Old Testament: 2 Samuel 19 & 20
Poetry: Proverbs 26
New Testament: Acts 20
Paul chose to bypass Ephesus based on an urgent drive he felt to be in Jerusalem for Passover, a drive that may have come from God more than himself. He describes himself as “bound by the Spirit” or “bound in spirit” – he is aware the bonds and afflictions await him, but he is not sure that death is near. But he is sure he will never see the Ephesians again. But Paul arranged to meet the church leaders from Ephesus and gave some words of encouragement and warning (Acts 20:18‑35). It is hard to imagine how that meeting must have affected them. A man who basically shaped their community through years of teaching and healing and tears now said he would never see them again, and that some of them would not remain true to the faith. Their greatest concern remained the loss of Paul. They loved and valued him. The news about their future must have been stunning, maybe even sickening, but what could be done? They had already faced opposition. They may even have anticipated that not all who claimed the name of Jesus would stay true to him. But such concerns had to be for later days.
I wonder what further meanings they drew out of Paul’s words when they looked back on them, not simply as his closing thoughts about his own ministry, but as a commendation about their ministries. Some of his words are so poetic, or they seem so to me: “I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all men.For I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole purpose of God.” (v. 26-27). Looking back on it I think this may have seemed less a description of Paul’s own life and more a call to them of danger, for if he was innocent for not shrinking from the task, then that raised the threat that some of them who did so might be condemned for doing so. The image Paul offers of leaders becoming corrupt and seeking to build up themselves is an awful one. I would wish it was presented as a warning to them, something to be avoided, but as with Judas this was simply a prediction.
A note on Acts 20:28: I prepared these devotions mainly using the 1995 NASB, which has the phrase “the church of God which He purchased with His own blood.” Clearly there is a problem here, as God doesn’t have blood. Meanwhile you might have seen this NRSV wording: “the church of God that he obtained with the blood of his own Son.” Or perhaps you read the American Standard Version: “the church of the Lord which he purchased with his own blood.” Why do these differences exist?
You may know that the Bibles we read aren’t translated from a single master copy of the Bible in Hebrew and Greek (with a few chapters’ worth of Aramaic). It would be unlikely for a book on paper or papyrus to survive from the first century to today. Instead we have copies of what was written then. And it isn’t easy to prevent all confusion when copying by hand. You could always make just one copy and destroy the original – but that doesn’t remove all risk of errors, though it removes the ability to check if there were any. F.F. Bruce was a well-known Greek scholar, he wrote: “For Caesar’s Gallic War (composed between 58 and 50 B.C.) there are several extant manuscripts, but only nine or ten are good, and the oldest is some 900 years later than Caesar’s day.” People don’t tend to question the text of Gallic War. The text may be wrong if the error got in long enough ago, but we just aren’t going to know.
The Bible was intended to be spread widely. And because the Bible was used so widely and copied for people in so many parts of the world we have lots of copies, way more than for most things – about 5,800 Greek manuscripts of the New Testament. Having those different manuscripts meant they would get looked at, by language experts who wanted to know if they differed and how they differed. As it turned out almost none of the differences matter. The Church historian Philip Schaff (1819‑1893) wrote that in his time he was aware of only 400 New Testament variants that affected the meaning of a passage, and of those only 50 were of any significance. He didn’t think that any of the 50 rose to the level of affecting an “article of faith” (Companion to the Greek Testament and English Version, p. 177). The figures may be higher now, but it still isn’t something to lose your faith over. There are books (I have one) where committees of language experts evaluate the differences and what they think the situation is for each one.
Back to Acts 20:28, it is an interesting case for involving two options. Is the issue that the text was changed at some point to say “Church of the God” rather than “Church of the Lord” – maybe because that phrase was more common in the Bible and the copyist thought it was what Luke originally wrote? Or at the end of the sentence was a reference to “son” dropped, changing what would have said “blood of his own son”? You can see here what Philip Schaff was getting at. Everyone agrees that Paul was trying to talk about Jesus here, not the Father, and that something got garbled in some of the manuscripts. It is not clear which of the manuscripts has the original intention, but this is not a big issue of doctrine.
The matter of manuscripts and translation history can be fascinating, or it may quickly seem overwhelming. Rest assured it is not an area you normally need to concern yourself with if you are not interested in it. (For myself, with my history as an editor, it bothered me that the NASB had not addressed the issue in the verse even with a note.) As one more detail on this history, by the year 600 the gospels had been translated into nine languages. The Gospels were usually the first written literature of these languages. People were creating written forms of their languages just to better spread the news of Jesus to their people. I find that beautiful.
Dear Lord, thank you that you allow us to know about Paul’s struggles, and not just his successes. Help us to be more open with each other about our weaknesses, our tears, our losses. Let us be willing to admit that we need each other. It is more blessed to give than to receive, but if we don’t admit how much we need to receive sometimes people will not know to reach out. And help us, at least, who know that we are weak, to recognize that as a real possibility for others and offer them support and compassion and patience and time. We are not always hurting, but it is hard to make up for missing the opportunity of helping a hurting friend. So let me be more aware, more attentive. Let me listen with your son’s ears. And help me to speak with his words more often. Thank you, Lord. I love you. In Jesus’ name, Amen.
- Why do you think Paul valued meeting with the Ephesian elders? What are some things he may have been hoping for with the meeting?
- If you were among the Ephesian elders warned that some of the group would turn against Jesus, what do you think your reaction might be? Do you think that Paul’s statement may have changed how many elders fell, rescuing some?
- What do you think the Ephesian elders did when they returned to Ephesus? What kind of message did they have to tell the regular members? How soon?
- Did the discussion of manuscripts and translation leave you confused? If so, I’m sorry, email me with your question (firstname.lastname@example.org).