Paul’s Final, and Emotional, Farewell to the Elders
[Acts chapter 20, verses 25-38]
by Minister Paul J. Bern
Last week when we left off at verse 24, the apostle Paul was addressing the elders he had summoned from Ephesus. This was the same group of men who had spirited Paul out of that city, and who had seen him as far as Miletus, a coastal city on what would be the western shores of modern Turkey. Paul is leaving for Jerusalem, and as he tells them that he expects a lot of trouble upon his arrival, he also delivers his final exhortations to these men who were now in positions of leadership within the early Church. Going to considerable lengths to divert their attention away from himself, Paul instead focuses on their purpose for living, which was to preach the Gospel everywhere they went to as many as would hear it. And so today, as we move on to part 3 of Acts chapter 20, the apostle Paul gives some final and inspiring instructions to the elders there with him, starting at verse 25.
“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.”
The apostle Paul’s declaration in verse 25 that he would never see any of them ever again was not really a prophetic statement. It was just a fact of life that the limits of time, not to mention Paul’s physical endurance, would prevent Paul from ever returning. He would be shocked, and likely frighted, of our modes of travel today, which we all take for granted. Verse 26-27 is clearly different, where Paul talks about being “…. innocent of the blood of any of you. 27) For I have not hesitated to proclaim to you the whole will of God.” On the surface of things, this statement doesn’t seem to make much sense, since none of those men had ever shed any blood of behalf of Paul, nor of those they were in charge of.
But that’s not what Paul was talking about. His statement’s purpose was two-fold: The first was to let the elders know that they could expect persecution for their belief in the Blood of Jesus. Paul was warning them that their lives were about to get a lot harder, and probably more complicated, as they would have to elude the authorities just to have worship services. But Paul’s other reason for saying this was to absolve himself of his involvement in the death of Stephen, an early preacher of the Gospel who was martyred back in Acts chapter 8. And there were others besides that where Paul, as an agent of the Sanhedrin prior to his conversion on the road to Damascus (see Acts chapter 9), had overseen the stoning of other Christians, but I don’t know how many. The Bible does not provide that information. Paul’s sins, like our own, had been washed away by the Blood of Jesus. That’s why Paul’s sins, like our own, no longer matter once we place our faith in Christ.
“Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood.” Verse 28 of Acts 20 is a clear reference to Psalm 23: “The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing….. Surely your goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” (verses 1 and 8) Paul was telling those elders to be good shepherds for their flocks just as Jesus is our Good Shepherd. And then he reminds them one more time that their souls were all bought with the Blood of Christ. Paul continues to move their discussion along, since he has a ship to catch, beginning at verse 29.
“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.” (Acts 20, verses 29-31)
Paul’s prophecy came true. Ephesus is only ruins today, although the church Paul founded there thrived for many decades after his departure. Paul’s “savage wolves” have been working within churches for centuries, so this is nothing new to us. Still, to Paul and the other elders with him, infiltration of the church by nefarious individuals was something they were having to deal with for the first time. It is no exaggeration to say Paul and the elders viewed this as an insidious threat, and Paul minced no words telling them so. Much the same is still happening in churches today. We see churches wandering into apostasy everywhere we turn, or at least I sure do. All the mainstream denominations that I have ever visited teach in error. Many of the nondenominational churches are little more than cults of personality that surround the pastor, precisely the opposite of the teachings of Christ (see Luke 13: 29-30).
Another thing I want to mention here is Paul’s passion that we see brought out in verse 31: “Remember that for three years I never stopped warning each of you night and day with tears.” That’s right, people, Paul warned his new converts with tears, and I think I know why. It was because Paul had passion for his work. You would have that passion too, if you were working for a Man who had just granted you eternal life. Though the body eventually wears out and dies, the human soul lives on forever. It’s only a matter of where our living souls will spend that eternity – in heaven with the Lord, or in hell with Satan and his demons living in scorching heat day and night forever. That’s why Paul warned them with tears. Have you ever prayed for something with such intensity and emotion that you wept as you prayed? I have, and if you’re not close enough to God to cry over having a need met, then you’re not close enough. Those of who who are like that have your work cut out for you. Having said that, let’s go ahead and conclude this week’s study, beginning at verse 32.
“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 that 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.’” 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.”
Knowing this was his final goodbye, I can literally sense at the moment how Paul’s normally solid voice must have shook with emotion as he uttered those words in verse 32. As I wrote this, I even found myself having to stop for a moment and brush a tear from the corner of my own eye as I ran this scene through my mind’s eye. The very next verse is something that sets Paul apart from many ‘ministers’ in churches today. Paul worked without pay as he labored at odd jobs to support himself throughout his ministry. He never asked for money from anyone to spend on his personal needs or desires. The world needs more people like this, people who couldn’t care less about money and the trappings of wealth, seeing it for the soul-damaging distraction that money truly is. Money, you see, is a distraction from life as well as from living.
“In everything I did, I showed you that 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.’” As before, this is the complete antithesis of modern Christianity, where it is more blessed to give, so long as one is giving to the church – and ultimately to the pastor and his immediate family. That’s the real reason churches are classified by the IRS as nonprofits – because all the profits go to the pastor and his immediate family. And that is all that needs to be said for now about the pathetic state of modern Christianity, otherwise it would take me off-topic. But for now, suffice it to say that Christianity is not a cakewalk where one simply donates 10% of their income to receive a ‘get out of hell free’ card from their pastor. Try getting into heaven with nothing more than that, and you will find yourself shut out to the “outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (see Matt. 8: 12).
“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.” Paul wept with each and every one of them, just as Jesus wept when he came to Lazarus’ tomb, and just as he wept over Jerusalem (see Luke 13: 34-35). These were men who had an authentic love for one another, just as Christ has commanded each of us to have for each other. That genuine love and camaraderie that existed between them extended long after they watched Paul’s ship sail over the horizon, and it is in existence to this day in the form of the Book of Ephesians in the New Testament. Let us all aspire to do the same as Paul. I don’t mean that we should attempt to write any more of the New Testament so as to add to it, as if it were somehow inadequate. I mean that we should aspire to have the level of passion that Paul had for his ministry. If we would only inject that kind of driven passion into each of our lives, we would all be enriched as a result. And next week, we’ll move on to Acts 21. See you then…..