"Then we went ahead to the ship and sailed to Assos, there intending to take Paul on board; for so he had given orders, intending himself to go on foot. And when he met us at Assos, we took him on board and came to Mitylene. We sailed from there, and the next day came opposite Chios. The following day we arrived at Samos and stayed at Trogyllium. The next day we came to Miletus. For Paul had decided to sail past Ephesus, so that he would not have to spend time in Asia; for he was hurrying to be at Jerusalem, if possible, on the Day of Pentecost" (Acts 20:13-16).
Luke and the rest of the group sailed from Troas to Assos, but Paul (for some unknown reason) made the 20 mile journey on foot and then got on board with the group. After several more days of traveling by sea, they came to Miletus (which was near to Ephesus). Paul wanted to speak to the elders of the church at Ephesus one last time, but, due to being short on time, did not want to travel to Ephesus personally (where he would have had to spend even more time saying numerous difficult "goodbyes" to many brethren he dearly loved). Paul is trying to maximize his influence as a servant of Christ by sharing some important matters with the Ephesian elders and also getting back to Jerusalem before Pentecost for evangelistic and benevolent purposes. Let it be remembered that he and the other men traveling with him were bearing gifts from the Gentile congregations for the needy Christians in Judea.
"From Miletus he 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 you publicly and from house to house, testifying to Jews, and also to Greeks, 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" (Acts 20:17-27).
These elders from Ephesus loved Paul and were glad to come to him on short notice. Paul reminded them of the manner in which he labored among them. Paul had given them his very best! He served them humbly and loved them with great emotion, for he shed many tears on their behalf. Although the unbelieving Jews and heathens made life difficult on Paul in Ephesus (and elsewhere), this did not deter him from his efforts to teach them God's truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth! He taught any who would hear, both publicly and privately ("from house to house"), and did not hold back any portion of the truth. He preached to both Jews and Gentiles and emphasized the importance of faith and repentance.
Paul then shared his current circumstances with them. He was headed for Jerusalem, ignorant of exactly what would transpire there, though he knew he would be persecuted fiercely (i.e., "chains and tribulations await me"). However, despite his partial knowledge of pain and suffering that he would face at Jerusalem, he was not discouraged. He did not retreat or run from his responsibilities. The threat of being arrested, imprisoned, or beaten did not scare him. He loved God more than he loved his own personal life, comfort, and safety. Acts 20:24 contains one of the greatest statements of Paul's faith and love for the Lord. He expressed similar sentiments in Philippians 1:21 - "For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain." Paul is not afraid; his only concern is finishing (with joy) the task God had appointed for him (specifically, "testify[ing] to the gospel of the grace of God"; cf. Heb. 12:1,2). His life was literally all about seeking the fulfillment of God's will. What an example Paul is for disciples today!
The Ephesian church knew what they needed to do spiritually. Paul had done his part faithfully as a teacher. He had not left out any portion of their spiritual instruction. He shared it all (i.e., "the whole counsel of God") even when doing so may have been difficult regarding some matters due to the listeners not wanting to hear certain truths proclaimed. Preachers may sometimes be tempted to minimize or ignore certain sensitive or challenging matters of the faith, but they must not yield to such temptations! Paul knew he would not be held accountable by God for failing to share portions of the truth that his listeners needed to hear. He sometimes made enemies for speaking the truth boldly (cf. Gal. 4:16), but he was a faithful watchman (cf. Eze. 3:17-21). May all who preach and teach today take Paul's method of instruction to heart and imitate it, for the good of both their listeners and their own souls.
"'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 wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock. Also from among yourselves men will rise up, speaking perverse 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, 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"'" (Acts 20:28-35).
Paul warns these godly leaders to do two things: (1) Take heed to themselves (i.e., take heed to both themselves as individuals and to the eldership as a whole), and (2) Take heed to the rest of the congregation of Christians at Ephesus. In other words, they needed to pay attention to what was going on in their own lives and the lives of the other disciples at Ephesus so they could continually evaluate such against the standard of God's word, making adjustments and corrections where necessary. These men, who met the Holy Spirit's inspired requirements to be spiritual shepherds (cf. I Tim. 3; Titus 1), were thus appointed as elders. Their duty as leaders was to oversee and shepherd the church that Jesus died for, built, and bought with His own blood. This would involve feeding, protecting, and caring for the flock spiritually (as a physical shepherd would do for his sheep physically). These elders could not really help others if they were not first very serious about their own conduct.
The apostle Paul knew that the church at Ephesus would have many challenges to deal with after his departure. Continuing the shepherd/sheep analogy, he warns of "savage wolves" (a metaphor for vicious enemies of the truth) who would enter in among them and do much harm, "not sparing the flock." A physical shepherd has to be vigilant always against wolves and other predators. The sheep are counting on him for protection. It is much the same way in the church, although spiritual wolves are harder for many to identify than physical ones. Nevertheless, their threat is even greater since those who espouse false teaching (which is any teaching not in harmony with the gospel of Christ) destroy souls and not physical bodies! When leaders fail in their duties, the flock becomes vulnerable (cf. John 10:12).
Furthermore, Paul warned the elders that men would rise up among them "speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after themselves." These men would be smooth talkers and experts at misleading and deceiving (even themselves in many cases). They would glorify themselves and their way as opposed to God and His way. The fact that the gospel of Christ is narrow and calls for self-denial as well as a pattern to be submitted to regarding morality and worship, always opens the door for objectors and opponents of truth. Many of those who speak against the truth do so with great skill and flattering tongues; they don't appear to be wolves! This underscores the need for godly leaders (like the elders in each congregation) to always be on guard against error (no matter where it originates), to stop it in its tracks (Titus 1:9-11), and to develop strong relationships with the brethren that will help them survive when savage wolves do attack (and they still attack, friends, even today).
In Acts 20:31, Paul reminded these elders of his example of compassion and longsuffering. He watched over and cared deeply for the brethren daily while he was present with them for three years. He did so with much emotion (i.e., "with tears"; cf. Psa. 119:136). Paul stood "watch" as a faithful shepherd (cf. I Pet. 5:8). He did not run away from challenges and difficulties that arose. These elders needed to do likewise. Preachers and elders should not be glad to rebuke others; instead, it should grieve them when people won't obey the Lord.
Paul then explained how these elders could properly take heed to themselves and to all the flock among them - "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" (Acts 20:32). God Himself, through His inspired word of grace, is able to build up Christians spiritually, resulting ultimately in a heavenly inheritance for the sanctified (i.e., the ones set apart for faithful service to the Lord)!
Although the Scriptures are clear that preachers have the right to benefit materially from those they help spiritually, Paul was very careful about such. His concern was for the well-being of the brethren and his influence, not his own finances. He did not covet anyone's money or possessions. He cared for them as Christians, not for what he could extract from them materially. In fact, as they certainly were aware of, Paul provided for his own necessities in Ephesus by working with his own hands (i.e., in a secular endeavor, like tent making, for example). Paul's behavior was an example in every way as to how they "must support the weak." He added to that thought a comment Jesus had once uttered (though it is not recorded in the gospel accounts; cf. John 21:25) - "It is more blessed to give than to receive." Everyone believes this regarding criticism, but that's not Paul's point. He is emphasizing the type of attitude and behavior that will lead to a strong church, a body that is solidly standing on God's word filled with members who love each other. Giving (in all of the ways it can be manifested positively) is vital toward building and maintaining relationships (both in and out of the church). The person who makes giving a matter of habit is happier because he is emulating a trait of the Creator Himself. Additionally, one who freely shares with others is less likely to be self-centered, which generates a number of additional problems.
"And when he had said these things, he knelt down and prayed with them all. 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" (Acts 20:36-38).
It is clear that these Christians loved Paul, and the feeling was mutual (cf. John 13:34). When a preacher leaves a city, specific sermons will typically not be remembered, but his life among them will be. Emotionally, these elders are more struck at the moment by the fact that they will not see Paul again in the flesh than by anything else he spoke. They, with sorrow in their hearts, then escorted Paul to his ship. Every preacher should try to cultivate this type of relationship with the brethren.
Thank you for listening, and may the Lord bless you as you strive to do His will.