Acts 20:18-35 contains Paul’s lengthy address to the elders of the Ephesian church with whom he had worked for a good portion of time. Chapter 20 is transitory — it turns from the ardent labors of the apostles during three different journeys he made to the many years of struggle he had as a prisoner, first in Jerusalem, then in Caesarea, and finally in Rome.
Ephesus was the last church Paul worked with while he was a free man. He had spent three years in that city proclaiming the gospel and made many converts. He also made friends among some who did not accept the gospel’s invitation, and several enemies. He had been forced to leave Ephesus after a riot occurred which was promoted by Demetrius, a silversmith who stirred other silversmiths to protest with him. Paul preached that there were no gods made with hands, and many Gentiles believed him and turned to Christ. They left the worship of Diana, an idol goddess whose beautiful temple was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. Demetrius made images of Diana and the loss of worshippers meant loss of income for him and his fellow craftsmen. They covered their covetous greed by feigning they were concerned with the loss of worshippers of Diana.
Paul left Ephesus and traveled among Macedonian churches, and then traveled on to Achaia (Corinth). He had written two letters to this church (which he had also established) seeking to correct a number of errors it had fallen into. Apparently his second letter brought the results he had hoped and he spent about three months with them. The messengers of the other churches were with him and they planned to sail to Syria from Corinth, but plots of the Jews in Achaia made a change of plans necessary. He (and the others) retraced their steps backward through the region he had a few months earlier visited, seeking to find a port city further eastward. His reversal of travel brought him near to Ephesus again and hungry to see those with whom he had worked, he sent for the elders of the church to meet him at Miletus. He was anxious to get to Jerusalem before the day of Pentecost. Luke includes in his account of this journey the band of men arriving at Troas where they met with disciples and broke bread with them on the Lord’s Day (Acts 20:7), as well an account of the only individual whom Paul was said to have raised from the dead.
The Ephesian elders who met Paul in Miletus were doubtlessly ones whom Paul had laid hands on when they had been chosen to serve as the elders of the church. One can scarcely read the account of this meeting without perceiving the close bond Paul had with them (and they with him). Paul used three words to describe their work. They were “elders” (Acts 20:17), “overseers” (literally bishops, Acts 20:38), and “shepherds” (feed or pastor, Acts 20:28). These three words describe them from their maturity in knowledge and conduct (elder), the scope of their work (overseers, bishops), and the nature of their work (feed, shepherd, pastor).
Paul reminded these men that they could remember his manner of life from the first day he set foot in Asia until the moment he spoke with them. He had served the Lord with humility, and with tears and trials which befell him through the plots of the Jews (Acts 20:19). Despite all the opposing factors of his life, he did not shrink back from declaring to them “the whole counsel” of God for which reason he could say he was “free from the blood of all men” (Acts 20:26-27). He had urged both Jews and Greeks to repent toward God and have faith in Jesus Christ. He told them that the Holy Spirit warned him in every city that afflictions and bonds awaited him in Jerusalem, yet he was still determined to go there to accomplish his course he had received from the Lord Jesus. Sadly, he told them their meeting was the last time they would see him alive.
The absence of Paul from Ephesus meant that these men had an increased burden for their work. They would not have the strength and courage of Paul. He urged them, “Take heed to yourselves and to all the flock in which the Holy Spirt hath made you bishops to feed the church of God which he had purchased with his own blood” (Acts 20:28). He warned them that grievous wolves would enter the flock, and that from among their own selves men would arise, speaking perverse things to draw away disciples after them. Therefore, they must watch and constantly be on guard against such dangers to the flock of God. He reminded them of his selfless nature among them, sacrificing himself for the good of the church. He gave them an example that they were to help the weak and remember the words of Christ that “it is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:33-35). Naturally, such a solemn, serious charge along with the knowledge this was the last time they would see Paul brought a very tearful, emotional farewell (Acts 20:36-38).
There is no record that Paul was ever again in Ephesus although he did write a letter to them some 8-10 years later from Rome. It was a beautiful letter about the “glorious church”, but this letter contains no personal references to any in the congregation there.
Paul’s words had a lasting effect. Nearly 50 years later, John, the beloved apostle, wrote seven letters for Jesus to Asian churches, the first of which was a letter to Ephesus. While the church was not without fault (they had “left their first love” to which they were admonished to return, Revelation 2:5), the Lord declared, “This thou hast, that thou hatest the works of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate” (Revelation 2:6). They had other faults but the Ephesian elders had guarded the flock from savage wolves who would introduce strange doctrines among them.
Every elder who serves any congregation will do well to often read this address Paul gave those elders. It will help them to stay focused on the nature and gravity of their work, and to have tender care for “the flock of God which he purchased with his own blood”. Serving as an elder in the Lord’s church is an honored role, but it is a work with great responsibility. Let all those who shepherd God’s flock take care that they serve with diligence and love, knowing that someday they will give an account to Him whose flock they oversee.