1 After the uproar ceased, Paul sent for the disciples, and after encouraging them, he said farewell and departed for Macedonia. 2 When he had gone through those regions and had given them much encouragement, he came to Greece. 3 There he spent three months, and when a plot was made against him by the Jews as he was about to set sail for Syria, he decided to return through Macedonia. 4 Sopater the Berean, son of Pyrrhus, accompanied him; and of the Thessalonians, Aristarchus and Secundus; and Gaius of Derbe, and Timothy; and the Asians, Tychicus and Trophimus. 5 These went on ahead and were waiting for us at Troas, 6 but we sailed away from Philippi after the days of Unleavened Bread, and in five days we came to them at Troas, where we stayed for seven days. 7 On the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread, Paul talked with them, intending to depart on the next day, and he prolonged his speech until midnight. 8 There were many lamps in the upper room where we were gathered. 9 And a young man named Eutychus, sitting at the window, sank into a deep sleep as Paul talked still longer. And being overcome by sleep, he fell down from the third story and was taken up dead. 10 But Paul went down and bent over him, and taking him in his arms, said, “Do not be alarmed, for his life is in him.” 11 And when Paul had gone up and had broken bread and eaten, he conversed with them a long while, until daybreak, and so departed. 12 And they took the youth away alive, and were not a little comforted. 13 But going ahead to the ship, we set sail for Assos, intending to take Paul aboard there, for so he had arranged, intending himself to go by land. 14 And when he met us at Assos, we took him on board and went to Mitylene. 15 And sailing from there we came the following day opposite Chios; the next day we touched at Samos; and the day after that we went to Miletus. 16 For Paul had decided to sail past Ephesus, so that he might not have to spend time in Asia, for he was hastening to be at Jerusalem, if possible, on the day of Pentecost.
I like Will Willimon. I may be an unlikely fan of his. I am more conservative than Willimon, though I would not call him a radical leftist or anything like that. He is a Methodist churchman, a former Methodist bishop in Alabama who is now associated with Duke University. He says some things I disagree with and some things I agree with. His book with Stanley Hauerwas, Resident Aliens, had and continues to have a great influence on me, however, because I think it is radically New Testament and counterculture in its view of the church. I think Willimon frequently gets the idea of “church” right.
For instance, in his commentary on Acts he notes that the early church did two things: (1) it moved on mission engaging the world and (2) it gathered for worship around the preached word and the Lord’s Supper. Willimon noted that there was a balance in these two things, and that there needed to be a balance for a church to be a healthy church. Then, in looking at the American Church today, he asked an interesting question. Let me let him share his thoughts.
The church of Acts is not always pushing out, on the move, opening its doors, appealing to unbelievers. The church also gathers for worship and fellowship. Without the sustenance received at its Sunday gatherings, the church might lose itself in mere busyness, might forget who it is and whose it is, might lose heart amidst the myriad of demands and assaults upon it by the surrounding world. The things which happen when the church “gathered together to break bread” (v.7) simply do not happen for the church anywhere else. While we are busy praising God and exploring the ways of God in our worship, something happens to us – the ministry of encouragement.
A church with no prophetic thrust, which does not challenge the status quo, has little need for the weekly rhythm of worship. So relaxed and at home in the world, this church needs no encouragement. Or does the problem arise from the other side of the equation? A church without vision, without power flowing from its gathering around the Lord’s Table, has little energy or insight and thus no basis for a prophetic challenge to present arrangements in the world.
I think that is very well said. To summarize, Willimon asks:
- Do our churches today fail to worship deeply because our lack of ministry and mission efforts during the weeks results in us not needing any rest and spiritual recuperation together?
- Do our lack of ministry and mission efforts during the week result from the shallowness of our worship?
That insight hit me hard and really has me thinking about my own life and the life of our church. Regardless, what cannot be denied is that the Church needs both elements in its life: life-giving mission and life-renewing worship. Acts 20 begins with a depiction of both, but we will be paying special attention to its worship. This is because it is one of the few actual looks at what we would call today a “worship service.” Thus, it deserves our attention! Let us consider four truths that our passage reveals about the worship life of the early Church.
- The early Church met on Sundays.
First, our passage describes for us when the early Church met.
7a On the first day of the week…
They met on Sunday, the first day of the week. This was a departure from the Sabbath worship they knew before they came to know Christ. John Polhill has highlighted an interesting question about what exactly the wording of our particular text and this particular church gathering means.
There is some question whether this was Saturday night or Sunday night. If Luke’s reckoning was the normal Jewish method, it would have been Saturday nkght, since the days were reckoned as beginning at sunset and running until the following sunset. If Luke was following Roman reckoning, and this seems to have been the case, days were reckoned from midnight to midnight, as is our own procedure. It thus would have been Sunday night, and Paul’s projected departure was Monday morning.
It is likely that the Church met on Sunday night in our text. Regardless of when on Sunday, Sunday was the day they gathered. One of the things that should be fairly obvious to us that we perhaps forget is that, at this time, the Church was not in a culture that took Sundays off! This was likely just another workday for these Christians. But, for them, of course, it was so much more. Sunday was the Lord’s Day! That is, it was resurrection day!
It is interesting to realize that, for us, Easter is the biggest day on the Christian calendar. And rightfully so. But the truth of the matter is that every Sunday is Easter. At least that is how the early Church saw it. The resurrection of Jesus Christ was such a momentous event that it shaped the very patterns of the early Church’s worship.
On Easter we cry out, “He is risen! He is risen indeed!” But this should be our cry every Sunday! Indeed, it should be our cry every day!
Furthermore, there are other important statements being made by the Church’s Sunday assembling. Let me share with you some fascinating insights from David VanDrunen:
Jesus rose “after the Sabbath” (Matt. 28:1; Mark 16:1), on the “first day of the week” (Luke 24:1; John 20:1)—Sunday. The timing is truly amazing. The day that Jesus lay dead in the tomb turned out to be the last Sabbath of the Old Testament era (for after his resurrection the old covenant was no more). Remember that the Old Testament Year of Jubilee had occurred on the fiftieth year—that is, the year immediately after the “perfect” number of Sabbath years (7 × 7 = 49). And thus Jesus rose from the dead on the day immediately after the number of Old Testament seventh-day Sabbaths had reached their complete and perfect number! His resurrection was the true Year of Jubilee.
This is why it is a terrible thing for Christians to continue to observe a seventh day Sabbath. No longer do we work first and then rest. What we do instead is rest first, and only then take up our work. Sunday—the first day of the week, the day of resurrection—became the day on which Christ met with his disciples (John 20:19, 26) and on which the church gathered for its worship (Acts 20:7; 1 Cor. 16:1–2). As the seventh-day Sabbath of the Old Testament testified that the task assigned to the first Adam remained uncompleted, so the first-day Sabbath of the New Testament testifies that the last Adam has fulfilled it. By resting first and then working, the Christian doctrine of salvation is portrayed in live action. God first justifies us by uniting us to his resurrected Son in heaven apart from any work of our own, and then he calls us to work obediently in this world, not to earn our rest but to express our gratitude that the rest has already been earned by the work of another. We are still image-bearers of God, thus we are still Sabbath-keepers by nature. But we no longer bear the image after the pattern of the first Adam but after the pattern of Christ, the last Adam.
How utterly enthralling! Sunday, then, is the resurrection-empowered launch pad off of which we leap into the week that stretches before it! It is pregnant with meaning. It is a victorious beginning of the week, not a restful conclusion. It is a shout for joy over the six days that follow it!
The early Church walked in this kind of Easter power and expectation. We should reclaim a sense of the majesty of these things!
- The early Church put an emphasis on the Lord’s Supper.
The early Church met on Sundays, and, Luke tells us, they “gathered together to break bread.” Later in the text, in verse 11, he refers to them having “broken bread and eaten.”
7b …when we were gathered together to break bread…
11 And when Paul had gone up and had broken bread and eaten…
Commentators discuss whether or not this is a reference to the Lord’s Supper. Most seem to think it is. I myself think it is as well. Regardless, table fellowship was in the very DNA of the early Church’s worship. Consider Luke’s earlier description of the life of the Church from Acts 2.
42 And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. 43 And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. 44 And all who believed were together and had all things in common. 45 And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46 And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, 47 praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.
Did you see it there? Right there in the midst of this amazing passage about powerful community being formed in the life of the Church we find the words “devoted themselves…to the breaking of bread…” The Lord’s Supper was no small thing to the early Church!
In truth, it would seem that the early Church (1) likely had the Lord’s Supper every time they gathered and (2) likely had the Lord’s Supper in the context of a larger community meal. If you read 1 Corinthians 11 closely, for example, you will perhaps see both meals in Paul’s instructions about the Supper and the right way to conduct it.
17 But in the following instructions I do not commend you, because when you come together it is not for the better but for the worse. 18 For, in the first place, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you. And I believe it in part, 19 for there must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized. 20 When you come together, it is not the Lord’s supper that you eat. 21 For in eating, each one goes ahead with his own meal. One goes hungry, another gets drunk. 22 What! Do you not have houses to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I commend you in this? No, I will not. 23 For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, 24 and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” 25 In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” 26 For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.
I very much like how Leonard Sweet and Frank Viola described the significance of the Lord’s Supper.
Jesus’ body is laid out twice in the Bible: once on a table, and once in a tomb. The body on the supper table is eaten not with family but with friends. But these friends become Jesus’ new family, and they would soon become His new body.
Yes, the body is laid out twice, the first as a historical, saving event and the second as a repeated symbol that draws our hearts back to that event. That is why we dare not neglect the powerful act of remembrance that the Lord’s Supper offers us!
III. The early Church put an emphasis on apostolic teaching.
Furthermore, they gathered to hear apostolic truth. This can be seen in the rather humorous repetition on Luke’s part of the lengthiness of Paul’s speech!
7c …Paul talked with them, intending to depart on the next day, and he prolonged his speech until midnight.
9b … as Paul talked still longer…
11 And when Paul had gone up and had broken bread and eaten, he conversed with them a long while, until daybreak, and so departed.
In a moment we will see one of the shocking results of Paul’s long sermon, but let us not miss the most obvious truth: the Church submitted herself to and gathered around apostolic teaching. This, too, can be seen in the verses from Acts 2 referenced earlier.
42 And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.
This devotion to the apostles’ teaching continues today in the body of Christ whenever we open the Word of God and read, preach, and receive the witness of scripture. Specifically, when we read one of Paul’s letters we are joining with this early Church community in the very act of devotion they were engaged in in our text. For two thousand years the Church has sat with the apostles who passed on the truths of Christ and listened. Furthermore, when we read the gospels together we sit at the feet of Christ Himself, hearing and submitting ourselves to His teaching.
Let us also observe the practical point that the early Church did not “watch the clock,” to use our terminology. Yes, the length of the service was too much for one member, as we will see, but they clearly accepted as permissible and even a blessing the idea of sitting beneath the apostle’s teaching all night long. This fervency of spirit can still be found in persecuted churches that see corporate worship as a privilege they dare not take for granted or in impoverished parts of the world where the church truly is life and survival for its members. The bored churches of the West have likely had it so easy for so long that we have grown lax in our intensity of worship and of listening to the Word preached and sung and prayed.
The early Church is a challenge to our complacency and, indeed, to our laziness in worship. They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching.
- The early Church was marked by miraculous works of power.
And they were a community marked by miraculous works of power. This is evident in the shocking/humorous/powerful episode of Eutychus. As we have seen, Paul did speak at great length. In fact, he spoke at such great length that a member of the church named Eutychus fell asleep. But he did not just fall asleep. Listen:
8 There were many lamps in the upper room where we were gathered. 9 And a young man named Eutychus, sitting at the window, sank into a deep sleep as Paul talked still longer. And being overcome by sleep, he fell down from the third story and was taken up dead. 10 But Paul went down and bent over him, and taking him in his arms, said, “Do not be alarmed, for his life is in him.” 11 And when Paul had gone up and had broken bread and eaten, he conversed with them a long while, until daybreak, and so departed. 12 And they took the youth away alive, and were not a little comforted.
It is hard not to chuckle at this, though that is only because we know how the story ended. In the moment it would have been horrifying for all involved! Poor Eutychus fell asleep during Paul’s sermon and fell three stories to his death! Some have proposed that he was not truly dead, but the language would suggest that he was.
So he fell asleep…then he literally fell…and he died! The church rushed down to ground level and circled around poor Eutychus. Paul went as well. And then Paul lifted him up, alive!
Imagine being asked after that service, “How was church today?” What a story you would have to tell! We have perhaps all joked about some sermon “boring us to death.” Well, Paul’s literally did that Eutychus! But what began as a tragedy ended in a dramatic display of divine power.
May I remind all of us that the early Christian community was one of divine power and miraculous movements of God. We are rightly and justifiably cautious and even skeptical of much that passes for miraculous in the Church today, especially when these alleged miracles happen just before the offering plates are passed. Furthermore, incidences like this are descriptive, not prescriptive. They simply describe what happened and do not prescribe what must happen in every service. God moves when He will and we dare not seek to manipulate Him to act.
Even so, God moved…and God has not changed!
I was recently asked if I believed that miracles had primarily ceased with the apostolic age. I absolutely do not think that is the case! In fact, I think miracles happen all the time and we simply do not have eyes to see them or hearts to receive them. While I do think that the whole miracle industry of modern American big-time religion is profoundly suspect, there can be no doubt that God still moves and works in dramatic and surprising ways!
We should not seek miracles. We should seek God. But the God we seek and worship is a miracle-working God! Are we open to seeing mighty displays of His power? I very much hope so!
The early Church met on Sunday, put a high value on the Lord’s Supper, treasured apostolic teaching, and saw God move in amazing ways.
That is the Church!
May we be the Church!
 William H. Willimon, Acts. Interpretation. (Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 1988), p.153-154.
 John B. Polhill, Acts. The New American Commentary. Vol.26. David Dockery, gen. ed. (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1992), p.418.
 VanDrunen, David (2010-10-15). Living in God’s Two Kingdoms (p. 139). Good News Publishers. Kindle Edition.
 Leonard Sweet and Frank Viola, Jesus Manifesto (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2010), p.153-154.