Where the world comes to study the Bible

31. Paul’s Parting Words (Acts 20:1-38)

Introduction

When I was in Jr. High School, we had a fellow fall asleep in our class. As I remember, the teacher decided to teach the student a lesson by having the class silently slip out at the end of the period. The next class was also instructed to slip into their seats quietly. The student slept peacefully on—until about half way through the next period. Everyone was waiting and watching for him to wake up, which he did, of course. He opened his eyes, looked around the class, and came to the realization that it was another class, and not his own. He quietly gathered up his books and left class, as inconspicuously as possible.

Sleeping in class has happened for centuries. In our text, we are told of a young man named Eutychus, who fell asleep during Paul’s lengthy sermon, and then fell three stories down to his death. As you know, this young man was raised to life, and so the story is a happy one in the end. I am inclined to entitle the section which describes the death and raising of Eutychus, “Eutychus Drops Out of Paul’s Class.” It is indeed and interesting story, and in time I believe we will see why the story was included in Luke’s account.

It would be an amusing exercise to swap “falling asleep in church” stories this morning. I only wish that there was time. Over the years I have seen a few of you fall asleep. I am frankly tempted to use this account as a proof text for lengthy sermons. A. T. Robertson makes this comment about Paul’s extended sermon:

“Paul’s purpose to leave early next morning seemed to justify the long discourse. Preachers usually have some excuse for the long sermon which is not always clear to the exhausted audience.”452

But I am afraid that if I did preach any longer you would insist that I would have to be able to raise the dead, like Paul, or at least promise to leave the following day.

Structure of the Passage

The structure of the text is quite simple. There are four main sections. The first paragraph (verses 1-6) takes us from Ephesus to Troas, the scene of Paul’s ministry to the church there, and the raising of Eutychus, which is described in the second paragraph (verses 7-12). The third paragraph (verses 13-17) takes us from Troas down to Miletus, where Paul calls the Ephesian elders and gives them his parting words of exhortation and admonition, described in the last (and major) section (verses 18-38). The structure of this chapter can thus be summarized this way:

  • From Ephesus to Troas vv. 1-6
  • Paul’s ministry in Troas vv. 7-12
  • From Troas to Miletus vv. 13-17
  • Paul’s ministry to the Ephesian elders vv. 18-38

The Selective Nature of this Chapter

The events of chapter 20 cover an indefinite, but fairly extensive, period of time, and span a broad geographical area, from Ephesus in Asia, across the Aegean Sea to Macedonia, Achaia, Greece, then (back) to Macedonia, and (back) across the Aegean Sea to Asia. Many important events occur during the time period encompassed in this chapter, and yet Luke is very brief in his description. There is much we would like to know that we are never told, and there is much that we are told elsewhere (in Paul’s epistles) which Luke does not even allude to here:

“We have valuable commentaries on this journey from Paul’s own pen in 2 Corinthians, which looks forward to the visit which he paid to Corinth, and in Romans, which was written during Paul’s stay at Corinth and throws light on his immediate plans for travel. From these letters we learn of the importance which Paul attached to the collection of money which he was taking from the Gentile churches under his superintendence to help the church in Jerusalem with caring for its poorer members.”453

“We have no way of knowing why Luke did not tell of Paul’s stay in Troas (II Cor. 2:12f.) nor of meeting Titus in Macedonia (II Cor. 2:13 to 7:16) nor of Paul’s visit to Illyricum (Rom. 15:19f.) to give time for II Corinthians to do its work (II Cor. 13), one of the most stirring experiences in Paul’s whole career when he opened his heart to the Corinthians and won final victory in the church by the help of Titus who also helped him round up the great collection in Achaia. He wrote II Corinthians during this period after Titus arrived from Corinth. The unity of II Corinthians is here assumed. Paul probably met Luke again in Macedonia, but all this is passed by except by the general phrase: ‘had given them much exhortation’… During this period {the ‘three months’ of verse 3} Paul may have written Galatians as Lightfoot argued and certainly did Romans. We do not have to say that Luke was ignorant of Paul’s work during this period, only that he did not choose to enlarge upon it.”454

We must conclude from this that Luke has deliberately chosen to be selective, and that the things he has omitted were not important to the development of his argument in this book. We must also determine what it is that Luke has chosen to emphasize, and how this points to the message which he intends for the reader to understand. We shall thus approach this chapter in the light of what Luke has written, as well as that which he has not written. Herein is the key to the message of this chapter.

From Ephesus to Troas
(20:1-6)

1 And after the uproar had ceased, Paul sent for the disciples and when he had exhorted them and taken his leave of them, he departed to go to Macedonia. 2 And when he had gone through those districts and had given them much exhortation, he came to Greece. 3 And there he spent three months, and when a plot was formed against him by the Jews as he was about to set sail for Syria, he determined to return through Macedonia. 4 And he was accompanied by Sopater of Berea, the son of Pyrrhus; and by Aristarchus and Secundus of the Thessalonians; and Gaius of Derbe, and Timothy; and Tychicus and Trophimus of Asia. 5 But these had gone on ahead and were waiting for us at Troas. 6 And we sailed from Philippi after the days of Unleavened Bread, and came to them at Troas within five days; and there we stayed seven days.

Paul had plans as to what he intended to do. We know from Acts 19:21-22 that Paul intended to visit Jerusalem, and then Rome, and that Paul sent Timothy and Erastus on ahead into Macedonia. We also read of Paul’s plans as he outlined them in his first letter to the Corinthians:

1 Now concerning the collection for the saints, as I directed the churches of Galatia, so do you also. 2 On the first day of every week let each one of you put aside and save, as he may prosper, that no collections be made when I come. 3 And when I arrive, whomever you may approve, I shall send them with letters to carry your gift to Jerusalem; 4 and if it is fitting for me to go also, they will go with me. 5 But I shall come to you after I go through Macedonia, for I am going through Macedonia; 6 and perhaps I shall stay with you, or even spend the winter, that you may send me on my way wherever I may go. 7 For I do not wish to see you now {just} in passing; for I hope to remain with you for some time, if the Lord permits. 8 But I shall remain in Ephesus until Pentecost; 9 for a wide door for effective {service} has opened to me, and there are many adversaries (1 Corinthians 16:1-9).

Paul was in Ephesus when he wrote this epistle to the Corinthians. He spoke of the great opportunities there, as well as great opposition. It was his intention to stay in Ephesus until after Pentecost, and then to travel to Macedonia and finally on to Corinth, where he intended to spend the winter. Paul’s schedule was changed, however, for the uprising at Ephesus, brought about by Demetrius and his colleagues (Acts 19:23ff.), forced him to move up his departure date, as Luke informs us in verse 1 of Acts 20.

Luke’s account of Paul’s ministry from the time he left Ephesus until he reached Troas is incredibly brief. It is his intention to focus on Paul’s arrival and subsequent arrest in Jerusalem, which will then turn him toward Rome. He will not allow himself to be distracted by the many interesting aspects of Paul’s journeys or ministry because they do not contribute to his argument.

Perhaps the biggest omission is Luke’s refusal to write anything about Paul’s primary purpose for going first to Macedonia and Greece, and then to Jerusalem. If Paul was in Ephesus and he wanted to go to Jerusalem, he would have headed in a southerly direction. Instead, Paul went north and west, in the opposite direction of Jerusalem. Why? The answer to this question is very obvious from Paul’s writings. We see it mentioned in 1 Corinthians chapter 16, above, as well in these passages from the pen of the apostle, texts of which I am confident Luke must have been aware:

22 For this reason I have often been hindered from coming to you; 23 but now, with no further place for me in these regions, and since I have had for many years a longing to come to you 24 whenever I go to Spain—for I hope to see you in passing, and to be helped on my way there by you, when I have first enjoyed your company for a while—25 but now, I am going to Jerusalem serving the saints. 26 For Macedonia and Achaia have been pleased to make a contribution for the poor among the saints in Jerusalem. 27 Yes, they were pleased {to do so,} and they are indebted to them. For if the Gentiles have shared in their spiritual things, they are indebted to minister to them also in material things. 28 Therefore, when I have finished this, and have put my seal on this fruit of theirs, I will go on by way of you to Spain. 29 And I know that when I come to you, I will come in the fullness of the blessing of Christ (Romans 15:22-29).

But thanks be to God, who puts the same earnestness on your behalf in the heart of Titus. 17 For he not only accepted our appeal, but being himself very earnest, he has gone to you of his own accord. 18 And we have sent along with him the brother whose fame in {the things of} the gospel {has spread} through all the churches; 19 and not only {this,} but he has also been appointed by the churches to travel with us in this gracious work, which is being administered by us for the glory of the Lord Himself, and {to show} our readiness, 20 taking precaution that no one should discredit us in our administration of this generous gift; 21 for we have regard for what is honorable, not only in the sight of the Lord, but also in the sight of men. 22 And we have sent with them our brother, whom we have often tested and found diligent in many things, but now even more diligent, because of {his} great confidence in you (2 Corinthians 8:16-22).

When Paul met with James, Peter, and John in Jerusalem, they recognized his calling as an apostle to the Gentiles. The only thing they urged upon Paul was that he remember the poor, which Paul was eager to do (Galatians 2:7-10). Paul had previously been involved in taking gifts to the poor saints in Judea (Acts 11:27-30; 12:25), but he wanted to take up a collection in Macedonia, Achaia, and Greece, to take with him when he went to Jerusalem again. Thus Paul gave specific instructions in 1 and 2 Corinthians about the collection. Paul doubled back, going north instead of south, so that he could collect the offerings from these churches in Macedonia, Achaia, and Greece, and then go down to Jerusalem.

There were several hitches in the plans Paul made. First, the riot at Ephesus caused Paul to leave Ephesus earlier than he expected. Second, when Paul was about ready to leave from Corinth, he learned of a plot on the part of the Jews, to kill him (Acts 20:3), and so he canceled his boat trip and journey by land back up to Macedonia, and then, after the feast of unleavened bread, across the Aegean Sea to Asia, where he ended up at Troas, the setting for the next incident to be recorded by Luke—Paul’s ministry at Troas, including the death and raising of Eutychus.

But before we press on to this next section, let me ask an important question, “If taking up a collection (for the poor in Jerusalem) in Macedonia, Achaia, and Greece was so important to Paul, as is evident from his epistles, why does Luke not even bother to mention the collection? Why, especially when he does give us the names of those men who accompanied Paul to Jerusalem, who were representatives of the churches which had given the money?

I believe that there are two reasons, which are somewhat related to each other.

First, Luke’s purpose was to record the advance of the gospel from Jerusalem to Rome, and the offering which Paul took from the Gentile churches did not play a major role in this advance. The money which Paul collected and took to Jerusalem was not for “missions,” but for the poor. Thus, this collection, while an important matter to Paul and to the giving and receiving churches, was not important to the advance of the gospel, other than its being the strong incentive for Paul to go to Jerusalem, even though he knew bonds and afflictions awaited him there (Acts 20:22-23).

Second, as strange as it may sound, money was not essential to the spread of the gospel in the Book of Acts. Think about it for a moment. The Book of Acts is a description of the spread of the gospel from Jerusalem to Rome, and from an almost entirely Jewish church to one that is predominantly Gentile. Putting on your accountant’s mindset and taking in hand your pocket calculator, add up the cost to the church of the advance of the gospel in Acts. What did it cost the church to get the gospel from Jerusalem to Rome? To narrow the field, what did it cost to have the gospel saturate all of Asia, as Luke tells us it did, and in only three years time? The answer: not one thin dime! How can this possibly be?

We would certainly wonder how the gospel could be proclaimed so widely and so many come to faith in such a short time, given our culture and mindset. You see we have come to believe that ministry is not possible without money, and that the degree to which ministry can be achieved is directly proportional to how much money is spent to do so. Is this not why so many of the televangelists spend as much as half of their broadcast time asking for money? Is this not how we excuse ourselves for not doing more? We don’t have the money.

What I am saying even surprises me, but let us pursue this matter of ministry and money a bit farther. When Jesus called His disciple to follow Him, He did not tell them to put their money on deposit with Him. Neither did He instruct His disciples to save up their money, so that they would have the means to minister in the future. Instead, Jesus instructed His disciples to sell their possessions and to give the proceeds to the poor—not to the television budget or the public relations fund. And when the beggar asked Peter and John for alms, they did not say that they would have to write a check. They said that they had no silver and gold, but they did have a healing to give him, along with the gospel.

Much ministry can be achieved without money, and much money can be spent which produces little ministry. Ministry is not proportionate to the amount of money that is spent. This is not to say that all ministry can be done without money, or that all ministry should be carried on without money. It is only saying that much ministry can be done without much money. All of Asia was reached with the gospel, in a period of three years, without radio, television, and the printed media. It was done by Spirit-filled Christians who shared their faith, who proclaimed the gospel in the power of God. If ministry is not proportionate with money, it is proportionate with the sovereign working of the Holy Spirit in and through men. That is what the Book of Acts continually informs us.

I am not saying that all ministry is free, and that ministry does not require money. Jesus’ ministry cost money (see Luke 8:1-3). Jesus taught that while money is merely temporal and passing, it can be used in such a way as to produce eternal results and eternal blessings (see Luke 16:1-13). Jesus had a great deal to say about money, but He did not teach about money only to pass the plate at the conclusion of His message. Money, therefore can be used in such a way as to perform a ministry in the lives of others, and to the glory of God, just as Paul taught:

Now He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food, will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your righteousness; you will be enriched in everything for all liberality, which through us is producing thanksgiving to God. For the ministry of this service {the gift of the Macedonians to the poor in Jerusalem} is not only fully supplying the needs of the saints, but is also overflowing through many thanksgivings to God (2 Corinthians 8:10-12).

As I understand the Scriptures, the Bible would consistently teach us that if we have money, we should seek to use it in ministry to others, and if we do not have money, we should minister anyway, for God’s working is not dependent upon money.

Allow me a very brief digression, which is but another piece of the whole. It is a secular, humanistic, mindset which equates ministry with money. It is also a humanistic mindset which equates effectiveness with status (position), influence, education, and intelligence. We often pursue and cater to the rich because we think that God’s work needs their money. We likewise pursue and cater to the learned, the educated, the “wise” because we think that the advancement of the gospel is directly proportionate to the wisdom and “clout” of the proclaimer. This is a denial of the Word of God, which teaches that God has chosen the weak and foolish things of this world to confound the wisdom and the strength of the wise (see 1 Corinthians 1-3). When God’s work is accomplished by those means which “work” for unbelieving men, men tend to take the credit. When God’s work is done through weakness, it is God who is given the glory, as it should be (see 1 Corinthians 1:26-31;l 3:18-23).

Eutychus Drops Out of Paul’s Class
(20:7-12)

7 And on the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread, Paul began talking to them, intending to depart the next day, and he prolonged his message until midnight. 8 And there were many lamps in the upper room where we were gathered together. 9 And there was a certain young man named Eutychus sitting on the window sill, sinking into a deep sleep; and as Paul kept on talking, he was overcome by sleep and fell down from the third floor, and was picked up dead. 10 But Paul went down and fell upon him and after embracing him, he said, “Do not be troubled, for his life is in him.” 11 And when he had gone back up, and had broken the bread and eaten, he talked with them a long while, until daybreak, and so departed. 12 And they took away the boy alive, and were greatly comforted.

What a strange feeling it must have been to see this city of Troas across the Aegean Sea, coming into view on the horizon. This was they city where Paul and Silas had arrived, having been denied the opportunity to minister in Bithynia and in Asia (Acts 16:6-8). It was here, in Troas, that Paul received the vision, providing him with the “Macedonian call” (16:9-10). Now, on Paul’s return to this city, there is a church. How it was started and by whom is not said. Somehow, in the wisdom of God, this city was evangelized, but according to God’s timetable, not man’s. It was Paul’s desire to worship with the saints in Troas, and to teach them from the Scriptures, and from the revelation which God had given him.

When the church gathered on the “first day of the week”455 in order to “break bread”456 Paul was there. There are two areas of emphasis evident in Luke’s description of Paul’s ministry to the church at Troas on this occasion: (1) the strong desire of Paul to teach these saints, and (2) the miraculous raising of Eutychus from the dead. Let us look at what is said about these two elements, and what is not, for herein we find a key to the message of this incident.

To begin with, let us consider the miracle of the raising of Eutychus. There are many who would cast doubt on whether a miracle really happened here. The liberal mind would like to deal with the raising of Eutychus from the dead in the same way they explain the raising of Jesus from the dead—by insisting that neither died, but that they only swooned, later on to revive. They would have us understand that Eutychus was taken up as though dead, but not really dead. They would suggest that Eutychus was drug off, later to revive and be carried back alive, so that all could be comforted. Luke, Dr. Luke, was there, and he has, as it were, written us a death certificate. This boy did die, and he was raised from the dead.

The reason why a liberal would reject this resurrection is because they do not believe in miracles. The reason why a miracle-accepting Christian might wonder if Eutychus was raised is because so little is made of this event as a miracle. The raising of Eutychus is stated matter-of-factly. There is no hype, no trumpet blowing, only a very brief description of the event. We are not told, for example, that Paul prayed for Eutychus to be raised from the dead, as, for example, Peter seems to have done in Acts 9:36-42). Paul fell over the young man, and he announced that he was alive, but the process of his raising is not spelled out. And after the event, there is no praise gathering for the miracle, even though all were greatly comforted by his raising (verse 12).

Why is so little emphasis put on this miracle? Why is it passed over so quickly? Because this was not Paul’s priority. Paul is instrumental in the raising of the lad, but it was not his main interest. Paul was intent on teaching these folks, so much so that when the boy was raised to life, he quickly went back upstairs to observe communion and to teach more, for the rest of the night (verse 11). It is almost as though Paul looked at his watch and said, “Oh my, we have just lost 20 minutes of teaching time, let’s quickly go upstairs and break bread and then I have some more things which I need to teach you before I leave.”

Why do both Paul and Luke give this miracle “second place” status? Many seem to think that Acts is a book of miracles, and that this book is our basis for assuming that God not only can but will work miracles on a daily basis. When one reads the Book of Acts carefully, you find that the book records fewer miracles than we might expect—fewer miracles than actually occurred.457 I believe that both Luke and Paul were firmly convinced that while miracles would come and go, but that the Word of God would be eternal. I believe that both were convinced that while miracles will not sustain faith, the Word of God will. This is why Paul and Luke deal briefly with the miracle and deal emphatically with the teaching. Faith is not based upon what is seen (miracles, for example), but on the Word of God (see Hebrews 11). Thus miracles will not sustain our faith, but the Word of God will.

And thus we see the sense of urgency of Paul with regard to the need to teach these saints. Shortly after they began to meet (it would seem) Paul began speaking to them, knowing that his departure was on the following day. He knew he had only a little time, but much to say (see verse 7). Because of the shortness of his time with them, Paul extended his teaching until midnight (verse 7). It was because of Paul’s lengthy teaching and because of the many lamps in that room that Eutychus fell asleep and from the window to his death (verses 8-9). When Eutychus was raised to life, Paul went back upstairs, eager to continue on with his teaching, throughout the night.

Who could argue that Paul was not strongly compelled to teach these saints? And yet, notice that while we have a great deal of emphasis on Paul’s sense of the need to teach, we are not given so much as one word as to what it was that Paul did teach. If what Paul had to teach was so important, why did Luke not preserve the content for us? I think I have the answer. First, Luke’s purpose here is not to outline Paul’s curriculum, but to show the advance of the gospel from Jerusalem to Rome. Luke does not have the time to spell out Paul’s teaching here, because that is not his point. If Paul was intent of getting the gift from the churches of Macedonia and Achaia and Greece to Jerusalem, Luke had no problem in passing over this. If Paul was intent on teaching the saints at Troas, Luke had no problem in passing by the content of that teaching. And the reason why Luke could pass by these matters is that Paul has written many epistles, which we have in our Bibles, which not only describe this gift, but which also lay out, in full from, the things which Paul felt were important for the churches. Luke can omit Paul’s teaching because it was in print, in the Bible (or would soon be).

From Troas to Miletus
(20:13-16)

13 But we, going ahead to the ship, set sail for Assos,458 intending from there to take Paul on board; for thus he had arranged it, intending himself to go by land. 14 And when he met us at Assos, we took him on board and came to Mitylene. 15 And sailing from there, we arrived the following day opposite Chios; and the next day we crossed over to Samos; and the day following we came to Miletus.459 16 For Paul had decided to sail past Ephesus in order that he might not have to spend time in Asia; for he was hurrying to be in Jerusalem, if possible, on the day of Pentecost.

Paul left these saints in Troas, still chomping at the bit to reach Jerusalem before Pentecost. For some unstated reason, Paul went on by land, while the others stayed on board ship. He had arranged to board ship at Assos. It almost seems as though someone forgot to put some of Paul’s baggage on board ship (surely he would not have planned to carry it as he went by land), for he will later write,

When you come bring the cloak which I left at Troas with Carpus, and the books, especially the parchments (2 Timothy 4:13).

The ship which Paul sailed on seems to have been on a “milk run,” stopping at various ports along its way toward Caesarea (Acts 21:8). One may well wonder why Paul would have taken a ship which had so many delays if he were in such a hurry to reach Jerusalem. The only reasonable answer to this is that all such ships would have had delays for onloading and offloading cargo, for supplies, repairs, and seamen. The ship which Paul took must have had the shortest travel time, and thus Paul endured the delays because they were minimum.

The ship passed by Ephesus, which seems to have been at least part of the reason why Paul took it. When it made port at Miletus, it was to have a one week layover, and so Paul sent word to Ephesus, for the elders to come to him at Miletus, some thirty miles distant. It was at Miletus that Paul met for what he thought was the last time with these church leaders. He message to these men was of great importance to them, and it is vitally important to us as well. The remainder of our lesson will focus on the farewell address of Paul to the Ephesian elders.

Paul’s Final Words to the Ephesian Elders
(20:17-38)

17 And from Miletus he sent to Ephesus and called to him the elders of the church. 18 And when they had come to him, he said to them,

“You yourselves know, from the first day that I set foot in Asia, how I was with you the whole time, 19 serving the Lord with all humility and with tears and with trials which came upon me through the plots of the Jews; 20 how I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, and teaching you publicly and from house to house, 21 solemnly testifying to both Jews and Greeks of repentance toward God and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. 22 “And now, behold, bound in spirit, I am on my way to Jerusalem, not knowing what will happen to me there, 23 except that the Holy Spirit solemnly testifies to me in every city, saying that bonds and afflictions await me. 24 “But I do not consider my life of any account as dear to myself, in order that I may finish my course, and the ministry which I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify solemnly of the gospel of the grace of God. 25 “And now, behold, I know that you all, among whom I went about preaching the kingdom, 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 did not shrink from declaring to you the whole purpose of God. 28 “Be on guard for yourselves and for 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 “I know that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves men will arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them. 31 “Therefore be on the alert, remembering that night and day for a period of three years I did not cease to admonish each 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 have coveted no one’s silver or gold or clothes. 34 “You yourselves know that these hands ministered to my own needs and to the men who were with me. 35 “In every thing I showed you that by working hard in this manner you must help the weak and remember the words of the Lord Jesus, that 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 they began to weep aloud and embraced Paul, and repeatedly kissed him, 38 grieving especially over the word which he had spoken, that they should see his face no more. And they were accompanying him to the ship.

General Observations

Our passage is one of the outstanding texts in Acts,460 conveying the impassioned final words of Paul to the leaders of the Ephesian church. We shall not in any way exhaust its study or fathom its depths in this lesson. I would like to begin, however, with some general observations.

Notice, first of all, that Paul’s words look backward and forward in time. Paul looks back over the years which he has spend with these men, drawing upon his conduct and teaching and the work of God in their midst. And then Paul looks forward, to his own fate and the dangers which lie ahead, which seem to spell his death, or at least imprisonment, and thus his “farewell” to these leaders. Paul also looks forward to the dangers which lie ahead of this church and to these men in particular. He therefore warns them of these dangers and spells out God’s resources for them.

Second, these words of Paul are those of man who has a deep affection for these elders, and they are received by these men with the same love and affection for Paul. These are words that are tearfully delivered and which are tearfully received. Paul can talk to these men as he does because they know him well, just as he knows them intimately. He speaks to them frankly, out of love, as they listen with hearts of love for him, through whose ministry (no doubt) they have come to faith. The message and the man are very much inter-twined. Paul’s conduct and his content are inseparable, and thus he moves from his practice to his preaching, back and forth. He also wishes for his teaching to work itself out in very practical terms, and so he moves from his teaching to the lifestyle which it requires.

With these general observations, let us look at each section of Paul’s final words, noting some of its particulars, and then I will attempt to draw the material together in such a way as to characterize Paul’s ministry, as a pattern for the Ephesian elders and for us.

Paul’s Practice in the Past (Verses 18-21)

Paul begins his exhortation by pointing to his practice while with the Ephesians for those nearly three years among them. It is evident that he was not distant from these saints, but that he had an intimate association with them, and that his life had a transparency to it, so that they could know him well. Over this extended period of time they could see Paul’s consistency in lifestyle. He was putting on no show for them. He served the Lord among them, with humility, with great love and concern (tears) and with much opposition from the Jews.461 Paul evangelized, proclaiming the gospel to Jews and Gentiles alike, always calling men to repent of their sins and to have faith in the Lord Jesus as their Savior. In addition to his ministry of evangelism, he taught those who believed, both in public and in private (house to house, verse 20). Paul did not hold back (shrink) from telling men what they needed to hear. He did not selectively proclaim what men wanted to hear. All that was profitable, he proclaimed, to the saved and to the unsaved. Opposition neither silenced Paul, nor did it cause him to be selective in what he said, so as to avoid opposition or reaction.

Paul’s Practice in the Light of His Future (Verses 22-27)

Paul was pressing on toward Jerusalem, in a hurry to get there as soon as he could (Acts 19:21; 20:16). And yet what lay ahead of him in Jerusalem was far from pleasant. He was “bound in spirit” (verse 22) and informed by the Holy Spirit (verse 23) concerning his future plans. He did not know all the details, but he was informed wherever he went462 that bonds and afflictions (note the plural, “afflictions”) awaited him in Jerusalem. Saving his life was not the goal however, but spending his life in fulfilling his calling—the proclamation of the gospel. The warnings of his future bonds and afflictions were but further clarification of what he had been informed at the time of his conversion:

But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is a chosen instrument of Mine, to bear My name before the Gentiles and kings and the sons of Israel; for I will show him how much he must suffer for My name’s sake” (Acts 9:15-16).

Paul’s goal was to “finish his course,” to accomplish that which God had given him to do. So far as Ephesus and Asia were concerned, Paul was content that he had fulfilled his mission there, and thus he could leave, never to return again, if that were the will of God. He was innocent of the blood of all men there because he had not held back from proclaiming the gospel, nor had he failed to teach the saints the whole counsel of God (verses 26-27). He could leave them because he knew his work there was completed. There was still work to be done elsewhere, and thus he must press on, even though suffering awaited him.

The Dangers Ahead for the Ephesian Elders (Verses 28-32)

It was not just Paul who was in for trials and tests. There were dangers ahead for the church at Ephesus, and even for these elders themselves. Paul’s words of encouragement must also include words of admonition and warning. These men must be on guard, not just for the flock, but also for themselves. These men were appointed as elders by the Holy Spirit, and as such they were to shepherd the flock of God, among which God had placed them. This flock was threatened by “wolves,” and these “shepherds” were to guard the flock and protect them from such individuals, who would seek to do them harm.

Notice the “sheep” symbolism which Paul used here. The flock were the “sheep,” and the elders were the “shepherds” of the flock, who were appointed by the Holy Spirit to protect and to feed the sheep. The danger was to come from the “wolves” who would savagely seek to destroy the flock and to devour some of the sheep. If this were not bad enough, some of the wolves were present there with Paul. There would be some of them who would assert themselves and who would seek to create a following of their own. In so doing, they would teach perverse things, things which would appeal to some and which would draw them to these false teachers. These teachers would no longer be shepherds of the flock, feeding, guiding and protecting the flock, but would feed themselves off of the flock, teaching what was perverse to attract and to mislead them. The would not seek to make disciples of our Lord, but to make disciples of their own, much like the Pharisees (Matthew 23:15). The dangers for these men were great, which is why Paul persistently admonished them while he was with them (verse 31). They, like he, must be vigilant, on the alert for such falling away.

The “wolves” of whom Paul warned these elders were those who were self-seeking and self-serving, who would prey upon the flock, bringing destruction as they savagely devoured the sheep. The shocking part of Paul’s warning was not that false teachers would arise, and that the flock of God would be attacked from without; the shocking news was that some of those who would prove to be “savage wolves” were among them. Some of these elders would actually cease to be shepherds, who fed the sheep and protected them from danger, and become wolves, preying upon the flock, and speaking perverse things to achieve their destructive ends. They would cease to think and act like shepherds (and especially like the “Good Shepherd”), caring for the flock and laying down their lives to protect the flock.

How could such a terrible thing happen? How could a true shepherd of the flock become a wolf? It seems to me that the Scriptures, both Old Testament and New, provide us with some very direct evidence as to how things go wrong. Ezekiel 34 is a divine rebuke of the “shepherds of Israel,” who have forsaken their task and calling as shepherds, and have begun to feed themselves from the flock, rather than feeding the flock. In John chapter 10 our Lord speaks of Himself as the “Good Shepherd” and He contrasts Himself with those who are thieves and robbers, and also with the hirelings, who have no real love nor care for the sheep, and who look out for themselves first.

From these texts and from the context of Paul’s words of warning, I think that the first step in the fall from a shepherd to a wolf is that one ceases to think and act like a servant and begins to expect to be served. The “good shepherd” (not our Lord, but the faithful shepherd or elder) is one who gives of his life, who sacrifices personally for the benefit of the sheep. The “wolf” becomes willing to sacrifice the sheep so that he may benefit. He expects to gain from the sheep, even at the expense of the sheep. He may first become a mere “hireling,” looking out for himself and not really caring for the sheep. When there is danger or demands, he is not present to care for the sheep. But eventually he becomes the wolf, who actually devours the sheep.

Paul may have had some specific revelation on this matter of the Ephesian elders, but then again he may have merely been convinced of the effects of the fall and of the sinfulness of the heart and of the power of sin through the flesh. He may also have already seen such transformations from shepherds to savage wolves. History has borne out Paul’s warnings, time and time again.

No longer would Paul be present with them, to continue to warn them of these dangers, or to point out those who would rise up as devouring wolves. He did not despair, however, for it was no he on whom the church in Ephesus was dependent, but upon the Lord. And so it is that Paul can leave, commending this body of saints to the Lord, and to the “word of His grace.”463 It was God, through His Word and through His Spirit, who would build men up, keep them from falling, and bring them into the inheritance which He had promised. Jude, in the same context of false teachers, would give a similar benediction:

Now to Him who is able to keep you from stumbling, and to make you stand in the presence of His glory blameless with great joy, to the only God our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen. (Jude 24-25)

When you look through the New Testament to read the final, parting words of the apostles, you will discover that all of them turn the focus of their readers to the Word of God, not that they have not always done so, but that they do so especially in the light of their absence (see 2 Peter 1; 2 Timothy 3 & 4; 1 John 2:18-29).

Paul’s Example and the Shepherd’s Spirit
(20:33-35)

In addition to the “word of God’s grace” and the direct involvement of God in the lives of these elders, they also had the example of Paul to draw upon as an illustration of the kind of motivation and lifestyle which should characterize them—a motivation and lifestyle directly opposite to that of the “savage wolves” mentioned above. The savage wolves prey upon the sheep, while the shepherd cares for the sheep, even a great personal sacrifice. These wolves were savage wolves, with ravenous appetites. They wanted more—more from the sheep—more money, more power, more status and honor. In exchange they “fed” the sheep perverse teaching, which appealed to the lower natures and desires of the sheep. These men facilitated the self-indulgence of the sheep, only to fatten them for the kill, so that they could indulge themselves on the sheep.

Paul, on the other hand, had a ministry which was marked by a servant’s spirit. He did not gain from his ministry among them, even though he could legitimately have done so (see 1 Corinthians chapter 9). He worked with his own hands, supporting not only himself but those who traveled with him. His ministry came at great cost, not to the sheep, but to himself. He was free from lust for their money or possessions. His ministry did not require money from others, and so he was free from the time-consuming process of raising funds, and from the temptation to misuse them so as to personally gain from his ministry. His ministry was characterized by giving, not by getting. His strength was not used to prey upon the weak, to take advantage of their weaknesses, but to support the weak. His life was lived on the principle taught by our Lord Himself: “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (verse 35).464

A Tearful Parting
(20:36-38)

At the end of Paul’s exhortation, Paul knelt in prayer with these men. From the beginning of Acts to the present, there was nothing more important than “the ministry of the Word and prayer” (see Acts 6:4). Paul had ministered the word to these men, and now they must pray. Once again, Paul’s dependence and that of these elders, was upon God. And so they called upon Him for grace.

The parting of these men was indeed painful, with many tears shed. Not only was Paul leaving them, but so far as they knew it was for the last time. They were convinced that they would never see his face again. The one who had played such a vital role in their salvation and spiritual growth was now leaving them. What they did not know was that there would be further contact with Paul, through his writing (the epistle to the Ephesians) and through those whom Paul would send their way, such as Timothy (1 Timothy 1:3) and others (2 Timothy 4:12). God would minister to these saints by other means as well, as we can see in the first two chapters of the Book of Revelation. But what we see here is the heart of the apostle toward these saints, and their deep love and affection for him. The man who had once brought tears to the eyes of the saints by his persecution now brought tears to the eyes of the saints because of his coming persecution.

Conclusion

As we conclude this lesson, I want to focus your attention on several areas, which are directly applicable to our own lives.

First, I want to call your attention to those Scriptures which pertain to Ephesus after Paul’s farewell to the Ephesian elders in Acts 20. Some time later, after Paul’s arrest and during his imprisonment, Paul wrote his Epistle to the Ephesians. In this epistle, he does not seek to address any specific problems in the church, but to declare the whole counsel of God and its practical implications in the lives of those who believe. In a word, this epistle surely is a “word of His grace.”

As time went on, problems did arise in the Ephesian church, the very problems which Paul predicted in his farewell address. These problems were the reason why Paul sent Timothy to Ephesus (1 Timothy 1:3) and why he wrote the his first epistle to Timothy. Just as Paul warned that false teachers would arise, so Paul spoke of those “would-be teachers of the Law” who turned aside to fruitless, speculative discussions, spoken with great confidence, but having no profit so far as godly living are concerned (1 Timothy 1:3-11). In chapter 3, Paul laid down the qualifications for elders. The church at Ephesus already had elders, those who may have been appointed by Paul. But in light of the falling away of some, new elders may have been needed. Some of the existing elders, if they had wandered from the truth, may have needed to be re-evaluated in terms of these qualifications. In chapter 4 Paul spoke against those who, out of a defiled conscience (contrast 1:5) were forbidding those things which were God-given blessings, in the name of righteous living. Finally, in chapter 6 Paul spoke of those whose doctrine was speculative and corrupt, and based upon the premise that godliness was a means of getting rich. Paul’s words of warning to the Ephesian elders had indeed come to pass.

The last reference to the Ephesian church in the New Testament is found in the Book of Revelation (see 1:11). One of the seven churches of Asia to which the Lord gave a word of rebuke and encouragement was the church at Ephesus (Revelation 2:1-7). From this text it would appear that the church had finally come to grips with its need to reject false teachers, but in the process they had gone overboard. In their zeal to remain doctrinally pure they had become cold, loveless (see 1 Timothy 1:5). They were therefore exhorted to repent and to return to their first deeds. From some reports of this church later in history, it appears that they took this admonition to heart.

From this “track record” of the church at Ephesus, I think we can see that the temptations and dangers which a church faces may change, but that there will always be some threat to its purity, practices, or devotion. This church which, at first, was threatened by doctrinal deviation, later corrected this problem but swung to the other extreme of devotional coldness. From one direction or another, the church of our Lord will always be under satanic attack, and fighting some form of evil. The moment we deal with such evil and begin to pride ourselves on this, we are threatened by another evil, as deadly as the first. Let us look for those things which threaten our doctrinal purity and or devotion to Christ and to one another. No church is without these dangers.

Second, I would like to briefly summarize some of the characteristics of Paul’s mindset and ministry, which should also characterize us. I will only briefly summarize the characteristics which I see in Paul’s ministry, but hope that these will stimulate further thought and study on your part.

(1) Paul had a strong sense of mission and a clear conception of his calling. Paul had no doubt as to what he was called to do, and he purposed to complete his calling, even if this meant suffering or death.

(2) Paul had a strong sense of his priorities. Because Paul knew what he was called to do, he also had a strong sense of his priorities. First, he served God, and then he served others, and this he did even if it meant losing his own life. Paul’s priorities are the exact reverse of our culture. Our generation serves ourselves first, others second, and God hardly at all.

(3) Paul’s life and ministry is marked by consistency and stability. He can refer to his conduct among the Ephesians as that which he consistently lived out among them—”how I was with you the whole time” (verse 18; see also 1 Corinthians 4:16-17). He was persistent even in the face of opposition or disagreement. He did not “shrink” from his duty (verse 20, 27). He was consistent in the gospel which he preached, a gospel of repentance and faith (verse 21).

(4) Paul’s life and ministry were characterized by balance.

  • Balance between doctrine and lifestyle, between theory and practice
  • Balance between edification of the saints and evangelization of the lost
  • Balance between public and private ministry (“publicly and from house to house,” verse 20).
  • Doctrinal balance (no hobby horses)—”the whole counsel of God,” v. 27
  • Balance in his ministry to the Jews and to the Gentiles
  • Balance between tenderness (tears) and toughness (admonishing night and day)

(5) Paul’s ministry reflected a profound grasp of the relationship between strength and weakness. He knew that his strength came from God, ministered through his weakness (see 2 Corinthians 12:1-10) and that from the strength God supplied, he was to serve the weak. Unlike the “wolves” who used their strength to prey upon the weak, Paul’s strength was employed in serving the weak.

(6) Paul’s ministry is characterized by a profound sense of freedom. Paul’s ministry was marked by a freedom from guilt. While much of Christian ministry today is motivated by guilt (often guilt imposed by church leadership), Paul was free from a sense of guilt, free because he knew that he had been obedient and had fulfilled his ministry and calling at Ephesus. Thus he was free to leave, free from the blood of all men. He was also free to live or die, based upon his hope of eternal life (see Philippians 1:19-26). Finally, he was free from the bondage of greed, self-seeking, and self-interest, the very things which would be the downfall of some of the Ephesian elders and many others.

(7) Paul’s ministry was marked by a profound grasp of the fallibility of men and of the faithfulness of God. Paul knew the fallibility of men, and thus he predicted the downfall of some of these elders, not to mention the rising up of other “wolves” who would prey upon the flock. And yet in spite of Paul’s realistic view of man’s fallenness, he was convinced of God’s faithfulness, and on this he could have absolute confidence. On this basis he could leave Ephesus, commending these saints to God and to the word of His grace.

Third, there is in this passage, once again, the undercurrent of the sovereignty of God, working out His plan and purpose, through men. While Paul’s sense of urgency had to do with the offerings of the churches of Macedonia, Achaia, and Greece to the poor in Jerusalem, God was intent only to get this man to Jerusalem, where by a very different means, he would get Paul and the gospel to Rome. Paul purposed to go to Jerusalem and Rome (Acts 19:21-22), and God would get him there, but in ways that even Paul did not comprehend at the time. His ways and His thoughts are always higher than ours.

Finally, this passage reflects the primary role of the Word of God and the secondary role of money and miracles. In Troas and at Miletus, Paul’s ministry was one of “preaching the Word.” That was Paul’s priority. He saw the need for teaching the saints at Troas to be so great that he taught them all night. And even when his teaching was interrupted by the death of Eutychus, immediately after his miraculous raising, Paul went back to worship and teaching. When Paul ministered to these Ephesian elders, he ministered the word and he commended them to God and to His word. While money and miracles played a role in the events of our text, they were clearly secondary, not primary. Why is it today that miracles and money seem to be primary, while the ministry of the Word is secondary?

May God continue to use this great chapter to renew our minds and lives, for His glory and for our good.


452 A. T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1930), III, p. 340.

453 I. Howard Marshall, The Acts of the Apostles (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, reprint, 1987), p. 322.

454 A. T. Robertson, III, pp. 335-336.

455 There is some discussion as to whether this was on a Saturday evening or a Sunday evening. The difference is really of no consequence, and does not change the thrust of this text.

456 There is likewise a great deal of discussion as to whether this “breaking of bread” is the celebration of a common meal, as a part of the celebration of the Lord’s table, or whether it was merely the eating of a meal. From the use of this term in Acts 2:42 and the description of the love feast in 1 Corinthians 11 as a part of a meal, I am strongly inclined to view this as the celebration of a meal as a part of the remembrance of the Lord in communion.

457 For example, in Luke’s description of Paul’s rather lengthy ministry in Corinth, no miracles are mentioned, but the emphasis is on Paul’s teaching (see Acts 18:11). But in 2 Corinthians 12:11-13, Paul speaks of “signs and wonders and miracles” being performed by him among them, as evidence and proof of his apostleship. There is a similar reference in Romans 15:19, but speaking of a broader group than just those in Corinth.

458 “Assos (modern Behram-kale) was a well-fortified city standing on a volcanic cone about 750 feet high. Its harbor, on the shore below, was protected by a mole, which is still to be seen.” F. F. Bruce, The Book of Acts, Revised Edition (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1988), p. 386.

459 “Miletus stood on the south shore of the Latmian Gulf. Even then the gulf was being constantly silted up by the river Maeander, which entered it from the north. Today the Latmian Gulf survives as an inland lake (Lake Bafa), which is connected with the Maeander by an outlet on the north. The island of Lade, which then stood off the coast to the west of Miletus, has for long been part of the mainland. Miletus was a city of high antiquity; it is mentioned in Hittite and Mycenaean texts. Homer knew it as a Carian city, before the Ionians settled there; it was in fact the most southerly of the Ionian settlements in Asia Minor.” Bruce, pp. 386-387.

460 “This speech is quite distinctive among all the speeches reported in Acts. It is the only Pauline speech delivered to Christians which Luke has recorded, and it is not surprising to discover how rich it is in parallels to the Pauline letters (especially, in fact, to the later ones).” Bruce, p. 387.

461 It would be some of these very Jewish opponents who would create the disturbance which would get Paul arrested in Jerusalem, and which would lead him ultimately to Rome (see Acts 21:27-29).

462 In “every city” (verse 23) Paul was informed of the bonds which awaited him in Jerusalem. Thus there were prophets in each city. It seems that this revelation may have been as much for the sake of the saints as it was for Paul. Such revelation did not deter Paul, for he continued to press on to Jerusalem, much like his Master.

463 I understand the expression “word of His grace” to refer to more than just the Old Testament Scriptures, but to refer to the message of the gospel, to the inspired words of the New Testament prophets, and especially to the inspired Word of God that would be revealed in the New Testament epistles.

464 While there is no reference to these words of our Lord in the Gospels, there is no reason to doubt that they were our Lord’s words.