Acts 20 - IVP New Testament Commentaries

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To Jerusalem--Macedonia, Achaia, Troas

One of the greatest gifts a parent, a teacher or a coach can give is encouragement. Luke describes Paul's ministry of encouragement as he summarizes his movements at the end of his third missionary journey and focuses on a local church gathering in Troas. From these we learn how salvation blessings come in the ministry of mutual encouragement within the church.Encouragement amid Goodbys (20:1-6)

When the highly charged situation in Ephesus has settled down, Paul decides it is a propitious time to depart. But he does not do so until after he has called the disciples together for some encouragement (parakaleo). Growing out of the basic meaning "to call to one's side," this verb can mean "to appeal to or beseech," "to exhort" or "to comfort." For Paul and Luke, exhortation/encouragement is verbal ministry that by the Spirit's power seeks to strengthen Christians to persevere in the faith in the face of trials, especially persecution (Acts 11:23; 14:22; Rom 12:8). Paul consistently ministered encouragement in the churches, especially when he was about to leave them, when he visited them after an absence or when he could be with them only via letter (Acts 14:22; 15:32; 16:40; compare Eph 4:1). So in his leavetaking from Ephesus (Asia) and in his itineration through Macedonia and Achaia on his way to Jerusalem, Paul speaks many words of encouragement. His three-month stay is probably due to winter, when sea travel was avoided (compare Acts 27:12; 28:11; Tit 3:12).

Paul's example in itself is an encouragement to us, for it challenges us to be encouragers ourselves. It comforts us as well to know that the physical presence of those who brought us to birth in Christ is not essential to our further progress in the Christian life.

As Paul is about to set out on the last leg of his journey to Jerusalem, sailing directly from Achaia to Syria, he encounters a plot of the Jews against him (Acts 20:3; compare 9:24; 23:30). With cunning prudence Paul changes his plans and moves overland back through Achaia and Macedonia. This way he avoids possible harm, even death, as a passenger aboard a vessel crowded with Jewish pilgrims heading to Jerusalem for Passover. He divides his party, sending some--the Asians Tychichus and Trophimus--or possibly all his companions ahead to Troas by ship. After celebrating Christian Easter in Philippi (Passover A.D. 57 was April 7-14) and a five-day sea journey against contrary winds (the normal voyage in this direction is three or four days; Lake and Cadbury 1979:254; contrast 16:11), Paul and Luke rejoin the party at Troas (the "we sections" that left off in Philippi [16:10-17] recommence here at 20:5). Courage and prudence so combined in Paul's life that divine purposes were not thwarted by threatening circumstances (19:21-22). And so it should be with us.Encouragement in Local Focus (20:7-12)

At the end of a week's stay in Troas, Paul continues his ministry of encouragement in the context of a worship service. In the earliest unambiguous reference to early church practice concerning Sunday worship, Luke tells us that on the first day of the week we came together to break bread (compare 1 Cor 16:2; Rev 1:10; Didache 14:1; Epistle of Barnabas 15:9). In a letter to Trajan from Bithynia in the early second century, Pliny the Younger describes Christian practice. "They had met regularly before dawn on a fixed day to chant verse alternately among themselves in honor of Christ as if to a god. . . . After this ceremony it had been their custom to disperse and reassemble later to take food of an ordinary, harmless kind" (Epistles 10.96.7). Hence although the first day of the week was a workday, Christians hallowed it at its beginning and end, through corporate worship in celebration of Christ's resurrection (Lk 24:1). To break bread in Christian parlance probably points to a fellowship meal begun and completed by the sacrament of the Lord's Supper (Lk 22:19-20; Acts 2:42, 46; 20:11; 1 Cor 10:16; 11:24).

Paul's words to the Christians of Troas constitute a formal address, possibly with discussion and conversation (dialegomai, Acts 20:7, 9; compare 17:2, 17; 18:4, 19; 19:9; 24:25; homileo, 20:11; also Lk 24:14-15). Luke emphasizes the speech's length: it extends to midnight and, then, after the Lord's Supper-fellowship meal, until daybreak. Paul spares no effort in verbal exhortation as he prepares the disciples for what he thinks will be life permanently without his presence (Acts 20:25).

What principles for Christian worship is Luke teaching us through this narrative? The first day of the week, the Lord's Day, is when Christians should consistently gather for worship. The sermon, the exposition and application of the Word of God, is an integral part of worship. The Lord's Supper, the "visible Word," is just as important as a means of spiritually strengthening the church gathered. The two certainly belong together, but the frequency for taking the sacrament varies (2:46, daily; 20:7, weekly). When because of abuses the church came to separate the sacrament from the fellowship meal (1 Cor 11:17-22), something of the "family atmosphere" present in the combination may well have been lost. In an increasingly rootless society, where individuals find themselves without meaningful personal relationships in an impersonal urbanscape, recapturing "family" around the Lord's Table could be a saving grace for many. Urban Rome may well have found this an inviting picture too.

Into the midst of such an encouraging scene comes tragedy. Eutychus (good fortune), probably a lad between seven and fourteen years old, falls into a deep sleep. The room's atmosphere must have been heavy, with many smoking small torches (lampas), and the boy must have tried to catch the night air by sitting on a windowsill. But the lateness of the hour, the hypnotic effect of the flickering lights and Paul's lengthy discourse all probably contribute to his drowsiness. He loses his balance, falls out the window (probably no more than an open slit in the wall) and is picked up dead. With poignant simplicity Luke tells us what we all know: death is an unwelcome intruder that suddenly renders those who witness it speechless, immobilized.

Paul's action and words bring comfort. Not unlike Elisha of old, Paul threw himself on (better "fell on") the young man and put his arms around him (2 Kings 4:32-35; compare 1 Kings 17:19-24). The boy's life returns, for Paul calls out, Don't be alarmed (literally, "Stop being distressed"; compare Mk 5:39, where it describes the noise of mourning). He's alive! (literally, "his life [psyche, soul] is in him"). Then almost matter-of-factly Luke tells us that Paul returns to the upper room, partakes of the Lord's Supper and the fellowship meal, continues his exhortation-encouragement via personal conversation until daybreak, then departs.

When Luke caps the episode with the lad's being led away, probably home, alive, and the disciples' being greatly comforted, he certainly focuses on this miracle of resurrection as a source of comfort to the Christians. It is the last recorded miracle of Paul as a missionary moving about in freedom. But there are other sources of comfort/encouragement: the preaching of the Word of God and the taking of the Lord's Supper together. Luke says to his audience and to us that though the apostles are gone, the Lord is not. He has left tokens of his grace for all who would be encouraged and encourage: the restored Eutychus and the Spirit-enabled means of grace, Word and sacrament.

Next commentary:
To Jerusalem--Miletus

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