As we come to the conclusion of Paul’s ministry training buffet in Acts 20, verse 32 is a kind of prayer of commissioning in which Paul commits the Ephesian elders: “To God and to the word of his grace.”
For a Christian to say to other Christians, “I commit you to God,” is fairly expected. It’s kind of like the common phrase in Star Wars, “May the Force by with you.” Or the Christian version: “God be with you,” or “Go with God,” or “Godspeed.” All these variations are similar to what Paul meant, a that God would care for, protect and guide them. But what is God’s word of grace? Is Paul referring to the Bible? Probably at least that. But he may also be including the guidance of the Spirit, and the other ways God speaks his word: through nature, through dreams and visions, through his people.
But here is the key to identifying what Paul means when he refers to the “word of grace,” it is gracious. He says, it can build you up. It is a strengthening word, a unifying word, an encouraging word. If teachers claim to have a word from God that is not gracious or is divisive, it is not from God. Finally, and this is the result, Paul says the word of grace gives you an inheritance among all those who are sanctified. This inheritance is not only, of course, the future hope of eternal life, but also the experience of abundant life now. So Paul’s view is not simply beyond the grave. How do we know that? By where his thinking takes him next.
The idea of inheritance seems to spark more about thinking about how Christians live the abundant life of Christ now, because in verses 33-35 he talks about money, possessions and the mission of God. Inheritances are most often about money and possessions. But what is Paul getting at?
First in verse 33 he says that he has not coveted anyone’s wealth or possessions. Why does he say this? Just a reflection on his pattern of ministry among them? Maybe, but it does seem he has a purpose for talking about his approach to money, a purpose which we will see as we follow his logic. What is that logic? By mentioning that his motivation was not to increase his wealth or prosperity, is Paul saying that wealth and prosperity are bad? Maybe he is saying that Christians should not desire them? Let’s see if we can follow his train of thought here.
In verse 34 he reminds them of how he worked. We heard about this previously in chapter 18 in Corinth, where he also worked as a tent-maker, which in our day would be a leather-worker, along with his friends Priscilla and Aquilla. Paul apparently did the same in Ephesus, earning money to care for his needs and the needs of this ministry co-workers.
Then in verse 35 he says Christians should work hard, not to enrich themselves, but “to help the weak”, because Jesus said, “it is more blessed to give than to receive.” This is another interesting statement in the buffet of Paul’s message to the Ephesian elders, and one that we can glean from as well.
Look at it carefully. This statement is “it is more blessed to give than receive.” It is very familiar to us, of course, and if asked to quote it, before studying this passage, I would have told you that it goes like this: “it is better to give than to receive.” I was remembering it slightly wrong. Jesus did not say it is “better” to give than to receive. He said, it is “more blessed.” What does he mean by “more blessed”?
The word there, “blessed” is the same word that Jesus uses in the sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7, for his famous Beatitudes, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, Blessed are the peacemakers, etc.” When Jesus and Paul use the word “blessed,” they aren’t so much saying that you will receive blessings, like power or prosperity, but instead what that word means in the original language is something more like, “Happy are you.” In other words, the blessing is not so much a physical reward, but an emotional one, a relational one. When you give, there is a deeper happiness than the happiness you experience when you receive. Clearly we feel happy when we receive something, right? So while happiness abounds for both the giver and the receiver, the happiness of the giver is deeper. Therefore, Paul is telling the Ephesian Christians to work hard, gain wealth, but not for personal gain. Instead, work hard and give your wealth to help those in need, and both the giver and receiver will experience the deeper happiness of generosity.
With his final remarks to the Ephesian elders concluded, we read in verses 36-38 that Paul kneels down with them all, prays, and they embrace, weeping and kissing. They walk with him to the ship, where he boards, and the elders are grieved because he had said in verse 25 that he would never see them again.
This is a loaded passage. As I said in the first post of this five-part series on Acts 20, it’s a bit like a buffet, with something for everyone, I hope. What have you learned from Acts 20? Comment below!