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Bible Commentaries

F. B. Hole's Old and New Testament Commentary
Acts 20

 

 

Verses 1-38

IN ACTS WE are simply told that Paul gave much exhortation to the saints in Macedonia, that he visited Greece, and that to avoid the persecuting Jews he returned through Macedonia on his way back to Asia. Verse Acts 20:4 gives us the names of his travelling companions on this return journey, though they went ahead across the sea and waited for him at Troas. In verse Acts 20:5 Luke again uses the pronoun “us,” which shows that at this point he again made one of the party. Paul, Luke and others had a voyage of five days, which brought them again to Troas, where not long before “a door was opened... of the Lord.” The following verses of our chapter show that a great interest in the things of God still was found in that place.

Paul only spent a week in Troas, yet during that time there occurred the memorable meeting recorded in verses Acts 20:7-12, and we are furnished with a very delightful picture of the simplicity and zeal which characterized those days. It had become the custom of the disciples there to meet for the breaking of bread—the Lord’s supper—on the first day of the week. Not the sabbath, but the following day, when the Lord rose from the dead, was selected for this, though it was not a day of leisure, such as the day before would have been for those who were Jews. Hence the Christians met in the evening when the work of the day was done. An upper chamber was their meeting place, “church buildings” being unknown. Paul, with so few days at his disposal, seized the opportunity to discourse to them; and they were so full of interest that they remained all night listening to his words.

It is easy to picture the scene. The crowded chamber; the youth perched in the window opening; the many lights adding to the hot oppression of the drowsy air floating out of the window; the sudden interruption as Eutychus collapses and falls. However the power of God was so manifested through Paul that instead of this episode breaking up the meeting and distracting everyone from Paul’s message, their hearts were comforted and confirmed, to settle down and listen till daybreak. The Apostle was now starting his final journey to Jerusalem, the rightness of which may be open to question, but there can be no doubt that the Spirit of God was working through him just as of old. No more remarkable miracle than this was wrought through Paul. The story is marked by the absence of what is ceremonial and official, but it pulsates with power. In popular Christianity today the ceremonial holds the field and the power is absent. Alas, that so it should be!

The day having come, Paul left Troas afoot; Luke and his other companions putting to sea and picking him up at Assos. Arrived at Miletus, he called to him the elders of the church at Ephesus that he might deliver a charge to them, under the conviction that he would not see them again. His touching address seems to fall naturally into three parts.

In the first part he reviews his own ministry among them; this extends over verses Acts 20:18-27. His first words were, “Ye know, from the first... after what manner I have been with you at all seasons.” Then, after speaking of the manner of his work, he proceeds to the matter that characterized it. In both manner and matter we may take him as a model for ourselves.

In the first place his work was service. He was not a great ecclesiastical dignitary fording it over the flock of God, but a servant; serving the saints indeed, yet primarily serving the Lord in serving them, and doing it always from the earliest days to the last. Serving moreover with ad humility of mind, as has been so evident in earlier chapters. He was not a man who expected everyone to give way to him or serve him: he was the helper of others, working with his own hands in order to do so. Again it was with tears, and in the midst of many temptations which came from the Jews. Tears speak of deep feeling and exercise of heart; whilst the temptations show that he was continually confronted by difficulties and opposition.

He was also marked by faithfulness in the declaration of the truth and in its application to the saints. He did not court that cheap popularity which comes from withholding things which may not be palatable, but always aimed at their profit. And further, he did not confine himself to public preaching, which often means a good bit of notice and approbation, but gave himself to that house to house work, which is much less noticed but often far more effectual. All this shows “what manner” he had been amongst them. But there is also that of which he speaks in verse Acts 20:24; his utter devotion to the ministry committed to him, and to the One from whom he received it. He had delivered up his life for this purpose, and so no anticipation of trouble or even death itself was going to move him. When a servant of God adds to his faithfulness a devotion that does not flinch at death, there is bound to be power in his ministry.

Then as to the matter that characterized his ministry, he mentions three themes. First the Gospel, which had been entrusted to him, and which involved his testifying everywhere and to all, “repentance toward God, and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ.” The Gospel announces “the grace of God,” which has been made known in Christ, in His death for our sins, His resurrection for our justification; it leads on our side to repentance and faith. That had been consistently the theme of his preaching.

He had also preached “the kingdom of God,” but this had been among, not “all,” but “ye all.” That is, he had everywhere preached the kingdom amongst the disciples. This evidently has a present bearing. No doubt he spoke of the kingdom which is to be publicly established, when he spoke of the things to come; but he also kept before them that they had been already brought under the authority of God in receiving Christ as Lord, and he showed them what it meant practically to be subject to God’s holy will. It is noticeable for instance that in his epistles Paul is never content with setting forth truth in the abstract; he always proceeded to enforce the conduct which the truth indicated as being the will of God for them.

Then, thirdly, he declared to them “all the counsel of God.” He brought them into the light of all that God has counselled for Christ and the church and the world to come. This gave them the knowledge of what hitherto had been kept secret, and showed them that God had higher thoughts than His previously revealed purposes in regard to Israel. This third theme of his ministry was the one that stirred up such furious opposition on the part of many of his Jewish hearers and finally led to his imprisonment. Hence his saying, “I have not shunned to declare.” If only he had shunned this part of his ministry, he might have had a far more peaceful time in his service and avoided many troubles; for God’s counsel involved the bringing in of the Gentiles, according to the truth of the church. He knew this, yet he did not flinch.

An all-round ministry of the Word of God today must include these three themes—the Gospel of God, the kingdom of God, the counsel of God.

In verses Acts 20:28-31, we find the second part of his address, in which he exhorts and warns them. The Holy Ghost had made them overseers amongst the flock which is the church of God. That flock was not theirs but God’s by right of purchase, and they were to feed or shepherd it. But first they were to take heed to themselves, for if a man does not first take heed to himself how can he care for the flock? Moreover they were to watch and be on their guard against the adversaries, remembering how Paul himself had warned them with deep feeling for three years. Is it not a fact that this ministry of warning has almost lapsed through disuse?

Here Paul warns the elders of two main sources of mischief: first, the grievous wolves entering from without; second, the rising up of perverting men within. By “wolves” he meant without a doubt men who were real agents of the devil; the sort that Peter speaks of as bringing in “damnable heresies.” How this prediction has been fulfilled church history bears witness; as it also witnesses to the mischief wrought by men who have risen up from the midst of the elders themselves, speaking “perverse” or “perverted” things. These are men who very possibly are true believers but they give a twist to their teachings which perverts the truth. Thus they make themselves leaders of parties and centres of attraction to those whom they mislead. They attract to themselves instead of leading to Christ. In these words Paul sketched the future of what we know as Christendom.

It is for this reason perhaps that we do not find in the Scripture any instruction as to the perpetuating of the elderhood in an official way beyond the lifetime of the Apostle. If out of the elders are to come these workers of mischief it is as well that we are left to thankfully recognize and accept those whom God may raise up, without their having an official appointment. In the case of men speaking perverted things, their official appointment would only be used to sanction what is wrong.

In the third part of his address Paul indicated the resources that would remain in spite of all that would happen. His words were brief and comprised in one verse, but his matter of the utmost weight and importance. Our great resource is in God and not in man. He did not commend them to the other apostles: he certainly could not to the elderhood, for he was addressing elders, and out of their midst workers of mischief were to come. God, and God alone, is the resource of His people. But then He has given His Word, which reveals Himself. Formerly He spoke through Moses, as recorded in the Old Testament: that was the Word of His demand upon men. Now He has spoken in Christ, as recorded in the New Testament; and that is the Word of His grace. To this Word we are specially commended, for it is able to build us up in the faith, and to give us in spiritual power and enjoyment that inheritance along with all the sanctified, which is ours. The inheritance is ours by faith in Christ (see Acts 26:18), but it is ministered to us in present power by the Word of His grace.

The importance of this thirty-second verse for us today can hardly be exaggerated. God and His Word remain for us, whatever may betide. No power of evil can touch God. He remains, and we may keep in touch with Him in prayer, in communion, in thanksgiving and worship. His Word remains, for He has watched over it in His providence and preserved it to us. Yet, of course, it is the object of ceaseless attacks by the enemy. All too soon it was nearly smothered by the traditions of the Fathers; then it was buried in an unknown tongue and withdrawn from the people; now that it is freely available it is violently criticised, and every attempt is made to destroy its authority. Following in the steps of Judas, great men greet it with a kiss, saying, “Hail, master of beautiful language!” but only to betray it to those who would tear from it every vestige of Divine authority. And, in spite of all, it remains as the resource of the believing and obedient heart.

Paul closed his address by again referring to the uprightness and sincerity that had marked him. Far from desiring to acquire, he had been a giver to others. He put on record a word of the Lord Jesus which is not recorded in the Gospels, and that word he had exemplified. He had earlier spoken of having shewed them as well as having taught them (verse Acts 20:20), and he repeats that he had shewed them all things. He practised before them what he preached to them. And it is the strewing that tells so effectively.

Paul was called to be a pattern to us both as saint and servant, hence we are given this inspired record of his review of his service, and measuring ourselves against it we are deeply humbled. His words to men over, he went to his knees in prayer with them all, amidst their tears. It must have been an affecting scene. The word used for “kissed” is one which means to kiss ardently, the word which is used for the kisses bestowed by the father on the prodigal in Luke 15:1-32. Yet perhaps we detect an element of weakness in the fact that they sorrowed most of all that they could not hope to see him again. Might they not have sorrowed even more that God’s fair church was to be ravaged by wolves and damaged by perverting men?

 


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Bibliography Information
Hole, Frank Binford. "Commentary on Acts 20:4". "F. B. Hole's Old and New Testament Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/fbh/acts-20.html. 1947.

Lectionary Calendar
Tuesday, November 12th, 2019
the Week of Proper 27 / Ordinary 32
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