Paul in Ephesus: A Biblical Model of Pastoral Ministry

Paul’s farewell address to the Ephesian elders (Acts 20:17-38) takes place at the end of his third missionary journey. On his way back to Jerusalem, Paul summons them while at Miletus in order that he might encourage them in the faith and charge them to continue the work of caring for the church of God. As Alexander Strauch has noted, this speech is a virtual pastoral manual. Paul begins by first reminding the elders of his time spent among them, how he ministered the gospel to them. Yet before he begins his actual commands to the elders in verse 28, his opening remarks provide us with a model of ministry worthy of emulation. Here, we learn that the pastoral ministry consists of both demonstration and declaration of the gospel.

Pastoral Ministry as Demonstration

And when they came to him, he said to them: “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).

First, Paul’s practice was public. Before Paul mentions the message which he taught them, he reminds them of the message that he lived before them. Here, Paul calls them to remember his practice—his character, his conduct, his work, his way of life. The Ephesian church could all testify to how Paul lived because they all knew him intimately! He had lived among them, in the same environment as the church. He was their brother, their friend, their pastor, and their fellow worker in the gospel. He didn’t live in isolation and wasn’t unapproachable. Like a good shepherd, he smelled like his sheep; he had dirt on his coat and fleece on his sleeves.

Second, Paul’s practice was above approach. He was confident that they could reflect on any portion of the three years that he had spent with them, from the very moment he stepped foot onto Asian soil, and his life would hold up to their scrutiny. They had witnessed firsthand his pastoral ministry, his godly character, and his courage in the face of persecution. But how exactly had Paul lived and ministered among them? This he goes on to clarify in verse 19.

Third, Paul ministered as a slave of Christ.  The word “serving” here means to act or conduct oneself as a slave, as one who is in total service to another. It is to be characterized by undivided allegiance to one’s master. Paul was controlled by the love of Christ and gratefully labored in the service of his good and gracious King. Paul also ministered with all humility. This is the same word found in Philippians 2:3-4, where Paul calls the church, based on the gospel of Jesus Christ, to “do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.” This is humility which takes the form of unselfishness and self-forgetfulness; it’s not thinking less of yourself but thinking of yourself less! Finally, Paul ministered with tears and trials. Paul was personally and emotionally invested in the Ephesians. He not only cared for them deeply but continued to serve his Lord despite the profound anguish he felt because of Jewish opposition.

These verses serve to highlight a crucial aspect of pastoral ministry: shepherding is deeply relational and inescapably personal. It’s not simply preaching a sermon or teaching a Sunday School lesson; it’s imparting a way of life, investing in and setting an example before the flock. We are to lay down our lives for the sheep in humble, grateful, and joyful service to our Lord and Savior. We are to walk worthy of our calling and model the gospel before them in joy and in sorrow, in peace and in trial.

Pastoral Ministry as Declaration

“…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” (Acts 20:20-21).

As Paul continues, he reminds them not only of the godly life which he demonstrated before them, but of the gospel message which he faithfully declared to them. He calls them to remember his preaching—his words, his message, his teaching, his witness. First, Paul’s preaching was bold. This phrase, to “shrink back,” means to avoid doing something out of fear. It’s same word in Galatians 2:12, where Peter “drew back” and separated himself from eating with Gentiles, fearing the Jews. Here, Paul reminds them that he did not keep silent during his time with them, but boldly declared the message of the gospel.

Second, Paul’s preaching was comprehensive. Notice the terms he uses to describe his gospel declaration. He proclaimed to them everything that was profitable; in verse 27, Paul will explain this as being the whole counsel of God, since it is Scripture alone that is “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16-17). He taught them doctrine, which means that he provided a structured explanation of the gospel for the purposes of retention and better understanding its content. And Paul testified to the truth of the gospel. He “bore witness,” which means he was eager to make a solemn declaration about the truth of the message he proclaimed.

Third, Paul’s preaching was both public and private. He was not only involved in public gatherings and preaching sermons before large crowds, but he was personally invested in teaching sound doctrine to individuals and families! In other words, Paul was devoted to the work of Christian discipleship. This is an often-neglected component of pastoral ministry. We fail to realize that while Sunday sermons are necessary, they are not sufficient (for more on this topic, I highly recommend The Trellis and the Vine by Colin Marshall and Tony Payne). Simply put, individual instruction is complementary to public proclamation. We are to apply the whole counsel of God in specific, Spirit-directed ways to the needs of our sheep.

Fourth, Paul’s preaching was for all people. The good news of Jesus Christ is to be preached to all without distinction; the ground is level at the foot of the cross. As Paul told Titus, “the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people” (2:11; cf. 1 Timothy 2:4-6). What’s profound about this statement is not just that Gentiles are indeed included in the people of God (the “mystery of Christ” in Ephesians 3:1-12), but that Paul continued to preach to the Jews who persecuted him and rejected him! Paul showed no partiality in his pastoral ministry and gospel declaration.

And fifth, Paul’s preaching was all about repentance toward God and faith in Jesus. This is a beautiful summary of the gospel that all elders are called by God to declare. Repentance is necessary because all, both Jews and Greeks, have sinned and face God’s judgment (Rom. 1:18-3:23). However, by grace through faith in the risen Lord Jesus, everyone who trusts in him will be saved from God’s righteous judgment (Rom. 3:24-8:39). This phrase portrays repentance as an integral component of saving faith; both must be boldly declared if we are to be faithful ministers of God’s gospel.

Watch Yourself and the Teaching

Paul’s model of pastoral ministry as both demonstration and declaration is a recurring theme throughout the New Testament. In fact, this model of ministry also applies to the sheep as well. However, Paul’s emphasis is particularly found in the instruction given to pastors and leaders of the church. Paul commands Timothy: “Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers” (1 Tim. 4:12-16). Pastors must pay careful attention to both their practice and their preaching to “care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood” (Acts 20:28). This is our calling as ministers of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Pastor, what kind of farewell could you deliver to your church?

Those Whom He Called He Also Sanctified

The call to holy living is made repeatedly throughout Paul’s first epistle to the Thessalonians. Though the church was already known for their work of faith, labor of love, and steadfastness of hope (1 Thess. 1:3), Paul nevertheless reminds them that the will of God is their sanctification (4:3). They had already been charged to walk in a manner worthy of the God who had called them into his own kingdom and glory (2:12), yet Paul writes to remind them that they had not been called “for impurity, but in holiness” (4:7). In typical Pauline fashion, he then concludes his letter with specific exhortations to holiness (4:1-5:22).

The unmistakable impression we are given—not just in this particular letter but throughout all Scripture—is that Christians are responsible for their progress in sanctification. We must strive for holiness (Heb. 12:14). Only those who endure to the end will be saved (Matt. 24:13). But just before he finishes writing to this rather exemplary church, Paul includes a short prayer in verses 23-24 that seems to place the burden of sanctification elsewhere. Here, we discover the doctrine of the preservation of the saints: that those whom God calls and justifies, he also sanctifies.

May God Himself Sanctify You

Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Thess. 5:23).

Paul is praying that God himself would sanctify his people, his chosen saints, his called-out church. He’s praying that God would keep the entirety of their being blameless till the coming of Christ. So, who is responsible for the work of sanctification? The believer or God? The called or the Caller? The answer is a resounding “yes!” Of course, we understand that in justification our works have no place at all; it is a monergistic work. We also know that in sanctification our works are necessary; it is a synergistic work. By the power of Spirit we must kill sin, put off the old man, cast off the works of darkness, and walk in the light.

However, as Paul prayer here implies, it is ultimately our triune God who empowers us to do these things. It is only by his grace that we are enabled to walk in holiness. Sanctification is the work of God within us that is worked out by us. Paul makes this abundantly clear elsewhere when he writes: “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Php. 2:12-13; see also 1 Cor. 15:9-10). Until the day when the Lord Jesus Christ returns, we are to walk worthy of our calling in complete reliance upon the grace of God that is at work within us. This verse, then, is a powerful and necessary prayer to pray!

But Paul is not simply expressing a mere wish that God would lend a helping hand with their sanctification. No; he is praying with the utmost confidence.

The Caller Is Faithful

He who calls you is faithful (1 Thess. 5:24a).

Paul grounds his prayer in the faithfulness of God. But before we consider the implications of this truth, notice first that God is referred to as the one “who calls you.”  But what “call” is Paul referring to here? While Jesus does mention that “many are called, but few are chosen”(Matt. 22:14), the word ‘call’ means more than just a general invitation. John Murray writes: “The terms for calling, when used specifically with reference to salvation, are almost uniformly applied, not to the universal call of the gospel, but to the call that ushers men into a state of salvation and is therefore effectual.”[i] This call is the call of God into the fellowship of his Son (1 Cor. 1:9), into his marvelous light (1 Pet. 2:9), and to eternal life (1 Tim. 6:12). It is the call of God that brings the dead to life and things into existence that do not exist (Rom. 4:17). It is the call we see in1 Timothy 1:9: “He saved us and called us to a holy calling, not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began.”

In other words, this is the effectual call of God by which he summons his people, drawing them to himself in repentance and faith. J. I. Packer gives a helpful description of the effectual call:

“Original sin renders all human beings naturally dead (unresponsive) to God, but in effectual calling God quickens the dead. As the outward call of God to faith in Christ is communicated through the reading, preaching, and explaining of the contents of the Bible, the Holy Spirit enlightens and renews the heart of elect sinners so that they understand the gospel and embrace it as truth from God, and God in Christ becomes to them an object of desire and affection. Being now regenerate and able by the use of their freed will to choose God and the good, they turn away from their former pattern of living to receive Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior and to start a new life with him.”[ii]

This call is a crucial element in God’s unbreakable chain of salvation, which brings us back to the ground of Paul’s prayer in the faithfulness of God for the Thessalonians’ sanctification.

He Will Surely Do It

He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it (1 Thess. 5:24).

Here is the hope, the assurance, the peace, and the security of the believer—the very power behind the perseverance of saints. The God who calls us to salvation is the ever-faithful, covenant-keeping, unchanging God. He is faithful not only to forgive us our sins but to sanctify us and keep us blameless until we are glorified at the second coming of Christ. Paul’s confidence here is also expressed in Philippians 1:6: “I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.”

Perhaps the most powerful argument for the effectual call of God is found in Romans 8:30: “Those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.” Our faithful God simply cannot fail to bring his people to himself. The God who called us by his grace has not left our sanctification up to chance; those whom he called he also sanctified. In fact, when we repent and place our faith in Jesus for “salvation,” we are essentially trusting in Jesus for full, eschatological salvation; we are believing the promise of God that he will “sustain us to the end, guiltless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 1:8)!

Trophies of God’s Preserving Grace

This brief discussion of 1 Thessalonians 5:23-24 is not intended to be an exhaustive defense of some Calvinistic doctrine; this is simply a restatement of a Pauline doctrine, which he first received from the risen Lord! Jesus himself declared: “This is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day” (John 6:39); “I give [my sheep] eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand” (10:28).  For Jesus to lose even one of those given to him by the Father to raise on the last day would mean a failure to accomplish the will of his Father.

Of course, this is a mysterious doctrine. That we are fully responsible for our sanctification, and that our sovereign God works irresistibly to that end as well, is plain in the Scriptures. But when the redeemed from every tribe, language, people, and nation are singing the song of the Lamb in his presence in the new creation, there will be no question as to who was ultimately responsible for their salvation. They will be an eternal testament to our loving and faithful God—a God who predestined, called, justified, sanctified, and glorified them—all “to the praise of his glorious grace” (Eph. 1:6).


[i] John Murray, Redemption: Accomplish and Applied (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2015), 91-92.

[ii] J. I. Packer, Concise Theology: A Guide to Historic Christian Beliefs (Wheaton, Il; Tyndale House, 1993), 153.