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The Whole Counsel Of God


Acts 20


“Do you promise to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?” Every witness swears to do exactly this in court. It’s obvious why we are sworn to tell the truth: lying eliminates any possibility of justice. But a partial truth is also as false as an outright lie. “Did you see the bank employee place $5000 in her briefcase?” “Yes, I saw her do it.” The statement is true, but it’s only a partial truth — for the witness also knew that the bank employee had been instructed to place the $5000 in her briefcase in order to transport it to another branch. Any truth that is less than the whole truth has the force of a lie. In the same way when the whole truth is spoken but more than the truth is added to it, then even the whole truth has the force of a lie. “The truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth” means that there is no attempt to mislead, no attempt to falsify; there is neither anything said nor anything not said that will deceive anyone in any way. In other words, the witness is totally transparent.

When the apostle Paul was about to leave the congregation in Ephesus, where he had ministered for three years, and move on to Rome, he reminded the Christians in Ephesus, “I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God.”(Acts 20:27) He meant, “I have spoken the truth of God’s good news; I have spoken the whole truth, and only the truth; I am as transparent to the gospel as I can be.” What is “the whole counsel of God?” What aspects comprise the whole gospel? If we look at chapter 20 of Luke’s Acts of the Apostles we shall discover what Paul had in mind, what inflamed his heart.

I: — He tells the church elders in Ephesus that he testified “of repentance to God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.”(20:21) This is bedrock. This is the foundation. This is where Christian existence begins. Repentance to God means that the God we cannot escape in any case we shall now no longer flee. Repentance to God means that the God we have always ignored we are now going to honour and love and obey.

We must understand that repentance to God and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ are not two different matters. Jesus Christ is the presence and power of God in our midst. To repent (return to God) and to entrust ourselves to Jesus Christ; these are one and the same.

The result of this is that under God we move from being a creature of God to a child of God. Everyone is a creature of God (as are the animals, for that matter); children of God are those who have welcomed Jesus Christ, their elder brother, and in his company have been quickened by the invisible work of the Spirit.

Needless to say in discussing spiritual matters we can bring forward all kinds of illustrations from the realms of botany and zoology and psychology and history. Eventually, however, the illustrations are seen to be just that: illustrations, but never exact parallels. They can’t be parallels just because botany and zoology, psychology and history all pertain to what is natural; they all pertain to what occurs as a development within nature. To move from a creature of God to a child of God, however; from someone whom God loves to someone who loves God, from assuming God to be maker to intimate acquaintance with God as father; all of this arises from the infiltration of God’s Spirit. And for the work of God’s Spirit there may be many illustrations from nature but there are no parallels from nature, just because the work of God’s Spirit isn’t a natural occurrence.

It was years before I understood the importance of horse-breeding. In fact I didn’t appreciate the importance of horse-breeding until a friend, a physician who is a lung-specialist with a professional interest in pulmonary function, told me that by dint of the hardest athletic training the most any person can improve her lung capacity is 3%. Should I train as a rower or a long-distance runner? The hardest training will enable my lungs to perform only 3% better. In other words, before the athlete is trained the athlete has to have the proper genes. The athlete has to be born with an athletic potential that is trainable.

At this point I understood why “horsey” people are so fussy about the pedigree of a horse. There’s no point in training any horse at all for the Kentucky Derby. The only horse worth training is the horse that has already been bred. To be sure, Jesus trained disciples. But before he schooled them and subjected them to daily rigour; before he did any of this he called them, and they responded in repentance and faith. Therein, precisely there, they were conceived and quickened and birthed as his men and women whom he would subsequently school and train and use.

We have to begin at the beginning. “Repentance to God and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ” is this beginning. It is the foundation of “the whole counsel of God.”

II: — Another aspect of the “whole counsel” Paul speaks of when he declares, “I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable.”(20:20) The apostle had commended to anyone at any time anything that he deemed to be edifying, helpful, useful; anything that was instructive, enlightening, fruitful, beneficial. He did so because in the absence of what edifies there will invariably effervesce what coarsens; in the absence of ceaseless reiteration of what builds up or enriches there will inevitably appear what destroys or degrades. We never have to go out of our way to find any of this. All we need do is underemphasize, under-attend to all that is “profitable”, and instantly all that is demeaning and degrading and distressing will surge over us.

There is much evidence that our society has little appreciation of what is profitable, little appreciation of what ensues if we don’t know or don’t care or don’t hold up what is profitable. Several years ago a Canadian Prime Minister wished to explain to Canadians why his government had removed several expressions of sexual conduct from the criminal code. Assuming that what he put forward all Canadians of normal intelligence would see to be the soul of common sense he said, “The state has no business in the bedrooms of the nation.” Many people remarked to me how sound the prime minister’s remark was. But I thought differently. To be sure, I think I know why he said what he said and whom he wished (rightly) to protect. At the same time, I didn’t regard his statement as self-evidently wise. What happens in Canadian bedrooms isn’t the concern of legislators? What if what happens in the bedroom is cruel? What if it is exploitative? What if it is degrading? What if it is perverse? “Perverse!” a woman in the congregation exploded at me, “‘perverse’ is an old-fashioned term that has no relevance today. The sexual revolution means that no sexual conduct should be labelled perverse.” Whereupon I told her that according to what she had just said, paedophilia should be celebrated as sexual liberation. She was appalled, and told me that paedophilia was perverse in that it entailed the sexual exploitation of a child. Whereupon I asked her if it had to be a child who was exploited before we could use the term “perverse.” (In other words, is it acceptable to exploit an adult?) By now she was angry at me in that I had got her to admit that there is such a thing as perversion. When she fell silent I decided to ask her a question: “Do you think that all social sanctions should be withdrawn with respect to bestiality? Should bestiality be looked upon as one more sexual expression, as acceptable as any other?” Silence. My point is this: what virtually all Canadians regarded as self-evidently wise (the Prime Minister’s statement) I regarded as asinine.

It is plain that there is no agreement as to what is perverse and what is normal, what is acceptable and what is reprehensible. The apostle told the congregation in Ephesus that he had always declared what he deemed to be profitable, and had declared it just because he knew that congregations need to hear what is profitable. Then what is profitable? Let’s be sure we know. Let’s be sure we think more critically than those Canadians who didn’t assess the Prime Minister’s remark. Let’s be sure we know where we can learn what is profitable. Paul says he didn’t shrink from declaring to the Christians in Ephesus anything that was profitable.

III: — Next the little man from Tarsus informs us of another aspect of the whole counsel of God. In Acts 20:2 we are told that as he travelled through Macedonia he “gave them [i.e., the Christians whom he met] much encouragement.” We need to be encouraged; all of us need to be encouraged; all of us need to be encouraged all the time. Why do we need to be encouraged? Because we are either discouraged or uncouraged.

Now here we have to take a little detour in English grammar. The English prefix “dis” means that something that was once the case is no longer the case. A dismasted sailboat is a boat that had a mast once but has a mast no longer. (The mast was broken off in a storm.) The English prefix “un”, on the other hand, means that something has never been the case: undeveloped camera film is film that has never been developed.

The point is obvious. We need to be encouraged both when we are uncouraged and when we are discouraged. Sometimes we find ourselves in new situations where fear freezes us; we are face-to-face with danger or threat or simply the unknown concerning something that we are looking at for the first time; at this point we are uncouraged and need to be heartened. At other times we find ourselves in situations that aren’t new; we’ve been in them before — and just because we’ve been there before, we are discouraged and need to be heartened. I am convinced that while we certainly do find ourselves uncouraged in life as we face something new, we find ourselves discouraged far more often. Most of life isn’t new; most of life is old; in fact, most of life is “same old.” That’s just the problem. We are discouraged far more often than we are uncouraged. Most often it’s the same old thing: same old letdown, same old betrayal, same old disappointment, same old frustration, same old sacrifice thrown back in our face, same old experience of giving, giving, giving while the “leeches” around us are satisfied with taking, taking, taking. We are discouraged in the face of the “same, old”; we are uncouraged in the face of the “different, new.” Since life is far more same than different, far more old than new, we are chiefly discouraged.

Then how are we to be encouraged? How will the whole counsel of God encourage us? We need to keep in our hearts the truth that we are not the only players on the stage of life; we are not the only actors in the drama. As was the case with the three young men in Nebuchadnezzar’s fiery furnace, we are not alone. There is another one present whose presence counts for more than anyone else’s; this one’s presence is determinative. Because of this extraordinary player, the drama can never finally be tragic; the drama can never finally be pointless; it can never finally be inconclusive.

At the same time, when I need to be encouraged I find I am sent or given whatever I need to demonstrate once more the secret effectiveness of the extraordinary player in the drama. For instance, not so long ago I received a letter from a woman who had been a psychiatric patient in Mississauga Hospital years ago. She was writing me to encourage me, she said, inasmuch as I had encouraged her most tellingly when she was struggling for life in every sense of the word. Needless to say I did for her neither more nor less than I should expect any clergyman to do for her. No matter: her letter told me that at one point I had stood between her and an unravelling so pronounced as to be unimaginable.

In the providence of God, what is sent you or given you or shown you that profoundly encourages you, and encourages you particularly with respect to the truth and triumph of the kingdom?

(ii) There is another means by which we are encouraged, whether we need encouraging because we are uncouraged or discouraged: we are encouraged by something as simple as our bodily proximity to each other. I never weary of those two verses from the two shortest books in the New Testament, John’s second epistle and his third. In one verse of each letter John says that he wants to see his fellow-believers face-to-face, so that their joy (his and theirs) may be complete. (2 J.12, 3 J.13) Surely to find our joy complete in each other’s bodily presence is to find ourselves encouraged. Joy throbs only where discouragement is dispelled.

When I return home from a holiday, especially the sort of holiday that entails a protracted absence, the first thing I have to do is look up my friends; I have to go and see them. What do my friends and I talk about when we are beholding each other face-to-face? We talk about what we could just as easily talk about over the telephone. Then why get together? Because meeting bodily does for us both, does for our friendship, what no telephone conversation will ever do. The profoundest human meeting is always a bodily meeting.

If all of this is true with respect to natural friendships, how much more telling it is if we are going to encourage each others in matters of the Spirit.

IV: — The whole counsel of God includes something more; it includes admonition, warning, even heartache. Paul says to the elders in Ephesus, “For three years I did not cease night or day to admonish every one with tears.”(20:31) At the same time that Paul was encouraging every one in Ephesus he was also admonishing every one. Why? What was occurring within the congregation that found Paul admonishing every one with tears night and day? To answer our question we must look at two other N.T. documents that speak of the congregation in Ephesus.

In his letter to the Corinthian Christians Paul writes, “I fought with beasts at Ephesus.”(1 Cor. 15:32) He doesn’t mean that he fought literally with wild beasts as a gladiator in an arena. Paul was a Roman citizen, and no Roman citizen could be forced into gladiatorial combat. “I fought with beasts at Ephesus” means “I had to contend with influential people in the congregation who were bent on distorting the gospel and dismembering the people.” In any congregation there can always appear those who knowingly or unknowingly deny the gospel, denature the gospel, and damage the congregation. These people may wreak their havoc through ignorance, through stupidity, through folly, through malice; but whatever their motive and however they behave, they are distressing and dangerous; they have to be resisted. Paul contended with them when he lived for three years with the Christians in Ephesus. He admonished others to resist these gospel-deniers as well.

But why does he say that he admonished night and day with tears? To answer this question we must turn to the book of Revelation. There we are told that the congregation in Ephesus was noted for its energy and its orthodoxy: energetically it had fended off any and all false teaching. Good. The gospel-deniers hadn’t been allowed to reach first base. Good. And yet the congregation in Ephesus was known for one thing more, says the book of Revelation (2:4): it had lost its first love.

What was its first love? What did it mean to lose it? There are two aspects of losing one’s first love. (i) The congregation in Ephesus was so very determined to fend off false teaching (as it should) that it became hard and harsh itself; it became more concerned with doctrinal precision than with whole-soulled, self-forgetful, other-embracing love. In its zeal for doctrinal purity it settled for spiritual sterility; it allowed love to evaporate. (ii) The second aspect of losing one’s first love is simply a matter of having one’s love for one’s spouse weaken and weaken until it dies out. According to the prophet Jeremiah (2:2) God says to Israel, “I remember; I remember…your love as a bride, how you followed me in the wilderness.” Israel’s love for God was once new and fresh and vibrant and resolute; Israel’s love for God was once so ardent that Israel would follow God anywhere, even amidst wilderness hardships. And then the ardour and ecstasy of her love declined, and declined still more, until finally Israel lost her love for God. The book of Revelation says that this had happened with the congregation in Ephesus. Its love for its Lord had grown cold; its love for people had grown cold as, under pressure from the gospel-deniers, it became more concerned with doctrinal precision than with self-denying compassion.

Concerning this matter the message to any congregation is so obvious that I shall not say another word about it.

V: — Lastly, at the end of his address to the congregation in Ephesus Paul says, “I coveted no one’s silver or gold or apparel. You yourselves know that these hands ministered to my necessities, and to those who were with me.”(20:33-34) Paul is reminding his hearers that all the time he was with them in Ephesus he didn’t sponge off them; he wasn’t a freeloader; he didn’t try to enrich himself by means of the gospel; he wasn’t a financial schemer; in fact he had no hidden agenda at all. Moreover, in envying nobody’s silver or gold or clothing he didn’t poison the congregation with that envy which always poisons congregational life. In short, he neither enriched himself nor poisoned others.

Paul is now speaking not of the content of the whole counsel of God but rather of the manner in which the whole counsel is delivered. At the end of the day the content of our witness and the style of our witness must be found to enhance each other. They will be found enhancing each other as long as in our encouraging, in our admonishing, in our exhorting to repentance and faith, in our speaking the profitable word; as long as in all that we do we continue to cherish, glory in, and find ourselves ravished by our first love.

                                                                     Victor Shepherd  

  April 2002