The Acts of the Apostles contains details of six public addresses given by Paul of which the address to the Ephesian elders is the third. The first was given in Antioch of Pisidia to Jews (13.14-43), the second in Athens to Gentiles (17.22-31), the fourth in Jerusalem to a crowd who would have put him to death (22.1-21), the fifth in Cæsarea before the Roman governor, Felix (24.10-21), and the sixth, again in Cæsarea, before King Agrippa (26.1-29).
There are general lessons to be learned when the whole group is considered. First, the address to the Ephesian elders is the only one of the six that was "preached" before believers. Second, some of them were delivered before Jews and some before Gentiles. It is clear that Paul ensured that what he had to say was understood by his listeners. When speaking to the Jews he quoted or alluded to the Hebrew Scriptures. Those who listened would be familiar with them, or, if not familiar with them, they would have been taught to respect them. When addressing Gentiles he does not refer to the Scriptures, but to that of which his hearers would have knowledge. For instance, when he spoke to the Jews in Antioch in the first recorded address he mentions the deliverance of Israel from Egypt, the defeat of the inhabitants of Canaan, and something of what took place following these events (13.17-22). When speaking at Athens he brings the attention of his listeners to the altar raised to the unknown god, which he had seen in their own city. His listeners would know of that altar and of the history associated with it (17.23). Third, the common feature of every address to unbelievers is that they all point to the Lord Jesus as the Saviour.
Pauls visits to Ephesus
The first visit took place during Pauls second missionary journey (Acts 18.19-20). His visit was brief because he was determined to get to Jerusalem, so, after spending some time in the synagogue, he departed and, leaving Priscilla and Aquilla, he proceeded to Jerusalem. His next visit was during His third missionary journey (Acts 19.1-41) and lasted for a period of more than two years (19.8,10). As the word of God grew and prevailed so did the opposition to the gospel. The result was a riot, stirred up by one Demetrius, a silversmith, whose occupation was a maker of silver shrines for Diana, the goddess of the Ephesians. His trade had suffered as had that of his fellow silversmiths. Following this Paul left Ephesus.
The reason for the address
But he did not forget the Ephesians. On his return journey to Jerusalem he could not pass Ephesus without speaking to those who were elders of the church. He was unable to reach Ephesus itself, but as his ship docked at Miletus he sent word to the elders at Ephesus to come to him. His call shows the importance that he attached to the matters he was about to bring before them. This is the only record of an address to the elders of a local church, given when Paul anticipated that he would not see them again (v.38). His purpose was to exhort and encourage them in the shepherding of the sheep over which the Holy Spirit had made them overseers. He knew that there would be those who would seek to harm these sheep. Some would come from outwith the assembly and some would rise up from amongst the saints. Reference is made to these men in the later epistles of Paul. Hymenaeus, Alexander, Phygellus, Hermogenes, and Philetus (see 1 Tim 1.20; 2 Tim 1.15; 2.17) are all on the page of Scripture as those who sought to harm the flock.
The example of the apostle
In meeting spiritual need
It is of more than passing interest that Paul placed before the elders an example that they should follow. The example was that of the apostle himself. His example when he was with them was telling.
He cites his humility, his tears, and his trials. He reminds them that he had kept back nothing from them but was marked by faithfulness in his discharge of his ministry. There had been no partiality in that he had testified both to Jews and Greeks. Even now as he was journeying to Jerusalem he was not going because of fleshly impulse or base motive. He was "bound in the spirit" (v.22), and this he could not resist even although he fully expected to meet further "bonds and afflictions" (v.23). All his energies were harnessed to ensure that whatever lay ahead, he would finish his work for the Lord with joy. That was his great ambition.
In meeting material need
But the example of Paul was also worth following in material matters. Those who shepherd the flock must live in such a way that there can be no suspicion that their motive may be material gain. Paul had not been marked by covetousness (v.33). There was nothing that had roused in him a spirit of cupidity. Silver, gold, and apparel did not have that effect on Paul (v.33). He who could speak of the "inheritance" that the Ephesians had "among all them which are sanctified" (v.32) would lay little weight on the possessions gained in this passing world. Indeed, rather than cast his eye on the possessions of others, he had obtained what was necessary for himself, and for those that were with him, by engaging in honest labour. In this way he had shown contentment. The Ephesians knew that the work of his own hands had supplied that need. It could not be said that he or his fellow workers were a charge on the Ephesians. There was no cause for thinking that money was their motive. But there was something more to be said. In addition to meeting his own needs he also gave to the needy. He displayed care. Supporting the weak (v.35), amongst other things, clearly entailed giving to alleviate poverty or suffering, for he quotes the words of the Lord Jesus: "It is more blessed to give than to receive".
Lessons for shepherds
Those who serve as elders and shepherds of the flock today will find in this address much on which to meditate. The necessity of a good testimony, the need for transparency of motive, the requirement to take care of the weak, and the single-minded determination to use the days and hours to finish the course well are all worthy of those who shepherd. Some speak of a desire to "be on the oversight" as if it was some kind of promoted post. There must be a realisation that it is a work of great responsibility and even if one is not "on the oversight" the work can still be carried out. Wise shepherds, and wise saints, will recognise those who are true shepherds.
There was real affection in the hearts of the Ephesian elders. They wept sore, but it is noteworthy that they did so because he had said that he would not see them again. It has been suggested that this was a fault on their part and that they should have sorrowed because of the attack on the assembly of which Paul had spoken. It is more probable that their grief at the prospect of not seeing him again was to a great extent due to the fact that they would not be able to call on him when the problems arose. Their tears not only showed their deep affection for Paul but also for the saints in Ephesus.
"And they accompanied him unto the ship." These are poignant words! It was time for him to go. Paul did not know the future. He would visit them again between his first and second imprisonments and would leave Timothy with them after he left (1 Tim 1.3), but that lay in the unknown future. The affection that Paul and the Ephesians had for each other must also mark saints today. The desire that everything said and done will only be for the spiritual progress of the Christians with whom we have to do is an objective which should always be before us until we, too, finish our course.