It was the last time Paul would see the Ephesian elders. His message was a solemn warning. Paul’s ministry in Ephesus had been successful enough that a church had been established and even local idol makers felt their businesses threatened (Acts 19:23–27). So why was his message somber?
Paul expected their church to come under attack. “Fierce wolves” would invade from outside, and strange teachings would arise from within (Acts 20:17–38). The dangers he foresaw flow entirely from doctrinal problems (“men speaking twisted things”). Thus, his strategies for defending the church involved imparting sound doctrine. Just as he had been faithful to declare “the whole counsel of God,” Paul expected the same from the Ephesian elders, commending them to “God and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up.”
The center of Paul’s missionary method was the ongoing and faithful teaching of God’s Word as the means of building and protecting the church. If missionaries—and the elders we leave behind—want to follow Paul’s approach, we must recover the same urgency for teaching.
Scriptural Breadth and Depth
Today’s most popular missions methods aren’t built on a similar model of thorough teaching. Instead, they emphasize the importance of obedience to God’s Word, creating a false distinction between knowing and doing the truth. Missionaries are told that “obedience to God’s Word rather than mere knowledge of God’s Word [is] the normal pattern of discipleship.” But obedience to God’s Word flows from knowing God through his Word.
Obedience to God’s Word flows from knowing God through his Word.
To be sure, Bible study shouldn’t be a purely cognitive exercise. It should be both affective and transformative rather than sterile or academic. Through his Word, we’re meant to know God personally. And those who truly know him, trust him. Obedience follows naturally.
Knowledge of God and his Word also need not be inaccessible. The greatest truths of Scripture are simple (“God is good” and “God loves sinners”). But we must hold these simple convictions amid the complexity of real life. Missionaries need sufficient depth of spiritual understanding and scriptural nuance to respond to the Devil’s cunning temptations. They must be able to answer a broad range of difficult questions from young disciples, such as, “If God is good, why is life so painful?” or “If God loves you, shouldn’t you be able to live in a way that makes you happy?”
This becomes practical very quickly. In order to answer such challenging and pressing questions, missionaries must spend years mastering the local language(s) and learning the culture of the unreached. Where necessary, we must translate the Scriptures. We also must spend years teaching those Scriptures thoroughly and directly, as Paul did.
Willing to Be Patient
Here’s the catch. We can’t shortcut scriptural depth. Paul taught deliberately, directly, and repeatedly. That doesn’t mean he always lectured, but it does mean he instructed—and the Ephesians learned. This took valuable time. Paul declared everything he believed was profitable “in public and from house to house” for three years, night and day, admonishing everyone in Ephesus (Acts 20:20, 31).
Why did Paul spend three years in Ephesus when, for example, he only spent three weeks in Thessalonica? Actually, it’s likely he would have stayed in other cities for at least as long as in Ephesus if he hadn’t been driven out by his opponents. Even in Ephesus he may have preferred to stay longer but ended up leaving after a riot broke out.
Missionaries today—most of whom will need substantial time to learn local languages before we can teach as Paul did—should anticipate spending much longer than three years in a place. The point isn’t to work slowly. The point is to impart the “whole counsel of God.”
Today, popular missions approaches are telling us much the opposite. Some are nearly silent about the importance of language acquisition and translation. Some suggest the work is basically simple; even new believers can plant churches. Many assume careful, scriptural teaching is unnecessary; the Holy Spirit will reveal what is necessary.
These innovative approaches are well intended. They’re designed to increase the speed at which the gospel can move through societies. In fact, we’re told these new methods have already resulted in millions of churches and tens of millions of baptisms among the unreached.
Sadly, we’re finding that in many cases, these numbers are massively inflated. As Paul knew, wheat grows among tares. Even accurate reporting can be misleading if not tracked over the long term. This doesn’t suggest all of today’s missionary endeavors will fail—let us pray for God’s grace! But all churches come under attack. How will we prepare them for the wolves?
The answer, I think, comes in redirecting our urgency. In Paul’s day, only a tiny fraction of the world had been reached. While Paul worked to grow the church numerically, this wasn’t his singular concern. Instead, he spent much of his missionary efforts helping churches know God’s Word and fend off false teaching.
Paul was more concerned for a flock’s safety than its size.
Put another way, Paul was more concerned for a flock’s safety than its size. After all, a flock’s size doesn’t matter if it’s unprotected when the wolves come. So Paul taught the believers in Ephesus night and day for years. And when he had to leave, he bequeathed that same responsibility to elders whom he raised up. But even then, Paul remained involved in the Ephesian church. He wrote a letter to the congregation. He visited the elders, warning of doctrinal drift. He also sent Timothy to continue the work among them, correcting false teaching and establishing leaders.
I believe we should emulate Paul’s patience and perseverance in this missionary responsibility of teaching. Many still have never heard the gospel, and we feel their need urgently. But new believers are also in danger. If we don’t sense a similar urgency to defend new flocks, our work may be for nothing.