Chapter 6 – The unforgettable goodbye
17 From Miletus he sent to Ephesus and called for the elders of the church.
18 And when they had come to him, he said to them: ‘You know, from the first day that I came to Asia, in what manner I always lived among you, 19 serving the Lord with all humility, with many tears and trials which happened to me by the plotting of the Jews; 20 how I kept back nothing that was helpful, but proclaimed it to you, and taught you publicly and from house to house, 21 Testifying to Jews, and also to Greeks, repentance toward God and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ. 22 And see, now I go bound in the spirit to Jerusalem, not knowing the things that will happen to me there, 23 except that the Holy Spirit testifies in every city, saying that chains and tribulations await me. 24 But none of these things move me; nor do I count my life dear to myself, so that I may finish my race with joy, and the ministry which I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God. 25 And indeed, now I know that you all, among whom I have gone preaching the kingdom of God, will see my face no more. 26 Therefore I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all men. 27 For I have not shunned to declare to you the whole counsel of God.
28 Therefore take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood. 29 For I know this, that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock. 30 Also from among yourselves men will rise up, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after themselves. 31 Therefore watch, and remember that for three years I did not cease to warn everyone night and day with tears. 32 So now, brethren, I commend you to God and to the word of His grace, which is able to build you up and give you an inheritance among all those who are sanctified. 33 I have coveted no one’s silver or gold or apparel. 34 Yes, you yourselves know that these hands have provided for my necessities, and for those who were with me. 35 I have shown you in every way, by labouring like this, that you must support the weak. And remember the words of the Lord Jesus, that He said, “It is more blessed to give than to receive.”’
36 And when he had said these things, he knelt down and prayed with them all.
37 Then they all wept freely, and fell on Paul’s neck and kissed him, 38 sorrowing most of all for the words which he spoke, that they would see his face no more. And they accompanied him to the ship.
Why the elders?
Paul knows that for a church to stand and grow it must be led by its own converted and committed leadership team of spiritually mature equals who trust fully in God’s word. They are responsible to God for the autonomous running of the church.1 They are known as ‘elders’, or ‘overseers’. In the Bible a ‘bishop’ is precisely the same man as an elder or overseer in the local church leadership team. In the biblical sense a ‘bishop’ is not someone who wears special clothes, carries a shepherd’s crook, lives in a palace and has great individual authority over many people and many churches. That thinking comes from the way that some churches developed historically rather than from the New Testament. But in reality a traditional ‘bishop’ with his special clothes, shepherd’s crook, and palatial home is sometimes a soundly converted and very committed man of God but not because he carries the title, ‘bishop’. Titles cannot save guilty sinners: only personal faith in Christ can do that.
The apostle’s ongoing concern is to set up elders in all the churches. He wants them to be able to teach others and to teach others to teach others. With God’s help, Paul builds teachers of teachers, to try to ensure that the church’s biblical and doctrinal soundness, spiritual approach, biblical teaching and evangelism, and righteous conduct will be ongoing long after he has gone to glory. That is why at other times he leaves Titus in Crete and Timothy in Ephesus to appoint elders, and guides them clearly as to the character and spiritual qualifications required for each elder.2
Paul needs to meet with the leaders of the Ephesian church. He wants to share with them some important and urgent teaching. We still need to heed this teaching today. Paul does not call for a full church meeting. Instead, he sends to Ephesus to call ‘for the elders of the church’ to meet him at Miletus, the last place reached in his travels towards Jerusalem. He will never meet again with this trusted group of dedicated disciples who teach and care for the Ephesian church. He wants God to stir the minds and hearts of these men who love Christ and serve Him faithfully, to try to ensure that the church survives and prospers spiritually in their hands. What is the message from his heart to theirs?
A record to challenge the leaders
The elders arrive. Paul speaks frankly with them. He does not boast of his achievements, but he can point to his testimony as an example for them to follow. He reminds them of his transparency among them. He has served God well as an apostle, a gospel preacher, a teacher of God’s word, a church planter and a wise counsellor. He has walked in loving integrity, faithful and humble service, and uncompromising discipleship. The Jews’ desire to kill him has brought him ‘tears and trials’. Yet he has poured himself out to help teach God’s word to Jews, Greeks and church members ‘publicly and from house to house.’ He insists that both Jews and Greeks must repent and trust in Jesus Christ.
He tells the elders that he is bound for Jerusalem knowing only that he will experience ‘chains and tribulations’ in each city. The Holy Spirit has made this known to His apostle as he walks closely with God. Yet, he is unmoved by this. He holds his life loosely for the gospel and for the cause of Christ. His only ambition on earth is to finish his life’s race joyfully while working to the end for the Lord Jesus Christ ‘to testify to the gospel of the grace of God.’ As Paul openly tells his Ephesian brothers that they will see his ‘face no more’, he reminds them of two things. One is evangelistic and the other is doctrinal.
Such has been Paul’s evangelistic zeal and care to share the message of the crucified and risen Saviour with lost souls that he can tell the church leaders, ‘I am innocent of the blood of all men.’ How many Christians allow day after day to pass without sharing anything of the good news of Jesus with families, friends, contacts, and colleagues at work, college or school? Not so with Paul. Well could he say ‘necessity is laid upon me; yes, woe is me if I do not preach the gospel!’3
But his efforts are not only to win sinners to Christ. They are also to build up individual Christians and churches in the word of God. That is why he instructs Timothy, his protégé, ‘Preach the word! Be ready in season and out of season. Convince, rebuke, exhort, with all longsuffering and teaching.’4 They must get well acquainted with the whole of God’s teaching and revelation. In today’s terms, they must be taught and blessed by the effect of the whole of the Bible’s message in their lives. Paul is so strong on this point that he can justifiably underline his claim that ‘I am innocent of the blood of all men. For I have not shunned to declare to you the whole counsel of God.’ Paul has made known to his hearers the total sweep of the word of God’s saving, sanctifying and edifying truth. There is no side-stepping truth which may be unpalatable to some hearers, and no concentrating on pet subjects at the cost of the total balanced truth of God.
How do the elders measure up against Paul’s example? How do you, assuming you have come to trust Christ? Are you determined to share Jesus Christ regularly with others? Do you read the Bible seriously each day? If you have not yet read it all the way through, have you started to do that? If you have already read it all, do you keep reading through all the Bible each year? Do you encourage others to do the same? There are many reading schemes to help you do that.5
Paul’s last reminders
Paul now applies what he has said to the elders. He tells them to ‘take heed to yourselves and to all the flock’, echoing the sentiments of his Lord Jesus who said, ‘Watch and pray, lest you enter into temptation.’6 Elders cannot care for the spiritual life of the church if they are careless about their own walk with God. Paul reminds them that God has bought the church ‘with His own blood’, and so the Holy Spirit has made them shepherds over His flock. Heretics and ungodly teachers, like ‘savage wolves’, will attack the church flock from outside, while others will sneak up as enemies within with foolish teachings to mislead and steal people from the church. For three years Paul has warned them about such opposition and wept for them night and day.
In commending his brothers to God and to His gracious and edifying word, he reminds them of their great privilege of being recipients of ‘an inheritance among all those who are sanctified.’ Those who God saves and sets aside will enjoy an eternal inheritance in Heaven. In saying this, it seems that Paul (then called Saul) is recalling those first words of the Lord Jesus Christ to him on the road to Damascus. Then Jesus told him that he was saved ‘to open their eyes, in order to turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and an inheritance among those who are sanctified by faith in Me.’7
Paul obviously is aware that even godly church leaders can be tripped up by materialism and the ‘love of money’ which is ‘a root of all kinds of evil’.8 So he reminds them from his own transparent example that he has not coveted anyone’s wealth or clothing, and that he actually has worked with his hands to provide necessities for himself and his Christian companions. He worked as a tentmaker.9 He commends them, similarly, to support ‘the weak.’ That probably includes physically weak and financially weak brothers and sisters in Christ, as well as those recovering from fleeing from the terrors of persecution. He summarises what he says about money and giving with words from Jesus, which are not found in the gospels, that ‘It is more blessed to give than receive.’ That quote applies to today’s Christians. It covers the use of our money, time, effort, ambitions and plans. All should be joyfully given into His hand and for His cause for ‘God loves a cheerful giver.’10
Paul has shared his heart with his beloved Ephesian elders. He has said what he needed to. Now he kneels down and prays ‘with them all.’ Warnings are necessary. Exhortations are good. But praying together is absolutely essential if God is to bless. Do you make praying together with Christians a priority? Are you regularly at the church prayer meeting? Do you readily pray informally with your Christian friends and fellow church attenders? It brings blessing!
An emotional farewell
Jesus said Christians should love one another.11 It is a sign of real Christian conversion that a person coming to trust Jesus Christ as Saviour soon finds a oneness and godly love for his new brothers and sisters in Christ, and that they feel the same too. The Bible says that Christian love one for another is a witness to the world.12
Here the love for Paul, based on knowing Jesus, is obvious as all the elders weep openly. They embrace the beloved apostle. Such love motivates them all because Christ’s love for lost sinners touched Paul on the Damascus Road and sent him to Ephesus to introduce lost and Hell-bound sinners to His Lord and Saviour.
Now, although they accept God’s will that Paul will now focus on going to Jerusalem and will see them no more, they do sorrow about it. Often those who know and follow Christ closely have to crucify their emotions and preferences in taking up their cross daily to follow Jesus.
Apart from continuing to pray for Paul, the elders can now do only one thing more. They go with him to the ship. No doubt Paul is moved emotionally too, but can only now pray that the spiritual truths of which he has reminded them this day in Miletus will be taken by the Holy Spirit to challenge and help them. We know from the book of Galatians that this church has huge problems with Jewish legalists who attack the gospel by insisting that faith in Christ is insufficient unless it is accompanied by the Jewish rite of circumcision. Paul has warned them in person against this wrong Jewish legalism, just as he does in his letter to them. All he can do now is to pray and leave them to God, as he moves on towards Jerusalem.
Questions on Chapter 6
The unforgettable goodbye—Acts 20:17–38
A. How many good reasons can you think of why Paul chooses to call the elders of the Ephesian church together rather than arrange a general meeting of the whole church?
Acts 20:17, 2 Timothy 2:2, Titus 1:4–9, 1 Timothy 1:3, 1 Timothy 3:1–7, 8–13
B.How and why does Paul use his own Christian life and service as an example to challenge the elders? How do the verses quoted below from Philippians, Acts and Thessalonians help you to consider this? How should older Christians be examples to new Christians?
Acts 20:18–35, Philippians 3:17, Acts 18:11, 1 Thessalonians 1:6, 2 Thessalonians 3:7–9
C. What place is there for emotion and affection in right relationships between disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ? How is this seen in the relationship of the Ephesian elders and the apostle Paul and echoed elsewhere in the New Testament?
Acts 20:36–38, Romans 12:10, 2 Corinthians 6:12, 2 Corinthians 7:15, Philippians 1:8, Philippians 2:1–2, 1 Thessalonians 2:8
- See footnote 1 of Amazing Acts—act one, chapter 6. See also Biblical Eldership by Alexander Strauch, Lewis & Roth Publishers: same title for the book and for the summarising booklet. ↩
- 2 Timothy 2:2, Titus 1:4–9, 1 Timothy 1:3, 3:1–7, 8–13 ↩
- 1 Corinthians 9:16 ↩
- 2 Timothy 4:2 ↩
- See Bible Reading Schemes in Appendix 3 of The Bible Panorama, 3rd edition 2015, published by DayOne. ↩
- Matthew 26:41, Mark 14:38 ↩
- Acts 26:18—the phrase ‘that they may receive forgiveness of sins and an inheritance among those who are sanctified by faith in Me’ is emphasised by the author to show how similar it is to what Jesus said to Saul in Acts 20:32. ↩
- 1 Timothy 6:10 ↩
- Acts 18:3 ↩
- 2 Corinthians 9:7 ↩
- 1 John 3:23 ↩
- 1 John 5:1–2 ↩