A Commentary by John Stott
Acts. 20;17-38. Paul’s address to the Ephesian elders.
*From Miletus, Paul sent to Ephesus for the elders of the church* (17). As the crow flies, Ephesus was only thirty miles north of Miletus, but the rather circuitous road was longer. It must have taken about three days for a messenger to travel to Ephesus and bring the elders back to Miletus. But in due course *they arrived* (18a).
a). Some introductory points.
Before we are ready to study the text of Paul’s address to the Ephesian elders, several introductory points need to be made. First, this is the only speech in the Acts which is addressed to a Christian audience. All the others are either evangelistic sermons, whether preached to Jewish people (2:14ff.; 3:12ff.; 13:16ff.) or Gentiles (10:34ff.; 14:14ff.; 17:22ff.), or legal defences, whether made before the Sanhedrin in the early days of the church (4:8ff.; 5:29ff.; 7:1ff.) or the five speeches before the Jewish and Roman authorities, which come near the end of the book (22-26).
Secondly, the leaders addressed are all ‘elders’ (17), ‘pastors’ (28a) and ‘overseers’ (28b), and it is evident that these terms denote the same people. ‘Pastors’ is the generic term which describes their role. In our day, in which there is much confusion about the nature and purpose of the pastoral ministry, and much questioning whether the clergy are primarily social workers, psychotherapists, educators, facilitators or administrators, it is important to rehabilitate the noble word ‘pastors’, who are shepherds of Christ’s sheep, called to tend, feed and protect them. This pastoral responsibility over the local congregation seems to have been shared by both deacons (although in a supportive role) (1 Tim. 3:8ff.) and those who are called either *presbyteroi* (elders), a word borrowed from the Jewish synagogue, or *episkopoi (overseers), a word borrowed from Greek contexts. These are often – and rightly – referred to as ‘presbyter-bishops’, in order to indicate that during the apostolic period the two titles referred to the same office. In those days there were only ‘presbyter-bishops and deacons’ Phil. 1:1). Those of us who belong to episcopally ordered churches, and believe that a threefold order (bishops, presbyters and deacons) can be defended and commended from Scripture, do not base our argument on the word *episkopoi*, but on people like Timothy and Titus who, though not called ‘bishops’, were nevertheless given an oversight and jurisdiction over several churches, with authority to select and ordain their presbyter-bishops and deacons.
Thirdly, the church at Ephesus clearly had a team of presbyter-bishops (*presbyteroi* in verse 17 and *episkopoi* in verse 28 are both in the plural). Similarly Paul appointed ‘elders’ in every Galatian church (14:23), as we have seen, and later instructed Titus to do the same in Crete (Tit. 1:5). There is no biblical warrant either for the one-man-band (a single pastor playing all the instruments in the orchestra himself) or for a hierarchical or pyramid structure in the local church (a single pastor perched at the apex of the pyramid). It is not even clear that each of the elders was in charge of an individual house-church. It is better to think of them as a team, some perhaps with the oversight of house-churches, but others with specialist ministries according to their gifts, and all sharing the pastoral care of Christ’s flock. We need today to recover this concept of a pastoral team in the church.
Fourthly, Luke himself was present and heard this speech (see the ‘we’ in 21:1). Perhaps William Neil is correct in suggesting that ‘Luke may have made notes at the time’. Certainly the address has an authentic Pauline flavour. What has struck many students is the correspondence, in both vocabulary and content, between the speech and Paul’s letters. Themes in his letters which he touches on in his speech are the grace of God (24,32), the kingdom of God (25), the purpose (*boule*) of God (27), the redeeming blood of Christ (28), repentance and faith (21), the church of God and its edification (28,32), the inevitability of suffering (23-24), the danger of false teachers (29-30), the need for vigilance (28,31), running the race (24) and our final inheritance (32).
Tomorrow: b). The message of Paul’s speech.
The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of Acts. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.