Acts 20:17-38: The Enduring Relevance of Paul’s Warning To The Ephesian Elders

Today at Legacy I had the chance to teach, and explain, one of the more curious (and sobering) passages in the Bible about the responsibilities of elders and ministers in the Church of God. The passage, which is far too little examined by members and ministers alike, is Paul’s “valedictory” message to the elders of Ephesus, in which Paul openly laid out his warning to the ministers about the future threats to the Church, threats which endure to this day. As the threats that Paul outlines to the church in Ephesus remain problems for us today, it behooves us to take his message as seriously as his beloved elders in Ephesus did.

Paul’s Lengthy Introduction

Before Paul warns his audience, he gives them a lengthy introduction that points to his own conduct and personal character and then to his own fearless (perhaps even reckless) bravery in preaching the truth of God in hostile audiences. Paul was truly a man of great personal integrity and also ferocious honesty and breathtaking zeal, something that wrecked havoc in his own personal relationships (see Acts 15:36-41), but made him a fearsome example of godliness in difficult circumstances, and a model of how to endure great suffering.

Acts 20:17-27 gives the lengthy personal introduction of Paul’s message before he warns the church. It reads as follows: “From Miletus he [Paul] sent to Ephesus and called for the elders of the church. 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, serving the Lord with all humility, with many tears and trials which happened to me by the plotting of the Jews; how I kept back nothing that was helpful, but proclaimed it to you, and taught publicly and from house to house, testifying to Jews, and also to Greeks [Gentiles], repentance toward God and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ. And see, now I go bound in the spirit to Jerusalem, not knowing the things that will happen to me there, except that the Holy Spirit testifies in every city, saying that chains and tribulations await me. 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. And indeed, now I know that you all, among whom I have gone preaching the kingdom of God, will see my face no more. Therefore I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all men. For I have not shunned to declare to you the whole counsel of God.”

This is a remarkable message. Here Paul is going to Jerusalem despite being warned by the Holy Spirit of the dangers that awaited him there. He was in a hurry to go to Jerusalem for the Pentecost, not wishing to be delayed by stopping in Ephesus, so he sent for the brethren from there to meet him in Miletus while he was on shore there. And yet, despite being in a hurry, and despite having a very serious warning to give them from God, by divine inspiration (and which therefore serves as warning and instruction for us as well), Paul spends a fair amount of time speaking gently and humbly with love for the elders. Like Paul’s message in Philemon, Paul, who was no doubt a very honest and blunt man, speaks gentleness and love to his audience, appealing to his own example and his own credibility. Despite having painful and unplesant things to say, he gently introduces his own love and concern for them, showing them that his words do not spring from hostility, but from genuine concern for their well-being. It is an example worthy of emulation, especially for those of us who deal in the business of telling unpleasant truths. Sometimes a little tact and respect goes a long way.

In Paul’s introduction, he appeals to the Ephesian elders in a few important ways. For one, he points to his own example, to his trials, to his tears, to his humility, and to the way that he lived his life to all of them. He knew that he was open and honest about all that he suffered and about all the joys of his life. He did not consider his physical life dear to him because he struggled mightily and looked forward to eternal joy for finishing the race faithfully (see 2 Timothy 4:6-8). He thought he was going to die in Jerusalem and that he would never again see his beloved elders of Ephesus. He laid out his concerns and the insight that God had given him openly, hiding nothing from them, and sugarcoating nothing either. Both the love and concern and his warning message were honest and open, straight from the heart. And so we should speak and behave today.

Paul’s Warning Message To The Ephesian Elders

It is after this warm and loving introduction that Paul gives a sobering warning to the Church at Ephesus. It is sobering for at least two reasons, both of which will be discussed shortly. First, the warning message was repeated later on by the apostle John in the book of Revelation, warning about the exact same three problems that Paul warns them about here in Acts 20. Second, this warning is chillingly relevant, as it represents three main problems in the contemporary Church of God, that we frequently stumble in. If we consider the warning given to Ephesus, the standard of behavior that church had when compared to our own, and the severity of God’s warning to them, we ought to take pause ourselves.

First, though, let us examine how Paul warns the elders of Ephesus. This warning is given in Acts 20:28-36. It reads as follows: “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. For I know this, that after my departure savage flocks will come among you, not sparing the flock. Also from among yourselves men will rise up, speaking perverse [or misleading] things, to draw away the disciples after themselves. Therefore watch, and remember that for three years I did not cease to warn everyone night and day with tears. 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. I have coveted no one’s silver or gold or apparel. Yes, you yourselves know that these hands have provided for my necessities, and for those who were with me. I have shown you in every way, 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.’ “ And when he said said these things he knelt down and prayed with them all.

Paul outlined three main threats that the church at Ephesus would face. As these threats still face Christians, and we do not succeed very well at handling them, we ought to take Paul’s sincere and passionate warning to the Ephesian elders to heart ourselves. The first threat Paul outlines is “savage wolves…not sparing the flock.” This threat refers to heretics, people who pretend to be Christians in order to promote false doctrines. There are any number of false doctrines that this could mean, and throughout history many false doctrines have pulled away members. In the context of Paul’s message, it would appear to be referring to two main threats, which still remain problems for Christians: individualistic gnostic heresies, preaching antinomian attacks on God’s laws, or authoritarian Hellenistic beliefs that seek to co-opt the Church of God into a corrupt relationship with corrupt political authorities. Both threats have faced the Church of God at various times in history. The second threat was “among yourselves men will rise up….to draw away the disciples after themselves.” This second threat involves power-hungry ministers who claim titles for themselves (like apostles) and seek personal ministries with followers devoted to paying tithes and supporting them personally, rather than serving the brethren and working with other like-minded ministers. Such ministers will encourage factions among the brethren (see 1 Corinthians 1:10-17) and will be greedy for the gold and silver of others, including those members they can dupe into supporting their self-serving ministries. There is no shortage of such “ministers” in this present age. Third, there is the threat of a lack of love, shown by a lack of concern for the well-being of others, a concern with one’s own physical possessions, and a lack of generosity towards those who go without. This can be true within congregations, or between wealthier areas and poorer areas, where people are self-absorbed and lack concern for the rest of the brethren. There is no shortage of these problems in our present age either.

It should be noted that Paul himself had the moral credibility to warn the elders of Ephesus about these threats. He himself boldly faced false authorities, and even corrected true apostles for their own lapses into heretical practices such as separating themselves from brethren on account of ethnic prejudices (see Galatians 2:11-21). Additionally, Paul himself had no interest in attracting a personal fellowship of brown-nosing yes-men, or his own clique or political party, as is the habit of many “leaders” today (see 1 Corinthians 1:10-17). Finally, Paul himself cared little for physical possessions, working with his own hands so that he would not be a burden to immature Christians (see 1 Corinthians 9:1-18), and even going to the extent of paying the debts of a runaway slave to his wealthy master (see Philemon :18-19) as an example of paying the price for the sins of another in a Christ-like manner. Clearly Paul was not a person greedy for power, money, or prestige, but a genuine minister of Christ. If you too desire to be a true minister of God, go and do likewise.

Paul’s heartfelt message, including his praying with all of the elders, presumably that they would be found faithful in their service to God, had a strong effect on his audience. Acts 20:37-38 gives the response of the elders to his message: “Then they all wept freely, and fell on Paul’s neck and kissed him, 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.” Here were elders who had been given a deep and sincere warning from God, and there is no posing, no pretense of strength, but rather an open display of their heartfelt emotions, with acts of love and concern for Paul, just as he had shown for them. The result was a difficult message that did not cause offense, because it was spoken and heard in love. Oh, that we could do such a thing ourselves today.

The Warning Message of John

The warning message of Paul is particularly notable when it is compared to the warning message that John gives to the church of Ephesus, a much more familiar message than its counterpart in Acts 20. John’s warning message to Ephesus in Revelation 2:1-7, strikingly, warns about the precise three problems that Paul warned the church of Ephesus about. And as these three problems are still with us today, we ought to consider them a warning to ourselves, and not limited to the place of Ephesus or to the time of the Apostolic Era of the Church.

John’s warning to the Church of Ephesus reads as follows: “To the angel of the Church of Ephesus write, ‘These things says He who holds the seven stars in His right hand, who walks in the midst of the seven golden lampstands: “I know your works, your labor, your patience, and that you cannot bear those who are evil. And you have tested those who say they are apostles and are not, and have found them liars; and you have persevered and had patience, and have labored for my name’s sake and have not become weary. Nevertheless I have this against you, that you have left your first love. Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent and do the first works, or else I will come to you quickly and remove your lampstand from your place—unless you repent. But this you have, that you hate the deeds of the Nicoliatans, which I also hate. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who overcomes I will give to eat from the tree of life, which is in the midst of the paradise of God.” ‘ “

The congregation of Ephesus has been looked at somewhat condescendingly by many Christians, who chide the congregation for losing their first love, and neglecting the fact that the Church of Ephesus set a standard for obedience that would be far above many congregations and groups. Furthermore, the “first love” of the Ephesians has often been too little understood, not put into context with Paul’s warning in Acts 20, so that it has failed to serve as a warning to ourselves for our own similar problems. Therefore, let us demonstrate that John’s comments about the church at Ephesus mirror those of Paul, and then let us draw the appropriate lessons from them for our own spiritual state, lest we be found to be worse off than the “loveless” Ephesians.

Though John gives the three tests of the Ephesian church in a different order than Paul, the content is the same. For example, Paul’s warning of savage wolves not sparing the flock is mirrored in John’s praise of the Ephesians for hating the deeds of the antinomian Nicoliatans, who believed in a “Protestant” and heretical doctrine of eternal security, claiming to present a “more advanced Christian spirituality” and rejected God’s law as the standard for obedience in exchange for a gnostic and mystical connection with the spiritual realm [1]. Additionally, John gives the Ephesians credit for rejecting those who say they are apostles but who are not, which were the self-appointed and “politially savvy” hirelings who promoted their own agendas and sought their own fellowships. Do we reject heresies and do we refuse to follow self-absorbed leaders into schisms? Very well, but we are still only doing as well as the Ephesians. Where the Ephesians fell short is in their “first love,” which they lacked according to John. This lack was enough to remove their lampstand, unless they repented.

What was this first love? How does it relate to showing concern for the weak or concerning one’s attitudes towards physical possessions? More than might be readily apparent. The Bible talks about the “first love” of the early Christians in Acts 2:42-47 in the following way: “And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers. Then fear came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were done through the apostles. Now all who believed where together, and had all things in common, and sold their possessions and goods, and divided them among all, as anyone had need. So continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they ate their food with gladness and simplicity of heart, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to the church daily those who were being saved.” This picture is repeated a little later in Acts 4:32-37: “Now the multitude of those who believed were of one heart and one soul; neither did anyone say that any of the things he possessed was his own, but they had all things in common. And with great power the apostles gave witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And great grace was upon them all. Nor was there anyone among them who lacked; for all who were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the proceeds of the things that were sold, and laid them at the apostles’ feet; and they distributed to each as anyone had need. And Joses, who was also named Barnabas by the apostles (which is translated Son of Encouragement), a Levite of the country of Cyprus, having land, sold it, and brought the money and laid it at the apostles’ feet.

In the beginning the Church did heed the divine mandate to lay up treasures in heaven through generosity (see Matthew 6:19-21), but things changed. Over time people came in seeking to exploit the generosity of the brethren, whether it was lazy members (see 2 Thessalonians 3:10), or hirelings looking for members to pay their salary so that they (unlike Paul) did not have to learn any useful trades (see 1 Corinthians 9:1-18). The constant burden of fighting heresy and dealing with authoritarian bullies among the ordained leadership (see 3 John :9) seems to have sapped the generosity of the Ephesian brethren. Maybe they succumbed to the heresy of the prosperity gospel, assuming that the wealthy were virtuous and the poor full of sins. Maybe they lost the ability to trust their fellow brethren because of all of the scars of schisms and heresies among the Church. But for whatever reason, their love was sapped, and God told them to repent—that He would deal with those who tried to exploit them but that they should love anyway. That was undoubtedly a hard message for the Ephesians to hear—it is hard for us to hear today, and our standard does not even meet the Ephesian level. Let us therefore not be so quick to malign the Church of Ephesus, seeing as their conduct is no worse, and probably a good deal better, than our own. For by the same standard we judge, we also will be judged (see Matthew 7:2).


Therefore, having examined the striking similarities between the warnings of Paul and John to the Church of Ephesus, and the fact that we today still deal with those same problems in our own midst, let us take heed to ourselves lest we be found to be lacking in the same manner as that church was. For we too have to deal with the threat of heresy, we too have to deal with self-appointed apostles who are hirelings in shepherd’s clothing, and we too have many members both in our congregations and in other more distant lands who go in need while we shut our hearts to their struggles and concern ourselves with our own personal affairs, our own families, and our own houses and lands. Let us therefore take heed to our own spiritual state, and repent and ask God for forgiveness, so He does not remove our lampstand from its place, and so that we too can enjoy the tree of life in the paradise of the New Jerusalem set aside for those who endure until the end.

[1] See Alan Knight, Primitive Christianity In Crisis (Antioch, CA: A.R.K. Research, 2003), 2-3, 184-206.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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1 Response to Acts 20:17-38: The Enduring Relevance of Paul’s Warning To The Ephesian Elders

  1. Pingback: Book Review: A Life-Changing Encounter With God’s Word From The Book Of Acts | Edge Induced Cohesion

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