Sanctify Them Through Thy Truth (2): End of Apostolic Era

Some time in 62 AD, a group of men gathered at Miletus, on the shores of the Aegean Sea. They had traveled the 50 miles from nearby Ephesus at the summons of the man who now stood in their midst. He was not a physically impressive figure – short, bowlegged, and scarred from much mistreatment. For all that, the men listened hungrily to his words. This man, after all, was Paul, the apostle who had endured so much hardship that the gospel might reach them, who had been instrumental in their salvation, and who had instructed them in the truth of God.

But as they listened to Paul’s words, the reminiscent smiles faded, their faces displayed disbelief and then, with welling tears, deep grief. Their beloved guide and mentor was telling them, with a clarity that left no room for misunderstanding, that they would see his face no more. The words seemed incomprehensible. How could it be that the apostle was going to be taken from them? How would they, how would the other churches survive without his support and guidance?

The apostle understood how they were feeling and had the answer to the questions that burgeoned in their minds. Reminding them that he had declared to them “all the counsel of God” (Acts 20:27), he directed them to the ongoing source of their preservation and guidance: “And now, brethren, I commend you to God, and to the Word of His grace, which is able to build you up, and to give you an inheritance among all them which are sanctified” (v 32). The full implications of this great commendation may not have immediately penetrated the grief of the Ephesian elders but, in days that lay ahead, they would surely have begun to understand the value of the resources to which Paul had directed them. True, the apostle would be gone and they would no longer be able to hear his voice or seek his advice, but they had assets of even greater value. They had the same God, and they had “the Word of His grace.” This was sufficient to edify and to preserve both them and the flock.

There is a great poignancy and tenderness about the event recorded in Acts 20. But it could hardly have been unique. Many churches must have experienced a similar grief and sense of loss as the apostolic era began to draw to an end. And such believers must surely have turned with renewed eagerness to the Word of God as their most vital support and guide. It is certainly significant that the three apostolic writers of Scripture each emphasize the importance and the value of Scripture in their final writings.

Peter, like Paul, is careful when he writes, “Knowing that shortly I must put off this my tabernacle, even as our Lord Jesus Christ hath shewed me” (2Peter 1:14). It was a foremost priority that those who had benefited from his ministry would be “able after [his] decease to have these things always in remembrance” (v 15). So he reminds them again of the reality and the certainty of the “power and coming of Jesus Christ” (v 16). He attests to the authenticity of these events, based on what he saw (v 16) and what he heard (v 18). But this assurance might well have served to deepen the gloom of his readers. After all, they had in Peter a wonderful link with the events of the incarnation. But he himself had warned them that this link was about to break. Could anything possibly take the place of the apostle and his experiential knowledge of Christ? Peter’s answer is “Yes.” In fact, the resource to which he points them supersedes and surpasses even his firsthand testimony: “We have also a more sure word of prophecy; whereunto ye do well that ye take heed, as unto a light that shineth in a dark place, until the day dawn, and the day star arise in your hearts” (v 19). For Peter, it is the certainty of Scripture that stands out. The believers would soon be without any surviving witnesses of Christ’s life and death, but they would not be in any real sense impoverished. They had the record of the apostles, and they had a more sure word of prophecy. Scripture, inspired by the Holy Spirit, has a reliability beyond the impressions of our senses.

We have already seen Paul’s concern that the Ephesian elders be directed, in his absence, to the Word of God. In his final writing he displays precisely the same concern. As part of his final charge to Timothy, Paul reminds him of the value and reliability of Scripture “given by inspiration of God” (2Tim 3:16). He also stresses the comprehensiveness and sufficiency of Scripture – it is “profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: that the man of God may be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works” (2Tim 3:16-17). In the Bible there is provision for every exigency of the Christian life. No other formation was required – no additional education or training was necessary for Timothy’s preparation to “every good work,” and none is necessary for ours. It is noteworthy that it is Peter, the apostle, who had so much firsthand experience with Christ, Who prefers revelation above that experience. The learned Paul, who had an education that Peter – or any of us – could only dream of, emphasizes that Scripture, and Scripture alone is comprehensively sufficient.

John, in the book of Revelation brings to a close not only his writings, but Scripture itself. John stresses not so much the certainty or the comprehensiveness of Scripture but its completeness: “For I testify unto every man that heareth the words of the prophecy of this book, if any man shall add unto these things, God shall add unto him the plagues that are written in this book: and if any man shall take away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part out of the book of life, and out of the holy city, and from the things which are written in this book” (Rev 22:18-19). God’s revelation cannot be added to, for we have all that we need; it cannot be taken from, for we need all that we have. In Scripture we have “the whole counsel of God” and nothing more or less than that could be sufficient to direct His people through the centuries of testimony.

The vast majority of the Church’s history took place after the departure of the apostles. Yet, it is not a history of an impoverished Church left to grope her way in a vague and uncertain twilight. God’s people had – and have – God’s Word. In the completed canon of Scripture we have a spiritual wealth of certainty, comprehensiveness, and completeness.