Paul’s Discourse to the Elders at Ephesus
Having concluded his third missionary journey, the apostle Paul hurriedly was making his way toward Jerusalem, hoping to arrive in that renowned city before the Jewish Pentecost (doubtless because of the great crowds that would be assembled). Sailing southward in the Aegean Sea (that arm of the Mediterranean between Greece and Asia Minor) the apostle came to Miletus. Miletus was an ancient seaport on the western coast of Asia Minor. It was the birth-place of the Greek philosopher Thales.
Since Paul was to be in Miletus for two or three days (probably while his
ship changed cargo), he sent for the elders of the church in Ephesus — some
thirty miles away — that he might briefly visit with them. For three years
(Acts 20:31; cf. 19:8,10,22) he had closely labored with these brothers, and
now, anticipating that he would see them no more, he desired to communicate with these bishops of the Lord’s church.
This presentation (Acts 20:18-35) is the only example in the book of Acts
of Paul addressing an exclusively Christian audience. The speech is personal, admonitory, and exhortative. Topically, it may be studied under three headings — Paul’s claims, his charge, and his commendation.
The noble apostle was not without his critics wherever he went, and this apparently included Ephesus. Some seem to have been attacking Paul in his absence, and so he deems it advisable to remind them of his credentials while among them.
First, he affirms that he was a servant of the Lord. The implication is this: at the point of his conversion he had surrendered all his personal rights; he had become the property of Jesus Christ; he was totally at his Master’s disposal.
Further, in this connection he mentions several qualities
characteristic of his servitude. Note:
- He was a humble servant, possessing that “lowliness of mind” that thrusts the interests of others to the forefront. As he later explained the matter, the Christian should count the other person better than himself in terms of service (see Phil. 2:3).
- He had been a sympathetic servant. His heart had gone out to those who were entrenched in sin. One is reminded of how the apostle wrote to the Corinthians “with many tears” (2 Cor. 2:4). He informed the Philippian brethren that when he thought about those who were enemies of the cross he wept (Phil. 3:18); so, similarly, had he served his Lord among the Ephesians with tears night and day (Acts 20:19,31).
- At Ephesus, Paul had also been a persecuted servant of Christ. “Trials” had befallen him. For example, the Jews had plotted against his welfare. Moreover, his life had been in danger when the apostle dared to tell the idol-worshippers of that great city that gods that are made with hands are, in fact, no gods at all (Acts 19:26).
Paul knew what it was like to be a victim of true religious hatefulness, and daily he laid his life on the line. Read 2 Corinthians 11:23ff [which was written shortly after the apostle left Ephesus] and observe the abuse to which this brother was heir!
- But the apostle also stresses that he was an independent servant of the Lord. By that we mean that he was never a financial burden to these brethren. Paul was not adverse to receiving monetary support from his brethren. The congregation at Philippi had generously sustained the tireless preacher (cf. Phil. 1:5; 4:14ff), and he plainly taught that it was the church’s duty to assist those who labor in proclaiming the truth (1 Cor. 9:1ff; Gal. 6:6).
Occasionally, though, Paul had refused support from some brethren. And so of his work in Ephesus he could claim: “I coveted no man’s silver, or gold, or apparel. You yourselves know that these hands ministered unto my necessities, and to them that were with me” (Acts 20:33,34). Making tents by night (Acts 18:3) and proclaiming the Word by day; such doubtless was the routine of the selfless servant of the Lord Jesus.
Second, though, the peerless apostle declared that he was a proclaimer of
the gospel. Again, there are a number of descriptions that detail the type
of preacher that Paul was.
- The substance of his message was spiritual, not secular or social. He proclaimed the true God and His Son, Jesus Christ. He announced that in repentance men should turn to God and in faith submit to the Messiah (20:21). Paul testified concerning the “good news” of the availability of Heaven’s grace (20:24) by means of obedience to the gospel (cf. 2 Thes. 1:8).
Too, he went about “preaching the kingdom” (v. 25). One can only wonder how certain modern preachers view this passage, in light of their claims that an understanding of the nature of Christ’s “kingdom” is irrelevant to genuine gospel obedience.
- Paul was a thoroughly courageous minister of the truth, uncompromising in character. He asserted:
“I shrank not from declaring unto you anything that was profitable . . . I testify unto you this day, that I am pure from the blood of all men. For I shrank not from declaring unto you the whole counsel of God” (20,26,27).
The criterion of the apostle’s preaching was, “What is spiritually profitable?” — not, “What is socially popular?” How many preachers of today’s church have sold their souls for a mess of popular pottage? When was the last time you heard your preacher condemn salacious conduct, adulterous liasions, gambling, covetousness, substance abuse, profanity, sexually oriented entertainment, etc.? Is a discussion of such matters no longer spiritually profitable?
- Paul was a versatile minister. He was equally at home publicly preaching the message, or in a personal setting from house to house (20).
- The apostle was an unprejudiced preacher, testifying to both Jews and Greeks (21), for he knew the gospel was the power to save both (Rom. 1:16-17).
- Finally, he was a serenely confident preacher. Though the Spirit had warned that in every city bonds and afflictions awaited him (23), and even now he went “bound in the spirit unto Jerusalem,” nonetheless he recognized that there is more to human existence than the mere physical. He did not hold his earthly life personally so precious as to preserve it at all cost. His aim was to accomplish his course and to fulfill the ministry (24), because to this end he had been divinely appointed. What a spirit of self-sacrifice. What tranquility of soul. What a man!
In addition to a defense of his ministerial integrity, Paul charges these shepherds of God’s flock with certain grave responsibilities. Let us consider several valuable admonitions.
- The elders were to take heed unto themselves (28). Self-analysis is always a necessity for the faithful child of God, and surely such is to be underscored for leaders of the Lord’s family.
The Scriptures are filled with exhortations to “examine yourselves” (2 Cor. 13:5), teach yourself (Rom. 2:21), show yourself approved (2 Tim. 2:15), consider yourself lest you be tempted (Gal. 6:1), exercise yourself unto godliness (1 Tim. 4:7), keep yourself pure (1 Tim. 5:22), and such like. No man can be an effective leader who does not first set the proper example. Our Lord both did and taught the truth (Acts 1:1).
- The bishops were to take heed unto the flock (28). There is nothing more worthless than a shepherd who is neglectful of the flock entrusted to him. The prophet Isaiah dealt with this principle in a stinging rebuke to the corrupt leaders of ancient Israel.
“His watchmen are blind, they are all without knowledge; they are all dumb dogs, they cannot bark; dreaming, lying down, loving to slumber” (Isa. 56:10).
Careless leaders are characterized by greed, selfishness, and worldliness. There are some men in the Lord’s church today who serve under the guise of elders, but who do not do the work of elders. They want the position and power that usually attaches to the role, but they eschew the appointed spiritual responsibility.
In connection with their responsibility to give heed to the flock, the elders are charged with the duty of feeding the church of God (28). This implies, of course, that elders must be men who have a respectable knowledge of the Bible and who have the ability to effectively teach the Holy Scriptures (cf. 1 Tim. 3:2).
This means that the bishops themselves must be sound in the faith. They must allow only faithful saints to occupy the pulpits and classrooms of the local church. They must be cognizant of the literature that is being used in the Bible class program. They must see to it that the church is fed a rich, well-balanced diet of spiritual truth.
It is a tragedy that some elders in the Lord’s church have been selected on the basis of their success in business, finance, etc., rather than because of their spiritual qualifications, and the church has suffered the consequences of such a shallow and unscriptural approach.
It is also worthy of observation that Paul foretold an impending corruption of the faith (both from within and without the church – vv. 29-30). The elders, therefore, were to “watch” (31) for those “grievous wolves” who would assault the flock as an invading enemy. Likewise they were to keep on the lookout for false teachers who would arise within the body of Christ (some even from within the eldership). Such leaders would draw disciples away after them.
Men who allow the doctrinal corruption of the congregation over which they serve, are unworthy of the title “shepherd.” Christ once said:
“He that is a hireling, and not a shepherd, whose own the sheep are not, sees the wolf coming, and leaves the sheep, and flees; and the wolf catches the sheep and scatters them: he flees because he is a hireling, and does not care about the sheep” (Jn. 10:12-13).
It is likely that much of the apostasy that now plagues the church of the Lord never would have come if some elders had been doing their jobs.
- Finally, Paul emphasizes that taking heed to the flock also involves helping those who are weak.
“In all things I gave you an example, that so laboring you ought to help the weak, and to remember the words of the Lord Jesus, that he himself said, It is more blessed to give than to receive” (35).
Those who are weak in the faith must be encouraged; the strong ought to help bear their infirmities and not to please themselves (cf. Rom. 14:1; 15:1).
Paul’s instruction to “admonish the disorderly, encourage the fainthearted, support the weak, be long-suffering toward all” (1 Thes. 5:14), is good advice for anyone, and especially for elders and preachers. And so, Paul’s charge to these good men was straight to the point, and we ourselves also must consider the principles involved.
Paul’s Concluding Commendation
The apostle’s commendation for these brothers has a two-fold thrust. It stresses Jehovah’s part, and man’s part, in bringing the Christian to ultimate spiritual maturity.
First he says, “I commend you to God” (32). That means he commends them to the care and keeping of their heavenly Father. Paul believed in the providential activity of God for His people. God is not a remote deity disinterested in His children!
Second, Paul commends the brothers to “the word of His grace” which is able to build up and provide an inheritance among the sanctified. But that “word of his grace” will never avail on the shelf! It must be taken into the heart and translated into daily action. Let us thus receive with meekness the implanted word which is able to save our souls (Jas. 1:21).
Paul’s farewell address to the elders of Ephesus is a remarkable one indeed, and the precious principles it contains are as valuable for this generation as for that of the first century.