Acts 20 - IVP New Testament Commentaries

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To Jerusalem--Miletus

What do you say when you say goodby? When an apostle says farewell and addresses leaders of the next spiritual generation for what he thinks is the last time, a "farewell discourse" is in order. As Paul reviews his past as a model for the Ephesian elders' future work and charges them as Spirit-appointed pastoral overseers, we quickly become aware that Luke intends this message for all church leaders in every spiritual generation.Gathering the Elders (20:13-17)

The party departs Troas by ship ahead of Paul, instructed to take him on board at Assos. Paul walks the twenty-mile distance overland. Assos, a port city with the only good harbor on the north shore of the Adramyttian Gulf, stands on a seven-hundred-foot volcanic hill and faces south to the island of Lesbos. The port would have been known to Romans as the birthplace of the Stoic philosopher Cleanthes and the venue for three years of Aristotle's teaching career (Strabo Geography 13.1.57-58). Paul may make his rendezvous by sighting the ship while on his way and being taken on board before Assos, for so the verb tense indicates (Williams 1985:344).

They proceed forty-four miles south to Mitylene, a chief city on the island of Lesbos, some sixty miles south of Troy. Its position near old trade routes between the Hellespont and ports south and east made it an important seaport. Mitylene, a free city, was a favorite resort for Roman aristocrats.

Setting sail the next day, they arrive off Kios. Kios, an island shaped like a drawn bow facing Asia Minor, is twelve miles from ancient Smyrna and five miles from the mainland. The birthplace of Homer, it was struck with a violent earthquake in the time of Tiberius, who helped rebuild it.

The following day they cross over to Samos. One of the most famous of the Ionian islands, Samos lies at the mouth of the Bay of Ephesus, separated from the mainland by the milewide strait of Mycale. Samos was renowned not only for its works of art but also for its chief manufacture: pottery of a fine, smooth clay, deep red in color.

The next day they put in at Miletus. This most illustrious Ionian seaport on the west coast of Asia Minor was situated on the south promontory of a gulf into which the Meander River once emptied. It was economically prosperous, architecturally beautiful and religiously significant. The Milesian temple of Apollo at Didyma, famed for its oracles, was nearby.

These background comments show that this "name-dropping" itinerary would have been of interest to a Roman audience. Such an island-hopping method of travel was necessitated by the meteorological and topographical demands on first-century navigation. On the Aegean, summer winds customarily blew only during daylight hours, so sailing vessels could make no headway at night. Further, the narrow channels along the west coast of Asia Minor were so dotted with small islands that night navigation was dangerous.

Paul consciously bypasses Ephesus, and Luke tells us why: he does not want to be slowed down on his way to Jerusalem, for he desires to arrive there, if possible, by the day of Pentecost. Though Jewish piety may motivate him (see Deut 16:16), a celebration of the Spirit's outpouring on the first Christian Pentecost is certainly reason enough (Acts 2:1-13). Still, Paul's pastor's heart overcomes his personal schedule. He cannot do without one last contact with the church in Asia. With earnestness and authority he summons the elders from Ephesus, thirty-odd miles away.An Apostle's Model Work (20:18-27)

In a reverse parallelism structure Paul reviews his past and anticipates his future (vv. 18-21, 22-24), and then in particular relation to the Ephesians he describes his future and makes an apologetic for his past conduct (v. 25, 26-27). He appeals to their personal experience--you know--as he points to his consistency during the whole time he was with them.

Paul reminds them of the model life he has lived as he served the Lord. The term Paul uses (douleuo) points to the slave-master relationship (Judg 10:16; 1 Sam 12:20; Lk 16:13). Paul's allegiance to his Lord determined the conduct of his ministry. His leadership was servant leadership, the humility of a lowly mind (22:25-27; Eph 4:2). His involvement was intensely personal, for he shed the tears of a tender heart, sorrowing over rejections of the gospel without the church and resistance to its full work within the church (Acts 20:31; 2 Cor 2:4). His was the steadfast endurance of a tough skin in the face of trials (NIV severely tested [peirasmos: "trial," "test," "temptation"], Lk 22:28) from plots of the Jews (Acts 9:24; 20:3; compare 19:33-34).

For Luke, orthopraxy--in this case the messenger's character and manner of ministry--is just as important as orthodoxy, the message. One effectively says goodby by reminding those left behind of a model life lived before them.

Paul's past ministry also includes a "model word" characterized by comprehensiveness in presentation and in the looked-for response. In audience, both Jews and Greeks (19:8-10; Eph 2:11-22), in venue, publicly and from house to house (Acts 19:9; compare 5:42), in content, anything that would be helpful, Paul did not hesitate (hypostello, "shrink back in fear," opposite parresiazomai, "speak boldly") to preach (anangello, " `to announce, to inform, to tell,' provide information with the possible implication of considerable detail" [Louw and Nida 1988:1:411]) and to teach them. This reminder of his approach arms the elders for the future, when false teachers will claim that their "other gospel" is an essential supplement to Paul's (20:21, 27).

The looked-for response from both Jews and Gentiles is that they must turn to God in repentance (literally, "repentance toward God") and have faith in our Lord Jesus. The brief phrase "repentance toward God" captures the whole process of conversion, which Luke elsewhere describes as "repent and turn to God and prove . . . repentance . . . by deeds" (26:20). What is in the forefront is turning to God with all one's being, an absolutely serious reckoning with him as one's God in all one's decisions, as the Old Testament prophets called for (Jer 34:15; 26:3-5; Hos 6:1-3; Behm and Wurthwein 1967:985). For the Jew it is a returning, for the Gentile a turning to the one true God for the very first time (Acts 14:15; 1 Thess 1:9).

As repentance is paired with the salvation blessing "forgiveness of sins" in Luke's seminal statement of the gospel (Lk 24:47), so here the repentance response is coupled with faith in our Lord Jesus. Only unconditional trust in the Lord, in whose name--that is, on whose authority and by whose saving work--forgiveness can be proclaimed, secures this salvation provision (Acts 16:31; see these themes at 19:4-5, 10, 18, 20; Eph 1:13, 15, 19; 2:8; 3:17; 4:5, 13; 6:16, 23). In such brief compass Theophilus and we could not be told better what is required to become a Christian. Repentance, total surrender to God, complete trust in his Son: with these the journey on the path of grace into and in the kingdom must be begun, continued and completed (Acts 20:24-25).

Saying, "And now behold," Paul turns abruptly to sketch his future as far as he knows it. In the process he models some further character traits that, because they reveal faithfulness to the ministerial calling, these elders also need for the future. Paul's next steps are in obedience to the Spirit's compulsion. He says he goes to Jerusalem "having been bound by the Spirit." There may be a play on words here, for the same verb is used for the divine necessity that compels and guides Paul and the binding of being handcuffed and incarcerated (deo, Lk 9:22; Acts 1:16; 19:21; 21:11, 13, 33; 22:29; 23:11; 24:27; 27:24; compare 20:23, desma).

Paul's obedience includes an ability to live with uncertainty even when what he does know about the future is not encouraging. Whether by prophet or direct revelation, the Holy Spirit testifies to him in every city that prison and hardships (better "afflictions" born of persecution, thlipsis) await him in Jerusalem. Though all Christians may not be called to endure imprisonment for the faith, if they would enter the kingdom they must so live under Jesus' lordship that, like their Lord, they will find themselves walking the path of suffering leading to glory (Lk 24:26; Acts 14:22; compare 11:19).

There is, then, no final contradiction between the Spirit's compulsion and the Spirit's warning. God mercifully prepares his servant to count the cost of his daily cross-bearing in a fallen world that hates his Christ and those who own his name (Lk 9:23; 12:4-12; 21:12-19).

Paul expressly counts the cost and does it in terms of his life (psyche, "soul, life"). In biblical understanding the psyche can mean "life on earth in its external physical aspects; seat and center of the inner life of man in its many and varied aspects; and seat and center of life which transcends the earthly" (Bauer, Gingrich and Danker 1979:893). With this range of meaning human beings can face in one word the choice of which dimension to invest themselves in (Lk 9:24; 12:23). Paul states the choice and his decision in the form of relative worth. In the face of impending prison and hardships, he makes his psyche (his physical existence) of no value in the sense that he does not choose to preserve it at all costs. Rather, he chooses to pursue the purpose the Lord Jesus has for him: the task of testifying to the gospel of God's grace (Acts 9:15-16). Paul calls this pursuit "finishing a race" (compare 13:25; 2 Tim 4:7) and "completing a task" (diakonia, a ministry or service). Paul sees his presence in Jerusalem as an integral part of his apostolic gospel ministry. Certainly the good news is all about grace, God's unmerited saving favor bestowed on Jew and Gentile without distinction (Eph 2:5, 7-8; 3:2). And what better, more needy place to testify to it than Jerusalem, that bastion of works righteousness.

Paul's future and his past are all of a piece, and so should ours be. No matter the outward circumstances, even if they include impending threats, our conduct should consistently fulfill our one calling as servants of the Lord Jesus who testify to his one message: the gospel of God's grace.

Paul now relates his future prospects to the Ephesians: None of you . . . will ever see me [literally, "my face"] again. Again his ministry is in the forefront of his thought. These Ephesians are those among whom [he has] gone about preaching [kerysso] the kingdom. Of the terms for preaching and evangelizing, this one

characterizes the concrete proclamation of the message in a particular instance, with special reference to the claim that is being made, and its authority to set up a new order. It includes information, but is always more than mere instruction or a bare offer, and is equally distinct from the communication of philosophical teaching or general wisdom. Kerysso sets a standard which to ignore is not simply indifference but refusal. (Coenen 1978:57)

Preaching the kingdom not only ushers persons into a personal relationship with the King, Jesus, but creates a personal bond between evangelist and evangelized, now both subjects of the kingdom. Paul's statement also shows that the pioneer church planter, though he is a church's first pastor, must have an itinerant ministry. He must know when to let go: when the planting is done and the pastoral team, leaders in the next spiritual generation, must water so that the harvest may bear fruit to maturity (1 Cor 3:6). To stay too long is to allow dependency to stifle growth.

Paul now turns to his past and its significance for the Ephesians' eternal destiny. Like the watchman of Ezekiel 33:9, Paul has no blood on his hands. He is innocent (literally, "clean"; 18:6) of the blood of all men. Why? I have not hesitated to proclaim to you the whole will of God (compare v. 20 for the same verbs: hesitate, preach/proclaim). Will of God (he boule tou theou) combines the ideas of purpose and plan and often refers to the divine plan of salvation accomplished through the Messiah's suffering (2:23; 4:28; compare 13:36). Here Paul affirms that he held nothing back of the gospel revelation, especially those parts dealing with judgment. Do we preach the whole gospel, so when God calls us to another field we too can say with good conscience that we have told the people everything they need to know about the plan of salvation?Gearing Up for Future Challenges (20:28-35)

Paul prepares the elders for their future with charges to spiritual watchfulness over the flock (vv. 28-31) and physical aid to the weak (vv. 33-35), with a blessing in between, the word committing them to God and to the word of his grace (v. 32). Since Luke gives few specifics about church government, Episcopalians, Presbyterians and Congregationalists can all feel at home in this passage. But these charges do set forth values that should guide the exercise of leadership in the church. The intervening committal shows the true source of strength for doing the work.

Leadership exercised in spiritual watchfulness over a flock is first of all collegial. Christian elders are always referred to in the plural by Luke (11:30; 14:23; 15:2, 23; 20:17). In a day when individualism, monarchial authoritarianism or simple economic necessity turns the pastoral role into a "one-man show," we would do well to consider, no matter our polity, how we may promote teamwork in the pastoring of the local flock.

Second, leadership must be spiritual: the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. The Holy Spirit, either through gifting that the church then recognized or by prophecy at the point of selection, appointed these persons as overseers (Polhill 1992:426-27; Barrett 1977:114; Acts 13:2-4; 1 Cor 12:7-11; 1 Tim 4:14). Their function is to be careful, pastoral and corrective (20:28, 31). They are to live out their "watchcare" of themselves and the congregation through shepherding and admonishing. As a shepherd protects, cares for and feeds the sheep, so through teaching and exhortation these presbyter-bishops are to nurture those in their charge (Eph 4:11-12; 1 Pet 5:1-3). Sometimes that teaching will be admonition (noutheteo), the correction of the will that presupposes opposition (Rom 15:14; Col 1:28; 3:16).

Finally, in manner, this leadership will be serious, conscientious and intensely personal. This Paul communicates by describing the church's infinite worth and his own demeanor. The congregation is not the elders' church but the church of God, which he bought with "the blood of his own"--Jesus (Ps 74:2; Is 43:21). Paul constantly and with tears continued his ministry of admonition among them.

In our day there is a great emphasis on specialties in ministry--administrator, educator, counselor, church-growth strategist, social worker--roles not unlike the helping professions found in society at large. This passage can especially help us to recapture a coherent focus for leadership in local church ministry. As John Stott says, it will help us "rehabilitate the noble word `pastors,' who are shepherds of Christ's sheep, called to tend, feed, and protect them" (Stott 1990:323).

Paul's charge has a sense of urgency because of future dangers. Syncretizing pagans and persecutors from outside will spiritually ravage the flock with the destructive force of wolves (Ezek 22:27; Mt 7:15; Lk 10:3). Within the church, heresy leading to schism will be the order of the day (note 1 Tim 4:1-3; 2 Tim 1:15; in Rev 2:1-7 there are reports of its occurrence at Ephesus).

In the face of such threats, the elders and we might be tempted to ask, with Paul, "Who is equal to such a task?" (2 Cor 2:16). There is hope in Paul's blessing, which comes in the form of a committal (Acts 20:32). He commits (paratithemi) the elders, puts them on deposit with God and . . . the word of his grace (14:23; compare Lk 23:46; 2 Tim 2:2). In the safekeeping of God and the gospel, they will not be destroyed but will grow spiritually (which can build you up; Acts 9:31). In fact, they will be empowered for perseverance all the way to heaven: give you an inheritance with all those who are sanctified (Lk 12:32; Acts 26:18; Eph 1:14, 5:5, 26; Deut 33:3-4).

More important than the leaders' commitment to their charge is God's faithfulness to his. For by it the leaders receive the ability to keep theirs.

Paul completes his exhortations to the elders with the charge to physically aid the weak. Using his own example and an otherwise unknown beatitude of the Lord, in a reverse parallelism he addresses both attitude and conduct concerning material things. The attitude is to say no to covetousness, as Paul among them did not desire anyone's silver or gold or clothing (precious metals, clothing and foodstuffs were the standard forms of wealth in ancient times; Josh 7:21; Mt 6:19; Jas 5:2). We must replace covetousness with liberality, knowing the truth of the Lord Jesus' declaration that the one whose disposition is "giving not receiving" (Mt 10:8) is blessed. Such an attitude will issue in a lifestyle of labor (kopiao, "toil which wears you out"), not for personal gain but in order to have something to help the weak, those who are incapable of work (Eph 4:28). In Luke-Acts "the weak" are normally the chronically, physically ill who come to Jesus or the apostles for healing (Lk 4:40; 9:2; Acts 9:37; 19:12). Paul modeled such a lifestyle of giving when he supported himself and his party by practicing his leatherworking trade while with them (18:3; 19:9--Western text implies his labor).

Is Luke mandating a precise imitation of Paul in the matter of the source of financial support for full-time Christian workers? Does he view self-support as the duty of all Christian leaders (so Haenchen 1971:594)? If so, then all will need to be bivocational. But Scripture also teaches that it is legitimate for spiritual ministry to be supported financially (Lk 10:7; 1 Cor 9:11, 18; Gal 6:6; 1 Tim 5:17-18). This should qualify the extent of the application of Paul's practice to any spiritual leader's duty. Whether "tentmaker" or paid Christian worker, the one who is in line with Paul's charges and exercises leadership graciously, eagerly and humbly will manifest a kind of leadership that the world--with its concern with money, prestige and power--does not know but desperately needs to know (Lk 22:25-27; 1 Pet 5:1-3).An Affectionate, Sorrowful Farewell (20:36-38)

Paul now seals his farewell with prayer (compare Acts 1:24; 6:6; 13:3; 14:23). Falling on his knees, he acts out his total submission to the Lord (1 Chron 29:20; 2 Chron 6:13; Acts 21:5; Eph 3:14). The elders, in their affectionate devotion to Paul, join him in much weeping, just like the sound of mourning (Lk 7:13; 8:52; 23:28; compare Lk 6:21; Acts 21:13). They fall on Paul's neck and repeatedly kiss him. In ancient culture a parting kiss on cheek, forehead, shoulder or hand was a sign of grateful respect and love; erotic inclination was secondary (Lk 15:20; compare Gen 50:1; 1 Kings 19:20; 3 Macc 5:49). The emotion of the parting is especially heightened by the anguish of knowing they will not see Paul again. So they accompany him to the ship, possibly also supplying provisions for the journey (propempo; Rom 15:24).

Prayer for us too must be the natural way to seal the spiritual transaction of passing the torch to the leadership of the next generation. And when such business necessitates the departure of the previous leadership, prayer will bring out such filial emotion that it will be hard to tear ourselves away (Acts 21:1).

Previous commentary:
To Jerusalem--Macedonia, Achaia, Troas

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