Author(s)Lee Gatiss
Date 9 January 2023
Category Bible
Tags Bible

There’s a woman on Twitter who says her verse of the year is going to be 1 Kings 17:13. “Do not fear… but first, make me a little cake” (ESV). I think that’s very inspiring. However, it may not be the best way to start the new year, when many are thinking about slimming down or starting a new exercise regime. So I think it may be better to go for Acts 20:24, which is my sporty daughter Cara’s favourite verse. It says:

“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)

We know that Paul did indeed complete his circuit. He says in 2 Timothy 4:7, using the same words, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” Let’s just think about how he did it, looking at what he says in Acts 20:17-35.

First, he says he ran his race openly, humbly, and with tears, he says in verses 18 and 19. He was transparent about what he was doing and how it felt when it wasn’t easy. Because it wasn’t always easy. Yet he persisted.

He persisted because he had been given a race to run, a task to do. It wasn’t just up to him to decide his own personal spiritual journey. He had been commissioned for a specific role by Christ. Just as many of us who are in ordained ministry, say, have made vows to undertake a particular task which is not ours to simply redefine at will as circumstances or our desires for individual spiritual expression change. If we confess that Jesus is our Lord, our Master, it is ours to discharge the duties of care he has given us, faithfully and determinedly.

Second, Paul ran against fierce opposition: particularly the “severe testing” and “plots” of his Jewish opponents which he mentions in verse 19. That didn’t stop him, however tempting it might have been on any number of occasions to simply let them have their way for the sake of a quieter life. He did not self-censor or cower away or give up in the face of difficulties and opposition. He persevered.

Third, the apostle Paul ran his race by teaching clearly, in public and in private. Verse 20: “You know that I have not hesitated to preach anything that would be helpful to you but have taught you publicly and from house to house.” He didn’t, as some bishops seem to think they need to these days, choose silence in order to supposedly be a focus of unity for all. No, he did not hesitate (he says) to preach God’s word in private, and even in public where it was much more dangerous. God will have a lot to say to bishops, and indeed all ministers, who are very quick to tweet what they think about Brexit or the Conservative government, and yet pretend that silence on the church-defining issues of our day is anything but cowardice. They are what Calvin calls “examples of inconstancy” or “monuments of instability”[1].

Paul did not hesitate to preach repentance and faith. But our temptation is to hedge our bets. Paul says again in verse 27 that he did not hesitate, to preach the whole will of God. Yet many today subordinate God’s clearly expressed will to the devices and desires of their own hearts — and silently shrink back from affirming what God says. Let that not be us. Let us be unwearied and resolute in the race.

Fourthly, Paul continued running his race even when he couldn’t see clearly what might happen. He says in verse 22 that he is compelled by the Spirit to go to Jerusalem. And he’s going, even though he doesn’t know what will happen to him there. He simply obeyed God, and left the outcomes to the Spirit. He knew there would be hardships ahead. There is no easy life anywhere: “in every place hardships await” he says. Yet he went ahead anyway, with dutiful diligence and conscientious constancy, because as he says elsewhere, “everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (1 Timothy 3:12).

Some vicars have said to me that they don’t know if they will be in their vicarages by the end of this year, because of where the bishops seem to be leading us in the Church of England. It should be more shocking to us that there is so much support for abandoning the Christian faith that was handed down to us and which our bishops promised to uphold. The persistent uncertainty of recent years can be crippling, and sapping. But let’s not be dispirited. Let’s be as steady as Paul was in the face of his uncertainties. As he says elsewhere, “as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: in great endurance; in troubles, hardships and distresses” (2 Corinthians 6:4). Others may wander from the faith, but we are to pursue endurance (2 Timothy 6:10-11). We need to keep our heads, be sober-minded, or “keep calm and carry on”.

Fifthly, Paul gave constant thought to his succession. He had taught these other elders and trained them up. He urges them now to keep watch over themselves, and also over the flock. He is insistent that they watch themselves, watch each other, because of verse 29: “I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them. So be on your guard! Remember that for three years I never stopped warning each of you night and day with tears.”

Paul seems to have seen this coming. He knew that false teaching would arise, even amongst those he had himself trained up. He had warned them about this for three years — night and day — with urgency and emotion. He did everything he could to prevent heresy and apostasy and schism. He didn’t plan for it so good disagreement could happen in an orderly way and they could all keep working together despite their differences. No, he pleaded with them about false teaching and went on and on about it. It was that important. Woe to us if we think it can be sorted nicely with a gentleman’s agreement behind closed doors in comfortable smoke-free rooms so we don’t have to worry about it.

Sixth, Paul didn’t run his race for money. He coveted no silver or gold or fine clothing — a mitre, a chasuble, a doctor’s gown. The only inheritance he cared about was the inheritance among those who are being sanctified, which God’s word of grace points us to. Ministry wasn’t a living. It wasn’t just his profession and a way to make a comfortable life. Apostolic ministry is focused on a future inheritance beyond the reach of the Church of England Clergy Pension scheme.

That’s why he is eager to say in verse 26 that he is innocent of the blood of any of them. He had his eyes on a future day when he would be held accountable by God for everything he had said and done — especially for how he had carried out his ministry. He was running his race for a prize, and didn’t want to lose it.

It was his job to save people from judgment and hell on that day, by warning them. As the Book of Common Prayer says, ministers are “messengers, watchmen, and stewards”. If we fail to warn people, they will still be judged, and we along with them for our failure to tell them of the repentance and faith which could have saved them on that day. Paul is alluding here to Ezekiel 3 where the prophet is told to go to the people and tell them, “‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says’, whether they listen or fail to listen” (Ezekiel 3:10). He is then told that as a watchman, he will be accountable for the blood of those he does not warn to turn from their sin (Ezekiel 3:16-21).

But Paul has been clear and bold, and so is innocent of their blood. Can we be equally clear that we have taught with such openness and clarity about spiritual things, that we will escape condemnation too? Paul said, “I have declared to both Jews and Greeks that they must turn to God in repentance and have faith in our Lord Jesus” (Acts 20:21). Repentance, turning from sin and turning to God, has always been the essence of the message which watchmen are to proclaim. We are not here to affirm people in their sins or provide them with safe spaces in which to practice them. There is no safe space from the judgment of God. Except in Christ.

So, to conclude, think again of Acts 20:24.

“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)

This isn’t a verse about living a comfortable life in the here and now. It is a verse about finishing the task we have been given in this world, so that we can enjoy the next. Our task, like Paul’s, is to testify to the good news of God’s grace in 2023, so that everyone can turn from their sin and live. We haven’t finished that task in Church Society yet, and there is much still to be done. I’ve heard people say it is “game over” in the Church of England. But it is not game over. The game is still afoot. We may all sometimes be timid or slow in doing what needs to be done. But as Spurgeon preached:

“If in the heat of battle, when your helmet is bruised by some powerful enemy, you can still hold up your head, and say, “I know whom I have believed,” and do not swerve from your post, then you are verily a child of heaven; for constancy, endurance, and perseverance, are the true marks of a hero of the cross, and of the invincible warriors of the Lord.”2

Do you want to be “a hero of the cross”, an “invincible warrior of the Lord”? When Paul finished talking to the Ephesian elders in Acts 20, they did go on to have troubles, with a group called the Nicolaitans. But they withstood their heresies. So that Jesus himself wrote this to them, in Revelation 2:

“I know your deeds, your hard work and your perseverance. I know that you cannot tolerate wicked people, that you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them false. You have persevered and have endured hardships for my name, and have not grown weary. ” (Revelation 2:2-3).

His promise to them was “To the one who is victorious, I will give the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God” (Revelation 2:7). That is the promise for us, if we too can be right and persist. As Augustus Toplady sang:

Tho’ Satan, earth and self oppose,
Yet, thro’ thy help, I’ll persevere;
To Canaan’s hills my eyes lift up,
And choose my lot and portion there. [3]


1. Institutes 2.5.3. Battles says examples of inconstancy.

2. Vol 2 of New Park Street, Sermon 71 section 3 from MARCH 23, 1856.

3. Augustus M. Toplady, The Works of Augustus M. Toplady (London; Edinburgh: William Baynes and Son; H. S. Baynes, 1825), 390.