17. From Miletus he sent to Ephesus and called for the elders of the church.
Though Paul does not have time to journey to Ephesus himself and visit with the believers there, he does have time to send a message to Ephesus to call those from there to come to him for a quick meeting. This he does. A visit would have taken him much longer. He had also left under strained circumstances, and his return to the city now might have caused a new outcry, and could have brought about even more delays.
The ones he sends for are described as the “elders of the church.” The word for “elders” here is the Greek word presbuteros, which speaks of the representative men. In other words, he did not call for all the believers in Ephesus to come to him, nor for all who were part of the ekklesia to come, but only those who had been specially chosen out as representative men. We know from Acts 14:23 that Paul and Barnabas appointed elders or representative men in every ekklesia where they ministered, and so it should not surprise us to find that Paul had done the same thing in Ephesus. Now it is these representative men with whom Paul wants to meet during his brief stay in Miletus.
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,
When the elders arrive, Paul addresses them in company, and we have a record of his words here. First of all, he reminds them of his conduct all the while he lived among them from the very beginning when he first came to Asia. He had lived there something along the lines of two and a half years, and so they had plenty of time to observe what Paul was like. They had seen all he did, and so of course knew that his manner of life was beyond reproach.
Paul is reminding them of this, because, as he will warn them later in this address, false teachers will come in among them during his absence. These false teachers will have to try to turn them away from the teaching of Paul before they can get them to follow their own, false doctrine. In order to do this, it is quite likely that they will attempt to malign his character. So Paul reminds them now that they personally have seen how he acted during his entire stay in Ephesus. No one should be able to fool them about it, because they have seen his conduct with their own eyes.
19. serving the Lord with all humility, with many tears and trials which happened to me by the plotting of the Jews;
Paul now summarizes what his manner of life had been like. He had served the Lord with all humility. This is a good example for us to follow today. Far too many people, when they start to serve the Lord and seem to have done so successfully for any significant period of time, seem to tend to start developing pride about it. This is a shame, for we are nothing but sinners saved by God’s grace, and we should not develop an arrogant attitude about our service in His behalf, considering how poorly we often perform it. It would be good if we could maintain the kind of attitude Paul had, and serve Him with continual humility. Pride does nothing but get in the way.
Paul also reminds them of his tears. He did not just do the work of the Lord in a cold, businesslike, or detached way. He truly threw his soul into the work, and was often moved to tears by the heart he had for the people of Asia. Yet he also had trials to undergo which caused him great sorrow. These happened to him because of the plotting of the Jews. Of course, these were the rulers and religious leaders who rejected Christ and opposed Paul’s words and teaching. They caused Paul to shed many tears, and brought many trials upon him through their stubborn rejection of the truth. All these things the Ephesians had seen and observed.
20. how I kept back nothing that was helpful, but proclaimed it to you, and taught you publicly and from house to house,
Paul reminds them that he kept back nothing from them that was helpful. He did not just dole out the Word of God as it would bring advantages to him. He taught them everything that was needed for their help, whether the things he taught were hard to hear or not. Moreover, he was engaged in their lives personally, teaching them not only publically, but also from house to house. He was willing to teach them individually, and because of his extended stay in Ephesus he had done just that. So these people had observed Paul’s conduct in private as well as in public. Moreover, they had had opportunity to become very close to Paul as a person, since he had spent time in their houses and with their families.
21. testifying to Jews, and also to Greeks, repentance toward God and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ.
Paul in his teaching bore witness, first to the Jews, and also to the Greeks. He did not just reserve his message for the Israelites who were faithful to God, but also taught those who had turned their backs on God and were living the Greek culture that surrounded them.
Now Paul reviews just what it was that he taught them. He taught repentance toward God. But as we have discussed before, this word metanoia does not mean “repentance,” but rather speaks of having the after-mind, which is an attitude of submission. Whatever God required of them, they were to be willing to do, even in advance of knowing what that requirement would be. So they were to have submission in relationship to God, and then he tells us what their first great act of submission was to be. They were to have faith in relationship to our Lord Jesus Christ. None of the Ephesians could claim to be truly submissive toward God unless they had faith in Him.
22. And see, now I go bound in the spirit to Jerusalem, not knowing the things that will happen to me there,
Now Paul calls upon them to stop considering what he had done in the past, and to instead consider what he is doing now. He is going bound in the Spirit to Jerusalem. This was not just Paul’s plan, and it was not just Paul’s desire to go there. The Spirit had him bound as a prisoner, and he was required to go to that city.
Notice that the translators of the New King James Version have not capitalized the word “Spirit” here. We need to realize that there was no capitalization in the original Greek of these chapters. The original New Testament, as far as we can tell, was written all in capital letters. Thus, whether or not the word “spirit” is capitalized is all up to the interpretation of the translators. In my opinion, they made the wrong choice here. Paul is not talking about his own spirit, but the Spirit of God, which had bound him to go to Jerusalem.
Paul admits to the Ephesian elders that he does not know the things that will happen to him once he gets to Jerusalem. God has not revealed this to him, at least, not in detail. He did know some things, however, and he will reveal them in the next verse.
23. except that the Holy Spirit testifies in every city, saying that chains and tribulations await me.
What Paul does know is that in every city he passes through, the Holy Spirit testifies that chains and tribulations await Paul in Jerusalem. Paul well knew it was no pleasant visit he would experience in Jerusalem!
The phrase “the Holy Spirit” in Greek here is “the Spirit the Holy,” and so it refers to the Person of the Holy Spirit testifying to Paul. We might wonder how it was that the Holy Spirit was testifying this, but for an example of it, all we have to do is look at the story of Paul in Caesarea in Acts 21:8-14. We will see there that it is through a prophet that the Holy Spirit tells Paul this there. So through divinely inspired men Paul has had confirmed to him the fact that chains and tribulations await him upon his visit to Jerusalem.
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.
Paul is not moved from his determination to obey the pressing of the Spirit of God. Neither the threat of bondage nor that of pressure to come can dissuade him from his course. The fact is that he does not count his own soul dear to himself. The soul has to do with the emotions and the desires, and by extension it can refer to those things which fulfill those emotions and desires. Paul will not be comfortable, and his soul will not be very satisfied, by being imprisoned. Yet Paul does not give his own soul a high priority. Even the threat of death, the ultimate loss of his soul, would not change his mind. He is determined to finish the race God has given him to run with joy. That joy would be finishing the race, and knowing that he has run faithfully and well the course God gave him to follow. What would it matter to him if he was comfortable or uncomfortable along the way?
The word “race” here is also used by Paul in II Timothy 4:7, when Paul proclaims his race finished. What Paul is referring to here is the completion of the full course of his ministry that the Lord Jesus has given him to perform. Not until he has written every inspired letter and visited every planned place will he be done with the work he has been given to do. He is determined to finish his appointed race, and he wants to do it with joy, no matter what persecutions he may face along the way.
Moreover, Paul wants to finish the ministry he has received from the Lord Jesus. The ministry he has been given is to testify to the gospel of the grace of God. Some have made much of this ministry of Paul’s. The question is, what exactly is it that Paul is saying he has been given to do here? To understand this, we need to realize the meaning of the word “gospel.”
The word “gospel” in Greek is the word euaggelion. When there are two “g”s together in Greek, the first “g” is pronounced like an “n,” so we could make this euangelion. Notice the word “angel” in the middle of this word. The word “angel” means a messenger, and the prefix eu means “good,” so an euangelion is a good message. However, we need to dig deeper than this, for we need to know why a gospel is a good message. It is not because it is necessarily good news, as we might assume.
For example, suppose you were sleeping and your house caught fire. Suddenly, someone cried out to wake you with this message: “Fire! Get out!” Now that message would not be good news, and no one would like to hear that message in the middle of the night or at any other time. Yet that news would be the right news, and it would be the news you desperately needed to hear. That is the way it is with a gospel. It is good because it is right. It is not necessarily all good news to the hearer.
Now there are other things that need to be present for a message to be a gospel. For one thing, it needs to be spoken in view of a need. In the house on fire example, there was a definite need for you to hear that message, for if you did not, you might keep right on sleeping and the fire would consume you. A gospel also contains an element of promise. In the house on fire example, the promise implied is that if you do heed the message and get out, your life will be saved, and you will not die in the fire.
So this is what Paul was proclaiming. He was proclaiming a right message. It was spoken in view of a need. It contained a definite element of promise. And that message concerned the grace of God. That is what he was testifying, and that is what he was willing to give up his soul for. Ultimately, I believe that right message is summed up for us in Paul’s words in Acts 13:38-39.
38. Therefore let it be known to you, brethren, that through this Man is preached to you the forgiveness of sins; 39. and by Him everyone who believes is justified from all things from which you could not be justified by the law of Moses.
It was very gracious for God to offer the forgiveness of sins to men through belief. Moreover, that He would justify the scattered Israelites from all things from which they could not be justified by the law of Moses was another extremely gracious act. This message of the grace of God is similar to what we preach today, though most of us are not Israelites, and so were never in need of justification by the law. Yet to make this message to be God’s primary one for believers of today is wrong. God’s grace is an integral part of God’s gospel to us today, but our gospel is not the same as the one Paul referred to here.
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.
Paul calls on them to consider his next words. Then he assures them that he knows that all of them, among whom he has gone proclaiming the kingdom of God, will see his face no more after this. This will be the last meeting they have in this life. Whether or not they communicate with Paul by letter or even see some of the rest of Paul’s companions again, he himself they will never see again face-to-face.
Notice that Paul, who summarized his ministry in verse 24 under the title of testifying “to the gospel of the grace of God,” now summarizes it in different terms, “proclaiming the kingdom of God.” This should not surprise us, for the kingdom of God was the hope Paul held out to those to whom he spoke throughout his ministry. In Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch, we know he did this, for in Acts 14:22 he told them, “We must through many tribulations enter the kingdom of God.” In Ephesus he did this, for we read in Acts 19:8 that he “spoke boldly for three months, reasoning and persuading concerning the things of the kingdom of God.” In Acts 28:23, we read that this was his solemn testimony to the rulers of the Jews in Rome during that momentous all-day meeting he had with them after his arrival there. He talks about the kingdom of God in the book of Romans, of I Corinthians, of Galatians, of Ephesians, of Colossians, of I Thessalonians, of II Thessalonians, and of II Timothy. These are just the cities and the books where the kingdom is mentioned by name in relationship to Paul. Yet from these things, it is clear that the kingdom was a major topic of his ministry, and was the hope held out to the people to whom he proclaimed the gospel.
That said, it is easily seen that many dispensationalists today have greatly neglected the topic of the kingdom of God. This should not be. This topic of God’s coming government was a cornerstone of Paul’s ministry. It is not right for us to neglect it. Paul had not failed to proclaim it to the Ephesians, and because of this he could tell them in the next verse that he is “innocent of the blood of all men.” Can we say the same if we neglect this most important topic?
26. Therefore I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all men.
Because Paul will not see them face-to-face again, that means his personal ministry to them has come to an end. Therefore, he can now sum up all he has done for them. And looking back on all his work with them, he can honestly say that he is innocent of the blood of all men. No one will be harmed in any way because Paul failed to declare to him the truth. As he said in verse 20, he kept back nothing that was helpful. As he will say in the next verse, he has not shunned to declare to them the whole counsel of God. No one could charge him with not giving them all the truth as he had received it from the Lord. Therefore, no one could claim harm had happened to him through ignorance caused by Paul keeping silent. This is what Paul can confidently say at the close of his ministry to the Ephesians. It is a good thing if we can say this of those to whom we have ministered the Word of God for any length of time. It is good if we can say that we have not held back from declaring all the truth we have from God.
27. For I have not shunned to declare to you the whole counsel of God.
Again Paul emphasizes that he has not held back from them any of the counsel of God. The word for “shunned” here is hypostello, and is the same word we had for “kept back” in verse 20. Paul is telling them once again that he has kept nothing of the truth from them. They have been made to know all that Paul knows. He has kept nothing a secret from them. The whole counsel of God has been given them; at least, His whole counsel for the Acts period.
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.
In light of the fact that they have received the whole counsel of God, and in light of the fact that Paul is no longer to take a place among them, it is now necessary for these representative men to take heed to themselves. Until now, Paul has taken heed for them. Now, however, it will be up to them to watch over themselves. Moreover, since they are the leaders among the believers in Ephesus, it will be their job to also take heed to all the flock.
In my message on “The Sheep and the Shepherd,” I examined this idea of the sheep of God, and I showed that Israel are the sheep, and always have been throughout all of Scripture. As I explained in studying Paul’s ministry in Ephesus earlier in Acts, his work there was among ancestral Israelites, both Jews and Greeks. Now, this group of believing Israelites make up the flock of God in Ephesus. These elders have the task of shepherding this flock, and this puts them in the important place of acting on behalf of the Lord Jesus Christ, and standing in for Him, the true Shepherd. This was a great responsibility indeed.
Paul reminds them that the reason they have this responsibility is because the Holy Spirit has made them overseers over this flock. The word “overseers” in Greek is the word episkopos. The English word “overseer,” while it is an accurate translation, has taken on a bit too much of the idea of a taskmaster in English to fit well with this Greek word. The idea is of an over-watcher. These men had been given the task to watch over their fellow believers for their own good. That is why they were representatives.
Now they had the task of shepherding the ekklesia of God. As we know, the ekklesia were those out-positioned by God among the believers. They had received these positions from God, yet even they needed leadership, and their leaders were the men Paul was speaking to now, the representative men. It was their task to shepherd these ekklesia and guide them in their walk after Christ. Of course, this was most important, made all the more so because the Lord had purchased this ekklesia with His Own blood. Since He had paid such a price for it, this ekklesia was very important, and the care of it was a most critical task.
29. For I know this, that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock.
Paul now reveals why it will be so important for them to shepherd the ekklesia. He reveals that he knows, no doubt through a revelation from God, that after he departs from them, savage wolves will come in among them, and will not spare the flock. This reference to “wolves” is a symbolic one, just as the reference to “sheep” is, and he does not mean that they will have to deal with the animal called “wolves.” The meaning of the symbol is found in the next verse, where we see that the wolves are false teachers.
30. Also from among yourselves men will rise up, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after themselves.
The “savage wolves” in the last verse came in from without, but now Paul reveals that there will also arise false teachers from within. Whether by “from among yourselves” Paul just means from among the believers in Jesus Christ in Ephesus, or whether he means from among the ekklesia over whom these men were to watch, or whether he even means from among these elders to whom he is speaking, it is hard to say. Certainly the people would be more likely to listen to someone recognized as an elder who became a false teacher. It is hard to think that one of God’s chosen representatives might have gone far enough astray to actually become a false teacher, and yet when we consider that Paul says in II Timothy 1:15 that “all those in Asia have turned away from me,” this must certainly have included these elders as well. So, in such a case, is anything too hard to imagine when it comes to the apostasy that was going to arise in Ephesus? Yes, it could even be that some of these elders Paul was speaking to were in large part responsible for it.
Paul reveals that these false teachers will speak perverse things. This speaks of things distorted, turned aside, or twisted. These false teachers will take the truths God taught to the Ephesians through Paul and will twist them and distort them to serve their own ends. The result will be that they will draw away people from following the Lord to become their own disciples instead. In other words, they will be forming a personality cult, the purpose of which will be to get men to follow after them and listen to them as opposed to God’s true representatives like Paul.
How often do this kind of false teachers arise even today! Their concern is to create a following, and they work to do this, rather than to turn people to following the Lord and His Word. This is sad when it happens, and this should never be the goal of anyone who teaches the Word. Always we must try to turn men to Christ, not to ourselves. As John the Baptizer said, “He must increase, but I must decrease.” That should be the attitude of us all. And how often, too, when men seek to turn others after them, do they do it by error, rather than by truth! The truth works to lead men to Christ, not to some human teacher. Error works far better when seeking to promote yourself. So these teachers lead others after them by error, not by truth. Let us ever cling to the Word of God, for it has the truth to keep us from all teachers such as this.
31. Therefore watch, and remember that for three years I did not cease to warn everyone night and day with tears.
Paul calls upon them to remember his stay with them, which had covered about three years. During all that time, he reminds them, he did not cease day and night from warning them against false teachers and false teachings. This does not mean that he was doing this non-stop, of course, but rather that it was always a part of his teaching. It was not something he taught for a while, and then decided that they had it down and so let the teaching of it slide. No, it was something he was constantly reminding them of, even with tears, all the time he was among them. So the diligence he showed while he was with them, they should now show in his absence, and should remember to beware of false teachers and false shepherds.
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.
Paul speaks to them as brethren, which of course they were, being his fellow Israelites. He commends them now to God and to the word of His grace. Paul knows he will be able to care for them no longer, and yet he is content to leave them in the hands of God and the word of His grace. No matter what happens to them, and no matter what problems these false teachers will cause, Paul is confident that he can leave them in the hands of God and His word. This was a great thing that Paul was able to do, and it is a great thing for us to remember as well when we have to say goodbye to those we love and whom we care about. There are no better hands in which to leave someone than the hands of God, and there is nothing that can uphold him better than His grace.
Paul is confident that God and the word of His grace are both able to build these Ephesians up, and to give them an inheritance among all those who are sanctified. To have an inheritance is to have a place or to enjoy a portion, and Paul knows God is able to give these Ephesians a portion with all those who are set apart to Him.
As we go through this story, I cannot help but feel some sense of melancholy as I consider where these Ephesians ended up. For, as I quoted above, II Timothy 1:15 tells us that all those in Asia turned away from Paul, so that includes all these elders from Ephesus to whom Paul was speaking. It seems that in spite of his tearful warnings, these people ultimately rejected him, and in so doing turned away from God and the truth to which Paul had introduced them. This would end up being why he would never see them face-to-face again, for the time would come when they would not even care to see him again. How much better it would have been if they had heeded his solemn warnings, and had clung fast to God and His truth! Yet, alas, that was not the case. In spite of Paul’s words here, it seems that the false teachers won out in the end.
33. I have coveted no one’s silver or gold or apparel.
Paul knows that these false teachers will try to discredit him and his ministry. Therefore, he reminds them in advance that while he was among them, he was not seeking their money. It was not the purpose of his ministry to enrich himself. Though it is not wrong for those who work for the Lord to be paid for it, it is sad when their whole goal is to try to enrich themselves. These false teachers in seeking to promote themselves would try to make out as if that had been Paul’s motivation all along. Yet Paul calls upon these Ephesians to remember and to keep firmly in mind that that was not the case. He had never done this, and this had not been the goal of his ministry.
34. Yes, you yourselves know that these hands have provided for my necessities, and for those who were with me.
In fact, Paul had provided for his necessities with his own hands, and not only for his own, but also for those of his company. It was not that no one in Ephesus ever gave him anything or that Paul never accepted any gift from any of them. Yet when it came to his own basic needs, he worked to provide these for himself and for his retinue. This was his policy the whole time he was among them, and the Ephesians know this very well.
Notice again that the Holy Spirit through Paul is defending Paul in advance from the charges these false teachers are going to bring against him. The Spirit well knows what these charges will be, and before they ever are made He speaks through Paul to point out to them that they are not true. After this, these men at least will have no excuse for believing any of these slanderous words against Paul.
35. I have shown you in every way, by laboring 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.’”
Paul had a lesson in supporting himself the way he did. It was not just that he wanted to prove that he was not spreading the gospel in order to enrich himself. He also had a lesson for those he was setting up in leadership after him to learn by seeing him do this. He wanted to show them that by laboring like this they must support the weak. The weak would be those who are less able to take care of themselves. It is up to God’s leaders, Paul reveals, to care for those in this condition.
Then Paul reminds them of something the Lord Jesus said. These words are not found in any of the four gospels, but since Paul was an apostle, we can be certain they were correct. The Lord revealed these words to him, even though Paul was not there to originally hear Him speak them.
What the Lord Jesus said was that it is more blessed to give than to receive. This is a lesson that could well be learned by our culture today. Most people have the idea that receiving is the best thing, and they spend all their time trying to receive more and more for themselves. Yet the reality is that happiness is brought about more by giving than by receiving. If we could only learn this lesson, we would be a much happier people than we are.
36. And when he had said these things, he knelt down and prayed with them all.
Paul finishes his address to the Ephesian elders, and he ends his time with them by kneeling down and praying with them all. So his last public act with these people is an act of prayer. We do not have recorded for us what Paul said in his prayer, but doubtless he spoke to the Lord about many of the same things he had mentioned in his just-completed address. He doubtless asked the Lord to help them in dealing with the grievous wolves that he knew would come in among them after he left them. He probably prayed for them by name and asked the Lord to help them in shepherding the flock over which they had the over-watch. Doubtless he also commended them to God, as he had said he was doing in his address. He will see them no more, so they are in his hands no longer. Now, he leaves them in the hands of God.
37. Then they all wept freely, and fell on Paul’s neck and kissed him,
This parting was a most sorrowful one for these Ephesian elders, and they did not attempt to hide their tears, but wept freely. They also fell on Paul’s neck in a heartfelt embrace, and kissed him in the manner of the Orientals. In all this, they displayed their true affection for this man who had brought to them the word of God.
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.
What caused these Ephesians the most sorrow, we read, is the words which he spoke, telling them that they would see his face no more. Before, they had probably had no idea that their separation from Paul was to be permanent. Now, however, they know it, and this causes them great sorrow. During all his travels in the book of Acts, we do not read of a place that Paul ministered to where he stayed more than three years. They have gotten to know him well, and the thought that they will not see him again is a great sorrow to them. So they accompany him back to the ship, and he leaves them for the last time.
This is indeed a touching picture, and we can see here the genuine affection these Ephesians had for Paul. Yet hanging over all of this are Paul’s words in II Timothy 1:15, “All those in Asia have turned away from me.” How sad that these people who loved Paul so much would later be led to reject him! Yet such was Paul’s stand in the dispensation of grace, for in our day, those who stand for the truth are often thus rejected. Paul was willing to pay whatever price was necessary to win Christ and to stand for His truth. Sadly, part of that price was the affection of these Ephesians. May the Lord forgive them for their lack of faithfulness.