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Bible Commentaries

Expositor's Dictionary of Texts

Acts 20

Verses 1-38

The Sunday Sleeper

Acts 20:9

In considering Eutychus, I purpose looking first at the things which may be said in excuse of his famous sleep, and then pass on to look at what was blameworthy in it.

I. And first of all, in excuse of this poor young man, I must remark (1) that he was listening to a very long sermon. It is said that on one occasion a child in the Sunday-school was asked by her teacher, 'What does the story of Eutychus teach?' and she promptly replied, 'That ministers should not preach too long sermons!' Well, that was an unexpected lesson to learn from the Bible; but there can be no doubt that it had something to do with Eutychus's famous sleep on this occasion, for we are expressly told that Paul 'continued his speech until midnight'. No doubt he had a good excuse for so doing. He was only spending one Lord's day at Troas. That city, you remember, was famous as the scene of his wonderful vision of 'the man of Macedonia'. Paul therefore had a peculiar affection for the city; and now that a Church of Christ was established there, we can well fancy him expatiating on his wonderful mission to Corinth, and Philippi, and Thessalonica. He could not stop, and if he suggested doing so, most of them would cry as we do to a favourite politician, 'Don't stop. Go on!' But it was too much for our young man. He fell asleep with fatal results. The sermon was too long. 'Paul continued his speech until midnight.'

Now the lesson we learn from that is one rather for preachers than hearers, but even so I am not afraid to give it. It is this, that no preacher should continue his discourse much beyond half an hour.

(2) Another thing that must be said in excuse of this young man's delinquency was the probably illventilated character of the building. Luke puts his finger on that too when he says, 'There were many lights burning in the upper chamber.' They had not the grand churches of these days. It was still the Christianity of the upper room. But they had warm, loving hearts. They were eager to hear the Gospel, and so the place was full to the door. Every seat was occupied. The air, we may imagine, would be stifling; and its character would not be improved when, as the twilight deepened into night, they would light the lamps one by one, and the already limited oxygen would be still more exhausted. 'There were many lights burning in the upper chamber.'

I am not going to dwell on this, but I do think it is a Christian duty for deacons and managers of churches and halls to do what they can to keep the air as sweet and fresh as possible. Much of the torpor with which men listen to the message of God, much of the listlessness of children in a Sunday-school may be traced to the lack of ventilation. It is not always a want of grace. It may be simply a want of oxygen. 'There were many lights burning in the upper chamber.'

II. So much in extenuation of this young man; but when we have said that, there remains not a little cause for blame. (1) For, to begin with, note the fact that this sleeper under the Gospel was a young man. If he had been an old man or old woman we could have understood it better, and excused it more easily; but surely it is not a little strange that the one who falls asleep in that company is a young fellow in the flush of youth.

(2) He was listening to a very good preacher. He was listening to the Apostle Paul.

How little Eutychus must have realised that he was listening that night to one of the noblest spirits then in the world, that he whom he was sleeping under was one whose words would be treasured up to the end of time, whose life would never be forgotten! Had he done so, he would have been more wakeful. Had the emperor Nero been speaking that night, we may be sure Eutychus would have been all attention; but because it was only Paul, he slept on. And behind that preacher to whom you listen with such dull ears there may be Christ Himself, saying, 'O sleeper, why sleepest thou? "Awake, thou that sleepest, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give thee light."'

III. The danger and loss which the Sunday sleeper may incur.

Am I exaggerating when I say that the attitude of many to things spiritual, to all the higher questions of the soul, is one of practical sleep? They may not deny them, but they are quite indifferent to them. Their lives are passed in sin and self-indulgence. They do not walk as children of light. They are asleep, as the children of the night. The preacher tries to waken them, but they sleep on. Providences come to them bereavement, sickness, impending death but they sleep on. What can waken them? It would seem, nothing. They are sunk in fatal lethargy.

A distinguished professor of psychology once told his class of a striking case of somnambulism. It was that of a man who awoke one night, or seemed to awake, and went downstairs to the door of the house in which he dwelt, and yet he was asleep all the time. He opened the door and stepped out into the village street, and so strong was the somnambulistic trance that still he slept He passed along the street and out into the open country, and still he slept. Not till his naked feet touched a little stream that crossed his path did he awaken to the darkness of the night and the strange unfamiliar scene. There are souls like that! They never waken till they touch the cold waters of death, and feel the night winds of mortality arouse them to the darkness of their night and the strange unfamiliar scenes of eternity and judgment.

W. Mackintosh Mackay, Bible Types of Modern Men, p. 254.

References. XX. 9-12. J. Owen, Christian World Pulpit, vol. lvii. p. 395. XX. 15. Expositor (7th Series), vol. v. p. 275. XX. 16. Ibid. (4th Series), vol. viii. p. 323.

St. Paul's Charge

Acts 20:17

I wish to speak to you on the happenings recorded in Acts 20:0 , which mainly deal with St. Paul's charge to the Church at Ephesus.

I. St. Paul had a clear Conscience. He had faithfully discharged his duty (verses 19 and 31). True humility can always be connected with intense earnestness. Are we humble of mind? If so, are we earnest in spirit? Surely the faith that we profess should intensify our earnestness. This earnest man of God was undoubtedly used because of his earnestness, and I appeal to you as well as to myself, living in an ungodly world and living in an age when indifference marks everything surely there is the call to us to be whole-hearted in the spirit of serving the Lord. If the intellectual Apostle could speak with tears, if he could say to the Ephesian elders, 'Night and day I was serving with tears,' well may we ask ourselves how far are we actuated by an earnestness of faith in the life we now live? God's spirit alone can give us this earnestness; and again let us remember that if He gave it to the Apostle, He will give it to us. We may not have the intellectual qualifications that Christ gave to this great man, but we can all be in earnest, and our words and our deeds, and our looks and our lives as a whole should testify to the reality of our faith in the Saviour Whom we profess to serve.

II. The Apostle emphasises the Fundamental Principle of His Faith.

(a) To those Ephesian elders he said, 'Testifying to the Jews as well as to the Greeks repentance toward God and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ'. The liturgy of the English Church, at the opening of morning and evening prayer, requires, before anything else, repentance and faith. Surely we should ask ourselves, Am I more repentant today than I was yesterday? Repentance is truth because it is taught by God. Are we able to say of sin, 'I renounce sin, I turn from it; I have faith in Christ, and I cling to Him'? If these two great subjects are never lost sight of they must necessarily help us a great deal in our Christian life and in being what we want to be, living witnesses of a living Saviour.

(b) The Gospel of the grace of God. Here again is a fundamental truth. We know the subject was always upon the Apostle's mind; yet it is one of the points which even Christian people lose sight of.

(c) The coming kingdom. In verse 25 he says: 'I have gone preaching the kingdom of God'. Here, then, is another point which is interesting in view of the future grandeur of the coming of our King. In his letters St. Paul referred to the second advent of our Lord. Christ is coming, and His kingdom is to be set up here on earth; so let us, as Christian workers, never forget that kingdom and preach and proclaim it privately and publicly.

III. The Apostle utters Words of Solemn Warning. 'Take heed' (verse 28). The exhortation there is very interesting. It was used by Moses again and again, which will be noticed if you turn to Deuteronomy 4:0 . It was also used by our Lord several times. See now He used it in connection with the parable of the sower. We may even apply it to this very service, and, as far as that goes, to every service we attend. 'Take heed.' Are not these messages necessary today?

(a) Take heed what ye hear. Bring every book and every periodical that you may read to the test of Christianity, and if it will not bear the test of God's Holy Word banish it from your reading, have nothing to do with it Do not let the novel of the day absorb your attention except that novel will bear the scrutiny of the Word of God. We cannot take poison in our food without impairing our health and our bodies; we cannot poison our minds without seriously endangering the spiritual life.

(b) Take heed how ye hear. When we pray together and listen to the Word of the Scriptures, may we take heed that we hear the Word, and that it is not caught away by the enemies of the soul; that the tares of this life do not choke the Word; that when we receive the Word it will not fall on stony ground, but that we may receive it with joy.

(c) Watch and pray (verse 31). What does this imply? It implies confidence in the Lord Jesus Christ. You cannot watch unless you have confidence in Him. And watching and praying means more than this. It implies certainty certainty in the Lord Jesus Christ.

References. XX. 17. Expositor (6th Series), vol. ii. p. 378. XX. 18. Ibid. vol. xi. p. 65. XX. 19. Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. vii. No. 365. Expositor (4th Series), vol. ii. p. 148. XX. 19, 20. W. H. Hutchings, Sermon-Sketches (2nd Series), p. 63. XX. 20-29. Expositor (4th Series), vol. iii. p. 422. XX. 20-59. Ibid. vol. ii. p. 28 XX. 21. Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. xxxv. No. 2073.

Measuring a Ministry

Acts 20:24

To be a minister is the master-purpose of Paul's life; to be a faithful minister his supreme ambition. We, too, have a ministry; we, too, call others our ministers: then let us examine our ideals, and see what it is we mean.

I. Now, behind this Christian conception of ministry, there are two other conceptions, those of the priest and the prophet (1) We may dislike the word priest, because it has become associated with evil meanings, but do not let us forget that the priestly man has always been a fact in human life. There is a sweetness of disposition about them, a delicacy of fibre, a moral sensitiveness, a spiritual susceptibility, which marks them out amid a multitude as the anointed of the Lord. (2) Again, there is the conception of the minister as the prophetic man. The priest moves in the world; the prophet stands aloof from it. The priest is the reconciler between God and man; the prophet has no element of reconciliation in his nature. The priest allures, constrains, charms; the prophet terrifies, alarms, overwhelms us. It was because the prophet and the priest were joined in Paul's ideal of ministry, because he conceived that to serve the world in the fullest sense, it was necessary not only to comfort the weary, but to attack with unsparing purpose the shams, the pretensions, the deadly hypocrisies of daily, customary, permitted and respectable life, but men rejected his ideal and slew him.

II. And now go one step farther, and you reach the vision of the ideal ministry which Paul exemplifies. He is a servant and a witness. (1) And what is a servant? We have advanced a long way, no doubt, since the day when the servant was a serf, whose very life was in the hand of his master; but far as we may advance in brotherhood and compassion, the essential restrictions of service still remain. (2) The ministry meant for Paul one other thing, and the chief of all it was a testimony. He was a witness to two things: that once he was a sinner, that now he was a sinner saved. And that is the crowning element in the Christian ministry. We base everything upon the experience of the individual.

III. From this whole conception of the ministry is not another thing clear: that he who lives in closest touch with his fellow-men is the truest minister of Christ? We want two things today; the secularisation of the ministry, and the socialisation of the churches. The minister must throw off his professionalism or parish; and the church must throw off her ideals of respectability.

IV. Now let us mark Paul's final estimate of his lifework. Life is to be measured by its end, its spirit, its achievement; and life for Paul has had so supreme an aim that to attain that aim death itself is a price worth paying.

W. J. Dawson, The Comrade Christ, p. 297.

References. XX. 24. T. F. Crosse, Sermons (2nd Series), p. 234. Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. xxix. No. 1734. A. G. Brown, Christian World Pulpit, vol. lxxviii. p. 402. J. G. Greenhough, The Mind of Christ in St. Paul, p. 268. Expositor (5th Series), vol. v. p. 33. XX. 25. Ibid. (4th Series), vol. ix. p. 3. XX. 26. A. G. Mortimer, The Church's Lessons for the Christian Year, pt. iii. p. 139. XX. 26, 27. C. G. Finney, Penny Pulpit, No. 1685, p. 519. W. P. Balfern, Lessons from Jesus, p. 303. Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. vi. No. 289.

The Sacrifice of God the Father

Acts 20:28

Let us consider the sacrifice of God the Father in the redemption of the Church of God. I discern three elements in it which we shall take in order.

I. The first element in the sacrifice of God the Father was the impoverishment of the Godhead. One of the strange and repeated statements of Scripture is that the Lamb was slain from before the foundation of the world. That statement is clear enough in its meaning, but it shades off into dark and inscrutable mysteries. The mysteries are those involved with the creation of a world which should require the slaying of the Lamb. But the plain meaning is that the purpose of redemption lay as a burden and a sorrow and a sacrifice on the heart of God long before the morning stars sang together or the sons of God shouted for joy. But the hour came when the purpose which had lain as a burden on the heart of God was manifested in time. As Milton sings so choiringly in his noble hymn:

The Shepherds on the lawn,

Or ere the point of dawn,

Sat simply chatting in a rustic row,

When such music sweet

Their hearts and ears did greet

As never was by mortal fingers struck.

For Christ was born in Bethlehem. But was there no minor strain in the music in the heart of God the Father? What did it mean to the Godhead to Father, Son, and Holy Ghost when the Son passed out and left the Father and Spirit behind? It meant the impoverishment of the Godhead. The sacrifice of the Incarnation was not only the pain and loss of Christ, but the pain and loss of God the Father also. 'Behold I show you a mystery.' And yet we can dimly realise the impoverishment of the Godhead when the Son emptied Himself of His glory and left the throne. The relationship and the intimacy of God the Father and God the Son can never be fully figured by earthly things. For it was not simply as the loss of the dearest child or of a beloved wife. It was the sending forth of a part of Himself, whereby the Godhead was impoverished. Therefore Paul in the rapture of his inspiration said, 'The church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood'.

II. The second element in the sacrifice of God the Father lay in His infinite sympathy with the sufferings of Christ. There is a sympathy which may be intense, heartbreaking, reaching to torture. Given a strong imagination which can discern another's pain, and a tender and unselfish heart to feel it, the suffering of sympathy may be as poignant and as hard to bear as the actual stroke. John Howard seldom entered one of the dismal dungeons of Europe without tears. He often stood among prisoners, whose state was one of abject wretchedness, the most miserable man of them all. Macaulay tells us that his father when Governor of Sierra Leone could not see a company of female slaves pass him by, and realise, with his vivid sympathy, the lives of shame and torture to which they were doomed, without being dazed and stunned for hours. The biographer of Mrs. Booth asserts that she could not see a neglected sore or witness a ruthless wrong without a pain which sometimes became physical nausea. It may be questioned if the pang of sympathy be not greater at times than the actual suffering itself.

III. The third element in the sacrifice of God the Father is His share in the agony of the Cross.

There are two truths which stream from this rich vein of doctrine. (1) The first is the simplest yet deepest truth of the Gospel. It is this the proof given of the almost incredible and quite inexhaustible love of God.

(2) The second truth is God's infinite pain at sin.

W. M. Clow, The Gross in Christian Experience, p. 14.

References. XX. 28. H. Woodcock, Sermon Outlines (1st Series), p. 51. Bishop Welldon, The Gospel in a Great City, p. 220. Expositor (4th Series), vol. v. p. 184; ibid. (6th Series), vol. iii. p. 277; ibid. vol. x. p. 280. XX. 28-32. J. Parker, Christian World Pulpit, vol. xlvii. p. 391. XX. 29. Expositor (6th Series), vol. vii. p. 287; ibid. vol. ix. p. 221. XX. 30. Expositor (4th Series), vol. vi. p. 194. XX. 31. J. Thew, Christian World Pulpit, vol. 1. p. 246. XX. 32. Christian World Pulpit, vol. xlviii. p. 30. O. J. Jones, Christian World Pulpit, vol. 1. p. 238. Expositor (4th Series), vol. vi. p. 67. XX. 34. Ibid. (6th Series), vol. ii. p. 259. XX. 35. J. Stalker, Christian World Pulpit, vol. lviii. p. 282. H. R. Heywood, Sermons and Addresses, p. 202. F. D. Maurice, The Acts of the Apostles, p. 314. J. Keble, Miscellaneous Sermons, p. 298. H. Alford, Quebec Chapel Sermons, vol. ii. p. 1. Expositor (4th Series), vol. iii. pp. 352, 421; ibid. vol. ix. p. 101; ibid. (5th Series), vol. ii. p. 375; ibid. vol. vi. p. 267; ibid. (6th Series), vol. xi. p. 45. XX. 37. W. P. Balfern, Lessons from Jesus, p. 149. XX. 38. Dinsdale T. Young, The Gospel of the Left Hand, p. 237. XXI. XXIII. Expositor (5th Series), vol. ii. p. 152. XXI. 5. Ibid. (6th Series), vol. ix. p. 21. XXI. 7, 8. A. P. Stanley, Canterbury Sermons, p. 134. XXI. 8, 9. R. W. Hiley, A Year's Sermons, vol. iii. p. 275.

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Bibliographical Information
Nicoll, William Robertson, M.A., L.L.D. "Commentary on Acts 20". Expositor's Dictionary of Text. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/edt/acts-20.html. 1910.