Paul’s final personal message to the Ephesian elders was an important plea to a church that he had pastored and loved, for the purpose of strengthening them so they might prevail in the perilous years ahead of them. In reality, the apostle’s counsel is actually God’s timeless admonition for Christians of any age, and is becoming increasingly relevant as we prepare for the “perilous times” we know will precede Christ’s return (Matthew 24:4–14; 2 Timothy 3:1). Like the Ephesians before us, we can greatly benefit from using these spiritual tools so we too may grow stronger spiritually, and so we too may prevail “against the rulers of the darkness of this age” (Ephesians 6:12–13) in the years ahead.
What do we know of Ephesus and of Paul’s Ephesian ministry? We know that this great city was the location of Paul’slongest known-continuous ministry in one place. History records that Ephesus was a major trade city in the Roman Empire, located between the Croessus mountain range and the Aegean Sea, and by Paul’s time it had become wealthy and affluent, partly because it was situated between major imperial trade routes. Its first-century population is estimated to have been more than 300,000, making it one of the largest and most prosperous cities in the empire. We also know that Ephesus was a very pagan city, with a great temple of Diana prominently located at the head of its harbor. And we know Paul visited Ephesus briefly during his “Second Apostolic Journey” and eventually returned to work in Ephesus for almost three years (likely 53–56ad), where he helped further establish the Church of God (Acts 20:31). It was a church he grew to love, and a congregation that soon became very vibrant and strong in the faith. Paul’s Ephesian ministry is part of the time called his “Third Missionary Journey” or the “Third Apostolic Journey,” which is generally agreed to be from around 53ad to the winter of 57ad.
As his custom was, Paul began his Ephesian ministry in the Jewish synagogue, where he “spoke boldly for three months, reasoning and persuading concerning the things of the kingdom of God” (Acts 19:8). But persecution from the Jewish authorities soon forced him to relocate to a public lecture hall—the “school of Tyrannus”—where he continued for about two years (Acts 19:9–10). Despite this persecution, many came to hear Paul, making this a very productive time in his ministry. Paul drew large crowds of both Jews and Gentiles on the seventh-day Sabbath, and God worked many powerful miracles and performed many healings through him (Acts 19:10–12). During this productive time, Paul wrote 1 and 2 Corinthians to address problems and to strengthen the Church of God in Corinth, Greece (1 Corinthians 1:2), about 250 miles west of Ephesus, across the sea. God was doing a mighty work through Paul throughout the area, and in Ephesus many believed, and “the word of the Lord grew mightily and prevailed” (Acts 19:18, 20).
After about three years, Paul left for Macedonia and then Greece. In Corinth, in the fall of 57ad, he wrote his Epistle to the Romans. Then, that winter, on his way to Jerusalem, he stopped at Miletus, just south of Ephesus, where he summoned the Ephesian elders for the important admonition that we’ll review in this article. The apostle’s address to the Ephesian elders is found in the book of Acts, chapter 20. It was an emotional meeting and a powerful message. The elders feared they would not see him again in this life (Acts 20:38), and they were right. While Paul’s ministry continued for about 13 more years, these would indeed be his final personal instructions to the Ephesian elders.
In fact, God used Paul to prepare the church at Ephesus for what would be “perilous times” in the coming years. In 57ad, through the Holy Spirit, Paul exhorted the Ephesian elders that they would need to “remember” and do the “first works,” just as Jesus Christ would admonish them, decades later, through the Apostle John in Revelation 2.
As we consider what true Christians will increasingly face in the years to come, it would be wise to remember Paul’s admonition to the Church of God at Ephesus, and Jesus Christ’s instruction to every Church era. Like the Ephesians, we too must labor and not become weary (cf. Revelation 2:3). We, too, must hate evil (cf. Revelation 2:2), and like the Ephesians, we too are being prepared for spiritual battle and a time when the days will grow darker as the world increasingly falls under Satan’s sway (2 Timothy 3:1). For these same reasons, when Paul wrote his epistle to the Ephesians—about three years after his meeting with the Ephesian elders—he reminded them that they do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but “against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12), just as we do today.
Paul’s Five Admonitions at Miletus
Acts 20:17–38 contains the account of Paul’s address to the Ephesian elders who met with him in Miletus, and the specific instruction we will focus on is contained in verses 24 through 32. Inspired by God, he gave them five admonitions to practice and to teach to the Church of God in Ephesus. Additional lessons can be extracted from the account, but this article will review these five admonitions that are particularly relevant for us today. How well do we appreciate and practice these five admonitions?
Admonition 1: Work to Preach the Gospel
In Acts 20:25, Paul reminded the elders that he had been preaching the Gospel of the Kingdom of God among them for years. True Christianity is an entire way of life, obedient to all of God’s law, and it is more than simply prayer and Bible study. God has given His Church a great Work to do. The “work” or the “priority” of the Church of God to preach the Gospel of the Kingdom of God is extremely clear from Scripture (Mark 16:15; Acts 16:10; 1 Corinthians 1:17; Galatians 2:2) and is the first of the “sevenfold commission” that Dr. Meredith often mentioned (see “The PURPOSE for God’s Church” in the May-June 2009 Living Church News). This was the instruction and example of Jesus Christ (Mark 1:14–15; Luke 4:18; 9:10–11).
AsJesus foretold, “this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in all the world as a witness to all the nations, and then the end will come (Matthew 24:14). If we are true followers of Christ, then, especially as we see prophecy moving forward, we will consider admonitions such as Dr. Douglas Winnail’s: “If we merely focus on self—praying, fasting and studying the Bible for our own benefit—we will not fulfill the Great Commission that Jesus Christ outlined for His Church. Are we willing to risk our reward by ignoring Christ’s own words?” (“The Mission of God’s Church,” Living Church News, March-April 2006).
Admonition 2: Follow God’s Counsel
Paul reminded them that he had “not shunned to declare to [them] the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27). The distractions of wealth, trade, society, and false religion were major pressures in first-century Ephesus. Similarly, today “modern Israel” is increasingly moving further away from God and Scripture. However, the true Church of God will be a bulwark of faith, never attempting to “water down” doctrine or be swayed by secular opinion. It will, instead, practice and teach the whole counsel of God. As Dr. Meredith often admonished, the Church of God will teach all of God’s law. As he wrote, referring to the same passage where Paul was exhorting the Ephesian elders, “please consider whether you are truly following the ‘whole counsel of God,’ to which Paul had just referred” (“Do You Live by What Christ Taught?,” Tomorrow’s World, May-June 2006).
God rebukes the people of end-time “modern Israel” through the prophet Hosea: “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge. Because you have rejected knowledge, I also will reject you from being priest for Me; because you have forgotten the law of your God, I also will forget your children. The more they increased, the more they sinned against Me; I will change their glory into shame” (Hosea 4:6–7). Addressing this “lack of knowledge” in our modern time, Dr. Meredith wrote,
“Millions of Americans, Canadians and Britons attend church and recite standard prayers, sing songs, clap their hands and hope they are learning something worthwhile. But they are not actually learning to understand the inspired word of God. They are not being taught the details of why they were actually born, the ultimate purpose of life and how to attain that purpose. They are not being told of the dozens of specific prophecies now beginning to occur, which will greatly affect their very lives over the next decade or two. They are not being taught the ‘whole counsel of God’ as the Apostle Paul taught” (“Why Don’t Most Churches Preach the Truth?,” Tomorrow’s World, March-April 2014).
Are we guarding ourselves against spiritual apathy, learning and practicing the whole counsel of God?
Admonition 3: Remember Christ’s Merciful Sacrifice
In Acts 20:28, Paul reminded them of the importance of Jesus Christ’s sacrifice. We must always deeply appreciate the importance of Christ’s sacrifice. Consider reviewing Mr. Richard Ames’ article on this vital fact, “Worthy Is the Lamb” (Living Church News, March-April 2013). Ephesians 2:12–13 reminds us that we have been brought near to God by the blood of Christ, that through His sacrifice we have a relationship with the Father. And Romans 5:8–9 reveals that “God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from wrath through Him.”
The love of God and the sacrifice of Jesus Christ do not abrogate the need for God’s law and heartfelt repentance. A converted, repentant person will want to live by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God (Matthew 4:4). Such an individual will desire to show his or her love for God by keeping God’s commandments (1 John 5:3) and will want to act on the Truth (James 1:22). Converted, repentant Christians will desire to walk in newness of life, as they walk “in the light” and have fellowship with one another. For the truly repentant person who understands and appreciates the sacrifice of the Son of God, the blood of Jesus Christ will cleanse that person from sin (cf. 1 John 1:7). As Dr. Roderick Meredith wrote, “And, much more than most of us probably do, we should constantly think about and appreciate the sacrifice Jesus Christ made in literally giving His blood as payment for our sins!” (“What Does Christ’s Death Mean to YOU?,” Living Church News, September-October 2006).
Admonition 4: Defend the faith
Understanding the unrighteous influences that the Ephesian Church strove against, and understanding that persecution and heresy would increase after his departure, Paul admonished the Ephesian elders to defend against false doctrine. Paul wrote, “For I know this, that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock,” and he reminded them that for three years he passionately taught them and pleaded with them, “night and day with tears” (Acts 20:29–31). The work of an elder includes compassionately and fervently warning and protecting the flock that he shepherds and serves, including, when needed, warning those in the body of Christ, to “turn away” from ungodly people (2 Timothy 3:1–5).
The carnal mind that wants to pursue its own will recoils at this instruction, but we are wise to remember that we are commanded, “Obey those who rule over you, and be submissive, for they watch out for your souls, as those who must give account. Let them do so with joy and not with grief, for that would be unprofitable for you” (Hebrews 13:17). And when people come teaching false doctrine, Paul’s admonition to the Corinthians is relevant to all true Christians; “Do not be deceived, ‘Evil company corrupts good habits’” (1 Corinthians 15:33).
Admonition 5: Diligently Study the Bible
Finally, Paul commended the Ephesian elders to God’s word (Acts 20:32), and so, too, should we be diligent about Bible study. It is through studying, reading and hearing Scripture that we grow in faith (Romans 10:17). Of all that we could invest time and energy into studying, it is the entirety of God’s word that is Truth (Psalm 119:160). The Bible teaches that God cannot lie and that Scripture is true (Numbers 23:19; 1 Samuel 15:29; John 10:35; John 17:17; Titus 1:2; Hebrews 6:18). The Bible is God’s instruction to mankind, and we can trust it. The Bible is inerrant in its original manuscripts and has been faithfully preserved and historically verified.
Both the Old Testament and the New Testament have been preserved with incredible accuracy, including which books should be contained within the Old and New Testaments. The Apostles canonized the New Testament, and that canonization was preserved through their disciples, such as Polycarp. Although canonized well before, the oldest surviving list of the canonical scriptures of the Old Testament comes from about 170ad, and was recorded by Melito of Sardis, who was a friend of Polycrates of Ephesus, where Paul had ministered so diligently and so effectively decades before. It was this same Polycrates of Ephesus who was a disciple of Polycarp, the disciple of John.
Archaeological evidence also upholds the historical accuracy of the Bible. For example, the Prism of Sennacherib, which was discovered in Nineveh in 1830 and is now housed in the British Museum, describes Sennacherib’s conquest of 46 Judean cities during Hezekiah’s time, thus aligning with the preserved Biblical record. The Israel Stele, a stone slab discovered in Thebes, Egypt in 1896, is the oldest record of ancient Israel found outside of the Bible, and it records Pharaoh Merenptah’s conquest of Israel and Syria in the 13th century bc. Similarly, the Tel Dan Stele, which was discovered in fragments between 1993 and 1994, provides extra-biblical evidence of King David and the House of David. And in 2015, a half-inch clayseal of Hezekiah was found near the old Jerusalem city walls, bearing the inscription, “Belonging to Hezekiah, son of Ahaz, king of Judah.”
We are told, “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God [or ‘God-breathed’], and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness,” that we may grow to perfection (2 Timothy 3:16–17). We must be diligent to study God’s word daily, and we can be confident that we can trust the Bible.
Paul’s Arrest, His Appeal, and His Martyrdom
After Paul exhorted the Ephesian elders at Miletus, he continued on his way to Jerusalem and encountered the prophet Agabus, who warned him that if he continued to Jerusalem, the Jews would turn him over to the Romans and he would be put in chains (Acts 21:7–14). Just two of Agabus’ prophecies are recorded in Scripture (the other being his prophecy about a severe famine to come, which was fulfilled during the time of Claudius), and both of his recorded prophecies came true. Paul was, indeed, turned over by the Jews at Jerusalem, and was eventually taken by Roman guard to Caesarea where he was imprisoned for two years. Paul insisted on his right, as a Roman citizen, to have his case heard by Caesar (see Acts 25:11). This is likely around 59ad, and Scripture records that Festus asked the Jewish king Agrippa II to evaluate Paul’s defense before the apostle was sent on to Rome to continue his appeal.
Paul records that at his first defense before Caesar Nero, no one stood with him, but the Lord stood by him (2 Timothy 4:16–17). While Scripture and history are unclear on exactly what happened, we know that around 61 or 62ad, he was eventually released. It was around this same time that James the brother of Jesus was executed in Jerusalem.
Paul continued his ministry, and some events of this period are covered by the book of Acts. He preached, was persecuted, and traveled to places throughout the Roman empire. The ancient letter “Clement to the Corinthians” suggests that Paul traveled to Spain. Some tradition says that Paul even went to Britain. Eventually, he would be arrested again. And even in his chains, he remained productive, preaching and writing (for example, he would write 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy and Titus while in chains).
Finally, Paul was taken to Rome a second time and brought before Caesar Nero again, now around 67 or 68ad. In 2 Timothy 4:21–22 we findPaul’s final recorded words in Scripture, and then God’s word is silent on Paul. Tradition says that he was sentenced to beheading. Nero died in the summer of 68ad, and tradition is that Paul was executed before Nero’s death, just outside of Rome, probably on the Ostian Road, where the aged apostle laid his head down on a block, and an imperial swordsman took his life. Paul’s life was over, but his ministry continues through Scripture.
We are being built up upon the foundation of the apostles, the prophets, and Jesus Christ Himself (Ephesians 2:19–20). As Jesus Christ warned the Ephesian Church decades later, let us never forget our first love (Revelation 2:1–7). Instead, let us be zealous to heed the admonition of Paul to the Ephesian elders at Miletus nearly 2,000 years ago, as we, too, prepare for perilous times—so that we can prevail, ourselves, and rise with Paul to meet Christ in the resurrection.