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Bible Commentaries
Acts 20

Dr. Constable's Expository NotesConstable's Expository Notes

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Verse 1

Evidently soon after the riot Paul left Ephesus to pursue his plan to return to Jerusalem through Macedonia and Achaia (Acts 19:21). He travelled up to Troas where he could have ministered for some time because "a door was opened" for him there (2 Corinthians 2:12). Nevertheless he was uneasy about the trouble in the Corinthian church. He had sent Titus to Corinth, evidently from Ephesus, with a severe letter to the church. He was eager to hear what the reaction to it had been (2 Corinthians 2:3-4; 2 Corinthians 7:8-12; 2 Corinthians 12:18). So rather than staying in Troas, Paul moved west into Macedonia where he met Titus who was returning from Corinth (2 Corinthians 7:5-8). After receiving Titus’ favorable report of affairs in Corinth, Paul wrote 2 Corinthians from somewhere in Macedonia, probably in the fall of A.D. 56 (cf. 2 Corinthians 12:14; 2 Corinthians 13:1-2).

Verses 1-6

Paul’s visit to Macedonia and Achaia 20:1-6

"This report of Paul’s return visit to Macedonia and Achaia is the briefest account of an extended ministry in all of Acts-even more so than the summary of the ministry at Ephesus (cf. Acts 19:8-12). Nevertheless, it can be filled out to some extent by certain personal references and historical allusions in 2 Corinthians and Romans, which were written during this time." [Note: Longenecker, p. 506.]

Verse 2

Paul’s ministry to the province of Illyricum, which lay to the northwest of Macedonia, may have taken place while he was in this area or during his three-year ministry in Ephesus (cf. Romans 15:19). "Greece" here refers to Achaia. Paul may have sent his Epistle to Titus at this time, but he probably wrote it after his acquittal in Rome and after he resumed his missionary travels (Titus 3:12).

Verse 3

The "three months" appear to have been the winter months of A.D. 56-57. Paul probably spent most of this time in Corinth where Gaius (Titius Justus?) was his host (Romans 16:23; cf. Acts 18:7). There he wrote the Book of Romans as he anticipated visiting Rome. From Rome he planned to move farther west into Spain (Romans 15:24). During his time in Macedonia and Achaia Paul was also busy collecting the gift for the poor saints in Jerusalem (Romans 15:26). He evidently planned to travel on a ship from Cenchrea to Caesarea and Jerusalem to celebrate one of the spring Jewish feasts there (Acts 20:6; Acts 20:16). However when he learned of the Jews’ plot to kill him on the way, he changed his plans and decided to go to Jerusalem by way of Macedonia.

"Often from foreign ports Jewish pilgrim ships left for Syria to take pilgrims to the Passover. Paul must have intended to sail on such a ship. On such a ship it would have been the easiest thing in the world for the fanatical Jews to arrange that Paul should disappear overboard and never be heard of again." [Note: Barclay, p. 161.]

Verse 4

The men Luke identified here were the representatives of the churches in the provinces of Macedonia, Galatia, and Asia who accompanied Paul with the gift of money for the Jerusalem church. Sopater may be the Sosipater of Romans 16:21. Paul himself may have represented the province of Achaia and the church in Corinth while Luke may have represented the Philippian Christians, but Luke did not make this clear.

Verses 5-6

Apparently these men travelled from Corinth to Philippi with Paul. In Philippi Paul met Luke who may have ministered there since Paul had founded the Philippian church (cf. Acts 16:10-40). Paul’s team celebrated the feast of Unleavened Bread, which followed immediately after Passover, in Philippi. This eight-day festival began with Passover and continued with the feast of Unleavened Bread. The Jews commonly referred to the whole holiday as the feast of Unleavened Bread since it was the longer celebration. Then Paul’s companions proceeded on to Troas. Paul and Luke, and perhaps Titus and two other representatives of the church in Achaia (cf. 2 Corinthians 8:6-24), remained in Philippi briefly. Note the recurrence of "we" (Acts 20:5-15; cf. Acts 16:10-17; Acts 21:1-18; Acts 27:1 to Acts 28:16). They did so to celebrate the Passover and Unleavened Bread feasts in the spring of A.D. 57. Then they sailed from Neapolis, the port of Philippi (Acts 16:11), to Troas and joined the other messengers. This crossing took five days whereas previously Paul’s ship from Troas to Neapolis made the trip in only two days (Acts 16:11). [Note: See Bruce, "Chronological Questions . . .," pp. 288-89.]

Verse 7

We do not know if Paul or someone else planted the church in Troas (cf. Acts 16:8-9; 2 Corinthians 2:12-13). This is the first clear reference in Scripture to the early Christians meeting to worship on the first day of the week rather than on the Sabbath, the seventh day (cf. John 20:19; John 20:26; 1 Corinthians 16:2; Revelation 1:10). This day has continued to be the generally preferred one for Christian worship. They selected Sunday because it was the day on which the Lord Jesus Christ arose from the dead. This group of believers met "to break bread" (Gr. klasai arton).

"The breaking of the bread probably denotes a fellowship meal in the course of which the Eucharist was celebrated (cf. Acts 2:42)." [Note: Bruce, Commentary on . . ., p. 408. Cf. Acts 20:11; 1 Corinthians 10:16-17; 11:17-34.]

"In the early Church there were two closely related things. There was what was called the Love Feast. To it all contributed, and it was a real meal. Often it must have been the only real meal that poor slaves got all week. It was a meal when the Christians sat down and ate in loving fellowship and in sharing with each other. During it or at the end of it the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper was observed. It may well be that we have lost something of very great value when we lost the happy fellowship and togetherness of the common meal of the Christian fellowship. It marked as nothing else could the real homeliness, the real family spirit of the Church." [Note: Barclay, pp. 162-63.]

"Breaking bread is not merely the occasion for the Eutychus story, as Acts 20:7 might suggest. Because Paul is departing, the community’s breaking of bread becomes a farewell meal, resembling Jesus’ farewell meal with his apostles, when he ’took bread’ and ’broke’ it (Luke 22:19). The echoes of Jesus’ Jerusalem journey and its consequences that begin in Acts 19:21 and continue thereafter may suggest that this resemblance has some importance, even though it is not developed." [Note: Tannehill, 2:250-51.]

Luke did not record when Paul began his address, but the apostle kept speaking all night. Probably some of the Christians present would have been slaves or employees who would have been free to attend a meeting only at night. Luke’s references to time are Roman rather than Jewish. For him days ran from sunrise to sunrise, not from sunset to sunset (cf. Acts 20:7; Acts 20:11).

"I tell congregations very frankly that I’m a long-winded preacher. I’m known as that. I love to teach the Word of God. I have a system of homiletics that I never learned in the seminary. I picked it up myself-in fact, I got it from a cigarette commercial. This is it: It’s not how long you make it but how you make it long. I believe in making it long; my scriptural authority for it is that Paul did it. He spoke until midnight [really until daybreak, Acts 20:11]." [Note: McGee, 4:602.]

Verses 7-12

Paul’s raising of Eutychus in Troas 20:7-12

"From Acts 20:5 through the end of Acts (Acts 28:31), Luke’s narrative gives considerable attention to ports of call, stopovers, and time spent on Paul’s travels and includes various anecdotes. It contains the kind of details found in a travel journal, and the use of ’we’ in Acts 20:5-15; Acts 21:1-18; and Acts 28:16 shows its eyewitness character." [Note: Longenecker, p. 508.]

"This claim to be an eyewitness was considered vital in Greek historiography, unlike Roman historiography where being an armchair historian was much more acceptable." [Note: Witherington, p. 605.]

Verses 8-9

Luke’s reference to the many lamps (Gr. lampades hikani, lit. many torches) suggests that it was the combination of a long message and lack of oxygen that caused Eutychus to fall asleep. The Greek word translated "young man" (meanias) elsewhere describes a boy of eight to 14 years old. However, his name suggests that he may have been a slave, in which case he could have been in his thirties. [Note: Witherington, p. 607.] Doctor Luke pronounced Eutychus (lit. fortunate) dead.

"The length of Paul’s preaching may incline us to sympathize with sleepy Eutychus. The well-developed synoptic theme of wakefulness puts a different perspective on the matter. Falling asleep is a serious failure with potentially grave consequences. Paul’s dedicated preaching makes demands on his audience. They must be dedicated listeners who hear the word and ’bear fruit with perseverance (en upomone)’ (Luke 8:15). Eutychus failed and fell." [Note: Tannehill, 2:250.]

"I confess that Paul’s experience has always been a comfort to me. When I look out at the congregation and see some brother or sister out there sound asleep, I say to myself, ’It’s all right. Just let them sleep. Paul put them to sleep, too.’" [Note: McGee, 4:602.]

Verses 10-11

This seems to be a definite instance of Paul raising a dead person back to life similar to what Elijah, Elisha, and Jesus had done (cf. 1 Kings 17:21-22; 2 Kings 4:34-35; Matthew 9:23-25; Mark 5:39). If so, the incident shows the miraculous power of Jesus Christ working through His apostle at this time (Acts 1:1-2). (If you are a preacher and have the gift of gab, you may also need the gift of healing!) However many competent exegetes have concluded that Euticus simply swooned and Paul revived him.

"One will believe here as the facts appeal to him." [Note: Robertson, 3:342.]

There are also several similarities between this incident and Peter’s raising of Tabitha (Dorcas) in Acts 9:36-42.

"Whereas Peter raises Tabitha by a command, following the pattern of resurrection stories in Luke, Paul ’fell upon (epepesen)’ Eutychus and embraced him and then announced that he was alive (Acts 20:10). If there is a healing act here, it is by bodily contact, not by word, and follows the pattern of the Elisha story (2 Kings 4:34 = 4 Kgdms. Acts 4:34). Peter and Paul are similar in part because they fit a common scriptural type. Through both, the prophetic power of Elijah and Elisha continues to be available to the church." [Note: Tannehill, 2:248.]

Verse 11

The Christians returned to their third-story room and resumed their meeting. The Greek phrase klasas ton arton kai geusamenos, "broken the bread and eaten," can refer to an ordinary meal rather than the Lord’s Supper. [Note: Longenecker, p. 509.] Or the Lord’s Supper may be in view here. [Note: Neil, p. 212; Kent, p. 156.] Paul then continued speaking until daybreak. He and the Troas Christians realized that this might be their final opportunity to meet together, so in spite of the unusual incident involving Eutychus they made the most of their opportunity.

Verse 12

Luke closed his account of this incident by assuring the reader that Eutychus was indeed all right and that the believers found great comfort in Paul’s ministry of restoration as well as in his teaching.

"These early believers sat up all night listening to Paul. I know someone is going to say, ’If I could listen to Paul, I’d listen all night, too.’ Probably Paul was nothing more than a humble preacher of the gospel. We do know that Apollos was an eloquent man, but that is not said of Paul. These believers simply wanted to hear the Word of God. How wonderful that is!" [Note: McGee, 4:603.]

Verses 13-14

Ships had to round Cape Lectum to reach Assos (modern Bahram Koi) from Troas. This was a more time-consuming route than the road between these towns, which were 20 miles apart. By taking the land route Paul was able to stay in Troas a little longer. Mitylene was the chief city of the island of Lesbos, the largest of the islands of western Asia Minor.

Verses 13-16

The journey from Troas to Miletus 20:13-16

"In a few business-like words Luke takes his readers over some of the most storied coasts of ancient myth and history." [Note: Blaiklock, p. 165.]

Verse 15

Chios was the major town of a small island by the same name on which the poet Homer had been born. Samos was another island off the coast of Asia directly west of Ephesus another day’s sail south. Samos’ most famous son was Pathagoras, the great mathematician. Miletus stood 30 miles south of Ephesus on the mainland. Normally small ships like the ones on which Paul’s company traveled along the coast put into port each night when the winds died down.

Verse 16

Paul evidently concluded that it would be too time-consuming or dangerous to return to Ephesus. He wanted to reach Jerusalem by Pentecost, which was 50 days after Passover (cf. Acts 20:6; Acts 2:1). Paul’s visit to Miletus, therefore, must have occurred in late April of A.D. 57.

Verse 17

Evidently Paul’s ship had a several-day layover in Miletus, or he may have changed ships after spending a few days there (cf. Acts 21:3-4; Acts 21:8). It would have taken at least one day for Paul’s message to reach the Ephesian elders and at least one more day for them to make their way to Miletus to join him.

Verses 17-35

Paul’s address to the Ephesian elders 20:17-35

"Paul’s farewell address to the Ephesian elders is the nearest approximation to the Pauline letters in Acts. Its general content recalls how in his letters Paul encouraged, warned, and exhorted his converts. Moreover, its theological themes and vocabulary are distinctively Pauline. In his three missionary sermons (Acts 13:16-41; Acts 14:15-17; Acts 17:22-31) and five defenses (chs. 22-26), Paul addressed non-Christian audiences. But he was speaking to Christians here. It is significant that, in a situation similar to those he faced in many of his letters, this farewell to the Ephesian elders reads like a miniature letter of his. This becomes all the more significant when we recall that nowhere else in Acts is there any evidence for a close knowledge of Paul’s letters.

"The address is constructed in a way familiar to all readers of Paul’s letters. The body of it has three parts, which deal with (1) Paul’s past ministry at Ephesus (Acts 20:18-21), (2) Paul’s present plans in going to Jerusalem (Acts 20:22-24), and (3) the future of Paul himself and of the church at Ephesus (Acts 20:25-31). It concludes with a blessing (Acts 20:32) and then adds further words of exhortation that point the hearers to Paul’s example and the teachings of Jesus (Acts 20:33-35). Heading each section is an introductory formula: ’you know’ (hymeis epistasthe) at Acts 20:18; ’and now behold’ (kai nyn idou) at Acts 20:22; ’and now behold I know’ (kai nyn idou ego oida) at Acts 20:25; and ’and now’ (kai ta nyn) at Acts 20:32." [Note: Longenecker, pp. 511-12. See Witherington, p. 610, for a chart comparing terms and concepts Paul used in this address with similar ones he used in his epistles.]

This is probably one of the few speeches in Acts that Luke heard with his own ears. The Greek physician Galen wrote that his students took down his medical lectures in shorthand, so perhaps this is what Luke did on this occasion. [Note: Robertson, 3:346-47.]

Verses 18-21

Paul first reviewed his past three-year ministry among these elders (Acts 20:31). He appealed to the way he lived among them to urge them to remain faithful in the future (cf. 1 Thessalonians 2:1-12). He emphasized particularly his humble service of the Lord (cf. Ephesians 4:2), his sorrows (cf. 2 Corinthians 2:4), and the opposition of enemies of the gospel (cf. Acts 19:9; Acts 20:1). He also stressed his faithfulness in proclaiming what they needed to hear (cf. Romans 1:16), his ceaseless teaching ministry (cf. Acts 19:8-10), and his comprehensive evangelistic efforts (cf. Acts 20:26). Teaching from house to house (Acts 20:20) probably included home Bible classes and house churches. This defense of his ministry suggests that critics may have been prejudicing his converts against him in his absence, as they did elsewhere. Notice that several of the words and phrases in this first part of Paul’s speech recur as it proceeds.

Repentance toward God and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ (Acts 20:21) is a beautifully balanced way of expressing what is essential for justification (cf. Acts 26:20-23; Romans 10:9-10; 2 Corinthians 5:20 to 2 Corinthians 6:2). One must change his or her mind Godward and place trust in the Lord Jesus Christ.

Verses 22-23

Next Paul described his present circumstances. Probably Paul meant that he had committed himself to visiting Jerusalem since he was sure this was what God wanted him to do even though he realized that trouble lay ahead (cf. Acts 20:3; Acts 9:16; Acts 19:21). Perhaps prophets had already revealed to him that the Jews would arrest him there (cf. Acts 21:4; Acts 21:11; Romans 15:30-31). Paul wanted to be faithful to the Lord more than he wanted to be physically safe or comfortable (cf. Philippians 1:20).

"It should be noted that the Spirit did not prohibit his going, but told him what would happen when he arrived." [Note: Kent, p. 157.]

Verse 24

Paul’s "gospel of the grace of God" was a continuation of the good news Jesus preached but in a universal context. Thus he equated it with "preaching the kingdom" (Acts 20:25).

Verse 25

Paul continued by laying out his plans for the future. The kingdom Paul preached is God’s rule over His elect. It probably includes His spiritual rule now and His messianic rule during the Millennium.

"Usually in the book of Acts the kingdom of God refers to the eschatological realm of salvation (Acts 14:22). But in this passage, the kingdom of God is the summary of Paul’s entire message in Ephesus and refers to the present blessings of redemption in Christ." [Note: Ladd, "The Acts . . .," p. 1163.]

"Paul clearly equated preaching the Gospel of the grace of God with the preaching of the kingdom of God. Once again [cf. Acts 20:22-24] we see that the two terms are used interchangeably [cf. Acts 28:23; Acts 28:30-31]. . . .

"Thus as we survey Paul’s ministry as recorded in the Book of Acts, we see that he was an ambassador of the kingdom of God-but his message was salvation through the death and the resurrection of Jesus Christ. No reference is made to support the notion that the earthly Davidic kingdom had been established. Rather, the message concerns entrance into a present form of the kingdom of God by faith in Jesus Christ." [Note: Pentecost, Thy Kingdom . . ., p. 280.]

Paul was confident that all the men he addressed would not see him again, though some of them might. He did not plan to return to Ephesus for some time if ever (cf. Romans 15:23-29).

Verse 26

Paul could say he was innocent (cf. Jeremiah 23:1-2) not because he had presented the gospel to every individual personally. He had carried out the mission God had given him of evangelizing pagan Gentile areas. The Christians remaining in Asia could continue to evangelize more thoroughly (cf. Ezekiel 33:1-6).

Verse 27

Paul had passed on to these elders what was truly profitable to them (cf. Acts 20:20). "The whole purpose of God" refers to God’s plans and purposes rather than a verse by verse exposition of the Scriptures. Their responsibility was to instruct the saints in more detail.

"As I write this, I am a retired preacher. I have made many blunders and have failed in many ways. But as I look back on my ministry, I can say truthfully that when I stood in the pulpit, I declared the Word of God as I saw it. I have the deep satisfaction of knowing that if I went back to any pulpit which I have held, I haven’t a thing to add to what I have already said. I don’t mean I couldn’t say it in a better way, but the important thing is that I declared the whole counsel of God. I have always believed that the important issue is to get out the entire Word of God." [Note: McGee, 4:604.]

Verse 28

Paul concluded his address with a challenge because of the Ephesian elders’ future responsibilities (Acts 20:28-31). The elders were to guard their own lives from the attacks of the adversary and then the lives of those under their care (cf. Ezekiel 34:12-16; 1 Peter 5:1-4). Paul used Jesus’ familiar figure of a flock of sheep to describe His followers (John 10:27; John 21:15; et al.).

The term "elder" (Acts 20:17) came from Judaism and emphasized the dignity of the leader of God’s people. "Overseer" is Greek in origin and describes the responsibility of this person. "Shepherd" was both Jewish and Greek and focuses on his function. Putting them together we conclude that these men were older, more mature men in the faith who were responsible for the spiritual welfare of the church. They fulfilled their responsibility by pastoring (i.e., leading, feeding, guiding, and guarding) the church (cf. 1 Peter 5:1-4).

"There was in apostolic times no distinction between elders (presbyters) and bishops such as we find from the second century onwards: the leaders of the Ephesian church are indiscriminately described as elders, bishops (i.e., superintendents), and shepherds (or pastors)." [Note: Bruce, Commentary on . . ., p. 415.]

The Holy Spirit appointed these men in the sense that He led the apostles or others to select them as elders.

A better translation of the last part of this verse would be, "He [God the Father] purchased with the blood of His own [Son]" (cf. Romans 3:25; Romans 5:9; Ephesians 1:7; Ephesians 2:13; Colossians 1:20). It is important for church leaders to remember that the church belongs to God, not them. This helps balance the tendency to take too little or too much responsibility on oneself. "The church [Gr. ekklesia] of God" is a phrase we find elsewhere in the New Testament only in Paul’s epistles.

Verses 29-30

Paul may have been certain where future trouble would come from because of his contacts with that church, by special revelation, or because of his general experience in ministry (cf. Matthew 7:15; John 10:12). What he anticipated materialized (1 Timothy 1:6-7; 1 Timothy 1:19-20; 1 Timothy 4:1-7; 2 Timothy 1:15; 2 Timothy 2:17-18; 2 Timothy 3:1-9; Revelation 2:1-7). Most churches face opposition from people outside and inside their fellowship.

Verse 31

Watchfulness would be imperative for these shepherds. Paul probably labored in Ephesus from the fall of A.D. 52 to the summer of A.D. 55. Some scholars believe that he spent some of this time in prison there (cf. 2 Corinthians 11:23) and that he wrote his Prison Epistles, at least Philippians, from Ephesus. This is a minority opinion, however, that does not have as strong support as the Roman origin of the Prison Epistles theory does.

Reference to his tears shows that Paul’s ministry was not just intellectual but also emotional; he became emotionally involved in it (cf. John 11:35). Specifically he delivered his admonitions feeling the pain that they caused his hearers. The Book of Acts does not picture Paul as weeping over the people to whom he ministered or over ministry situations. Rather it presents him as equal to any occasion. We only see this human side of his ministry from Paul’s own comments here and in his epistles.

Verse 32

Paul concluded his address with a blessing. Since he was no longer going to be able to build up these men, he committed them to God who would, and to the Scriptures, God’s tool in this process. God’s grace is the source of all spiritual growth and of the ultimate inheritance these elders would one day enjoy because they were believers (cf. 1 Peter 5:1-4; Philippians 1:6; Colossians 3:24).

Verses 33-35

The apostle concluded with an exhortation, as he typically did in his epistles. Was Paul boasting when he reviewed his habits of life in Ephesus? I think not. He was reminding these elders of his example that they were to follow as they led the church as he had led them. They were to serve without concern for present material reward. Paul’s policy was not to ask others to support him but to labor at his trade when he or his fellow workers or his converts needed financial support. He did not hesitate to raise money for others, but there are no references in Acts or in his epistles to his having asked for money for himself. I do not believe Paul would object to modern support-raising efforts by Christian workers provided the support raiser was willing to work if his supporters proved unfaithful. Paul emphasized motives (Acts 20:33) and example (Acts 20:35). He wanted to give rather than receive and to model that attitude so his converts could see how to demonstrate it in everyday life.

"The Greco-Roman world was honeycombed by social networks grounded in the priciple of reciprocity, of ’giving and receiving.’ Paul’s exhortation here is to break that cycle and serve and help those who can give nothing in return. This is the practical expression of what being gracious means-freely they had received the good news, and they should freely give with no thought of return." [Note: Witherington, p. 626.]

The precise saying of Jesus to which Paul referred here (Acts 20:35) is not in Scripture. It may have come down to Paul by oral or written tradition, or he may have been summarizing Jesus’ teaching (e.g., Luke 6:38). Paul often related his exhortations to Jesus’ teachings or example (cf. Romans 12-14; Philippians 2:5-11; 1 Thessalonians 4:1-12).

Verse 36

Prayer for God’s grace and protection undoubtedly bonded these men together in Christian love. The kneeling posture here, as elsewhere in Scripture, reflects an attitude of submission to the sovereign Lord. The normal position for praying seems to have been standing (cf. Mark 11:25), so kneeling implies a particularly solemn occasion (cf. Acts 21:5). [Note: Neil, p. 215.]

Verses 36-38

Paul’s departure from Miletus 20:36-38

Verses 37-38

This record of the Gentile converts’ affection for Paul (cf. Genesis 33:4; Genesis 45:14; Genesis 46:29) contrasts with the hatred of the Jews that he was to face soon in Jerusalem. Luke again obliquely pointed out that the Gentiles received the gospel but the Jews usually rejected it.

". . . through all this scene there runs one dominant feeling and that is the feeling of an affection and a love as deep as the heart itself. That is the feeling that should be in any Church. When love dies in any Church the work of Christ cannot do other than wither or fade." [Note: Barclay, p. 166.]

Paul may have left Timothy in Ephesus at this time. However, it seems more likely that that took place after Paul’s release from Rome, his departure from that city, and his return to Ephesus (1 Timothy 1:3; 1 Timothy 3:14; 1 Timothy 4:13).

Bibliographical Information
Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on Acts 20". "Dr. Constable's Expository Notes". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/dcc/acts-20.html. 2012.
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