A Walk Through Acts 20

“They” begin lying to us as children. Even in kindergarten “they” tell us that we can be anything we want to be, that all we have to do is dream big and work the plan. What a lie! Some people have mathematical or verbal giftings. Other people have one of the other six forms of intelligences proposed by Howard Gardner. Joseph Renzulli and colleagues develop further models of child giftedness that exploded the number of gifting areas that accounted for differences in interest, and style preferences for instruction, learning environment, thinking and expression. Children are not born with equal abilities and do not get equal opportunities. Gifted behavior happens when a child has above average ability, creativity, and task commitment. Francoys Gagne proposes that 1 in 10 children are moderately gifted while only 1 in 100,000 are extremely gifted.

When will we stop lying to children? When will we stop lying to ourselves? 

We cannot be anything we want to be. Without kinesthetic intelligence, another foot in height, and a basketball environment I could never achieve a goal of being a professional basketball center … much less the best one. Of course I would have to be a foot shorter, 90 pounds lighter and comfortable with very small margin of error to win the Kentucky Derby … assuming I could get on the right horse. Sadly our culture sets up many people for lifelong disappointment.

Unrealistic expectations often cause marriages to fail and careers to implode. Unrealistic expectations can lead to chronic depression, pressures to perform, anger toward parents and culture that did not set the table for success, and even contemplating suicide when the gap between expectations and current reality remains too wide for too many months.

On the other hand, life is a gift from God! We are all made in the His image and blessed with limitations. Limitations allow us to humbly flourish in our personal giftings in the place where we find ourselves. Limitations enable us to join with others as they celebrate their accomplishments and walk alongside others when they suffer failures. Perhaps limitations are one of our greatest gifts.

As I walk through Acts 20, Paul’s giftings and limits leap from Luke’s quill. This treasured leader encounters so many disciples and elders who want to see the apostle one more time before his appointed end closes in on him. While the chapter has an account of one teaching event and summarizes many others as “in public and from house to house”, most of the chapter recounts Paul’s gifting as an encourager. Acts 20 has no church plants and only one miracle (necessitated by a young man’s inability to stay awake during Paul’s teaching for 8 to 10 hours). 

Luke captures the multiple dimensions of encouragement as a spiritual gift needed for the church to remain a missionary people. In other places he celebrates exorcising of demons, surviving shipwreck, shaking off snakes, healing the lame, and planting new churches. This chapter does not have that element of apostolic life. Instead the author emphasizes the necessity of the quiet gift of encouragement.

Perhaps encouragement gifting plays such a critical role in a faithful church because true disciples live like Jesus. His powerful mission went through days of prayer, wrestling with Satan, opposition by the theological crowd and powerbrokers, rejection from dear friends, and violence. Even casual readers must realize the trappings of the ‘good life’ somehow don’t find their way into the story. 

The realistic goal of living faithfully as a disciple requires encouragement. Distractions of fame and success smoothly insert themselves into my expectation list like rust use to eat through the steel of my cars in New York … from the inside out. 

Paul’s encouragement came through his words and his lifestyle. In a touching scene in Miletous, where the Ephesian elders meet the apostle of encouragement, Paul recounts the walk of humility punctuated with tears and trials from external threats. The encouragement brought memories of walking the path together. Paul’s words sowed the seeds for realistic expectations for the years to come. Unfortunately the elders did not fully grasp the dimensions of the encouragement. By the end of the generation, John would record Jesus’ words to the church elders – great work, but you lost the first love.

The encouraging apostle reminded the elders of his testimony of repentance and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ … a testimony delivered to both Jews and Greeks. He also reminded them of the Holy Spirit’s testimony in every city. The Spirit forewarned him of the coming difficulty through personal constraints or feelings as well as through words of prophets everywhere he went. The road to Jerusalem would end with imprisonment and afflictions. Do modern readers really get the juxtapositioning of the apostle’s testimony given to many against the testimony he received from the Spirit?

Paul confessed his life goal as part of his encouraging words: “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.” He would never see them again, so he left the most encouraging word he could. His life had little value. Being faithful represented the highest estate any disciple could achieve. He could do that, and so could they.

Before the elders accompanied Paul to the ship, the encouraging apostle reset their ministry expectations. The Holy Spirit called then to attend to their own lives and the lives of the flock. Though wolves would come from within, they could remain faithful to the One who is always able to give an inheritance among the saints.

Paul’s encouragement reminded the elders of his bi-vocational ministry. His entrepreneurial skills were applied wherever the Spirit called him. He never expected to be in “full-time” ministry; in fact the encouraging apostle resisted such efforts in his own life while validating ministers who made other choices. The work of Paul’s hands supported him and his ministry team; they also provided care for the weak.

The final act of encouragement was to kneel by the docks and pray with the elders. 

His encouragement ministry calls me to pray as well.

Dear Lord,

Thank you for your mercies that are new every morning! I so easily default to my old ways of valuing life and things around me. You chose the cross as THE place for me to experience forgiveness and new life. How easily I transform the rugged tree into a piece of silver jewelry that only needs a little daily polishing to look pretty again. Forgive me for trying to make the cross look pretty. 

Thank You for resetting my expectations. You have lifted my eyes today to see eternal expectations rather than a life of leisure and accumulation of treasures. Pursuit of pleasure dies. Quest for faithfulness rises again. Oh, to know the joy of sharing Your grace in times fraught with opposition where the old order tries to stay in power. Today’s suffering takes me back to the cross rather than finding my satisfaction in houses, land, gold or honor. Today’s blessings remind me of the future realty where I join my brothers and sisters and experience the greatest blessing of all – being in Your presence for eternity. 

Help me to value the apostolic gift of encouragement. For some reason we tend to value times of blazing demonstrative power above quiet, steadfast assurance of the things that really matter. Help me to support others in their encouragement giftings even as I give voice to encouraging spirit You have placed in me. I look forward to times of kneeling by the docks in prayer as You send all of us on our way.

At the docks we will pray, Thy Kingdom come, Thy Will be done in our expectations and demonstration of encouragement power.

In Your Name, 

Amen