Sermon on Acts 20:17-27 – “Embrace the Whole Counsel of God”

Dillingham Presbyterian Church – March 17, 2019

Scripture reading:

[Act 20:17-27 ESV] 17 Now from Miletus he sent to Ephesus and called the elders of the church to come to him. 18 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, 19 serving the Lord with all humility and with tears and with trials that happened to me through the plots of the Jews; 20 how I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, and teaching you in public and from house to house, 21 testifying both to Jews and to Greeks of repentance toward God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. 22 And now, behold, I am going to Jerusalem, constrained by the Spirit, not knowing what will happen to me there, 23 except that the Holy Spirit testifies to me in every city that imprisonment and afflictions await me. 24 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. 25 And now, behold, I know that none of you among whom I have gone about proclaiming the kingdom will see my face again. 26 Therefore I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all, 27 for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God.

Introduction

As a witness is sworn in a law court to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so a preacher is to preach the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. That, is a preacher is to preach the whole Bible, all of God’s revealed word to mankind. Nothing is to be overlooked.

In our passage today from the books of Acts, we find this whole truth to be called “the Whole Counsel of God.” [REPEAT: The Whole Counsel of God] And it is upon this important concept that today’s sermon will be centered – “Embrace the Whole Counsel of God.”

The passage in view is known as “Paul’s Address to the Ephesian Elders.” The context here near the end of the book of Acts is that Paul is hastening on his travels to reach Jerusalem for Pentecost. And he has made it to Miletus on the coast of Asia Minor. He decides not to visit Ephesus, where he had lived for 2 and half years before, but he asks the elders of Ephesus to come visit him where he is, in Miletus. And when they visit, Paul gives them the address that is this present passage. It is, in a sense, a departing message from Paul. Whether Paul knew it or not, (and he seems to have known to an extent) his days were soon coming to an end.

Key in this address, Paul tells the Ephesian Elders, “I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable” and again “I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God.”

Soon Paul would be arrested and placed in jail and then some time later sent to Rome, where eventually he would meet his demise. But his mission—his divine mission—had in at least one sense already been accomplished. He had declared to the churches the whole counsel of God.

And Paul says that because of this, he is innocent of the blood of all. Here he apparently is reflecting on the words of the prophet Ezekiel:

Ezekiel 3:18-19 If I say to the wicked, ‘You shall surely die,’ and you give him no warning, nor speak to warn the wicked from his wicked way, in order to save his life, that wicked person shall die for his iniquity, but his blood I will require at your hand. 19 But if you warn the wicked, and he does not turn from his wickedness, or from his wicked way, he shall die for his iniquity, but you will have delivered your soul.

By preaching the Whole Counsel of God, Paul has thus surely warned of the wrath of God to come. And so even if some of those who heard him did not turn from their wickedness, Paul is not at fault.

Now, a traditional sermon has 3 points (and sometimes a poem), and it takes about 30 minutes to deliver. In today’s sermon I’ve actually got 9 points (and sadly no poem), and if my math is correct then, having 9 points should mean I’ll finish in less than an hour and a half. Well, keeping the points short, perhaps we’ll finish closer to the traditional duration.

And so we have 9 points. Which, to follow along and benefit yourself more fully, you may take care to write down. 9 Points regarding the meaning and application of this term: The Whole Counsel of God. [REPEAT]

Point 1. The Whole Counsel of God is the Minimum to be preached.

Paul says he did not shrink from declaring the whole counsel of God. He did not shrink from declaring anything that was profitable. He testified to the gospel of the grace of God and proclaimed the kingdom of God. There is nothing he left unsaid. He proclaimed the whole truth.

Preaching the Whole Counsel is a weighty task. And so some have thought it sufficient to limit the presentation to the certain fundamentals.

This was the was the error of the Fundamentalists a century ago. The Fundamentalists were Godly Christians who combatted the rising tide of unbelief in the church. But with the focused limited to only five fundamental points of doctrine they tended to ignore the rest. They tended to ignore the whole counsel of God. Granted the five fundamentals were of great important. These are great truths:

1. The inerrancy of the Scriptures

2. The virgin birth

3. The reality of miracles

4. The substitutionary atonement

5. Jesus’s bodily resurrection.

These are great doctrines. And because we agree with them there is that sense in which we in the Reformed Presbyterian world are in fact “Fundamentalists.” But we should never end there, with only 5 points. There are many other important doctrines in the whole counsel of God. And we are to preach all of them.

I once knew a Lutheran pastor in Colorado and to him I mentioned this idea of the necessity of preaching the Whole Counsel of God. He retorted that such was impossible. But I suspect he didn’t have the Biblical reference in mind as to what the term meant. Surely it is impossible to preach all things in one sermon. And it is impossible to preach that which God has not revealed. But the Counsel of God is that which He has revealed. And over time a faithful minister can preach through the entire Scriptures. He can, in fact he must, strive to preach everything, skipping nothing. Giving due respect to the Word of God.

So it is clear that the Whole Counsel of God is the minimum to be preached. But, it is also the maximum. This is our second point.

Point 2. The Whole Counsel of God is the Maximum to be preached.

We are not to go beyond the Scriptures. We don’t mix some Bible with some Greek mythology, or some Koran, or some Buddhist writings. We don’t mix the Bible with the latest scientific surveys. The Bible Alone is the Word of God.

Paul did not say “I’ve told you all the wisdom of the Greeks, and Jews, and peoples of all nations.” Rather, he said, “I’ve relayed to you the whole counsel of God.” Not of man, but of God.

That the whole counsel of God is the maximum to be preached means that only Biblical truths are to be preached. These are to constitute the message.

This also means that we have Christian freedom in those things not restricted by the Scriptures. You can work the type of job you choose, you can choose the house you want to buy, the clothes you want to wear, drink the type of drink you want, and eat the type of food you want. In fact, when people, churches, or ministers put obligations on you over and above those found in the whole counsel of God then they have erred in over-burdening you. There is great liberty in the whole counsel of God.

And so with these first two points together we can say: preach no more and preach no less than the Word of God written in the Scriptures. [REPEAT: preach no more and preach no less than the Word of God written in the Scriptures.]

And of this word of God, the Gospel plays a central role. That gives us our third point.

Point 3: The Gospel is an important part of the Whole Counsel of God.

Note that I didn’t say the Gospel is ALL of the Whole Counsel of God. It is an important part—the most important part—but limiting all sermons to just the Gospel would be to ignore (or even reject) all else that God has so graciously revealed to us in His Word.

Surely sermons must definitely contain a gospel message, for the gospel is the power of salvation unto all who believe.

From a sermon I gave a couple of years ago on 1 Corinthians 15:1-8 I have the following definition of “the Gospel.” I’m always glad to find a better definition, but I think this one is pretty good:

The Gospel is that Jesus died and rose again, showing him, based on the Old Testament prophecies, to be the promised messiah and Lord, ushering in the kingdom of God with its justice and peace, and forgiving the sins of God’s people so that they are seen as righteous in His sight.

So important is the Gospel in fact that Paul is able to summarize what he says is his “course and ministry” by saying that his goal is “to testify to the gospel of the grace of God.” Surely he is testifying to other truths about God as well. But the Gospel is paramount.

So we might summarize this third point in saying, “Preaching the Gospel ALONE is NOT SUFFICIENT for the Christian pastor. He must preach the Whole Counsel of God. Still, preaching the Gospel is NECESSARY. It must be preached, because “if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” and “How are they to hear without someone preaching?”

So the Whole Counsel is to be preached, and nothing more, and the Gospel is to be included. But to take a step back, our fourth point is even more elementary:

Point 4. The Whole Counsel of God is to be understood.

The contents of the Bible were written to be understood. The histories of the Old Testament, the letters of the New, and all else contained in the pages of the Bible; all was written to convey a message. An understandable message.

Some things no doubt are hard to understand. And Peter admitted so. But with diligent study more and more of the Bible is understood. And the most important Scriptural truths are repeated many times and in many ways to ensure we understand them. This is what the Confession tells us:

All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all: yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation, are so clearly propounded, and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them. – WCF 1:7

We actually find this term “The Whole Counsel of God” in our confession. It reads:

The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men. – WCF 1:6

So, unlike the Roman Catholic church, which teaches that only professional theologians—their own—can understand the Scriptures, we contend that the Scriptures were written for all people to understand and to benefit from. Thus, all people are to read the Scriptures.

But not only is the Bible to be read and understood; it is to be believed. This is our fifth point:

Point 5. The Whole Counsel of God is to be believed; even those parts we might not like.

So do not fight the Scriptures, accepting only that which you like. But embrace the whole counsel of God, for God has revealed it all for your knowledge and benefit, and to His glory.

A good way to make sure nothing is missed is to read or preach by the method called the Lectio continua. This is the practice of reading or preaching Scripture in sequence. Lectio continua. When going through a whole book and skipping nothing, then even something you might not like will be covered. And you will find the opportunity to correct your thoughts and replace them with the teachings of God’s Holy word.

Going through a book then is of great value. But I’m temporarily breaking my own rule here preaching an isolated sermon and a topical sermon at that! Yet is of great value to mostly work directly through a book of the Bible so that nothing is missed. Skipping nothing, even those parts you might not like.

Some people don’t like the doctrine of election. We preach it regardless.

Some people don’t like deviant sexual practices being called a sin. We preach it regardless.

Some people don’t like to hear that God has put husbands in a place of authority in a family. We preach it regardless.

It is much like the food that we eat. Children don’t like vegetables, but vegetables are good for you. And some adults even come to like vegetables! That is hard for children to imagine I know. I’ve never quite come to like vegetables. Maybe that means I’m not yet fully an adult.

If there is something you don’t like in the Scriptures, I recommend that you study the issue. You will find that there is great wisdom in the way God has ordered things. And once you’ve found that, you might even find that you have come to like what you previous did not.

So the Whole Counsel of God is to be believed.

And this naturally leads to our next point:

Point 6. We must live out also the whole counsel of God.

Salvation is by faith, not by works. But, understanding and believing the things of God, you now have the great joy of living out the whole counsel of God.

There are some who want to restrict the idea of “religion” to rituals. But true religion encompasses and effects EVERYTHING you do in life.

And some might have the tendency to restrict “religion” to Sundays. But true religion encompasses every day, and every moment of our lives.

God’s counsel should effect not only the way we pray, but the way we talk, the way we act, the way we teach our children, and the attitude we take when doing things even as mundane as doing the dishes. This is my go to example – when you’re doing the dishes, do them for the Lord. Do your work unto the Lord, giving praise to Him at all times.

All of your life should be arranged to the purpose of glorifying God and enjoying Him.

You should organize every element of your life around the teachings of Scripture. Your work, your rest (especially on the sabbath), your family life, and your personal devotions.

Let the whole counsel of God be your guide.

Point 7. Following the Whole Counsel of God means that we are to Fear God, not man.

Another way to say this is: We must teach what Christ commanded to be taught; not what people might consider “relevant.”

That is, we are not to change our ways to conform to the world, but we are to conform our minds to the mind of Christ.

And we should, in doing this, find that all of Scripture is relevant because:

“[As Paul tells us in 2 Timothy] All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.”

All Scripture is profitable. And if it all is profitable then it all is relevant.

It is breathed out by God, and thus

It is profitable for teaching, for knowledge.

And it is profitable for training in righteousness.

It is not of man, but of God.

Point 8. Christ Himself is the Wonderful Counselor.

In all of this, we find that Christ Himself is the Wonderful Counselor.

In that famous messianic verse in Isaiah 9, we read

[Isa 9:6 ESV] 6 For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

Christ Himself is our Wonderful Counselor. We receive comfort from His Word knowing that it is from Him who loved His people such that He would die on the cross for us.

And so we are to praise Christ for His counsel.

Point 9. It is with God’s Word that we are to counsel others.

And finally, we come to our ninth and final point. And it didn’t even take me an hour and a half. It is with God’s Word that we are to counsel others. Do not rely on you own wisdom to counsel others, but point them to God’s word. Seek His answers. Seek His counsel, for you, for your spouse, for your family, and for your friends. Have the mind the Christ. Seek His counsel.

We find in Colossians 1:28 the verse saying “Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ.”

The wisdom here proclaimed is Jesus Christ.

Paul says that Him we proclaim, with all wisdom. With the whole counsel of God. Not just the fundamentals. But a life renewed according to His knowledge and His righteousness.

Conclusion

And so, for all of these reasons we are to Embrace the Whole Counsel of God.

And so, as I close, I want to note one more passage. The Great Commission of Matthew 28:19-20. This is a very well-known passage. But if we emphasize certain important words in this saying, then you’ll see that this idea of preaching the Whole Counsel of God did not begin with Paul, but was said by Christ himself. And was commanded by Christ himself.

It reads:

Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe ALL THINGS that I have commanded you. – Matthew 28:19-20

ALL THINGS. Let us not shrink from declaring anything that is profitable. Let us not shrink from declaring the Whole Counsel of God. And, we pray, let us embrace the Whole Counsel of God. Amen.

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