I have always considered the apostle Paul’s speech to the elders of the church in Ephesus (Acts 20:17-38) one of the most touching and moving speeches in all of the Bible. Obviously, it does not rank above our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5, 6, 7) or Peter’s sermon on Pentecost when the church was established (Acts 2) or Stephen’s sermon resulting in his martyrdom (Acts 7) or even Paul’s sermon on Mars Hill in Athens (Acts 17). Yet, for sheer pathos, to say nothing of its sobering content, few if any speeches in the New Testament would outrank Paul’s address to the Ephesian elders.
The background to the speech lies in the fact that Paul is completing his third extensive preaching tour and is on his way to Jerusalem where he will be arrested simply for preaching the gospel of Christ. In a hurry to get to Jerusalem, Paul sends word to the elders of the church at Ephesus to meet him in the little seacoast town of Miletus. It is significant that it was the elders of the church that Paul called to meet him. He did not send for the preacher of the church. He did not send for the deacons of the church. He did not send for the women of the church. He did not send for a combined delegation of the elders, deacons, preacher, and most influential members of the church. He sent for the elders, those men and those men alone who are charged with the oversight of the local church (I Peter 5:1-4; Hebrews 13:17; et al)!
He reminds them of the work he had done among them (the record of which is found in Acts 19), and how he had kept back nothing that was profitable, but had taught both publicly and from house to house. Now, with a heavy heart, he is going bound in his spirit to Jerusalem not knowing what will happen to him except that the Holy Spirit had revealed to him that chains and tribulations awaited him. Yet, none of these things moved him from his determined course of action and he did not count his life as dear to himself. He was committed to finishing his race (earthly life) with joy and the ministry he had received from the Lord Jesus “to testify to the gospel of the grace of God.”
Touchingly, and no doubt with tears streaming down his cheeks, he tells these elders that they will see his face no more. He reminds them that he is innocent of the blood of all men because “I have not shunned to declare to you all the counsel of God.” (What a standard for all gospel preachers today!)
Coming to the heart of his address, Paul charges the elders to “take heed to yourselves and to all the flock over which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd/feed the church of God which He purchased with His own blood.” Elders are not a board of directors! They are shepherds of sheep. They learn how to do their work by observing how Christ, the good shepherd, did His work (John 10:7-14; I Peter 5:1-4; Hebrews 13:20-21).
The need for elders being diligent doing their work lies in the fact that savage/grievous wolves (false teachers) stand ready to pounce on the flock and destroy it. Jesus said, “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves” (Matthew 7:15). Paul alerted Timothy and Titus to the dangers of false teachers and false teaching (I Timothy 4:1-5; II Timothy 3:1-9; 4:1-5; Titus 1:10-16). The apostle John issued the same warning (I John 4:1; II John 5-11). Sadly, today not much attention is given to the danger of “wolves in sheep’s clothing,” and those who warn of such are viewed as being “too negative.”
Paul alerts the Ephesian elders to the fact that from among themselves men would arise “speaking perverse things to draw away the disciples after them.” It is a well-known fact of church history that the apostasy originated in the elderships of the various congregations, as certain men, vying for power beyond their local congregations, began to reserve for themselves alone the titles of bishop, archbishop, metropolitan bishop, and eventually the title of Pope. Paul therefore urges the elders to watch, stay alert, and be aware of what is going on.
He reminds them that for three years he had not ceased to warn them day and night with tears. “And now,” he says, “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.” The word of God faithfully taught and adhered to is the only sure preventive of apostasy (see II Timothy 4:2; James 1:21-22; I Peter 4:11a).
He reminds the elders that with his own hands he had worked to provide for his necessities, as well as the necessities of those who were with him. He urges the elders to support the weak (those without the adequate needs of life) and to remember the words of the Lord that “it is more blessed to give than to receive.”
With these words, Paul’s magnificent speech ends. He then knelt down and prayed with them all. The elders are overcome with emotion, falling on Paul’s neck and kissing him with the holy kiss that was part of their culture (Romans 16:16a; I Corinthians 16:20; I Thessalonians 5:26; et al). Their greatest sorrow was over the fact that they would see his face no more. “And they accompanied him to the ship.” They went with him as far as they could physically go, no doubt with arms outstretched and fingers touching until the final moment.
What a meeting! What a speech! What truths enunciated that are still so relevant and still so badly in need of being known and applied today in the church of our Lord! It is hard for me to read this speech and its emotional ending without tears welling up in my eyes.