On Acts 20:29-38

Acts 20:29-38
Taking heed to themselves as well as to all the flock of God was the more necessary because of the sure and dark prospect which the apostle now puts before them. “I know that after my departure grievous wolves shall enter in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves shall men arise speaking things perverted to draw away the disciples after them” (Acts 20:29-3029For I know this, that after my departing shall grievous wolves enter in among you, not sparing the flock. 30Also of your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them. (Acts 20:29‑30)).
On earth it has been always thus. So Moses warned Israel, when he was about to depart. Those under grace, we now learn from the apostle, would behave themselves no better in the house of God than the people under law. And so it came to pass, as the Old Testament shows us: Israel utterly ruined, everywhere dispersed, despised outcasts, no where more than in their own land; and so the New Testament everywhere warns as to Christendom.
The Lord Himself, in the great parabolic series of Matthew 13, sets forth its corruption from the beginning. The tares once sown were never to be rooted up until the harvest; and the time of the harvest will be the judgment of the quick on earth. So, in His great prophecy on the Mount of Olives (Matt. 24; 25), the Lord does not hide the sad future. The evil servant was to say in his heart, “my lord delayeth,”&c. and would begin to beat his fellow servants, as well as to eat and drink with the drunken. There cannot be, there is not, recovery, or general progress for good. Christ’s appearing in judgment will deal with the evil effectually. It is not otherwise in the beautiful picture of the ten virgins, five wise and five foolish. Was not failure apparent and complete, when all slumbered and slept, while the bridegroom tarried? Grace assuredly awakes the wise, who had oil in their vessels, to trim their lamps, and go in with the Bridegroom to the marriage. As for the foolish, who had no oil and are therefore busied here and there in procuring it in vain, the door was shut. So with the servants that traded with the talents given: nothing but judgment will rectify the wrong done to the Master. Not only is there to be no such thing as universal prevalence of the gospel, but within its own limited range of profession misrepresentation of Christ, and opposition to His will, characterize it to the last. No one denies that there will be, till He comes, as there ever has been, a witness of Christ and truth in life and suffering for His name; but there is also the sad and ever swelling succession of the evil done to that name, not merely by persecution from without, but still more painfully and shamelessly by every spiritual pravity within.
The Epistles entirely confirm and fill up the dark outline presented by our Lord. Of this we have spoken perhaps sufficiently elsewhere; but surely 2 Thessalonians 2 is the adequate testimony, and from an early day: 1 Timothy 4, and 2 Timothy 3 fall in with this preparatively. Peter in his Second Epistle (chap. 2), and Jude announce the same in yet more sombre colors; and none goes more to the root of the matter than John, not only in his Epistles, but prophetically in the Revelation.
Here however we have the inroad of the declension stated as a marked starting point. “I know that after my departure grievous wolves shall enter in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among,) our own selves shall men arise speaking things perverted,” and so on. There is much unbelief as to this, even among Christians otherwise well disposed. They fail to see that the power of Christianity lies in the ungrieved guidance of the Spirit of God according to His word; and His Spirit can alone freely work in Christ’s name to God’s glory. When men act on human principles, where the spirit of the world prevails, ruin is the necessary result. As long as the apostle was here, the spiritual power and influence was immense. There was the most vigilant and the most decided resistance to evil of every kind. He knew that after his departure spiritual energy would decay more and more, and that the glory of the Lord would thus be swamped. So easy, so deadly, among the saints of God is compromise, to which amiability, prudence, desire of peace, love of numbers, and so on, would expose.
The commentators tell us that grievous wolves are not persecutors, but rather false friends. Real foes should enter in among those who bear the name of the Lord and spare not the flock. But the commentators are surely wrong in identifying the grievous wolves with those described in verse 30, “From among your own selves shall men arise speaking things perverted.” Surely these are manifestly different classes of evil men, the first more violent, the second more subtle; the first seeking their own gratification and advantage, and the second doing the deadlier work of speaking things perverted to draw away the disciples after them. To take advantage of the flock for selfish means is wicked; to set up self and error in the place of Christ is yet worse, if more seemly in appearance.
Here it may be noticed that the Authorized Version fails to represent the malignity of the evil. Every party leader seeks to draw away disciples. Here it is the more aggravated effort to draw away “the” disciples after them. It was to mislead them all, to subject all saints to themselves. “Wherefore watch, remembering that by the space of three years I ceased not admonishing each one night and day with tears. 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 an inheritance among all that are sanctified” (Acts 20:31-3231Therefore watch, and remember, that by the space of three years I ceased not to warn every one night and day with tears. 32And now, brethren, I commend you to God, and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up, and to give you an inheritance among all them which are sanctified. (Acts 20:31‑32)).
The ministry of Paul in Ephesus at this latter day was just an answer to what it had been among the Thessalonians earlier, first as nurse, then as father. It was for the elders now to watch and not to forget that loving example of love; but love will never abide, never bear the strain, without real faith in God for that work; and therefore the force of his “commending them” to God and to the word of His “grace.” It is not to one only but to both. Without God before the heart the word becomes dry and sapless, and we grow discouraged and impatient; without the word to direct the life, we are in danger from the will and the wisdom, or the folly, of man. The word of His grace becomes the grand test and resource, while looking to God for every step and in every question. So we find the apostle laying it down by the Holy Spirit in 2 Timothy 3, which also, by the way, helps to decide the true reference of what has been questioned: should it be, “which” is able, or “who” is able, to build you up? The comparison strengthens the former.
The apostle had thus set before the elders a prospect most grievous, which lapse of time has only but fully confirmed. Indeed, before his departure the signs of coming evils were already everywhere apparent, so that when his later Epistles more especially prophesied not merely of decay, but of utter ruin, even then he had to speak of the seeds of these evils as already grown. No greater error than that which ere long began to prevail, and most extensively in modern times, the dream of progress. It is directly opposed to these apostolic testimonies, and no less to the plainest possible facts in Christendom. Even on the loose estimate of bare profession, how far is the Christian faith from having title to that triumph of which men fondly speak? Indeed, if these vain hopes were realized, would they not present a glaring contrast to all that the Bible teaches us of that which is committed to human responsibility? From Adam downwards the history of man is the history of failure. Not that grace has not wrought, and wrought wonders, in the narrow path of Christ here below; but as the rule everywhere and always, ruin has followed every fresh trial of man, and every fresh testimony of God because of man. Look at him in Eden or out of Eden, before the deluge or since it: have truth and righteousness prevailed for the mass? That God has wrought by individuals, that He has blessed families, that He has owned righteousness in a people, as well as faith wherever His own grace made it good in the elect, is clear. As the race as well as head broke down, none the less did Israel, notwithstanding the singular favor which God showed; and as the people, so the priests, and so the kings, till there was no remedy, and God swept them from His land, not only by the Assyrian and the Babylonian, but still more by the Roman. That Christendom is no exception we have already seen, and this not from experience only, but from the distinct, and repeated, and complete testimony of the inspired men who laid its foundation; and yet men venture to hope— “to hope”! Is it that the apostolic words will prove untrue? Is it that men, so utterly fallen as they are now in Christendom, will do better than those in whom the Spirit of God first wrought with a power as much beyond consequent as precedent? But alas, poverty in its lowest state is apt to be the proudest. God will surely be true, and every man a liar who opposes Him. This then was briefly and profoundly set forth by the apostle about to depart from Ephesus.
Let me notice again how the ordinary translation weakens the force of the last words. It is not merely to draw away “disciples” after them: every heretic seeks and does this; but the object of the enemy through these perverse men is to draw away “the disciples,” the body of those that confessed the Lord on the earth. Not less was the blow aimed at the glory of Christ. He only is entitled to all the disciples, and if it is a serious thing for any disciple to be drawn away from Him, from His will about His own below, how much more to seek the misleading of all! But self will is blind to all but its own will, and soon learns to confound itself with the will of the Master. But think of the dishonor which is thus cast upon His name!
“Wherefore watch ye,” says the apostle to the elders, “remembering that for three years night and day I ceased not admonishing each one night and day with tears.” This little glimpse, which necessity wrung out from the apostle’s heart, lets us see his entire devotedness. It was not business, nor the spread of truth even, still less the prevalence of his own opinions for good. It was one who loved Christ, and pressed this above all on those who took the lead. Untiring, tender, watchful, care filled his heart, with the deepest feeling habitually and at all cost. Such he would have us feel, as those he addressed that day. Who is sufficient for these things? The sufficiency is in and from God.
So he continues, “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 an inheritance among all that are sanctified.” Whatever be the days of danger, difficulty, and ruin, God abides faithful, the Savior unchangeable, Jesus Christ the same yesterday, and today, and forever. If all the apostles, since they and the prophets laid the foundation, have passed away, the words of His grace remain, as does the Holy Spirit sent down from heaven. He only had divine power even when apostles were there. There is no excuse therefore for unbelief. Faith shines the more in a dark day, and devotedness is called out by the sense of His dishonor Who is dearest to the heart.
Nor is there anything in comparison with the word of His grace in ability to build us up. Boldness of thought and beauty of language are all vain, if there be not the truth; and the truth is never so sure, and strong, and holy, as in His own word, which is truth. This searches the conscience, this strengthens the heart, this nourishes faith and makes the blessed hope abounding and mighty in the love which is the strength of all that is good. For love is of God, and God is good, and as His word builds us up now, so it gives us the inheritance among all that are sanctified. The word of God truly received delivers from the love of this present age, from the world and the things of the world.
Hence adds the apostle, “I coveted no man’s silver or gold, or apparel; yea, yourselves know that these hands ministered unto my necessities and to those that were with me.” Life in Christ is infinitely blessed, and it is the portion of the believer by the grace of God; a life wholly and absolutely different from that old Adam life, which meets its doom, not in death only, but in judgment without end. For the Christian our old man is crucified with Christ, that the body of sin might be annulled, that we might no longer serve sin, so that each can say, “I am crucified with Christ, and no longer live I but Christ liveth in me, but in that I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, Who loved me and gave Himself for me.” It is ruin no doubt to set aside the grace of God, as the re-introduction of the law must do. But how terrible to give a false unworthy testimony to the grace of God by allowing the desires of that life which should be buried in the cross of Christ. The old man covets silver and gold, or apparel. All these minister to the lusts of the body as well as of the mind. Love serves others, love with faith alone glorifies God; and it is well when those who teach these things are living ensamples of all they urge on others. How few can say truthfully and throughout with the apostle,” I coveted no man’s silver and gold, or apparel, yea, yourselves know that these hands ministered to my necessities, and to those that were with me. In all things I gave you an example, how that so laboring ye ought to help the weak, and remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how He Himself said, It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:33-3533I have coveted no man's silver, or gold, or apparel. 34Yea, ye yourselves know, that these hands have ministered unto my necessities, and to them that were with me. 35I have showed you all things, how that so laboring ye ought to support the weak, and to remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he said, It is more blessed to give than to receive. (Acts 20:33‑35)). Then let no one who seems or claims to be a leader now forget them; yea, let us all remember these ways of the apostle and these words of the Lord Jesus. This is certainly not after the manner of men, nor yet of Israel, nay, nor of Christendom. They are the words of Christ, and His life here below is the most blessed comment upon them. It certainly is not enjoyment, or present honor, but His love in tending and feeding the sheep of His pasture, looking for the day of reckoning when the Chief Shepherd shall be manifested, and the faithful shepherds receive the crown of glory that fadeth not away.
Yet the account is not complete without the parting scene, which proves that faith in the unseen hinders not, but imparts, the love which is of God in this world of sorrow and selfishness. “And having thus spoken, he kneeled down, and prayed with them all. And they all wept sore, and falling on Paul’s neck, fondly kissed him, sorrowing most of all for the word which he had spoken, that they should behold his face no more. And they brought him forward unto the ship” (Acts 20:36-3836And when he had thus spoken, he kneeled down, and prayed with them all. 37And they all wept sore, and fell on Paul's neck, and kissed him, 38Sorrowing most of all for the words which he spake, that they should see his face no more. And they accompanied him unto the ship. (Acts 20:36‑38)). Such was the bearing of the greatest of apostles. Oh! how fallen from its reality are those who vaunt themselves his successors. How far short are any of us who abhor such pretensions! As truth and love receded, hierarchy in every shape made for itself a throne, as far from the mind of Christ as earth is from heaven. But let us beware lest love grow cold in presence of abounding iniquity.