Audio Only (with the Old Testament Scripture Reading)
Placing a Final Address in Its Context
If you have ever been in a situation where you are saying goodbye to a person you love, and you know that you may never see them again, then you know the sacredness and pain of the moment we just read about in this story. Paul is saying his final words to a church he dearly loved—real people, real elders and deacons and sheep—that he cared for, over three years. Three years is a lot of time to build meaningful relationships that last. I’ve been with you all for about one year, now, and I can already say that I’d have a hard time if I was put in Paul’s position—it’s time to say goodbye, and you’ll never see these people again.
What we want to do first, this morning, is consider exactly how this final address to the Ephesians came about in the first place. There’s a story behind an address like this—and it always adds a certain expediency and power to the message. Context really does matter when we’re considering speeches like these. Just take the emancipation proclamation as an example. If someone read the emancipation proclamation without an understanding of slavery in America, they might think “nice, interesting address”. If they knew that it was legally declaring the freedom of 3.5 million slaves—and that blood was and would be shed for the words to be put into effect, then the emancipation proclamation becomes considerably more precious. So, before even considering what Paul said, let’s just get the story behind this speech right.
Paul spent three fruitful years of ministry in Ephesus, as we’ve seen in the previous weeks. So, the Ephesian church was well established at this point, and it was so effective that it’s gospel witness had disrupted even the Ephesian economy that depended upon an industry of idolatry and pagan worship. As you might imagine, then, the church began to see opposition. We even saw a riot form against Paul and the Christians. It was this oppression—coupled with the unifying power of Christ’s word and Spirit—which created an intimate bond with the Ephesian church and Paul. It’s this Ephesian church that we see Paul saying his final goodbyes to in today’s passage.
A Second Goodbye?
Now in some ways, you might say Paul already said his goodbyes to the church several months earlier—probably 5 or 6 months earlier. He left them after the riot. You see that in verse 1 of chapter 20. That verse reads, “after the uproar ceased, Paul sent for the disciples, and after encouraging them, he said farewell and departed for Macedonia”. So Paul already said his goodbyes. Now, where did he go, and why was he passing back through the area of Ephesus only 6 months later?
Without going too much into all the details, Paul made a journey to the other side of the Mediterranean sea into Macedonia and Greece, and then after spending only three months in Greece, he came right back through Macedonia to the Mediterranean coast near Ephesus again. In verses 13–16 which lead directly into the passage we read, Paul and his company move from port city to port city, hastily traveling along the seacoast, making their way south and east.
It seems a bit odd, doesn’t it? Why would Paul take such a fast trip around the Mediterranean sea and then backwards? In fact, this great missionary, Paul, is revisiting the western-most churches he’s already planted—you’d think he might take this as an opportunity to press further west to preach and plant churches where he had not yet been! It was during this brief journey that he wrote Romans—and, in Romans 15:22, he expresses this very sentiment. Paul wanted to travel further west from Greece and Macedonia, to Rome. Only, something more pressing was preventing him.
Over the last few weeks, we’ve been pressing into all these journeys to consider exactly what Paul was up to. In a word, he was ensuring that the existing churches were properly built up with godly encouragement and comfort that comes from the gospel—all of them that the visited, although his eyes were especially set upon the church in Jerusalem. That’s why he took this quick “there and back again” journey to the other side of the sea and back. He was seeking to collect money for the poor and marginalized church in Jerusalem who desperately needed help. The Jews in Jerusalem made life miserable for the Christians that remained there, so it was up to the gentile church throughout all of Rome to care for the Jerusalem church. So, that brings us to the context of Paul’s address to the Ephesian elders. Paul doesn’t give this address in Ephesus. He called for the Ephesian elders to meet him at the port city near Ephesus, where he was docked for a few days. You see that if you read verses 16 and 17 together, where Paul “had decided to sail past Ephesus, so that he might not have to spend time in Asia, for he was hastening to be at Jerusalem, if possible, on the day of Pentecost”. So from Miletus, Paul called for the Ephesian elders.
There’s a certain expediency in Paul’s mission and itinerary. It’s important to see that. He didn’t stop back in Ephesus to get tangled up in all sorts of affairs—he needed to get back to Jerusalem as soon as possible because those Christians were in desperate need of Paul’s ministry and encouragement. It’s actually interesting that Paul set for himself a deadline—“he was hastening to be at Jerusalem, if possible, on the day of Pentecost” (verse 16). Pentecost was a festival that was ripe with meaning and significance to the Jews and to the Christians. For the Jews, it was a festival of reaping the harvest. It was also a festival that was associated with God giving them the law from Mount Sinai, to guide them and make them a distinct people from all the nations of the world. Yet, the risen Christ made Pentecost to mean more than that, as we all know. Pentecost was the day Jesus reaped 3,000 souls, after he showered his Spirit upon the church. This was a season of reaping, and of giving thanks to God for his abundant mercies of creation and new-creation. It would have been most fitting for Paul to arrive in Jerusalem on such a day, to deliver a bountiful harvest that he had reaped from all the churches throughout all of Rome. He would have shown up to say, “See, the Lord is reaping a spiritual harvest throughout all of Rome—a harvest that began here in Jerusalem and is increasing to your credit. See now, as all the churches were eager to contribute to this collection when they heard of your struggles”. Reap the harvest and be blessed.
So, Paul had a deadline—yet, he also has a burden for the Ephesian church as he passes by it, en route to Jerusalem. Perhaps you have been traveling somewhere distant, and you just happened to pass by a town where a family member or close friend lives. There’s always that frustratingly painful question in the back of your mind, isn’t there? Should I stop in and say hi, or just keep going? You never know—you may not get a chance to see these people ever again, or perhaps in the coming months or years. Perhaps you’ve heard people who live far away say something like, “if you’re ever passing through, I’d be offended if you didn’t stop by!”. These are things we say and feel when we have an incredibly close relationship with someone who lives far away.
It was like that for Paul—except, there was even more emotion and purpose pent up. Had it simply been, “I’m really close to them and would love to see them”, I imagine Paul could have just passed through without saying anything to the Ephesians. He had literally just said goodbye six months ago. Although, there really was more to the story.
Two Particular Reasons Paul Called for the Elders: Clearing His Name and Expressing Sad News
For one thing, Paul’s address itself has led many to believe that Paul needed to clear his name of some slanderous accusations against him in Ephesus. As we’ll see in a moment, the speech is filled with a number of statements where Paul is establishing the credibility of his ministry. “You yourselves know how I lived among you…”, is how Paul begins his address. He’s defending himself. Why? He must have understood that his name was under assault in Ephesus—and thus, so also the gospel that he proclaimed.
More than this, however, Paul adamantly expresses in verse 25 that he will never see the Ephesians again. That’s a bold statement, coming from a man who hardly ever makes bold claims about the future. Paul always cushioned his plans with appeals to God’s unknown providence—“if the Lord wills”. It would be expected, here, that Paul might at least say something like “unless the Lord plans otherwise, I don’t believe we will see one another again”. That’s not verse 25. There, Paul says “now, behold, I know that none of you among whom I have gone about proclaiming the kingdom will see my face again.” He’s confident about this.
Why such confidence in such a sad reality? The answer, again, rests in Paul’s plans to go to Jerusalem. Some regard this to be a moment where Paul imitates his Lord. At a very distinct moment in Jesus’s life, we’re told that Jesus “set his face toward Jerusalem”, and began his journey to the city knowing that he would never return to Galilee again. He’d go to Jerusalem and die. We see a similar sentiment in Paul, here. There’s a reason why Paul’s speech to the Ephesian elders includes statements like verses 22–24,
22 And now, behold, I am going to Jerusalem, constrained by the Spirit, not knowing what will happen to me there, 23 except that the Holy Spirit testifies to me in every city that imprisonment and afflictions await me. 24 But I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself….
Paul is constrained by the Spirit to make haste to Jerusalem, and the same Spirit tells him that imprisonment and afflictions await him. Only, I think it’s fair to assume that Paul was particularly suspicious about Jerusalem. It was the Jews, after all, who were constantly seeking to kill Paul. You even see that in Paul’s speech. He reminded them that it was the “plots of the Jews” which brought about his persecution in Ephesus. The Jews hated Paul—and yet, Paul is going to Jerusalem, the city that killed his Lord! So, Paul boldly tells the Ephesians that they most certainly will never see his face again.
These are last words, folks, to a beloved church, from a port city en route to Jerusalem. Pentecost is coming—Paul needs to get to Jerusalem, yet he has to clear his name of some slander in Ephesus, and he has to encourage those elders one last time. So verse 17—“he sent to Ephesus and called the elders of the church to come to him.” He called the elders of the church, and they eagerly came to him.
What’s he going to say in this sacred, last moment? Last words are always telling, aren’t they? They reveal so much about a person—their securities and insecurities, their hopes, their regrets, their final assessment of their lives, their worries. So few words often communicate so much in these moments—whether it’s the moment before actual death, or the moment you really say goodbye to a loved one.
Final Words Concerning the Past, Present, and Future
What was Paul concerned with, in this final address to the Ephesians? He was concerned with the past, the present, and the future. It’s a very comprehensive speech, here—addressing the past, the present, and the future all in one final speech. And, in it all, he’s got one thing on his mind—and, we see that one thing in verse 24. In just a few words, there, he describes the ministry he received from the Lord, namely, “to testify to the gospel of the grace of God”. That’s what Paul is after in everything he does—to testify to the gospel of God’s grace. Everything he says and does—with reference to the past, present, and future—is all a testimony of God’s grace through Jesus Christ. It’s like Paul, in this speech, is saying “look at my past ministry and tell me it’s not entirely from God’s grace and power”, or “look at my situation right now, and tell me that I’m not driven by God’s grace and power”. Paul is saying, “I’m the real deal! The gospel of Jesus Christ is real—Jesus is truly alive!”. Then, after Paul looks at his own past and present ministry, he then looks at the Ephesian elders to commend their future ministries to the same. He commends them, their ministry, and their future “to God and to the word of his grace” (verse 32)—even as it will be fraught with troublesome wolves within the church.
Based on the way Paul describes ministry in this speech, we had better hope that our futures are commended to God and to the word of his grace. Without it, we’re nothing but helpless sheep among fierce wolves. May Paul’s testimony, in these pages, compel us to God’s grace.
Paul’s Past Testifies to the Power of God's Word (verses 18–21)
Let’s consider verses 18–21, where Paul talks about his past ministry in Ephesus. As I said before, he sounds like a man justifying himself before accusers. “You yourselves know…”, he opens this statement up in verse 18. Or again, he says the same thing in verse 34, “You yourselves know…”, and he again justifies the integrity of his ministry before slanderous accusers.
Slander is the easiest and most effective way to tear down a man and his message. Slander is an awful weapon—it’s something we need to be diligently identifying and fearful of. People love to hear slander. On the news and in political discussions, it attracts viewership like a drug. John Stott points out that when Paul was slandered in Thessalonica, we hear him defending himself with very similar words. Just read 1 Thessalonians 2:1–11, and you’ll hear Paul talk like this: “‘You know, brothers and sisters . . . as you know . . . You know . . . Surely you remember . . . You are witnesses . . . For you know . . .’. It’s a good way to overcome slander. Remind the people what was readily apparent to them. Take them through memory lane, and help them clear the real story from all the slanderous, gossipy stories. More than this, remind them that Paul’s ministry was a shining testimony to God’s power, God’s revelation, God’s savior. “Do you not remember how my message changed lives, even the message was accompanied with miracles?”.
Paul first reminds the Ephesian elders of his unusual commitment. He said in verses 18–19, ‘from the first day that I set foot in Asia”, he served with “all humility and with tears and with trials that happened to me through the plots of the Jews”. It is easy, indeed, to put on a façade—a show—in order to sell a story and gain a following. However, it’s hard to do it from day 1, and to keep it going through three years of ministry and oppressive plots against you. Paul was committed, even with tears. I imagine he was looking at some of the elders, thinking of specific moments when he actually wept with them. Perhaps he wept over the hardness of sinners who didn’t want to repent. Perhaps he wept over the difficult plots against him. Perhaps he wept for joy when the Lord blessed his ministry. That’s Paul’s commitment, there in verses 18 and 19.
Then Paul gets more specific in verse 20. He says that you know, Ephesians, ‘how I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, and teaching you in public and from house to house”. Paul was committed, and he wasn’t distracted in his message. His message never changed, it never wavered. Yet there’s something new in this verse concerning Paul’s ministry in Ephesus—something we hadn’t learned before. Up to this point, we have pictured Paul’s ministry centering in the hall of Tyrannus, where he lectured daily. That’s probably the main setting Paul had in mind when he referred to teaching “in public”, there in verse 20. Yet Paul had a personal ministry as well. He was a man of home visits. He went from house to house, declaring Jesus to the people. He declared “anything that was profitable”. That’s pastoral ministry, folks. Paul wasn’t just an evangelist from the hall of Tyrannus. He was a pastor in people’s homes. He really did plant and establish—and then, maintain—a church over the course of those three years. Perhaps some of these home visits were in the homes of unbelievers—evangelistic home visits. Although, I’m inclined to think these were pastoral visits, discipling the believers he had made from the intimacy of their homes. There are so many reasons home visitations are a valuable part of the church’s ministry. One article from our denomination mentioned a few, for example—
It extends the ministerial care of the church, and of the gospel, directly into our members’ homes.
It allows elders to determine the precise needs of the congregation and any precise moment.
It allows elders to assess the people’s reaction to the current ministry and teaching of the church.
It establishes a meaningful relationship between the elders and the congregation apart from emergency situations.
It provides a way for the elders to detect problems.
There’s something about the intimacy of a home that allows these benefits to really ripen in the church’s ministry. I hope to continue scheduling these with you all—and, I’ll reiterate that it should be something to look forward to.
So Paul’s past ministry was committed, in people’s homes—and again, it wasn’t distracted. He came with a targeted message of the gospel, directly into people’s homes. He didn’t shrink from “anything that was profitable”.
What is profitable teaching, by the way?
Paul gets more specific in the next verse, to help us understand what profitable teaching entails. He went from house to house, “testifying both to Jews and to Greeks of repentance toward God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.” There’s the heart of the matter. Paul testified to it—he testified to repentance toward God, and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. “These things are profitable”, he said.
The heart of Christian ministry is to testify—to provide testimony from personal experience, and especially from Scripture—that repentance and faith are worthwhile. Repentance toward God and faith in Jesus Christ is worthwhile. When someone is struggling with sin, provide a testimony—a word, a rock-solid reminder—that repentance is a blessing. It’s a grace. You get to stop hiding sin. You get to stop being ashamed. You get to turn from sin, because through faith, and through Jesus’s blood and righteousness, God himself accepts you as his own child! That’s a profitable message, folks. It saves lives, it transforms families.
I was recently reminded of a man that I worked with—a godly man who to this day never stops smiling. He’s massive, too—6’4’’, 350 or 400 pounds of what appears to be muscle (I’m guessing). Yet he was gentle, wise, kind. That’s the man I knew and worked with—however, it was only 2 years before I knew him that he was in recovery after a abusing marijuana, oxycodone, methadone, oxycontin, and meth from the age of fifteen. From the age of twelve, he was incarcerated four times and convicted of three felonies. He lost his marriage and daughter—and, his mug shots show a gaunt, angry meth-head that you’d literally cross to the other side of the street if you saw him walking toward you.
Someone testified to him the power and blessings of repentance and faith—and, he put himself through an agonizing year of rehab in the Christian facility I worked in. He learned about the process of repentance—about the fleeting promises of this world, and the rock-solid promises of Christ. He found security in Christ—and therefore peace, contentment, self-control—as he contemplated and communed with his Lord and Savior. It’s eternal peace, by the way. It will be with him for all eternity. Let your mind, your words, your thoughts, be as Paul’s message was—a profitable testimony to the power “of repentance toward God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ”. Today, that man has a beautiful family, an awesome job, and the hope of eternity ahead of him.
Paul is reminding the Ephesian elders that this is what he was all about—he wasn’t a phony. He did not preach a phony gospel. It really did transform lives and families—so, he addressed the slander hurled against him and his gospel. We must not let such a profitable, valuable message and revelation from God to be slandered and misrepresented. That’s all in verses 18–21.
Then, he turns his attention to the present. “And now, behold, I am going to Jerusalem”, Paul says in verse 22. Let’s consider how Paul’s present situation further testifies to the power of God and his gospel.
Paul’s Present Journey and Attitude Testify to the Power of God's Word (verses 22–27)
Look at verses 22–24 with me.
22 And now, behold, I am going to Jerusalem, constrained by the Spirit, not knowing what will happen to me there, 23 except that the Holy Spirit testifies to me in every city that imprisonment and afflictions await me. 24 But I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God.
So, he’s reminding the Ephesian elders that even now, his character and mission hasn’t changed. He’s still blood-earnest committed to the kingdom of Jesus Christ. He’s currently “constrained by the spirit” to go back to Jerusalem, and he’s suspecting death may be what’s in store. Only God knows.
He’s not like Jonah, folks, to run away from God’s call on his life. I’d say Paul has a much more difficult calling, here. Jonah had to simply go tell his enemies to repent, and then return back to his home. Paul has to go into a city where he’s the city’s #1 wanted man for death row. He goes. His life is of no value to him—only his calling, his God, his desire to “finish my course and the ministry I received from the Lord Jesus”. Paul has his mind on finishing well.
In fact, if you look at the next verse, you’ll see that Paul had always sought to finish well. He didn’t take shortcuts when serving the Lord. Verse 25, “And now, behold, I know that none of you among whom I have gone about proclaiming the kingdom will see my face again. Therefore, I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of you all”.
That’s an interesting statement, isn’t it? Paul washes his hands free from their blood if they should ever turn from the Lord. Paul is referring to the Biblical idea that God’s ministers will be held accountable for those they taught and shepherded. If you really think about it, it’s a debilitating thought. I’ve had countless conversations with gifted men who won’t consider the ministry—much less the office of an elder—because they don’t want people’s eternal blood on their hands. They know the responsibility, and the consequences if they don’t get it right.
Yet with the same Biblical teaching on his mind, Paul says “I am innocent”. It’s a bold statement. Paul was a sinner, folks. We don’t know exactly what sins he struggled with, but he talks about his ongoing struggle in Romans 7. He was well aware of his sinful flesh. Can Paul be so certain that his sin and weaknesses didn’t somehow harm the church?
Paul clears the air by reminding us what God ultimately needs from his ministers. He needs them to declare “the whole counsel of God”—to declare his words, his truth, his grace and mercy in the gospel. He needs his ministers to declare it accurately. At the very fundamental level, if a minister can say he humbly rooted himself in the word, as a minister of the Word, then that minister can rest easy in God’s grace and providence.
Many people think Paul has Ezekiel 33:2–9 on his mind, in these words. If nothing else, it’s a fitting illustration. In Ezekiel 33:2–9, God tells Israel about the responsibility of a nightwatchman. If a nightwatchman sees an army coming to destroy his city, and that person does not faithfully communicate the message to the city, then God says the blood of the entire city is on that one man. You can’t jostle around with words, in moments like that. You have to declare what you see, and declare it boldly.
However, if the nightwatchman faithfully communicates the message, and the people don’t flee the city or get ready to defend themselves, then God says their blood is on their own heads for not responding to the nightwatchman.
That’s ministry—and, in a sobering way, it gives God’s ministers freedom to not second-guess themselves. If they are faithfully communicating what they see in Scripture, then they can rest easy knowing that in the Lord, their labor is not in vain. God’s word won’t turn back void. It’ll leave some condemned, although it will free so many more from unimaginable misery.
I’m reminded of Jonathan Edwards’ example. He was a man that preached faithfully, although not eloquently. He preached in a monotone voice, and it’s said he often had his manuscript close to his eyes, in front of his face. You’d think it was boring—and trust me, I’m not advocating for boring preaching. The truth is, he spoke faithfully, truthfully, and it sparked a revival in America. No doubt, this is an unusual example, although it illustrates the point. It’s the word that changes lives, and the Spirit who may powerfully use anyone who faithfully testifies to the truth. Paul found a lot of freedom and security in his commitment to the Word. He didn’t live with regrets in his ministry—and, the reason isn’t because he thought he was so eloquent and wise in what he said. The reason is because he trusted in the power of the word that he diligently proclaimed. Like a nightwatchman the worst thing you can do is to not say anything, or to intentionally say something false.
So, Paul’s past ministry testified to the gospel of God’s grace. Then here in verses 22–27, Paul’s present ministry testifies to the gospel of God’s grace. As he’s going to Jerusalem to potentially die, he’s even able to do it without past ministerial regrets. The only reason why he’d go to Jerusalem is if he’s radically trusting in God’s word. The only reason he’d be free from ministerial regrets is if he’s radically trusting in the power of God’s word, which he preached to Ephesus. Paul is testifying to the power of God’s word—the power of his promise that through repentance and faith toward Jesus, there’s unimaginable peace and hope.
So, this leads us to verses 28–35, where Paul commends the Ephesian elders to the same. He commends them to be true ministers of God’s word.
Paul Commends the Ephesians’ Future to the Power of God's Word (28–35)
Honestly, there’s a lot that could be said about these verses. What I want you to see this morning is how Paul draws out three values for them to treasure in their future ministry: their own value as ministers, the flock’s value as God’s people, and the Bible’s value as God’s powerful word. If we were to really boil these verses down, I think that’s one way we could organize this.
Think about how Paul reminds these Ephesian elders of their own value as ministers. Paul tells them in verse 28, “Pay careful attention to yourselves”—meaning, pay attention to yourself, first! Don’t you fall into sin! God has terrifying warnings against prideful shepherds, and lazy shepherds, and sinful in the Old Testament. The blind will lead the blind into a ditch.
Now, while that’s sobering, he does encourage them with another statement of their value. Verse 28, “the Holy Spirit has made you overseers”. It wasn’t a mistake that you became an overseer (or elder). The risen Jesus himself orchestrated it through his Spirit and church.
By the way, you see Acts using the words “overseer/bishop” and “pastor” and “elder” interchangeably throughout this passage. It’s because they’re all the same office, called to oversee/pastor/shepherd/be wise elders among God’s people with God’s holy word. It’s a valuable calling worthy of many titles.
But then, consider how Paul illustrates the value of God’s people. They are “the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood”. Do you hear what that’s saying? The church of God was obtained with God’s blood! We’re talking about infinitely valuable and powerful blood being shed for what must be an infinitely valuable church. So, they’re worth fighting for. Paul warns these elders that until Jesus returns, there will be wolves among God’s people that need to be identified and dealt with—Paul expressly tells us who he has in mind in verse 30, “men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them”. Identify such men with the word, and condemn them publicly with the word so that the word would build up and protect the church. The church, purchased with God’s blood, is worth it.
The elders are valuable, as the Spirit himself made them elders. The church is valuable, as God shed his own blood for her. So, Paul commends these elders to the infinite value of God’s word. Verse 32,
32 And now I commend you to God and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified.
The word of his grace, folks, is where your answer lays. Are you struggling with sin? Are you weak, and need strength? Are you lost? Do you need wisdom? Are you struggling with guilt or depression? The word of God is both sufficient and powerful to meet you in all these needs. Read it as often as you can, prayerfully asking that God would inspire the words to come alive in your heart. Search it for conviction, search it for blood-bought promises that you need only to receive by faith. It “is able”—that’s a promise—“to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified”.
Those are good last words to give to a much-loved church. Paul used his past ministry, and his present circumstance in order to remind the Ephesians that he’s the real deal. The word he preached can be trusted—as it even strengthened Paul himself through unimaginable struggles. Yet, Paul leaves them with their own commendation, that they themselves would turn to God’s word of grace for the same. By faith, may we also do the same.