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The books of Luke – Acts end with the phrase, “boldly and without hindrance. Since Paul is in prison when the book ends, it is quite remarkable that Luke could describe Paul’s activity not being hindered. But the statement is not about Paul but the rather the Gospel. How is it that Paul’s preaching can be described in this way?
First, Paul’s preaching in Acts and throughout all his letters is based on Jesus as Messiah and his work on the cross. That the person and work of Jesus is the basis of the gospel is clear from the preaching of the apostles in Acts. Beginning with the preaching of the Apostles in Acts 2:22-24, the central theme is Jesus Christ, that he was crucified and rose from the dead. On Acts 13:26-31 Paul emphasizes the death and resurrection of Jesus. Notice that in both Peter and Paul’s sermon the fact that Jesus was crucified is clear, but also that God raised him from the dead and exalted him to his right hand, proving that he was in fact God’s son, the messiah. In fact, in 16:31, Paul says that the only want to be saved is to “believe in the Lord Jesus Christ.”
It is tempting to downplay the centrality of Jesus to our faith since he is still as controversial today as in the first century. People seem to like the idea of spirituality and religion, but they are not attracted to Jesus – the scandal of the cross is very real in contemporary culture. “Spiritual but not religious” is a movement which rejects religions, advocating love and respect without being dogmatic on who Jesus is or whether there is a God or not. It is also possible to place such a strong emphasis on building relationships and social activities that there is no confrontation with Jesus. Our churches need relationships and social activities, but we need to confront people with the truth of the Gospel, the Gospel demands a response!
Paul’s preaching centered on Jesus and what he did on the cross, and what this atonement for sin means for people in the present age. Paul brought his sermons to a decision. As the jailer in Acts 16:31 asks, “what must you do to be saved?”
Second, Paul taught freely and with boldness because his gospel was based on Scripture. If we go back in Acts and read Paul’s sermons, we find that they are based on the fulfillment of scripture. The same is true for the letters, Paul constantly quotes scripture and alludes to the Hebrew Bible as the revealed word of God.
Using Paul’s sermon in Acts 13 as an example, he blends several verses from the Hebrew Bible in order to show that Jesus is the messiah. In fact, ever apostolic sermon in Acts is laced with references to the Hebrew Bible, whether that is Peter in Acts 2 and 3 or Stephen in Acts 7. The only exception are the two sermons of Paul in pagan contexts, but even there he alludes to the story of the Bible without directly quoting it. This implies that Paul knew his Bible well and was able to apply that scripture to new events. In this case, to show that Jesus is the messiah and that his death on the cross means salvation for both Jews and Gentiles.
Here is another potential problem for modern Christians. We lack confidence in the Bible for several reasons:
- Biblical Ignorance – Biblical illiteracy is a problem in the church, it is an epidemic in the world. Most church kids are taught the Old Testament by vegetables, most twenty-somethings only know the few Bible stories that were on the Simpsons. This is a problem which must be overcome, but not by downplaying the text of the Bible.
- Biblical Embarrassment – some of the stories from the Hebrew Bible are difficult to read in a modern context. When I teach freshmen Bible survey classes, frequently I hear from students, “I had no idea that was in the Bible!) There are stories in the Hebrew Bible that are attacked by secularists as violent, misogynist, or portraying God as a sociopath.
- Biblical Replacement – it is sometimes easy to get people to a spiritual idea without using the Bible. (Using movie clips at camp, teaching the gospel through a secular song or literature, the Gospel according to Lord of the Rings, for example). This is a legitimate way to generate interest, but if the Bible is not the foundation of the sermon, it does not matter how crafty your illustration is.
As shocking as it seems, there are churches in America that do not peach from the Bible. Their people do not bring Bibles to church because they do not own Bibles and there is little need for them in the sermon.
Third, Paul taught freely and with boldness because his preaching of the gospel was the fulfillment of God’s plan. We are looking at the last line of the book of Acts and seeing how Luke wanted to end the story. But the idea that God is fulfilling the great story of redemption in the work of Jesus is a major theme of his two books.
Luke 1:1 states that his purpose for writing was so that Theophilus might have an accurate record of the “things which have been fulfilled among us.” Luke 24:44-49 concludes the book of Luke with the same idea, Jesus himself states that everything that happened fulfilled scripture. Acts is the story of how that fulfillment works it’s way from Jerusalem to the rest of the world, and ultimately to Rome itself.
If I absolutely knew how a sporting event was going to come out, I would be able to wager with confidence. I might even have a boldness to “bet it all” on the outcome of the game. What Luke is telling us in the last few verses of Acts is that we can have confidence in the outcome because God has already planned the key events of salvation history and he has already won the victory in the death and resurrection of Jesus. Standing on the foundation of the scripture, we can have confidence in the gospel of Jesus Christ and share our faith “with boldness” and “without hindrance.”
Why is it, then, that we pretend we are hindered in our presentation of the Gospel?
The last words of the book of Acts in the Greek are “boldly and without hindrance.” This is a good theme to leave the book of Acts, that Paul preached the gospel boldly and without hindrance.
To speak “boldly” (παρρησία) is to have freedom to speak, perhaps even fearless speech. “Boldness” is a characteristic of apostolic preaching in the first part of Acts. The Sanhedrin saw that Peter and John spoke boldly (4:13), and the Jerusalem church prayed that God would continue to give them boldness (4:29); when they were filled with the Holy Spirit they did in fact speak with boldness (4:31).
But the word also has the nuance of confidence, knowing that you are speaking the truth; that you know the right answer, etc. In Acts 2:29 Peter makes an argument based on Scripture that Jesus is the Messiah, he says this “with confidence.” This is the confidence which I began with – knowing that something is certainly true gives you a confidence and boldness which a “guess” does not. Paul can speak from his house arrest with confidence because he knows the gospel he proclaims is the truth.
“Without hindrance” (ἀκωλύτως) indicates that there were no groups that stood in his way, as Paul had to deal with earlier in the book. Sometimes this rare word is used in legal contexts (P.Oxy 502, Ant. 12.104, 16.41, for example). The word might be used to describe some legal constraint, you cannot do want you want to because of a legal ruling (think of a restraining order in contemporary culture).
If we read the whole book of Acts, we might see quite a bit of “restraining” going on, things hinder the progress of the Gospel from the very beginning of Paul’s ministry. Jews in Asia Minor actively work against him on the first missionary journey, attack him publicly and stone him at Lystra, and continue to harass him when he returns to Jerusalem in the late 50s.
While Rome does not actively hinder Paul’s mission, he was in Roman custody several times in the book: at Philippi, nearly so at Thessalonica, he was arrested in Corinth, and was likely under arrest at some point in Ephesus, he cause a riot there as well. When he finally returned to Jerusalem he was taken into protective custody by Rome, but held for two years in Caesarea before being shipped to Rome, where he is under house arrest (at his own expense) for two years.
We might also add a kind of spiritual hindrance to this list as well. For example, Paul was forced to leave Thessalonica and was unable to return to the city, although he wanted to. In 1 Thess 3:18 he says that “Satan blocked our way,” literally “Satan tore up the road” so that Paul could not return and finish his work in the city. What happens in Corinth and Ephesus can also be taken as spiritual warfare, Satan was actively hindering Paul’s mission.
The book ends by telling us nothing is restraining the gospel. Paul is not hindered in the least by his imprisonment and there is nothing Rome can do to stop the gospel from going “to the ends of the earth.”
Christianity came to Rome before Paul, but we have very little idea of how it got there or how closely it was aligned with Jerusalem. As Luke tells the story, Christianity did more out from Jerusalem, to Samaria and Judea, then to major Diaspora Jewish communities – Antioch, then Asia Minor, Greece (Corinth) and finally Ephesus. Paul’s mission to the gentile world began at Antioch in the Synagogue and his normal strategy was to find the synagogue in a community in order to reach the Jews and God-fearing Gentiles first, then he moved into the marketplace in order to reach Gentiles.
It is possible that the Roman church was not Pauline in theology, having been founded by Jews after Pentecost. We know that the letter to the Romans was sent five years before this time to a mixed congregation of Jews and Gentiles, but we have no idea how that letter was received by the community in Rome.
Ben Witherington suggests Paul was the first to bring the gospel of grace through faith and gentile salvation apart from the Law to Rome (Witherington, Acts, 785). This is entirely possible, since the only reference we have to pre-Pauline Roman Christianity is Aquila and Priscilla (Acts 18) and the reference in Tacitus to Jewish rioting over Chrestus. It there appears as though pre-Acts 28 Christianity in Rome was quite Jewish.
The similar questions arise when thinking about the Jewish community. To what extent were the Jews in Rome in contact with Jerusalem? What authority did the Sanhedrin have over synagogues in Rome? (Or anywhere, for that matter. In Acts 9 the High Priest requests that Christians be turned over to Paul, he does not order the synagogue to do anything!) There is therefore a tension in Paul’s arrival – how will he be received? Have Jews from Jerusalem managed to arrive before him? If they had left about the same time as he did from Jerusalem they could hardly have traveled faster given the time of the year. Paul has no idea if he will meet Jewish Christians who are predisposed to attack him, or whether they will be like the Bereans, more open to his teaching.
This uncertainty does not seem to bother Paul. Once he finds lodgings in Rome he begins to meet with individuals in order to explain his presence in Rome and, likely as not, to explain his “side of the story.” He is still the apostle to the Gentiles and his imprisonment will permit him to reach the household of Caesar.
If Luke has carefully designed his two-volume history, we should probably pause to wonder why he includes such lengthy description of the journey to Rome. This must be more than an exciting story (did he think readers were getting bored?), nor was Luke trying to fill out a scroll (as if he was a student trying to make it to 10 pages for a paper). There are literary and theological reasons for Luke’s inclusion of Paul’s shipwreck.
First, Luke is traveling with Paul. On the one hand, this accounts for the details. But often ancient historians narrate a story up to the time in which they are living and then include themselves in the story in order to build credibility. Josephus summarized all of Jewish history up to the time of the Jewish revolt and included himself in the story as a leader in Galilee. Thucydidies wrote a history of the Peloponesian War and included his own participation at various points. This shipwreck functions to give Luke credibility – he witnessed the events himself and was a participant in the history he tells. A Greco-Roman reader would expect this sort of thing if the book of Acts was to be seen as credible.
Second, there is more going on here than Luke’s interest in travel. If someone (say, Theophilus) has been reading through Luke and Acts, he would notice some similarities between Paul and Jesus. Both are arrested by the Jews and handed over to the Romans, both are tried by a secular authority (Pilate and Herod; Felix/Festus and Agrippa) and both are the victims of a miscarriage of justice motivated by the religious establishment in Jerusalem. Will Paul suffer the same fate as Jesus? Will he be executed by the Romans as a political undesirable, or will he receive justice from Rome?
Third, we need to remember Luke’s theme for the whole book: “beginning in Jerusalem, then Judea and Samaria, then to the ends of the earth.” Luke knows that Paul will go to Rome to testify before the Emperor, but the reader may think that Paul will be killed along the way. As James Dunn has observed, Luke is trying to show that “come what may, God will fulfill his purpose by having Paul preach the good news in the very heart of the empire.”
Fourth, some scholars question the historicity of the shipwreck based on parallels with other ancient literature, including Homer’s Odyssey. Often a guilty man will try to escape justice (or fate), head out to the seas to avoid capture, but ultimately he will suffer and die anyway. Paul is escaping from the Jews, yet is shipwrecked and eventually nearly killed by a snake, it is thought that Luke is patterning this story after the archetypal Greco-Roman novel plot-line.
There is something to the parallels and it may be Luke tells this story in such detail because shipwrecks were popular in literature at the time. But this does not necessarily negate the historicity of the story. Paul went to Rome, the best way to do that is by ship. It is entirely plausible Festus would send him off in this way. Shipwrecks were in fact common, so much so that Paul has already suffered shipwrecks twice in his travels (2 Cor 11:25)!
While I think Paul did travel to Rome by ship and experienced a shipwreck, Luke’s theological motivation is that nothing will hinder the Gospel getting to Rome.
In Acts 23:12-15, a group of more than forty Jews make a vow to kill Paul. The verb here (ἀναθεματίζω) has the sense of putting oneself under a curse if a action is not performed. This is a rather strong response, but it is not unexpected after the events in the Temple. Paul was accused of bringing a Gentile into the Temple, and in his defense he claims to have had a vision in the Temple itself sending him to the Gentiles.
The group has gathered as part of a “plot” (συστροφή), a word which is associated with a gathering for seditious purposes (Witherington, Acts, 694). The word appears in Amos 7:10 (Amos is accused of plotting against the Israelite priesthood) and in LXX Psalm 63:3 for those making “secret plots” against the psalmist. Luke used the word to describe the illegal, unruly mob in Ephesus (Acts 19:40).
It is possible this rather zealous group are similar to the Sicarri, a group of assassins who were active during the governorship of Felix. Chronologically this story takes place only about eight years prior to the beginning of the revolt against Rome, so many of the tensions which explode into that conflict are already present. Paul’s near-lynching for allegedly bringing a Gentile into the Temple indicates that the city of Jerusalem is ready to take violent action against Jews who are in violation of the Law.
Paul claimed in front of the crowds in the Temple that he was called by God to a ministry among the Gentiles. He believed that he was functioning as the messianic “light to the Gentiles.” This carries the implication that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah and that his death and resurrection was a part of God’s plan to establish the kingdom anticipated in the Hebrew Bible. This was understood as treasonous by those who were “zealous for the Law.”
Paul is warned of this plot by his nephew. It is possible to render this verse “he heard the plotting having been present…” implying that the nephew of Paul was at the meeting when these men took the oath. This may hint at the fact that Paul had family members who were involved in the more radical, revolutionary politics of the period.
As a result of this warning he is placed in protective custody by the Romans (23:16-22). Rapske comments that Roman citizens in protective custody were kept well with good meals and comfortable quarters (Paul in Roman Custody, 28-35). This is another example of Luke making a contrast between the irrational mobs in Jerusalem and the Roman authorities. Rome treated Paul legally and with respect, while this mob takes an irrational oath to assassinate him!
It is significant that once again there is no reference to anyone else rising to defend Paul, either James or his group (which included Pharisees and priests, people who would surely have heard of this kind of a plot) or Peter and the other Apostles. It is possible that the Twelve no longer were in Jerusalem, but James might have been able to stop Paul’s arrest by stating that he was not in the Temple with any Gentiles.
Is this an indication of a breach between Paul and Jerusalem?
In Acts 23:1 Paul claims to have “lived his life in good conscience up to this day.” In the context of a hearing before the Sanhedrin, it is possible to read this as a statement that he has been faithful to the Jewish Law. This is very similar to what Paul says in Acts 24:16 when he describes his entry into the Temple as “I always take pains to have a clear conscience toward both God and man.” He even points out that he was giving alms to the poor (the collection) and participating in a purification ritual when he was unjustly attacked.
In fact, Paul was in the temple “purifying himself” (ἁγνίζω, Acts 21:24, 24:18). The verb is not normally associated with the Nazarite vow (which took thirty days, not the seven mentioned in Acts 21). The verb is used in John 11:55 for Jews purifying themselves prior to the Passover (cf., JW 6, 425, Ant. 12, 145). Pilgrims arriving in Jerusalem from Gentile territory purified themselves in the Temple. In Num 19:12 the verb is used to purify oneself after touching a corpse. That Paul was willing to undergo this level of purity ritual at this point in his career indicates that he is still willing to “be a Jew among the Jews” (1 Cor 9:20).
Paul goes a bit further and claims to be a Pharisee. After his exchange with the High Priest in Acts 23:2-5, Paul shifts the focus to the controversy between Pharisees and Sadducees (23:6-10). This maneuver has caused some commentators to criticize Paul. It is not an honest argument by Paul, he instigates a near riot between the two factions of the Sanhedrin. The Pharisees were a minority in the Sanhedrin, but a popular and vocal minority. They believed in the resurrection of the dead as well as angels and spirits.
Is this true? Can Paul be considered a “practicing Pharisee” at this point in his ministry? For some interpreters, this is not at all the historical Paul who wrote Galatians. At the very least, he has broken purity traditions by eating with Gentiles. Yet with regard to the issue of the resurrection, he was a Pharisee. Paul is simply stating that he agrees on this major point, and for the Pharisees, at this moment, it is enough for them to defend Paul.
By making this statement, Paul gains the favor of the Pharisees while enraging the Sadducees. The argument that ensues was so fierce that the Roman official thought that Paul would be “torn to pieces,” so he takes him back to the barracks, leaving the Jews to their “theological dispute.”
While it was a crafty way of deflecting attention away from himself, it is possible that Paul was serious – with respect to the Law Paul has a clear conscience. James Dunn offers the suggestion that Paul’s statement was less for the Sanhedrin (which had probably already judged him as guilty), but for the Roman tribune and soldiers. The word conscience (συνείδησις) is a concept that does not really appear in Hebrew (Dunn, Beginning at Jerusalem, 974, n. 73, the word is only found in the LXX in Eccl. 10:29 and Wisdom 17:10). If he spoke Greek and used this particular expression, it is possible that he was claiming to the Romans that he was not guilty of any crime.
What do we do with this incident? Is Paul playing both sides in order to gain converts? Did he really “keep the Law” while telling Gentiles to “not keep the Law”? I can think of a number of issues I might hold loosely so that I can reach both sides. Perhaps there is an application to Christian involvement in politics or other social issues.
Based on Paul’s behavior in Acts, it may well be he would have told the Jews to continue keeping the Law. He required Timothy be circumcised (16:3) and he had made a vow while in Corinth (18:18). When he is before the Sanhedrin, Paul claims he has continued to keep the law (23:1). This is curious considering the reputation Paul has for preaching a “Law-Free” gospel among the Gentiles. To what extent he kept the boundary markers of the Law these conservatives Jews would have expected from him.
Paul claims to have a “good conscience” in 23:1. The verb Luke uses refers to living as a good citizen (πολιτεύομαι) and is the same work Paul uses in Phil 1:27 for having a “manner of life” worthy of the Gospel. In the Maccabean literature the verb refers to living one’s life in accordance with Jewish traditions (2 Macc 6:1, 11:25; 3 Macc 3:4, 4 Macc 2:8).
4 Macc 2:23“To the mind he gave the law; and one who lives subject to this will rule a kingdom that is temperate, just, good, and courageous.”
Paul therefore claims loyalty to the Law while at the same time evangelizing the Gentiles and teaching them they are not under the Law. It is clear from Paul’s letters he does not advocate freedom from Law as a license to sin, but when people heard Paul teaches a law-free Gospel, they appear to have thought the very worst.
In order to prove to Paul’s detractors that he is stull loyal to the Law, James proposes Paul prove sponsor a Nazarite vow for a few you men (21:22-25). Dunn rightly observes that James does not deny the rumor: “the advice of James and the elders is carefully calibrated. They do not disown the rumors. Instead they suggest that Paul disprove the rumors by his own action, by showing that he himself still lived in observance of the Law” (Dunn, Acts, 287). The fact that James drops out of the story after Paul’s arrest is a mystery – why does James not come to the aid of Paul? No Christians are willing to defend Paul when he goes before the Sanhedrin. Why is this? It seems as though Paul has less support in Jerusalem in A.D. 58 than we might have expected.
Does Paul make a mistake in sponsoring the vow in the Temple? Some people think it would have been unlike Paul to “keep Law” at this point in his career. What is his ultimate motivation for doing this? Does he really need to “prove himself” to be faithful at this late date?
Clint Arnold has a nice sidebar in his commentary on Acts entitled “Jerusalem: Nine Years Before the War.” I have long thought that the political situation in Jerusalem is the key to understanding James and his chilly reception of Paul. James was faced pressure from Jews who were Christians to be spiritual prepared for the coming Messiah and Jews who rejected Jesus as messiah but were every bit as much zealous for the Law. Likely there were many who were unhappy with James’ decision to side with Paul and not require Gentile conversion to Judaism as a requirement of salvation. If the political climate of Jerusalem made James’ position dangerous, it made Paul’s position on Gentiles lethal.
News of Paul’s activities would have been well known in Jerusalem. Paul has been creating islands of Gentile Christianity in the Roman world for years now, and it is undoubtedly true that the Gentiles outnumber the Jews in many of his congregations. Paul has confronted Peter over table fellowship with Gentiles (Gal 2) and made it clear that Gentiles are saved apart from the Law. Perhaps the theology of Romans 9-11 was known in Jerusalem – the Jews have “stumbled” and the Gentiles have been grafted in.
To what extent is James part of the problems which face Paul in Jerusalem? On the one hand, Luke does not explicitly state that James believed these rumors, although he also does not show James as rejecting them either. When Paul arrived, Jerusalem itself was a hotbed of nationalistic fever is a fact, and the Jewish church was very much a part the messianic nationalism which caused the revolt of A.D. 66. Arriving in Jerusalem with an entourage of Gentiles who were not at all converts to Judaism was dangerous at the very least (Dunn, Beginning from Jerusalem, 961-2).
Paul’s arrival in Jerusalem probably was in spring of A.D. 56 or 57 during the procuratorship of Felix. Josephus described this period of the mid-50s as a time of intense Jewish nationalism and political unrest. One insurrection after another rose to challenge the Roman overlords, and Felix brutally suppressed them all. This only increased the Jewish hatred for Rome and inflamed anti-Gentile sentiments. It was a time when pro-Jewish sentiment was at its height, and friendliness with outsiders was viewed askance. Considering public relations, Paul’s mission to the Gentiles would not have been well received. (Polhill, Acts, 447).
For fifteen years prior to the war, Judea was ruled by mediocre Roman governors who managed Jewish affairs poorly, exacerbating the problems which eventually led to the revolt. Judea was not a particularly important to Rome, and as a result they sent some particularly poor officials to govern the region. Felix, for example, is described by Tacitucs as “wielding royal power with the instincts of a slave” (Hist 5.9). Felix was recalled by Nero in A.D. 60, and while Festus was an improvement, he died in office . Schürer described the Roman government as having “deliberately set out to drive the people to revolt” (Schürer, History of the Jewish People, 1.455). Josephus covers the chaos of this period in Antiq. 20.16–172 and JW 2.254-265.
It is of course impossible to know the mind of James, but it appears he is trying very hard to keep the more conservative elements of his church in fellowship with the less conservative elements – but from Paul’s perspective, the Jerusalem church was entirely conservative. By coming to Jerusalem Paul was stepping into a situation which can only end badly for him.
When Paul arrives in Jerusalem, he meets with “James and the Elders.” As it turns out, there are many Jews in Jerusalem who believe Jesus is the Messiah yet are still following the Law (21:20). This is not unexpected since Jesus said he did not come to destroy the Law nor did Jesus ever teach his disciples to reject the Law or Temple worship. Jesus did reject the traditions of the Pharisees, but he lived as any Jew might have in the first century. It is better to see Jesus calling his disciples to a deeper engagement with the Law. In the Sermon on the Mount, for example, Jesus wants his followers to obey not only the letter, but also the spirit of the Law.
James, the Lord’s Brother, has emerged as a leader in the Jerusalem church. When Paul arrives he gives a report (ἐξηγέομαι) of how God is working among the Gentiles. While the elders of the community rejoice and praise God for this, James moves quickly from what God is going among the Gentiles to a potential problem with Paul’s missionary activity. James describes the Jerusalem church as very large, the NIV has “thousands,” translating the Greek “myriads” (μυριάς). While this might seem like hyperbole, several thousand people accepted the apostolic teaching in Acts 2 and 3. It is likely additional converts in the many years that have passed and there are still a large number of Jesus-followers in and around Jerusalem at this time.
There are some among this Jewish Christian community who think that Paul has made a grace error by teaching Jews who have accepted Jesus as Messiah to turn away from the Law (v. 21). Certainly Paul taught Gentiles they were not under the law. The letter to the Galatians is a strong condemnation of Gentiles trying to keep the Law.
With respect to Jews who are in Christ, there is no specific text which clearly indicates Paul told Jews to continue keeping the law and traditions of Israel. It may or may not be the case that Paul considered ceremonial law and traditions matters of indifference.
Ben Witherington thinks it is at least possible Paul considered traditional Jewish practices as no longer required in the present age. Galatians could be read as a repudiation of the Law, although it seems that Paul only has in mind Gentile converts. But this may be the heart of the problem: the church Paul has created is something new and different. People are converting to a belief in Jesus as savior apart from Law rather than converting to Judaism or converting to a particular messianic conviction within Judaism (Acts, 648).
If members of the Jewish Christian community in Jerusalem had read Galatians, they may have wondered if Paul had rejected the Law himself. If rumors of his “all things to all men” ministry model reached Jerusalem, then it is likely there were Jewish Christians who thought Paul has gone too far in his desire to reach the Gentiles.
Luke certainly describes James and the Elders as polite and welcoming, but there are lingering questions about Paul’s ministry method. Luke does not create an artificial unity here, he reports a real tension in the early church over a critically important issue, the status of Gentiles in the church as well as the role of the Law.
To what extent do these two issues continue to be a problem in Acts and Paul’s letters? Is this tension still a problem in the modern church, even after the Reformation?
Paul’s plan is to by-pass Ephesus and meet the Elders at Miletus, thirty miles from Ephesus. What was the purpose of this plan? Paul’s desire is to get to Jerusalem as rapidly as possible, so he may have simply wanted to avoid Ephesus. Had he stopped there, he would have had so many obligations that he would have never been able to meet his schedule. He would lose more time in Ephesus than if he meets the elders in Miletus. Another possibility is that Paul’s ship was scheduled to stop in Miletus, not Ephesus. One did not book travel on a passenger ship in the ancient world, all travel was on cargo ships and one was often at the mercy of the cargo-schedule
When the elders arrive, Paul warns them of trials they will have to face in the near future (Acts 20:25-31). Paul employs a common metaphor to warn the elders from Ephesus that they are about to face trials. Since elders are appointed by the Holy Spirit to the task of shepherding the flock, the natural metaphor for an attack against the flock is a “savage wolf.” The elders are to keep watch over the church in order to guard it against enemies. But this also involves watching themselves – they are to be worthy shepherds! These “wolves” seek to tear the congregation apart, and at this point may refer to elements in Ephesus, whether Greek or Jewish, that see Christianity as a threat.
Paul also warns of threats which will arise from within the congregation itself. Perhaps the most disturbing prediction is that these wolves may very well arise from within their congregation – some men will arise, distort the truth, and draw disciples away after them.
This is exactly the situation we find in 1 Timothy, a letter written by Paul several years later to Timothy while he worked in Ephesus. The false teachers are “insiders,” people from within the church that are distorting the truth. Based on 1 Timothy and Acts 20:30, it appears that the false teachers were elders from within the Ephesian church. The are teachers (1 Tim 1:3, 7, 6:3) and the task of teaching in the church is given to the elders (1 Tim 3:2, 5:17).
It is important that we not read this with a 21st century view of church in mind. The elders are likely presiding over small house churches. A city the size of Ephesus would likely have had many house churches by the time 1 Timothy is written. There may have been a few elders who hosted a church in their home that have departed from the body of teaching Paul taught for the three years he was in Ephesus. It is these elders that Paul wants to discipline.
At this point in Acts, the “savage wolves” are in the future – or are they? Paul’s plan is to by-pass Ephesus and meet the Elders at Miletus, thirty miles from Ephesus. While it is possible Paul simply wanted to avoid obligations to meet with many people in Ephesus in order to get to Jerusalem as soon as possible, it seems to me that the problems which 1 Timothy addresses are already surfacing. This meeting at Miletus, then, is a gathering of loyal elders who still can be trusted by Paul.
Is it possible that Paul’s speech reflects the situation of the post-apostolic church? What happens when Paul dies? Who “takes over”? It seems to me that Paul is telling these shepherds that they are now in charge of the flock, and they have to be on guard against internal and external threats to the health of the church.
This “guarding” function is an important application for modern churches since most threats against the church are not coming from the outside (the government is not our greatest enemy, believe it or not!), but from other Christians, “wolves in sheep’s clothing.”