Easter 4 • Acts 20:17–38 • April 25, 2010
by James W. Voelz
Paul’s Farewell to the Ephesian Elders
I. Introduction: This famous passage occurs toward the end of Paul’s Third Missionary Journey, as he was heading back to Jerusalem to celebrate Pentecost (20:16). He decided to bypass Ephesus as he proceeded down the West Coast of Anatolia, as Luke says, “lest it happen for him that he spend time in Asia” (v. 16). It turns out that this is slated to be his farewell to them, because he “knows” that they will not see him again (v. 25). Afterward (21:1ff) he and his party sail on.
The content of the speech is varied and wide-ranging (see also point IV below). Bo Reicke, in his thorough introduction to the Pauline Epistles, entitled Re-examining Paul’s Letter: The History of the Pauline Correspondence (edited by David P. Moessner and Ingalisa Reicke, Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 2001), sees a close connection between this discourse and the book of Titus, which he understands as written in a closely proximate time (113). He notes the many parallels in content, including references to presbu,teroi (Acts 20:17; Ti 1:5) and evpi,skopoi (Acts 20:28; Ti 1:7), to trouble-making by the Jews/circumcision (Acts 20:19; Titus 1:10), to deceivers depicted as savage beasts (Acts 20:29; Ti 1:12) who are wreaking havoc by their teachings (Acts 20:30; Ti 1:11). (Indeed, Reicke believes that the Epistle to Titus was actually used to address problems in the congregation at Miletus before it was taken by Titus to Crete [Ti 1:5], which explains the similarity of its content to that of 1 Timothy [written to the context of Ephesus, very near Miletus] and to that of Paul’s address to the Ephesian elders at Miletus, with both letters having a public character to them [Reicke, 113].)
II. Textual Criticism: As is often the case with the text of Acts, ms. D presents many variant readings, many of which either smooth out the story (e.g., v. 24) or add further details (e.g., v. 18), and acts as a sort of “Targum” of the book, giving an expanded “Living Bible” account, as it were. (See Grammar notes below for further comments.)
A. The beginning of v. 18 might be rendered: “When they had come to be present face to face with him . . .” The final four words of the verse, with an accusative of extent of time, covey: “I was (= proved to be) with you for the whole time.”
B. Note that vv. 18-21 comprise one long sentence. This is typical of so-called Asiatic Style of discourse, which loved complexity and repetition (cf. Ephesians 1). Note also the use of nominative participles in predicate position following the main verb. This is a mark of high style; see vv. 19, 21, 22, (31), and 38.
C. The structure in v. 20 with ὑποστέλλω in the middle voice is complex. See v. 27 for a similar structure. V. 27 is simpler; it has to do with shrinking back from doing something out of fear. The infinitive with τοῦ details what is being avoided. μὴ, is a “sympathetic negative” that reinforces the negative thought of the main verb (note ms. D’s omission here). The structure of v. 20 may be slightly different, viz., conveying withholding something (in the accusative) from someone, perhaps giving “…how I withheld nothing of the things that were profitable by not announcing (them) to you….” (cf. BDAG). Or, it may actually parallel the structure of v. 27, with οὐδὲν τῶν συμφερόντων anticipating (for emphasis) the infinitive clause that follows the main verb—indeed, actually being part of it. (Cf. Acts 19:4 [from λέγων on] for a similar anticipatory construction.) This would give the following (which is my preferred understanding): “…how nothing of the things that are profitable did I shrink back from announcing to you and teaching you….”
D. Note the future participle conveying future time, viz., “the things that will confront me.”
E. In v. 23, the addition of D is logical; reading the text as it is printed gives “city by city.” λέγον is a neuter participle modifying πνεῦμα.
F. The structure of v. 24 is difficult to untangle. Note the several variant readings, which seek to make sense of it (logically, D is one of them). A second main verb seems to be called for at the beginning, plus an additional negative (οὐδε). The text, as it stands (on solid manuscript authority) is probably best rendered: “But I purposely make (middle voice) the/my life, valuable for myself, of no account….” The clause that follows, beginning with ὡς, is also difficult. Note the variant adopted by the previous editions of Nestle/Aland (see the dagger in the apparatus), which is an aorist subjunctive (first person singular). With the preceding ὡς, this would convey purpose, viz., “in order that I may complete my race . . .” The N/A text has an infinitive in place of the subjunctive, in which case ὡς = ὥσπε, giving conceived result = “so as to complete my race…” In any case, the general sense seems clear.
G. For the structure of v. 27, see the discussion in C above, for v. 20.
H. This is the key verse in the pericope in many ways. It will be discussed in detail in the next section, but note the important verb forms, which need attentive parsing: ἔθετο, an aorist middle indicative; ποιμαίνειν, a present infinitive; and περιεποιήσατο, another aorist middle indicative. Note also the constructions ἐν ᾧ. This is often rendered “over which,” but it actually conveys “among whom.”
I. Note the asyndeton (no binding conjunction) at the beginning of v. 29. This conveys tension and emphasis.
J. The phrase τριετίαν νύκτα καὶ ἡμέραν is another accusative of extent of time (see A, above). Later in the verse, παύω plus a following nominative participle conveys the idea of “stop doing” (supplementary participle), i.e., “I did not stop admonishing.”
K. τὰ near the beginning of v. 32 is accusative of respect = “as far as what concerns right now . . .” The participle ἡγιασμένοις is perfect passive and gives the meaning “those who are (in a ) sanctified (condition).”
L. In v. 35, note that all four infinitives are present, not aorist. These convey focus on connection, not simple focus on the act described. The probable emphasis is “to engage in,” e.g., “it is more blessed to engage in giving than in getting.”
M. The form κατεφίλουν is a good example of an imperfect tense conveying repetitive action, i.e., “kept on kissing him.”
IV. The Narrative and Theological Content:
A. In v. 17, note that the men are described as πρεσβυτέροί, but they are described in Paul’s speech as ἐπίσκοποί (v.28). This probably shows that these terms denote the same, i.e., the pastoral, office.
B. The plots of the Jews, described here, appear in v. 3 of chapter 20 and throughout Acts. See also 1 Thessalonians 2:15 for a similar assessment of Jewish resistance to the Pauline mission.
C. On the basis of the preferred grammatical rendering in v. 20, above, note Paul’s emphatic disavowal of not telling the whole truth. Paul seems to have been dogged by this accusation throughout his ministry; see 1 Thessalonians 2:3–6, a passage in which he also feels compelled to proclaim his honesty. Paul seems to have raised the specter of being a sophist, i.e., someone who would teach anything for money. Note v. 33 below. See also v. 34, where he insists on self-support (cf. 1 Cor 4:12). But notice that this is not Paul’s ideal. 1 Corinthians 9:5–11 argues that men should be supported by their Gospel work—though he himself does not do so to avoid offence to the Gospel (1 Cor 9:12).
D. Verse 21 expresses the basic message of Acts (cf. 2:38; 13:38–39; 26:18, 20; 17:30–31 [also Lk 24:46–7]), as well as the foundational message of Jesus (Mk 1:14).
E. The witness given to Paul by the Spirit is probably a witness through prophets such as Agabus (cf. 11:28).
F. Paul’s negative assessment of the relative value of his life in v. 24 is echoed in Philippians 3:7–8, 12–14. The latter part of the verse is well reflected in 26:17–18, where Paul describes his own commissioning by Christ.
G. In v. 26, Paul describes his “innocence” of the blood of others. See 18:6, where Paul lays out “in so many words” what he means by this. Those who reject his preaching have no excuse. V. 27 confirms this understanding.
H. The key to this pericope is v. 28, in which Paul describes rather vividly his understanding of the pastoral office. Note the key verbs, parsed in section III H, above. This verse takes on vivid fullness when they are interpreted carefully. First ἔθεντο. This middle voice form conveys the fact that the Holy Spirit has very deliberately placed the elders as overseers—he is very interested in the outcome of this action! Next, the present infinitive ποιμαίνειν. The focus on connection conveyed by the first principal part stem conveys the habitual work that the shepherd does; this is his constant task. Then the second aorist middle form, περιεποιήσατο. Again, the emphasis is on the personal involvement and concern of God, who has purchased the church for himself (e.g., as his beloved bride [Eph 5]). This is followed by the interesting phrase at the end of the verse, “with his own blood.” Whose blood that is, grammatically, is God’s (note that the reading “the blood of his own son” is merely a conjecture [see apparatus])—which makes this verse a strong early testimony to the divinity of Christ, as well as to the Trinity (note that all three persons are mentioned—and active!). This verse, then, may be rendered, “with all the underwear showing,” in this way: “Take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, among whom the Holy Spirit has placed you to carry out his purposes as overseers, to engage in regularly shepherding the church of God, which he has purchased for himself as his own possession with his very own blood.” THERE HAS GOT TO BE A SERMON IN HERE SOMEWHERE!
I. Already in AD 58, Paul could warn of false teachers who would teach twisted things, vv. 29–30. Notice that these are not Judaizers but people similar to those described in Titus (see the Introduction, above) and the other Pastorals. Notice also that they attempt to draw disciples after them and do not simply argue about a correct doctrinal stance. Verse 32 affirms what we know, viz., that only God and his Word are our sure defense.
J. In v.35, note Paul’s use of himself as an example. He often does this in his letters (see, e.g., 1 Cor 4:6, 11:1; Phil 3:17). It is interesting that the final portion of this verse represents a saying of our Lord that is not found elsewhere in the NT (cf. the addition in Luke 6:4 by ms. D for something similar). This is an example of a tradition that survived orally and that could be referenced by early Christians.
V. Conclusion: This text is rich in sermon themes: declaring the full council of God; the threat of false teachers; the use of St. Paul as an example; the preference of giving over receiving, etc. It is hard, however, to resist the lure of v. 28 as a focal point for any teaching or proclamation of this pericope, viz., the nature of and the conduct of the pastoral office. See the final comment in IV H, above!