One of the displays of wisdom among mankind is the occasional ceasing from our activities in order to engage in a self-examination exercise through which we check ourselves to see if we are on the right path. The apostle Paul recommends this self-examination exercise to the Christians living in the first century Corinth, using the following language, “Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves” (2 Corinthians 13:5). The apostle Peter gives a similar challenge when he reminds the followers of Christ of the sufficiency of the Gospel (see 2 Peter 1:3-4) and of the zeal of the Christians for the virtues by which their calling and election is confirmed (see 2 Peter 1:5-10). The criterion for this examination suggested by Peter is through the regular application of the Gospel in our lives and the recalibration of our devotion to live out the Gospel. Peter writes, “Therefore I intend always to remind you of these qualities, though you know them and are established in the truth that you have.I think it right, as long as I am in this body,to stir you up by way of reminder” (2 Peter 1:12–13).
The principle of self-examination and recalibration is not an imperative of the two great apostles directed merely towards the churches of early Christianity, but it was, above all, a personal discipline, one of the great resolutions on which these two apostles have built their life and ministry. The regular evaluation of our convictions and life in light of the Gospel keep Christians on the orbit of their calling and election. The apostle Paul refers regularly to these fundamental landmarks (Rom. 1:1-6; 15:14-19; 1 Cor. 2:1-5, 4:1-16, 9:24-27, 15: 1-11; 2 Cor. 4:7-18, 6:1-10; 11:23-33; 12:11-21; Gal. 1:11-23, 2:1-16; Phil. 3:4-11), through which he was able to say towards the end of his ministry and life, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness” (2 Timothy 4:7–8a).
This ought to become the highest desire of every Christian, and also of every minister of the Gospel. But how can we attain to a life of such fullness in which the elements of the equation are faith, sanctification, proclamation, suffering, patience, joy, and victory? An answer to this question is found in the great speech given by the apostle Paul to the elders of Ephesus (Acts 20:17-32).
The apostle Paul was in a critical moment of his life. Being on his return from his third missionary journey, Paul was informed by the Holy Spirit that a difficult season and perhaps even the end of his ministry awaited him (Acts 20:22-23). Without being intimidated of the perspective of suffering for Christ and for the Gospel, Paul informs the elders of Ephesus that he will take the path of listening to the Spirit. This speech was an occasion in which he describes before them one of the greatest resolutions of his life. He says, “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 20:24). Without the smallest hesitations, Paul continued his journey to Jerusalem where he exercised his apostleship in chains, for a season in Caesarea and then finally in Rome. Passing through this season of chains was a time in which Paul kept his high apostolic calling as well as the scope he received in Damascus when he was called as an apostle to the Gentiles. Thus, in one of the difficult periods of history for Christians, Paul was finishing his ministry and calling with success. If we could ask Paul how he was able to accomplish this performance, he would speak to us as he spoke to the elders of Ephesus, about the landmarks that have maintained his life and ministry on the path of his calling.
The first landmark was integrity. Even though to some, this sounds like a cliché of Christian ethics, for Paul, integrity was more than a simple theological language. He knew that the smallest compromise would threaten his charge, which was so precious for the kingdom of God. Thus, he says, “So I always take pains to have a clear conscience toward both God and man” (Acts 24:16). The spectrum of Paul’s apostolic integrity started with his own life (Acts 20:18-19), then with the teaching he proclaimed (Acts 20:20-21), and then finally with the shepherding of the churches newly planted (Acts 20:26-27). Paul’s life was above reproach in his walk with God. Integrity includes the idea of wholeness and fullness, an aspect present in Paul’s life. He writes, “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” (Acts 20:18–19). Paul’s teaching was founded on the truth and anchored in the Gospel, and therefore it generated much opposition. Despite the opposition, however, Paul did not make any concessions, but he preached the truth with fidelity and integrity. He says, “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” (Acts 20:20–21). Paul’s shepherding had the marks of the integrity of a shepherd towards his flock and towards the One who called him. Thus, Paul had a clear conscience, as he describes in the following words, “Therefore I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all,for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:26–27).
The second landmark was love. Even though Paul had a strong intellect, he passionately loved Christ and His church. Only he who truly loved with a Christ-like love could express the grand poem of love as described in 1 Corinthians 13:1-8. To the church of Ephesus, Paul gave three years of his life, in which “day and night he admonished every one with tears” (Acts 20:31). His motivation behind living for Christ and behind his service to the church was nothing else but love. Prior to expressing his love in his epistles, Paul loved the churches to which he was like a father, not a few times risking even his life for them.
The third landmark was humility. Paul writes to the elders of Ephesus that he carried out his ministry among them “serving the Lord with all humility and with tears” (Acts 20:19). Despite his innate leader profile, Paul did not use any of the tricks of the so-called successful leadership, but he built his authority through serving the weak. In his final charge, he says to the elders, “In all things I have shown you that by working hard in this way we must help the weak” (Acts 20:35). Paul did not merely pose to be humble, but he lived out humility in its most authentic form. Therefore, he could charge the elders of Ephesus with weightiness and authority to shepherd with humility “the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood” (Acts 20:28).
Based on everything we understand from Paul’s shortstop in Miletus for his last meeting with the elders of Ephesus, we can make one overarching conclusion. Paul ran his race and conducted ministry well. That is why he can stand before us as an example worthy to be followed, being qualified to become a mentor for all generations of Christians throughout history. As the book of Hebrews encourages us, “Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith” (Hebrews 13:7).
We are often surprised by changes we see in the Christian life through the seasons marked by significant differences. Sometimes we are animated by an overwhelming passion for Christ; other times, we live days and months of spiritual weakness or lethargy. Great visions melt quickly and vanish in small routine activities that disarm us from the great commitments he have once made. Trust and spiritual vitality are threatened by trials that throw us into hopelessness or passivity. Courage and strength in being a witness are followed by long periods of fear and timidity. Unity and love, which may have characterized decades of ministry, can vanish because of conflicts and bitterness. Thus, the spiritual health of a season turns into a season of warning signs and spiritual frailty, or even worse, risking falling into a chronic situation. The recovery from such off the trail skids is difficult and costly.
How can we avoid such spiritual swamps on our spiritual journey or from the ministry we have been called to? The answer can be found in the plea with which we have started this article: have regular and honest self-examinations of our own spiritual condition. Checking on the various symptoms identified above should place us urgently into a spiritual quarantine of prayer, of fasting, of examining the Word of God for the sake of spiritual healing.
God has placed us sovereignly in the time of history most fit for us, both for our lives and for our ministry. Lamenting that we do not live in a different time of history, or in a different place on the planet is useless. Now and here are the time and the space in which we can qualify for the crown of victory. Therefore, “let us run with endurance the race that is set before us,looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, … so that [we] may not grow weary or fainthearted” (Hebrews 12:1–3).
*All Scripture references are taken from the ESV.