Acts 20:25-31 – Beware the Savage Wolves!

Paul then warns the elders 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.

Paul sets himself up as the model for their ministry.  they are to recall that for three years he did not stop warning them – a reference to his continual ministry in the city.  As Witherington comments, this is not a “bestowal of leadership” on the elders; Paul is not creating some sort of apostolic succession here. It is the Holy Spirit who has compelled them to be elders and to shepherd the flock of God (Acts, 623).

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.

The false teachers seem to have made “converts” among the young widows in Ephesus. Perhaps this accounts for the proportionally high amount of “correction aimed at women in the church. (2 Tim 3:6-9; 2:9-15, 5:3-16).  The key to understanding the role of the young widows in Ephesus is 5:13.  This sounds a bit harsh – the women are gossips, busybodies, idlers, etc.  If we read this with the classic stereotyped “old bitty” in mind, we will miss the problem entirely.  These women are going around “house to house” saying things they ought not, gossip and etc.  This is polemic language used to describe the false teachers (myths etc., see 4:1-2 concerning the false teachers of the last days), and the “house to house” is not a social call, but likely a reference to the house churches scattered around Ephesus.

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.

6 thoughts on “Acts 20:25-31 – Beware the Savage Wolves!

  1. That is very interesting… I never thought about it like that… I have always heard this story preached with the message that we need to be careful about who we listen to and follow but then to parallel this with the passage in Timothy sheds new light on the subject… my question is, for those house churches that heard or encountered these teaching through the young widows or maybe even directly from the elders themselves, why did they not attempt to correct the false teachings? Even if they tried, the effort was not even enough to be mentioned! That to me is the sad part: no elder or Christian in general stood up for truth and it took Paul to warn and encourage them to be on guard and confront it. If more Christians were like the Berean population, there would be fewer problems with false teaching… but alas, it is something that we must deal with on a daily basis.

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  2. I can totally relate to this passage because I was raised in the church as a pastor’s kid. I have known of many, many times when people in the church would rise up, act like they knew what everyone needed, and try to take the church from my dad. Obviously my dad does not own the church, but you know what I mean. When they were asked to leave the church, they would try to take others down with them. One person (after they were asked to leave the church) emailed people in the congregation and told them lies about my dad, and those people stopped coming to my church for a while because they believed the lies. I just completely and totally understand your statement, “The most disturbing prediction is that these wolves may very well arise from within their congregation.” It is true that we have to be on the look out for people being divisive. We need to test everything by the Scriptures, and we need to have good leadership that will listen to the congregation’s thoughts and opinions but listen to God and keep with the church’s doctrinal statement.

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  3. I really like this post here P-Long. I have honestly never thought about it like this before. The church in Ephesus that Timothy writes to warns about the false teachings that are going on. There was a whole lot of this going on in that day as there were no Elder Christian that stood up to the plate for what is right. That absolutely floors me. I also likes how Paul uses the metaphor “savage wolf” as a means of describing the trials that are about to arise. I have however thought of these as storms in our lives. They come when you least expect it. James 1:2-4 “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything”. Paul tells us in the same manner in Acts 20 to be aware of these “storms”, but not to angry, but to be joyful.

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  4. The interesting part of this post to me is in the danger of these false teachers. The fear that they may draw others with them away from the truth is a scary thought, and not very uncommon. I’m immediately reminded of the prosperity gospel. Granted, these were teachers in very small house churches that had the liberty to teach things outside of the truth of scriptures a lot easier than a pastor in the traditional church now, but either way people weren’t stepping up and presenting the truth. Maybe they didn’t have clear understanding or access to Paul’s other letters, but I think they had some access to the truth. Just like now, people are easily swayed by false teaching. We often just accept what is taught as truth, even when we sometimes doubt it. It’s easier to live life just accepting teaching from an “expert” than to challenge it and try to find what the truth really is. I think this is a good reminder to us to take the teaching of the Bible seriously and to challenge what is taught by comparing it to scripture.

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  5. Like David I think that this is a great passage to remember when we are presented with “truth” from other people. I also know that Satan wants to destroy everything that is working to spread the Gospel of Truth to those who may not know it. The easiest way to do that is to start hacking away at the roots. The church would not be affective without those who know the Truth and who preach it accurately. I think that the main reason the widows are pointed out here are because they are the weak in the body. We are called to watch out for the orphans and widows because they are the ones most likely to be lead astray. I think it is the job of the congregation to make sure that the elders and teachers in our churches are preaching the Truth and we can do that by studying on our own, doing devotions,reading scripture so that when the Truth is tainted we can correct what has been falsely preached.

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