Acts 20:25-31 – Paul and the Ephesian Shepherds

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

Wolf in Sheep's Clothing

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.”

17 thoughts on “Acts 20:25-31 – Paul and the Ephesian Shepherds

  1. “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood” (20:28).

    Regardless of whether Paul met up with the Miletus elders in an attempt to avoid Ephesus, it is evident that he seems to be firmly rooting them in their position as elders, making sure that they watch themselves, steering clear from misguided teaching that will erode their churches. Paul’s encouragement to these men in Acts 20 signifies his desire that they look out for the dangers that some of their brothers and sisters in Ephesus were encountering. These elders, as P. Long clarifies, are not just influencing one church, but they are influencing the whole city. I am sure that Paul wants to make sure that even when he is not around, false theology is not being taught in some of the house churches. These elders will the bearers of the gospel and his desire is that they do not fall prey to “fierce wolves” after he leaves (29). Therefore, as leaders of the new age of grace, he wants to be sure they will stand firm in the gospel to which he exhorts them.
    John Polhill also lends a insightful note on these false teachers from within the church by saying, “they were ravaging the church for their own gain” (2130). If this was the case it makes a lot more sense for Paul to say what he said about humbly serving for the needs of others and not for your own gain in 32-35. This kind of service would help to ward off the attitude and misguidance as seen in those who would ravage the church.

    Polhill, John B. English Standard Version Study Bible. Wheaton: Crossway Bibles, 2008. Study Notes. Print.

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    • I would agree with Leah when she says; “Regardless of whether Paul met up with the Miletus elders in an attempt to avoid Ephesus, it is evident that he seems to be firmly rooting them in their position as elders, making sure that they watch themselves, steering clear from misguided teaching that will erode their churches.” I do not know what exactly Paul is trying to warn the people in Ephesus to be weary of, nor do I know what the church there was facing during this time in history. It is possible for me to believe that Paul knew something that the people in Ephesus knew about and he was just adding another warning. I do not think that it really matters what the “wolves” are, so much as we make note of how earnestly it seems Paul is warning the elders about them. I bet that Ephesus was somewhat of an important city to Paul being that he was there for three years, so he probably wants to make sure that the people and elders would be able to ‘keep on keepin on’ after he passes away. I also do not think that anyone necessarily needs to ‘take over’ after Paul dies, because he is not in charge of the church, he just helps it to grow.

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  2. While we joke about it (accordingly) in class about Bubba being on security or Dr. Shaw’s police officer friends across the hallway, so the elders should do the same for the church: be alert for anything inside or outside of the church. They are the “secret service” of the church to keep it functioning in the right way as Paul started it. With Paul starting other churches, around Asia Minor, he can’t be at all of the churches, and needs a group of people to keep the church at its current state: to preach the Gospel. But this is a great correlation to John 10, where Jesus, as a shepherd, protects his sheep from thieves and robbers. “I am the good shepherd… I lay my down my life for the sheep” from the attack of the wolf (John 10:11-14). Just as the elders of Ephesus, Paul warns them that the “wolves” will come and attack the flock, and that they should keep a watchful eye, both from outside invasion and inside corruption, to be on guard, but to also teach and disciple the church to be the same way.

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  3. I think that we should serve in the same way like Jesus did. Humbling ourselves not only in the way of washing feet, but also in every other area of our lives from our work to our home life. It’s not easy, but it definitely gives a person a new perspective on life when they do humble themselves before others. For example doing something nice for a person who does not like you at work; saying hi to them to ignoring them when/if they say something rude or trying to make your day more difficult.

    In the blog R. Joshua b. Levi, said “all active labor the slave for forms for his master, I disciple of a sage the forms for his master, except for removing his shoes”. (fill in later) I really like this quote because it shows that Christ went beyond what the world would do for others. On Sunday morning in our service my pastor had said that as Christians we are a strange type of people because we don’t act like the world does. Humility and meekness is a sign of weakness to the world and rejoicing in our suffering when we are persecution is strange as well. In the same way humbling ourselves before others and whatever aspect that looks like gets the attention of the world weather it is laughing, making our lives harder, or taking a closer look and wondering why we do what we do. I think this quotes draws the whole aspect of what Christ did and the fact that he became the lowliest servant just to show us what we need to do in the same way in our lives.

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  4. I think that chapter 20 in Acts proves that Paul cared about the elders in Miletus and he knew that they had an influence on many people so he wanted to warn them of the many dangers they might encounter. When Paul is not able to teach the people the gospel, his hope is that the elders in the community would be able to stand firm and not fall prey to the “wolves” in his absence (29). He also warns them that some false teachers may arise within the church and distort the truth and lead people away from them (30). Paul not only told them to keep an eye out for others but also be aware of themselves and the influence that they have on others in the church. It can be easy for pride and selfish gain to creep in the hearts and minds of the people who are in leadership positions because of the roles they are given, but there is much responsibility with authority. In the notes, P Long says that Paul reversed the social pattern of what the elders knew and told them that they ought to do good because they were called by the Holy Spirit and have received the ultimate Grace from God in salvation (Long 144). They were called to be different and not go along with the cultural norm during that time.

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  5. It is true that sometimes the largest hindrances to Christianity are people within the church and the faith in general. Paul’s advice and warnings were helpful at that time and also incredibly applicable today. “And not only so, but from your own number some will rise up and pervert the truth by their words, so as to entice the disciples to follow them (Acts 20:30). Within the church or Christian community, people often feel they are safe and will let their guard down and in turn be influenced by different unbiblical teachings. In 2 Timothy 2, Paul gives a concrete example of this through two men named Hymenaeus and Philetus who have “departed from the truth” and are leading other people astray. As we see through examples like 2 Timothy 2, these kinds of influences were rampant then and also have become so today.

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  6. Hearing this story makes me think back to my childhood. Growing up in the house with my pastor who was also my father, I got a firsthand look of what goes on in the church. I think that in any place or organization including the church, because there are different types of people within the church, there will be confusion or evil. Something that I read in this blog that I found very interesting was “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!” I found that to be very interesting because there are a lot of times that people hold pastors and elders in the church to a higher standard than others. I think that even though some people are called to higher positions, we should still always remember that pastors and elders in the church are still humans. They are still just as human as the church member that comes once a month and sits on the back row. Acts 10:34 says “So Peter opened his mouth and said: “Truly I understand that God shows no partiality.” Something that I agree with is what Mary said. She said “It is important for the church to recognize that wolves may arise from within the church” (Pryer 2015). That is 100% true. I think that there are people that do things not for the glory of God but for the glory of themselves. Doing that in the church could hurt the church. Something like that is what the church has to be aware of because if not, the church could be overtaken by things like that.

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  7. It is a very common theme in the Bible that believers are the sheep and they need a shepherd or they will go astray and get lost or they will be overtaken by unbelief or the “wolves” that are mentioned in this passage. Many people in the church could be seen as wolves in sheeps clothing and I agree with Jess when she said that she sees wolves not only being false teachers, but also the people who use the teaching of the word of God for their own personal benefit and worship. I do think that Paul was talking to these elders because they would be the ones that would be “taking over” when Paul leaves/ dies. These Elders are to be the shepherds of the flock of believers in Jerusalem. I think that the reason that he wanted to meet with them outside of Jerusalem is for the same reason that churches do not gather the whole congregation for a pastoral meeting. This is a focused meeting for the future leaders of the church.

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  8. I agree that one of the greatest enemies we have as Christians would be in the churches. I think Abraham Lincoln said it best “a house divided against itself cannot stand” (brainy quotes). I believe that is one of Satan’s greatest tools is being able to divide a home, church, or country and it can have lasting effects.
    I like that Paul warns the Ephesus shepherds that trails will come and they need to be ready to defend, and guide the believers in their walk. Especially, since Paul will not be around to do this himself for the elders. Like it was said in the blog “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”. Paul has given them the tools they will need to do their job and guard against “savage wolves”.
    There is a saying that wolves can be dressed in sheep’s clothing which I think is another word for false teachers in today’s time. I think that false teachers are the people who are greedy and wanting to fill their own agenda. Sadly, not all churches are guarded as closely as some giving Satan more room to destroy churches and lives.

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  9. From what we know of Paul it seems odd to me to suggest that he would be avoiding Ephesus due to conflict within the church. Paul never backed down from taking a stand and making his opinion known. If some of the leaders had already gone astray, it seems more in Paul’s character for him to head directly to Ephesus to call them out for their actions. Joshua Jipp suggests that some of the elders may have even been in the group Paul was offering the warning to (105). This would further the view that his warning was a precursor to the events that transpired. However, regardless of whether the warning was given before or after the incident, it is still a profound warning. It is scary to think how right Paul was. Paul warned the people to watch out for wolves, but more specifically to watch for the attack that will come from within the “pack.” He warned that “even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them.” (Acts 20:30). Later in 1 Timothy, the reader can see that this exact thing happened (Long). This warning can still hold true today. The people from within, the most unexpected, are sometimes that people that can cause the most damage. Even the leaders of churches can turn people away from the truth with their false teachings. Paul warned about it then to the elders of Ephesus, but the truth still rings clear in the lives of the church today.

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  10. It is interesting why Paul avoided Ephesus the way that he did, and there seems to be little explanation for the reasons why. I think it could definitely be as simple as one of the reasons you gave, that, when sailing, Ephesus was not on one of the stops. Another could be simply because it could take too much time, and he had to get to Jerusalem quickly. As you said, there were likely many different churches in Ephesus at the time. Perhaps Paul knew that, if he stopped in Ephesus, he would likely be obligated to meet up with most all of these churches, and that would eat up time that he could not afford to lose.

    Another potential reason, however, could be because of the animosity between him and some who are in Ephesus. We know that when he left Ephesus after his three year long stay there, he left largely because of the riot caused by those involved in the temple of Artemis. Maybe he knew that, because he may have been perceived as the face of the spread of Christianity to the people there, if he returned to Ephesus, there would be unrest and possibly another riot against him. Though there isn’t a definite reason described in the text, I think that the reason for this may be one of these reasons listed.

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  11. It is sadly true that today, most of the push back and conflict about the church is primarily coming from inside the church itself. The people who are a part of the church have the most opinions on how it is run because they are within and they are going there every week. I have noticed this as an aspiring worship leader how everyone has an opinion about music. I could easily agree that people in the church are wolves coming to feed on the little sheep (the worship leaders). They want everything to be a very specific way because they have their own taste and their own opinions on how the music should go. I am sure that is very similar in all aspects of the church. Everyone is always going to have their opinions but you can’t always take those opinions to heart. They are just opinions, not facts. I think in this passage that Pauls warning to the elders to prepare to guard their flock is a great warning for today’s church leaders as well. Yes, it is very difficult due to the wolves being in the actual church, but church leaders need to be aware of this. And they need to be prepared to listen to complaints or opinions or backlash and rebuke whatever isn’t from the Lord. That is how they can protect their flock.

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  12. It is hard not to read this Chapter in a way that has a sense of application for today’s churches. The temptations of this world are overwhelming in that people are easily mislead by the ways of the world unless they are committed to the word of God. Paul is sharing this with the elders because this is going to be a recurring theme throughout the years of the Church. We need to protect what we have learned by constantly strengthening ourselves with God’s word. People that sometimes say they want the best for us can easily be mislead because they are not applying Gods best interests and they are just putting on a cover to disrupt the growth of the Church.

    In regards to Paul bypassing Ephesus it was with a purpose because he had things to do that the Holy Spirit was calling to complete. IF he had went there he would have lost time to do the things that God was expecting him to accomplish. The elders are warned and he says good by because he knows that there is trials and tribulation that he is about to encounter. God wants Paul to empower the Elders to become the leaders of the flock and protect it. This was the plan all along and Paul was just planting seeds that God was going to help grow.

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  13. The metaphor of a Shepard is one that is used throughout the Bible for different reasons, but it is a really powerful one. I recently got to study this metaphor in the context of the “I am” statements that are given in the book of John, and it helped me gain a better understanding of it; because in our current culture we do not have an every day common knowledge of sheep and all that goes on in their care. When Paul is telling the elders that there will be wolves that come to try and take the sheep, it is up to the Shepard to protect the sheep, but also to fight off the wolf that is attacking. But, the sheep can also cause problems within themselves. Sheep are very dumb animals and can easily go astray, however, there can also be wolves that hid among the sheep that the Shepard did not know of or see right away. This is a lot of responsibly that Paul is placing on these elders to make sure that they are being aware of what is going on in the believers around him. This role that the elders take one, and that the church takes on is one that must be taken seriously because the Shepard must have a good eye to catch when there is a wolf in sheep’s clothes in the mix.

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  14. I think Paul’s warning is a both and type deal. It in my opinion does refer to something that will happen during the end times (2 Tim. 3, 4). Polhill would observe that “The early Christian writings appear to be influenced by Jesus’ warning against false prophets who come in sheep’s clothing (Polhill, p. 428). If that is the case Jesus makes two notably references to wolves being in sheep’s clothing one being in Matthew 7:15. Jesus warns, “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves”.

    The term “ravenous” is a different yet similar word from what Paul uses in Acts 20:29. Jesus’ use of the word is “harpax”, which according to a Greek-English Lexicon, means to snatch away or take away; a robber or swindler.
    Paul’s use of the word is “barus” which means to be weighty or burdensome. I would be led to believe then that Paul was warning the new appointed leaders in Ephesus that there will be people inside and outside that will force the Law on them, or at the very least be contaminated with the yeast of the Pharisees Jesus spoke of in referring to their hypocrisy and legalism (Mat. 16:6).

    The second notably reference Jesus make is found in Matthew 24. After warning the disciples to not be misled by anyone, he states, “Many will turn away from me and betray and hate each other. And many false prophets will appear and will deceive many people. Sin will be rampant everywhere, and the love of many will grow cold…” (Matt. 24:10-12). The greek word for “love” here is agape, which is only found in believers in Christ (Rom. 5:5). Believers love will grow cold as a result of widespread deception in the church.

    These statements go hand in hand in what has been discussed thus far. Whether sincere or intentional, there will be people who claim to be Christians but are evil inwardly and deceive others as a result, others perhaps Christians are bound by legalism. One misleads and the other is a weight that is burdensome. Paul goes in depth on this topic in his letter to the Galatians (Gal. 3, 5:8-9 etc.).

    All in all, I think Paul was speaking to the leaders of Ephesus in this way because Paul had dealt with such cases a number of times and warns them in such a way that they should expect false prophets to be disguised within their meetings. Paul speaks strongly on this deception in his letter(s) to Timothy, ironically, Timothy was also placed in charge of the church in Ephesus (What’s the deal with Ephesus??). According to Jesus and Paul, this kind of subtle invasion is to be expected as years go by, whether intentionally or not, it will happen, and many will be deceived and mislead others as a result.

    Personally, I believe this gives us a lot of insight into the last days and is even evident to a huge extent to today’s world. Be every watchful and vigilante for fruit in your flocks lives. Some may turn out to be wolves at heart and are doing more damage if you remain silent with them or the issue.

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