Acts 20: 17-38

Now from Miletus he sent to Ephesus and called the elders of the church to come to him. And when they came to him, he said to them:

“You yourselves know how I lived among you the whole time from the first day that I set foot in Asia, serving the Lord with all humility and with tears and with trials that happened to me through the plots of the Jews; how I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, and teaching you in public and from house to house, testifying both to Jews and to Greeks of repentance toward God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. And now, behold, I am going to Jerusalem, constrained by the Spirit, not knowing what will happen to me there, except that the Holy Spirit testifies to me in every city that imprisonment and afflictions await me. But I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God. And now, behold, I know that none of you among whom I have gone about proclaiming the kingdom will see my face again. Therefore I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all, for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God. 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. I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them. Therefore be alert, remembering that for three years I did not cease night or day to admonish every one with tears. And now I commend you to God and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified. I coveted no one’s silver or gold or apparel. You yourselves know that these hands ministered to my necessities and to those who were with me. In all things I have shown you that by working hard in this way we must help the weak and remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’”

And when he had said these things, he knelt down and prayed with them all. And there was much weeping on the part of all; they embraced Paul and kissed him, being sorrowful most of all because of the word he had spoken, that they would not see his face again. And they accompanied him to the ship.

Understanding And Applying the Text

It is strange Paul called the Ephesian elders to him in Miletus. In the previous verse, Luke said Paul decided to bypass Ephesus. Paul was in a hurry to get to Jerusalem. It seems it would have been faster to stop in Ephesus rather than waiting for the elders to arrive in Miletus. He had to send a message to them. Then wait for them to arrive. There was time for the message to get there. Then there was the time it took them to travel to Miletus. Paul could have saved all that time if he had stopped by Ephesus in the first place.

There are several possible reasons. First, Paul could have changed his mind. Second, Paul was traveling with a large party. There were only a few elders. They could move faster than Paul and his party. Third, the ships leaving Ephesus may have been irregular. So stopping there could have made leaving uncertain.

Whatever the reason, Paul bypassed Ephesus. Then he called the elders to meet him. These were the ordained representatives from the Ephesian congregation. God called them to be overseers, shepherds of the church of God, or bishops. Bishops in the early church were the ministers of a local congregation. Bishops were not what they are today. Today a bishop is an administrator. He is over several congregations.

Paul called the elders to encourage and exhort them. He started by reminding them of his behavior among them. They knew how he lived.

Paul suffered many trials. But he never swerved from serving Jesus Christ. They knew of the plots to harm or kill him. They knew the Jews had sought to silence him. But Paul never stopped testifying to Jews and Gentiles. He preached repentance. And he preached faith in Jesus Christ.

Paul testified in public and in private. What he taught in private was the same thing he taught in public. There were no secrets. Paul delivered the same message to everyone. There were no special classes of believers as the Gnostics taught. Gnostics taught God revealed His secrets only a select few. What Paul taught in public was the same thing he taught in private. There was no secret knowledge.

Many today claim to search for the “hidden things of God.” The good news is open and free to all. Everything about Christianity is in the book. God has not hidden things. This is not a search for hidden treasure. God laid out the treasure in plain view. What God has hidden from us is none of our business.

Notice Paul’s evangelistic style. Is a group or private setting better? It does not matter. Paul did not care. Give him an opportunity to talk about Jesus, Paul would take it. He did not discriminate between people groups. Jews and Gentiles both heard the same good new. Both heard about repentance and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.

Paul distinguished between faith and repentance. Some claim repentance is a part of faith. Granted, they cannot be separate. But they are distinct. God does not regenerate anyone without faith. But we need to distinguish them.

Repentance is a turning to God. But faith is receiving the grace God offers to us in Christ. The doctrine of repentance requires denial of ourselves. It requires meditating on the heavenly life. But we are corrupt by nature. We have no righteousness in us. We all turn away from God and rebel against Him. (Romans 3:9-20) Only by His grace does He draws us to Him.

Paul preached repentance and faith. He did not preach repentance, faith, and works. That is, Paul did not preach for salvation you need to repent, have faith and do certain things. This is contrary to what Roman teaches. It is also contrary to many evangelical churches. Rome says you have to repent, have faith, and do penance. Many evangelical churches will say they believe in salvation through faith alone. But their practice is very different. They often turn faith into a work. You have to have enough of it. You have to show you have faith. They deny faith is a gift from God. (Ephesians 2:8-9) They claim faith is something you must do. Exercising our faith does not save us. That would make faith a work. Faith is something we exercise. But it comes from God. We do not generate it in ourselves.

Repentance and faith are gifts from God. (Romans 2:4, 2 Corinthians 7:10 Hebrews 6:6, Ephesians 2:8-9). It is as the reformers said. Salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone in Christ alone, for the glory of God alone. It is by grace alone. That means it is all a gift from God. Grace is getting something you do not deserve. We deserve hell and destruction. We do not deserve God’s love and forgiveness. We do not receive grace because of anything in us. Nor do we receive faith because of what we have done or will do. We do not receive grace because of our faith. We receive it for God’s glory alone. Salvation is through faith alone. Faith does not save us. Christ’s atoning sacrifice saves us. Faith is the instrument God uses to renew us. Our faith is not in faith. We do not hope in hope. Our faith has a basis. There is a reason for our faith. The only effective faith is faith in Christ, and Christ alone.

Paul was going to Jerusalem. He was leaving them forever. Paul told them they would never see him again. Paul said he the Holy Spirit constrained him. He referred to the urging of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit often guided Paul during his ministry (Acts 16:6–10).

I don’t think Paul knew what lied ahead of him. Paul said, “not knowing what will happen to me there.” He only knew what lied ahead of him was more of the same. Everywhere he went he suffered persecution. He said, “the Holy Spirit testifies to me in every city that imprisonment and afflictions await me.” Paul suffered imprisonment where ever he went. Paul acknowledged he knew things were not going to change.

Why continue? If all that lie ahead of him was suffering and pain? Why not pick a different path? I would have concluded the Holy Spirit was telling me not to go. But not Paul. Teaching and preaching Jesus was all-consuming to Paul.

Paul understood his mission. Paul understood his worth when compared to the mission God assigned him. His life had no value when compared to the Gospel. I pray I would understand that. I pray I would live like that. My hope for you is you too would pray for such understanding.

Paul told them they would never see him again. This was not a divine revelation. Rather it was because what he believed lie ahead of him. It appears that Paul returned to Ephesus after his release from prison in Rome (1 Tim. 1:3).

He exhorted them to do nothing he had not done. They were to teach nothing he had not taught. Paul had held nothing back about the Gospel. He taught the whole counsel of God.

He reminded them of their responsibility. They were to care for God’s people. They were to teach nothing but God’s word. They were not to use it for personal gain.

This is instruction for all pastors. What must pastors teach? They must teach the Gospel, the whole counsel of God. Where do you find that? In scripture. They must seek the welfare of Christ’s body, the church. They are not to seek after personal gain.
Paul’s first charge to them was to pay attention to themselves. Why? The first reason is they were to watch over the flock. They could not care for the salvation of others if they neglected their own. Second, they did not receive their assign from man. The Holy Spirit appointed them. Third, it is a great honor to govern God’s Church.

Paul then charged them to tend the flock, i.e. God’s Church. Paul warned them there would be assaults on the church. There would be false teaching. The assaults would come from inside and outside the church. Not only that but the assaults would come from within their ranks. Some of them would arise and assault the church. We can tell from Paul’s letters to Timothy this occurred. “By rejecting this, some have made shipwreck of their faith, among whom are Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom I have handed over to Satan that they may learn not to blaspheme.” (1 Timothy 1:19b-20)

I need to take a detour here. The reason is Paul told the Ephesian elders, and by extension us, wolves would come in. They would twist scripture and lead many astray. The detour is this. How can you tell a false teacher? And once we identify them what do we do? What practical steps do we take? In other words, “So what Paul?” Luke does not tell us if Paul addressed those questions to the Ephesian elders. So we have to look else where in scripture to find those answers. Thus the detour.

We must take care not to answer those questions from our own intellect. We know that is corrupt. Our opinion is of no value. We need to turn to scripture. What does God say? The first place to turn is Deuteronomy 18:21-22

And if you say in your heart, ‘How may we know the word that the LORD has not spoken?’ when a prophet speaks in the name of the LORD, if the word does not come to pass or come true, that is a word that the LORD has not spoken; the prophet has spoken it presumptuously. You need not be afraid of him.

The track record of a prophet must be 100%. They can never miss. Never! Any time they claim God told them something they must be 100% actuate. This should sober us up. Anytime we tell someone “God told me …” we are prophesying. We are speaking for God. We must be 100% actuate. If we are not, God did not tell us. We are a false prophet. We are a false teacher. We may believe God told us. But that is no excuse. We need to be very, very careful.

While this is an easy one, many miss it. People continue to follow false teachers and prophets excusing their misses. Many from the NAR claim to speak for God. Plus, I hear ordinary congregants claim to speak for God all the time. “God told me…”
But what if they say is true? Does that mean they are a true prophet? No, it does not. Deuteronomy 13:1-5 contains some more instruction.

If a prophet or a dreamer of dreams arises among you and gives you a sign or a wonder, and the sign or wonder that he tells you comes to pass, and if he says, ‘Let us go after other gods,’ which you have not known, ‘and let us serve them,’ you shall not listen to the words of that prophet or that dreamer of dreams. For the Lord your God is testing you, to know whether you love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul. You shall walk after the Lord your God and fear him and keep his commandments and obey his voice, and you shall serve him and hold fast to him. But that prophet or that dreamer of dreams shall be put to death, because he has taught rebellion against the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt and redeemed you out of the house of slavery, to make you leave the way in which the Lord your God commanded you to walk. So you shall purge the evil from your midst.

This passage tells us we can and we may identify a false teacher by what they teach. If they teach another god, they are a false teacher.

This method of identifying a false teacher is also an easy one. But it is often not rejected. Our western society is synergistic. That is, we try to reconcile all beliefs. Jesus, Buddha, Mohammad, Confucius or any other god you want to throw in. How many times have you heard all religions are the same. They all teach the same thing.

But there are more subtle false teachings. What if they have a god named Jesus? Does that make it OK? No. The Jehovah Witnesses and Mormons, Oneness Pentecostals all have a Jesus. But it is a different Jesus. It is not Jesus the Christ. Their Jesus is not divine. They do not have a Triune God. They have a different god. The fact they use the same name only obfuscates their false teaching. They teach a different god.

We now have a few tests for identifying false teachers. Anyone who claims to speak for God. Anyone who predicts something that does not come to pass. If they worship a false god. But there is more. This one is a little more difficult. Galatians 1:6-10

I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel – not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed. For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ.

Here Paul is telling the Galatians, “I don’t care who it is. I don’t care about their credentials. They could be an angel from heaven. If they are teaching something different, they are a false teacher.” But this raises the question, “What did Paul teach?” Many godly honest men disagree on exactly what Paul taught. For example Reformed, Lutheran and Arminians have sharp differences. Are they not Christian? Should we accuse at least two of them of being false teachers? The answer as always come from the context.

Paul is addressing a specific issue with the Galatians. Judaizers had come into the church. They were teaching Christians had to follow the Jewish laws. They taught, to receive salvation, or at least remain saved, you had to follow Jewish laws and customs.
Now that we understand the context, it is easy to extract the principle Paul is teaching. Anyone teaching salvation by works is a false teacher. Does that mean that the Roman church is accursed? They teach you have to do penance for salvation. In a word, yes. That is what Paul is saying. Are those who claim you have to live a certain way to receive salvation, accursed? Yes. Are churches who make faith a work, teaching false doctrine? Yes. This is unpopular but that is what Paul is teach.

Paul in the book of Galatians, Romans, Ephesians is clear salvation is a gift for God. You do not have to do anything to receive it. It is a free gift. You receive it like the ground receives the rain.

So what are we to do about it? Again, we should not trust our own judgment and intellect. We should turn to scripture.

Paul wrote Timothy, who was in Ephesus, from Rome. In his first letter to Timothy Paul wrote about false teachers.

As I urged you when I was going to Macedonia, remain at Ephesus so that you may charge certain persons not to teach any different doctrine, nor to devote themselves to myths and endless genealogies, which promote speculations rather than the stewardship from God that is by faith. The aim of our charge is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith. Certain persons, by swerving from these, have wandered away into vain discussion, desiring to be teachers of the law, without understanding either what they are saying or the things about which they make confident assertions. Now we know that the law is good, if one uses it lawfully, understanding this, that the law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who strike their fathers and mothers, for murderers, the sexually immoral, men who practice homosexuality, enslavers, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine, in accordance with the gospel of the glory of the blessed God with which I have been entrusted. (1 Timothy 1:3-11)

Here Paul gave Timothy instruction of what to do with a false teacher. The first thing Paul says is, “tell them to cut it out.” That means we have to warn them. They may be unaware they are teaching a false or heretical doctrine. Tell them to stop. But Paul went on and told Timothy to check his motivation. He was not to show his superior knowledge. He was not to show a higher spirituality. Love was to motivate everything he did. Next, we are to teach them. They teach a false doctrine because they do not know the truth. So we teach them.

There is one more thing. Christ did it. Paul did it. Peter did it. We find throughout scripture. In fact, Paul does it in this very passage in Acts. Warn people about false teachers. Doing so we are following Christ’s and the Apostles’ example.

Some may point to the passage in Deuteronomy, “But that prophet or that dreamer of dreams shall be put to death…” (Deuteronomy 13 5a). Are we to kill false teachers? Well, if we did there would be fewer of them. But, no. Israel was a theocracy. The church and state were one. Today we the church and state are separate. God has not given the power of the sword to the church. He has given it to the state. So we are not to kill false teachers today.
To summarize, What is a false teacher and how do you identify them

  1. They teach another God
  2. They claim to speak for God.
  3. What they prophesy does not come true 100% of the time
  4. They teach salvation by something other than by grace ALONE through faith ALONE

What to we do when we recognize a false teacher?

  1. Warn others about them
  2. Tell them to stop
  3. Teach them
  4. Pray for them
  5. Always check your motives

This is not an exhaustive study on the subject of false teachers. It is only a short detour.
Now to transition back to our passage. Paul reminded the Ephesian elders he admonished those teaching false doctrines. He spent three years doing that. When he did so, he did so with tears. In other words, he took no joy in needing to correct them. He was not their superior. He was only a mouthpiece. We should be even more humble. We are not even God’s mouthpiece.

Paul acknowledges Jesus’ divinity. “To care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood.” (v 28) Jesus died on the cross. Jesus’ spilled His blood. God obtained the church through his blood because Jesus is God. Several ancient manuscripts state this even stronger. They read “the blood of His own,” that is, of Christ.

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