Acts Lesson Forty-three: Acts 20:17-38 – Paul Addresses the Ephesian Church

17 Now from Miletus, he sent to Ephesus and called for the elders of the church. 18 And when they came to him, he said to them: “You know, from the first day I set foot in Asia, how I was with you the whole time — 19 serving the Lord with all humility, with tears, and with the trials that came to me through the plots of the Jews — 20 and that I did not shrink back from proclaiming to you anything that was profitable or from teaching it to you in public and from house to house. 21 I testified to both Jews and Greeks about repentance toward God  and faith in our Lord Jesus. 

22 “And now I am on my way to Jerusalem, bound in my spirit,  not knowing what I will encounter there,  23 except that in town after town the Holy Spirit testifies to me that chains and afflictions are waiting for me.  24 But I count my life of no value to myself, so that I may finish my course  and the ministry  I received from the Lord Jesus,  to testify to the gospel of God’s grace. 

25 “And now I know that none of you will ever see my face again—everyone I went about preaching the kingdom to. 26 Therefore I testify to you this day that I am innocent  of everyone’s blood,  27 for I did not shrink back from declaring to you the whole plan of God.  28 Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock  that the Holy Spirit has appointed you to as overseers,  to shepherd the church of God,  which He purchased with His own blood.  29 I know that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock. 30 And men will rise up from your own number with deviant doctrines to lure the disciples into following them.  31 Therefore be on the alert, remembering that night and day for three years I did not stop warning each one of you with tears. 

32 “And now  I commit you to God and to the message of His grace,  which is able to build you up and to give you an inheritance  among all who are sanctified. 33 I have not coveted anyone’s silver or gold or clothing.  34 You yourselves know that these hands have provided for my needs and for those who were with me.  35 In every way I’ve shown you that by laboring like this, it is necessary to help the weak and to keep in mind the words of the Lord Jesus, for He said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’ ” 

36 After he said this, he knelt down and prayed with all of them.  37 There was a great deal of weeping by everyone. They embraced Paul and kissed him, 38 grieving most of all over his statement that they would never see his face again. Then they escorted him to the ship. (HCSB)

I’ll divide this lesson into four parts.

  • A review of the past – verses 17-21.
  • A testimony of the present – verses 22-27.
  • A warning about the future – verses 28-31.
  • A final blessing – verses 32-38.

A Review of the Past

Once the elders from the church in Ephesus arrived, Paul began his address to them. The opening section reminded them of how Paul had conducted himself during his time with them in Ephesus. Paul pointed to three basic characteristics of his ministry.

  • Humility.
    • The language Paul uses reminds us of the language in his epistles.
    • He often spoke of serving, douleuo, the Lord.
      • 1 Thessalonians 1:9 – “for they themselves report what kind of reception we had from you: how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God.
      • Colossians 3:24 –  “knowing that you will receive the reward of an inheritance from the Lord. You serve the Lord Christ.” 
    • Paul often described himself as a slave or servant, doulas, of Christ.
      • Romans 1:1 – Paul, a slave of Christ Jesus, called as an apostle and singled out for God’s good news.
      • Galatians 1:10 – “For am I now trying to win the favor of people, or God? Or am I striving to please people? If I were still trying to please people, I would not be a slave of Christ.” 
      • Philippians 1:1 – Paul and Timothy, slaves of Christ Jesus: To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, including the overseers and deacons.
      • The proper demeanor of a servant is humility, and Paul frequently pointed to that quality as a major indicator of the Christian life.
        • Philippians 2:3 – Do nothing out of rivalry or conceit, but in humility consider others as more important than yourselves. 
        • Colossians 3:12 – Therefore, God’s chosen ones, holy and loved, put on heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience.
        • Ephesians 4:1-2 – Therefore I, the prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk worthy of the calling you have received, with all humility and gentleness, with patience,  accepting one another in love.
  • The openness of his proclamation.
    • Paul kept no secrets and held nothing back.
    • Whatever was true to the Gospel and helpful to the believers, he preached both in public and in the more intimate setting of individual homes.
      • The reference to public teaching reminds us of Paul’s time in the synagogue and the lecture hall of Tyrannus.
      • The reference to homes reminds us of Paul’s time in the house church meetings of the Ephesian Christians.
    • Paul’s methodology reminds us when we are faithful to proclaim the truth, there is nothing to hide.
  • The inclusiveness of his witness.
    • Paul preached to everyone.
      • He preached to the Jews.
      • He preached to the Gentiles.
      • Even though Paul recognized his special calling as being an Apostle to the Gentiles, he never abandoned the Jews.
      • Paul realized, probably more than anyone else, that God is the God of everyone.
      • Romans 3:29-30 – Or is God for Jews only? Is He not also for Gentiles? Yes, for Gentiles too, 30 since there is one God who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith. 
      • There is no room for exclusiveness in the Gospel.
        • It is for Jews and Gentiles.
        • It is for slaves and free people.
        • It is for men and women.
      • However, the Gospel is exclusive in its claim.
        • Acts 4:12 – There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to people, and we must be saved by it.
        • Salvation is only through faith in Jesus.

A Testimony of the Present

Paul now prepares the elders of the Ephesian church for his impending absence. Paul was getting ready for the next stage in his journey to Jerusalem, not fully knowing what would happen, yet understanding through the revelation of the Holy Spirit that persecution was in his future. Let’s look at some features from this section of the passage.

  • Paul and the team still had the offering they had collected and were transporting to the church in Jerusalem.
  • Paul knew there would be some type of trouble once he arrived in Jerusalem.
    • Romans 15:31 – Pray that I may be rescued from the unbelievers in Judea, that the gift I am bringing to Jerusalem may be acceptable to the saints.
    • Paul knew there was a personal risk from non-Christians.
    • Paul had at least some doubt about how the offering would be viewed by the Jerusalem Christians.
  • The Holy Spirit was warning Paul of the dangers yet was also directing him to go. There is no contradiction between these two facts.
    • God had a purpose for sending Paul to Jerusalem.
    • The warnings were to prepare Paul to face what was coming.
    • The message was also an assurance that regardless of what happened, God was involved in it.
      • Paul would face server trials in Jerusalem.
      • Through these trials, Paul would ultimately bear his witness in Rome, which he deeply desired.
        • Acts 19:21 – When these events were over, Paul resolved in the Spirit to pass through Macedonia and Achaia and go to Jerusalem. “After I’ve been there,” he said, “I must see Rome as well!” 
        • Romans 1:9-12 – For God, whom I serve with my spirit in telling the good news about His Son, is my witness that I constantly mention you, 10 always asking in my prayers that if it is somehow in God’s will, I may now at last succeed in coming to you. 11 For I want very much to see you, so I may impart to you some spiritual gift to strengthen you, 12 that is, to be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine. 
  • In verse 24, Paul states the reason he was willing to travel to Jerusalem and face the dangers waiting for him there.
    • Paul was ready to give up his life for the sake of the Gospel.
    • Paul referred to his life’s ministry as “the race.”
      • 2 Timothy 4:6-7 – For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time for my departure is close. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.
      • The race Paul referred to was the ministry calling he received from Jesus.
  • Paul then gives his final farewell to the Ephesian elders.
    • Paul was on his way to Jerusalem.
    • Danger was waiting for Paul in Jerusalem.
    • Paul had completed the work given to him in the east.
    • His new mission would be in the west, Rome.
    • Paul then declares he is innocent of anyone’s blood.
      • Paul preached the Gospel wherever he went, never shrinking back from that calling.
      • There is a subtle reference to Ezekiel 33:1-6 – The word of the Lord came to me: “Son of man, speak to your people and tell them: Suppose I bring the sword against a land, and the people of that land select a man from among them, appointing him as their watchman, and he sees the sword coming against the land and blows his trumpet to warn the people. Then, if anyone hears the sound of the trumpet but ignores the warning, and the sword comes and takes him away, his blood will be on his own head. Since he heard the sound of the trumpet but ignored the warning, his blood is on his own hands. If he had taken warning, he would have saved his life. However, if the watchman sees the sword coming but doesn’t blow the trumpet, so that the people aren’t warned, and the sword comes and takes away their lives, then they have been taken away because of their iniquity, but I will hold the watchman accountable for their blood.
      • The watchman blows the trumpet as a warning.
      • Once the watchman has warned the people, he is no longer responsible.
      • Paul had preached the Gospel and had called people to repent.
      • The responsibility now rested with those who had heard Paul’s message.
      • This is also the calling of all followers of Christ. We are to proclaim the message. Once we have done that, the responsibility rests with those who have heard the message.

A Warning About the Future

Now, Paul warns the Ephesian leaders of future threats, threats which we still face today. As we look at the structure of Paul’s warning, let’s note the features it contains.

  • It’s important to note the order which Paul uses in the warning.
    • The first area to guard is the elders.
      • Leaders are the most important element within any organization.
      • Attacking or eliminating leaders can often bring disarray or defeat to an organization.
      • This is especially true in ministry. Discrediting or causing ministry leaders to have moral or ethical failings can often have broad and far-reaching impacts.
    • Once the leaders have prepared (safeguarded) themselves, they can effectively guard the flock that’s been entrusted to their care.
    • What is the role of the Holy Spirit in verse 28?
      • It is likely that Paul appointed the initial elders of the Ephesian church.
      • However, as the church grew and Paul wasn’t there, the responsibility would belong to the congregation under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
      • Those who were gifted as teachers and leaders would be appointed to the office of elder.
    • What is meant by “overseer?”
      • The Greek word is episkopos, which is translated as “overseer” in some translations and “bishop” in others.
        • A monarchial bishop that ruled over more than one congregation doesn’t make sense in this context.
        • The monarchial structure didn’t exist until the second century.
      • In the New Testament, when the term episkopos is used to describe a function within the church, the term is interchangeable with the term presbyteros, which is called an elder.
        • This is clearly the case here. The Ephesian leaders were called “elders” in verse seventeen.
        • However, the term may be better understood to describe a function, overseeing the flock, rather than an office.
      • The Ephesian leaders were elders whose function was to “shepherd the church of God.”
    • Whose blood was the church purchased with?
      • The reading of the text seems to point to God’s blood, and there are differing views by scholars on what is meant.
        • It could be a reference to the Trinity, but there isn’t anything else in the New Testament that corresponds to this phrase.
        • Some manuscripts read “church of the Lord,” but that doesn’t appear to be the original writing.
        • Some believe that Christ is implied in the passage.
        • Some recent translations and commentaries have taken the position that the blood is Christ’s, and since Christ is God’s own beloved Son, there is a connection.
      • The last position would appear to be the best solution to a difficult verse.
  • Now, Paul goes on to warn the leaders of a time when predators would attack the church.
    • Savage wolves describe those who will attack the church from the outside.
      • This would include false teachers or cults.
      • The term “wolves” is often used in Jewish apocalyptic and early Christian writings to describe false teachers and prophets.
      • Jesus warned the disciples of this danger in Matthew 7:15 – Beware of false prophets  who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravaging wolves. 
      • There are several references to this fact in New Testament writings.
        • Ephesians 5:6-7 – Let no one deceive you with empty arguments, for God’s wrath is coming on the disobedient because of these things. Therefore, do not become their partners.
        • Colossians 2:8 – Be careful that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deceit based on human tradition, based on the elemental forces of the world, and not based on Christ.
        • Revelation 2:2 – I know your works, your labor, and your endurance, and that you cannot tolerate evil. You have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not,  and you have found them to be liars. 
      • However, the danger wasn’t just from outside false teachers. There were some within the church who would fall away from the true Gospel and lead others astray.
        • 1 John 2:18-19 – Children, it is the last hour. And as you have heard, “Antichrist is coming,” even now many antichrists have come. We know from this that it is the last hour. 19 They went out from us, but they did not belong to us; for if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us. However, they went out so that it might be made clear that none of them belongs to us.
        • 3 John 9-11 – I wrote something to the church, but Diotrephes, who loves to have first place among them, does not receive us. 10 This is why, if I come, I will remind him of the works he is doing, slandering us with malicious words. And he is not satisfied with that! He not only refuses to welcome the brothers himself, but he even stops those who want to do so and expels them from the church. 11 Dear friend, do not imitate what is evil, but what is good. The one who does good is of God; the one who does evil has not seen God.
  • Paul concludes with reference to the three-year ministry in Ephesus.
    • It wasn’t just a reminder of his warning.
    • It was an appeal for them to be faithful to the teachings he brought to them.
    • It was a warning to stay alert and not become careless.

A Final Blessing

The conclusion to Paul’s address to the Ephesian elders in Miletus included both a benediction on the elders and an exhortation to them, followed by a final farewell.

In some ways, the benediction also included warnings.

  • The sin of shallowness. We can’t build the church unless God is building our lives daily.
    • Time in prayer.
    • Time in studying God’s Word.
  • The sin of covetousness. 
    • A consuming and controlling desire for what others have and more of what we already have.
    • “Do not covet” is the last of the ten commandments. If we break this commandment, we will likely break all the other ones.
      • We will steal, lie, and murder to get what we want.
      • We will end up dishonoring our parents.
      • Covetousness is idolatry.
      • One of the qualifications for an elder is that he must not be guilty of covetousness.
  • The sin of laziness.
    • Paul worked as a tentmaker to support himself, even though he could have used his apostolic authority to justify support from the church.
    • When we work, we are able to help those in need.
    • However, we must remember that it isn’t wrong for Christian workers to receive a salary, as noted in Luke 10:7, but they need to earn their salary.
  • The sin of selfishness.
    • Gospel-centered living means to give, not receive.
    • It means following the example of Jesus.
    • Blessing comes from sharing what we have, not hoarding it for ourselves.
    • Those in ministry leadership positions are to be servants, a giver, and not a taker.

Paul then kneeled down to pray with them. Knowing it was the last time they would see each other in this life, they shed many tears as they parted ways. As painful as partings can be, as followers of Jesus, we have the assurance that we will be reunited in our eternal home!

Applications

  • Leadership within the church is a special calling. This calling requires the following characteristics.
    • Individuals who are committed to spending time with God and investing in their spiritual growth.
    • A feeling of contentment with what they have. This includes both their worldly possessions as well as their ministry position. Ministry leaders can “covet” a higher or more prestigious position instead of being satisfied with where God has planted them.
    • Embracing the hard work that is required with Kingdom-building. While it’s true that most of us won’t have the level of energy and passion that Paul exhibited in Scripture, we still need to work hard at the calling God has placed on our lives.
    • Leaders need to be generous with their time, talent, and possessions. Sometimes this can be challenging, but it’s what Jesus calls us to do.
  • Followers need to exhibit the same characteristics. All followers of Christ have a priestly identity. When we don’t exhibit the characteristics listed above, we can often display a witness that harms the church instead of advancing the church.
  • We need to challenge each other as we walk the path given to us. If we see others failing, we need to come alongside them and correct them in the spirit of love. At the same time, if we are the ones falling short, we need to be accepting of the correction extended to us. We shouldn’t get defensive or be hurt. All of us make mistakes and stumble. It’s how we respond to the stumble and correction that exposes where our allegiance lies.

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