What follows are excerpts from Dan Allen’s “tablet” sermon on finishing well, edited for length and the clarity that always was Dan’s style. – RER, General Editor.
As Paul was winding his way back to Jerusalem where he figured he’d face steep opposition, he visited a few of the churches. The first we want to note is at Ephesus. The New Testament traces the full history of the church in Ephesus from it’s founding in Acts 18 to facing the rebuke of Jesus in Revelation 2:1-7. On Paul’s second missionary journey (A.D. 52), he visited Ephesus after leaving Corinth, and planted the church there (Acts 18:19). On Paul’s third missionary journey (A.D. 54-56), Paul spent between two and three years teaching in the city (Acts 19:8-10).
Several months later (A.D. 57) Paul met with the Ephesian elders on the nearby island of Miletus and gave his farewell address (Acts 20; read 18-38). It’s an emotional scene. Paul declares that they will never see him again after he had given them so much of his time. There on the beach there was much weeping on the part of all; they embraced and kissed him.
In chapter 21, he continues his trip setting sail, ending up in Syria, and landed at Tyre. There, he spent 7 days with the disciples. Vs. 4b notes that these followers of Jesus were telling Paul not to go to Jerusalem. In fact, note what it says here: And through the Spirit they were telling Paul not to go on to Jerusalem. The plan of God, looking at it from hindsight, was for him to get arrested in Jerusalem so that he’d have an all expenses paid trip to Rome where he’d be able to present the Gospel. Yet the Holy Spirit prompted these people to tell him not to go. Was the Holy Spirit working against God the Father’s plan?
Not at all. Obviously, this was a test of Paul; would he continue with his resolve to go to Jerusalem, or deviate from that plan, taking it easy and not following God’s will for his life.
God does not tempt us to sin: For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone (James 1:13). God ordains tests for us, not for His sake, but for ours. He ordains tests today just as He did in the Old Testament with the testing of His people, and in the New Testament with the testing of the disciples. Just as medical tests reveal our health conditions, God tests us to reveal our spiritual condition, as He did for Israel (see their history in Exodus).
So, back to the beach they go for the apostle, and those traveling with him, to board another ship. But before this, another farewell as they knelt on the beach and prayed. Paul ends up in Caesarea the home of Philip the evangelist and his 4 unmarried daughters who prophesied. While there for many days, a prophet by the name of Agabus from Judea, took Paul’s belt and warped it around his wrists and ankles to show what was going to happen to Paul if he went to Jerusalem (see Acts 21:11–14). Again, Paul is not dissuaded and has his eyes focused on going to Jerusalem. He did stay, however, with Philip in Caesarea for many days.
And since he would not be persuaded, we ceased and said, Let the will of the Lord be done. Interesting to me, Dr. Luke who is the writer of this book, seems to be a part of those urging Paul not to go – we ceased and said … vs. 15-16 informs us that he then goes to up to Jerusalem. And that leads us to –
The Apostle Paul’s Swan Song
Look back to Acts 20:24: However, I consider my life worth nothing to me; my only aim is to finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me—the task of testifying to the good news of God’s grace. (NIV)
Let’s look a little closer: I consider my life worth nothing to me. This does not mean that he would not take care of his life. Paul is not saying that. Nor is he saying that he won’t take care of himself and just let himself deteriorate. Finally, he’s not saying this because he now has a self-image problem where he considers himself in low esteem. I live in a society where it is all about me — all about the person, not about others: I must feel good; I should shun anything that makes me unhappy; I must be happy. Rather, when you read the context, you see that he is elevating several things above himself. These are apostles’ aim, his only aim. What does he elevate? What is his only aim?
Paul wrote various verses on racing. The Romans celebrated both the Olympic Games and the Isthmian Games. They loved racing. Competitors would spend up to ten months in arduous physical training. Because the Corinthians were very familiar with these events, Paul used the games as an analogy for a believer’s life of faithfulness. Note what he wrote the church in Corinth saying. Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable (1 Corinthians 9:24-25).
Paul’s exhortation is that believers should be as focused and dedicated as those ancient runners in the games. Every believer runs his own race. Each of us is enabled to be a winner. Paul exhorts us to run in such a way as to get the prize, and to do this we must set aside anything that might hinder us from living and teaching the gospel of Christ. The writer of Hebrews echoes the words of Paul. Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us (Hebrews 12:1).
Our motivation in serving Christ is much higher; we run not for a temporary crown, but for an eternal one. In Philippians 3:14, he wrote that in a race, only one runner wins. However, in the Christian race, everyone who pays the price of vigilant training for the cause of Christ can win. We are not competing against one other, as in athletic games, but against the struggles, physical and spiritual, that stand in the way of our reaching the prize. So, in Acts 20:24, Paul wants to finish the race that God has laid out for him.
How did Paul do? To Timothy he writes: I have finished the race I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith (2 Timothy 4:7). Paul tells Timothy that he had put every effort into the work of proclaiming to all the gospel of – salvation. He had completed the course set before him; he had left nothing undone. He was ready to cross the finish line into heaven. May we be diligent in our race, may we keep our eyes on the goal, and may we, like Paul, finish strong. The second thing he elevates is-
He was given a task to do and wants to complete it. We see through the Books of Acts all the wonderful things Paul was able todo. He was a great preacher, an apologist, a missionary, a church planter, and a miracle worker including casting out demons, just to mention a few. We also see that he faced many hardships doing what he was doing. And in 2 Corinthians 11:24-31 we see what all he went through. What was the task: to testify of the Gospel of the grace of God. The Gospel is the good news of God’s grace. John Piper put it this way, “The Gospel is the Good News that Jesus Christ, the Righteous One, died for our sins and rose again, eternally triumphant over all His enemies. So there is now no condemnation for those who believe, but only everlasting joy.” Jesus Christ came into the world for this purpose – to die for our sin. But He also rose again on the 3rd day. We don’t serve a dead leader, but One who is alive and well up in Heaven. Therefore, for those who become followers of Jesus, we no longer are facing condemnation and spending eternity separated from God. Rather, when we die we will go to Heaven which is that everlasting joy. So, we seen Paul’s “Swan Song” with the brothers and sisters at 3 churches.
His “Swan Song” Has Become Mine
This is the verse (Acts 20:24) I want to live with for the rest of my life. Prior to this it was – I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me (Philippians 4:13). I adopted that verse when I was a teenager. Back then I had a hard time standing in front of people, speaking. They used to say that your stomach was so upset that it was like having butterflies in there. Mine were like big black birds. But I claimed this verse and committed my life to following thru with this.
There were a lot of hard things I needed to do through this 40+ years of ministry. God saw me through these. He was and is my strength when I am weak.
But now, it’s this: However, I consider my life worth nothing to me; my only aim is to finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me – the task of testifying to the good news of God’s grace. (NIV) I don’t know how much longer I have to live and finish the race and complete this task, but I want to be devoted to it. Not sure what all that looks like, but it has me here today talking to you. So, I’m not going to say “good bye” to you. That is too final. Rather, I’m going to say “until then.” Until we meet again either here or, even more importantly, for all eternity in Heaven. So, like Paul on his final trip to visit these churches, I say to you “until then.”