When Paul said goodbye to the Ephesian elders in Miletus, he told them he knew he would never see their faces again (Acts 20:25). However, his dealings with the church at Ephesus were not entirely completed, according to 1 Timothy 1:3, If we believe Paul was guided by inspiration in Miletus, we have to take him at his word. That means the church at Ephesus during Paul’s third preaching tour was dramatically different from the one with which Timothy was working just six or seven years later.
Perhaps the elders died in the interim. That would hardly be impossible, but surely it would be a remarkable coincidence. Perhaps Paul dropped Timothy in Ephesus without greeting the church, and thus avoided a face-to-face meeting. Again, certainly that could have happened; however, given Paul’s history of waiting an entire week in a location simply for the opportunity to commune at the Lord’s table with brethren, even when he was rushed (Acts 20:6-7), that seems unlikely. Or perhaps our premise is off; maybe Paul was under the impression that he would never go back to Ephesus, probably because he feared for his life, and he was simply mistaken.
Here’s another possibility, one that fits the facts of the narrative well and is not fraught with question marks: perhaps the elders had left the faith entirely by the time Timothy arrived in Ephesus.
Paul clearly states that “from among your own selves” problems would arise that would afflict the church (Acts 20:30). And Timothy was given instructions regarding the appointment of elders (1 Timothy 3:1-7), which implies there was a need for, or even an absence of, local overseers.
If this was the case, there is little doubt as to the issue that caused the problem: the love of money. Paul even hinted at this future while in Miletus. He made a special point of reminding them of his own selflessness and work ethic, and of Jesus’ words, “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:34-35). The theme is addressed directly in 1 Timothy 6:3-10, and being “free from the love of money” (1 Timothy 3:3) is specified as a necessity for an elder candidate. Clearly covetousness was an issue Paul thought required special attention.
Put yourself in Paul’s shoes. Facing certain imprisonment, and perhaps worse (Acts 20:23), he goes out of his way to meet with some men whom he likely converted, whom he almost certainly installed as local overseers. Either by inspiration or by personal insight, he sees the seeds of covetousness taking root in their hearts. Perhaps there is nothing concrete to rebuke, yet he does not want to pass them by without issuing one final warning. So he does the best he can, prays with them, and reminds them of the responsibility they have assumed and the hard work and sacrifice that it entails. If this was the case, certainly the story did not turn out the way Paul had desired.
Consider a few practical lessons for us today from the story of the Ephesian elders:
Problems can arise quickly.
Paul was forced by circumstances to deal briefly with prospective problems and then let the issue go. Usually, we are not. We can and must act on signs of danger in a timely fashion and then continue to address them in appropriate fashion as time goes on. The analogy of a watchman is used in Ezekiel 3:17 and many other places. God’s servant must be constantly on duty, ready to sound the alarm as early as possible at the sight of potential danger.
Delegation of duty is sometimes appropriate.
Regardless of the precise nature of the mess in the Ephesian church and the Ephesian eldership during Timothy’s visit, surely it was something Paul would have been more than equipped to handle. Instead, for reasons not revealed to us, he left Timothy to do the work instead. Preachers can be control freaks; I know this from experience. It is easy to assume the work will go undone or be done poorly if we do not do it ourselves. But putting others, particularly younger ones, in position to do important work is critical to the future of the church. Paul had been training Timothy for about 12 years by the time 1 Timothy was penned. The local work in Ephesus was likely the most challenging thing Timothy had ever attempted; that is why Paul wrote him two letters of encouragement and instruction. But if faithful men do not trust others to carry on the work (2 Timothy 2:2), the work will die.
Do not take salvation for granted.
We must assume the elders were godly men, equipped with the training and character necessary to do the work of overseers. Paul certainly did. But their salvation was no more assured than anyone else’s. Occasionally even elders require rebuke (1 Timothy 5:20). Those who consider themselves too experienced or well-trained to fall from grace have already begun the process of doing so.