Paul's Farewell Message: Part 1

Acts 20:16‑20  •  13 min. read  •  grade level: 6
Let us read together Acts 20:16-3816For Paul had determined to sail by Ephesus, because he would not spend the time in Asia: for he hasted, if it were possible for him, to be at Jerusalem the day of Pentecost. 17And from Miletus he sent to Ephesus, and called the elders of the church. 18And when they were come to him, he said unto them, Ye know, from the first day that I came into Asia, after what manner I have been with you at all seasons, 19Serving the Lord with all humility of mind, and with many tears, and temptations, which befell me by the lying in wait of the Jews: 20And how I kept back nothing that was profitable unto you, but have showed you, and have taught you publickly, and from house to house, 21Testifying both to the Jews, and also to the Greeks, repentance toward God, and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ. 22And now, behold, I go bound in the spirit unto Jerusalem, not knowing the things that shall befall me there: 23Save that the Holy Ghost witnesseth in every city, saying that bonds and afflictions abide me. 24But none of these things move me, neither count I my life dear unto myself, so that I might finish my course with joy, and the ministry, which I have received of the Lord Jesus, to testify the gospel of the grace of God. 25And now, behold, I know that ye all, among whom I have gone preaching the kingdom of God, shall see my face no more. 26Wherefore I take you to record this day, that I am pure from the blood of all men. 27For I have not shunned to declare unto you all the counsel of God. 28Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood. 29For 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. 31Therefore 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. 33I 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. 36And 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 20:16‑38). This is the Apostle's farewell message to the Ephesian elders. Paul had labored among the Ephesians for more than three years, so that they had become very dear to his heart. Is it not true that the longer these associations in Christ continue, the more precious they become?
Here we have to picture to ourselves the dear Apostle hastening to get to Jerusalem for the feast of Pentecost. He feels he can not take the time to go inland to Ephesus, so he makes arrangements ahead of time that the elders should meet him at the port of Miletus. He called for "the elders of the church." Would it be out of place to stop a moment here and ask the meaning of that expression, "the elders of the church"? In those days it was Paul's custom to either personally, or through a deputy, ordain elders in every church where he had labored. See Acts 14:21-2321And when they had preached the gospel to that city, and had taught many, they returned again to Lystra, and to Iconium, and Antioch, 22Confirming the souls of the disciples, and exhorting them to continue in the faith, and that we must through much tribulation enter into the kingdom of God. 23And when they had ordained them elders in every church, and had prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord, on whom they believed. (Acts 14:21‑23). "And when they had ordained them elders in every church."
Ordained elders in every church. Such was the order in the days of the apostles. Some will ask, "If that was the case then, why not today?" I would answer that there are two reasons why we do not have them, and why we can not have them now. In the first place, we haven't any apostles; we have no properly constituted authority to place official elders in our meetings. On no occasion, as far as the Word of God tells us, did the Church itself hold an election and choose their elders. That was left to the apostles or to those with delegated authority from them. As remarked before, we have no apostles today. The New Testament apostles and prophets were regarded as connected with the foundation of the Church, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief corner stone (Eph. 2:2020And are built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner stone; (Ephesians 2:20)).
Nor is it recorded that there was any provision made for "apostolic succession." You get that very distinctly brought out in Peter's epistle. He, of course, was one of the chiefest of the apostles. He reminds those to whom he wrote that after his decease they were to keep in mind, not what his successor should tell them, but what he had written to them.
In other words, the only succession they were to have after his demise would be the written Word itself. He made no provision to have someone take his place. No, brethren, there is no scriptural provision made for a continuation of the apostolate.
Now for the second reason why we have no officially appointed elders in the Church today. There would be no logical or consistent place in which to set them. Supposing we had the Apostle Paul here today, and we should say to him, "Brother Paul, we would like to have some ordained elders; since you are here we suggest that you appoint them for us." How would the Apostle react to such a situation? I rather think he might challenge us with another question; "If I ordain elders in the church of God in F, where shall I put them?" If he passed that question on to us, what would we say? Would we dare say, "Our group here in F is the Church of God?" We would not if we were taught of God. No, we would not be guilty of such a blunder. What is the church of God in F
The church of God in F is composed of every blood bought, Spirit-indwelt soul in
F If the Apostle were to say, "I'm going to put all the ordained elders in F in your little group, what would be the result? Oh, how inflated we would become! But the Apostle could not consistently do such a thing. We are not the church of God in F No, we are just a poor little remnant, trying in these last days to maintain the truth as we find it in the Word of God. But let none of us ever become intoxicated with the idea that we are the church of God.
The Word of God has much to say about remnants; they have a lovely place in Scripture. It is a real privilege to be identified with a believing remnant; but the remnant must never imagine that they are the Church. In God's thoughts any member of the body of Christ here in F is just as dear to the heart of the Savior as any of us here in this room today. God shows no such favoritism. Every blood-bought soul is &many precious to the heart of Christ; and if you and I have the thoughts of God, we are going to have affections for the members of Christ wherever we meet them.
The Apostle called for the elders. How many were there? We are not told. There is nothing in Scripture to certify how many elders were placed in any one church, or that they all had the same number. But there is one thing of which we can be absolutely sure; that is that there was no church that had just one elder. There is no such official mentioned in the New Testament as the elder of the church. No, there was always a plurality of elders.
Now another question; we have ruled out ordained elders for the present day, because we have no valid authority to choose such. Then does this mean that today we have no elders in the Church of God? No, I do not think we need come to any such conclusion. While it is admitted that we are without official elders, yet in the goodness of God and His tender care over us, He sees to it that we have those among us in the assembly who do the work of an elder. I believe that faith will recognize such.
Now turn to 1 Thess. 5:12, 1312And we beseech you, brethren, to know them which labor among you, and are over you in the Lord, and admonish you; 13And to esteem them very highly in love for their work's sake. And be at peace among yourselves. (1 Thessalonians 5:12‑13). "And we beseech you, brethren, to know them which labor among you, and are over you in the Lord, and admonish you; and to esteem them very highly in love for their work's sake." This is an exhortation to faith to give recognition to those to whom the Lord has entrusted leadership among us locally. Now turn to Hebrews, the last chapter and the 17th verse: "Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves: for they watch for your souls, as they that must give account, that they may do it with joy, and not with grief: for that is unprofitable for you." If we are taught of God, we will have that spirit of submission to those to whom the Lord may entrust godly leadership among us. In the ways of God we find such among us wherever we go. I presume some of us in our younger days had little idea of the exercise of soul on the part of some of our older brothers in their desire to see us kept in the path of dependence and obedience—how much time they spent in prayer for us as they sought the throne of grace for help in preserving us from the snares that were laid for our feet. I would say to you younger Christians who are here today, don't despise the leadership which God has been pleased to set in the meeting with which you are identified. When a brother in the assembly comes to you and seeks to speak with you in shepherd care for your soul, if you resist him, it isn't that you are just in rebellion against that particular brother, but you are rebelling against the Lord who placed such shepherds in the assembly. They seek out of an honest and good heart to care for the flock among whom they serve.
This word "elder" is closely related to another word in Scripture; that word is "bishop." Look at the first chapter of Titus, and you will see this identity. The fifth verse reads, "For this cause left I thee in Crete, that thou shouldest set in order the things that are wanting, and ordain elders in every city, as I had appointed thee: if any be blameless, the husband of one wife, having faithful children not accused of riot or unruly. For a bishop must be blameless." You see we have changed our terminology; we are still talking about the same man, but now he is spoken of as a bishop. So here we can readily see that a bishop and an elder are one and the same office. Why use the two terms? The answer is, elder is the name of the office, and I would conclude from the original Greek word that the term elder intimates an older person. Now that word "older," of course, is a relative term. In a country such as the United States where the ordinary life span is around sixty or seventy years, we expect the older brothers to be men of gray hairs. But our brother A has just told us that in that part of Mexico where he has been preaching they do not live so long. Brother S also told us that in South America, on the plateau of northern Bolivia, the life span is comparatively short. So we can not pin this down and say that one must have had sixty birthdays before he can be recognized as an elder. Maybe he might be such at fifty, or at forty. In a way, it is a relative matter. So we must not be legal in these things; but we do see that elders (bishops) must be those of ripened experience, both in their personal life and in the assembly.
I have met unmarried young men around twenty-one or twenty-two years of age who told me very blithely that they were elders in the church. How far this is from the scriptural pattern! Remember this, there is no substitute for experience in the things of God. This is the reason the Word says, "not a novice"—not one newly come to the faith. Sometimes we have those brought to the Lord who are energetic characters, born to leadership. They, being newly saved, wish to get things done; and they immediately strive to take over the gospel testimony. Such need to wait; they need to be taught of God; they need to ripen in the knowledge of the Word. God has not seen fit to put leadership in the assembly in the hands of such. I well remember an old brother giving an address at a conference, and he made this remark: "All my children have a better education than I have, but there is one thing none of my children have. They do not have my experience." Let us not discount the fact that some of our brethren have been in the path for years. They have weighed the problems that believers meet along the way. They have sought to get God's mind about the various questions in the assembly. What a privilege it is to have those to whom we can go who are qualified to give us help and advice.
Now I grant you that in its last analysis the Word of God takes precedence over anybody's advice. That goes without question. None of us are ever wiser than Scripture. None of us would desire to put forth any dogma. No, the Word must reign supreme. On the other hand, let us not resist the prayerful oversight of those brothers in the assembly who are seeking our good. Let us be sure that we are not resisting the voice of the Spirit to our conscience. If we do, it will be to our loss now and in that day to come.
In verse 18 of our chapter Paul calls attention to his demeanor as a servant of the Lord. "Ye know, from the first day that I came into Asia, after what manner I have been with you at all seasons." Sometimes brothers wonder why they do not seem to have more weight; why their brethren do not listen better to them. Do you think that this word of Paul's here may be the answer? The Apostle reminds these Ephesian elders after what manner he had been among them at all seasons. Did you notice as we read in Titus the qualifications of a bishop? He was not to be "self-willed, not soon angry." Do your brethren look at you as self-willed? Do you lose your temper? If you do, if you are a "striker" (a loud, ill-tempered man), you can not wonder that your brethren do not pay you the respect you would like. No, this thing works both ways: I should heed my brethren when they come to me, but, on the other hand, the brother who assumes a place of leadership in the assembly should see to it that he has a manner of life that corresponds to the place he takes. A brother who is constantly losing his temper, who is ever trying to have his own way, thrusting himself through, can not hope for the respect and confidence of the saints.
Again Paul says, "serving the Lord with all humility of mind." There are few things more unbecoming in a servant of the Lord than to become pompous and overbearing. The Apostle was not so. He served the Lord with all humility and with many tears. Ministry for him never became a soft, easy pursuit. He was not leaning back in the lap of luxury in his service for Christ. It was a rugged reality for him wherever he went. I remember dear old brother P saying more than once, "If you wish for a happy service for Christ, go out and preach the gospel; if you wish sorrow of heart, serve the Church of God." And brethren, it is true! The one who would serve the saints is going to bear on his heart all the trials and troubles that occur among them. Nor let us ever think that the trials and difficulties that may be in our local assembly at the present moment are a new thing in the history of the Church. They have always been here. Satan hates the truth of Christ and the Church. He does not wish to see any going on with the Lord; he would ever throw us into confusion. Satan is ever stirring up strife among God's dear redeemed people.
But let us never be discouraged because things are not going as smoothly as they might. Let us rather retreat into our closets, and get on our knees and cry to God for wisdom and help through the trial. I have witnessed situations, deadlocked impasses that it seemed nothing could break, and yet God came in in answer to deep, earnest, longing prayer. I have seen such sad circumstances clear up, dissipate, and disappear; and the saints were again in happy harmony. Oh, let us remember that we have a living God in heaven who is interested in the welfare of His people. Don't give up. Seek grace from God to have such resolved. He can do it.