A little background is in order.
Paul, with Priscilla and Aquila, visited the city of Ephesus on the final leg of his second missions tour. Leaving the couple behind, he continued on to Antioch, his home base. Later, he revisited Ephesus on his third tour. In his absence, Priscilla and Aquilla, along with the powerful preacher Apollos, built on the foundation laid by Paul, and the work had flourished. Paul stayed on for three years (Acts 19:10, 20:31), the Word of God flourished both in Ephesus (19:20) and in all of Asia (19:10).
After continuing on his missions tour through Macedonia and Greece, he traveled past Ephesus, stopping at the coastal city of Miletus about 30-40 miles away. From there he sent for the elders of the church at Ephesus and gave them his final teaching (Acts 20:17-39). This is the clearest passage in the NT where Paul personally interacted with elders—his heartbeat for the church and for the ministry of elders is very clear.
We can’t overlook the fact that the Ephesian believers, including the elders, would have been converts for no more than about five years or so. At some point in their young history, elders had been appointed, as was Paul’s custom with the churches he planted. He must have seen in those men, identified as elders, not perfection, but potential. They had received considerable teaching from Paul, Priscilla, Aquila, Apollos and possibly Timothy (who resided in Ephesus when Paul later wrote his two letters to him). What Paul looked for was faithfulness, as he instructed Timothy , “The things which you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses, entrust these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also” (2 Tim 2:2 NASB).
Paul begins his final message by reminding them of his example. Notice that his message includes pointing out that he modeled a certain behavior for them. Clearly, he wants them to imitate this very thing, the modeling of the behavior they should pass on to others. There is no boasting or arrogance here–like a parent showing a child how to tie a shoe lace, “Here, watch me do it.” That child when he or she grows up, then in turn remembers how he learned how to tie shoes and so models this for his children.
What then is the example Paul modeled for them, which they had opportunity to observe over the course of three years?
He declared the truth (20)
This involved not so much reasoning with them as it did putting the truth out there, like letting a lion loose. The Word is powerful and, at times, requires no explanation—it simply needs to be proclaimed.
He taught the truth (20)
At other times Paul explained the meaning of things, “reasoning” with those willing to engage him (see Acts 19:9 NASB). This requires patience and understanding.
He testified to the truth (21)
There were times when Paul shared his own personal experience with the truth as it applied in his life. He certainly lived the repentance and faith he preached, having recounted it multiple times in the Book of Acts.
He was driven by purpose (24)
Paul was clear about his purpose and stayed on track. A leader of God’s people must keep clear why he is doing what he is doing. He must not waste time in areas non-essential to God’s purpose for him.
He worked hard (34-35)
No one could call Paul lazy; he carried his own weight while also serving the Lord. Ministry and living both require strenuous effort.
He served long hours (31)
This was a natural bi-product of a self-supporting man who had a passion for serving the Lord. For at least some of his time in Ephesus, Paul was what we would call “bi-vocational.” This secular work was not a lack of faith on his part, but a matter of necessity and example.
He was generous (34)
He worked his tent-making trade (see Acts 18:3) so that he could also support others.
Paul set an example for three years and during his last speech to them he consciously reminds the elders of the “example-value” style of his teaching, namely his behavior. He was confident that he had lived his life consonant with his words. The elders, then, should not only follow his example of integrity, but should then model that for others as well.
The truth of the matter is that elders areexamples both to the whole church as well as other elders—the real question is whether we are good examples or bad examples. Let us not hide behind false humility, but so live our lives with the heart-attitude, “Here, watch me.” Not out of arrogance or self-exaltation, but out of a humble spirit of genuinely wanting to show by our behavior how the man of God, the leader of God’s people, should live. If we don’t do it, then who will? Let me encourage us all to follow Paul’s example, and become a good example to others.