RPM, Volume 17, Number 46, November 8 to November 14, 2015

To the Ends of the Earth: A Deadly Sermon

Acts 20:1-12

By Dr. Derek W. H. Thomas

Now turn with me if you would to The Acts of The Apostles once again, and tonight we are in the twentieth chapter. We have been now for a number of weeks following the ministry of the Apostle Paul in the great city of Corinth, where he was upwards of three years; we have followed him as he made his way to Ephesus, another strategic and important city where the apostle now has spent upwards of two years; and just last week we were following the account in Ephesus of how the Apostle Paul encountered not a little difficulty towards the end of his time there—a riot, indeed, in the city of Ephesus, a great hubbub in the amphitheater. In the providence of God, you remember, the Apostle Paul was kept outside of the amphitheater, partly at the behest of his disciples, but partly at the behest of a group of men who are otherwise called his "friends," but they are called Asiarchs. These were men in charge of the cult worship of the emperor, and in this astonishing providence Paul has made friends, or these men made friends with the Apostle Paul. They've seen something in him, in his character, in the resoluteness and his determined way of living, and they entreat him, implore him not to enter the amphitheater. Probably just as well…I think if Paul, as Calvin says, had gone inside that amphitheater, things would have probably turned out in a very different way.

Well, the riot is quelled, and now Paul is making his way out of the city of Ephesus and heading, at least initially, towards Jerusalem.

Now before we read together the first twelve verses of Acts 20, let's once again come before God in prayer. Let us pray.

O Lord our God, we thank You again for the Scriptures, for the holy word of God. We thank You that holy men of old wrote as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit. And we pray tonight again, O Lord, come and bless us. Grant covenant insight and benediction as we read the Scriptures together. Teach us from Your word. We are prone to wander; we are prone to leave the God we love. So come, O Lord; write Your word upon our hearts, that we might not sin against You. And this we ask for Jesus' sake. Amen.

This is God's holy and inerrant word:

And after the uproar had ceased, Paul sent for the disciples and when he had exhorted them and taken his leave of them, he departed to go to Macedonia. And when he had gone through those districts and had given them much exhortation, he came to Greece. And there he spent three months, and when a plot was formed against him by the Jews as he was about to set sail for Syria, he determined to return through Macedonia. And he was accompanied by Sopater of Berea, the son of Pyrrhus; and by Aristarchus and Secundus of the Thessalonians; and Gaius of Derbe, and Timothy; and Tychicus and Trophimus of Asia. But these had gone on ahead were waiting for us at Troas. And we sailed from Philippi after the days of Unleavened Bread, and came to them at Troas within five days; and there we stayed seven days.

And on the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread, Paul began talking to them, intending to depart the next day, and he prolonged his message until midnight. And there were many lamps in the upper room where we were gathered together. And there was a certain young man named Eutychus sitting on the window sill, sinking into a deep sleep; and as Paul kept on talking, he was overcome by sleep and fell down from the third floor, and was picked up dead. But Paul went down and fell upon him and after embracing him, he said, "Do not be troubled, for his life is in him." And when he had gone back up, and had broken the bread and eaten, he talked with them a long while, until daybreak, and so departed. And they took away the boy alive, and were greatly comforted.

Amen. And may the Lord bless to us that reading of His holy and inerrant word.

It's fitting, I suppose, that today is Memorial weekend, and tomorrow is a day off, and that most of you don't have to go to work tomorrow…and we can spend the whole night here in this passage! So whatever plans that you had, the doors are firmly locked and you are here for the duration!

This is a wonderful, wonderful story. It's a favorite story of many a young child; many a young boy and girl love this story. It's a strange story of a young boy. The Greek words in verse 12, "and they took away the boy alive" — the Greek word is a reference to someone between the age of about eight and fourteen, a young boy. And he falls from the third story window to the ground.

Well, before we come to that, this passage teaches us a number of important things.

It teaches us first of all something about providence. There's a wonderful connection with the sermon this morning in Philippi and Paul as he's in prison in Rome, and Ligon was telling us this morning about Paul's theology of circumstances. Well, there's a duplication of that in some degree here in the passage tonight. It's about providence. It's about God changing someone's plans.

Secondly, there's a lesson in here about the Lord's Day. This is the first reference (the first formal reference, at least) to the Lord's Day in The Acts of The Apostles, and you get the impression that when Paul comes (and it is to Philippi that he eventually will come) and he's there with Luke, you get the impression that they're engaging in a certain activity that they've been engaging in for some time on the Lord's Day. There's a certain pattern that has now become part of their standard practice, and I want us to look at that. Because although what we have here is descriptive and there are certain aspects of it that are unique, there are also underlying in this passage some things of a prescription for us.

And then, thirdly, we need to look at this story about the young boy who falls from the third story window, and I want us to see that the story isn't really about him. But I'll hold that for …roughly, about four o'clock tomorrow morning!

I. God's providence.

Paul has been in Ephesus. He tells us, you remember, in Corinthians. In I Corinthians 15, he makes that little reference to having fought wild beasts in Ephesus. When he writes to the Corinthians, the Second Epistle to the Corinthians, he informs us that he despaired of life itself when he was in Ephesus. He wants, we read in verse 21 of chapter 19, he wants initially to see Rome, and Luke is telling us the story in Acts with that goal in mind. Actually, that's one of the reasons why he writes The Acts of The Apostles, to present the Apostle Paul as a citizen of the Roman Empire, perhaps for his defense in Rome…the very defense that Ligon is looking at now in the context of the writing of Philippians itself. Acts would form a wonderful defense before the authorities that he was a loyal citizen of the empire.

Paul had said farewell to the Ephesians. He had crossed now the Aegean. He had gone into Macedonia, and we read in verse 1 of chapter 20 that:

"After the uproar had ceased, Paul sent for the disciples and when he had exhorted them and taken his leave of them, he departed to Macedonia. Then when he had gone through those districts and had given them much exhortation, he came to Greece."

The reference of course here to Greece is the reference to Corinth, so we have this picture of Paul: He had gone over to Macedonia; he has probably visited the church at Philippi; he's visited the church at Thessalonica; he's visited the church at Berea (he seems to have spent some time there; we read of a period of about three months or so); and eventually he comes down to Greece, and he comes to Corinth itself.

Corinth was a troubled church. Oh, it's a difficult web to untangle the correspondence of Paul with Corinth. He has already written one letter to Corinth, back in Ephesus. Somewhere en route to Corinth, probably in Philippi, he has written the second letter to Corinth. But before he ever wrote the first one, there seems to be a reference in I Corinthians 5 to another letter that he has written, a "painful letter" indeed. When he was in Ephesus, various people from the church at Corinth had come to visit him. Trophimus was one, Tychicus was another; the household of Stephanas; Fortunatus, Tychicus, some members of the household of Chloe…we know that they'd come to see him in Ephesus. They'd brought news that things weren't good in Corinth. There was strife and division; there were moral and ethical problems. Their celebration of the Lord's Supper was in something of disarray, and evidently the Apostle Paul…at least it looks as though he wrote a painful letter…we don't have that letter; then followed by I Corinthians. In between writing I Corinthians and II Corinthians while he was still in Ephesus, some commentators think that he made a quick visit over to Corinth and back again, a painful visit that he seems to make a reference to in II Corinthians.

But now he's in Corinth itself. He's back in the city. He's there for three months. It's a difficult time, a painful time. And he intends in Corinth to go to Syria, to go to Jerusalem. We learn in the passage that it's Passover time—it's springtime. The three months in Corinth may have been wintertime. They may have been waiting for advantageous weather for crossing the Mediterranean down to Syria and Jerusalem.

But he hears of a plot, a plot to kill him…a Jewish plot to kill him. Perhaps his intention had been, the plans had been, he would go on a ship full of pilgrim Jews going back to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover. He would go along with them. He hasn't been in Jerusalem now for a number of years. He's been three years in Corinth, two years in Ephesus; he's been away from Jerusalem for a number of years. But there's a plot to kill him, a plot to take away his life, and he has to change his plan. "Man proposes, but God disposes." Even the Apostle Paul, some of the plans and some of the decisions that he would make would have to be changed and altered because of circumstances. And he heads back up to Macedonia, heads back towards the districts of Thessalonica and Berea, and eventually to Philippi, and eventually across the Aegean again to Troas.

Luke tells us that he didn't travel alone. It was a wise policy, of course, not to travel alone. There's a whole slew of people, there's a group here of ten people that we know of in this party. One is Timothy, from Lystra; Aristarchus and Secundus come from Thessalonica in Macedonia; Tychicus comes from Asia; Sopater comes from Berea; Trophimus, from Ephesus; Gaius comes from Derbe; Titus and Luke come from Antioch. We're not quite clear where Luke has been; all we can say is that when he gets to Philippi, Luke is there, because all of a sudden, you notice, we're back to we again. We did this and we did that, and we left here, and we sailed there. Luke is there already. Maybe Luke had stayed on in Philippi the whole time. And now Paul has been reunited with his friend, this doctor, this historian, this writer of The Acts of The Apostles. Nine men, plus Luke, in Philippi. And Paul waits in Philippi. Seven, or perhaps eight of them, make their way across to Troas, leaving just Paul and Luke in Philippi, and they celebrate…well, he waits until Passover is over, and then Luke and Paul head to Troas.

This is an interesting reference to Passover…that there was Passover, and he was in Philippi. And the suggestion has been made…and that's all that it is - it's very difficult to prove it… but the suggestion is that Paul would have taken this opportunity, especially amongst converted Jews, to explain now something that he had already written back in Ephesus when he had written to the Corinthian church. He had mentioned that Christ is our Passover; that the Old Testament festival of Passover is now fulfilled in Christ. That would have provided the Apostle Paul all kinds of opportunities for presenting the gospel, and for explaining the interconnectedness and the areas of continuity and discontinuity between the old covenant and the new covenant.

Some, of course (for reasons that are obvious) suggest that what they did at Philippi was actually begin the celebration of Easter. I'm not too sure about that, but I certainly think that there was no way that Passover could have been taking place in Jerusalem without Paul mentioning and preaching and proclaiming and explaining from the Scriptures that Passover is now fulfilled; that celebration which at the heart of it warns of the avenging angel that otherwise struck the firstborn of the Egyptians, but spared those in Israel that had the blood on the doorpost, the lintels of the doorpost, that blood now seen in all of its clarity in the blood that was shed on the cross of Calvary. He is the Passover Lamb that is sacrificed for us. And in a sense, then, Passover would need to be celebrated no longer, and Christ has fulfilled it.

Change of plans! Change of plans—don't be surprised, my friends, don't be surprised when you follow the Lord with all of your heart, as Paul followed the Lord with all of his heart…don't be surprised if plans have to be changed, if God's providence as it unfolds presents itself in mysterious forms…closing doors, opening other doors of opportunity, but changing plans.

II. A change of day

But secondly, a change of day, because Luke provides for us now in Philippi a reference in verse 7:

"On the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread…."
They'd come now to Troas. Luke and Paul and the other eight, they're all reunited now in Troas. They've gathered with the church. They've gathered with the Lord's people. They've landed on a ship somewhere in the port just outside the city of Troas. They've made their way in, they've been welcomed, and it's the Lord's Day. "On the first day of the week…." He's going to spend a week there, but no sooner does he arrive but this first day of the week…literally, it's the first after Sabbath, and it's translated here as the first day of the week. It's not clear whether Luke is using the Jewish way of reckoning or whether he's using the Roman way of reckoning. Does he mean the first day of the week after Sabbath? That is, sundown on Saturday evening to sundown on Sunday evening, reckoning in the Jewish mode? Or, as I think is more likely here, that he is reckoning after the Roman way, from midnight to midnight of what we would call Sunday, the first day of the week.

And they were gathered together to break bread. Already, do you see, the church in Troas…of which we know almost nothing…but this little church, this little community that has gathered together in Troas on the first day of the week, on Sunday, they're gathering together. And they're gathering together for the purposes of breaking bread and, as we see here, of listening to preaching, of listening to the word of God being expounded.

That's a very interesting thing. You see, I don't think that you would have had to teach the early Christian community about the importance of the cycle of one day in seven. Yes, I do think that you'd have to teach them about the difference between the Jewish Sabbath and the Christian Lord's Day. That's to be sure. And Christians began to celebrate a different day from the Jews, the day of Christ's resurrection, the day of triumph, the day when Jesus rose from the dead became the day: not the last day of the week, but the first day of the week. But I don't think that you would have had to teach them the importance of a cycle of one day in seven. Within the consciousness especially of converted Jews, of Jewish Christians, that cycle would be part of their tradition from the time they were born. They gathered together for worship. They gathered together to read God's word and to sing God's word, and to pray God's word and to hear God's word being expounded. So the Christian church naturally develops that. There's a continuity, I think, in principle, between the Sabbath and the Lord's Day, so that the Ten Commandments, the fourth commandment to keep the Sabbath holy, becomes for us still part of the Ten Commandments. We're not Nine Commandment people, we're Ten Commandment people! At the Lord's Supper we frequently in the bulletin have the Ten Commandments. We read them, the table of the Law, when we gather together for the Lord's Supper. But we don't just read nine of them. We read ten of them, because although there is a difference between the Jewish Sabbath and the Christian Lord's Day, there's also a continuity of principle. We're meant to gather together on the Lord's Day, to gather together as a fellowship of God's people, to gather together in order to hear God's word and to sing His praises, and to corporately worship Him together as the Lord's people.

Now Luke draws attention to two particular things. He doesn't mention…this isn't a description, for example, of all of the elements of public worship on the Lord's Day. There's no mention here of praying. There's no mention here of singing. We do have reference here to two things: preaching and the Lord's Supper.

I rather fancy (and you have to imagine, now) that Paul, wherever he went in these years, he took with him the scrolls and the parchments. You remember at the end of his life, in II Timothy 4? It's almost the last thing that he writes, when he's in prison in Rome and he's awaiting his death; (not the prison in Rome at the end of Acts 28, but the final prison from which he will be taken out and executed.) and he's asking his dear friend to bring him the scrolls and the parchments. And I rather think that Paul, wherever he went, had these scrolls; and on these scrolls were either parts of the Old Testament or maybe all of the Old Testament, and notes that he was constantly making—outlines, things that God was revealing to him, copies perhaps of the letters that he had written to the various churches.

And as he comes now to Troas…and there's something of a farewell about this occasion. There's something unique about it. He may well never be back in Troas again, at least not for a long time, so they've gathered together. It's the Lord's Day and he preaches, and it's a long sermon. They've gathered in the evening. (It's not uncommon, by the way. It's uncommon to us, of course, but it's not uncommon in various parts of the world for sermons to be long. You know we dictate to the Holy Spirit that it must all be done in twenty-five minutes, but you understand that in various parts of the world—in fact, in the majority parts of the world these days—the traditions are entirely different.)

Now there is something unique about this occasion. But don't you sense as you read this that there's a longing and a desire there? They're gathered together in this upper room, and they're sitting there and they're listening to Paul as he is expounding, and he's going on and on and on — and it's midnight. And he's been unfolding the word of God. [Wouldn't it be wonderful if we knew what it was he'd been preaching on? If we could plug into some website and download onto an iPod™ the ministry of the Apostle Paul in Troas? You'd need a 60K iPod™ for this one!] But don't you get the sense that in this church there was a longing, a desire? They wanted to hear the word of God. They wanted to grow. They wanted to know what the parameters of new covenant life looked like. Some of them, of course, knew very little about Jesus, and Paul would be expounding to them the life and the works and the significance of the death of Christ and the resurrection of Christ.

And then, eating. And at this time, as we know from the situation in Corinth, the church would gather together for a communal meal as well as celebrate the Lord's Supper. And perhaps because Passover itself was a segue from a meal to something that was emblematic and symbolic (initially, at least) in the church…and we know for sure in Corinth there was this relationship between a common meal that the whole community gathered together and the celebration that was specifically the Lord's supper. And at midnight they break bread together, and I rather see that the reference there to breaking bread at midnight is in fact a reference to the celebration of the Lord's Supper.

Now, the celebration of the Lord's Supper is not mentioned a great deal in Scripture. That in itself is instructive. We shouldn't make too much of it, and it's possible to make too much of the Lord's Supper, and I think we need to find a proper balance. But the Reformers, especially, drew from this particular passage the lesson that the Supper was celebrated after the preaching of the word, and it's always been the case in Reformed worship that first of all there's the exposition of Scripture and then there is the celebration of the Lord's Supper, so that the visible word is explained first of all by the preached and expounded word, and then after they've broken bread (celebrated the Lord's Supper), be reminded (as Brian reminded the children this evening) of that in terms of growing to know Christ more, and focusing and being reminded of who Christ is and what Christ has done, and in anticipation of that festal meal that you and I will have one day as we sit down and feast in the marriage supper of the Lamb, and in the presence of King Jesus.

And Paul begins to talk again. And…is it one o'clock? What time did he start? Seven? Eight o'clock? He'd gone on until midnight, they've celebrated the Supper…there's been this little hiatus with Eutychus, to be sure; but then one o'clock, one thirty, two o'clock in the morning until daybreak…daybreak at maybe five thirty, six o'clock…. They'd been there eight hours, and all that they'd been doing is listening to Paul as he'd been talking, as he'd been expounding, as he's been unfolding the glorious riches of divine mercy, grace in the Scriptures of the Old Testament. What a wonderful, wonderful experience that must have been. You know, I can't imagine that the folks in Troas ever forgot it. I imagine if you had gone back to Troas, you know, ten, twenty, thirty, forty years later, there'd be some who would say, "You know, I was there that night when Paul preached on and on and on. And it was hot, and it was muggy, but oh! there were glorious moments as Christ was exalted and the Spirit came down." And, oh, that we would at least one time in our lives long for such an occasion as that, when, as it were, you lose sense of time and you lose sense of the clock—just occasionally. This is a unique moment. This isn't what happened every day. This isn't what happened every Sunday. This was a unique moment. It was a visitation of the Spirit. There was a change of plans; there was a change of days.

III. A change of location.

Well, you guessed it: there was a change of location. I'm referring now to Eutychus, this eight to fourteen year old boy who's on the third floor window sill. And Luke — he's a doctor, he's trying to explain some mitigating circumstances here as to what happened. There were lamps burning everywhere, and lamps, you understand, eat up oxygen; and it's on the third floor, and he rises, of course, so there's a lack of oxygen. [You remember what Spurgeon said, that the next most important thing in a church, next to godliness, is oxygen!] Now, in the South we have glorious air conditioning blowing oxygen all the time, but you know exactly what is happening to poor Eutychus. You've experienced it (preachers see it all the time!) when those little peepers begin to fight against you, and you've had roast beef for lunch, and now it's time for that to work it's way through your body, and once it starts it's difficult to stop. I've been there and I know exactly what it is when those eyes are closing, and you say to yourself 'I'll close them just for two seconds, and that will relieve the pressure,' but it only makes it worse. And you resort to sucking up strong, strong peppermint of some kind — or, the last resort, you take notes! You get out a pen and a piece of paper, and you start making notes, and you're just an amanuensis at that point. The brain has long since ceased to function, and you're just writing down every word just to try and stay awake.

Well, he falls to the floor. Imagine—there were screams from upstairs... the poor boy's mother, for a start—the thud as he falls, as it were, without breaking his fall, because he's fast asleep. He's overtaken by sleep, and he plummets to the ground, and you hear this thud, and Paul has to stop preaching. And they take him up, and he's dead. He's not breathing. I'm not at all impressed by commentators who try to explain this away and say that he wasn't really dead, and when Paul says "He's alive," he's just saying to them, you know, 'You misunderstood…he wasn't dead at all.' No, the grammar here seems to imply that he came to life as a consequence of something that Paul did; that Paul comes running down the stairs and takes him up, and life comes back into this boy.

Now what's this all about? You see, these miracles, they don't occur that often. The raising of the dead only occurs five times or so in the New Testament. Trophimus, who is there, one of the companions that has come up from Corinth and has now gone to Troas, Trophimus…Paul will say in II Timothy that he has to leave Trophimus behind at Miletus because he was sick. Timothy is there. You remember, Paul is always saying to Timothy, "Take a little wine for your stomach." He's got a delicate stomach. So even the Apostle Paul didn't possess these miraculous gifts all the time. This was a unique occurrence.

It reminds you, doesn't it, of Elijah and Elisha? It reminds you especially of Peter raising Dorcas in Acts 9. It's a demonstration of kingdom power. It's a demonstration of resurrection power. Perhaps in the second half of that sermon until dawn, I wonder if Paul…you know Paul was always talking about death and resurrection…if you examine some of Paul's letters you see that theme again and again and again. I wonder if he used that as an illustration. I can't imagine but that he didn't. And the poor young boy, having been raised again, he sits through the whole thing! He's not taken home until the morning. He sits through that whole experience until daybreak.

But you know, this entire story is bracketed by the word comforted. "They were greatly comforted" [verse 12]; and you see it again in the very opening verse, although the translation in the New American Standard somewhat hides it. But this word comfort…what was Paul doing? He was engaging in a ministry of comfort. It's the word that's used for the Holy Spirit. He is the Comforter. Jesus has promised "I will send another Comforter." Jesus is a Comforter; the Holy Spirit is another Comforter. The ministry of Paul here is a Spirit-like ministry, it's a Jesus-like ministry. It's a ministry of building up, it's a ministry of strengthening, of growing these Christians in the fundamentals, in the ABC's of the Christian faith, readying them for the battle that lies ahead.

Well, a change of plans, and a change of day, and a change of location. May God bless His word to us.

Let's pray together.

Father, we thank You for the Scriptures. Thank You for this passage in particular. Thank You for the Lord's Day. Thank You for the reassurance that in every circumstance You are in complete control. Thank You for this little glimpse of resurrection here in this passage; that one day we shall rise from the dead and be with Christ forever. Bless us we pray in the remainder of this Lord's Day, and grant us the presence of Your Spirit for Jesus' sake. Amen.

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