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A Farewell Benediction

Sermon by J. Ligon Duncan on Jan 12, 2014

Acts 20:32

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If you have your Bibles, I’d like you to turn with me to Acts chapter 20 verse 32.  My heart is filled with many very specific thanks and if I get started on those thanks I would leave someone out and so as much as I want to do that I am going to restrain myself.  I do think that I need to publically thank Anne and Sarah Kennedy and Jennings who have enabled me to do the job that I have been called to do here at First Presbyterian Church, often quietly and behind the scenes bearing the cost of my ministry and making it possible for me to do what the Lord has called me to do in this congregation.  So I do want to thank Anne and Sarah Kennedy and Jennings who have been partners with me in this ministry and will continue to be partners with me in ministry.  Then I will simply have to, over the weeks and months ahead, find various ways to express those very specific thanks that I have for so many of you in this room.

Now it really began to hit me today.  I’ve tried to live in denial for the last five months but it really hit me today and especially being in the congregation with you in a wonderful Communion Season.  It felt so natural to be under the steady hands and ministry of David Felker and David Strain today.  I was sitting up there in the south balcony where Sarah Kennedy and Jennings usually sit.  They sit there because that’s where their mother keeps an eye on them during the service.  So I sat there so she could keep an eye on me with them as well!  And I was just so blessed by the ministry of the Word and by communion with you today and felt that you’re in such good hands.  You’ve got good deacons and elders in the congregation; you’ve got a wonderful pastoral staff.  Billy and I, Billy Joseph and I, will miss ministering your midst but you’ve got a faithful ministerial team here who knows what to do.  They love you tenaciously and passionately and they will serve you well.  I love being with those brothers in the ministry, we love talking about the ministry, we love talking about you, we love visiting you, we love serving you in various ways, and they’ll continue to do that.  You’re in very good hands.

And so I wanted to direct you to a benediction tonight.  I love the benedictions of Scripture.  I have been able to preach on many of those benedictions over the course of the last seventeen years but I wanted to go to a benediction that I’ve not yet had a chance to preach.  Derek preached through the book of Acts and so I didn’t have the joy of preaching this particular passage to you.  And we’re not going to take all of it because all of it is not directly relevant to this situation.  Paul was speaking to the Ephesian elders and Paul was pretty certain that he would never see them again.  And that’s not the case here; God willing we will fellowship with one another for many years to come in various ways and in various times should the Lord be so pleased.  So this isn’t that kind of a farewell.  But the blessing that he pronounces on the Ephesian elders in Acts chapter 20 verse 32 is a blessing that I pray for you, this congregation.  And so I want to look at that blessing with you tonight and ask for God to give that blessing to you.  And before we read God’s Word let’s pray and ask for His help and blessing.

Heavenly Father, we thank You for the blessings of Your Word and especially we thank You that these blessings are meant for Your people, Your church.  and so I pray this benediction for this congregation even as I read it and preach it.  Make this to be Your blessing to them, in Jesus’ name.  Amen.

This is the Word of God.  Hear it in Acts chapter 20 verse 32:

“And now I commend you to God and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified.”

Amen, and thus ends this reading of God’s holy, inspired, and inerrant Word.  May He write its eternal truth upon all our hearts.

The apostle Paul, having spoken his words of farewell to the Ephesian elders, begins to pronounce a benediction on them and give them some final exhortation.  And in that benediction he commits them.  He had been the planter and pastor of that congregation and he is no longer going to be able to pastor them.  And he literally commits them.  He doesn’t commit them to another man; he commits them to God Himself.  And I want you to see in this passage the two committals and then I want you to see what those committals, what those blessings do in the lives of the Ephesian elders because this is my prayer for the congregation of First Presbyterian Church. 

I.  “Now I commend you to God...”

Here’s the first one.  Paul says, “Now I commend you to God.”  So here’s the first blessing that I pray for you, First Presbyterian Church, from God - that you would be under the care of God Himself.  I entrust you to the care of God.  Even as Paul commended the Ephesian elders to the care of God, I entrust you to the care of God.  Your sense of God’s care for you is vital for the Christian life and for the health of this congregation.  You must not trust in your circumstances.  You must not trust in your resources.  You must not lose heart because of your circumstances.  Or should your human and earthly resources fail, you must not lose heart because of that because you have been by God’s blessing entrusted to God.  It is God who takes care of you. 

Don’t you love the refrain of that old Gospel song, “Through every day, o’er all the way God will take care of you.  God will take care of you”?  And we sang about that twice this evening.  Did you catch that?  In the glorious hymn number 30, which is just a rendition of Moses’ psalm, Psalm 90, “O God, Our Help in Ages Past.”  You’ve already sung about that tonight.  And you’ve sung about it when you sang, “Jesus, I My Cross Have Taken.” Would you look again at that fourth stanza when Henry Light has us sing - look halfway down - “I have called Thee ‘Abba, Father,’ I have stayed my heart on Thee.  Storms may howl and clouds may gather, all must work for good to me.”  Do you see the profound trust in God’s care and providence?  Henry Light trusts God to take care of him no matter what is happening in his life.  And if you know anything about Henry Light’s life that is an amazing testimony because what happened to him as a little boy would have broken the heart of anyone.  And yet he trusted his heavenly Father.  I entrust you to the care of God.  As long as your trust is in God, First Presbyterian Church, you are in good hands.  As long as your trust is in God you are in good hands.  So I entrust you to the care of God - “Now I commend you to God.”

II.  “...and to the word of His grace.”

But Paul goes on and there’s a second commending, a second committal, a second entrusting and you see it in the rest of that sentence.  “And now I commend you to God and to the word of his grace.”  So here’s the second “entrust.”  I entrust you, First Presbyterian Church, to the Word of God’s grace.  I entrust you to the Word of God’s grace.  And of course that’s a Pauline way of drawing attention to the Gospel, isn’t it?  Paul calls the Gospel different things in his writings and here Luke records Paul using this phrase, “I entrust you to God and to the word of his grace.”  So I entrust you, First Presbyterian Church, to the Word of God’s grace which is the Gospel.  While we were yet sinners, while we were yet God’s enemies, while we were yet weak, Christ died for us - the helpless, the sinful, the ungodly.  You remember when David Strain quoted that this morning during communion?  “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son that whoever believes on Him will not perish but have everlasting life.”  Paul entrusts the Ephesian elders to the Word of God’s grace, the Gospel that he had been preaching from day one.  First Presbyterian Church, I entrust you to the Word of God’s grace, the Gospel.  

The certainty of your future does not depend on circumstances or any man but upon the Word of God’s grace.  There’s a story, and I can’t remember whether it was C. H. Spurgeon’s father or grandfather, that, his father or grandfather on one occasion said this - “Mr. Whitefield and Mr. Wesley may be able to preach the Gospel better than I can but they cannot preach a better Gospel.”  Your future depends simply on the Gospel being proclaimed from this pulpit, not on the messenger but on the message.  If the messenger believes the message, and he will, if the messenger trusts the message, and he will, if the messenger preaches the message, and he will, and you listen to the message and believe the message, all will be well, First Presbyterian Church.  I entrust you to the Word of God’s grace, the Gospel.  And I must say, you are in very good hands. Weren’t you blessed under the ministry of David Felker this morning?  And David Strain, you’re already a better preacher than I was when I came here.  I love to sit under the ministry of these brothers.  You will be well served the Word of God, but it is the message that you should have confidence in, the Gospel, that God saves sinners like you and me.  And just like we were reminded this morning, that’s not a Gospel for them out there; it’s a Gospel for us in here - big sinners who need a big God with big grace.  And we’ve got one!  So I entrust you, First Presbyterian Church, to the care of God and to the Word of God’s grace, which is the Gospel.

Now what does that do?  Notice Paul says it does two things.  That Word of God’s grace is able to do two things.  First, to build you up and second, to give you an inheritance among the sanctified. 

III. The Word of God’s Grace: Able to Build You Up

It is able to build you up.  The Word of God is able to build you up in the Christian life.  You know, at the end of this benediction it’s mentioned that our inheritance is among the sanctified.  What is the building up referred to?  It refers to our sanctification.  Paul loves to call believers saints, holy ones, the ones who are set apart, the ones who are numbered among the righteous.  And Paul will use different tenses to talk about our sanctification.  Sometimes he’ll talk about our “having been sanctified” sometimes he’ll talk about our “being sanctified,” and sometimes he’ll talk about our sanctification in the future.  But it’s one of Paul’s favorite designations because Paul knows that Jesus’ person and work not only delivers us from the penalty of sin through pardon, it delivers us from the power and dominion and bondage of sin by the renewal of our hearts and the transformation of our lives.  In other words, in God’s goodness in the Gospel we are justified and we are being sanctified.  And the apostle Paul says here that the Word of God’s grace is able to build you up.  You need to be under the Word of God so that you can be filled up.  That’s why we need to be under the Word - so that we can be built up.  That’s how God builds us up.  God has appointed His Word to build you up, to equip you for anything.  

Oh my friends, I have been with so many of you in so many dire circumstances over the last seventeen years and the Word of God has built each and every one of you up for those moments.  We never know when they’re coming.  We don’t know what they’re going to be. We could never anticipate them.  Thank our kind God that we don’t know when they’re coming and what they are.  We would be paralyzed with terror waiting for them to come.  But when they come, when we have been under the Word, God uses His Word to build us up so that we are ready.  And so the apostle Paul says, “I commend you to God and to the word of his grace.”  And do you know what that does?  It builds you up.  It sanctifies you.

IV. The Word of God’s Grace: Able to Give You an Inheritance Among the Sanctified 

Secondly, he says that the Word of God’s grace gives you an inheritance.  Now Paul uses the word “inheritance” more than any other single writer in the New Testament.  And the idea of an inheritance is a very rooted Old Testament idea.  Paul may well have Deuteronomy 33 in the back of his mind here.  You remember how God gave specific blessings to each of the tribes of Israel through Moses before they went into the land which He was giving to them as…?  An inheritance.  And the apostle Paul reminds us in various places - I’m going to get you to go ahead and turn to Ephesians chapter 1 right now - that God is giving you an inheritance in Jesus Christ.  Sometimes Paul talks about God’s inheritance being us; other times he talks about the inheritance that God is giving us.  And in this blessing he says that the Word of God’s grace is able “to give you the inheritance.”  

And if you’ll look at Ephesians chapter 1 you will see Paul use the idea of an inheritance three times.  Look at verse 11.  “In him we have obtained an inheritance.”  Here Paul is speaking of us already having obtained an inheritance.  So you might ask yourself, “Okay Paul, if in Ephesians 1:11 we’ve already obtained the inheritance, why are you saying over here in Acts chapter 20 verse 32 that the Word of God’s grace is able to give us an inheritance?”  Very good question.  Paul answers your question if you’ll just allow your eyes to go just a few sentences down the page.  Look at verse 13.  “We were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit who is the guarantee of our inheritance” - there’s that word again, but look at the next phrase - “until we acquire possession of it.”  You have an inheritance.  God has given you an inheritance. You are sealed with the Holy Spirit until you take possession of that inheritance.  And how is it that you are able to take possession of that inheritance?  By the word of God’s grace in the Gospel.  So Paul tells you that God’s care of you and the Word of God’s grace are able to do two things - build you up and give you the inheritance among the sanctified.  And that’s the inheritance that you will come into the full of in the last day.

V. Our Response to this Word of Grace

1. Live Near to God

So what do we do with this?  Five things very quickly.  How do we respond to this?  Five things very quickly.  If Paul, and if I, have entrusted you to the care of God here’s the first thing you need to do in response - live near to God.  Live near to God.  Do not put your hope in something that is ephemeral and passing; put your hope in God.  Live near to God so that God is the great reality in your life and experience so that God towers over everything.  You know the difference between people who are miserable in their circumstances and who are content in their circumstances?  Those who are miserable in their circumstances fear their circumstances; those who are content in their circumstances fear God.  They’re living near to God.  God’s a bigger reality than their circumstances.  That is easy to say and it’s easy to say what I just said; it is really hard to live out.  It will not happen by accident.  You will have to do it deliberately.  Live near to God.  If Paul entrusts the Ephesian elders to God, if I’ve entrusted you, First Presbyterian Church, to God, live near to God.

2. Make Good Use of God’s Word

Second, make good use of God’s Word.  Make good use of God’s Word.  If God’s Word is able to build you up, if the Word of God’s grace, the Gospel, is able to build you up and able to give you that inheritance, then make good use of God’s Word.  It was so good to be here with you this morning sitting under that Word.  I need that Word just as much as you do.  I need to be under that Word week after week, Lord’s Day after Lord’s Day.  Make good use of God’s Word.  You, First Presbyterian Church, you have a surfeit of blessing when it comes to God’s Word - in Sunday School classes, in the pulpit here, on Wednesday nights, in discipleship groups.  The Word of God is plentiful here.  Do not take that for granted.  Savor every morsel.  Make good use of God’s Word.

3. Know and Believe the Gospel

Third, know and believe the Gospel.  If it’s the Word of God’s grace, if it’s the Gospel itself by which we are build up, then we need to know and believe the Gospel.  We need to be Gospel people here at First Presbyterian Church.  Not only does that ensure that our hope is in the right place, but it helps us be better in sharing that hope with others who do not have it yet.  Know and believe the Gospel.

4. Remember Who and What It Is that Builds You Up

Fourth, remember who and what it is that builds you up.  Remember who and what it is that builds you up.  What does Paul say in Philippians chapter 2?  That God is at work in you.  God is at work in you.  It is God and the Word of His grace at work in you to build you up.  There will be times, and for many of you there have been times, when you felt there was no strength in you. That’s a good place to be every once in a while - to remember that we are utterly dependent on the who and the what that is at work in us to build us up.  Dependence is a good posture for you, First Presbyterian Church.  It could be possible for you to depend upon your resources.  It could be possible for you to depend upon your connections, to presume on your influence and your status.  It’s a good thing to be brought to the end, to be brought to the limits of our own personal resources so that we must depend on God.  It’s God who is at work in you to build you up.  It is His Word who is at work in you to build you up.  Remember that; don’t forget that.

5. Aspire to the Eternal Inheritance

And here’s the last thing.  Aspire to the eternal inheritance.  Aspire to the eternal inheritance.  Paul speaks of the inheritance that you will be given among those who are sanctified.  You remember David Felker quoting from Isaiah 55 during the serving of communion this morning?  Just turn back to Isaiah 55; you can just scan down.  Pick up especially with the first couple of verses but just scan down a few verses down the page and get the context of that quote.  He quoted, “Come, everyone who thirsts; come to the waters and he who has no money, come buy and eat.  Come buy wine and milk without money, without price.”  So that’s a free invitation to come and get what God provides.  And then it goes on.  Look at the second stanza.  “Why do you spend money for that which is not bread and your labor for that which does not satisfy?”  Now what’s Isaiah contrasting there?  People wanting things that will not last, will not work, will not satisfy as opposed to wanting the inheritance that will never end - God Himself and what He gives.  Now my friends, we - we’ve said this so many times - we have more than most Christians who have ever lived and it would be very easy for us to find our inheritance in things that do not last.  So Paul’s reminder in Acts 20 verse 32 and Isaiah’s reminder in Isaiah 55 is a reminder that we need to aspire to the eternal inheritance.  And that inheritance comes to us by the Word of God’s grace through Jesus.  Trust Jesus.  Let’s pray.

Heavenly Father, take us under Your wings into Your care.  Watch over us with the Word of Your grace, the Gospel.  Build us up by that grace.  Give us an inheritance that will never perish by that grace.  And do this all through Jesus.  We pray in Jesus’ name, amen.

Now would you please stand and receive the Lord’s benediction.  

Peace be to the brethren, and love with faith, from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, until the daybreak and the shadows flee away.  Amen.

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