Beyond the Lectionary Text: Acts 20:7-38
by Bill Sytsma
In September, 2012, nine months after being named the head coach of the Indianapolis Colts, Chuck Pagano was diagnosed with acute promyelocytic leukemia (a cancer of the white blood cells). After coaching only three games as a head coach, Pagano took an indefinite leave of absence in order to undergo treatments at the IU Simon Cancer Center in Indianapolis.
In November, after his treatments were completed, Pagano attended his team’s game against the Miami Dolphins and witnessed a come-from-behind victory. After the game, Pagano gave an emotional address to his team:
“I mentioned before the game that you guys were living in a vision and you weren’t living in circumstances…you refused to live in circumstances and you decided consciously, as a team, and as a family, to live in a vision…I got circumstances. You guys understand it. I understand it. It’s already beat. It’s already beat. My vision that I’m living, see two more daughters getting married, dancing at their weddings, and then hoisting that Lombardi…we’re hoisting that trophy together man. Congratulations.”
Pagano viewed his diagnosis, as horrible as it was, as a temporary circumstance. Although his circumstance had a profound affect on his life, he wanted his team to understand that circumstances did not have more power over him than the vision he was pursuing. He would not be defined as a cancer patient, because he was looking forward to dancing with his daughters at their weddings, and continuing his pursuit of a Superbowl championship with his team.
Pagano’s categories of “circumstances” and “vision” are helpful when considering the stories in Acts 20. The vision in the book of Acts was described by Jesus in chapter 1 when He told His followers that they would go to the ends of the earth to proclaim His Kingdom. The circumstances, however, in Acts 20 do not seem too promising. God’s people faced an assortment of trials that could have become stumbling blocks to the pursuit of Jesus’ vision.
In the episode we consider in Acts 20:7-38, Paul and the early church are faced with difficult circumstances. Paul is heading to the city of Jerusalem, and he anticipates his arrest an imprisonment. During his travels, the church faced pressure from the Jewish community, because Paul did not insist that Christ’s followers observe many of the ceremonial customs. They also endured difficulties from the Roman officials, who threatened to arrest Paul. Many small churches struggled with persecution and threats.
Throughout his trials, Paul holds on to the vision of God’s plan. Persecution, threats, and even death do not stop God’s plans from advancing.
The Death of Eutychus:
While in Troas, Paul took the opportunity to worship and teach a group in an upstairs room. A young man, Eutychus, was among those who were listening to Paul.
In 2 Peter 3, Peter describes Paul’s letters as difficult to understand. In Acts 20, we get a glimpse of why Paul may have had that kind of reputation. Paul spoke late into the night, and Eutychus fell to his death through the window as he drifted off to sleep.
This incident could have been devastating to the church at Troas. At a time when they would have been encouraged, they experienced a tragic and seemingly senseless death. Some of our trying circumstances seem to have no acceptable rationalization. There was no act of evil that caused this death. This was not an act of persecution, nor was it a result of a heroic effort to advance God’s plans. This was an accident. Knowing that Eutychus is raised from the dead (and that there seems to be very little fanfare over the incident), preachers might be tempted to take this miraculous event too lightly. If we present this as a warning about preaching too long, or the dangers of falling asleep in church, we misrepresent the weightiness of the death and the depth of the blow it would have caused to God’s expanding church.
In the second section of this text, Paul says farewell to church leaders from Ephesus. During his farewell, it becomes apparent that Paul believes that this will be his last time meeting with these leaders.
The circumstances of Paul’s looming arrest and trial weigh heavily upon him, but he will not allow his trials to overshadow the vision of God’s expanding Kingdom. Even though Paul will not escape arrest, he wants the Elders to focus on the vision of following God’s plans.
Paul begins his farewell to the Ephesian Elders (Acts 20:17-27) by reminding them of the work God had been doing. He pointed out his own boldness in proclaiming the gospel, and insisted that he was innocent of any wrongdoing. He acknowledged hardships, but did not let the circumstances of his difficulties interfere with the vision of proclaiming the gospel.
Paul effectively uses himself as an example for the Ephesian Elders. Preachers today are often told to avoid this pitfall. If we use ourselves as a positive example for how a Christian should behave, our preaching can easily be received as self-promotion. Wise preachers will be careful in using themselves (or their families) as fodder for examples or illustrations within their sermons. If we make ourselves look like the hero in our illustrations, we can be viewed as arrogant. If we share stories where we look foolish, we might not be taken too seriously.
Paul’s example, however, is effective. He was known and respected within the church, and his words today help us see the nature of God’s vision. In spite of his imminent imprisonment, Paul stays focused on God’s Kingdom vision as he reminds the Elders to take care of the flock, even when the inevitable dangers would come.
When Pagano addressed his team about “circumstances” and “vision,” he gave us helpful categories for viewing our trials and difficulties. However, we have to be careful in preaching that we do not make promises that God does not make.
One of the most common misunderstandings that I have encountered is the phenomenon of believing that God’s past actions serve as guarantees for His future miraculous actions. Christ’s followers can fall into the trap of believing that since Jesus cured a man who had been blind, God will cure my disease when I pray. We convince ourselves that since God gave David victory over Goliath, He will give me victory in my current battles (or we might even believe he will give my favorite team victory in their competition).
The vision of God’s Kingdom is not a promise that Christ’s followers will not face trying times, nor that we will quickly overcome trying times. God does not promise that our every desire will be satisfied. The vision that is set for the book of Acts is stated in Acts 1:8. Christ’s followers would bring the gospel to the ends of the earth. Persecution, imprisonment, resistance, and death will not stop that vision. God will prevail in spite of our mistakes, and in spite of the evil plans of those who oppose Him. In fact, God uses the occasions of a tragic death and a heart-wrenching arrest to propel His Kingdom advancement in surprising ways.
When we cling to God’s vision, we are not holding onto a promise that our desires will be fulfilled, nor that we will have unending pleasurable experiences. God’s vision is to expand His Kingdom. When he intervenes miraculously, it is often to advance that plan. He parted the waters of the Red Sea to establish His people, Israel, as a nation. He calmed the winds and the waves to protect Christ’s followers, who would eventually take the gospel message to the ends of the earth. He does not let death, persecution, or false accusations hinder His plans.
The challenge of this vision is that we will sometimes face trial, persecution, and even death. We will experience disappointments as our hopes are disappointed. However, the comforting good news is that God’s plans will not fail. He has promised to prosper His people, and He will establish a Kingdom that will endure.
Bill Sytsma is the pastor of New Life CRC, Highland, IN.