Vignette of an Early Christian Church


Acts 20:1-12

Text Comment

v.1

Left Ephesus after the troubles had died down.

v.3

The three winter months when sea travel ceased. During this time, most of which was spent at Corinth, he wrote Romans. In other words, he took a different route that they would not have expected. Going back north through Macedonia, cross to Asia at Troas and travel down the coast on the other side of the Aegean Sea. It might have been rather easy to attack Paul on one of the ships he otherwise would have taken from Corinth, with Jews aboard en route to Jerusalem for Passover or Pentecost, both of which occurred in the Spring.

v.4

These men were the representatives of the various churches who were bringing the collection taken in those churches for the poor in Jerusalem. Paul wanted not just the money but the people, so that the Jerusalem church could put faces to the Gentile mission and hear first hand what the Lord was doing from those who had been brought to faith through the preaching of Paul.

Titus, whom we learn in 2 Corinthians 8:6 had organized the collection in Corinth is not mentioned. Indeed, he is never mentioned in Acts. One wonders why. William Ramsay, the great classical scholar, wondered if Titus was Luke’s brother and that explains his absence from the narrative.

v.6

The next “we section.” The last “we section” had terminated in Philippi where this one begins. They waited to celebrate the Feast of Unleavened Bread with the church in Philippi, which would have been, of course, the celebration of the Lord’s death and resurrection for Christians.

v.7

The place of the Lord’s Day as the day of the church’s high worship is illustrated here. They waited seven days so as to be able to join the church in that worship. This is one of the few references to the fact that the church now worshipped on Sunday rather than Saturday and that the Lord’s Supper (“breaking of bread”) was a regular part of that worship. Worship was held at night because the generality of Gentile converts would not have been free to take off during the day.

v.8

A piece of eyewitness recollection!

v.9

The opportunity to hear Paul was not something to cut short. “Dead.” Luke was a doctor.

v.11

“Broke bread and ate.” The Lord’s Supper, or the meal with the Lord’s Supper, or both?

In the shorter time available to us this evening, I want us to pause just a moment to consider this beautiful vignette of an early Christian church.


A vignette in literature is a short composition characterized by delicacy and subtlety. That is the idea. But the term comes originally from art and refers to a picture or illustration with no definite border, shading off gradually at the edges. That is what we have here. A delicate, compact picture that more suggests than actually describes the life of the church in Troas. The borders are indefinite, the picture runs off in every direction only suggesting what is there, not describing it. Well, then, what do we see in this vignette?


First, we see a congregation that, while it may meet in parts and pieces at other times of the week, gathers in its entirety on the Lord’s Day. It’s life is centered on the Lord’s Day. As the Lord’s Day withers in our time, it is important for us to recapture this vision of the church gathering in strength and renewing its life together on the Christian Sabbath, our holy day. The early church made much of the Lord’s Day and they had more power and grace and virtue than we do.


But, it is more than just that. I very much like what is suggested by Paul’s waiting that full week to be with the church, and I think it is important. The Christians themselves did not live together– there was no thought of a commune in early Christianity, or of monasteries (not that such would necessarily be wrong, but it was largely impossible in those early days when Christians so often lived at the pleasure of others, slaves especially). But they lived their lives, as we do, at home and at work. And it was there that they served the Lord, gave their witness to others of Christ and his salvation, raised their children, loved the needy. No doubt Christians were together during the week, as we are as well. But, you see the pattern. They came together on the Lord’s day, but lived and served in their individual stations during the week. This was the church’s prescription for ministry. (One of my great objections to the changes being made in Christian worship — dangerous changes [one of the candidates for Covenant College’s VP put it well, the new “worship” cannot “bear the weight” of the sovereignty of God, the damnation of sinners, the absolute necessity of a comprehensive obedience, etc. and without these things the gospel of free grace withers and becomes simply divine leniency] is that these changes are all offered in support of a false principle — that this is the only way to reach the lost. Not so in early Christianity. They derived their strength from the Lord’s Day together, the worship and the preaching. They expended it in the days that followed!)


Second, when it comes together, we gather, its time together is dominated by instruction in the Word of God and a communal meal, first and foremost the Lord’s Supper. Paul may have preached a longer sermon, but the impression of the text is that he joined himself to an already existing pattern of the Lord’s Day activity.


Indeed, this character of the early Christian service is wonderfully affirmed in this text. Did you think about that? What would our response be today to such an event as happened here. Paul raises the young man to life after has killed in his fall. And then what does he do? He returns to what he was doing before. The Lord’s Supper is taken, perhaps a fellowship meal, and then the sermon continues! Just as Jesus in the gospels (Read: Mark 1:35-38 with note!). The church’s life is sustained primarily and most importantly by Word and sacrament, by the fellowship of the saints, and miracles are just the icing on the cake. They never distract from what God has made the real instruments of eternal life!


We in the American church especially have lost our confidence in Word and sacrament as living powers in the world. We think we need something more! But we do not. We only need to trust the Lord that they are as important to him as the Word says they are and that they will bring us the help and blessing he promises to us in them. Paul clearly did not take the view that, a miracle having occurred, there was no more need for a sermon! [Edwards at Enfield when folk began to cry out and come forward. The sermon must be finished. A right instinct!]


Third, the congregation itself was composed of folk entirely ordinary and unremarkable. Divine grace did not separate them from the usual course of human experience, weakness, etc. Here is Eutychus falling asleep during a long sermon. We’ve all done that! [One of my most embarrassing moments in college! Dr. Lothers, of all people! My first visit to L’Abri.] The room was hot from all the people and form the oil lamps; Eutychus himself was sitting at the edge of the crowd on a window ledge; perhaps it was harder for him to hear. [Joe Morecraft’s story of his friend at Columbia Seminary during a class by William Childs Robinson.] That is life. We know it; we have experienced it ourselves; and here it is in the Bible and in the Christian church and even in the ministry of the Apostle Paul.


I love this perfectly human touch! No doubt the main reason for this is the astonishing miracle that Paul performed, but Luke mentions only some of the miracles of Paul, no doubt there were many others that might have been recorded. Why this one, except perhaps the universal human touch that gave it such charm. This is not a great point, or is it?


That grace embraces people as ordinary as this — folk who fall asleep in church, that the Christian church, even in its most glorious, heady, apostolic days was still a collection of people just like you and me, ordinary, frail, weak, often embarrassingly prone to foolishness. And still the church marched on. Here is Paul raising the sleeper to life and then continuing with his sermon! There was more work to be done; the saints instructed, built up in the word, prepared for ministry. What do you suppose happened to Eutychus? Was he ever thereafter identified as the man who fell asleep during Paul’s sermon? [Like the several men who years afterward claimed to have been the layman who preached that snowy Sunday morning when Spurgeon was converted!]


Fourth, the folk went home comforted. They had seen a great miracle, of course. But what did the miracle mean? Only this: that their faith was real. The faith that mostly was sustained Lord’s Day by Lord’s Day by word and sacrament and expressed in their fellowship together, a faith that was much more ordinary, was nevertheless absolutely real, it laid hold of God himself and divine power. In fact, it is not clear to me that they were comforted only or even primarily by the miracle. Perhaps it was as much Paul’s presence and his preaching that comforted them. In any case, they went away with a faith that was renewed and strengthened. For, you see, they had to live the same way we do: by faith, by trust in God, by a confidence in the truth of his Word.


Just ordinary people who knew that the gospel was true and built their daily lives on that fact! That was NT Christianity and that is true Christianity today. Nothing so flashy — a person could still fall asleep in a sermon preached by Paul himself –, but altogether real!