Acts 20:25-31 – Savage Wolves

Sheep Stealing

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).

SheepIt 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.”

Acts 20:1-5 – The “Collection for the Saints”

Paul leaves Ephesus with the intention of returning to Jerusalem for the purpose of delivering the collection to the Jerusalem church at Pentecost. The collection was a gift from the Gentile churches to the Jerusalem believers.  Romans 15:26 states that “Macedonia and Achaia were pleased to make a contribution for the poor among the saints in Jerusalem,” a text written from Corinth in the three-month period after Paul’s Ephesian ministry.

Collection PlatePaul has does this sort collection for Jerusalem before.  Before the first missionary journey in Acts 13, Paul delivered funds to Jerusalem collected by the Antioch church.  This visit is the subject of Gal 2:1-10.  In Gal 2:10 Paul said that the James had only encouraged him to “remember the poor.”  The “poor” in mind here are the members of the Jerusalem church, the very people the famine visit was intended to help.

The Jerusalem appears to be still living in a sort of shared community, supported by gifts.  Given a famine (and possibly a Jubilee year), the poor believers in Jerusalem were even more dependent on Antioch than ever.  Ben Witherington wonders if the handshake was an agreement to continue the financial arrangements between the Antioch church and the Jerusalem church (Acts, 429). This is possible since the same sort of language appears in Acts 15 as well, although the collection is not mentioned.

The Collection was unique in the ancient world.  The Greco-Roman world has a system of public benefaction, but nothing like a modern “fund-raiser” where people are solicited for money which is then distributed to the poor.  Likewise, in Judaism the poor received Alms from individuals, but money was not collected in mass for re-distribution to the poor.  Which the exception of Queen Abiabene, who brought relief to Jerusalem (Antiq. 20:51-51), there are no other examples of this sort of collection of funds.

Since Paul is collecting this money in the Greek world, it would have been unprecedented and would have looked very suspicious. Likely as not, the inclusion of representatives of the churches was meant to give confidence to the churches that Paul was not going to steal the funds and disappear.  Notice that in Acts 20:4 there is a list of names traveling with Paul, all likely representatives of Paul’s churches in Macedonia (Thessalonica, Berea) Asia Minor (Derbe) Paul was careful to separate his own ministry from the Collection for the Saints.  While he did not require churches to give to support him, he is adamant that churches “give what they can” to the Collection.

What is unusual is that Luke does not mention the collection at all, although that seems to be the point of the large part traveling back to Jerusalem at the time of Pentecost. Why Luke would omit this collection is a mystery – some have speculated that the collection was not well-received by the Jerusalem church, perhaps even rejected.  The scene is rather tense in Jerusalem when Paul arrives with a large contingent of Gentiles to deliver the gift.

What was the “point” Paul was trying to make with this collection?  If the collection was rejected, why would James (or the Jerusalem Christians)  reject the generosity of the Gentile churches?

Bibliography: Dunn, Beginning from Jerusalem, 932-947; S. McKnight, “The Collection for the Saints” in DPL, 143-147. The collection is mentioned in 1 Cor 16:1-4, 2 Cor 8-9 and Rom 15:25-32.

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.

Acts 20:1-5 – The “Collection for the Saints”

Paul leaves Ephesus with the intention of returning to Jerusalem for the purpose of delivering the collection to the Jerusalem church at Pentecost. The collection was a gift from the Gentile churches to the Jerusalem believers.  Romans 15:26 states that “Macedonia and Achaia were pleased to make a contribution for the poor among the saints in Jerusalem,” a text written from Corinth in the three-month period after Paul’s Ephesian ministry.

Paul has does this sort collection for Jerusalem before.  Before the first missionary journey in Acts 13, Paul delivered funds to Jerusalem collected by the Antioch church.  This visit is the subject of Gal 2:1-10.  In Gal 2:10 Paul said that the James had only encouraged him to “remember the poor.”  The “poor” in mind here are the members of the Jerusalem church, the very people the famine visit was intended to help.

The Jerusalem appears to be still living in a sort of shared community, supported by gifts.  Given a famine (and possibly a Jubilee year), the poor believers in Jerusalem were even more dependent on Antioch than ever.  Ben Witherington wonders if the handshake was an agreement to continue the financial arrangements between the Antioch church and the Jerusalem church (Acts, 429). This is possible since the same sort of language appears in Acts 15 as well, although the collection is not mentioned.

The Collection was unique in the ancient world.  The Greco-Roman world has a system of public benefaction, but nothing like a modern “fund-raiser” where people are solicited for money which is then distributed to the poor.  Likewise, in Judaism the poor received Alms from individuals, but money was not collected in mass for re-distribution to the poor.  Which the exception of Queen Abiabene, who brought relief to Jerusalem (Antiq. 20:51-51), there are no other examples of this sort of collection of funds.

Since Paul is collecting this money in the Greek world, it would have been unprecedented and would have looked very suspicious. Likely as not, the inclusion of representatives of the churches was meant to give confidence to the churches that Paul was not going to steal the funds and disappear.  Notice that in Acts 20:4 there is a list of names traveling with Paull, all likely representatives of Paul’s churches in Macedonia (Thessalonica, Berea) Asia Minor (Derbe)Paul was careful to separate his own ministry from the Collection for th Saints.  While he did not require churches to give to support him, he is adamant that churches “give what they can” to the Collection.

What is unusual is that Luke does not mention the collection at all, although that seems to be the point of the large part traveling back to Jerusalem at the time of Pentecost. Why Luke would omit this collection is a mystery – some have speculated that the collection was not well-received by the Jerusalem church, perhaps even rejected.  The scene is rather tense in Jerusalem when Paul arrives with a large contingent of Gentiles to deliver the gift.

Bibliography: Dunn, Beginning from Jerusalem, 932-947.  S. McKnight, “The Collection for the Saints” in DPL, 143-147. The collection is mentioned in 1 Cor 16:1-4, 2 Cor 8-9 and Rom 15:25-32.