant preacher John Henry Jowett rousingly declares:
“But we preach Christ crucified,” proclaiming what appears to be His shame, glorying in what appears to be the hour of His collapse, emphasising the season of His appalling darkness, obtruding the bloody, unadorned, and undecked Cross on which He suffered His apparent defeat. “We preach Christ crucified” — we do not whisper it; “we preach Christ crucified” — we do not whisper it in secret coteries; we do not timidly submit it for subdued discussion in the academic grove; we do not offer it to the hands of exclusive circles — we preach it, we stand out like the town-crier in the public way, and we proclaim it to the common and indiscriminate crowd . . . “We preach Christ crucified,” says Paul, and we are not going to be diverted by the hunger for mere sensation; “we preach Christ crucified,” and we are not going to be disengaged from our high calling, and tempted to submit our Gospel as a piece of subtle and mincing controversy. We preach it boldly, definitely — “Christ, and Him crucified.” It was the only message for the apostolic day; it is the only Gospel for our own. (69–71)
There is nothing that galvanizes your faith and mine quite like the beating heart of faith itself, which is nothing more or less than “the gospel of the grace of God.” It is only the good news of “Christ crucified” announced again and again and again that steels the faith of sinners to face whatever’s next. Your life depends on hearing this news over and over and over. And so does mine.
John Henry Jowett, Apostolic Optimism: And Other Sermons (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1901).