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Lesson 50: How One Man Changed the World (Acts 20:1-16)

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If you know Christ as Savior and Lord, you desire to have God use you to make a difference for Him in the world. Last week I reread part of the story of Hudson Taylor, the pioneer missionary to China, and I thought, “The huge country of China is different today, 100 years later, because of Hudson Taylor’s vision and commitment to take the gospel to that land.” Then the convicting question hit me, “Will Flagstaff be any different because I have lived and labored for Christ here?” To be honest, I’m not sure that I have a satisfying answer to that question yet! But my heartfelt prayer is that God would so use me that this part of the world would be changed for His glory because I lived here.

The apostle Paul changed the world as few other men have ever done. He lived in a day before jet airplanes or cars and paved highways. He had to go everywhere by foot, on donkeys, or by sailing vessel, none of which were very speedy. He did not have a telephone to call and talk with the leaders of churches that he had founded around the Roman Empire. He couldn’t even call someone across town. If he wanted to see the person, he had to walk across town and hope to find him at home. He didn’t have computers, email, copy machines, or other modern tools that make communication easier. He spent many years of his ministry in prison, unable to move about freely. He contended with fierce opposition both from outside and inside the church. And yet, after 25-30 years of ministry, he left a lasting impact on the world, not only in his time, but also for all times.

How did he do it? Much of it must be explained as God’s sovereign working through this man. As Paul taught, God has allotted to each of us various gifts and measures of faith (Rom. 12:3-8; 1 Cor. 12). Thus even if we’re all faithful to the Lord, we will experience differing results in our ministries. It would be wrong to condemn ourselves because we don’t see the same results that Paul or Hudson Taylor saw. But we can learn from the apostle the biblical principles that governed his ministry and seek to apply them to our own lives, whatever gifts and calling God may have given us.

I am convinced that at the heart of Paul’s strategy was his unswerving commitment to establish and strengthen local churches.

Paul changed the world through his commitment to establish and strengthen local churches.

Jesus promised to build His church on Peter’s confession of Him as the Christ, the Son of the living God, and that the gates of Hades would not prevail against it (Matt. 16:16-18). Paul traveled about preaching the gospel and helping the new converts begin to meet as local churches. Those churches in turn could evangelize their own areas, as well as train and send out new missionaries to evangelize and plant new churches in other areas, so that the process is multiplied many times over. He did this in Ephesus, so that after two years, all of Asia (western Turkey) heard the word of the Lord (19:10).

Paul was unrelenting in his commitment to the church. He was willing to pour out his life to see healthy churches established. He called the Philippian church his joy and his crown (Phil. 4:1). He told the Colossians of his great struggle on their behalf and for those in Laodicea, that they would be knit together in love and attain to all that wealth that comes from a full knowledge of Jesus Christ (Col. 2:1-2). He also told the Thessalonians that they were his joy and crown, and that he really lived if only they stood firm in the Lord (1 Thess. 2:19; 3:8). In 2 Corinthians 11:23-28, he goes through a long list of all of the labors and trials that he had gone through on behalf of Christ. The last thing he mentions is, “Apart from such external things, there is the daily pressure on me of concern for all the churches.”

At first glance, our text shows us a slice of Paul’s life describing his travels. Some things are skimmed over, and we can fill in many details from 1 & 2 Corinthians and Romans, which he wrote during this time period. Other things, such as his meeting with the church in Troas, are described in more detail. We might at first read these verses and think, “That’s interesting, but it doesn’t relate to my life.” But I think that just below the surface of Luke’s description of Paul’s travels lies Paul’s unswerving commitment to Christ’s church. It was that commitment that was at the heart of how God used Paul to change the world for Jesus Christ. No matter what our individual gifts or calling, we need to be committed to the church of Jesus Christ if we want to see God use us to change our world for Him. Our text reveals four aspects of Paul’s commitment to the church:

1. Paul was committed to establish and strengthen local churches that meet on Sundays for worship and instruction in God’s Word.

Luke again silently joins the narrative when Paul passes through Philippi (20:5). The “we” sections of Acts ended about six years before, when Paul was previously in Philippi (16:16). We can conclude that Luke had been left there to pastor that new church. Now he again gives us eyewitness testimony as he travels with Paul to Troas and beyond to Jerusalem. Verses 7-12 give us an interesting description of Paul’s meeting with the church in Troas. Note three features of this church meeting:

*The church met on Sunday. This is the earliest clear reference to the custom of the church to gather on the first day of the week, rather than on the Jewish Sabbath (Saturday). Some scholars say that the meeting took place on what we would call Saturday night, since the Jews reckoned time from sundown to sundown. But others argue that Luke was using the Roman method, which started the day at midnight, as we do, in which case this church meeting took place on our Sunday night. This is supported by the fact that the text says that Paul intended to leave “the next day” (20:7), which is identified as “daybreak” (20:12). Under the Jewish reckoning, daybreak would be the same day as the previous night. Also, the chronology here requires that Paul left Troas on a Monday morning, not Sunday (William Ramsay, St. Paul, the Traveller and the Roman Citizen [Baker], pp. 289-290). Thus this all-night church meeting took place on Sunday night.

You ask, “What difference does it make what day of the week the church meets on?” It makes a difference because the switch from Saturday to Sunday worship must have taken place because of the resurrection of Jesus from the tomb on Sunday morning. Why else would Jews, who largely made up the early Christian congregations and who had a God-given command and a centuries-long tradition of seventh-day worship, change to worshiping on the first day of the week? The only reasonable explanation is that the Lord Jesus, whom they worshiped, arose from the dead on that day. Thus the Sunday worship of the church is an evidence of and a testimony to the resurrection of Jesus.

Does this mean that Sunday is now the Christian Sabbath, and that Christians must follow the Jewish law regarding Sabbath observance? While there are differing views on this question (I disagree with some of my heroes, such as Charles Spurgeon, Hudson Taylor, and J. C. Ryle), I think that the Sabbath was the shadow that has now been fulfilled in Christ, the substance (Col. 2:16-17). He Himself is our “Sabbath rest” (Hebrews 4). The Sabbath command is the only one of the Ten Commandments not specifically repeated in the New Testament. Although Paul warned the Gentile churches about many things, he never mentioned breaking the Sabbath. Neither did the Jerusalem Council impose Sabbath-keeping on the Gentile believers (Acts 15). (John MacArthur, Jr., The MacArthur New Testament Commentary, Acts 13-28 [Moody Press], pp. 202-203, lists ten reasons why Christians are not required to observe the Sabbath, some of which I have used here.)

Although we are not under the Old Testament law regarding the Sabbath, I do believe that we should set aside the first day of every week (“the Lord’s Day,” Rev. 1:10; see also 1 Cor. 16:1) to gather with God’s people for worship and instruction. Since Sunday was not a day off in the Roman Empire, and the slaves and others would have had to work, the church met on Sunday evening. We need to make it a priority to set apart time for gathering with the church on Sunday, and by doing so, we bear witness to the fact that our Savior is risen from the dead.

*The church met to worship the crucified and risen Lord. Luke sums up their worship by stating that they gathered “to break bread,” a reference to the Lord’s Supper. Weekly observance is not commanded, but it did seem to be the custom of the early church. If we could throw away our clocks and not have to be concerned about getting one service over so that the next service can get started on time, I would like to have communion every Sunday. Communion points us to our Savior’s supreme sacrifice for our sins on the cross. It makes us examine ourselves to make sure that we have confessed all of our sins against the Lord and against one another. It reminds us of the need to feed spiritually on Christ and to rely on His grace. It should cause our hearts to be drawn to Him in love and adoration.

*The church met to be instructed from God’s Word. Paul apparently preached in Troas for at least four hours, if not longer (until midnight)! Then, after the incident with Eutychus, he went back upstairs and talked with them (a different Greek word is used here, which indicates conversation) about the things of God until daybreak. Also, before Paul left Ephesus after the riot, he first exhorted the believers (20:1). Luke summarizes Paul’s lengthy ministry in the districts around Macedonia by saying, “he had given them much exhortation” (20:2). As we saw in Acts 2:42, the early church devoted itself to the apostles’ teaching.

Our text does not require that every sermon be four hours long (“Whew!”). Someone has said that if you’re going to preach for that long, you also have to be able to raise the dead, as Paul did! This was obviously a special occasion, the only time that this church could hear the apostle Paul; but they were willing to stay up all night to do it! It illustrates what Paul later strongly commanded Timothy, to preach the Word (2 Tim. 4:1-5).

Paul’s sermon got interrupted when this young man, Eutychus, fell asleep and fell out of the third story window to his death. The Greek word for “boy” (20:12) was often used of a young man between 7 and 14 years of age (New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, ed. by Colin Brown [Zondervan], 1:283), although it was not always used that precisely in the New Testament (Matt. 2:16). If used in a social sense, it referred to a slave or servant. So Eutychus, whose name means “Fortunate” (or, “Lucky”), was probably a youth, perhaps a slave who had worked all day, and now was sitting on the window ledge, trying to fight off his drowsiness as he listened to Paul. Luke mentions the many lamps in the room perhaps to let us know that it was stuffy, since the lamps would have burned up some oxygen. But the boy fell asleep, fell out of the window, and was picked up dead (20:9).

Paul went down and fell upon him, embracing him much as the prophets Elijah and Elisha had done when raising dead young men to life (1 Kings 17:21; 2 Kings 4:34-35). Then he announced, “Don’t be troubled, for his life is in him” (20:10). The almost casual way that Luke describes such a stupendous miracle makes some wonder if the boy had actually died, or whether Paul just resuscitated him. I think that we should take Dr. Luke’s medical description, that he was dead. But in the context, Luke de-emphasizes the miracle by sandwiching it between Paul’s sermon and his talking with the church on through the night afterwards. He seems to be making the point that it is the teaching of God’s Word, not amazing miracles, that will sustain and strengthen the church.

The main task of a shepherd is to feed the flock (Ezek. 34:2). The trend in our day of “user-friendly” churches is to shorten the sermon into 15-minute sound bytes, since the younger generation has been reared on TV and can’t handle a longer discourse. But as J. Vernon McGee used to say, “Sermonettes produce Christian­ettes.” The church needs solid food from the Word to be healthy.

2. Paul was committed to train godly men for leadership in the local churches.

Paul had first planned to travel by ship from Greece to Israel, but he somehow learned of a plot by the Jews to kill him. It would have been easy for them to hit him over the head and throw him overboard en route. So he thwarted their plot by traveling north by land to Macedonia, where he then took a ship that put in at various ports along the coast of Asia.

Luke lists the names of the men who traveled with Paul (20:4). They were representatives of the various churches, entrusted with carrying their collection (which Paul had raised) to Jerusalem to help the poor believers there. We encounter some of these men in other Scriptures. Paul refers to Tychicus, for example, as “the beloved brother and faithful minister in the Lord” (Eph. 6:21; Col. 4:7). Many of these men were Gentiles whom Paul had seen come to Christ through his preaching. He spent time with them, teaching them and grounding them in the Scriptures. His strategy, as he explains to Timothy, was to entrust the things of God to faithful men who will be able to teach others also (2 Tim. 2:2).

If you have known the Lord for any length of time, you should be asking God to bring into your life some men (or, women to women) who are younger in the Lord, to whom you can entrust the things God has taught you. Look for “FAT” men: Faithful, Available, and Teachable. If they are lacking any one of those qualities, you’ll be wasting your time. They must be faithful in their walk with God. They must have the time to get together. They must have teachable hearts. If you are younger in the Lord, pray that God would link you with an older brother who could do with you as Paul did with these men, to equip you for service.

3. Paul was committed to strengthen churches for mission.

For this point, I am relying on the entire context of the Book of Acts and Paul’s epistles. We learn, for example, from Romans 15:19, that Paul had preached the gospel as far as Illyricum (modern Albania and Yugoslavia). He probably did that during his stay in Macedonia (20:2). I have often wished that Luke had given us more detail of the “much exhortation” that Paul gave to the churches of Macedonia and Greece during his many months there. But we probably have that exhortation distilled in the letters that Paul wrote to these churches. It was during his three months in Corinth (20:3) that he wrote his greatest theological treatise, the epistle to the Romans.

In all of his letters, it is clear that Paul was not strengthening the church so that it could be warm and cozy in its holy huddle, isolated from the lost world. He was strengthening the churches so that they could fulfill their mission of preaching the gospel to their own regions, and sending out workers to take the gospel where Christ had not yet been preached (Rom. 15:20). Paul’s own goal was to visit Rome and then continue on to Spain (Rom. 15:24, 28). The church that turns in on itself and loses its outward focus on mission is a dying church.

Thus Paul changed the world through his commitment to establish and strengthen local churches that met on Sunday for worship and instruction. He was committed to train godly leaders for those churches who could, in turn, train others also. He was committed to strengthen these churches for mission.

4. Paul was committed to seeing local churches live in practical unity with other local churches, especially when there was cultural diversity.

From Paul’s epistles (1 Cor. 16:1-4; 2 Cor. 8 & 9; Rom. 15:25-28) it is obvious that the driving force behind his trip to Jerusalem at this time was to deliver the collection that he had raised from the Gentile churches for the poor saints in Jerusalem. And the driving force behind his urging the Gentile churches to take up this collection was his desire to see the natural wall of separation between the Jews and the Gentiles broken down in the church (Eph. 2:13-22). Beyond that, Paul was burdened for his fellow-Jews who did not yet know Christ, so much so that he said that he would be willing to be cut off from Christ if it meant their salvation (Rom. 9:1-3). He saw this practical demonstration of Christian love as a means of unifying the Jewish and Gentile believers, and as a witness to Israel of the power of the gospel to transform the Gentiles.

One of Paul’s recurring themes is the unity of the body of Christ, made up of members with diverse backgrounds, nationalities, and spiritual gifts (1 Cor. 12; Gal. 3:28; Eph. 2:13-22; 4:1-16; Col. 3:11). As you know, Jesus prayed that His followers, including those who would believe through the witness of the apostles, would be one, “so that the world may believe that You sent Me” (John 17:20-21).

It is essential that we affirm our fellow believers in Christ, whether they belong to our denomination or not. If they truly know Christ as Savior and Lord, we are one, and we must demonstrate our unity by our love. We sin if we wrongly divide from fellow Christians over minor doctrinal issues or personal preferences.

At the same time, we would sin to affirm our “unity” with those who name Christ as Savior, but who deny doctrines that are essential to the gospel. Our unity is based on the truth (John 17:17). This is why I refuse to participate in the upcoming “unity” service in Flagstaff, since it includes churches that teach that salvation requires our works added to faith in what Christ did for us on the cross. That is another gospel, which is not a gospel at all, and on such false teachers, Paul pronounces anathema, not love (Gal. 1:6-9). So we must be discerning, being careful to maintain unity with those who hold to the essentials, but separating ourselves from those who deny the gospel of God’s grace.


I would like to ask each of you to ask yourself and to pray about the question, “How does God want to use me to impact my world for Jesus Christ?” The answer will differ with each of us, depending on our unique spiritual gifts and circumstances. But God won’t use you to change the world by accident. You’ve got to focus daily on seeking first His kingdom and righteousness.

However God may use you to change the world for Christ, He will not do it apart from your commitment to the local church. The local church is God’s appointed means for fulfilling the Great Commission. You must commit yourself to a local body of Christ where you can grow in Him and use your gifts to serve Him.

You may be thinking, “I tried that and got burned!” I understand. Paul often got burned by those whom he had led to Christ (read 2 Corinthians!). Every local church is made up of only one kind of people—sinners! You will get hurt if you commit yourself to work closely with sinners, even with redeemed sinners. But the church is God’s ordained means of teaching us how to love one another. Let’s face it, you don’t need humility, gentleness, patience, and forbearance (Eph. 4:2) if you’re a hermit! You need those qualities when you’re a sinner redeemed by God’s grace, committed to work with other redeemed sinners in the great cause of glorifying the name of Jesus Christ among the nations. How does God want to use you to change the world? Commit yourself to His church and get on with it!

Discussion Questions

  1. How important is Sunday worship? Are we free to have our main gathering on other days? What are the practical implications of the term, “the Lord’s Day”?
  2. Someone says, “Having communion every week makes it a meaningless routine.” Your response?
  3. At what point is a believer mature enough to move from being discipled to being a discipler of others?
  4. How can we practically demonstrate our unity with Christians who attend other churches? Should it be something structured or something organic and spontaneous?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2001, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Ecclesiology (The Church), Spiritual Life

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