Commentary on Acts 20:17-27
We are still with Paul on his Third Missionary Journey. A great number of exciting events happens during the latter part of the journey most of which, unfortunately, is omitted in our liturgy readings.
Paul spent two or three years in Ephesus altogether. Yesterday, we saw him vigorously preaching to the Jews in the synagogue over a period of three months. Eventually, however, the usual opposition arose from a number of Jews who refused to accept his message. So Paul withdrew from the synagogue and went instead to continue his preaching in a public hall. This continued for two years so that the Word was heard not only in Ephesus but through all the surrounding Roman province of Asia. Paul also revealed extraordinary healing powers so that even a piece of cloth which had been in contact with his skin would heal diseases and drive out evil spirits.
Following this, there is an incident involving wandering Jewish exorcists who tried to use the name of Jesus to drive out evil spirits but were themselves attacked by an evil spirit who shouted: “Jesus I recognise, Paul I know, but who are you?”
This is followed by the even more exciting riot by the silversmiths of Ephesus. They made their money by selling silver images of Artemis, the goddess of the great temple. They saw Paul and his disparaging remarks about man-made idols as a serious threat to their business. Paul wanted to confront them but his companions would not let him; he would almost certainly have been lynched. The whole affray was eventually brought to a peaceful conclusion by the city clerk who said the complainers on the one hand were exaggerating the effects of Paul’s preaching and, in any case, they could go to the courts if they had legitimate complaints (cf. Acts 19:23-40).
After this, Paul crossed over to Macedonia (Thessalonica and Philippi) meeting the Christians there and then moved south to Greece, where he stayed for about three months. He surely would have spent much of that time in Corinth. He then returned to Macedonia and took ship from Philippi for Troas (Troy). It was here that, while Paul was preaching in the upper room of a house, there were many lamps lighting, which would have made the place very warm. “As Paul talked on and on” a young man called Eutychus who was sitting by the window became drowsy and fell out on to the ground below. When he was picked up, they found him dead but Paul lay down on him and restored him to life. A consoling story for all preachers!
From Troas Paul moved southwards to Assos, which was quite near, and then by ship to Miletus, which lay south of Ephesus on present-day Turkey’s west coast. There he called for the elders (presbyteroi, presbuteroi) or leaders of the church in Ephesus to give them final instructions and say farewell to them.
The importance of the leadership of elders is evident throughout Paul’s ministry. He appointed elders in each church on his first missionary journey and addressed the holders of this office later in Philippi, where they are called episkopoi, (‘episkopoi), literally ‘overseers’ (Phil 1:1) – a word which would give us the term ‘bishop’. An ‘overseer’ seems to have been a presbyter with some executive authority in the community. In the letters to Timothy and Titus are listed the qualifications to become a presbyter (1 Tim 3; Tit 1).
Now, Paul is calling the Ephesian elders to meet with him on what is, for him, a very solemn and sad occasion. It is the third great discourse given by Paul in the Acts. Today and tomorrow we will read his words. In summary, it is the last testament of a pastor leaving his flock for what he believes is the last time.
Many of the details of this third discourse are found in his letters and its tone is that of the Pastoral Letters (1 and 2 Timothy and Titus). After referring to his mission in Asia, he speaks of this occasion as a final parting and seems to hint at his death. His last advice to the elders of Ephesus (and through them to all the pastors in every church) is vigilance, selflessness, charity. In all of this Paul appeals to his own example: the discourse therefore draws a faithful portrait of the apostle himself.
His words form one of the most touching passages in the New Testament. Paul was a tough man in many respects but he was also a very emotional one and this comes out very clearly in this moving discourse.
In summary he tells the elders:
- Since the time he came to the region, his life has been an open book for all to read. He has nothing to hide
- He has served the Lord faithfully with tears and trials arising from the opposition from some of his fellow-Jews
- He has given testimony to both Jews and Gentiles about repentance (metanoia) before God and faith in the Lord Jesus. Being a follower of Jesus involves both total commitment in trust and a re-ordering of one’s life in accordance with the Gospel vision.
- He describes himself as already “a prisoner in the spirit”. This can mean that he already anticipates his arrest or that he is being driven to Jerusalem by the Spirit of God, in spite of people’s pleas that he not go.
- He is not sure what is going to happen to him but the Spirit has warned him of imprisonment and coming hardships.
- But these warnings do not depress him. His life is not important to him. What is important is that he complete the mission entrusted to him, “that I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, namely, to bear witness to the gospel of God’s grace”. That is all that matters to him. As he tells the Philippians, compared to the sharing of the Gospel with others, life and death are secondary. All he ever wanted was to love and serve his Lord, Jesus Christ and to spread the Good News about him (cf. Phil 1:18-24 and also 1 Cor 9:23-27; Gal 2:19-20 for similar statements).
Paul concludes today’s passage by saying that he does not think that they will ever meet again in this world but his conscience is clear as far as the efforts he made to share the Gospel with them. At this time, Paul was intending to return to Jerusalem and then to visit Spain. Although it was his conviction that he would never see Ephesus again, there is evidence that he did return after his imprisonment in Rome.
Tomorrow we will continue the second part of this moving farewell.
In the meantime, we could perhaps look back on our own lives and ask what has been our commitment to Jesus and his Gospel, and what have we done to share it with others. Do we have any regrets about things we have done or not done? Is my life an open book? Do I regret now pain or sufferings, physical or emotional, which I experienced in doing what I believed was right and just? If I had my life to live again, what changes would I make? In the light of that, what changes can I make now?