It is Wednesday and we begin a new section in the book of Acts as we read Acts 20:1-38. It is a section full of interesting details, names, geography...take your time and allow your mind to think of what is happening in each part of it. Come back, and we'll look at it together.
The largest section in the book of Acts is the narrative of the Missionary journeys of Paul. Beginning in Acts 9, Paul was a major figure in the plan of God to carry the Gospel to "the uttermost parts of the world". Luke then described Paul's journey through Asia and into Greece (which means Europe) where churches of disciples were planted in city after city - large ones and small ones. Christianity spread as Paul and his team carried the message of the Gospel to both Jew and Gentile. Jesus had told the first Apostles "you shall be my witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, even to the remotest parts of the earth", but they did not know that it was to be done by Paul - the original church-hater!
It all began in Antioch - a city in south-eastern Asia (which the Romans used as a designation for all for what we now call Turkey). Paul made three missionary journeys with various companions. First, he went with Barnabas, then in the second and third Silas and Timothy. Along the way, he took on more companions - people who became converted to Christianity and wanted to join Paul on his missionary journeys. Along the way, Paul had ample opportunity to teach them and also to write to the various Churches he has established - most of the time to address specific issues that had arisen in the churches after he and his Apostolic band had left.
So, let's reorient our understanding of where we are in the story of the church. First, some 25 years have passed since Paul's conversion. Secondly, Paul had covered almost all of the known Roman world east of Italy, thus his desire, plans, and hopes to carry the Gospel next to Rome and beyond. His final journey began in Antioch, probably around 53-54 a.d., and his plans would be taken over by others when he arrived in Jerusalem three years later - about 57-58 a.d.
We left the story with Paul in Ephesus and a riot among the silversmiths who saw their trade dwindle as the Gospel changed the hearts, minds, and behavior of the church's new converts. "After the uproar ceased..." begins chapter 20:1. Paul says goodbye to the Ephesian church and departs for Macedonia to both winter there and to visit the churches he established. We know from later letters he journeyed to Corinth and stayed there for the winter before concluding the last part of his third journey.
Luke now rejoins Paul's entourage - we notice the language change from "they" to "we/us" (20:1-5). Luke was part of a now much larger team of 8+ people traveling with Paul. Luke's account serves as a fascinating picture of Paul's methods. He discovered a plot, so he split his team up, sending some overland to Troas, while Luke, Paul, and perhaps a few others sailed across to Troas. This happened after waiting till the days of Unleavened bread festival, which would have occurred after Easter, or Passover celebrations occurred. Luke gives details of people, timing, and events that were often previously given in the summary form.
They took the journey back across the Aegean to Troas - thus returning to the east and Asia. Paul and his companions are in Troas for one week. The account helps us to see certain things about the early church's gatherings. First, "on the first day of the week, we came together to break bread" (vs 7a). The first day would have begun at sundown on Saturday evening and extend thru all of Sunday, til sundown Sunday evening. Paul met with them in a house - hence the third story. House churches were the only means for Christians to gather. The first known building erected for Christian meetings doesn't occur until the late second, or early third-century a.d.
The meeting was in the evening on Sunday, and a young man, or probably boy, named Eutychus sat on a window ledge gradually falling into a deep sleep as Paul is speaking - many a Pastor has those stories to tell. Eutychus fell asleep and fell out the window from the "third story" - and the fall killed him. Some have suggested the fall knocked him out and Paul merely revived him, yet Luke was a physician and certainly knew the difference between someone unconscious and someone dead. Nevertheless, Paul left the third story meeting place and with others ran down where Luke writes: "But Paul went down and bent over him, and taking him in his arms, said, 'Do not be alarmed, for his life is in him.'” Acts 20:10 (ESV). Whether it was a miracle of reviving the dead, or a physical reviving from unconsciousness, they all went back to the church meeting on the third floor and broke bread, and fellowshipped way into the night hours, until daybreak! So much for complaining about long church meetings!
Now, Luke gives numerous geographical details and descriptions of how and where Paul and his group traveled. They were heading back to Ephesus to say goodbye to the church there, and then go on to Jerusalem because Paul wanted to get there by Pentecost. In vs 17, Luke describes a meeting of Paul with the Ephesian elders of the church in Miletus, a city along the coast. In other words, Paul summoned them to come to him, rather than leave the ship to go inland to them. It was his last meeting with the elders in this church that he had invested so much of his last missionary journey in. Paul was not just meeting with church leaders, he was meeting with friends - people who had given their lives to Christ Jesus and given their gifts to serve Christ as leaders in the church in Ephesus.
We won't go over all that Paul spoke to them about. In short, he reminds them of his time in Ephesus (vss 18-21). Paul says what every Pastoral leader should be able to say when finished: "you saw how I lived...I served the Lord and you humbly...and I did not hesitate to preach the Gospel and the Scriptures wherever I could, reminding people that all that matters is repentance and faith in the Lord Jesus".
Next in vss 22-27, he speaks about the immediate plans ahead. He has been directed by the Holy Spirit to return to Jerusalem where he has been warned, "there are prisons and hardships awaiting you". The word "compelled" (NIV) or "constrained" (ESV0 in verse 22 is a strong word meaning to be bound to a conviction - "I have to do this" - as Paul was absolutely convinced of this journey ahead to Jerusalem - regardless of what was ahead for him.
Lastly, in vss 28 - 35, he spoke to them as Elders who would lead the church in Ephesus thru dangerous times ahead.. He reminds them, "Stay awake"...like a Sentry whose job it is to stand guard. God had entrusted them with oversight of the church, and their job was to take that duty with vigilance and thoughtfulness. They were "overseers" - episkopos, from which we get Episcopal - meaning they were like a judge, or a treasurer, or supervisor. They had a position that required observation, communication, and protection. He told them to "shepherd" (poimaino, i.e. Pastor) the church, serving as Undershepherds of Jesus and the church who "he bought with his own blood." Later Paul would write similar words to Timothy near the end of his life (1 Timothy 3:2-7).
Then Paul warned them of external and internal attacks upon the church. Most people have little awareness that the church is often attacked from external sources - critics, doubters, skeptics who deny the message and the mission of the church. Paul said, "false teachers who deny Jesus" are "savage wolves" who will attack the church as a wolf attacks a flock of sheep. He also reminds them that the church is sometimes attacked from within - internal dangers await them from those who will distort the truth.
Lastly, Paul commends them to God - "to the word of his grace which can build you up and give you an inheritance among all those who are sanctified" (vs 32). He highlights for them the selfless nature of serving God's people - something he modeled to them when he was with them. When it was all done, he knelt and prayed with them. It was emotional and they wept for the realized their time with Paul, not just now, but for the rest of their lives, was over. Paul returned to the ship and they returned to Ephesus.
This story Luke writes to us in detail is a beautiful picture of the ending of a faithful life of service to the church. The church is often pictured in quiet, sedate forms. It is calm when the world is in confusion and chaos. It is thoughtful and spiritual, prayerful, and mindful. All should be true - on the outside. It is the life of Christ that feeds the church to be like that. The work of the Holy Spirit is to "keep your hearts and minds on Christ Jesus." Yet danger lurks around every corner.
The "truth" of the Gospel is under a relentless assault from both without and within. Outside of the church the exclusivity of the Gospel message that Jesus Christ is the "only way, truth, life" is called narrow, bigoted, and "wrong" - an offense to a pluralistic culture and its post-modern belief that there are no absolutes.
What do we do? It seeps its way into the church, and some inside soon begin to believe what the culture believes and want the message to change. Paul would remind us... be vigilant, guard the truth, don't stop believing what Scripture teaches, nor teaching it...because it is life from Christ, and the world is in need of that - as much now as ever. Jesus reminded us that He is Life, and therefore, there is no Plan B. Our mission has not changed...the Gospel to the "uttermost parts". Why? Because Jesus shed his blood to die for His people, His bride, His body - the Church.