The Mundane Matters (Acts 20:1-16)

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Our text for this study reads like some of the obscure passages that we frequented in Exodus and in Leviticus. “Details, details” might be an apt summary. It reads like a travelogue of the missionary Paul. These verses mention lots of places, modes of transport, individuals (at least eight), activities, etc. And while the details may be of some geographic interest, nevertheless the matters, except for vv. 7-12, appear pretty mundane—somewhat blasé. Yes, these are mundane matters, but I trust that we will see that the mundane matters.

In fact, I would argue that it is in the mundane that our character is really revealed, rather than in the exceptional matters of life. For instance, a careful examination of this text reveals many aspects of Paul’s person—manifestations of his character in the midst of the mundane. We see, for example, that Paul was concerned for others and burdened for them. He was busy, focused, devoted and tireless. He was passionately single-minded. He was a leader, decisive, fearless, courageous and indomitable. He was a mentor, a disciple and an encourager. And there is no doubt much more we can learn about Paul from this text.

We are told that the devil is in the details. I would suggest that God is in the details. God orchestrates the mundane and uses it to fulfil His purposes and to accomplish our ministry. This is certainly the case here.

The Context

In 19:18 Luke begins the final panel in this history book, which covers Paul’s journey to Rome via Jerusalem. His going to Jerusalem was a vital part of this trip, as evidenced by the amount of print that Luke gives it.

It has been observed, and I concur, that Luke follows the same pattern that he used when he wrote his Gospel. The Gospel of Luke is structured, deliberately and obviously, around the theme of Jesus setting His face like a flint to the cross, a cross that would be assembled and then borne in Jerusalem (Luke 9:51). And from Acts 20 we see a similar theme concerning Paul, as he followed in His Master’s footsteps.

Note these words of John Stott:

It is hard to resist the conclusion that Luke sees a parallel between Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem, which is prominent in his first volume, and Paul’s journey to Jerusalem, which he describes in his second. Of course the resemblance is far from being exact, and the mission of Jesus was unique; yet the correspondence between the two journeys seems too close to be a coincidence. (i) Like Jesus, Paul travelled to Jerusalem with a group of his disciples (20:4ff). (ii) Like Jesus he was opposed by hostile Jews who plotted against his life (20:3, 19). (iii) Like Jesus he made or received three successive predictions of his “passion” or sufferings (20:22-23; 21:4, 11) including his being handed over to the Gentiles (21:11). (iv) Like Jesus he declared his readiness to lay down his life (20:24; 21:13). (v) Like Jesus he was determined to complete his ministry and not be deflected from it (20:24; 21:13). (vi) Luke Jesus he expressed his abandonment to the will of God (21:14). Even if some of these details are not pressed, Luke surely intends his readers to envisage Paul as following in his Master’s footsteps when he “steadfastly set his face to go to Jerusalem.”1

Why was it important for Paul to go to Jerusalem? I think we may highlight several reasons.

First, it was important for him to reveal the condition of Jerusalem a generation after Jesus. Largely, the Jews still rejected Jesus a generation after the cross.

Second, he wanted to highlight the bond of unity between Jewish and Gentile believers. Paul was carrying a love gift to Jerusalem church from Gentile believers. This was a beautiful demonstration of the fulfilment of where Acts began (1:8). “Paul viewed it as a symbol of unity that would help his Gentile converts realize their debt to the mother church in Jerusalem and give Jewish Christians an appreciation of the validity of faith in the Gentile church.”2

Third, his journey to Jerusalem was a Divine means to get him to Rome and the gospel into Caesar’s household (Philippians 1; 4).

Fourth, this structure served to fulfil Luke’s apologetic purpose of highlighting the nemesis of the church as being apostate Judaism rather than idolatrous Rome; thus also showing that Christianity was not a political threat to the Roman Empire but apostate Judaism was!

Fifth, perhaps Luke wanted to leave us with the question, with Paul imprisoned in Rome, what about Acts 29? Where next and who next?

And so, before beginning our exposition, I once again wish to make the point that these mundane matters before us reveal the character of the man of God who is following in the footsteps of his Master. But the mundane also matters because it is God’s means of getting the gospel from point A to point Z.

We should see that, without these mundane matters, a lot of ministry would have gone undone and only eternity will reveal the blessings that came about because of a man who took one day at a time. Indeed we learn that the mundane matters.

Going to Greece

Verses 1-6 show us Paul on his way to Greece.

After the uproar had ceased, Paul called the disciples to himself, embraced them, and departed to go to Macedonia. Now when he had gone over that region and encouraged them with many words, he came to Greece and stayed three months. And when the Jews plotted against him as he was about to sail to Syria, he decided to return through Macedonia. And Sopater of Berea accompanied him to Asia—also Aristarchus and Secundus of the Thessalonians, and Gaius of Derbe, and Timothy, and Tychicus and Trophimus of Asia. These men, going ahead, waited for us at Troas. But we sailed away from Philippi after the Days of Unleavened Bread, and in five days joined them at Troas, where we stayed seven days.

(Acts 20:1-6)

An Affectionate Apostle

The tumult having ceased, calmness being experienced, Paul now made the decision to leave. He would pass through various cities to collect the love gift for Jerusalem from the churches there (1 Corinthians 16; 2 Corinthians 8—9; Romans 15:25-32). He would not return to this dearly beloved church, but he enfolded them in his arms (the literal rendering of “embraced”) as they were already in his heart.

An Affirming Apostle

Having bid farewell to the Ephesians, the apostle “departed to go to Macedonia” (v. 1). Probably he was in Philippi for quite a while. Most believe this was for the better part of a year. It was here that he collected an amazing love offering (2 Corinthians 8:1-5).

The word “encouraged” in v. 2 means “to come alongside,” and carries the idea of doing so to both admonish and to affirm. We might say that it speaks of affirmation by admonition. If we will “give courage” to and “strengthen” others, we must both admonish and affirm. We are probably better at the former than the latter, and the result is that unnecessary discouragement often sets in. Mark Twain once said that he could live two months on one compliment, and there is a great deal of truth to that.

The means of this admonition and affirmation was “many words”—or “much Word.” Stott observes that this encouragement “is a vital ministry in establishing Christian disciples, and the principal means of its exercise is, literally, ‘much word.’ Nothing encourages and strengthens the people of God like the Word of God.”3

Connecting with Corinth

After encouraging the Macedonians, Paul and company “came to Greece.” Here, he spent three months—no doubt communing, correcting, encouraging and strengthening the brethren (see 1 Corinthians 4:21). Most scholars believe that Paul wrote the letter to the Romans from here. The fact that he spent time there shows that he clearly saw the value of further grounding.

We should note Paul’s fearlessness at this point. There were plenty of enemies here, but he was passionate for Christ and the gospel (1 Corinthians 2:1-2).

Upon his departure he uncovered a plot aimed at his assassination (v. 3). Perhaps this is some of what he had in mind when he wrote to the Corinthians in his second letter of the persecution he had experienced. Learning of this plot, he decided to go over land rather than risk being cast overboard by Jews on their way to Passover! He probably headed back towards Philippi (retracing his steps as recorded in Acts 16).

Passover in Philippi

Paul would spend Passover in Philippi (vv. 4-6). At the end of the feast, a group of eight—Luke included—would travel with Paul.4 They would meet up in Troas.

Evidently, these men were emissaries of the churches to carry the collection. “Nothing could more clearly show the immense importance which St. Paul attached to this contribution for the poor saints than the fact that he was ready to present in person at Jerusalem the members of the deputation and their joint offerings, and that too at a time when his presence in the capital was full of danger, and after he had been expressly warned of the peril.”5

It is interesting to note that this group appears to have formed in Philippi, a church that understood love-driven sacrificial giving (see Philippians 4). The mention of Asia in v. 4 is no doubt instructive, for this was a region that was once closed to Paul and the gospel, but was now participating in ministry. We should be encouraged that countries today that are closed to the gospel may not remain so forever!

In the meanwhile, Paul remained at Philippi to celebrate Passover. Some are of the opinion, taking their cue from 1 Corinthians 5:7-8, that Paul was celebrating Easter, but we should remember that Paul, a Jewish Christian, may well have continued to celebrate the Jewish feasts. This was not wrong of him, and he never required it of others. It is not necessarily wrong to maintain cultural connections for the gospel’s sake.

Trauma and Triumph in Troas

Verses 7-12 are without a doubt the most “exciting” portion of our text.

Now on the first day of the week, when the disciples came together to break bread, Paul, ready to depart the next day, spoke to them and continued his message until midnight. There were many lamps in the upper room where they were gathered together. And in a window sat a certain young man named Eutychus, who was sinking into a deep sleep. He was overcome by sleep; and as Paul continued speaking, he fell down from the third story and was taken up dead. But Paul went down, fell on him, and embracing him said, “Do not trouble yourselves, for his life is in him.” Now when he had come up, had broken bread and eaten, and talked a long while, even till daybreak, he departed. And they brought the young man in alive, and they were not a little comforted.

(Acts 20:7-12)

This is a most interesting passage, which gives us far more insight than merely the dangers of long preaching! In fact, to the contrary, “there is no hint that Paul took the incident as a rebuke for long-windedness. Nor were the people troubled by the meeting’s length. They were eager to learn and only had Paul with them a short time.”6

Corporate Worship

This text gives us the first unambiguous reference in the New Testament to Lord’s Day worship in the New Testament. It is clear that it was “on the first day of the week” that “the disciples came together to break bread.” The first day of the week is Sunday, and the breaking of bread is a reference to the Lord’s Supper. We have here, then, a church composed of disciples and committed to gathering to utilise God’s prescribed means of grace.

We sometimes speak of corporate worship involving “the Word and sacrament.” Stott writes,

Perhaps “word and sacrament” is not the best or most accurate coupling, common though it is. For strictly speaking the sacrament itself is word, a “visible word” according to Augustine. What builds up the church more than anything else is the ministry of God’s word as it comes to us through Scripture and Sacrament . . . audibly and visibly, in declaration and drama.7

Importantly, these believers made the effort to honour the Lord’s Day even though it was not culturally accepted or even appropriate. Remember, Sunday was a regular working day in these early days of the new covenant. Saturday was still the accepted Sabbath, but even though these disciples had worked all day, they still chose to gather after work for Lord’s Day worship.

Notice that, while preaching attended this worship, but the focus seems to be on the Lord’s Table. They gathered to feed—using different means. The Lord’s Supper is not merely an add-on to corporate worship.

Luke tells us that Paul “spoke” to them. The Greek word implies a dialogue rather than a monologue. Was this perhaps some sort of home group meeting rather than a formal preaching service? Regardless, Paul’s “message” continued “until midnight.” Given the fact that Sunday was a working day, we should not assume that Paul preached from 6:00 PM until midnight. No doubt, he preached longer than usual (perhaps because he assumed it may well be his last opportunity to minister to them), but they had probably started quite late at night in any event. Regardless, we should see in this the importance of the ministry of the Word. Who knows what we will face in the coming week? Sunday

is a blessed day of privilege. And what glorious memories are connected with that day! If God’s people are really in the Spirit, all the wonderful and blessed truths and facts of our redemption in the Lord Jesus Christ crowd in upon the soul.8

A Significant Distraction

Suddenly, in the middle of the service, there was a distraction. Evidently, the upper room—third story—was the most suitable venue for such a gathering. Eutychus was a “young man” (the word describes someone between the ages of 8 and 14) who was in attendance, perhaps with his parents. The mention of the lamps perhaps suggests that it was warm and the oxygen thin. Eutychus was apparently positioned near the edge, and falling asleep (after perhaps a long day at work), tumbled over and fell three stories to his death.

A. T. Robertson, himself a Baptist preacher, writes somewhat humorously, “Paul’s purpose to leave early next morning seemed to justify the long discourse. Preachers usually have some excuse for the long sermon which is not always clear to the exhausted audience.”9 He adds, “Eutychus struggled bravely to keep awake, vainly hoping that Paul would finish.”10

A Miraculous Resuscitation

The name “Eutychus” means “fortunate,” and this was certainly the young man’s lucky day. In a display of prophetic power, mimicking the prophets Elijah (1 Kings 17:17-24) and Elisha (2 Kings 4:17-37), Paul lay down on top of young Eutychus and miraculously restored his life. The long service resulted in the manifestation of a loving Saviour, which resulted in new life in the congregation. Paul returned to his message, and evidently the young man (perhaps a little more awake now) hung around for more!

We need to be careful here of the danger of allegorising, and yet it is true that when God gives revival to a congregation they have a renewed interest in preaching/teaching from God’s Word. Perhaps one of our challenges is that we see such little life as we gather that we lose much appetite for the light of the Word. As Milton lamented in his poem Lycidas, “The hungry sheep look up and they are not fed.”

Verse 12 is something of an understatement: “They were not a little comforted.” “The presence of such divine power was comforting to the believers and undoubtedly encouraging to Paul as he moved rapidly forward to meet the supreme trials of his life.”11

In the mundane God sometimes surprises us with a miracle. Corporate worship—and in particular the preaching of the Word in corporate worship—is sometimes like that. Years ago I went down a gold mine with a friend, and as we were descending the shaft it occurred to me that a lot of labour is put in before you begin striking gold. Rubble must be removed and structures created before the gold can be found. In similar fashion, a pastor will often preach many sermons, simply removing rubble and creating necessary structures, before a particular sermon will strike gold. I have experienced this. It is simply the way that God works. Often, the mundane is the path to the miraculous.

Marching to Miletus

In vv. 13-16 we have the record of Paul leaving Troas and heading toward Miletus.

Then we went ahead to the ship and sailed to Assos, there intending to take Paul on board; for so he had given orders, intending himself to go on foot. And when he met us at Assos, we took him on board and came to Mitylene. We sailed from there, and the next day came opposite Chios. The following day we arrived at Samos and stayed at Trogyllium. The next day we came to Miletus. For Paul had decided to sail past Ephesus, so that he would not have to spend time in Asia; for he was hurrying to be at Jerusalem, if possible, on the Day of Pentecost.

(Acts 20:13-16)

A Quiet Time

An interesting detail is recorded in vv. 13-14: Paul chose to go it alone for a 25-30 km journey. We naturally wonder why. The fact is, Luke does not tell us, but I wonder if he had a “premonition” of trouble ahead. Perhaps he needed some time for quiet reflection. Sometimes solitude is necessary.

The exertion of spiritual effort can be exhausting, and a change of scenery and routine can be helpful. Sometimes after ministering intensely, you just need to be alone with God. We can see this in the ministry of Jesus (Mark 1:32-39), and I wonder if we are not seeing something similar in Paul’s ministry here. A formerly jailed Chinese believer has said, “You can only grow in jail what you take into it; you can only grow in persecution what you take into it.” Perhaps Paul was taking time to prepare in the mundane for trying times ahead.

Reconnecting After the Rest

Paul’s alone time was temporary, however, and in vv. 15-16 he reunited with his party: “We sailed from there, and the next day came opposite Chios. The following day we arrived at Samos and stayed at Trogyllium. The next day we came to Miletus. For Paul had decided to sail past Ephesus, so that he would not have to spend time in Asia; for he was hurrying to be at Jerusalem, if possible, on the Day of Pentecost.”

As the crow flies, it is a 200 km trip from Mitylene to Miletus. Paul was in a hurry. He had a deadline. He wanted to be in Jerusalem on the Day of Pentecost, and it appears that his brief retreat had served him well. It was no doubt a painful decision to avoid Ephesus, a church at which he had spent several years and which he loved dearly. We must ask, then, why it was so important for him to get to Jerusalem by Pentecost.

As we have seen, Paul was a Christian, but he was also a Jew. Pentecost was a huge celebration for the Jews. Again, we must not minimise the place of culture in the life of the believer. Be sensitive.

But I suspect that Paul’s burden was more than cultural. I suspect that he had a burden to reach his people with the gospel (see Romans 9:1-3; 10:1). As Barclay helpfully comments, “We may well note that though Paul had broken away from the Jews the ancestral feasts were still dear to him. Paul was the apostle to the Gentiles. His own people might hate him but in his heart there was nothing but love and yearning for them.”12

This was a celebration of harvest, which Paul now would clearly see as fulfilled in Christ and experienced historically fifty days after Jesus’ resurrection. But perhaps for this very reason he saw this as an opportunity for evangelism and for a harvesting of souls.

We can use holidays in the same way. There is a good deal of debate in Christian circles about the validity of Christians celebrating holidays such as Christmas and Easter. Without entering too much into the debate, I do believe that such celebrations afford a good opportunity for evangelism. Religious culture ought to be used wisely for gospel advantage.

This was also clearly an opportune time to bring the gift, harvested by the love of Christ, to the beleaguered church in Jerusalem. It would provide a timely opportunity to express the oneness of that which was at one time two loaves. The leaven of the gospel had spread!

Conclusion: The Mundane Matters

Having briefly surveyed our text, let me conclude with two quick observations.

First, the mundane is usually the path we must walk to experience the marvellous and the miraculous. As a church, we spent several years studying Exodus and Leviticus. It was, at times, laborious. Much of the material studied was not what most would consider exciting. But those studies were important groundwork. At times Christ was wonderfully manifested in the mundane details, and I have no doubt that our current study in Hebrews will reap much benefit from the rubble removed and the structures erected in those studies.

The mundane matters of life often prepare us for a life lived to the glory of God. School and university do not always seem to be the most exciting periods of life, but they lay important groundwork for a later life of glorifying God. Mothers may feel the weight of daily mundane living as they change nappies, warm bottles and care for the home. But be assured, the mundane matters! The benefit will be reaped in years to come.

Labouring in the workplace often seems mundane, but frequently it is just such mundane living that puts us in a position to witness. Serving as a faithful employee, even when it is mundane, creates opportunity for us to give to those in need (Ephesians 4:28).

Preparation for Lord’s Day ministry is often mundane: preparing sermons and Sunday school lessons, arranging music, setting out chairs, preparing the Lord’s Table, etc. Even on the day, we can find ourselves involved in the mundane: security duty, crèche duty, kitchen duty, etc. But all of these mundane matters serve to bolster the worship of the church. The marvellous and the miraculous can often occur as the result of faithfulness in the mundane.

Second, the mundane is all a part of getting us to where God wants us. God wanted Paul in Jerusalem, but it took all the mundane details of which we have read to get him there. Indeed, the mundane matters. Therefore, keep at it!

Show 12 footnotes

  1. John R. W. Stott, The Message of Acts: The Bible Speaks Today (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1990), 315.
  2. Richard N. Longnecker, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 12 vols. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan 1981), 9:506.
  3. Stott, The Message of Acts, 316.
  4. It may be worthwhile noting that Luke was last seen with Paul in Acts 16, when he first came to Philippi. It was in Philippi that he joined them again. Evidently, he had been left in Philippi to assist the churches there pastorally.
  5. R. J. Knowling, The Expositor’s Greek Testament, 5 vols. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988), 2:423.
  6. Longnecker, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 9:509.
  7. Stott, The Message of Acts, 321.
  8. Arno C. Gaebelein, The Acts of the Apostles: An Exposition (Neptune: Loizeaux Brothers, 1983), 342-43.
  9. A. T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament, 6 vols. (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1930), 3:340.
  10. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament, 3:341.
  11. Charles R. Erdman, The Acts: An Exposition (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1966), 154.
  12. William Barclay, The Acts of the Apostles: The Daily Study Bible Series (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1955), 164.