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.