The Eighth Sunday after Trinity: Declaring the Whole Counsel of God

Hymns: LSB 865, 745, 623, 578, 689
Readings: Jeremiah 23:16-29, Acts 20:27-38, Matthew 7:15-23

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

Our second reading today is from the book of Acts in which St. Paul is giving an address to Elders (that is, pastors) at Ephesus. The reading ends in a startling way, for, after Paul is done speaking, the Elders are “sorrowful most of all because of the word that he had spoken, that they would not see his face again. And they accompanied him to the ship” (Acts 20:38).

You see, they were not sorrowful because Paul told them he did not shrink from declaring to them the whole counsel of God (Acts 20:27). Instead, they were sorrowful that this was Paul’s last visit to them, and they would not see him again in this life.

The Ephesian pastors grew fond of Paul as he had spent a considerable amount of time with them. Having first brought the Gospel to them in Paul’s Second Missionary Journey, he then stayed with them for three years on his Third Missionary Journey. It is possible that he was imprisoned during part of that time for faithfully preaching the Gospel. After spending his three years in Ephesus (which is on the western edge of modern-day Turkey), Paul continued on his missionary journey by preaching the Gospel in Greece. On his way back to Jerusalem, he summoned the Elders at Ephesus. They go out to meet him and he speaks to them the words of our reading today in the book of Acts.

His address begins 9 verses before the reading we heard today. Paul pointed out that despite the persecution he received from the Jews, he taught publicly the Word of God, testifying to both Jews and Greeks repentance toward God and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. Then he explains that he must go to Jerusalem where affliction awaits him. He did not know what this all entailed or how much he would endure, but he knew that he was never returning to Ephesus. And he never did. He would go to Rome, where he would write in his final epistles and then die, probably by beheading.

 So, it is no wonder, then, that the Elders at Ephesus were sorrowful for what Paul had spoken, even though Paul’s words were so good and comforting.

Our reading today begins with these words: “I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27). What Paul is saying is that during the three years he was with the saints at Ephesus, he taught them the pure and whole word of God. He did not keep things back that he figured some would not like. Instead, he taught that whole truth and nothing but the truth.

I’m sure it would have been tempting for Paul to hold some things back. He had to deal with the Judaizers who taught a system of works for salvation. He had to deal with many Jews who did not feel that Jesus is the true Messiah who had come to take away the sin of the world. He had to address rampant immorality that was common in ancient Greek culture—much of which is similar to the things we face—fornication, homosexuality, divorce, and even pedophilia. He had to address those learned Greeks who saw Christianity as foolishness.

Preaching Christ crucified proved to be a stumbling block to many. Helping the people understand the distinction between the Old Testament Ceremonial Law which was fulfilled in Christ and the Moral Law which still stands also proved to be a challenge—a challenge that still vexes people to this day. At Ephesus, there were godless people and many who believed other religions.

Yet Paul did not hold back. He preached the whole counsel of God.

Today, we live in a similar climate. I suppose those who accept the idea of a god is lower today, but the temptations man faced then are like what man faces today. The flesh is still the same. In our day, we are focused less on survival and more on pleasure, for surviving is far easier today with the abundance of food and all the modern amenities.

Many today are tempted to hold back certain teachings to try to draw in new converts to Christianity. Some churches do this by deliberately withholding some Biblical teachings. Others go further by asserting that some Biblical teachings are no longer God’s Word for today. As I mentioned last week, the Creation account is one of those teachings. Since our society has so thoroughly accepted the theory of evolution as scientific fact, many Christians have replaced the reliable Biblical narrative with the theories of man.

Another example is the ordination of women. This may seem reasonable in our society, but God has expressly forbidden it. Women are certainly capable of the functions of the pastoral office, but God requires men in this position because pastors operate in the stead of Christ, who is wed to His bride, the Church.

The Biblical understanding of marriage has fallen on hard times. Divorce is taken quite lightly by most churches. Same with cohabitation. It is common today for those who are cohabiting or fornicating prior to marriage have their actions blessed by the church when their church does a church wedding for them, no questions asked. These couples, then, are never called to repentance and they remain secure in their sin. This can lead them to eternal death, all the while the church played a part in their condemnation.

This is precisely why Jesus warns against false prophets. They look and seem rather nice, since they are wearing sheep’s clothing. They say what the people want to hear, as they did in Jeremiah’s day. These false prophets don’t come with red horns wielding pitchforks, as we want to picture them. No, they’re they nice guys who sound good. They’ll use biblical phrases. They’ll teach many biblical truths. But then they will mix biblical truths with error. They’ll say nice things to those who may be wondering if it is ok to depart from the Bible in some places. They may even take Bible-believing Christians and plant seeds of doubt to cause Christians to figure that maybe things have now changed in the 21st century. And it is all quite subtle.

That’s why Christian preachers must be willing to say with Paul that they did not shrink from declaring the whole counsel of God. Preachers are to “preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching” (2 Tim. 4:2). Why? “The time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths (2 Tim. 4:3-4). This should serve as a warning for us all. It is easy to stray off the path of pure doctrine and adopt false belief. It is easy to look around and see what everyone else believes and go with that instead of what the Scriptures teach. Satan wants nothing more than to pull us away from divine truth and lead us down the path of lies and myths until we lose our faith and face eternal death.

What’s at stake in all of this is not biblical creation, marriage, or who can be pastors, as important as these matters are. Something even greater is at stake: the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

You see, there are many out there who deny the person and work of Jesus, while at the same time claim to believe in Jesus. There are many out there who teach that works somehow contribute towards one’s salvation. There are many out there who deny who God really is—the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. In fact, an increasing number of churches are not even using the proper name of the Triune God when they are baptizing. They don’t want to use the gender-specific language of “I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” They come up with other words to use, which then means they aren’t speaking God’s Word and when they aren’t speaking God’s Word, they aren’t actually baptizing.

Souls everywhere, even among our neighbors, are losing their faith because of the work of religious-sounding types who are misleading God’s people with their pious, religious-sounding lies.

Therefore, as St. Paul told the Ephesian Elders, be alert. Know the Word of God so that you can distinguish biblical truth from the lies and inventions of man. And boldly pass on the biblical truths. Teach them to your children and your children’s children. Teach them to your friends, family, and neighbors. They need to hear of Christ and His forgiving love.

It was in love that Jesus warned against false prophets. And it was in love that Jesus went to the cross to pay for the sins of the world. Jesus shed His innocent Blood on our behalf to atone for the sins of all people. He paid for the sins of the false prophets. He paid for our sins of desiring to depart from God’s pure Word or water down biblical truths. So let us turn away from our sin and turn toward Christ. Let us hear Him as our Savior who loves us and laid down His life for us. Remember that He is God and He made us. He loves us and redeemed us by His sacrificial death on the cross. He gives us life and salvation as a completely free gift. Amen.

The peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus to life everlasting. Amen