God on the Move: “Setting the Record Straight” – Acts 20

Set Straight

God on the Move: “Setting the Record Straight” – Acts 20

crist scott debateNow is apparently NOT the time to desire to run our beloved Sunshine State. The current Governor’s race has been typically framed as one of the nastiest in the country, as an incumbent Governor and a former Governor try to woo voters by casting a shadow on their opponent. The current issue of “The Economist” took the time to weigh in without offering any endorsement to either man, as they shed light on the appalling lack of civility in the race.

“…Yet both campaigns talk more about the other guy’s flaws than their own policies. Mr. Crist, voters hear, stands for nothing. Mr. Scott, they are told, stands for Big Oil and billionaires. Personality seems to matter a lot, and Mr. Crist has more of it. At a debate on October 21st in Jacksonville, the former governor delivered perfect sound bites, looking with puppy-dog eyes straight at the camera as he explained that “I’m running to give you a chance.” Mr. Scott grimaced weirdly and dodged questions less skillfully. A previous debate was even worse for Mr. Scott: he failed to appear on stage for several minutes, on live television, after a squabble over whether Mr. Crist could have a fan under his lectern. Comedians and Democrats rejoiced. Mr. Scott’s hope will be that attack ads can overcome the charm deficit. He has plenty of money, including his own fortune, to spend denting Mr. Crist’s brand. But while this strategy has cut Mr. Crist’s lead, it has not erased it. And Mr. Crist now has lots of financial backing too, not least from Tom Steyer, a Californian billionaire who is spending vast sums to defeat candidates who don’t take global warming seriously…”

I mention the race with no particular selection advice to the voters, but one specific insight: It is more important that we know what a candidate truly believes and plans for his administration, than how adept he is at muddying his opponent. We need “proper exposure” to the man’s beliefs and values – or we don’t know what kind of LEADER the man will be. Without a clear picture of both values and how they will apply to the legislative issues of our time, we might as well hold a beauty pageant to get our leaders.

Fortunately for us, when it comes to leadership in the church of Jesus Christ, we have some insightful moments of exposure that help us understand the men God used in the early days of the church to share Jesus with the world. These moments of exposure offer us both MODELS for leaders today and ASSURANCE of the kind of men God used to get the work started in the first century. The men weren’t perfect, and they weren’t always right in how they handled things – but the exposure allows us to see God using “broken pots” to do extraordinary things! This lesson is an “up close” exposure of Paul’s values concerning ministry, taken from a speech he made to close friends during an emotional parting.

Key Principle: God mightily uses men and women who reflect His values and His message without wavering.

Luke took his time getting to the address of Paul to the elders of Miletos with three short stories (recorded in Acts 20:1-17) that set up the unique exposure of Paul’s heart in his message at the end of the chapter. Though they aren’t our focus, we won’t rush through them, because they offer valuable information on what Paul had been through in the previous few months before his tearful exchange with some much loved elders of the city where he spent more time than any other on his journeys, Ephesus.

Before that address, the first story recalled by Luke was about Paul’s travels and companions in a very short summary form in Acts 20:1-6:

Acts 20:1 After the uproar had ceased, Paul sent for the disciples, and when he had exhorted them and taken his leave of them, he left to go to Macedonia. 2 He traveled through that area, speaking many words of encouragement to the people, and finally arrived in Greece, 3 where he stayed three months. Because some Jews had plotted against him just as he was about to sail for Syria, he decided to go back through Macedonia. 4 He was accompanied by Sopater son of Pyrrhus from Berea, Aristarchus and Secundus from Thessalonica, Gaius from Derbe, Timothy also, and Tychicus and Trophimus from the province of Asia. 5 These men went on ahead and waited for us at Troas. 6 But we sailed from Philippi after the Festival of Unleavened Bread, and five days later joined the others at Troas, where we stayed seven days.

Paul left the city of Ephesus after the place settled down from the riot in Acts 19. He met with the men on the team he had been teaching, and commended the work to them while he went “back on the road” to continue his mission work. These were some of the men he will address at the end of the chapter, but that was several months later. He traveled (apparently via ship) bypassing the great cities of Smyrna, Pergamum and Troas, and made his way to Macedonia- then on to Greece. Near the end of his three months of travel, seven men assembled back in Troas (in Asia Minor) and waited for Luke and Paul to arrive. The two men delayed departure until after Paul’s celebrations of Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread, but eventually found their way down to Neapolis (the port of Philippi) and crossed by sea over to Troas. The winds were running contrary, so the sailing took a few extra days. On arrival in Troas, the nine men met together for a full week as the countdown toward Pentecost was underway for the Jews among them.

Take a breath. This was a short clip of a journey of three months that included visits to some tough places. Paul was being dogged by men who plotted against him, and it seems he was feeling the pressure. The end of that journey was a wonderful time to retreat into the circle of some brothers who helped Paul get ready for the uncertainty ahead. What a blessing that God provided – not just the Spirit for daily comfort – but brothers in the Lord for comradery and support! Paul needed this break, for the days were drawing ever nearer to his arrest and lengthy incarceration.

The second story recalled a long sermon, a sleepy listener and a miracle:

20:7 On the first day of the week we came together to break bread. Paul spoke to the people and, because he intended to leave the next day, kept on talking until midnight. 8 There were many lamps in the upstairs room where we were meeting. 9 Seated in a window was a young man named Eutychus, who was sinking into a deep sleep as Paul talked on and on. When he was sound asleep, he fell to the ground from the third story and was picked up dead. 10 Paul went down, threw himself on the young man and put his arms around him. “Don’t be alarmed,” he said. “He’s alive!” 11 Then he went upstairs again and broke bread and ate. After talking until daylight, he left. 12 The people took the young man home alive and were greatly comforted.

I am deeply encouraged by this story. First, it reminds me that I am not the only preacher who loses people who need a nap. Second, I am not the only long-winded teacher of the Bible – but I am in good company. Though there are a variety of ways to translate the opening words of this passage, I don’t believe the passage reflects a Sunday worship service at all, and I certainly would NOT use the passage as a defense for a Sunday meeting, though some commentators insist that is the better reading. The Greek reads this way: “en de mia ton Sabbaton”, which can be “on the first of the week” or “on the first of the Sabbaths”, which would normally be an unusual reading. Yet, I think that is EXACTLY what Luke intended. The passage is clearly set AFTER the Passover, and the rush to get to Jerusalem for the Feast of Shavuot (Pentecost) is obvious in Acts 20:16. Jews counted the seven Sabbaths as a “season” leading to the celebration of the “Giving of the Law” (see Exodus 19 and the “fifty days” journey completion). The meeting doesn’t appear to have been a Sunday night service, but more likely a Saturday night “Havdalah” service for the completion of the Sabbath that brought the people together.

Because Paul was going to leave them, he extended the service late into the evening, and eventually into the wee hours of Sunday morning. I love the details of Luke’s account:

• Paul went on until midnight (7).
• Lamps were warming up the room (8).
• In spite of the lightness of the room, Eutychus was dozing, heading for deep sleep (9).
• Here is my favorite part: “Paul talked ON and ON…” You have to smile at this… He was caught up in his subject and didn’t notice the hour, I suppose.

Out the window Eutychus tumbled, and he hit the pavement below hard. The people were visibly shaken as they lifted him and declared him “dead”. Paul went down to his body and raised him up with God’s power. After this, Paul went back to teaching – sharing a meal and continuing his teaching until daylight.

I am going to resist the temptation to make the application that those who sleep in church die a nasty death – though some Bible teachers would, no doubt, yield to that lure. Rather, it seems more worthwhile to note that the healing was not Paul’s main concern – but the instructions seemed to dominate his mind. Paul knew the man was FINE now, and would become a distraction if he didn’t press through to the lesson he was giving them. He wasn’t more ecstatic about a healing than he was about God’s healing of hearts through his Word when it was vibrantly taught.

The third story set the immediate scene for Paul’s emotional message to the Elders of Ephesus, and explained why he didn’t give it in Ephesus:

20:13 We went on ahead to the ship and sailed for Assos, where we were going to take Paul aboard. He had made this arrangement because he was going there on foot. 14 When he met us at Assos, we took him aboard and went on to Mitylene. 15 The next day we set sail from there and arrived off Chios. The day after that we crossed over to Samos, and on the following day arrived at Miletus. 16 Paul had decided to sail past Ephesus to avoid spending time in the province of Asia, for he was in a hurry to reach Jerusalem, if possible, by the day of Pentecost. 17 From Miletus, Paul sent to Ephesus for the elders of the church. 18 When they arrived, he said to them…”

Stop your reading right there! Paul was “island hopping” in the Aegean, but this was no tourist or shopping spree. He was a “man on a mission” to get to Jerusalem by Shavuot (Pentecost, or the “Feast of Weeks”). He was active, tired and eluding a group that was clearly after him whenever he settled down. His seven teachings to the elders reflect his heart, but also his “state of mind”.

The “Final” Address

Let’s take the balance of this lesson to focus on what Paul told the men that gathered to hear what most believed would be his “final address” to them.

Paul expected hardship:

The first thing Paul told them was to recall his testimony – because that was the practical basis of his instruction. He said:

“You know how I lived the whole time I was with you, from the first day I came into the province of Asia. 19 I served the Lord with great humility and with tears and in the midst of severe testing by the plots of my Jewish opponents.”

Paul lived out his faith in the choices of daily life – and that practice and consistency is what opened the door to people listening to what he said. Any believer would love to be able to say the same about themselves. If we truly want people to hear the message of Jesus from us, we must live the message of Jesus through our lives. When our choices betray our message, people notice. I had to smile at this little story that illustrates this:

A forest ranger is making rounds in a remote part of the wooded reserve when he comes across an unkempt man, sitting at a make-shift campfire, and, to the ranger’s astonishment, eating a fish and a bald eagle. The man is consequently put in jail for the crime. He was soon brought to trial for his crime. The Judge asked the man, “Do you know that eating a bald eagle is a federal offense?” “Yes, I do, Judge,” replied the man, “but if you will let me argue my case, I’ll explain what happened.” “You may proceed.” “I got lost in the woods and hadn’t had anything real to eat for two weeks,” the man explained. “I was so hungry, I was eating plants to stay alive. Next thing I see is a Bald Eagle swooping down at the lake grabbing a fish. I thought ‘If I startled the eagle, I could maybe steal the fish.’ Low and behold, the eagle lighted upon a nearby tree stump to eat the fish. I threw a stone toward the eagle hoping he would drop the fish and fly away. Unfortunately, in my weakened condition, my aim was off, and the rock hit the eagle squarely on his poor little head, and it killed him. I thought long and hard about what had happened, but figured that since I had killed it, I might as well eat it, since it would be more disgraceful to let it rot on the ground.” The Judge says he would take a recess to analyze the defendant’s testimony. Fifteen minutes goes by, and the Judge returns. “Due to the extreme circumstances you were under and because you didn’t intend to kill the eagle, the court will dismiss the charges.” The Judge then leans over the bench and whispers: “If you don’t mind my asking, what does a bald eagle taste like?” “Well, Your Honor, it is hard to explain. I guess the best comparison I can make is, it’s a bit more tender than a California Condor, but lacks the tang of a Spotted Owl.” (From a sermon by J.D. Tutell, He Prepares a Table, 2/3/2011, Sermon Central.com)

Obviously, the man’s choices made clear his value system – and that is true of all of us!

Read the opening words of Paul again, and you will not hear bitterness – just the fact of hardship in his life. He admitted to tears and weakness – you he continued to live without the expectation of peace and harmony while serving God fully. I think this is something believers in our day are just beginning to realize. The words of Jesus run against the grain of our modern culture – and the times ahead bear choppy waves for the one who will walk with God into the storm of culture. These are days for brave men and women – courageous followers of Jesus who will not “get in the face” of people, but will not flee the public square, either. Paul never seemed to expect “if God is in it, things will go smoothly.” I find his expectation instructive in my life.

Paul’s message was specific:

As you continue to read his words, look at verse twenty:

Acts 20:20 “You know that I have not hesitated to preach anything that would be helpful to you but have taught you publicly and from house to house. 21 I have declared to both Jews and Greeks that they must turn to God in repentance and have faith in our Lord Jesus.”

The Apostle reminded the men that his message was one of PERSUASION. He used the word “preach” (kerudzon – to persuade). We must remember that the idea of using God’s Word to persuade men and women is not intolerant, nor pushy. Those words describe HOW one can be guilty of using tactics in persuasion that are wrong. The idea that we are deliberately trying to convince people to walk with God and obey His Word is not cause for embarrassment – it is our core purpose. We are a persuasion and information agency empowered by God and sent to do a job in a dark world that has left God and is plummeting downward toward Hell. Paul’s ministry included persuading people of every background – Jews and Greeks – concerning Christ. His ministry included relentlessly offering a path to God both in private and public settings. He didn’t speak in a home differently than in a hall – it was one message.

Now look at the words he used to describe the message he gave. It was always two-fold: repentance in life and faith in Jesus. Paul didn’t preach a theoretical theology of justification by grace through faith that did not include life surrender. From one end of the Bible to the other, there is no such thing – no matter how often that gets framed as a “salvation by works” by those who want to have Heaven and freedom to choose to live this side of Heaven any way they want.

Paul’s choices were directed:

Paul continued his message and made clear that he went where he was commanded by God, not simply where he desired to go:

Acts 20:22 “And now, compelled by the Spirit, I am going to Jerusalem, not knowing what will happen to me there. 23 I only know that in every city the Holy Spirit warns me that prison and hardships are facing me. 24 However, I consider my life worth nothing to me; my only aim is to finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me—the task of testifying to the good news of God’s grace.

The Apostle learned over the course of his walk with God that he needed to constantly follow the Spirit’s leading in spite of the fact that he wasn’t sure of the path ahead. His focused goal was “finishing well the task of spreading the Gospel” as he built the churches without a need to understand where his own trail led. The truth is that is both difficult and unwanted by any of us. We want to prepare for retirement, and then we want to live the dream. We want to save for the things we long to have, and then we want to buy them. We want the path ahead to look brighter, or we are frustrated. We want to live in peace, so we rush through the work day and press to get a “good vacation” periodically. We all do it, and we forget that following God’s path isn’t supposed to be a ramrod experience of heavy lifting. Jesus said His yoke is easy and burden light.

Some of you may recall an old black and white “Andy Griffith” episode on TV about two hundred years ago or so… it was about a business man from Charlotte, NC who had a car break down on the highway some distance outside of the town of Mayberry. The man walked into town on a Sunday afternoon as people were leaving church and was frustrated that no one would fix his car of a Sunday – even for money. He was invited to Sherriff Taylor’s home for dinner, and exploded at the Sheriff and Deputy Barney Fife at “how these people were living in a different time” than the rest of the people in the world. As a hard-driving businessman, he was frustrated at the way the people lived out simplicity and values. By the end of the episode he learned much about his own hard-driving lifestyle, and appreciated the way the simple folks in Mayberry lived. Life in modernity wasn’t half of what it is today, and yet the man was able to glimpse into a less stressed world and learn a few lessons…

Jesus said His “yoke is easy and burden light”. It is worth remembering the yoke is only easy when the yoked one surrenders the direction of the furrows to the one who planned the path. Struggling against the yoke is HARD, and the reason for much Christian exhaustion. Paul learned to follow – and that is what made him an effective leader and spokesman for God.

Paul’s method had purpose:

The Apostle shared with the elders they would likely not see him again, but his conscience was clear because he did the work he was given…

Acts 20:25 “Now I know that none of you among whom I have gone about preaching the kingdom will ever see me again. 26 Therefore, I declare to you today that I am innocent of the blood of any of you. 27 For I have not hesitated to proclaim to you the whole will of God.

The peace in his heart allowed him to rest in the memories of what he had done among them. He recognized that teaching them all of God’s Word allowed him to place the responsibility for their spiritual walk solely on their shoulders. When people are denied the information – leaders are culpable. When they are carefully instructed in the Word and the application is made clear – followers are responsible to follow God’s will. The tragedy of our times is not primarily found in the resistance of modern disciples to follow the Word of God, but much more in the reticence of preachers to make the Word plain and applicable.

Paul’s expectation was for trouble:

Because Paul didn’t expect God to make life easy, he learned to watch for the work of his enemy while he walked with God. He told the elders to do the same:

Acts 20:28 Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood. 29 I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. 30 Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them. 31 So be on your guard!” Remember that for three years I never stopped warning each of you night and day with tears. 32 “Now I commit you to God and to the word of His grace, which can build you up and give you an inheritance among all those who are sanctified.

Leaders know their work is both to follow God, and to shepherd others as they learn to follow Him – but that isn’t all of it. The leadership God provides a congregation are called to defend them against those who would come to harm them and steal some of them away into the bondage of sinful choices and the darkness of deception. It was not a work for those who only knew peace – but a work of guardianship that required acuity in God’s Word and strength of spirit. Paul knew the people didn’t belong to him or the elders – they were God’s people. Yet, he honestly felt the weight of their lives for the time they were entrusted to his care, knowing in the end that they were in the hands of God and His Word. That is how it should be. Bad choices of disciples grieve the hearts of their leaders. What is more, they grieve the Holy Spirit within the heart of the believer who is making the bad choices.

I am amazed that some believers will choose to do something that God’s Word clearly speaks against and justify it with the argument that “they didn’t want to offend anyone” by making a different choice. Perhaps they have forgotten the offense against the Spirit of God? Consider these words from a preacher of yesteryear:

Spell this out in capital letters: THE HOLY SPIRIT IS A PERSON. He is not enthusiasm. He is not courage. He is not energy. He is not the personification of all good qualities, like Jack Frost is the personification of cold weather. Actually, the Holy Spirit is not the personification of anything…… He has individuality. He is one being and not another. He has will and intelligence. He has hearing. He has knowledge and sympathy and ability to love and see and think. He can hear, speak, desire, grieve and rejoice. He is a Person.” (The Counselor, by A.W. Tozer).

Paul recognized his life was scrutinized:

The Apostle that initiated mission points across Asia Minor, Macedonia, Greece and into Illyricum anticipated that his life was on display, not just his words. People weigh in on more than what a teacher says. Paul reminded:

Acts 20:33 I have not coveted anyone’s silver or gold or clothing. 34 You yourselves know that these hands of mine have supplied my own needs and the needs of my companions. 35 In everything I did, I showed you that by this kind of hard work we must help the weak, remembering the words the Lord Jesus himself said: ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’ ”

Paul’s quote of Jesus isn’t from the Gospels, but rather something Jesus taught him in the desert seminary class. He learned from Jesus not to hunger for the things of this world, but to use them to share Jesus with others. F.B. Meyer in Our Daily Walk made an important point regarding such a daily testimony:

The supreme test of goodness is not in the greater but in the smaller incidents of our character and practice; not what we are when standing in the searchlight of public scrutiny, but when we reach the firelight flicker of our homes; not what we are when some clarion-call rings through the air, summoning us to fight for life and liberty, but our attitude when we are called to sentry-duty in the grey morning, when the watch-fire is burning low. It is impossible to be our best at the supreme moment if character is corroded and eaten into by daily inconsistency, unfaithfulness, and besetting sin.

If Paul wasn’t helpful, he would have been useless to God in building the Kingdom. If Paul was insensitive to needs, his message would have fallen flat in each place he shared of Jesus. If Paul wasn’t hard-working, he would have been constantly in need of help from others to do his own work – making them doubt his veracity. Daily, consistent, caring and compassion matched with hard work will build the respect of others for your life message.

Paul didn’t let the emotional attachments drive him:

Paul loved these guys, but that wasn’t the most important love of his life – and his feelings didn’t drive his choices. Luke recorded of the scene:

Acts 20:36 When Paul had finished speaking, he knelt down with all of them and prayed. 37 They all wept as they embraced him and kissed him. 38 What grieved them most was his statement that they would never see his face again. Then they accompanied him to the ship. 21:1 After we had torn ourselves away from them, we put out to sea and sailed straight to Kos.

I love that Luke noted that “we tore ourselves away from them”. That kind of relationship is the kind that has passed through the fire of the foundry together. These men loved the Lord and each other – and the thought they would not be together again this side of glory was heart-breaking. Yet, God had a path for Paul, and another for these men. Neither knew where the path would lead – but they learned to trust God for the future…

A few years ago, a Pastor named Jason Jones shared this story:

In 1949, my father had just returned from the war. On every highway you could see soldiers in uniform hitchhiking home to their families. The thrill of the reunion with his family was soon overshadowed by my grandmother’s illness. There was a problem with her kidneys. The doctors told my father that she needed a blood transfusion immediately or she would not live through the night. Grandmother’s blood type was AB negative, a very rare type. In those days there were no blood banks like there are today. No one in the family had that type blood, and the hospital had not been able to find anyone with that rare type. The doctor gave our family little hope. My Dad decided to head home for a little while to change clothes and then return for the inevitable good-byes. As my father was driving home, he passed a soldier in uniform hitchhiking. Deep in grief, my father was not going to stop. But something compelled him to pull over. The soldier climbed in, but my father never spoke. He just continued driving down the road toward home. The soldier could tell my father was upset as a tear ran down his cheek. The soldier asked about the tear. My father began telling the stranger that his mother was going to die because the hospital couldn’t find anyone who could donate AB negative blood. My father explained that he was just heading home to change clothes. That is when he noticed the soldier’s open hand holding dog tags that read AB negative. The soldier told my father to turn the car around and head back to the hospital. My grandmother lived until 1996, 47 more years. (Source: From a sermon by Jason Jones, “The Lord’s Supper” 7/17/08, sermon central illustrations).

Consider how Paul left their company, tear-stained cheeks all around. God wasn’t finished with Paul – nor with the churches of Asia Minor. The record was left of this simple sermon to remind us…God mightily uses men and women who reflect His values and His message without wavering.