Acts 20:17-38

Paul-says-goodbye-to-the-EphesiansActs 20:17-38

17 Now from Miletus he sent to Ephesus and called the elders of the church to come to him. 18 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, 19 serving the Lord with all humility and with tears and with trials that happened to me through the plots of the Jews; 20 how I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, and teaching you in public and from house to house, 21 testifying both to Jews and to Greeks of repentance toward God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. 22 And now, behold, I am going to Jerusalem, constrained by the Spirit, not knowing what will happen to me there, 23 except that the Holy Spirit testifies to me in every city that imprisonment and afflictions await me. 24 But I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God. 25 And now, behold, I know that none of you among whom I have gone about proclaiming the kingdom will see my face again. 26 Therefore I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all, 27 for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God. 28 Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood. 29 I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; 30 and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them. 31 Therefore be alert, remembering that for three years I did not cease night or day to admonish every one with tears. 32 And now I commend you to God and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified. 33 I coveted no one’s silver or gold or apparel. 34 You yourselves know that these hands ministered to my necessities and to those who were with me. 35 In all things I have shown you that by working hard in this way we must help the weak and remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he himself 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 And there was much weeping on the part of all; they embraced Paul and kissed him, 38 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.

Gene Dilliland was a missionary to Africa in the 1960’s. He tells an interesting story about how the African believers with whom he worked told him and his family goodbye as they prepared to go home on furlough.

After an extremely difficult term as superintendent of the Nigeria mission, I recall when I and my wife, Lois, and our five children were leaving Nigeria for a one-year furlough in 1963. This African church has always had to deal with the painful problem of tribalism. Over six major language groups make up the total membership. Each ethnic group struggled to keep its own people in leadership positions and to gain attention for its own particular causes. I, along with three other church leaders, had recently negotiated that the headquarters of the church be moved from its traditional site to a more promising place, a location more central to the whole church. This meant that the people in the historic location had lost the prestige that comes with residing at the official center of power. The church leaders came to the airfield to celebrate our farewell. They had actually arranged a service that included speeches, songs, and prayers. Africans are very careful about saying good-bye so that their guests will carry a special kind of memory as they depart. The purpose of the farewell was to review our progress and to attempt to quiet down the controversy that had ensued with the moving of the headquarters. The farewell was meant to show honor and to ensure that, during our absence, we would not forget events or promised intentions.

            However, the African leaders were not aware of the stress this farewell would have on the pilot’s schedule or on the other passengers who were en route. Even though little patience was being shown for the farewell, the African leaders were not moved. They eloquently summed up what they had to say, presented my wife and me with new African clothes, sang an African hymn, and closed with prayer. The meaning of the entire event was meant to say, “Missionaries, you have been with us and have led us. Now, as you leave, promise that you will not forget the work we have already done together and that you will keep your commitment to finishing what we have started.”[1]

It is fascinating to see such an intense intentionality about a goodbye. When one reads this account, it is almost as if the African Christians were doggedly and almost stubbornly saying, “You simply cannot leave until we do get this goodbye right. We do not care what the pilots think or what the other passengers think. This is serious business and we need to communicate some very important things. The plane can wait! Let us say farewell rightly!”

Please understand: I am not criticizing the African believers. On the contrary, we could learn from their example. A goodbye, especially in the context of shared life and ministry and witness, should be anything but casual. The Church, when it is the Church, forms bonds that are not lightly set aside. This is family. This is what it means to be the body of Christ! So I think there is something profoundly moving in the way that the Nigerian believers said goodbye to their missionary friend.

Paul understood this. He understood that you have to get your goodbye’s right. This is important business, serious business, and crucial truths need to be expressed. So, like Gene Dilliland and the Nigerian church, in our text today we find Paul and the Ephesian church saying goodbye. But in this case it is the departing missionary who convenes the farewell and it is him who speaks. There are things Paul must say, and what he says are truths we truly need to heed today!

Paul called for the Church to embrace total commitment to Christ by being wary of wolves and by planting its life deep in the gospel of Christ.

Paul had been with the Ephesians for three years. In our text, he has set his face toward Jerusalem. He was not sure what would happen to him there. He suspected that trouble lay ahead. So as he made his way toward Jerusalem he stopped at the port city of Miletus, about fifty miles from Ephesus. There, he sent word back to the Ephesian church leaders. He asked if they might come to Miletus so that he could speak to them there. What happened there was one of the most moving and tender displays of fraternal affection ever witnessed.

Paul had two points to his talk, and we are going to approach them in reverse order. The first had to do with how he acted and behaved with the Ephesian church for those three years and the second was a charge to the church leaders there to be careful and diligent. We will begin with the second point first, Paul’s charge to the Ephesian elders.

28 Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood.

Let us deal first of all with the question of who is in this audience Paul is addressing. In verse 28 and, earlier, in verse 17, Paul gives two titles to the men to whom he is speaking.

17 Now from Miletus he sent to Ephesus and called the elders (presbyteroi) of the church to come to him.

28 Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers (episkopoi), to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood.

In verse 17 he refers to them as “elders” (presbyteroi) and in verse 28 he refers to them as “overseers” (episkopoi). The first word is where we get out denominational name “Presbyterian” and the second word is where we get the denominational name “Episcopalian.” Episkopoi is often translated “bishop.” But in Paul’s usage these Greek words do not refer to denominations but rather to offices, and, what is most interesting and, I would say, obvious, is that Paul applies the word “elder” and the word “overseer” the same office. R.C. Sproul notes that “the difficulty of discerning the biblical structure of church government occurs because in the same context Paul calls those assembled here ‘elders’ and ‘bishops,’ indicating that, at least at that stage in church history, the titles ‘elder’ and ‘bishop’ were used interchangeably.”[2] Indeed they were. The early churches had two offices: elders (which we call pastors) and deacons. It was not until the late 1st/early 2nd century that Ignatius of Antioch drew a distinction between “elders” and “bishops” that the Church was said to have three offices: bishops, elders, and deacons. Clearly, though, for Paul, the elders and the overseers were the same office.

Furthermore, let us stop and take note of the fact that Paul here makes a powerful statement concerning the deity of Christ. If you read verse 28 carefully, you will notice that Paul attributes the shedding of saving blood with God: “the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood.” This is a powerful statement about the fact that Christ is God with us, God in human flesh, God reconciling the world unto Himself.

It is a beautiful truth. Even so, it is a jarring choice of words, and an unusual way of putting it. Early theologians of Eastern Orthodox Christianity called such attributions of the human nature of Christ to His divine nature communicatio idiomatum (“interchange of the properties”) “by which properties or actions belonging to one nature of Christ may be attributed to, or predicated of, the other nature, because of the unity of the single person of the God-man,” to use Jaroslav Pelikan’s definition. In the Tome of 449, Leo the Great wrote, “It does not belong to the same nature to weep out for deep-felt pity for a dead friend, and to call him back to life again at the word of command [John 11:35-44], because only the human nature could do the first and only the divine nature could do the second and yet the actions are both attributed to the single person of the incarnate Logos.”[3] We can see this dynamic at work in Paul’s words about God’s blood.

Paul then moves on to a warning.

29 I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; 30 and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them. 31 Therefore be alert, remembering that for three years I did not cease night or day to admonish every one with tears. 32 And now I commend you to God and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified.

Perhaps some might think that this is a bit of a downer in a farewell. In our culture we try to say sweet things as we depart. But Paul was not part of our shallow culture and for that we may be thankful. He knew that the survival of the Church was life or death. Specifically, he had invested his own life into it and, above that, the Lord Jesus had laid down His life for it. So he wanted them to be aware and to be forewarned: wolves are coming! That is, false teachers and those who will seek to dismantle the Church of the living God. And from where will they arise? “From among your own selves,” Paul says. How sobering! How terrifying!

Lest we are tempted to think that Paul was being unduly pessimistic, consider the frequent warnings in the New Testament concerning the coming of false teachers and corrupters of the faith.

In Matthew 10:16, Jesus had said to the disciples, “Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.”

In 2 Peter 2, Peter wrote:

1 But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction. 2 And many will follow their sensuality, and because of them the way of truth will be blasphemed. 3 And in their greed they will exploit you with false words. Their condemnation from long ago is not idle, and their destruction is not asleep.

Paul repeatedly warned Timothy, who interestingly pastored in Ephesus, about this danger.

3 As I urged you when I was going to Macedonia, remain at Ephesus so that you may charge certain persons not to teach any different doctrine, 4 nor to devote themselves to myths and endless genealogies, which promote speculations rather than the stewardship from God that is by faith. 5 The aim of our charge is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith. 6 Certain persons, by swerving from these, have wandered away into vain discussion, 7 desiring to be teachers of the law, without understanding either what they are saying or the things about which they make confident assertions. (1 Timothy 1:3-7)

1 Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons, 2 through the insincerity of liars whose consciences are seared, 3 who forbid marriage and require abstinence from foods that God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth. (1 Timothy 4:1-3)

3 If anyone teaches a different doctrine and does not agree with the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching that accords with godliness, 4 he is puffed up with conceit and understands nothing. He has an unhealthy craving for controversy and for quarrels about words, which produce envy, dissension, slander, evil suspicions, 5 and constant friction among people who are depraved in mind and deprived of the truth, imagining that godliness is a means of gain. (1 Timothy 6:3-5)

And in Jude 3-5, Jude wrote that he wanted to talk to the believers about more positive things, but felt compelled to warn them about false teachers.

3 Beloved, although I was very eager to write to you about our common salvation, I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints. 4 For certain people have crept in unnoticed who long ago were designated for this condemnation, ungodly people, who pervert the grace of our God into sensuality and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ.

We see, then, that time and time again the Church had to be warned about those who will seek to derail it. This is a very timely word for us today! R.C. Sproul writes, “The church lives out the drama of Little Red Riding Hood every day.”[4] Yes, it does. One need only peruse the shelves of Christian bookstores or listen to some radio and TV preachers to see that this is so. Please do not misunderstand me: there are wonderful, sound Christian books being published and sermons being preached on radio and TV, but have you not noticed that some teachers and preachers that have massive followings do not even appear to be preaching the gospel of Christ? It is most alarming!

Every year my wife and I attend the Southern Baptist Convention and every year the same thing happens: somebody goes to a microphone on the floor and makes a motion that LifeWay bookstores – the SBC retail chain no less – carry only Christian materials! I always feel kind of bad for the President of LifeWay because, in general, I think they do a good job and I know that he is a biblically grounded person. And, at times, I have felt exasperated with this repeated effort to pass a resolution that our own bookstores carry only Christian materials.

But then I stop and think: maybe that is a good thing. Maybe our stores and our churches and our pulpits need somebody to say over and over and over again: “Let us make sure that this is Christian! Let us make sure that this is the gospel!”

I am not talking about taking an uncharitable posture of innate suspicion toward our brothers and sisters. I am talking about being careful. Remember, wolves are roaming about, and not all who claim the name of Christ have the interests of His Kingdom in their hearts!

Paul determined that Jesus was more important than his own survival and this freed him to live for Christ with reckless abandon.

Paul cautioned the Church to be careful and to be watchful. Paul also poured out his own heart speaking about what he did among the Ephesians and where his priorities were.

17 Now from Miletus he sent to Ephesus and called the elders of the church to come to him. 18 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, 19 serving the Lord with all humility and with tears and with trials that happened to me through the plots of the Jews; 20 how I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, and teaching you in public and from house to house, 21 testifying both to Jews and to Greeks of repentance toward God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. 22 And now, behold, I am going to Jerusalem, constrained by the Spirit, not knowing what will happen to me there, 23 except that the Holy Spirit testifies to me in every city that imprisonment and afflictions await me. 24 But I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God. 25 And now, behold, I know that none of you among whom I have gone about proclaiming the kingdom will see my face again. 26 Therefore I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all, 27 for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God.

33 I coveted no one’s silver or gold or apparel. 34 You yourselves know that these hands ministered to my necessities and to those who were with me. 35 In all things I have shown you that by working hard in this way we must help the weak and remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’”

What a beautiful and even heartbreaking scene. Paul told the Ephesian elders that he did not think he would see them again. He foresaw persecution and hard times ahead. Even so, he must press on.

In verse 19, Paul told them that he had lived among them “serving the Lord with all humility and with tears and with trials…” A.T. Robertson translates “with all humility” (meta pases tapeinophrosunes) as “with all lowliness of mind” and passes on Lightfoot’s comment that while “heathen writers use this word for a grovelling, abject state of mind…Paul follows Christ in using it for humility, humble-mindedness that should mark every Christian and in particular the preacher.”[5]

He is indeed following Christ’s example of humility, for in Philippians 2 Paul would write these words:

5 Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, 6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. 8 And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. 9 Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

Paul, like Christ, had determined to empty himself for the Church, to become nothing, to be willing to die for the body of Christ. This truth reaches its most powerful expression in verse 24.

24 But I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God.

“I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself…” This is not self-loathing. This is not a death wish. This is not a bent toward suicide. No, he accounted his own life as nothing because he had caught a glimpse of something more beautiful and more enduring and more powerful than even his own existence: Jesus! He had seen Christ Jesus and that had changed everything! Now the life of Christ was what Paul wanted! Now the cross was wanted he wanted to carry! Now the empty tomb was his greatest treasure! Now the gospel was his wealth! Now bearing witness to this Jesus was his greatest passion!

John Chrysostom made a curious and fascinating comment about this verse. In speaking of these words, Chrysostom said, “Do you see that these are not the words of one lamenting but of one who is in control…? He did not say, ‘We grieve, but it is necessary to bear it,’ but “I do not account…”[6] I never would have put it that way, but it is so very true! Paul is not having a nervous breakdown. He is in possession of his faculties…by giving Christ possession of his faculties! Paradoxically, Paul had broken free by becoming a slave to Christ and Paul had finally discovered life by losing it for Christ! How I wish we could see that our desperate grasping for life leads only to our inevitable losing of it! But when we let go, when we give it all to Jesus, when we lay down and die for Christ, then we live!

F.F. Bruce, commenting on this verse, wrote, “Self-preservation was not a motive which he esteemed highly.”[7] I do not think Bruce was trying to be funny, but I chuckled when I read that! It is such a glorious understatement: “Self-preservation was not a motive which he esteemed highly.” Paul lived as a champion of the gospel. There is no doubt that his life and efforts in the cause of Christ made a huge impact on the Ephesians. We can see this in their response to his words.

36 And when he had said these things, he knelt down and prayed with them all. 37 And there was much weeping on the part of all; they embraced Paul and kissed him, 38 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.

It is hard to let go of a friend who has loved Jesus like this! It is so rare that we do not want such a hero to say goodbye.

Dear friends, may we live with such devotion to Christ that the Church of the living God grieves when we have to say goodbye.

 

[1] Dean S. Gillilan, “For Missionaries and Leaders: Paul’s Farewell to the Ephesian Elders.” Mission in Acts: Ancient Narratives in Contemporary Context, eds., Robert L. Gallagher and Paul Hertig (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2004), p.258.

[2] Sproul, R.C. Acts (St. Andrews Expositional Commentary) (Location 5401). Crossway Books. Kindle Edition.

[3] Jaroslav Pelikan, Acts. Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible. (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2005), p.222.

[4] Sproul, Location 5461.

[5] A.T. Robertson, Acts. Word Pictures in the New Testament. Vol.III (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1930), p.163-348.

[6] Francis Martin, ed. Acts. Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture. New Testament, vol.V. Thomas C. Oden, gen. ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2006), p.251.

[7] Bruce, F.F. (1988-06-30). The Book of Acts (New International Commentary on the New Testament) (p. 390). Eerdmans Publishing Co – A. Kindle Edition.

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