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The Spreading Flame - Series 6: Episode 3

Paul advises the elders of Ephesus

| Martin Charlesworth
Acts 20:13-38

Paul travels to Miletus, bypassing Ephesus but calls the elders of the Ephesian church to meet him. He is concerned to train the leaders in the way they should lead the church - with humility and not seeking gain for themselves.

Paul travels to Miletus, bypassing Ephesus but calls the elders of the Ephesian church to meet him. He is concerned to train the leaders in the way they should lead the church - with humility and not seeking gain for themselves.


Thanks for joining us as we continue in Series 6. In this episode, Paul is continuing his incredible journey that I outlined at the beginning of the series.

Background and Introduction

Each series in the book of Acts takes us further on the journey of mission. We’re now in Series 6 and we’ve entitled this ‘The Gospel to Rome’, for the simple reason that there’s a key statement of Paul which I’ve mentioned at the beginning of every episode and I’ll mention it again now. In Acts 19:21, ‘Paul decided’ from Ephesus ‘to go to Jerusalem, passing through Macedonia and Achaia. “After I have been there,” he said, “I must visit Rome also.” His ultimate destination was the capital of the Roman Empire. That’s where he wanted to go but as he says in that statement, he needed to go from Ephesus, in modern-day Turkey, through Greece to revisit the churches and collect money, and then go by ship to Jerusalem to deliver some gifts, before going to Rome. That’s the overall structure of Paul’s ideas of where he wants to go. It’s not going to be an easy journey. Paul knew there were going to be problems on the way: unexpected events, hardships, perhaps even imprisonment, and even risk to his life. Everywhere he went now, in this later stage in Paul’s ministry, he already had enemies. People knew about him and they were ready for him wherever he went. Also, he experienced unexpected challenges, as we saw in the last episode. He was in the city of Troas, which is a port city on the north-west coast of Turkey, the Asia Minor province in the Roman Empire. Whilst he was there, in a meeting late at night, a young man called Eutychus fell off the windowsill, down several storeys to the ground and was killed on impact. That was an amazing story, wasn’t it? Paul rushed down, prayed for him and he experienced a literal, physical resurrection. That event has just happened. Troas is a place he’s passing through in north-west Turkey, as he is heading south by sea and heading several hundred kilometres to the eastern Mediterranean, to the coastal ports of Palestine and heading to Jerusalem. That’s his journey.

Paul’s Journey by Sea

What we’re going to do in this episode is to follow his journey and see that he had a very important and significant meeting on the way. Let’s pick up the story in Acts 20:13 - 16,

13 ‘We went on ahead to the ship and sailed for Assos, where we were going to take Paul aboard. He had made this arrangement because he was going there on foot. 14 When he met us at Assos, we took him aboard and we went on to Mitylene. 15 The next day we set sail from there and arrived off Chios. The day after that we crossed over to Samos, and on the following day arrived at Miletus. 16 Paul had decided to sail past Ephesus to avoid spending time in the province of Asia, for he was in a hurry to reach Jerusalem, if possible, by the day of Pentecost.’

Acts 20:13-16, NIV

Paul knew that the quickest way to travel was by sea, and it appears that the boats they were catching were coastal trading boats that went down the Turkish coast, stopping off at each port and each island. Chios and Samos are islands in the Aegean Sea, now used as tourist destinations in the modern world. Paul was travelling down with his friends along the coast, heading south. You’ll notice that the writer says ‘we’. That means Luke, the writer, was on board. He was there. He was experiencing the events as they were going along and as I pointed out earlier, he was a participant and an eyewitness in quite a number of different events in Paul’s life; this is one of them. Where were they heading? They were heading for Jerusalem and Paul wanted to get there for a major religious festival called Pentecost. We know about Pentecost because it was at the festival of Pentecost that the Holy Spirit fell on the Church, as described in Acts 2 - one of the three main festivals of the Jewish religious year. Paul wanted to be there at that festival time and that was taking place in May or June. He was heading there and as it were, watching the time because he didn’t want to miss the festival.

Reasons to Go to Jerusalem

They were heading to Jerusalem for a number of reasons. One of the main reasons that they didn’t want to delay, was that Paul and his friends were carrying a very large financial gift. Luke and all the others in the team - there were several people in the team - had the responsibility of looking after a lot of money. This money had been collected by the churches in Macedonia and Achaia, that is in Greece, and given to Paul and his friends, as they were travelling through, in order to give it to the Christian brothers and sisters in Jerusalem and the surrounding area called Judea because they had heard that they had experienced some real economic hardship. You have to imagine the situation: they’re travelling on board the ship, and have literally hundreds, if not thousands, of Roman coins in their possession in their baggage. The team would be mounting a guard twenty-four hours a day, for this gift of money so that they weren’t robbed at any point, which could easily happen. The collection that is taking place is actually described in 1 Corinthians 16:1 - 4, where Paul, writing to the Corinthian churches, one of the churches that contributed to this collection, writes this,

1 “Now about the collection for the Lord’s people: Do what I told the Galatian churches to do. 2 On the first day of every week, each one of you should set aside a sum of money in keeping with your income, saving it up, so that when I come no collections will have to be made. 3 Then, when I arrive, I will give letters of introduction to the men you approve and send them with your gift to Jerusalem. 4 If it seems advisable for me to go also, they will accompany me.”

1 Corinthians 16:1-4, NIV

Paul is talking to one of the churches, preparing them for giving, and explaining the purpose. All that has now happened. The money has been collected and they are literally in-transit to Jerusalem, and keen to get there quickly.

Bypassing Ephesus, Paul Meets the Elders

They pass by Ephesus to get to Miletus. Miletus is a big port on the Aegean coast of Asia Minor, or modern-day Turkey. In order to get to that port as they’re travelling down, they literally pass by, probably within sight of, the port of Ephesus, which is just a few kilometres north of Miletus. Ephesus was the place that Paul had spent between two to three years, and had built what was the biggest church of this era, with a miraculous ministry, which we described in an earlier episode. Why is Paul passing them by? He’s literally going straight past the huge church which he built, which would have loved to have seen him, as he was passing by again. He didn’t want to spend the time there. He realised that if he went to the church, it would take a long time - lots of people to meet, and things to do if he was in the church.

He was interested in the welfare of this church, though, which had only been founded very recently. He’d invested a huge amount of time and energy into it. Our next passage tells us something interesting that Paul did, which provides the main theme of our discussion today. Paul invited the elders of the church to come to him at Miletus - a journey about 50 km south - to meet with him. He was going to meet with the elders but he wasn’t going to get involved in the whole of the church life with hundreds and hundreds of people in the church, probably thousands of people; that would take up too much time. But he wanted to meet the elders.

Paul’s Leadership

Why did he want to meet the elders? What was he going to say to them and why is it important? Let’s read the passage that begins to explain this. Acts 20:17 - 24,

17 ‘From Miletus, Paul sent to Ephesus for the elders of the church. 18 When they arrived, he said to them: “You know how I lived the whole time I was with you, from the first day I came into the province of Asia. 19 I served the Lord with great humility and with tears and in the midst of severe testing by the plots of my Jewish opponents. 20 You know that I have not hesitated to preach anything that would be helpful to you but have taught you publicly and from house to house. 21 I have declared to both Jews and Greeks that they must turn to God in repentance and have faith in our Lord Jesus. 22 “But now, compelled by the Spirit, I am going to Jerusalem, not knowing what will happen to me there. 23 I only know that in every city the Holy Spirit warns me that prison and hardships are facing me. 24 However, I consider my life worth nothing to me; my only aim is to finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me—the task of testifying to the good news of God’s grace.’

Acts 20:17-24, NIV

Here come these men from Ephesus. They travelled those 50 km, and they may be wondering, “What’s Paul going to say to us? And why does he want to meet us?” We know that he didn’t want to spend the time in the city but we also know that he wanted to strengthen the church by talking to the leaders. We also know that Paul had an inner sense - a prophetic sense - that he needed to warn the Ephesian elders of some dangers coming for their church. We’ll hear more about that as the passage continues.

In this part of the passage, Paul gives an amazing description of his own ministry in Ephesus. This leads us into a whole discussion on Christian leadership. This particular episode is a really important passage in helping us to understand what constitutes Christian leadership and ministry. This is a passage to study if you aspire to be a leader or, if you are already a leader in a church. This is an amazing story because it tells us something about the quality of Paul’s leadership, and about what Paul said the church leaders needed to do - some qualities and some actions for them.

First of all, we look at Paul’s own ministry in this passage. We notice that he was a servant leader. He led with humility. He wasn’t a dictator. Paul had very strong opinions about truth and error, but he treated people with respect. He honoured their own decision-making and he didn’t try to control them. He led with humility. Acts 20: 19, “I served the Lord with great humility” and also, interestingly enough, “with tears” -emotional openness and honesty. Some modern versions of leadership are a little bit artificial in the way they appear because many things are hidden and an image is presented that may not be totally real. Paul, interestingly enough, was very real with his emotions: he could get very excited; and he could get very distressed. Tears are mentioned here, and when they part, at the end of this episode, you’ll see that there was more weeping and tears at that point. Emotional openness doesn’t indicate weakness of leadership; it’s an essential part of authentic leadership based on humility. Alongside openness, is strength of character. Paul had courage. It says here, that when there was opposition, he was willing to speak the truth, courageously and boldly. He didn’t withhold anything from people and he taught the Gospel wholeheartedly. Here are a few things we can learn about Christian leadership. The balance between servanthood, openness, confidence in the message, moral courage to shape the church community with truth, and to challenge things that are wrong, and to face difficult situations clearly. That’s the sort of leader that Paul was. Paul said he was on the way to Jerusalem. He told them that he was expecting to face hardships along the journey. There had been a prophetic sense that this was going to be a difficult journey to Jerusalem. There were risks involved for Paul but he was ready to make this journey. He wasn’t popular in Jerusalem with the Jewish leaders for a start, and that was going to be a risk. He knew that from the beginning. That’s another interesting reflection on Christian leadership: you have to be willing to take risks. Paul was a risk taker and he was on a risky journey but at this point he was amongst friends.

Leadership in the Church

Now we turn specifically to what he says to the Ephesian elders about their church and about what they should do next. They were in an interesting position as church leaders because they had huge responsibilities because there were so many people in the church and it had grown so fast, an incredible track record, and yet they had little experience. That often happens, doesn’t it, in our countries around the world? The church may grow very quickly but the leaders may not have much experience. Paul wanted to bridge the gap between responsibility and experience for this group of elders, by giving them very clear advice about how they should lead. This next passage is really important and again, a great study if you’re involved in Christian leadership, or if you’re supporting Christian leadership and you want to understand what godly Christian leadership is. Acts 20:25 -35,

25 “Now I know that none of you among whom I have gone about preaching the Kingdom will ever see me again. 26 Therefore, I declare to you today that I am innocent of the blood of any of you. 27 For I have not hesitated to proclaim to you the whole will of God. 28 Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the Church of God, which he bought with his own blood. 29 I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. 30 Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them. 31 So be on your guard! Remember that for three years I never stopped warning each of you night and day with tears. 32 “Now I commit you to God and to the word of his grace, which can build you up and give you an inheritance among all those who are sanctified. 33 I have not coveted anyone’s silver or gold or clothing. 34 You yourselves know that these hands of mine have supplied my own needs and the needs of my companions. 35 In everything I did, I showed you by this kind of hard work we must help the weak, remembering the words the Lord Jesus himself said: ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’”

Acts 20:25-35, NIV

What a profound message! It starts with a shock because Paul says, “You are never going to see me again; this is our last meeting.” That is something that is really challenging in life’s experience, isn’t it? You know, that time when you see someone and you think. ‘I’ll never see them again.’ Maybe they’re on their deathbed, maybe they come from another part of the world and they’re visiting you, and you know that you’re unlikely to ever see them again, and it’s your final parting. Paul predicted this. It is because he felt that his ministry was going to go to Rome, to Italy and to places far away from them, and that he was never, ever going to be able to get back to Asia Minor and to Ephesus. So, he warned them, “This is our last meeting.”

He called them first of all to maintain good character, “Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood. Keep watch over yourselves.” he says in verse 28. That’s really interesting, isn’t it? A Christian leader must keep watch over their own conduct; how they conduct their lives; how they conduct their family lives; their finances; their thoughts; and their relationships with people. “Keep watch over yourselves” and “Be shepherds of the church”. The heart of a leader in a church is the heart of a shepherd, like the shepherd of sheep, who will always be thinking about the welfare, the location, the health and the nutrition of his or her sheep. This is one of the terms used to describe church leaders, ‘pastors’ or ‘shepherds’. The word ‘pastor’ means essentially ‘a shepherd’. Peter mentions the same thing in 1 Peter 5: 2 - 3 in a very similar statement.

2 ‘Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not pursuing dishonest gain, but eager to serve; 3 not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock.’

1 Peter 5:2-3, NIV

In this passage in Peter, we have some of the same themes that Paul speaks about when he says, “Don’t lord it over people, don’t dominate people, don’t try and control them through your leadership. You are eager to serve and you’re looking after their welfare.”“Be shepherds of the flock.”This is the heart of leadership. Leaders are those who can gather people, not just to themselves as a personality, or as a leader, but to Jesus Christ and to his truth, to the Gospel. They’re drawing people to God and they’re gathering them in community. That’s the calling of a leader, whether it’s a small church of 10 or 20 people, or a church of many thousands, the same principle applies. Alongside this gathering role, Paul makes a really difficult statement here about infiltration.

“I know that after I leave,” (verse 29) “savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock.”

We’re using the same metaphor here - the sheep and the shepherd. Paul introduces another person, the wolf - the hostile person coming in from the outside - whose desire is to destroy the sheep, not to nurture the sheep. What sort of person is this and why is Paul introducing this idea? He seems to have a prophetic sense that this could and would happen in Ephesus, and the elders need to protect the church. This reminds us of the words of Jesus who said something very similar in Matthew 7:15 - 17,

15 “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. 16 By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thorn bushes, or figs from thistles? 17 Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit.”

Matthew 7:15-17, NIV

Jesus uses the same image : the wolf, the malicious intruder, who wants to exploit the church community. What kind of exploitation does Paul have in mind here? There are a number of possibilities: or people who want your money for themselves; people whose leadership is built out of financial gain. That is corruption, that is not biblical leadership; that’s not servant leadership. We should be giving suitable finance to support church leaders where possible, but if their motive is to gain much wealth and personal gain, then there is danger. There’s also danger if leaders exploit their authority for sexual purposes in relationships, and enter into immoral relationships in church, which are always very corrupting and very destructive - especially if conducted by leaders. They may be people who just enjoy the power of leading a community and people being dependent on them. They may be people with false doctrine who don’t believe the Gospel, but they want to enter into church to bring in a heresy or a false teaching. These people come in many guises. Jesus describes them as false prophets, and Paul says you must resist them. They must be vigilant spiritually and adopt the attitude of giving rather than receiving. This was really quite a challenging message to give to these Ephesian elders. I think if I was one of them, I would be very shocked by this, because Paul has summoned us to a special meeting and the first thing he says is, “You’re not going to see me again. This is our last ever meeting, I’m never coming back to Ephesus. I don’t think God will allow me to come back. I’ve got to go somewhere else,” and then he gives them a tough message concerning dangers up ahead.

However, let’s read the last couple of verses and we’ll see what happens at the end, Acts 20:36 - 38:

36 ‘When Paul had finished speaking, he knelt down with all of them and prayed. 37 They all wept as they embraced him and kissed him. 38 What grieved them most was his statement that they would never see his face again. Then they accompanied him to the ship.’

Acts 20:36-38, NIV

What a moving scene. I imagine it being perhaps on the beach near the port, where they kneel down, cry out to God and pray blessing and weep the tears of friends who are going to be separated - separated from their spiritual father; separated from a man they truly love.


Paul’s journey moves on, but we pause at this point to think in our time of reflection at the end of this episode, what can we actually learn from this passage? There are a number of things that quickly come to mind.

First of all, the importance of the place of emotions in the Christian life. The validation of emotions. We see a very clear example here of emotions relating to distress and separation, and grieving. When we look at the life of Jesus, we see everything from great joyfulness, to great anger, to tears of grief. We know that our Christian life needs to reflect the validation and acceptance of the reality of different emotions we feel at different points. God understands those emotions.

The second thing that I think we learn from this passage concerns New Testament leadership. This theme comes up time and again in the book of Acts and we get little glimpses of further truth and understanding. Here we see a great example of church leadership structure, which is based on a team. Notice that the elders are in the plural; there isn’t just one leader that Paul speaks to. He speaks to a group of men. Paul always appointed groups of leaders, of whom there would always be one senior, no doubt, who coordinated things, but several people who shared the spiritual responsibility for the church. In this passage, three titles are given to leaders of local churches. One is ‘elder’, meaning a community leader. The other is ‘shepherd’, meaning someone who gives pastoral care and the other is ‘overseer’, which means a guardian. In these terms, we capture just a glimpse of local church leaders as God intended them to be.

I finished this episode by a reflection on a quotation from Jesus in Acts 20: 35,

“It’s more blessed to give than to receive”.

This statement of Jesus is not quoted in the Gospels. We have the famous Beatitudes, or ‘beautiful attitudes’, in Matthew 5 at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount and some similar statements in Luke 6, but this statement isn’t among them. It is addressed, particularly to those with leadership responsibility, but to all of us as Christian disciples. If we want to experience the blessing of God - his favour in our lives, especially as we think about the church community - we should be thinking more of giving than receiving. Particularly for leaders, the more they give, the more they will be blessed. They’re not in that role for what they can gain, but for what they can give. God blesses leaders who take that attitude. I’m so grateful for you listening to this episode. I hope you enjoyed it, and it would be tremendous if you can join us as we continue on the journey to Jerusalem in our next episode.

Study Questions

The following questions have been provided to facilitate discussion or further reflection. Please feel free to answer any, or all the questions. Each question has been assigned a category to help guide you.

  • Exploring Faith
    Exploring Faith
    1. Who do you consider to be a good leader? What are they like?
  • Discipleship
    1. ‘It is better to give than receive.’ Do you agree with this, and why?
  • Further Study
    Further Study
    1. What does this episode teach about leadership in the church. Pray for your leaders.
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