Although the Lord wrought much and mightily through His servant after Paul's address to the Ephesian bishops,* it is yet true that this marked the termination of his free activity. Immediately after, animated by his intense affection for his "kinsmen according to the flesh," he proceeded to Jerusalem. There he was taken prisoner while in the very act of seeking to appease the prejudices of the Jewish believers by conforming himself to Jewish legal customs. It was an astonishing thing that the apostle, who had so boldly and faithfully confronted and withstood Peter at Antioch, "that the truth of the gospel might continue with" the Galatian believers, should himself fall into a like error at Jerusalem. The Lord could not, consistently with the truth committed to Paul's stewardship, allow this lapse from grace to succeed in its object. He permitted His servant therefore to be arrested, and, in the issue, to be carried a prisoner to Rome, while He graciously overruled His servant's failure for the accomplishment of His own purposes. He used the apostle in captivity to write the most precious (if it be right to distinguish between what is equally inspired) of all his epistles.
*The word translated. "overseers" in v. 28 is really "bishops," furnishing an unanswerable proof that, in the apostolic church, "elders" and "bishops" were but different designations for the same office.
The fact we have mentioned gives great importance to this closing address of the apostle, an importance which never diminishes in the progress of the church in her appointed path, but which rather increases as the end so manifestly draws near. In our last paper we saw how his labours had been blessed at Ephesus, and how Satan had used every effort and artifice to interrupt him in his service. He was strengthened however to fulfil his mission, notwithstanding all opposition and then, after having affectionately embraced the disciples, he departed into Macedonia. With the spiritual energy that marked this devoted servant, he went "over those parts," "came into Greece," returned through Macedonia, visited his beloved Philippi, and went to Troas, where on the first day of the week, "when the disciples came together to break bread," he "preached unto them, ready to depart on the morrow; and continued his speech until midnight." The power of the Spirit was also displayed through him there by the restoration of Eutychus, and also in the intense activity of the next few days (see vv. 13 - 15) before reaching Miletus. It was from this last place that he "sent to Ephesus, and called the elders of the church" to furnish them with divine guidance and instruction for the evil days that were coming.
First of all, the apostle was led of the Spirit to pass under review the character of his own ministry while at Ephesus. "Ye know," he said, "from the first day that I came into Asia, after what manner I have been with you at all seasons." The work of every servant is under the eye of God, as well as to some extent under the eyes of those amongst whom he is labouring; and happy it is for him when, as in this case, he can, with a good conscience, remind the saints of its character. The next verses (19-21) show us what marked it: "humility of mind . . . many tears, and temptations" because of the deadly enmity of the Jews; the keeping back of "nothing that was profitable;" incessant service, both in public and in private; and the testifying alike to Jews and Greeks of "repentance toward God, and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ." What a record! And let us lay it well to heart that it commences with his state of soul - serving the Lord with all humility of mind. He was thus a true follower of his divine Master, who was meek and lowly in heart, and, in calling our attention to it here, the Spirit of God would teach us that without this humility of mind no true service can be rendered to the Lord.
Next, he tells them of his purpose to go to Jerusalem, that he felt bound "in the spirit" - in his own spirit, that is, not in the Holy Spirit - to undertake this journey. A shade of apprehension seemed to rest upon his soul while making this communication, for he added, "not knowing the things that shall befall me there: save that the Holy Ghost witnesseth in every city, saying that bonds and afflictions abide me." Courageous servant! Governed perhaps in this instance by his affections rather than by the Spirit of God, he is willing to do all, and to dare all, even to be made conformable to the death of Christ, if he may but be permitted to finish his course with joy and fulfil his ministry; and his desire was realized. (See 2 Tim. 4:6-8.) Together with this, having told them that they would see his face no more, he called them in as his witnesses, that he was pure from the blood of all, for he had not shunned to declare unto them all the counsel of God. As a watchman, as well as a servant, he had been faithful to God and to their souls.
Led of the Spirit of God to hold up his own example for their imitation, he proceeded to found thereon an appeal to themselves; and let every one who holds any position of responsibility among the saints of God ponder well and prayerfully its terms. "Take heed therefore" - to be diligent in your work? No, but "unto yourselves." As he afterwards wrote to Timothy, it is, first of all, "Take heed unto thyself" This is the primary responsibility, the neglect of which has rendered so many servants powerless, and has caused so many shipwrecks. (1 Tim. 1:19.) Having taken heed to themselves, they were then to care for all the flock, over which the Holy Ghost, not man, had made them overseers (bishops), and to feed the church of God so dear to Him in that He had purchased it with the blood of His own.* The apostle thus supplied these elders with the most powerful motives to diligence and fidelity in their service, motives which sprang from the origin of their office, from the fact that the church belonged to God, and that He had acquired it at no less a cost than that of the precious blood of His own beloved Son. He helped them in this way to understand also that the magnitude of their responsibility was but the measure of their unspeakable privilege.
*It is not necessary to discuss this translation here; it will suffice to say that it accords best with the teaching of Scripture, and that the original language permits it.
This solemn charge was evidently given in view of the following warning, "For I know this, that after my departing shall grievous wolves enter in among you, not sparing the flock. Also of your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them." (vv. 29, 30.) Two sources of danger were thus indicated from without and from within. Wolves from without would seek to harass and scatter the sheep (see John 10:12); and professors within, departing from the truth and teaching error, would form "schools of opinion," sects and parties, and thus divide the flock. Sad prospect! But how fully, alas! it has been realized, for the state of the professing church at the present moment entirely answers to this description. What then were these elders to do in view of the evil days? They were to copy Paul's example, and just as he had, during three years, "ceased not to warn every one night and day with tears," so they were to labour with all earnestness to tread in his steps. Such a ministry might not indeed be acceptable, for the people of God, like Israel of old, prefer those who prophesy "smooth things," but the path of the true servant must be governed alone by fidelity to his Lord, whose approbation must suffice for his encouragement.
Where, then, should these elders find their resource in such an evil day? About to be bereft for ever of the apostle's presence and guidance, and with the anticipation of so many difficulties, where could they obtain the needed support and wisdom? The apostle, divinely instructed, made full provision for their future perplexities in the words, "And now, brethren, I commend you to God, and to the word of His grace," etc. In like manner Moses, on the eve of his departure, gave the Levites the book of the law, in this case to be a testimony against them when, after his death, they should have corrupted themselves, and turned aside from the way he had commanded them. (Deut. 31) Peter, moreover, endeavoured that the saints, after his decease, should always have "these things" (which he committed to writing) in remembrance. (2 Peter 1:12-14.) In the mouth of these several witnesses therefore it is surely established, as an all-important principle, that God Himself, and the word of His grace, are all-sufficient for His people in the darkest days of their history. God Himself (not any successor of the apostles) is able to sustain them at all times, and to succour them in all their conflicts, and out of all their distresses; and the word of His grace, which is able to build them up, and to give them "an inheritance among all them which are sanctified," contains all the requisite wisdom to direct them in His own path, and according to His own mind.
Once more the apostle reminds the elders of his own example. Before their eyes he had lived out the pattern they were to copy. No covetousness had found place in his heart; but rather with his own hands, as they knew, he had ministered unto his necessities and unto those of his companions. He had done this that they might learn the blessed privilege of labouring in like manner to support the weak, remembering the words of the Lord Jesus, how He said, "It is more blessed to give than to receive." Touching reminder! teaching so plainly that unless we are in the power of grace, we cannot truly be servants of Him who "came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give His life a ransom for many." What farewell words! "And when he had thus spoken, he kneeled down, and prayed with them all." The effect was that "they all wept sore, and fell on Paul's neck, and kissed ["ardently kissed"] him," with the kisses of an overwhelming affection, "sorrowing most of all for the words which he spake, that they should see his face no more." With such holy emotions in their hearts they accompanied the apostle into the ship, and there they for ever parted. But inasmuch as God has caused the address they had received to be recorded in His word, we may be sure that it was retained likewise in their hearts; and we may perhaps conclude, from the state afterwards of the assembly at Ephesus, as seen from Paul's epistle, that it moulded their lives and governed their conduct in shepherding the flock, and tending the church of God, over which the Holy Spirit had made them overseers.