When Paul called the Ephesian elders to himself in Miletus (Acts 20), he recounted his three years of service before them. His words focused on preparing the elders whom he loved and labored with for the challenges they would soon face. Just as Paul fought the beasts of Ephesus (see 1 Corinthians 15:32), so too they would have to protect God’s sheep from the goats and boars who would come to ravage the Lord’s vineyard in Ephesus.
Reading Acts 20 recently, Paul’s words in verses 18–-20 struck a nerve. He writes,
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, serving the Lord with all humility and with tears and with trials that happened to me through the plots of the Jews; how I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, and teaching you in public and from house to house
Humility. Tears. Trials.
As Paul faithfully preached the gospel, he encountered humbling trials, tear-filled circumstances, and strong opposition for simply doing what God has said to do. For Paul, this was business as usual (see 1 Corinthians 4:12–13), but Paul shares these difficulties to remind the elders that it was their calling too. For anyone called to speak God’s Word—one might think of Paul, or Jesus, or the prophets of old—is likewise called to a ministry of suffering and sorrow. Sorrow was and is a natural and necessary emotion for God’s servant of the Word.
Strikingly, in Acts 20, tears are mentioned three times: (1) as Paul recalled his fruitful ministry of the Word in Ephesus (v. 19); (2) as he called the elders to be alert of false teachers (v. 31); and (3) when the elders and Paul part, realizing they will never see one another again, they wept (vv. 37–-38). In all of these places, tears are the natural and necessary part of genuine ministry. Indeed, it is worth considering these tears, as they prepare us for service and alert us to the high cost of laboring in the Lord’s vineyard.
The Tears of Faith, Hope, and Love
1. Tears for loved ones who rejected the gospel.
In verse 19 Paul reminds them why he cried. For three years he admonished his people to obey the Word of God. In this labor of love, it moved him to tears. From the context, we know that he faced many trials from the Jews (v. 19). Such opposition from Paul’s kindred according to the flesh brought Paul great pain. In fact, as he will say in Romans 9:2, the Jews refusal to believe in their messiah brought him “great sorrow and unceasing anguish” (v. 2).
Paul’s tears remind us how personal the ministry is and ought to be. Paul was not an aloof herald of truth. Rather, he pleaded for people to trust in Christ and he wept when they refused. His tears may have been related to the circumstantial hardships of life, but more likely, as the gospel informed everything else in his life, so his tears. Paul wept for those who plotted against him and for those who refused his message. These tears protected him from anger and actually impelled him to keep serving. We should learn from him and weep for those who reject the gospel, so that we do not grow cynical in the work.
2. Tears soften strong words.
Next, Paul speaks of the tears he shed as he admonished the Ephesians. Grammatically, the preposition “with tears” qualifies the meaning of the participle “admonished,” a word that means to instruct or warn. Practically, these tears soften the perceived harshness of of a loving rebuke. In other words, to those who need reproof and correct, one can come in a spirit of harshness or in a spirit of gentleness. The former is exemplified in someone like Rehoboam, who said “My father made your yoke heavy, but I will add to it. My father disciplined you with whips, but I will discipline you with scorpions” (2 Chronicles 10:14). In Israel, Rehoboam had authority to lead his people, but counseled by other young men, he did not have love (or tact). It is all too easy (for “champions of the truth”) to lead people with this kind of harsh admonition.
By contrast, Paul models a kind of leadership that is empowered by the Spirit, where he is compassionate, not complacent. He speaks the truth in love, as he teaches us to do in Ephesians 4:15. Such love drives him to instruct, reprove, correct, and warn, but it also brings him to tears as he so desires to see Christ formed in the life of his disciples. Tears, therefore, are not a technique to soften harsh words; they are the genuine article of a heart burdened to see Christ’s disciples walk in faith, hope, and love.
Rightly understood, Paul’s tears remind us that faithful servants of God do more than dispense true words; we must patiently and persistently admonish God’s people with the very compassion of Christ. At the same time, the only way a minister of the gospel can persist in ministry, as Paul says “night and day,” is with tears. Tears protect us from the hard-heartedness that comes from seeing people sin, stray, and scoff. They lead us back to the One who collects all our tears in a bottle (Psalm 56:8), the One who comforts us so that we can comfort others (2 Corinthians 1). In this way, tears are a necessary part of the ministry and should not be resisted by disciples of Christ.
3. Tears set our hopes upon heaven.
The last place we find tears in Acts 20 is on the way to the ship as Paul and his beloved co-laborers depart for the last time on earth. Verses 37–38 read, “And there was much weeping on the part of all; they embraced Paul and kissed him, being sorrowful most of all because of the word he had spoken, that they would not see his face again. And they accompanied him to the ship.”
In this farewell scene, both parties felt the loss of one another’s friendship. And like Jesus at Lazarus’ grave, they wept. Yet, also like the scene in John 11, these tears remind us of the Christian’s blessed hope—that one day every tear will be wiped away and every sorrow eternally comforted (see Revelation 21:4).
In truth, there is a temptation in our fallen world to steel ourselves from emotional pain and to avoid relationships that might result in tears. For anyone who has been neglected, rejected, abandoned, or abused, it is understandably difficult to open up to others, as such vulnerability reawakens old pains and invites new ones. Naturally, we want to be happy, and thus the thought of pursuing relationships that might result in loss is unpleasant. And yet, what Paul and the Ephesian elders model is a temporary sorrow that will result in greater eternal joy.
It’s impossible to read Paul’s letters and not see that his eternal joy is attached to the hope of seeing his disciples, his children in the faith, walk worthy of the gospel and enter into glory (e.g., 1 Thessalonians 1–2). Paul’s earthly tears, therefore, water the ground where he sows the seeds of the gospel. And thus, he sows in tears, in order to reap a harvest in joy. As Psalm 126:6 puts it, “He who goes out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, bringing his sheaves with him.”
If we take this harvest mindset seriously, we should conclude that the more tears we shed the more comfort we will receive in glory. The more relationships in the Lord we have now that bring sorrow to us, the more we rejoice when we are reunited in glory. Indeed, the call to follow Christ is a call to be like the man of sorrows, a way of life that amplifies tears now, but promises greater reward in the age to come, when our God’s eternal weight of glory makes these sorrows look light and momentary.
Tears in the Night, But Joy in the Morning
This is a tear-full way of life is one the world does not understand. It is a pattern of living that the worldly rejects. But for those in Christ who have been given a new heart, we rightly grieve over sin and the suffering of this age. And instead of fleeing from people and problems that bring tears, we (with the power of the Spirit) press into them. Tears, therefore, are a good and necessary part of the disciple’s life, and all the more for those serving in the church.
As Psalm 30:5 says, “Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning.” Indeed, heavenly joy always comes on the other side of tears.
With that in mind, let us not avoid the sorrows of life and ministry, but embrace them as the mantle we wear until the day when we see Christ and he wipes all our tears away. This is counter-intuitive to our hedonistic age, but it is the sure way to follow Christ and store up treasures and joy in heaven. As my seminary has sung for more than 150 years,
Morning and evening sow the seed,
God’s grace the effort shall succeed.
Seedtimes of tears have oft been found
With sheaves of joy and plenty crowned.
We meet to part, but part to meet
When earthly labors are complete,
To join in yet more blest employ,
In an eternal world of joy.
— Basil Manly, “Soldiers of Christ in Truth Arrayed”
Soli Deo Gloria, ds